The podcast below is more of our wandering conversation style about the problems we have with politics in America currently, particularly on the left. Below that is a longer (sorry a bit too long!) blog post I wrote to flush out more of the details. Thanks for reading/listening!
-Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast
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My general political affiliation has always leaned to the left. Like most people this largely came from the political views that surrounded me growing up. As I grew up and settled into my adult brain, I found myself examining my views and trying to scan them for any bias or inconsistencies. Mindfulness meditation aided this process immensely by helping me to become more objective and to notice when emotions were clouding my judgement. But I’ve found over recent years that this spirit of acknowledging bias and attempting to objectively analyze reality has become harder and harder to express, especially in the realm of politics. There are always going to be extremes on both ends of the political spectrum, but when polarization gets dialed up, people in the middle get magnetically pulled towards those extremes. In the extremes, the world is a simple place with simple fixes. History has shown that such simple approaches can lead to awful outcomes. Although the things said by the far right worry me deeply (especially with a president such as Trump), lately I have found myself more concerned with the noises I hear coming from the far left. I think these noises, many of which I strongly disagree with, worry me so much because the left is so heavily embedded in the academic institutions. The thought that the academic institutions could be overly invaded by political bias is a deeply worrying one. The thing that disturbs me more is that many of the noises that would once be considered extreme have spread into the mainstream and become accepted as knowledge, even though so much of it hasn’t been honestly and fairly debated as a society. Maybe everything the left says is correct, but how can any of us decide if we can’t analyze open and honest debate for ourselves. The part that disturbs me most is that I see a movement on the left, sometimes known pejoratively as SJWs (social justice warriors), in which intellectual dishonesty has corrupted the conversations. Of course the right of politics uses smear tactics and dishonest conversations to try and win, but it feels more worrying and just sad to see these bad faith tactics coming from academic people. The extent to which this is a problem is unknown to me, and I am open to the idea that the SJW phenomenon is a small fringe movement that is just very loud and gets overly portrayed by the right. Either way, I think the left is largely to blame for Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and it will need to rethink it’s core principles if we don’t want a future with similar loses.
These concerns of mine first started in my personal life. Having recently finished graduate school, I largely exist in social circles of academic people. I noticed that I would often be attacked for simply expressing what I thought was an honest, reasonable, and balanced opinion. This would often happen when I did not even express an opinion but instead just asked some questions about certain assumptions. Even this agnostic attitude would often lead to horrible conversations where I would be accused of being on the other “team” at best, and at worst accused of being a sexist and a racist. Eventually I found myself not even speaking my mind, and over time this ate away at me. It took a long time and a few lost friendships to better understand this phenomenon. Online research led me to notice similar interactions between reasonable people and so called SJWs. In so many videos, ideology seemed to blind these activists and give them emotional confidence in their opinions even if it was a low resolution opinion with limited objective evidence to support it. After watching many hours of various protests and other SJW interactions, patterns began to emerge that also fit into my personal experience. It was as if the SJW type person could not distinguish between actual bad people, and good people who just disagreed with them. They could not seem to handle that someone could share their values of equality and fairness but disagree with their methods of trying to achieve it. So SJW, whatever the scale of the problem, is definitely a problem that the left has to contend with. These conversations get tricky because I hate the label SJW or any other label. Labels can encourage our brains to be lazy and assume that we understand a person before we even really know them. I think each person should be evaluated as an individual. As such, I don’t want to attack this problem as if it is one mold that I can assert on all people that seem to be part of the movement. Instead, I think the best angle to take is to promote the healthy concepts that keep the simple and dangerous ideological thinking out of the mainstream in the first place. These are the concepts of free and open thinking/speech, good faith conversations, and intellectual honesty.
