Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: February, 2012

Freebasing Thaumazein

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day I: When arguing, I always try to meet people in the middle, knowing that there, at least, I will be left alone.

Aphorism of the Day II: Chase wonder through the mill of reason, and you find philosophy. Chase wonder through the mill of desire, and you find fantasy. Since desire always has its reasons, and since reason is never free of desire, there’s no having the one without somehow committing the other.


It was summer. One of those days when a nimbus of white frames all the windows and the breeze hisses through the screens. We lived in this little frame farmhouse not so far from the shore of Lake Erie, and far enough from any town or village that you could pass a day without hearing a car. I was sitting in the dining room – on a bean bag chair, I think. I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring. I was ten years old.

So that would make it about 1977.

I look up from the page.

The house is empty. The compressor on the fridge hums. Outside, the wind brushes the hair of the world–the maples out front and the giant willows out back and cornfields that square all creation.

I see the battered old couch in the livingroom. Branches waving no-no in the top corner of the adjacent window. Light smeared like wax across the paneling. Crumbs on the carpet.

And I feel something between static and vertigo climb into the interval that separates what I see from the fact of my seeing.

There’s no words for it really, except, maybe…

What is this?

Seeing? Breathing? Being?

How could this be?

Then I hear my mother calling out to my brother… I can’t remember what, only that it was out back, beneath the willows. And the horror threatening Middle-earth pulls my eyes back down to the narcotic lines on the page–drags me back in.

But I never forgot the moment: How could I when it would be the first of so very many? Even still, as a middle-aged man, though it often seems the glass has been scuffed to a fog. Sometimes daily.

What – (inhale) – the-fuck – (exhale) – is-going-on?

Plato called it thaumazein, wonder, and for him it was the origin of all philosophy. But sometimes I can’t help but think that philosophy begins precisely when we forget to wonder, or even worse, confuse it with the will to answer. Sometimes, when I consider all the things I think I know, that old feeling climbs into the interval yet again, and it seems so clear that I know nothing at all. The strange and the weird and the mad all become possible… Beautiful.

And the urge to write fantasy rules me once again. It’s pursuing this urge that I feel I write my best stuff, when the story drips from the tips of my fingers. And it’s the urge that makes me smile and nod when I recognize it in writing that belongs to others.

The Mother of All Non-sequiturs

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: A question is friendly or insulting in direct proportion to the ignorance it reveals… Or is it?

Definition of the Day – Attitude: 1) the only thing cheaper than belief; 2) a popular brand of fact repellant; 3) something you need to lose a lot of to fly under other’s radar, but to keep a little bit of to avoid crashing.

I want to apologize to anyone I might have failed to reply to over the past couple weeks. I would also like to apologize if I came across as curt or too cute in the replies I did make for much the same reason. I’m not sure I’ve ever typed so many words in my entire life, rushing to give every devil his or her due – or just to cover my ass!  I did become frustrated on occasion, especially if I felt I was simply answering the same questions. The trolls who came by are the exception of course. In their case, I would like to apologize to my argument for chasing them away so quickly. 

Just a few cool things to update everyone on. First, I just signed contracts for audio book versions of both trilogies, something many people have asked me about over the years. I have no idea on what the timetable is, or any other details for that matter, but I will be sure to provide updates as that information becomes available.

Second, I posted two pieces in the Speculative Fragments section, one old, the other new. The old one is simply the Bestiary of Future Literatures piece I posted a while back. The new one is a Bestiary of Consciousnesses. Both are pretty wank and over-the-top technical, and will likely interest only those keen on the philosophy of mind stuff.

The third is something of a biggie. I’ve decided to invite a couple of guest-bloggers to TPB. The idea is to continue discussing things pulp and philosophical, only bringing in voices possessing less bluff and bluster and far, far more expertise. Your opinions, as always, are most welcome. (I swear to Gad I won’t try to pinch you in the nuts!)

It is presently 2:40PM Double Standard time. I expect to be selling coffee and bagels through the site before the year is through.

A Eulogy for the Unconscious (1895 – 2012)

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day I: It’s not that sexists are more stupid, only that they aim their stupidity in a less intelligent direction.

Aphorism of the Day II: Feminists are primates too.


So I’ve been reading Guy Claxton’s The Wayward Mind, an interesting (but curiously out-of-date–but then everything strikes me that way since reading Boyer and Attran) historical account of the Unconscious. At the same time I’ve been thinking about the debate we’ve been having the past few weeks, and all the times the unconscious/subconscious has been referenced as an accusation or argumentative tool. And I realized that I had, quite ‘unconsciously,’ stopped believing in the Unconscious.

I no longer think there’s any such thing.

Just as a reminder, lest people read too much into my claims, for me, ‘no longer thinking there’s any such thing,’ simply means, ‘I think I’ve found a better cartoon.’

