In public political debate, there seems to be little capacity for nuance.
For example, many conservatives seem unable, or unwilling, to differentiate between marijuana and “drugs”. Or for example, many liberals seem unable, or unwilling, to differentiate between legal and illegal immigration.
I believe politicians and pundits often understand the nuance, but just pretend not to. If you act like your opponent made a statement about B when they actually made a statement about A, many people in your audience will believe it. You can them trick your audience into believing your opponent has a different opinion than they actually have — usually a more extreme and idiotic opinion.
For example, you can convince many conservatives that somebody who wants to legalize marijuana, wants to legalize all drugs. Or you can easily convince many liberals that a person who wants stricter enforcement of immigration laws, wants to end all immigration.
Many people are ready and willing to be so convinced, quite comfortable overlooking nuance if it validates their opinions, to the point where many people literally stop perceiving the difference between A and B. When somebody says A, they actually hear B.
At that point, people just talk past each other.
So many liberals respond to statements about illegal immigration by uselessly citing the low crime rate within the immigrant population, without addressing the (higher) crime rates of illegal immigrant populations. And many conservatives respond to statements about legalization of marijuana with useless anecdotes of people who were devastated by heroin addiction, without touching on the (lesser) dangers of marijuana.
These arguments may end with one side “winning”, by convincing more people that their opponent is saying something idiotic. But collateral damage come from using such tactics of political warfare. Those who do perceive the nuance (mostly, the supporters of your opponent), will see you at best as ignorant, and at worse as unscrupulous. This leads of course to further entrenchment and polarization. This may benefit your side politically, but in general it’s a net loss for society.
There is probably a right side to all of these issues. But I think it is usually wrong to ignore the nuance of the arguments on the other side.
Posted in Thoughts
Components of Belief
None of us are omniscient. We can’t observe the world and arrive independently at the truth of all things.
Instead we depend on other minds. We trust others to delve deeply into questions of science, politics, and religion, about which we may know little, and then we add our own reason and experience to form our own opinions.
Thus our belief is influenced by:
1. Our own experience
2. Our own reason
3. Our perception of the beliefs of others
Our beliefs constantly evolve, as we process the beliefs of others, gleaned from conversation, social networks, and major media. The beliefs we hear the most tend to have greater influence. We think, consciously or subconsciously, that if a lot of people believe something, it is likely true.
Beliefs propagate through society, following the rules of networks: weakening with distance, self-reinforce with proximity.
The propagation of belief is checked by our individual experience and reason, but the effect of proximity is incredibly strong. This explains why, for example, there are so many religions in the world, why religions are so geographically concentrated, and why the members of each religion are so damn certain that they are right.
To influence a person’s beliefs, one can either influence:
1. Their experience
2. Their reason
3. What they think the people around them believe
We have little control of others’ experience. It takes painstaking dialog to influence another persons’s actual reasoning. But it’s easy to influence what people think the people around them believe.
In other words, it is much easier to convince people that something is popular than that something is reasonable.
This helps explain the power of propaganda, tribalism, and the modern information wars. It is not so much that hearing something over and over will cause our poor weak minds to simply crack and believe it. It is that we depend on the voices we hear around us to form our beliefs. We cannot arrive at all of the conclusions on our own. We are a hive mind, and we need to hear the the opinion of others in order to form our own.
But this susceptibility of a group to being manipulated into believing something, because they think it is what others believe, is one of the saddest facts about human society. It is why evil ideologies can sometimes override reason and spread like a fire, erupting in tyranny, civil war, and genocide.
But we can all still apply our own reason and experience when forming our beliefs. We can try to depend less on the beliefs of people around us, and look more deeply into things. We can independently verify a fact or article we just read. We can try to understand other points of view.
We can also influence others not just by being another voice repeating a popular opinion, but by helping them reason about things in a new way.
They say you should stand up and express your opinion, to help make a positive change in society. But I say, sit down and have a rational discussion, with somebody who sees things differently from you. Because you may actually be wrong.
Posted in Thoughts
Politics and Social Status
People’s politics are partly driven by a desire for status in society.