-Good faith people on the left:
Before diving into these concepts, I do want to qualify the argument by recognizing the difficulty of understanding statistics. It is very hard to take a local opinion and map it onto the large scale of a country with over 300 million people. The data that leads me to accuse the left of committing these bad faith conversations comes from debates I’ve watched and personal interactions I’ve had. There is no shortage of disturbing SJW videos one can find online, and I’ve also personally had an unfortunate amount of these failed conversations. It is hard to get a sense of the numbers because often a small minority problem is loud enough to sound like a majority. As such, I am still unsure of whether the kind of ideologically bad faith conversations coming from the left are a system wide problem or just an extremely vocal minority. I do know that although there are bad faith people who are consciously being intellectually dishonest, there are also “good faith” people that will make horrible arguments without even realizing what they are doing. Often this is because the conscious bad faith of their speech came from higher up in the ideological chain of command (more on ideologies later). By the time it gets down to unsuspecting “good faith” people, they are just repeating things that genuinely made sense to them and seemed righteous. These nicer people saw problems in the world (which obviously exist) and felt enough empathy to want to do something about it, without realizing that the answer to one extreme is probably not the other extreme. When these people are pressed on their views, they often back down and look confused. In the case of the left, this is often because they were coming from a genuine place of empathy where they saw pain in the world and wanted to help. Although the left would want Americans to think that they are only coming from a place of kindness, empathy, and outrage over all the problems we face, there is a more militant, authoritarian, and power hungry resentment fueling a large portion of the leftist activists. Of those emotions, resentment is the one I have personally picked up on the most. The reaction that these type of people have to being pressed about an illogical argument is a complete shutdown or meltdown (also known online as getting triggered). This is because they were much more consciously making a bad faith argument and allowed logical inconsistencies to permeate their argument. Science was used where it supported their view, and discarded where it didn’t. People who disagree with them (even people who are also on the left) are viewed as Nazis or Facists so that they can be shut out. These bad faith arguments are also fueled by the larger problem of tribalism amongst humans. In this case it is tribalism dialed up because it is supported by ideology.
Again, there is definitely a problem coming from the left, but it is hard to say what the scale of this problem is. No matter what the scale, though, I think it is worth exposing these extremes as unacceptable ways of conducting oneself as an adult. When examining my own opinions on this, I ended up zooming out and devoting a lot of text to how I form opinions in the first place. After that, this post works through various concepts that all relate to the current state of politics. They begin with concepts that I have stronger opinions on, and roughly progress to areas that I feel less confident in at the moment. Most of these sections at the end ask more questions than anything else. Our podcast above serves as more of the wandering conversation version of these topics, but I wanted to write them all out as these topics are so radioactive that they need to be nailed down with text as well. I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues, or your answers to any of the questions that I ask throughout this post. As the main point is to try and promote healthy conversations, perhaps we can record a future episode on politics again where we address any of the concerns or disagreements that our audience might have about these issues. Thanks for reading/listening!
The world is a very complicated place, and it is impossible for any one person to understand it all. With any subject I approach, I try to organize the complexity of it into some type of order through creating a mental model. I try to incorporate as much information into this model as possible, but realistically it must also include certain mental placeholders of missing information for the various subjects and complexities that I either can’t understand or don’t have the time to dive further into. I try my best to make sure that these placeholders of unknown (or lesser known) material are not anything that would fundamentally uproot my entire model. If they end up being so important as to fundamentally change my opinion/model, then I have to be ready to let that model die and build a new one that now incorporates the previously missing information. Perhaps I didn’t even know about the missing information, or maybe I even overlooked it because of a mental bias of some kind. In a model that has the proper self bias checks happening throughout the building stage, however, the missing information will likely just add more nuance and resolution to the model.
So much of our model building is not and probably cannot be such a thorough process though. When we are honest with ourselves, so much of our world view is built upon little pieces of information that we gather from our various sources. The rest of the model is mostly assumptions our brain makes to fill in the gaps and the details. Some of this information is from our direct and real life experiences, but I am noticing that in politics a vast majority seems to come through the lens of main stream media. This can be directly from watching the news on TV, or while using the internet and social media (which is also skewed by the main stream media lens). With these sources, our minds develop and constantly edit a story/model of the world. But the internet is filled with so many different representations of reality, and so we all end up building a slightly different model (sometimes extremely different) of what the world is.
I have personally found the task of building a model to understand 2018 politics in this era of Trump to be uniquely difficult. As such, every time I find myself wanting to have a strong opinion in this political climate, my nuance/bias software kicks in and convinces me that I do not have enough information yet to have a strong opinion. I have never been this skeptical of the integrity of forces on both sides of the political spectrum, and so it takes extra time to get a straight and unbiased version of even a simple event. Yet most places I look, I find people or organizations with far stronger opinions than me even though they often have significantly less information. There is also a negativity bias in the media that encourages people to think that the world is in a horrible state, even though the data show that the world it is better than it’s ever been (Check out the data here). People speak with a degree of absolutism and righteousness that doesn’t come close to capturing the nuance and complication of reality. I hear social activists on the left say things (often from a good place) without understanding the ideology from which such words come from and without working through the logic of where it would lead. It is also commonplace now to deliberately mislead people by inaccurately reporting on quotes and events, even if it means sending a social media mob to take down the wrong person. For some people, it is not enough to disagree with someone. You have to also paint them as a horrible person who has hidden dark motives. The James Damore memo was an example of this, where critics edited his memo by taking out his scientific citations and spreading that version around. (Check out the James Damore controversy here) Even then, the noises coming from most critics indicated that few of them even took the time to actually read the whole thing or follow up on the science and statistics that were cited. Damore, who has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism, admits he sometimes can’t predict how his words will be received. But anyone honestly inquiring into Damore will find a kind and soft spoken person, and his memo simply talked about mainstream science and the problems of equality of outcome thinking that he saw happening at Google.
