Our public discourse could benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

One of the most frustrating facts about the current level and character of our political discourse—as typified by the Kavanaugh nomination and hearings for appointment to the Supreme Court—is the degree to which it amounts to so many gangs of monkeys hurling feces at each other.

And yet, in characterizing the matter this way, I’m indulging in the very thing that I’m decrying (and I didn’t do it just to make a point—that really was my honest reaction, and I only caught myself after the fact).  It seems to me that, more and more over the past few decades, we approach disagreements about policies, economics, and other social concerns with an attitude appropriate to children calling each other names on a playground, or to rabid sports fans supporting their team against bitter rivals, as though that enmity were etched into the very bedrock of existence.

Yet, even among sports fans, and certainly among players, there is traditionally an underlying ethos of good sportsmanship.  Pettiness, vindictiveness, name-calling…these things are not admired among serious athletes, those who love their sport for its own sake.

But the level of “discussion” between those who disagree about political matters simply reeks of the same cognitive biases and distortions that play a role in mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and which such techniques as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have been designed to counteract.  I long for the application of CBT to our public discourse, especially about matters of deep import that have a serious impact on the lives of many people.  We fall prey to fallacies of absolutist, Us/Them, good/evil, all-or-nothing thinking, of mind-reading, of catastrophizing, and to blind and rabid tribalism in areas where we would do better to engage the highest regions of our brains to make sound judgements.

One of the most refreshing posts I’ve seen regarding the Kavanaugh hearings was by a local, central-Florida-based, “libertarian” politician, who said that while he had mixed feelings about the accusations being made about Kavanaugh regarding past sexual assault, this didn’t really matter—at least with respect to the confirmation hearing—because Kavanaugh’s stance on the Fourth Amendment and other Constitutional issues regarding Presidential power and accountability were already bad enough to make him a poor choice for the Supreme Court.  In other words, he wanted to focus on matters of substance relating to the specific qualifications for the job for which Kavanaugh was being considered.

This is not to say that allegations of sexual assault aren’t serious matters—they certainly are.  The fact of these allegations and the varying character of the reactions to them are reminders and examples of important issues that trouble our society, and which require addressing.  It’s not unreasonable to decide that the character of a man who would sexually assault a woman—if he did—makes him unsuitable for one of the most crucial positions in our national government.  But it’s also not entirely unreasonable to be at least a little curious about the timing of the allegations, and to wonder whether that timing ought to have any bearing on whether we judge them to be true or not.  These matters can be soberly considered in evaluating the candidate.

But “sober” is not a word one would be inclined to use to describe the level of discussion on this very serious set of concerns.  Rather, we see a plethora of memes that focus on silly facial expressions of Kavanaugh, or of Lindsey Graham, or of Christine Blasey Ford, as though the transient set of one’s features as captured in single frames of video feeds has any bearing on whether a person is truthful or not, or whether they are of good character.  This is less convincing than phrenology, frankly, and should be beneath the dignity of those who judge these issues to be pivotal.

Important concerns have been and are being raised by this event, and they are worthy of discussion, consideration, and action.  It’s a serious issue to consider the various cultural forces that lead countless women—and men, as well—who have been victims of sexual assault to keep silent, rather than bring out accusations only to have them dismissed or taken lightly.  It’s likewise a real issue whether the timing of these particular accusations, by raising shades of political machination, weakens the gravitas of the “MeToo” movement and harms its broad acceptance.

It’s also of real worry that so many people don’t seem to understand the difference between a confirmation hearing and a criminal trial, and that there are different standards of evidence involved because the purpose of the occasions is very different.

And it is a very real concern just to what degree we wish to allow the potential undermining of checks on Executive power such as might be engendered by giving the lifetime Supreme Court appointment to someone who is soft on that issue.

To deal with any and all of these concerns is worthwhile, perhaps even absolutely necessary.  But we are not actually dealing with them.  Much of the discourse, even at the “highest” levels, about these matters, amounts to sheer rhetoric and attempted manipulation, of others and of ourselves.  Outrage is fun, or at least it’s exciting, and we seem to be growing addicted to it, at the expense of our ability to deal with important matters in a reasonable fashion.  In this, our discourse is reminiscent of our civil and criminal trials, which amount to jousting matches between hired champions, where the one most skilled at emotional chicanery, at engaging and making use of our many inherent cognitive biases, tends to win.

