Cross-eyed Crosshair Crossfire…

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Not even God can argue with a shrug, which is why he created the universe to resemble one.


Crazy days on TPB! On the one hand I find myself once again arguing against Vox, an extremely popular ‘libertarian’ blogger, who calls me ‘Wangsty’ (among other things) and believes bigoted rubbish like this:

Logic dictates that women must be encouraged to bear and raise subsequent generations. 50 years of experience indicates that there is no loss to society and substantial benefit from ensuring that the law and social structures support that role while hindering alternative roles. Granted, this does assume that societal survival is a positive objective.

While Acrackedmoon, a self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ troll (and the only person to have called me more names than Vox!) decides to diagnose my moral and psychological defects through, er, ‘highly motivated’ readings of my books…

Mr Bakker, you are disgusting. It’s not even that you are edgy or avant-garde. You’re just disgusting in a sad, banal way; reading this is like catching you masturbating to rape porn surrounded by wads of used tissue. Possibly your masturbating aid is your own steaming feces. And, not quite content with being found out (and feeling no shame, for that matter), you record it and upload it to youtube, and share around the link. Bakker is the piglet with the explosive diarrhea that’s very, very proud of the shit he’s just excreted. And he wants us all to smell it. Possibly follow his lead and taste it too.

Does it make me weird that I almost feel… I dunno, honoured?

Aside from pointing out that ACM missed her calling as a cherrypicker, I do need to correct her on one point: Three Pound Brain does not ‘pretend’ to be about battling misogyny, it’s about the fact that our brains only weigh three pounds and how this becomes painfully obvious when we look at the myriad bigotries that some of us are actually proud to display. TPB, ACM, is about you! And Vox.

And me. And, well, everybody who has a three pound brain.

Misogyny is simply a symptom of how stupid and self-serving we all are. As is racism. As is any outlook that lumps people into pejorative categories (like ‘neckbeards’), that urges or insinuates hatred of people based on simplistic identifications.

Our brains, given that they only weigh three pounds, are built to economize, so they continually over-simplify. In a sense, we’re simplification machines. They are also built to self-promote and to other-denigrate, which is to say, to place themselves on pedestals (the way I am now) and to dig holes for perceived competitors (the way I am now). They are, in other words, social machines as well.

Now this is a problem for all of us as a species, especially given the strange and perhaps tumultuous days to come. But, the same way everyone you know has pretty much all the inclinations everyone has only with the levels cranked high and low, for some people the personality EQ is way out of whack. We’re all allergic to social complexity, but some people just can’t stand it. We’re all inclined to dislike those who disagree or challenge us, but some people feel compelled to hate.

And sometimes, when everything seems fucked up, we find these extremists attractive—insightful, funny, courageous, what-have you. Why? Because they seem to give voice to our own inclinations. They make it easy to give in to our need for certainty and simplicity. They promise you things like racial harmony through racial purity, make traditional chauvinisms sound reasonable, or they savage things that challenge or complicate, while giving some inner dislike or fear or dissatisfaction a booming, hateful voice—because few things seem to empower quite so much as hate.

All Three Pound Brain does is remind people they have three pound brains. The fact that so many of those simple, hateful things feel so right (me awesome, they scum!) is the result of your brain being—as a matter of scientific fact—a self-promoting simplification machine. (One of the easiest ways to detect whether someone is having problems with their social complexity tolerance levels, I like to think, is the tendency to call perceived social competitors names).

I remember thinking Haidt’s metaphor of ‘the rider and the elephant’ cheesy when I first heard it a few years back, but reading The Righteous Mind has turned me around. Psychologists have been busy the last few years sorting those cognitive processes that are automatic from those that are genuinely deliberative—and as it turns out, the vast bulk of our determinations (especially when they are moral) belong to the automatic category. The more we learn about the deliberative side, the more it seems to have the job of socially promoting our automatic judgements, rather than explaining our own motivations (which largely remain invisible to us). Thus the automatic elephant and the deliberative rider. The first passes arbitrary judgment, and the second pretends there was a fair trial.

As Haidt writes:

the rider acts as spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons for justifying whatever it is the elephant wants to do next. Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm. (46)

The amount of research supporting this ‘post hoc rationalization model’ is fast becoming mountainous. And it certainly explains why all my attempts to change anyone’s mind about me (because, no, I’m not a misogynist) or about the proper role of women (because, no, the state should not coerce them into assuming their ‘reproductive duty’) have probably made me more of a laughingstock than anything!

“Why do you bother?” has to be one of the most frequent questions I encounter here at TPB. Every one of us has encountered fringe people with fringe opinions over the years. We all have the experience of looking someone in the eye and realizing that it quite simply does not matter what you say. So what do we do?

Nod and smile and slink away.

What could be more obvious? Especially when it comes to the web, where you have to work to communicate in the first place, let alone deal with all the tone-problems posed by text, or the volatility of the online disinhibition effect.

So why do I bother? A right-wing bigot on the one hand, and a left-wing hatemonger on the other. You gotta know I ain’t going to change their minds. And since my own positions are so wank and deflationary, there’s precious little chance they’re going to change mine.

My whole life I’ve been pinched between worlds. I grew up poor, in one of those rural houses set far enough back from the road that no one could hear the laughing, let alone the screaming and shouting. I loved books, but learned very quickly to keep them on the down-low. I remember thinking that university would set me free, that there, at least, I wouldn’t have to be secretive or defensive about my passions. My first year English Literature class cured me of that idealistic nonsense. Conan, apparently, has no place in serious literary discussions.

So I spent the next several years trying to be ‘serious,’ to have ‘serious’ interests I could share with other ‘serious’ people. Rather than resenting the denigration of my tastes—not to mention my class—I did what most everyone does, at first: I made fun of who I was, simply because that’s the price of human admission when you find yourself outside looking in. Aside from dress and accent and belief, you socially identify yourself by the things you love and hate. Thus all the advertisements on our T-shirts. ‘Identity claims,’ psychologists call them. So I ran down fantasy, cracked jokes about my D&D days, said things like, “Can you believe I was so retarded?” I did what I’m sure so very many lapsed fantasy fans have done, consciously or unconsciously. I bought into the ‘Myth of Literature.’

But what I didn’t do was swap out my friends. As a result, I found myself playing hypocrite in both worlds, not so much changing my tune as amending it, as if I were a vase with multiple motifs that could be turned this way or that to flatter the tastes of whoever seemed to count at any given moment. It would be graduate school that cured me of this particular disease: whatever desire I had to be ‘serious’ literally died within the first few weeks of my MA program. I became cynical in the modern sense, and devoted myself to mastering the game of taking and being taken seriously (in hothouse academic subcultures).

And this didn’t sit well either. After tumbling off a half dozen philosophical bandwagons, I came to the realization that it was almost all rationalization, people beginning with inklings or full blown conclusions, then cherry-picking whatever they needed to sound smart. This was certainly what I had been doing. How else could I have been so convinced at each turn, unless I was fooling myself somehow?

Then I began reading cognitive psychology. I was teaching this pop culture class, but I was so disgusted with semiotics that I decided to toss the assigned text in the trash, and to look at culture as a kind of evolutionary and psychological prosthesis. Two things came out of that class. The first was Neuropath (where I tried, among other things, to depict a nihilistic future – one I think we’re hurtling toward now – where biological imperatives replace moral ones (so leading to a mass normalization of  the pornographic culture  that ACM so perceptively takes as evidence of my misogyny!)). The second was my conversion to cynicism in a more ancient sense.

I was, and still am, absolutely astounded that I could spend all the years I had studying philosophy without encountering any real, empirical research on human cognition. I suppose it makes institutional sense in retrospect, given what those findings seem to entail (namely, that the ancient Skeptics were right all along), but I still find the sheer magnitude of the hypocrisy boggling. On the one hand, we have good reason to believe that humans are theoretical incompetents through and through, and on the other, we have this institution devoted to the study of human theory and theoretical competence that wants no part of it.

Hypocrisy. Everywhere I look, this is what I see. Especially when I find myself looking in the mirror. I feel it now, writing this… Really, when it comes down to it, I’m just covering my own ass here, aren’t I?

Of course I am. But at the same time, I know the information technology revolution is just underway, as are revolutions in a broad spectrum of scientific fields. The kinds of crazy changes we’ve witnessed in just the past couple decades are just ramping up. Our tools are about to become more powerful and more pervasive than we can imagine, and humanity, meanwhile, is stranded with the same old, horribly maladapted paleolithic psychology—one designed to dupe us into thinking we know things that we plainly do not.

My whole career is bent around the notion of spreading the hypocritical word—hypocritically. Since the social trend seems to be one of segmentation, ever closer fits between transmitters and receivers, I self-consciously decided to engage people with diametrically opposing views, particularly those possessing what I think is the greatest threat of all, moral certainty.

So with my books, I look at genres as specialty channels, as ways to engage audiences with views different than my own. Within those books, I always try to tweak the reader’s moral sensibilities, to show—not the ‘proper’ moral ‘answer’—but the complexities that so often undermine the apparent simplicity of our moral intuitions. Faith and gender, as it happens, are two of my preferred saws.

And with this site, Three Pound Brain, I try to periodically spark debates with those who, like Vox and ACM, I think entertain particularly troubling views. People who can’t laugh at themselves. People who are continually pointing fingers at others, condemning, blaming… People, in short, who trust their own illusory sense of moral superiority too much to be trusted. I do so, not with the intention of ‘converting’ people, but of simply making as many people as possible aware of the complexities that afflict all subject matters, and the infirmities that—as a matter of empirical fact—own our three pound brains.

And man o’ man do I get raked over the coals! But, then, as the Chinese proverb says, He who asks questions is a fool for a moment, but he who asks no questions is a fool for life. Someone’s gotta be extreme about doubt.

Don’t they?