“My biggest flaw and strength may be that I see things very differently than normal. I’m not necessarily the best at predicting what would be controversial.”
Whenever we at the Thunk Tank Podcast discussed the desire to do an episode on politics, we were worried about how to properly express such an episode so that it wouldn’t be immediately taken to be something that it isn’t. Although we have already talked much about the insanity of the far right and Trump, we also have a lot of criticism of the left and the identity politics it has adopted. It seems that there is a narrative in politics, fueled by the majority in the mainstream media, that leans exceedingly to the left (with outliers of course). This left leaning is often accompanied by subtle (and sometimes explicit) notions that if one doesn’t agree with the left than that person is evil/racist/sexist etc. Being someone from the left, I have always thought that this “bias” was because the left was usually correct on most reality claims. However as I grow up and try to build opinions from the ground up for myself (as opposed to those we more or less just accept when younger) I’ve noticed that nuanced opinions that fall outside of main stream media’s low resolution model of two categories (right and left) are losing available territory to sit in. They either get drowned out by the noise or deliberately pushed out through smear campaigns. It is as if any amount of dishonest interpretation is justified as long as you win the argument for your “side”. Because of this we were also worried about the toxic/dishonest/reactionary interpretation of any opinions we might have that don’t fall into the political correctness of the day. I even hesitated using the buzz words “political correctness” because there is already a pre-packaged response built into our polarized brains with those words. But this is exactly the problem, and the solution seems to be waking up as many people as possible to zoom back out and bring nuance back to political discourse. Especially with such words and concepts (like free speech) that have been smuggled by political fighting into highly emotional and reactive places, we must attempt to bring them back to first principles built on strong logical arguments.
For those not interested in buying pre-packaged ideas but instead want to try to build their own model, the following are thoughts I’ve written down over the past few months as I face the challenges of actively trying to do that. The various sections below represent subject areas that needed extra thought because they had been so tainted by political noise and were therefore extra messy in my brain. Some concepts go into more detail than others, but they generally outline my attempt to understand the current situation in politics and culture. This is less about my model itself (because I don’t feel I necessarily have a great one or a completed one) and more about why I found it so challenging to build one in the first place. As mentioned above, the following text more or less progresses from more confident opinions to less confident opinions; the shorter sections are subject areas where I am mostly just trying to carefully navigate and ask the right questions. More generally, I think that I have tried to state certain guidelines that have helped me keep an eye on my own biasses as I try to find more signal out of the chaotic noise of the internet. I feel as though I have good reasons for my conclusions, but as I will begin below, I am open to changing my mind in the face of sufficient evidence.
“what evidence could I present that would get you to change your mind?” -Peter Boghossian
Two life rules that I’ve learned to always keep in mind as an adult are that most things exist in some kind of a balance and that I should actively be able and willing to edit what I think. This might seem obvious, but regularly reminding myself of them has helped tremendously. These two concepts compliment each other, but the ability to edit ones thoughts is what I mostly notice missing from political discourse. More and more people these days don’t seem to project any uncertainty about their opinions. Besides internally being willing to edit your life and your thoughts, one should also realize how important it is to project this openness to others. When a person does not detect this openness in another, the conversation can die before it even begins. All conversations should involve this healthy sense of openness; old ideas can burn away so that new and better ideas, collectively assembled by the people involved, can emerge from the ashes.
There is a great question, which I recently heard from Peter Boghossian, that can help you detect if you are in a useless or dishonest conversation. It is also a great question to regularly ask yourself as a checkup on your own bias. The question is “what evidence could I present that would get you to change your mind?”. If no evidence, real or hypothetical, could change someones mind, than there is no point in conversing with them. Your words will just bounce off of them as if there were a protective sheild surrounding their beliefs. It is often said that you cannot reason someone out of a belief that they did not reason themselves into in the first place. I think that is often true, but there is also a chance that the person will decide to be reasonable again. If this is the case then proper reasons could get them to edit their opinions. We all have the potential to let emotions block our ability to reason, but remembering this rule of self editing can trick your brain to let go of the fighting mode and find a healthier and more open space for real conversation.
“Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t” -Jordan Peterson
The above ideas of being open and projecting openness are two crucial aspects to healthy conversation. Conversation and communication are so vitally important to the health of any grouping of humans. If a conflict is strong enough, the only alternative to negotiating through conversation is violence. This is true from the scale of two people to the scale of society. I think conversation is a skill, and it can be practiced and learned as such. I used to have great struggle navigating difficult conversations (and often still do), so a lot of what I’ve learned came from my own mistakes. Because of this I have noted some observations on the most common ways that conversations can fail.
If we are being honest with ourselves, we are all pretty insane inside of our own heads. Our thoughts have a cyclic repetition which, if always spoken out loud, would make each and every one of us sound like an insane person. These thoughts in our heads are often structured as a conversation we have with ourselves. We play both sides of this dialogue and usually get stuck on the more self centered details. Vocalizing our thoughts to others in order to have them challenged or accepted is part of what keeps the insanity inside of our heads at bay. It is what allows us to build a less insane reality in the outside world with other humans. In all of our relationships we are constantly negotiating reality (sometimes subtly and sometimes explicitly) in this way. We all build a slightly different subjective model of reality in our own heads, and it is through healthy conversation and communication that these various realities can find a way to get along peacefully. This does not mean that all versions hold up to scrutiny equally, but it does mean that we have no choice but to engage in this negotiation. This is because other alternatives to this peaceful and mature communication/negotiation can quickly turn into a violent free for all where the worst aspects of humanity come out.
Before we even negotiate with other people, the first filter our thoughts pass through is ourselves. The human mind has an amazing ability of metacogition whereby we can see our own thoughts as objects that can be objectively analyzed. In this private space of mind, no embarrassment or shame needs to get in the way of changing our opinions. It is in our own minds with ourselves that we can begin to hone the skills of proper conversation. Below are some of the important aspects and skills I’ve picked up on that can help lead to successful conversations.
–Good faith vs bad faith conversations:
Although I already had the general idea of good faith conversations in my tool box, I first heard it explicitly described by evolutionary biologist Heather Heying. She helped me more easily understand what a good faith conversation consists of. In conversations and arguments, our brains naturally want to win, and the more emotionally charged the topic is the more this desire to win increases. It can happen to any of us, and we often resort to using dishonest methods in order to win. But like all bugs in the human mind, there are “software patches”, or mental tools, that can help us navigate this problem. The scientific method is one of the greatest tools humans have found for this. It allows one to become more objective and get out of this “winning” mode. Science seems to have a unique ability to even allow our ape brains to consider that objective reality exists. Once we can admit this, than we can do our best to take our own bias out of the equation and accept the truth that objective reality offers. As soon as the science updates, we can personally let go of our old ideas and update with it. Good faith conversations consist of this openness to change and also a genuine effort to understand the other person.
A bad faith conversation can be really difficult to spot, but the basic idea is that one party involved has no intention of possibly changing their mind. There are so many subtle ways that conversations can derail, and often the person committing the bad faith is not even conscious of what they’re doing. So many things in the mind happen below our awareness, and the brain can very easily use dishonest tactics and commit logical fallacies (check them out here) in order to hold onto previously held beliefs. Purposely misinterpreting what someone says (now known as the “so you’re saying…” technique) seems to be the most common one. A textbook example of this can be seen in the interview between Cathy Newman and Jordan Peterson. The psychological concept of cognitive dissonance also explains why we dislike changing our minds, and it only gets harder to do this in real time in front of other people (Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence). Bad faith conversations have probably always existed, but I seem to notice it coming from the left of politics more and more often these days. It is especially painful because so much of the left is associated with academics, and as such it feels like even more of a betrayal to see smart people misusing their intelligence towards dishonest tactics. Less educated people, often from the far right of politics, will of course also use dishonest tactics to try and win conversations. Since their arguments are often more obviously false and sometimes barely strung together in a proper sentence, they can easily be tossed away as the caricature that they are. Educated people on left, however, often craft complicated sentences that reference many factual events and philosophies etc. in a way that seems smart and righteous. Dig under the surface of these arguments though and sometimes you will find the same dishonest and bad faith conversation tactics. The main difference is that with the more intelligent people on the left it takes an annoying and tiring amount of intellectual weight lifting just to sort through it all and figure out if and where they committed a logical or factual error. I suppose the tactic that I have most often had to deal with is obfuscation. This “muddying of the waters” is a tactic that inserts so much noise into a conversation that any attempt at getting to some kind of a clear signal becomes impossible. From that point it’s often the louder and more emotionally charged person who appears to win. But such a failed conversation does not really have one winner and one loser, but two losers.