It shouldn’t be about “winning”.  It should be about the seeking of truth, the attempt to achieve the best possible outcome we can manage as a society.  One of the things I like most about the US Constitution is that it is, in character, a very scientific document.  It arranges a system of government as a starting point, but it ensures peer review in the form of the various checks and balances, and always leaves itself open, in principle and in practice, to the updating of its model, in the form of the amendment process.  I wish we could approach matters of national concern, that bear on the interpretation of that document—and frankly, all important matters—with calm heads worthy of the Constitution’s character.

The fact that someone disagrees with you on some particular point does not mean that they are evil, and the fact that they agree with you on some other emotionally salient issue does not automatically make them good.

The world is complex.  And while it’s true that humans are primates—so it’s not all that surprising that we fall into primate dominance display patterns rather easily, especially when our emotions become aroused—we should recognize that this is almost always a weakness when dealing with issues that couldn’t have been faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors over evolutionary time.  Complicated problems benefit most from careful, rational thought, and calm, reasonable discussion in which everyone recognizes their own fallibility and all are open—at least in principle—to having their minds changed.

We seem to have a societal mood disorder, some population-based depression/anxiety syndrome, that makes us prone to counter-productive thoughts and behaviors.  Given this, we should remind ourselves of some of the cognitive distortions typical of such disorders, such as:  all-or-nothing thinking; overgeneralization; mental filtering; discounting the positives; jumping to conclusions; magnification and minimization; emotional reasoning; overusing “should” statements; labeling; and blame.

It would be nice if we could all be a bit more Stoic in our approach to public issues, especially ones of great import.  It’s precisely because serious concerns are so prone to make us emotional that we should defend ourselves against the distortions of our emotional reactions, and against descending to playground-level invective rather than engaging in serious conversation.  It’s when matters are most consequential that our passions are most likely to be aroused—but this is precisely the time when we should be most on our guard against succumbing to their every dictate.  Serious problems are rarely solved by name-calling and reactionary vilification.

We really need to do better.  We can do better, I have no doubt about that.  And the answer to the question of whether or not we will do better will have serious consequences.

Don’t text and drive, you moron!

“Don’t text and drive.  Be responsible.”

On I-95 in South Florida (and perhaps elsewhere), there are large LED signs stretching across the roadway that, when not providing traffic estimates, notices of lane closures, and “silver alerts”, display the above message, apparently as their default setting.

This seems entirely too tepid an exhortation given the subject matter.  In character, it’s a bit like a parent or teacher saying to two children engaged in a violent fistfight, “Come on now, guys, can’t we all just get along?”

I think it would be more appropriate if the sign read something along the lines of, “Don’t text and drive!  Don’t be a complete imbecile!”  Or perhaps even, “Don’t text and drive or we’ll kill you!” Continue reading “Don’t text and drive, you moron!”

The “supernatural” does not, and cannot, exist

I might have written about this before, but I think it bears repeating, if only because it’s a point of personal irritation:  there’s no such thing as the “supernatural.”

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not necessarily saying I think there are no such things as spirits, magic, deities, psychic powers, or the like.  I strongly suspect that none of these things does exist, but my point is about categories of thought and terminology, not about the reality of proposed phenomena, and the term “supernatural” is inherently pointless. Continue reading “The “supernatural” does not, and cannot, exist”

Never hate your interlocutors

There’s a moment in “The Godfather: Part III” when Michael Corleone says to Vincent, Sonny Corleone’s hotheaded illegitimate son, “Never hate your enemies; it affects your judgment.”  These may be some of the most useful words in that whole excellent movie series, words that apply to the world and to human interaction generally, perhaps more than ever before in our modern world of politics and social media.

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on social media, at least when dealing with political and social issues, has seen the face of the problem this aphorism addresses.  Anyone who has followed politics has also seen it.  We tend to address our issues and disagreements in the real world as though they are zero-sum games—contests in which there can be only one winner and one loser, where any gain by the “other side” is a loss for “our side.”  Perhaps as an automatic defense against the distress of having to face our fellow humans in such a contest, we demonize our “enemies.”  Unfortunately, this approach quickly becomes counter-productive, because—as Michael Corleone rightly points out—to demonize others, to hate them, impairs our judgment.  If we see another person as inherently reprehensible, then to give him or her any ground, at any level, is to seem to reward what we perceive as evil and, given the zero-sum assumption, to penalize the good. Continue reading “Never hate your interlocutors”

What would you do?