Claxton is a fantastic writer, and for this reason I heartily recommend the opening chapters of The Wayward Mind to anyone interested in secondary world-building: he does a great job evoking the ancient mindset, the way our ancestors, lacking our sophisticated nomenclature for interiority, had no choice but to turn to the external world. Post Boyer’s Religion Explained, his accounts seem inadequate and even romantic (he actually relies quite heavily on Julian Jaynes), but the vividness of his writing makes these worlds come alive. And his master narrative could very well be true: that the Unconscious finds its historical origins beyond the horizon of the outer, objective world, then gradually migrates to its present locus beyond the horizon of our inner, subjective world.

The Unconscious, in other words, is of a piece with gods and underworlds, a way of comprehending What We Are Not in terms of What We Are. It’s literally what happens when we rebuild Mount Olympus into our skull. This explains why it’s such a curious double gesture, why, in the course of disempowering us, it allows us to own our abjection. My skull, after all, remains my skull, and if What We Are Not resides inside my skull, then ‘I own it.’ We bitch about our Unconscious to be sure, but we cluck and joke about it as well, the same way we do when our children are obstinate or wilful. ‘A Freudian Slip’ is almost always an occasion for smiles, if not laughter.

And now I want to argue there probably isn’t any such thing. Why?

Well, as critics in the past have noted (most famously, Descartes), it seems incoherent to talk about ‘having’ experiences, memories, beliefs, desires, and so on that you don’t have. The rejoinder, of course, is that we simply have to have these things if we’re to make any sense of the fact that we can make implicit things explicit. Humans act out all the time: short of the Unconscious, how are we going to make sense of that?

One way to redescribe this dilemma is to say that we have this powerful intuition of sufficiency, that consciousness is something whole. But we find ourselves continually confronted with indirect evidence of insufficiency, ways that compel us to conclude that consciousness is incomplete.

The ‘Unconscious,’ I now think, is simply another way for us to have our cake and eat it to, to acknowledge insufficiency while endorsing a kind of orthogonal, crypto-sufficiency.

One of the things I find the most embarrassing about my old post-structuralism turns on precisely this point: I literally cannot count the number of times I’ve referred to the ‘post-modern subject,’ decentred, fragmented, and so on and so forth. I now see that this was little more than dogmatic window-dressing: surrendering the Cartesian subject is pretty damn cheap. You acknowledge that the sufficiency of the Self is illusory, and yet you blithely assume that all its constituents are quite sufficient, or at least sufficient enough to keep all the traditional discourses afloat–which is what you have to do to rationalize the institutions that make them possible (so much of the discourse you find in the humanities, if you think about it, is given over to justifying the institutional importance of the humanities).

It strikes me as laughable that I literally thought I was radical, that I had defected from the traditional game of giving and asking for reasons in any meaningful way. It seems little more than fashion, now, a product of an old ingroup self-identification. There is certainly nothing ‘radical’ about it, and even less that is courageous. If you buy into the ‘decentred post-modern subject’ you’re cringing in the trenches with everyone else, bragging because at least you fired your rifle into the air. But you’re as much an intellectual coward as those you critique–or at least far from the hero you think you are (but then, we’re pretty much all cowards here in the post-industrial West, or any place where sales and the consensus of ingroup peers worry you more than the Mob or the Censors.)

Why? Because the Question of Sufficiency pertains to everything. Why should we suppose, for instance, that norms are sufficient? Or purpose or even intentionality more generally? What does it mean to yield the house when you leave the walls, floor, and roof intact?–except that you think you’re cooler because your interior designer decorates in French.

The Unconscious is yet another concession to sufficiency. The prospect of Radical Insufficiency, the possibility that we’re wrong not only about the subject, but everything subjective as well, suggests that very little might separate the projection of psychologies (gods, demons, spirits) beyond the rim of the world and the projection of intentionalities (beliefs, desires, memories) beyond the rim of consciousness. In other words, it suggests there’s just no such thing as the Unconscious.

So what is there? I mean, there has to be something that explains all our neuroses…

And there is: the mad, biomechanical complexities that comprise the brain.

Note how dramatically this transforms the old landscape. Gone is the bipartite geography of consciousness and Unconscious, the strangely reassuring sense of some Cold War stand-off between antithetical rivals. If we see ‘the mad, biomechanical complexities that comprise the brain’ as a substitute for the Unconscious, then in a sense you would have to say that everything is ‘unconscious,’ insofar as those mad, biomechanical complexities exhaust the brain.

But if everything is ‘unconscious,’ what does it mean to be conscious?