Another way that conversations can fail is if the people involved are working from different definitions. Sometimes this is an accidental shifting of definitions, but often it is the deliberate misuse of words to obfuscate and hijack the logic that a conversation should follow. So many words have become slippery over time through this process. Some examples of words that I’ve noticed shifting are diversity (does this include diversity of thought?), inclusivity/equality (does this mean equality of opportunity or equality of outcome?), violence (is speech really violence now?), and minority (does this include asian people or just people of color?) Check out this lawsuit against Harvard for alleged discrimination against Asian Americans, which the left has been pretty quiet about.
So lets take the claim some people from the left make that speech can be violence (for example the Lindsay Shepherd story which you can read about here and listen to here). This is just wrong, and before getting lost in the weeds of an argument, it is worth noting if the definition of a word like violence has been shifted in the premise of someone’s argument. The definition for a word like “dangerous” is somewhat vague, and so perhaps some speech can be dangerous, along with many other things. But the word violence has a much more precise definition and emotional connotation, and pretending that speech is violence is just dishonest. Because of these definition incongruities, arguments are often not even getting to the real disagreements. They get stuck at the stage of each person starting with different definitions and then the people will just talk past each other. When one or more of the people involved are more concerned with sounding righteous or conveying intelligence and moral high ground, the disconnect of definitions gets lost in the noise and it’s just a verbal tennis match at that point. People are allowed to disagree, and it takes a genuine effort to understand another person’s argument before one can even know what the precise disagreement is. Using dishonest methods and logical fallacies in order to appear that you’ve won (especially in the media) now seems more important than honestly being able to characterize someone else’s opinion. At the very least it certainly makes for more popular fighting in the media.
-Steel Man Tactic:
One trick for getting the conversation to a more honest and charitable place is to implement the “steel man” argument trick. I’m not sure exactly where this idea originated, but I first heard about it from Brown University professor Glen C. Loury. This tactic is essentially the opposite of the straw man argument tactic. The straw man is one of many logical fallacies (linked above) that can derail a conversation. It is worth reviewing these because we have all used one of these tactics in the past, whether conscious or subconscious, to try and win an argument. If you haven’t even accidentally used one in a political disagreement, you can be pretty sure you have used one in your personal life. Reviewing them can give you enough awareness that you will stop yourself before using such a dishonest weapon next time, and realize that it is better to admit defeat than to win by cheating the rules of logic. Just because your audience might not notice, it does not change the dishonesty of the tactic. The act of making a steel man forces you to make the strongest version of your opponent’s position (perhaps even stronger than they may have made). This insures that you are being as charitable as possible and that you do in fact understand their position. After all how could you disagree with something that you don’t even understand?
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” -George Orwell
This has been politicized recently into a left versus right issue and I don’t understand how. Healthy conversations can only occur when people are not afraid to speak their mind honestly. Speech itself is a way to work out thoughts and find out what it is that you actually think. And even better than speaking out loud to yourself is bouncing ideas off of other people in the hopes of mutually arriving at a better place. Free speech is the corrective against incorrect thinking, and if you want to take it far enough, it can be the corrective force against tyranny itself. Considering that, why would you want to give up any amount of your freedom of speech in the present? The reason would have to be extremely convincing and not simply hinge on hurting someone’s feelings. How confident are you in your own ideas that you think future humans might not want the ability and freedom to change the system that you’ve put in place. Speech is the first way in which we organize our ideas into change. Even if you disagree with someone’s opinion and you think it might hurt other people’s feelings, don’t you still want to hear what they have to say? Even if you choose to shield yourself from it, don’t you think they still have the right to say it? It might not be a nice or graceful thing to do, but should it be illegal?
Although certain speech is “hateful”, does that mean that we should invent a category called “hate speech” in which the government punishes people for certain language? I generally agree with a culture that teaches a graceful and kind treatment of the people around you in as large a circle as you can make. This includes trying not to hurt peoples feelings if it can be avoided. If certain words become taboo and retreat from the culture as a result, that is a normal evolution of language that has nothing to do with legislation. But if we invent a category of speech called hate speech, then we have to define the boundaries of this category as a society. Even with perfect humans I don’t think a properly nuanced and fair definition can be made when it comes to what speech is allowed, and I certainly don’t think us extremely imperfect humans are capable of it either. They will end up leaving obvious flaws for authoritarian people to take advantage of. If you would support giving legislative power to the category of hate speech, you must also ask yourself if you would want that power in the hands of an opposing political party. What if it were considered hate speech to speak out against wars? What if it were considered hate speech to criticize Christian fundamentalists who are in control and trying to change the law? Supporting free speech only for opinions you don’t find offensive is leaving open the possibility of disaster. I realize that there are certain restrictions on complete freedom of speech that already exist, but they are limited and apply at that boundary where your personal freedoms start to impede on others freedoms. Although being offended might not be the most pleasant state of mind, it is completely subjective and too slippery of a concept to rest such a restriction on. Because of this, I think free speech must be reclaimed from the political tennis game that it is in. Whether you are on the right or the left, you should appreciate the role that free speech plays in giving you power to correct wrongdoings in the world. Because of this, hate speech is in fact free speech. Such a sentence, said in isolation by someone, seems to indicate that the person is just an asshole that doesn’t care about offending people. In some situations that may be accurate, but there is also this much deeper and principled reasoning that leads to the same conclusion. I do not think that free speech is just another right, but that it is the fundamental right that acts as a corrective force for all the mistakes we have made and will make along the way.