Imagine there’s a person you hate more than you hate any other human being; indeed, this may well be the only person you truly hate, more than Hitler or Stalin, more than Ted Bundy, more than your most loathed and offensive political antitheses.

This person’s every habit disgusts and repulses you.  Their laughter is at best grating, and at worse rings false in your ears, less melodious than a braying donkey.  Their wit is sophomoric, their wisdom trite clichés.  Their physical presence is frankly appalling; they stink, their breath is nauseating, their hair and their body habitus are the quintessence of unattractiveness, their features are disturbingly asymmetric, their ears protrude oddly and unevenly, their nose is off-center, and their posture makes you feel uncomfortable.  Even their flatulence is exceptionally rancid, as though some of their own internal organs have already begun to decay while they still live.

Lest we be mired in the superficial, it’s also clear that this person is horribly selfish, petty, irritable, judgmental, condescending—hateful and misanthropic, nihilistic, dismissive of all possible goodness.  They wish foul and horrific vengeance upon even strangers who commit the most minor of offenses, and were they given power and impunity, they would no doubt leave much of the world a wasteland.

When you see others treat this person with courtesy, with kindness, and even at times with respect, you cannot comprehend how they could be so fully duped.  Do they not realize what a Lovecraftian monstrosity it is with which they are interacting?  Do they not recognize, at some level, how appalling and foul this person is?  Don’t they know that the few seemingly kind, or mildly impressive, things that this person does are merely traps full of inevitable betrayal and disappointment?  Don’t they realize that this person always fails those who rely upon him, always disappoints those who expect anything good from him.  Can’t they see, just by looking, that he’s the living refutation of goodness itself, the very force of entropic chaos made flesh?  Or perhaps that grandiosity pays too high a compliment?  Can they not at least see that he is utterly pathetic, as pointless as any slime mold, but with none of the biological interest and uniqueness that might justify attention or curiosity?

Does not at least some part of them—some deep, animal instinct for self-preservation—cause the hackles to rise on the backs of their necks when they get too close to this person?  Do they not find that he would be worthy of pity if he were not so inescapably repugnant, so completely deserving of each and every bad thing that happens to him?

What if you knew such a person?  What if that person were part of your life, and had been for as long as you could remember?  You’re encouraged to love this person, but that’s akin to someone recommending that you love Jeffrey Dahmer, or Timothy McVeigh, Pol Pot, or the Boston Strangler.  Maybe Jesus, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, or other similarly elevated souls could honestly find it in their hearts to love this person, but for you…well, for you, a mere mortal, how can your attempts at love not be overwhelmed by all the ways in which this person is unlovable, the things you find impossible to ignore, even while others either brush them aside, or don’t seem to notice them in the first place?

Imagine some people even offered or suggested methods by which you could physically, neurologically, change how you respond to this person.  But that would surely be akin to imbibing Marx’s opiate of the masses.  Do they really think you would consider it a good idea to blind yourself to the presence of such a negative force?  Do they really think that such ignorance could ever be bliss?

They don’t know what you know.  If they did…well, if they did, they would share your loathing.

Imagine you knew such a person.  Imagine this person worked in the same place you worked, shared your commute, watched the same videos, read the same books; imagine you could never be free of this person’s reactions to these things, that you could never not be given their commentary on whatever you tried to enjoy, that their enjoyment made you suspicious that your own enjoyment was inappropriate, or even prurient.

Imagine that this person was with you wherever you went, waiting for you when you awakened in the morning, and still there when you finally were able to get them to stop annoying you enough that you were able to get to sleep—for too short a time, giving too little rest.  You never know a moment’s peace or freedom from this person in your waking life, and they often invade even your dreams.

There is no way you can escape from this person while you are alive, no way you can live free from the presence of the most loathsome, the most pernicious little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth, no respite from the disgust engendered by this person’s presence…

…because that person is you.  That person is yourself.

What would you do?

Dr. Pedantic speaks…or, well, actually, he writes.

At work yesterday, I was listening to the song “What You Came For (featuring Rihanna)” on our office music source.  This is not a rare occurrence; the song gets played at least once daily.  It’s one of those songs that has only a few lyrics, frequently repeated, but one doesn’t mind too much because the tune is catchy, Rihanna has beautiful voice, and listening to her voice conjures the image of Rihanna herself, which is never a bad thing.  The words, limited though they are, are evocative, and despite having heard them an uncountable number of times before, today one of the lines struck me, specifically, the declaration that “lightning strikes every time she moves.”

This sounds like the description of someone well worth avoiding.  I mean, if lightning strikes every time she moves, she would indeed be a very dangerous person.  Just how dangerous would depend on how we interpret “every time she moves”.  Does it count even if she merely twitches her finger?  Does breathing count as moving?  Imagine the carnage, to say nothing of the ozone, that would surround such a woman!

Then I thought more carefully and realized that I was drawing unwarranted conclusions.  After all, the lyrics just say that lightning strikes every time she moves.  They don’t say that lightning strikes where she is, every time she moves.  If we assume that lightning is striking somewhere on Earth at nearly every instant—and if that’s not quite true, it’s surely striking on Jupiter, and possibly also on Neptune, if not on Earth—it can honestly be said of pretty much anyone that lightning strikes every time that she, or he, moves.

It’s a bit like that old statement about drinking early in the day:  It’s always five o’clock somewhere.  Now, this at least cannot be strictly true.  It would only be precisely true every hour on the hour.  But one could make the statement accurate just by saying that it’s always after five somewhere, and that would take care of the nitpicking.

This led me to wonder just what generalizations that sound dramatic might be true in a trivial sense pretty much anywhere.  It didn’t take long to come up with some.  One could, for instance, make the seemingly terrifying statement that “everyone who pisses me off dies,” and be telling the truth (unless the transhumanist movement is correct, and some of the people who are currently alive will never die because of advances in technology).  Still, even if people end up extending their lives to a tremendous degree, it seems likely that the universe itself will eventually arrive at a state where no life of any kind is possible.  This is probably an inescapable consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (see here).  If there is no escape allowed by the laws of physics from this eventual universal heat death, it’s not unreasonable to say that everyone alive will eventually die.  Thus, it is a true statement—as far as it goes—that everyone who pisses me off dies.  It’s also true, unfortunately, that everyone who doesn’t piss me off dies.  But when you’re trying to be scary, I guess you’re not required to make full disclosure.

In a similar vein, one could threaten someone into doing what one wants by saying to them, “If you don’t do exactly what I say, you are going to die.”  This, again, is a true statement, even if the speaker never has any intention of killing or otherwise harming the person being addressed.  What’s more, even if the person does exactly what you say, they are still going to die.  It may take years—a dozen, a hundred, a million, a trillion, who knows?—but it’s a reasonable assumption that eventually each person will die.  That’s probably a better assumption even than the guess that lightning is always striking somewhere whenever a woman in a song moves.

The dread super-villain, Dr. Pedantic, might well choose to elaborate on his threats, saying, “If you do not do as I say, you will die.  And I don’t just mean that you will eventually die, but that you will die sometime within the next seventy-two hours, approximately, and it will be a painful, violent death at my hands—figuratively speaking—unless something else, by chance, kills you before I have the opportunity to do so.  And, of course, barring any intervening events that make it impossible for me to carry out a violent act upon you, such as my own death or capture.  However, these are relatively unlikely events, and though past performance is not a guarantee of future results, I have not yet failed to carry out such actions when they were warranted against someone who failed to obey my commands.  And to be clear, there have been other such people.”

Dr. Pedantic gets a bit boring sometimes, and his would-be victims occasionally lose track of what he’s trying to get them to do; he doesn’t quite get the art of using intimidating rhetoric.  Neither does he grasp the intention of such poetry as the statement that lightning strikes every time a woman moves; he doesn’t understand that the song is actually just saying that she is such a “striking” figure that, no matter what she does, she almost always seizes the attention of those who happen to observe her.

In any case, as the song says, whether or not lightning literally strikes every time she moves, it’s not that important, because even when everyone’s watching her, she’s looking at you.  Aren’t you lucky?  At least, you’re lucky if the words are figurative, much more than than you would be if she were, literally, emitting large bolts of discharged static electricity with every movement.