People tend to express political views that will win the approval of their peers. They will get involved in causes that will win the admiration of their peers. They tend to remain silent if they hold opinions that would result in the censure of their peers.
These belief systems become self-reinforcing in each subgroup of society. Churchgoers will adopt the beliefs of their congregation. Hollywood actors will adopt the beliefs of Hollywood. Police tend to share political views with other police. And so on.
Each person is connected to members of many different peer groups, but people will tend to adopt the views of the groups with which they are most connected.
The self-reinforcing nature of political beliefs is driven largely by shame. People dread being shamed for holding the wrong beliefs.
But why are people so afraid of being wrong? Don’t educated societies respect differences of opinions? Don’t people know that someone can be wrong without being bad?
Perhaps in the beginning they do. But as the the boundaries between correct and taboo beliefs begin to crystalize, a certain force begins to flow within a group: righteous outrage.
Eventually, the group becomes so convinced of the righteousness of their beliefs, that certain members feel safe in expressing outrage against those who express the wrong beliefs.
Next, people begin to fear this outrage, and the shame of being its target.
So people that disagree learn to be silent, or to join in the chorus of outrage to better blend in. This results in a feedback loop — Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence. Meanwhile, those most interested in status and power learn they can earn it by expressing their righteous outrage the loudest.
Victims, Villains, Heroes
There are three main rungs on the societal ladder:
Everybody prefers to be a hero.
The hero expresses righteous outrage against villains on behalf of victims. The hero is outraged against the baby killers. The hero is outraged against a system rigged against the poor. The hero is outraged against terrorists and racists.
One Man’s Hero…
But most political issues can be framed in ways that swap the role of hero and villain.
The villain killing babies is also the hero defending women’s rights. The villain dishonoring the flag is also the hero fighting for equality. The villain oppressing Muslims is also the hero defending the nation against Islamic terrorism. It’s an easy game to play.
The hero gains status and political power within his or her group by expressing the most righteous outrage against villains and the greatest sympathy with victims. So heroes put a great deal of political energy into making people into villains and victims — as defined by their group — and expanding the definition of victim and villain as much as possible.
However, in doing this, heroes open themselves up to becoming villainized in return by the heroes of other groups.
Not everyone has what it takes to play the hero. If you don’t, you might settle for being a victim, because you can at least benefit from the political spoils of your hero. Never be the villain, if what you are after is status or power. If you disagree with the heroes, remain silent, or start finding new friends.
Outrage is a Weapon
The left and right are in a perpetual war, where one of the main weapons is outrage. When deployed in concentration, political opinion-makers can create a veritable firestorm of outrage. Social media acts as a kind of accelerant, and the people are the fuel: by allowing themselves to be consumed, they keep the outrage raging.
By expressing your outrage, you are contributing to your side in this war. If you are on the right side, maybe this is a good thing. But you are also contributing to a society where outrage and shame have more power than empathy and reason. I would ask you to reconsider your weapons.
Posted in Thoughts
Many political issues end up being framed as “pro vs “anti”. Pro/anti immigration. Pro/anti drugs. Pro/anti choice. Pro/anti life.
But a pro/anti framing is almost always subtly dishonest, though politically effective. When you say you are pro-life, do you really believe people who disagree with you are against life!? When you say you are pro-choice, do you really believe people against you are against choice!?
No, you obviously are talking about life/choice within the context of the abortion debate. You are really pro/anti abortion (or perhaps have an even more nuanced point of view).
But by calling yourself pro-life or pro-choice, you imply that the other side is anti-life-in-general and anti-choice-in-general. It is a subtle, but effective, manipulation of public opinion.
That’s the nature of politics, of course. Each side uses language that makes themselves look good and the other side look bad.
But I think it’s good to remind ourselves that people on the other side of the issue are often rational and well well-meaning, even if they are wrong. They are not anti-choice, they just really believe in the value of a life before birth. They are not anti-life, they just really care about the rights of women.
If you just want to win the debate, by all means make the other side look bad. But to actually change minds, it’s sometimes more effective to acknowledge the merits of the opposing point of view.
Posted in Thoughts