As stated above, some people will claim that certain types of speech are dangerous or violent. Besides the dishonesty of redefining these words, there is also the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance that seems to be lurking under the surface of this excuse. You can begin learning about this balance between cognitive ease and cognitive strain in this Veritasium video. People almost seem scared for themselves (or others on their “team”) to hear opinions that counter what they believe. When one is confident in one’s thoughts and can rest them on deep principles, however, one is not scared to hear alternative view points. Either it will change their mind, give them more nuance, or at least give them a strong and accurate model of what their “opponent” thinks. Even though I am an educator in primarily private music lessons , I see my goal as not that different from any other subject one might teach; my goal is to teach people how to think and not what to think. Through improvement on an instrument, I try to teach students how to think and solve problems. Crucial to this process is knowing when to let go of something that doesn’t work and try a different solution. We must promote a culture that is not scared of cognitive dissonance and recognizes that it is courageous and mature to go through the cognitive strain of changing ones mind. Mindfulness meditation can also help us here by training us to see the mental stress of cognitive dissonance arising before it controls us and pushes us into an emotionally defensive place.
-Check out the Mindful Resistance Project which aims to help people more wisely respond to the challenges of resisting against the insanity of Trump.
At the simplest level, mindfulness can teach you to respond instead of react. I think in the future we will make a longer post (and podcast episode) about Buddhism, mindfulness, and spirituality, but for now I just wanted to touch on how this subject area intersects with politics and social activism. People who spend years in silent meditation admit that it is next to impossible to control what thoughts arise in the mind. However, through mindfulness we can train ourselves how to identify and react wisely to our thoughts. We are not identical to our thoughts, and mindfulness can teach one to create distance from thoughts so that they can be noticed in a compassionate and non judgemental way. With such wisdom we can wisely choose how to respond to our thoughts instead of blindly reacting to them. Meditation can also allow you to see just how crazy your own mind is, which allows you to be more compassionate to others and their internal struggles. Even when people mess up and say nasty things to you, a mindful energy provides space in the conversation where people can breath and take a step back.
This topic also makes me think of Martin Luther King. Despite all the violence that was sent his way, his response was love and nonviolence. The spiritual realization, as seen from the quote below, was of an unconditional love that has the power to transform.
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies– or else? The chain reaction of evil–hate begetting hate, wars producing wars–must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
I see a lot of activists on the left using Martin Luther King and appreciating it intellectually (sort of) but missing out on this deeper spiritual aspect. Whether you find this spiritual realization through a religion or not doesn’t matter because I think it is a truth we all know exists deep in the mind. It is an admitedly tricky balance between activism and spirituality, but as I’ve heard Ramdas day, we can do whatever we must do without ever putting people out of our hearts. Real change can’t happen from fueling the resentment and anger inside of your mind.
Identity Politics vs Individualism:
Identity politics broadly refers to the political alliances that people group themselves into based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation etc. The left will often talk about these groups as relations of power structures in society. One mark of identity politics is beginning sentences with “As a…”. In this “game” of intersecting power struggles between groups, also known as intersectionality, people can always be grouped to varying degrees into oppressor and oppressed. From this perspective, there is no way to understand the life experience of someone outside of your identity. On one level I get this, but surely we can find a way to bridge the gaps between groups in order to unite the left under a unified message. Even within one group it becomes clear that it can be subdivided by even more differences into more and more subgroups. Eventually the logic seems to bring one to the same enlightenment conclusion that we should judge people as individuals. Group identity seems to be doing the opposite of this. I have been accused of terms like “white-splaining” or “mansplaining” because I tried to share an opinion on something outside of my “group” of white male. I am less confident with giving as strong an opinion here as I did above with concepts like free speech, but I can say that I am extremely skeptical of grouping people into alliances like this. I am more interested in people grouping themselves together based on ideas rather than based on categories like race or sex. Anyways, here are some questions that I don’t see being answered by proponents of identity politics and intersectionality.
