Society’s Bogeymen

I toss around terms like “cognitive dissonance” quite a bit, and I feel the need to occasionally attempt to convey exactly what sort of baggage I carry with such terms when I use them. I am fairly certain that I’ve explained it before, but I’ll explain it again: when I refer to cognitive dissonance in society, I am specifically referring to the way that people are forced to cope with the world in which they live. We go to work and school everyday, promised a better life if only we work harder. All the while we’re bombarded with gossip about celebrities and socialites, news about philandering bankers and stock traders, stories about corrupt politicians, and so on and so forth. I shouldn’t need to explain how most of these people share something in common: they are rich, and they are lazier, more selfish, and/or more dishonest than the general population.

I am generalizing to some extent, but I don’t have the time to go through and quantify each and every statistic, but the overall truth remains the same: we are told that by being good, honest, hardworking people that we can improve our lot. However, we find that those who are at the top of the ladder are often the most unjust, dishonest, lazy people of society. Though I believe people are naturally selfish, most of us are unwilling (or unable) to be so selfish that we would thoroughly compromise our values for material gain. We sometimes make small exceptions, and perhaps we do that quite a bit. It seems evident that when it comes down to it, though, most of us would not completely sell out our fellow man for our own greed.

The most materially successful people are the greedy, yet we ourselves are not willing to compromise so thoroughly. How do we reconcile this? As much as we parrot the ideals of democracy, I think each person is largely aware that our votes change little in our society. We might donate to certain causes, we might volunteer our time, some of us even attend protests and rallies. Even then, we effect so little change that it can be demoralizing. All the while, in order to survive, we have to participate in this same system that rewards callous greed. We have jobs, some of us have nice cars, some of us take the bus. The struggle remains largely the same, though: we work for those people at the top, and they give us some percentage of the revenue we help to generate. Sometimes that percentage is more fair than others. Our very survival depends on holding up the same system that I think we all know is corrupt. This is the very essence of cognitive dissonance: we simultaneously love and hate ourselves and our livelihoods and the society in which we live.

The simple solution is to create bogeymen. We blame sexism or racism or homophobia or war or illegal immigration or the tech industry or some vague idea of social oppression. While certainly there are individual examples of oppression (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.), the idea that modern society is inherently oppressive against these certain minority groups seems detached from the reality. (Granted, LGBTQQIAAP rights certainly are behind the legal standard of equality that other groups experience.) In other words, we take the traditional ideas of oppression (patriarchy, et al.) and apply it to the modern era in order to create an intellectual problem that can be sorted through. If we can blame society’s problems on patriarchy, we can change the system without getting rid of it! The same example rings true, I think, in other iterations of social justice. When we can identify a bogeyman that affects only some group of people, then the system seems salvageable. It seems possible that we can create this scapegoat and then the problem will be solved.

Yet this is a stellar example of using an emotional coping mechanism that is passive. We comfort ourselves by creating an internal paradigm where there is some battle being waged by men versus women, or whites versus minorities, and so on. The reality is that people are inherently selfish. Yes, there are racists; yes, there are sexists; yes, there are prejudiced people who simply hold wrongheaded, stereotyping views. The reality seems to be that people are insecure. The more insecure a person is, the more selfish he or she is likely to be. If I don’t know how I will get my next meal, I’m much more likely to do something bad to you in order to guarantee that I’ll eat tonight. The more chaotic the system is, the less predictable it is. The less predictable it is, the less security we have. Therefore, the more chaotic the system, the less secure we are. We live in a society where our jobs, our retirements, our homes, and so on cannot be guaranteed. It is chaotic and unpredictable, and we therefore are more likely to be greedy and selfish towards one another. That seems fully apparent to me.