This absurdity suggests that what we’re actually talking about are different levels of description, one psychological, the other neural. The fact is, once we concede the possibility that the projection of the traditional/intuitive categories of consciousness to explain the insufficiencies of consciousness (the ways our actions exceed our awareness) is not quite coherent insofar as we’re assuming the sufficiency of intentionality to explain its insufficiency, then the whole game changes. We can take what Dennett calls the ‘intentional stance’–a psychological perspective–to get a grip on causal complexities that would boggle us otherwise, certainly, but as with taking the ‘design stance’ with reference to evolution, we always have to be ready to retreat, to acknowledge the gross, cartoonish nature of this heuristic way of speaking, and be ready to concede the biomechanical where necessary. In a sense, we would be talking about an ‘As-if-unconscious,’ one that, paradoxically, is completely coextensive with consciousness–leaving us with the suggestion that consciousness is itself, somehow, unconscious.

And this just goes to show that consciousness itself is every bit as much up for grabs as the Unconscious here–that perhaps we need to reserve a family plot.

But that’s another fucking twisted story.


Um, Does Anybody Got a Mint?

by rsbakker

I’m e-stinky.

I know it. I’ve been told it too many times for it not to be true.

Isn’t it funny the way no one will tell you if your real stinky, but if you’re e-stinky they just can’t stop going on and on? It must be liberating, telling people how e-stinky they are, saying: “I hate to break it to you, bud, but your ‘E’ – peeeyew, does it stink. You smell like fish giblets wrapped in a shit taco, like a corpse’s asshole–Do you know that? Man o’ man does your E stink! Jesus is going to have to come up with a whole new brand salvation to get your stinky E ass into heaven!”

That’s the great thing about the internet, the way it liberates us from all those things, like civility, compassion, reasoned debate. Adulthood.

Because it’s kinda like a schoolyard, isn’t it? Name-calling. Mocking and jeering and sneering. Fook-you! No fook-you, motherfooker!

And if you happen to be e-stinky – lookout!

As far as I can tell I’ve been e-stinky my whole life. I’m a veteran of a thousand flame wars. I’ve slain trolls (who are attracted to e-stink the way a rutting bull moose is attracted to female urine), scaled bastions of unbridled, wanton stubborn stupidity. I have seen grown men go Full Retard over the definition of ‘illness.’

And I’ve been beaten down, hurt, mystified. I’ve turned to friends and asked, “Why does my E stink?”

“You come off as a pompous ass.”

“What if I made my ass more humble… Would it stink less then?”



“I don’t know what to say. It’s that whole philosophy thing, maybe. All that shit about facts and reasons and fallacies and cognitive shortcomings…”

“That’s what makes me stinky?”

“Well… There’s your personality.”


“No fook-you, motherfooker!”

So that was that. I was e-stinky. I doomed to smell the smell that dare not waft its name. It was part of who I am. Part of my essence

What was I to do? Withdraw from the e-world entirely, live in self-imposed e-exile, e-embittered?

Or should I e-embrace my e-brand. Stand e-tall, e-proud, and e-declare, “I e-stink, Goddammit… How do ya like me so far!”


“No, fook-you, motherfooker!”

Sometimes I would become self-conscious, I admit. It’s a hard thing, forcing yourself to be proud. I would do things like shove breath-mints and air-fresheners up my e-ass, just to see if that would work. I once even shaved my armpits. But to no avail. Take my advice: Never, ever, try soaking your balls in Old Spice. Those guys who write those commercials are a bunch of lying motherfookers!

Other times I exulted in my e-stink. I would breath deep, and cry out with savage abandon. The heavens would resound, and the beasts would slink, eyes watering, into their lairs. Olfactory bulbs shrivelled for the mere rumour of my approach. My smell was my roar!

But it got to be too much, the schoolyard, the name-calling, the mocking, the jeering and the sneering. Even my heart seemed to e-stink after awhile.

So I retired from the e-world, travelled the lonely ways of the e-stinky man, pensive, reflective, searching for someone wise who could tell me what to do. And so I found myself in Tibet, searching for a famed Tibetan Llama renowned for his wisdom regarding all things stinky and E.

I climbed mountain scarps. The wind whipped tails of white from the surrounding peaks. When I arrived at the monastery, I knocked on the great, bronze-gilded, door. It opened of it’s own volition. I would have been awed, had I not been convinced it simply retreated from my odour.

I stepped into the gloom following a little dust-devil of snow. I blinked, my eyes adjusting. The heavens howled beyond the timbered dark. Even the Gods, it seemed, were, like, totally grossed out.

And there she sat, regaled in woolen vestments chased in gold.

I said, “You’re a chick!”

She shrugged. “Yeah, well…”

I swallowed. “Do you know why I’ve come?”

“Oh, my dear child,” she said. “You are such a darling foo–oof!” Her face crumpled into waxen origami. “Fuck me! Is that you?”

“Please! Guru-chick! You must help me!”