•Do we really want to view people not as individuals but as members of a group based on race, gender, gender identity, religion, or anything else like this?
• Who gets to decide these categories and decide the degree to which they are each oppressed?
• Can anyone from a certain group criticize the behavior of a different group? (ie men criticizing feminism is often called mansplaining)
•Is the grouping based on skin color? or family background? Is a man who has lived as a man and then transitioned late in life to a woman in the category of woman? Does she now get entry into the category of woman and all the oppression faced by this group? If she criticizes feminism is that considered mansplaining since she lived most of her life as a man?
• Theoretically there are infinite ways to group people by identity, and as such wouldn’t the logical conclusion of all this grouping be to treat people as individuals regardless of whatever way they can be grouped?
• Isn’t it possible that this kind of approach to politics is exactly what allowed an awful candidate like Donald Trump to win the election?
I have used the word opponent a few times while speaking about disagreements. I almost hesitate to even use that word because it is a word that seems to fuel the tribal thinking that dominates political discourse. Fueled by both the mainstream media and our social media bubbles, we “otherize” people with different opinions and tell ourselves that they are so different that we could never get along with them or find common ground on anything. Meanwhile I’ve personally witnessed people have a lovely time hanging out until the topic of politics comes up. After that they can’t even believe that they had been talking to one of the “others”. The topic of politics, especially when it intersects with social media, seems to have the same effect on people as being behind the wheel of a car. We detach ourselves from our normal socializing skills and treat other people in ways that we would never do if we were talking face to face. Someone cuts you off in traffic and you might yell and curse at them. Similarly when you see someone post a political opinion about guns on Facebook that you don’t like, you might tear into them without knowing anything about their life story and how they arrived at their opinion. Emotions take over and a more zoomed out perspective is second to the dopamine hit of “putting someone in their place”
The human inclination towards tribalism can be strengthened by the tribes adherence to a certain ideology. While talking about cognitive dissonance above, I stated that it is more important to learn how to think than to learn what to think. I dislike ideologies for this very reason. Ideologies hijack our emotional centers and give us low resolution versions of the problems and solutions in society. There isn’t a 50/50 split of men and women at Google? The simple ideological answer is sexism, and the simple ideological solutions I have heard are even more laughably simple. Sexism is almost definitely a factor, but it is one of many dimensions that we can’t even seem to have a conversation about. James Damore’s Google memo simply pointed out some of these other possible (and likely) explanations for such a disparity, and included detailed evidence and science to back up his claims. But because he did not fit the ideological narrative, he was aggressively and dishonestly painted as an evil sexist person. This could not be farther from the truth, and most articles I read attacking him either did not read the memo or purposefully misrepresented what he said. Both scenarios are disturbing, especially from “journalists”. Ideology from the left gave full permission to try and ruin someone’s life without even knowing them. It is understandable why an ideology is attractive. It takes the complexity and suffering of the world (which is no easy weight to bare) and reduces it to a simple problem with a simple solution.
Both sides of the political spectrum have the possibility of extreme ideology, but the ideology of the left is what I am mostly focusing on here. This is because I used to consider myself aligned with the left of politics, but now with the type of sounds I hear coming from the left I don’t know where I stand politically. A lot of what I hear coming from the left, especially the far left, seems to be rooted in postmodernism, marxism, and this concept of intersectionality. I think on those those fronts I must put one of my mental placeholders of uncertainty in because I do not fully understand those philosophies. My suspicion is that I highly disagree with them but I am just trying to honestly communicate uncertainty. I do, however, want to point out one ideological concept of “oppression” that I hear coming from the left constantly. It seems the left has pushed things to a point where mentioning the word “oppression” is enough to hinge an entire argument on. They point to problems and suffering in the world and base both the diagnosis the cure (equality of outcome) on this word. The word is often smuggled in amongst many other words and true facts, but when you pick apart their arguments they are often resting primarily on a very vague and poorly defined concept of oppression. The extreme interpretation of the inequality we observe in the world is that it can all be reduced to oppression, and that extreme fixes to the inequality are justified because of it. If I question the data or logic behind the argument, as James Damore and many others have done, I am labeled as a bigot of some kind for opposing this “obviously” good political opinion. The left has become so extreme in this cult like ideological purity that it is especially known for kicking out it’s own members from the tribe (like Brett Weinstein) for differing even slightly from the ideology. Equality of opportunity is no longer enough according to many factions on the left.