Using these passive coping mechanisms only serve to perpetuate the system that seems to be spiraling into further chaos and unpredictability. It seems to me that the best way, if not the only way we can counteract this is to throw off our bogeymen and to be a little kinder towards one another. Live moderately, and show people that you can be trusted. If we learn to voluntarily trust one another, we might not yet be slaves to greed. We ought to stop blaming each other and find an active solution. We ought to show compassion and altruism, because it seems to me that there is no other way that we can thwart our descent. I think that by showing compassion as opposed to self-centered egoism that there is some progress to be made yet. Perhaps the only way we can redress our cognitive dissonance with society is to quell our own greed and selfishness by fostering trust and security.

Society’s Bogeymen

Inflammatory Language

I’m writing this primarily because I’ve been meaning to mention this topic for a long while now and I am really trying to avoid doing a paper for a class that I don’t like. With that in mind, I’d like to remind everyone that words matter. The words we use are more complex than I think we can possibly understand. They are shells containing ideas and thoughts and feelings and emotions and I think an infinite number of human experiences. Individual words can contain entire metaphors which themselves may reference metaphors ad infinitum. To prevent myself from completely going off on a tangent, words are powerful tools that need to be examined with excruciating detail if we want to know the truth of what a person is trying to communicate.

One of the most obvious choices for me to go to is the news media. The media constantly bombard us all day long with inflammatory, emotional words and catch phrases meant to elucidate certain emotions and ideas in order to get us to react in a certain way: become their audience. It’s hardly interesting for me to accuse media outlets of being partisan or biased, but the danger goes deeper than that alone. The sorts of stories a network covers and the way they cover them can have a huge influence on the viewers and whether or not those viewers remain in the ecosystem. That is to say, it is in Fox News’ (replace with MSNBC, CNN, ABC, what have you) best interest to create coverage that encourages the viewer to buy from advertisers (buy gold!), to support their consultants (neocon think tanks, largely), and to keep coming back to Fox News so that the viewer remains a part of that ecosystem. As I mentioned, we can without any effort at all attribute the same characteristics of Fox News to any other network, because as capitalist agents these groups have major incentive to maximize profit for the advertisers, the consultants and executives, and for the company itself.

Thus is born coverage that features the same talking heads (McCain, Graham, etc.) telling you to be afraid, to shake in your boots, because ISIL/Ebola/Al Qaeda/Russia (pick your favorite boogeyman of the decade) is coming for America, and they might be coming for you. Thank goodness, though, because the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute or the Institute for the Study of War already have the solution, and it’s simple! All you have to do is give up more of your money and your rights, and the government will take care of the rest. Easy!

I have oversimplified my case to this example primarily because I think it is one that is already easy for us to believe. I think that the same sort of logic can be applied to the concept of how it seems so in vogue to call things a “war on” something (war on women, etc.). Are we becoming angry about the issue because there is something the matter with our society or because some clever writer decided to make him or herself or his or her company some extra money by using inflammatory language? The fact is, that gambit worked, regardless of the facts. (For the record, I am using this as an example. Please don’t take this as a comment on modern women’s rights or third-wave feminism.)

I am willing to admit that perhaps I am in the minority. Perhaps I am the only one who actually, even if only for a moment, thinks of an actual war when I hear the phrase “war on women.” I do not think that is the case, though. Words seem to me to be intimate and inherently human. As such, they can evoke powerful emotion in our minds all on their own. It’s hardly a nuanced idea that exaggeration can be dangerous and deceptive, but in the age of mass media those words can have incredible effects that I think have been taking hold over the last few decades or so. When the narrative can be morphed using the power of metaphor, our ideas and attitudes change perhaps drastically. Our thoughts and feelings can become slaves to the tug of a meaning hidden behind a word that we might not even recognize.

Bear in mind, when words are used to be inflammatory in a malicious way, we call that something else: propaganda.

Inflammatory Language

Dissonance in Life

The modern mind is filled with incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance. We are inundated with incredible amounts of information, especially now in the era of the internet, to the point that I don’t know if our minds can fully cope. I don’t think this idea is particularly nuanced, but I also do not believe it is very common at all (at least in my own experience). I think one of the major flaws of human thinking throughout the millenia is that we tend to view our own systems of logic and reasoning to be inherently perfect. Even those who did not believe them to be perfect at least usually thought they are fairly reliable. However, such a belief is circular. Even my argument here is circular.