She held her breath as if bottling a toke. “You smell like shit, but, hey…”

“Thank you!” I cried, falling to my knees.

She regarded me, her look stern, as ruthless as a Republican Primary. “I like the lay of your sausage, kid, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to be cruel.”

“Yes! Yes! Please be cruuuel!”

“Well,” she said, “there’s two things. First, you gotta remember it’s just the fucking internet. Christ! I mean, puh-leeease! People say all kinds of crap they wouldn’t dare say in real life. They, like, even got names for it and shit. Syndromes and what-not.”

I knew this already. I caught my breath in sudden worry. “And? And?”

She paused and crouched forward, made like a gagging cat. She leaned back gasping, caught a thread of spittle on her thumb. I heard her mutter something wise and arcane, but all I could make out was “demon dick” and “like anal sex with decomposing chimpanzees…”

Words that would haunt the subconscious galleries of my soul for, like, forever-ever-ever-ver

“So you reek. It’s all relative, kid. Stick to arguing with those even e-stinkier than you.”

With regal grace, I slowly lowered my forehead to the floor, thinking, What kind of loser would just leave a tack laying on the floor like that? Fucking owww

“Thank you, oh most wise Guru-chick–thank you!”

She nodded. “Oh, yeah… Have you ever tried washing your nads in Old Spice? Cause that’s what you smell like–” She paused to simultaneously burp and cough.


“Horseshit, kid. Horse. Shit.”

That Empty Place

by rsbakker

So it was a suite party at a con and this guy sits opposite to me, tells me we’ve met before. I apologize, tell him about my crazy inability to recognize faces that I don’t encounter on a regular basis, to the point of not being able to remember relatives, former students, and old friends.

He nods, not quite believing. “I just wanted to tell you how much I loved your books.”

“Cool. Cool. Have you had a chance to read Neuropath yet?”

He makes a face, pokes his glasses against the bridge of his nose. “Yeah…”


“I’m afraid I didn’t like it.”

“You’re not the first to say that! What put you off?”

He scans the crowded room. “Well… Horror is a tricky thing… There’s a fine line between being frightening and being… sordid, I think…”

This took me by surprise. “Sordid?”

It’s funny, encountering criticisms that stick at these things. I never get offended, just… intent.

“Yeah… Hey, do I mind if I ask you if you have any kids?”

“I think you just did! But, ah, no.”

A nod screwed too tight to really signal agreement. “I knew it.”

“How?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“I just didn’t think anyone who had kids could have written that book.”

Now I’m intent times two.

“Am I allowed to take that as a compliment?”

“Now, maybe. But when you have a kid, not so much.”

This is a reconstruction: all I remember clearly are wire-rim glasses, the gist, and the way crowds of people can fence an illuminated conversation in dark. But it stuck, and I’ve thought about it more than once since I’ve become a father…

Like him.

Because the fact is, I totally agree. There’s no way in bloody hell I could’ve written Neuropath now.

Why? Because some experiences are arguments. The difficulty lies in discovering just what that argument is…

I still can’t get over the amount of traffic TPB has received over the past week. I’m still processing everything. It’ll probably take a week or two before I feel confident enough to draw any solid conclusions. As it stands, I’m probably most troubled by the role life experience and reasoning plays in all this, and how the two evolved into antagonists as the debate progressed.

This world is a hard one – certainly harder than any one life. And in this sense we’re all victims. The pivotal question, given all the sound and fury that we’ve witnessed, is one of what this legitimizes. I was a victim, growing up, the victim of–you guessed it–another victim. We grow into our power, and time is prone to rob us of our retribution, but we hold onto that empty place, don’t we? the place where our actual victimizer, the one raw with whiskey and an unshaven jaw, once stood. So we fill it with others, with groups or children or anything safe, so that the circuit might be complete. We laugh. We sneer. We shame and we strike. We pass piety around like a joint. We become as ugly as we are. This is the cycle, isn’t it? great and miserable and so very sordid, playing across the generations, along all our degrees of separation.

And here we are playing it out. Again.

The Halftime Show

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Moral certainty is simply greed dressed as poverty.

I’ve been sitting on this for several days.

An example of how it should be done? Or yet more perfidious evidence of my insatiable need to appropriate?

Either way, it’s both wonderful and wise.

It captures the way I feel all the bloody time. So now, for instance, I’m wondering what I could possibly do to get people to stop laughing about character defects, real or perceived, and simply engage my argument. I’m not a stranger to this. I intentionally go out of my way to seek these kinds of debates out. The regulars here at TPB are always advising me against it, and for good reason. I fret about my book sales, like every other midlist writer I suppose, but I always try to keep those worries to the side, assuming that if I’m open enough, relentless enough, I’ll at least be able to break even. I appreciate that I come off as pompous and pedantic to certain ears – Christ, I sound that way to myself half the time! But I’m an egghead, and as regrettable as I think it is, I understand why some people would want to lampoon me for that. Knowing and presuming are the same thing.