This is basically the idea that we all feel a sense that the world and the United States is in a particularly awful period. The news makes us think that cops are murdering innocent people everyday without justice. We feel as if we have never been this poor and that the world is in ruins. A lot of social activists will use this emotional feeling of how negative the world is to justify the extremes of their politics, but is the world really in such a bad place? There’s no doubt that suffering exists in the world, and I tend to agree with the general Buddhist idea that life is suffering. As I talked about above with wondering how bad the “SJW” problem is, though, humans can’t really conceive of the numbers that exist on a scale as large as a country. Our brains evolved to have a decent grasp on things occurring in the hundreds, but certainly not on the scale of 330 million people. Because of this we need statistics to be able to get a decent interpretation of reality, and also we need an understanding of statistics and how it works in order to accurately use data.
Two sources that helped me rethink that status of the world were an article by Steven Pinker and a website that keeps track of various statistics involving human progress.
This is the classic nature vs nurture debate. People that are pure social constructivists would claim that every human being is born a blank slate and that it is entirely the social structures that determine things like sex, gender, and the other various roles we take on in society. Obviously one does not have to go all in on either side (so called biological essentialist on one side vs social constructivist on the other). Like most things there is some kind of balance here, and to say that biology (sex, genes etc) does not play a role is just silly and scientifically ignorant. It’s worth reminding ourselves of the naturalistic fallacy here; just because one states a biological objective truth, it does not mean that our morality must follow that fact. Instead it gives us a realistic picture of our biology so that we may more successfully build the moral world we want to live in. Denying biology will be a very short term solution to anything. Understanding biology accurately and understanding how it contributes to our social structures will lead to the most successful policy.
Statistics and Non-binary vs bimodal:
I mentioned this above but it is worth stating again. Humans have a hard time contemplating large numbers. Statistics come in here, but statistics can be somewhat difficult to understand and can be easily manipulated. Generally people should understand that statistics speak to population level issues, and you cannot and should not judge individuals based on the statistics of whatever group they come from. In other words, statistically there are population level differences between the interests of men and women, but that tells you nothing of what to think of an individual. Not only can there be great overlap between the bell curves of a population, but there will be women that are more masculine than some men some men that are more feminine than some women. On this front, it can be accurate to say that gender is non binary, but gender is still bimodal. So gender is a spectrum and any man or woman can find themselves existing anywhere throughout that spectrum. But this does not change the statistical reality that gender is bimodal. This means the zoomed out biology of male/female when graphed on various qualities turn out to have a bimodal distribution bell curve. The classic bell curve that we all learn in statistics has one peak to the curve, and a bimodal distribution has two peaks. This means that the highest numbers of individuals occur at the peaks for each category, and the outliers exist as the curve moves outward. As already mentioned gender graphs this way with lots of overlap. So biological sex, gender, and gender expression are all highly correlated statistically, but on an individual level can of course vary. This challenges the strictly social constructivist view point.
Equality vs Equity:
- Do we want equality of opportunity or equality of outcome?
- How many activists are aware of this distinction and the problems that can arise with equality of outcome thinking?
- Check out Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron to understand where equality of outcome thinking can lead.
Meaning and Purpose:
-It is our challenges and responsibilities that give life meaning.
I think as humans we want to have meaning and purpose in our lives, and part of this SJW phenomenon and the problems they claim to fight against is a way to find that meaning. I’ve heard many people from countries far worse off than the United States claim that our biggest problem is that we have no big problems. Of course we have problems, but none are as big as those from our past. Those past struggles such as revolutions, wars, or the civil rights movement were the type of problems that give people responsibility and meaning. So when faced with the empty and nihilistic void that our current time period seems to provide far too easily, pretending like you are battling some big problem can give your life a sense of meaning. In light of problems in other places around the world, how noble are these causes that are being fought for in this country? Surely some of them are truly noble and fought on behalf of honest and self sacrificing people. But when I see privileged kids at wealthy universities crying about oppression, safe spaces, micro aggressions, and things like that I can’t help but disrespect the their world view. In various countries around the world there is obvious and state supported oppression happening. Women only just earned the right to drive in Saudi Arabia but we are worried about gender pronouns and halloween costumes on campus? Again these are more phrased as questions because I don’t necessarily have answers. But I also don’t see the left addressing such concerns. To people I know that come from countries with much worse conditions it is laughable to see people fighting against Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation as if they are participating in MLK’s civil rights march.
Four Quadrant model:
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. Future blog posts will not be this long, but such a complicated subject area needed a lot of space. The main idea, I hope, is that these ideas and our podcast episode highlight the value of conversation. After all it is why I love podcasts and wanted to try making one in the first place.
I encourage good faith disagreements in the comments or email or any social media, and will look forward to the possibility of editing my views in the future.
Cheers 🍻 –Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast