I wish humans would stop acting toward each other like monkeys hurling feces.

I’ve expressed this general sentiment before, but it’s a problem that continues to muddle and befuddle the progress of humanity, and it seems to have done so for as long as civilization has existed—probably longer.  It also seems ever more salient, or at least more prominent in modern American political life, so I think it bears addressing again, and repeating ad nauseum if necessary. Continue reading “I wish humans would stop acting toward each other like monkeys hurling feces.”

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.

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.

Tweets and memes on complex themes

Okay, well, I’m feeling under-the-weather today, so I’m not sure how good this post will be, but I wanted to maintain my recently-instituted policy of writing at least one post per week, on Sundays, so I’m going to charge forward.

I had a hard time deciding what to write about today, given the above problem; I have a list of many one-to-two-line ideas for blog posts in my cell phone (I jot the ideas down there when they occur to me, and come back to them later when deciding what to write), and I chose to stick with something simple, but which I consider important.

The topic is a pet peeve of mine about Facebook-style memes relating to political and social issues, and it involves the poor quality of reasoning one often sees in such posts.  Obviously, a meme—or a tweet—is not going to be the ideal medium through which to convey detailed and careful reasoning on any deep subject, which is why I write blogs, relying on language rather than eye-catching pictures designed to trigger an emotional response (see last week’s post to read what I think of relying on emotions to decide important matters).  But memes are often disappointingly lacking even for what they are.

The meme that caught my attention today consists entirely of words, with no underlying picture, but still demonstrates the problem I see in so much of modern discourse.  It’s a meme I’ve seen before; it starts by detailing the consequences that might be met by a person illegally entering North Korea, Afghanistan, or Iran.  Then it introduces a strawman-style, exaggerated statement about the many benefits available to illegal immigrants in the U.S., and concludes with something along the lines of, “No wonder we’re a country in so much debt,” which is almost—though not quite—a complete non-sequitur.

This meme blatantly shoots itself in the foot by comparing the United States’ immigration policy—in clearly intended unfavorable light—with that of three of the most benighted and oppressive regimes in the world today.  Is this really expected to convince anyone, or to sway a reader’s thinking?  I suspect that even most conservatives, toward whom this meme is likely directed, wouldn’t consider North Korea, Afghanistan, or Iran to be role models on the national or international stage.  Why on Earth would anyone bring them up for such a comparison?  I almost suspect that this meme was made by a troll from the Left, intended as a caricature of Right-wing arguments, but it was shared, with all apparent earnestness, by someone who is clearly conservative.

It would have been much better—more effective in getting an argument across, and possibly even thought-provoking—if the poster had compared our immigration policy to that of, say, Canada or Japan.  These nations are modern and high-functioning and enact at least some policies which we might consider better solutions to specific problems than those we apply in the U.S.  I’m not making the argument that their situations are the same as ours, nor do I mean to start a discussion about the benefits and detriments of their policies relative to those of the United States.  I’m just saying that citing those examples would probably have been a more effective means of eliciting actual thought on the matter, even from those who might lean to the Left.

I’ve quoted a conservative post above because it’s the one I last encountered, but I find similar dubious posts—often even more egregious in their seeming manipulativeness and illogic—shared from Left-leaning sites such as “Occupy Democrats” and “The Other 98%”.

Memes—and tweets, even with their now-doubled character-length—seem to be the ultimate distillation of the lamentable phenomenon of “sound-bite as news”.  I’m not broadly against Facebook, Twitter, et al.  I use both social media platforms.  But they are rarely venues in which to gain or to share deep arguments about complicated problems (at least, they’re rarely used that way, though they do occasionally produce high quality discussion).  They could, however, easily be venues in which honest thought is at least provoked in someone who reads a tweet, or a meme, perhaps leading such a person to investigate some matter more thoroughly than they had in the past.  They can also link to articles and other sources that further explore interesting issues.  Unfortunately, as far as I can see, they are usually used for coarse, ham-handed virtue signaling and name-calling.  I’m not sure how often a given person changes his or her mind in response to being insulted; in my experience, it almost never happens in real time, at the very least.  This is likely especially true when the quality of the call-out is so logically faulty and ill-conceived as memes like the one I reference above.

Reality is messy.  Most issues are complex.  That’s the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves.  This shouldn’t surprise us; we ourselves are ridiculously complicated Rube Goldberg machines cobbled together over the course of eons from the spare parts left lying around by prior biology.  That anything works at all is probably more a testament to the brutally sharp and ruthless character of natural selection (at all levels) than it is to any clever or efficient design of the systems we have put in place.  Given this, it’s going to be a rare case indeed in which a single picture with overlying words (and not very many of these) is going to capture, or meaningfully contribute to, any debate about substantive issues.  Any such simple solution or argument is a low-hanging fruit that likely would have been plucked long ago, if it were available.

Such tweets and memes, in many cases, seem simply to serve as virtue signals, calling out to others of like mind with the sharer.  If that’s all you want to do—to display your tattoos on the prison rec-yard so you can be welcomed into the gang most likely to protect you—then I suppose that’s fine.  But if you want to try to understand, and to spread understanding of, complex scientific, social, or political issues, with an eye toward fostering improvement in society and civilization, then you’re going to have to do more work.  At bare minimum, you should try to make your memes as honest and as rational as you can and to maintain that policy in choosing the memes you share.

Otherwise, you might as well just stick to sharing jokes and picture of kittens.  The latter, at least, usually tend to improve the moods of those who see them…and that may just make them ever-so-slightly more considerate and less reactionary in their own posting.

It’s a place to start.