It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it? Knowing that in certain quarters certain people are whetting verbal knives to better carve your name. We all understand this, which is probably why we all fear it – and why we’re often so desperate to position ourselves on the carving side. I can remember how irresistible it was eavesdropping when my books first came out, cringing at this, raging at that, celebrating whatever scrap of artistic confirmation I could find. Not so much, now. Not at all, in some cases. The only thing that gets me genuinely angry any more is when people say I don’t understand Nietzsche – and I have no fucking idea why.

But getting past social sensitivities has two edges, I realize. On the one hand, it means that I can’t be shamed or embarrassed or whatever into ‘Shutting up.’ (I find it interesting that this is what both sides seem to want – the one outraged that I would critique the Dude’s shaming tactics, the other side perplexed that I would even bother engaging someone they simply cannot take seriously). If you want to shut me up then convince me, that the science is wrong or that I got the science wrong, or that sites like the Dude’s actually make a positive difference – as opposed to, say, sites like Doyle’s. Yukking it up on boards where everyone (unlike here) agrees, proves nothing, though it suggests that moral certainty does, as I’ve been arguing, have the effect of shutting reason down, and that moral outrage is far more about sorting people than reaching out to dissenting voices.   

But I also realize that it renders me blind, in a certain way. I’ve been roundly criticized here for not being sensitive enough to the experiences that motivate people like the Dude, for engaging in some kind of masculine power-play, and the like. Arguing that sites like ROH do more harm than good, the idea seems to be, denies the legitimacy of the pain and the hurt that so obviously fuel her vitriol. Maybe my insensitivity to the power of shaming is the reason I don’t get the connection, because I’m afraid I don’t. It seems to me, that if making the world safer for women is in fact what the Dude is about, then she should be deeply interested in what psychology has to say about her tactics, and why so many people from such a wild diversity of extreme views – many of them openly misogynistic – seem to be so fond of them. Like I keep saying, we’re ALL idiots around here, all stumbling across our sorrows and our problems, all groping for solutions. Shouting only numbs us to the confusion.

And yes, I will continue calling her the ‘Dude’ so long as she calls me ‘shiteater’ and every other insulting moniker (some of them quite funny!) she applies to me.  Why? Because quid pro quo is my point. 

Back when women were obviously oppressed, when the inequalities were plain for all to see, shaming tactics were definitely an effective way to put misogyny on the defensive, and moral outrage was a very efficient means of rallying and motivating members. But the battle is more subtle now. It’s far easier for your opponents to explain away your complaints, even make the contrary case. In this situation, I fear, alienation simply begets alienation. Worse yet, sites like ROH simply feed into an image that genuine opponents of feminism (unlike myself) are using to great effect.

Like I keep saying, I could be wrong, but then I might be right. And as Haidt points out in his interview with Bill Moyers (the link so few bothered to check out!), the left is losing – feminism is losingbecause the right seems to have a better understanding of the psychological terrain. All I’m saying is make this knowledge your own. I’m trying to defend my reputation, sure, but I’m also trying to empower.

I think all humans are stupid. I certainly know that I’m stupid. I’m an equal opportunity misanthropist, in this sense. So for me, screaming about dogma is nothing short of tragic. The ancient Egyptians screamed about their dogma, the same as every other group in the history of the human race, all of them convinced they had won the Magical Belief Lottery… all of them absolutely convinced – like you – that they just had to be right.

For my part, I’m far more interested in making the world a safer place for my daughter than I am in being right – let alone being popular. That’s why all voices, all questions, are welcome here. Engage.

Or laugh.

Gonads versus Nomads

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day – Otto’s Law:  Thou shalt not cite Internet Laws, for they have as much logical force as laughing at an immigrant’s clothing. 

I lost this fight before I even started it – I assumed as much going in. I spent most of yesterday following responses across the web, and I’ve been quite entertained by the Bakker-slamming going on. I’m pretentious. I’m this, that, and the other thing, my actual argument nowhere to be seen (well, that’s not quite true: someone raised the Criteria Question to make fun of it for being incomprehensible). The issue is who I am, and more importantly, what kind of group I belong to: white, male, university wanker, thin-skinned author, etc. For most of those condemning me agreement simply is intelligence, and disagreement simply is idiocy. Elodie’s troll posts, for instance, struck a handful as a decisive blow, something that somehow proves how much an idiot or fool I am. (As much as the old practical reasoning instructor in me wants to scream, the kid who grew up arguing against the extreme right wing views of his tanked father around the dinner table understands full well). The way their judgments make my point for me  is almost absolutely invisible to them. In fact, at one point, less than 1% of the people checking “Requires Only Haidt” even bothered clicking on the link to Haidt’s interview. Something Haidt would likely have predicted.

