Requires Only Haidt
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.]
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.