For this reason, then, I find that all human reasoning seems to be circular, at bottom. It is remarkably useful, though, and it at least appears to have a rather excellent track record when we test our reasoning against the world around us and against the reasoning of others. I do not consider this to be really a profound statement at all, but it is still quite humbling to know that, regardless of how intelligent I think I might be, my knowledge cannot be known to be truth. My beliefs are likely to be founded on shaky ground that I do not understand (ground which many of us, and in cases all of us, do not understand). It therefore is, I think, imperative to be glad to hear the thoughts of others, and especially those of people who also recognize the inherent uncertainty of human reasoning.

To return to my thoughts on cognitive dissonance, I believe that the modern society (primarily in the West, with which I am most familiar) is based on an ideal that is almost utopian in thought and militant in action. To preface, I have to mention that I am a major believer in technology, in learning, and in modernity. As much as I enjoy fantasy books, I also very much like to work with computers and to drive a car and have modern medicine. Given that, I also think that we should be careful with technology. Technology should not be an end in and of itself – it should serve the greater good. (I also believe that because we all, in our participation in the economy, enable the use of technology to increase production, should all benefit similarly from that increase in production. That is another topic for another time, though.) I grow concerned that we use the tool for its own sake rather than to benefit from it somehow. Whether that is because we naturally like bright screens or we like sitting around and not doing anything active, it is something we must recognize as detrimental to human health and happiness.

Being constantly hooked into the system, we are susceptible to cursory understanding of things, and therefore are likely to experience cognitive dissonance. We know that television is harmful to our health, but we also love to read culture articles raving about how great House of Cards is. To create a dissonance where we want to avoid television because it is harmful but we want to watch because it’s just so good seems to create almost an anxiety (or perhaps guilt) in people. Understanding that advertisements are meant to sucker us in, and then happily humming along to tune to the advertisement we just heard, is, I think, a form of cognitive dissonance. We recognize the purpose of an advertisement and many of us are able to rebuff it, but we still allow the advertisement to achieve its purpose. The same things are used in politics constantly. When we willfully participate and legitimize a political system we know is corrupt, we create a dissonance that makes us feel entirely helpless. Others happily participate and indeed feel like they are making a positive difference (and hopefully they are!), but often they have to push those feelings of helplessness aside. Perhaps I am wrong about many people, but I think for a significant number, these examples of cognitive dissonance are reality and they are huge problems.

I don’t myself know if the society is so corrupt that there is nothing to be done. Perhaps; perhaps not. I have found that rooting out cognitive dissonance in my own mind is highly encouraging and has helped me to be happier with the world we live in. At some point I would like to post also about my thoughts on human happiness, but I think that I will also save for another time. I do truly encourage you to begin to search for evidence of cognitive dissonance in your life and try to remove it. Being consistent in my mind and in my life has helped me to both be able to analyze the elements of society I encounter, to be a better person, and to simply be happier – a very human, very ethical goal.

Dissonance in Life

Why I Can’t Trust the State

I’m taking a quick break from coding to write briefly about some thoughts I have had buzzing throughout my mind the last several days. I have made it at least implicitly clear in my writing and in my tweets that I believe there is good evidence to think that a significant portion of human thought is based on connotation and that without an equally significant effort in analysis, that connotation will rule our thoughts. I am quite certain that we cannot escape that. (Or, at least, I usually can’t.) I may write more on that specific idea at another time, but please keep it in mind as you read on.