But the fact is, there’s another side to this problem, the side represented by all those who think I’m wasting my time. I live my life on the border of two very different worlds, one where I’m ‘questionable’ because of my gutter humour, another where I’m either ‘out there’ or ‘pretentious’ because of my vocabulary. What Haidt calls ‘lifestyle enclaves’ is very relevant to what seems to be happening to contemporary NA society- to what Murray’s data tracks in Coming Apart. I could spend all my time writing and talking for people who already agree that, yes, Sexism is a devilishly difficult and complex thing, and so on. I could exchange all the slaps on the back of the head for pats on the back… Anyone can. All you have to do is say the right things to the right people. Be groupish.

The problem is, I really do buy my own bullshit. And now that confirming data is being published, from both the left and the right, I’m downright, well, elated and excited. As strange as it might seem, I literally feel renewed by all this, knowing that the guesses upon which I raised my career are probably true. Giving into groupishness is inevitable. We’re hardwired to gather about certain attitudinal fires, warm our hands over the recitation of certain words expressed in certain ways. Intellectuals make fun of evangelicals. Evangelicals make fun of intellectuals. Conservatives make fun of liberals. Liberals make fun of conservatives. Everybody is right, completely convinced their group has won the Magical Confirmation and Affirmation Lottery. But a few of us genuinely strive to be nomads, not in the boutique sense of philosophers like Deleuze, but in the sense of not really belonging to any institutionalized group, because they strive to belong to humanity at large, a humanity trapped in a game theory nightmare.

I’m romanticizing, I know. But that’s because I’m actively recruiting. I’m trying to convince as many damn people as possible to be mindful of the ways their own psychology fucks them up. This isn’t some foofy New Age claim: we are not what we intuitively think we are as a matter of scientific fact. And given that ‘Believe!’ is far and away the most pervasive slogan in our culture (after ‘Buy!’), it follows that our culture is delusional – and that you, dear reader, live in a dreamworld the degree to which you buy into it. You can start here if you don’t ‘believe’ me. But the data is becoming mountainous, and it keeps piling up. Politicians and corporations are making use of it because it works. You should too.

(And just to be clear, this applies just as much, if not moreso, to the liberal intellectual types reading this. In some ways, you’re the worst of the bunch, simply because you think you’ve already found your way past all the delusions, when in fact, you’ve simply found a way to fortify them. In a very real sense, all your ‘critical training’ is the product of the Middle Ages. Until you know what your brain is doing, you do not know what you are doing.)

I lost this battle before it began, if you tally up the brains, pro and con. Sure. And it definitely would have been better if I had picked someone who hadn’t ‘reviewed’ me, the way I did with Vox (who only reviewed me afterward), simply because it would have closed down one obvious motivational liability. But the Dude was just such a golden example, and I’m as vengeful as the next guy.

But that’s what it takes, isn’t it? Losing battle after battle, changing a few minds every time. 1% here, 1% there. The research isn’t going away. Neither are the institutions eager to manage our perceptions. The only question is whether we’ll come to collective grips with it in time.

I spent about a half an hour last night, laying in bed and pondering sexism and what I was attempting in my books, worrying all the different angles. What makes a book sexist? The perception of a certain percentage of a certain victim group? The intent or attitude of the author? The actual social consequences of the book? It can’t be the former, because it means that works like the Bible, for instance, only became sexist once they were perceived to be so. Calling a thing something does not make it so. It can’t be the second because the author’s intent, unfortunately, does not abide like magic pixie dust in text. No. It has to be the third, the actual social consequences of the book. For me, that remains an open question, and a worrying one.

Then I fell asleep disgusted because the Leafs had lost to the Jets. What a pisser that was.

In other words, pile-on people. Condemning, lampooning, labelling: these things come so easy because they’re so natural. Indulge away, if it makes you feel superior and connected. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re any less of an idiot than those you target.

We’re all idiots around here.

Requires Only Haidt

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Troll: 1) Someone who thinks indiscriminately pissing on legs is more an accomplishment and than an embarrassment; 2) A folkloric creature notorious for blocking bridges and blaming its farts on others. 

[Note: This post is presently receiving a tremendous amount of traffic. Though I appreciate the moral passion this issue generates, I would ask those who reply to recall the topic of this post is the way that moral passion derails our ability to think rationally. This is what I’m interested in debating. While all posts are welcome, those without arguments have the unfortunate effect of making my case for me. To spare you this indignity, let me assure you that yes, I am a very, very bad man, but that my questions are actually not that bad at all, which is why this post is presently receiving a tremendous amount of traffic.]

‘Speriment’s over.

So Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is coming out the beginning of next month. Moyers interviewed him for an hour on PBS last night (pretty much ruining the Superbowl for me) and it turns out he deals directly with what we’re discussing here. He actually discusses many things that I’ve been flogging over the years, if not here, then in interviews. The data backing (at least orthogonally) what I’ve been calling Compartmentalization seems to be slowly piling up.  The thesis, for those of you not familiar, is that the combination of human cognitive shortcomings and the plethora of ideologically skewed media choices is completely transforming the cultural commons – and with problematic results. Human cognition is self-interested through and through, something which likely paid real reproductive dividends back in the day where you depended on all the people you knew. Compromise is unavoidable in conditions of material and emotional interdependency. So the real question is one of what happens when you pluck that psychology out of the stone age and plop it in the age of the internet. Suddenly, the need for compromise becomes an abstraction. Suddenly, you are no longer forced to engage dissenting views – you can indulge your assumptions and prejudices at will without any immediate consequence. No matter how extreme or destructive the view, there’s a social support system hanging out in the aether – an endless supply of those two great human drugs, affirmation and confirmation.

What if the belief polarization presently gripping America, perhaps even strangling it, is simply the future, one where ersatz radicalism and resurgent tribalism hijacks the political apparatus of the state and delivers what it typically delivers: conflict and destruction? Let’s hope not. I want to think not, because I actually have a great deal of admiration for the American system, but we really are sailing into uncharted sociological waters here.

In the meantime, just reflect on the raucous response to my previous post. Because my ‘Criteria Question’ had been entirely ignored the first time round, I wrote the post with an experimental mindset. I was curious to see just how long it would take before one of the Dude’s defenders answered it. 232 replies later, none – not one! – and this despite repeating it I don’t know how many times. I think Murphy finally chipped in his thoughts out of sheer embarrassment for me.

Allowing me – at last – to write this post. Let’s just pause to reflect on all the alienated egos out there. I was actually tempted to post a link on Vox’s site to demonstrate how amusing people who truly believe that women ‘have a proper place’ would find the spectacle that the Dude has precipitated. It really does ‘require only hate.’

Belief polarization is real. Vitriolic, indiscriminate moral condemnation really does shut down people’s (already limited) capacity to reason as opposed to rationalize.  It ramps up sensitivities, and things devolve from there. It triggers the psychological mechanisms that bring out the worst in us. The fact that I’m reacting to actual slander, and am therefore as interested – if not more – as anyone in this debate, doesn’t change this fact one bit.

The core of the problem, I think, lies in the difficulty posed by my Criteria Question. How do you distinguish between serious and spurious accusations of racism and sexism? As Murphy points out in his answer, you have to take avowals with a grain of salt. I’ll never forget walking behind these three college students back in my professor days, two men and a woman, not really paying attention until one of them said, “That’s racist!”

“I’m not racist,” the guy on the right replied. “I just watch COPS.”

It’s a kind of pattern you’re looking for, as Murphy says. Avowals are simply one source of information. Actions are another, as are verbal interactions more generally.

The problems are obvious. Not only is our access to the information we require limited, in some cases extremely so, it just so happens that our brains are profoundly skewed pattern seeking machines. We see patterns that do not exist all the time, moreso when the subject matter is socially (that is, morally) charged.

At the same time, we live in an age when simply making the charge can do real social damage. As Republican campaign strategists will tell you, a person, as a rule, only has to encounter an accusation three times before they simply assume it’s true. The Republican primaries are providing an excellent example of the power of negative marketing to condition the attitudes of various populations of voters.

In other words, if you actually give a damn about people, then you need to be careful about accusing them of being sexist or racist, because, as a simple matter of fact, you could do real damage and you could be wrong.

This, I think, is what makes the Criteria Question so prickly, so difficult. Our moral systems seem to be designed to avoid false negatives by being completely insensitive to the problem of false positives. Apparently it doesn’t matter how many innocents you round up, so long as the drag-net catches the guilty party. The Criteria Question, in other words, forces us to take a genuinely counterintuitive mindset, one that requires work and self-doubt – two things that our brains generally happen to despise. 

And most importantly, the Criteria Question, which I posed to the Dude and she locked in moderation, throws a rather damning light on sites like ROH. She literally appeals to what is worst in our nature – is it any wonder that so much trust and friendship has been grenaded? If you find yourself laughing at her aspersions, agreeing with her summary judgments, it only means that you’re human, another mammal ruthlessly designed to ruthlessly survive in a world far, far less forgiving than our own. Same as me. Same as everyone else.

We all have the program. That’s the bloody problem. That’s why I fear for the world my daughter will inherit.

Everyone should.

Misanthropology 101

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Never forget the ‘more’ in moral, because it will never forget you.