But even if the statement is meant in an entirely figurative sense, you’re still not safe.  After all, no matter what you do, everyone is going to die some day.

Probably.

We shouldn’t assume that we know other people’s motives and character based on limited data (and it’s almost always limited)

I have a long and very important letter to write today (I haven’t been this nervous about writing something since college), so I’m going to keep this relatively short, but I did want to write something, at least.  It’s on a subject that troubles me quite a bit, that apparent tendency—at least on social media—for people to act as if they were telepathic or clairvoyant regarding other people’s motives and thoughts.

It happens so easily, and probably without much thought (probably without much ill-intent).  We see a post or declaration, or a political or social statement, and we infer from it all sorts of things about the source’s character, intentions, and morality.  It’s remarkable that we imagine we’re so good at such interpretations, since most of us very rarely have any idea what our own motivations and deeper thoughts are.  It’s apparently true that often we can recognize by facial expression and body language how our friends and colleagues are feeling more clearly than they recognize it themselves, but this is broad and crude.  Recognizing that someone is sad or angry before they realize it themselves doesn’t give us any reason to think we know why someone is sad or angry.

Yet if a person posts a meme supportive of the Second Amendment—or conversely, one supportive of stricter gun control—those who see this meme often seem to draw far-reaching conclusions, straw-manning the person and their supposed motivations.  The sharer must be a right-wing, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-government bigot, say; or alternatively, they must be a “regressive leftist,” communist, SJW, crusading vegan, who wants to emasculate all men.

How many people in the world would meet those descriptions accurately?  There are probably a few—there are a lot of people in the world, after all, and the Gaussian is broad.  But surely, most people don’t honestly fit into any such broad stereotypes.

Of course, maybe I’m making my own error by guessing that people perform such acts of unwarranted attribution based on limited statements and data.  Maybe I’m straw-manning the people online.  Certainly, there are many to whom I’m being unjust—or would be if I were thinking of them.  But mostly, I’m thinking of the people who respond to trolling and counter-trolling, and the ones who take part in internet-based debates that rapidly, or immediately, degenerate into name-calling matches of which most six-year-olds would be ashamed.

I wonder how people can feel comfortable engaging in such interactions on a regular basis.  Perhaps the anonymity, or pseudo-anonymity, of the online world helps people let slip their baser natures more easily.  We are free from the subtle cues of body language and expression that, as I stated above, give us a sense of how our interlocutor feels.  Also, the nearly-automatic echo-chamber effect of social media tends to reinforce our sense of identity as a member of a particular group, and that leads us to be more inclined to react to perceived outsiders as enemies—this is probably both defensive and a matter of “virtue-signaling,” or what would probably be better understood as tribe-signaling.  We are declaring to those in our tribe that we are members in good standing, and thus should remain welcome.

A similar phenomenon might be behind why a lot of people, many of whom don’t honestly subscribe to the tenets of their stated religion, continue to go church (or mosque, or synagogue, or whatever) on a regular basis.  They demonstrate not their actual beliefs, but that they are committed members of the tribe.

This is, I suppose, often relatively harmless.  But it is anathema to honest discourse.  And it’s only through honest discourse (as far as I can see) that we can come to an ever-improving model of the world, to come nearer to truth and understanding.  We can see how tribalism and partisanship, a reflexive judgmentalism and name-calling, has poisoned much of our political system, creating deadlocks even in a government currently dominated by a single political party.  Nothing gets done—or at least very little does—when those involved are just trying to demonstrate their “virtue” by assailing those on the other side.  At least, it seems like that’s what they’re doing.  Maybe I’m misjudging.

I don’t know what the fix for this tribalism is; it seems to be something innate in the human character.  But it’s surely not the only thing, or we would never have created modern civilization.  Perhaps a place to start, a small step, would be for us to try to curtail our instinct to lead or to respond with accusation and insult.  If we think we know someone else’s motives, we should stop and think again before believing ourselves.  If we want to bring a point of criticism to their attention, instead of reflexively spewing, “It’s gross!  It’s racist!” we might start by saying, “I don’t know what your intentions are here, but when you say something like that, it comes across—to me at least—as racist.  Is that what you wanted?”

I don’t know if that will work better or not, but I’d love to see the experiment tried on a large scale.  In the meantime, remember, just because you infer something doesn’t mean that it was actually implied.