So I am an honest-to-goodness sexist. I literally believe that women are marginally more trustworthy than men, more empathetic, more giving, more cooperative, more competent, more reliable, and so on in the majority of modern contexts. I’ve believed–and have been troubled by–this for many years. I don’t want to believe it, because bigotry is bigotry, but I’m not quite how to argue against it. For me it fits into the ‘ugly but true’ category.

At the same time I find myself regularly accused of misogyny.

I imagine TPB regulars are rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh, please. Not again.” The reason I bring this up is twofold: first, the amount of traffic from Requires Only Hate has spiked for some reason; and second, because Larry at the OF Blog recently mentioned how much he admires the site. As much as the first puzzles me, I find myself deeply troubled by the second, even moreso after some link chasing took me to Schellenberg’s blog, The Cultural Gutter.

For those of you who don’t remember, ‘Dude,’ the name I gave the self-proclaimed troll who runs ROH, declared last year that I was a misogynist on the strength of the first six pages of The Darkness that Comes Before, and because (s)he had been assured (by hearsay) that I acted like one in ‘real life.’

I had some real fun with the topic, especially with the attempts several of the Dude’s admirers made to show me the error of my ways. In most cases, it only took three or four simple questions before they withdrew into the e-ether. I had just finished a far more protracted battle with an extremist blogger on the right and was actively looking for a left-wing counterpart, so the Dude literally seemed like a stroke of fortune. Calling someone a misogynist on the strength of six pages and hearsay? This is more than reckless–it’s… well, immoral.

Now, I’m not a popular guy. Part of it has to do with personality, I’m sure. I’m foul mouthed, and I have the bad habit of carving someone the instant I decide I like them (and only being polite to those I dislike). I’m a horrible know-it-all. I’m chronically disorganized and typically unreliable as a result. I can be lazy and cruel. And I take perverse delight in playing the Devil’s Advocate. Few things give me more pleasure than poking calloused thumbs into pious eyes.

Why? Because we’re hardwired for piety. As David Dunning writes in Self-Insight, “of all the ways that people tend to hold themselves as superior to others, moral superiority seems to be one of the strongest and most pervasive forms of the effect” (114). As it turns out, most of our judgments about others are moral. Likewise, everyone tends to think they are generally more moral than the next guy. We all like to think we’re the winners of the Magical Morality Lottery–I know I do. Blaming others is effortless, whereas blaming oneself either involves intellectual work or takes an emotional toll.

The reason I’m so keen on poking piety in the eye is simply because I think it will be the end of us. We are presently stumbling into an unprecedented technological age, one with existential implications, win or lose. The more we know about our weaknesses, the hope is, the greater our chances of meaningful survival. What I write, I write in the hope of contributing to a self-critical culture. For me, nothing is quite so tragic, quite so dangerous or self-serving, as blanket, facile, moral condemnations.

Racism is complex. Sexism is complex. Throwing attitude and piety at them, I’m afraid, is simply not enough. Moreover, racism and sexism are simply subsets of what is the larger problem: our all too human tendency to think we and those who superficially resemble us are better than others.

In a word, our native sense of moral superiority.

Thus my books. In my fantasies in particular, I’m keen on writing that rubs against the reader’s moral presumption. I’m especially interested in the ways ancient and contemporary piety diverge in content while remaining so frighteningly similar in form. And I’ve ‘succeeded.’ I lost count of the number of moral judgments I’ve encountered a long long time ago. In a sense, people like the ‘Dude’ tell me I’m doing something right, that I’m not simply reinforcing the moral status quo by repeating the right truisms the right way at the right time. My books are meant to problematize gender, to ask the hard questions that have to be asked if we are to have any hope of getting a handle on social problems like racism or sexism.

But I’m always taken by surprise. Like a democratic campaign advisor, I keep forgetting the power of moral agreement, the way people use shared patterns of condemnation to decide who they can trust and who they like, regardless of the fairness or the rationality of the judgements made.

So for me, a site like ROH can only be a kind of joke, an example of one form of facile moral condemnation attacking another. Indiscriminate bigotry versus indiscriminate bigotry. And yet, here I find people whose intelligence and opinion I respect voicing admiration for the thing. If you don’t believe me, then I invite you, as an experiment, to simply take a tour of various politically oriented blogs. Who sounds smart? Who sounds stupid? Who sounds trustworthy? What you are literally witnessing is the way your brain sorts your world for you, the way most everything is preapproved or predisapproved, with nary a neuron involved in any genuine problem-solving.

No one likes to be poked in the eye. So we close them.

In the meantime, always keep this question, the one I posted on ROH but never made it past moderation: “Certainly all accusations of misogyny can’t be true. Given this, could you tell me the criteria you use to distinguish between serious and spurious accusations of misogyny?”

‘Feeling it’ doesn’t cut it afraid. The Nazis felt every bit as pious as you. More.