I frequently relabel my different beliefs because they are rather fluid. I am always changing my political beliefs, specifically, because humans and the societies they create are so vastly complex. I find it an egregious error of pride for someone to claim that they have all the answers in politics (e.g. politicians). I am moderately certain that I have been following some sort of an illustratable trajectory, though, so I will try to explain that pithily. From my upbringing onward, I have made pit-stops in neoconservatism, neoliberalism, modern liberalism (of the FDR variety), and lately I have been reanalyzing my ideas. As I learn more about the institutions of society, I become increasingly aware of how language is used and how connotation is used against people. Those with knowledge (who are generally identical to those with power and money) are able to sway the public mind with mostly-truths (denotatively) that have totally different meanings to the rest of us. The fact that this is even a possibility is troubling, and it is therefore incumbent upon those of us without knowledge to be highly skeptical of what a person with knowledge in power (i.e. someone who has something to gain from manipulation of the truth) might say.

As an example, consider the advertising industry. An advertiser is either part of a company or is hired by a company that has a product or service to sell. In order to sell the product, the advertiser should appeal to the potential buyer somehow. They are in a position of knowledge, and therefore power, because they know the details of the product or service (both positive and negative). We are therefore hesitant to trust advertisers. We read reviews from people who have nothing to gain from our purchase of that product. We want independent verification. We are naturally and understandably skeptical, as we should be.

With these thoughts in mind, I firmly believe that we, humans existing in a society, should be highly skeptical of the words spoken and written by those in the upper echelons of our societies. When you examine the backgrounds of the people in power, you find a vast number of qualities in common among those people. Let me give you some adjectives: lawyer, millionaire, Ivy League, the list goes on. The specifics, while troubling, are not the point. The point is that our State is only barely indistinguishable from something rather oligarchical or plutocratic. (I wouldn’t say aristocratic – the cool kids club here isn’t only open to those born to wealth.) As a body primarily consisting of lawyers (skills in language), as a body primarily consisting of people with similar backgrounds (therefore, often similar goals), I believe we have good reason to be extremely skeptical of the State (specifically the United States “federal” government).

I do not believe I need to explain why we ought to be skeptical of those who are moneyed. People who are vastly wealthy often became that way by some form of exploitation. (Does the CEO of a company really do hundreds of times more work than the other people in the company? I don’t think so.)

The conclusion I think that is fair to draw from these thoughts is that authority is something about which we should be explicitly skeptical. If we can endeavor to reduce subservience to authority and instead pursue what I think is fair to call real freedom, I think our societies can truly become something quite enviable. Encouragingly, I think a lot of the tech industry is based on some of this sort of thought. As an example, Mark Zuckerberg may have made out with a lot of wealth, but his employees get significant restricted shares in Facebook as part of employment. In that way, Facebook, to a tiny degree, becomes partially their own, and they become less subservient. A more interesting case would be Mondragon.

To summarize, then, be skeptical of those in power. Remember that power corrupts, and that it corrupts absolutely. Remember that if we are all truly created equal, then we have equal freedom. With equal freedom, I think that happiness and the power of innovation can soar to heights unknown to previous civilizations.

Why I Can’t Trust the State

Skepticism about Skepticism

A term that I think is generally covered up among the skeptic community is “scientism.” It’s a legitimate thing, and I think it’s a problem that it has risen, without philosophical backing, to be so common among skeptics. Briefly, scientism is the idea that the scientific method can be applied to the process of discovering truth in all matters. To summarize the argument against scientism, there is no basis on which to claim that science is somehow universally reasonable as a methodology. In other words, just because science has been useful for a significant number of questions up until this point does not imply that science is useful as a gauge of truth in all pursuits.

Religious folks or those otherwise skeptical about skepticism, as it were, often accuse the modern skeptical movement (often those in the “New Atheist” camp) of scientism, and the skeptics have done precious little to defend themselves against that claim. In fact, it seems a large number of them (e.g. Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris) are quite happy to admit and, if I may use the term, flaunt their scientism. I cannot say how much of it is actual evidence, logic-based belief and how much of it is an emotional tie. However, my suspicion is that scientism is largely an emotional issue, or at the very least a blatant misunderstanding of metaphysics.

Many skeptics, those earlier mentioned especially, are immediate turned away when I mention the concept of metaphysics. As I said, these folks have a predisposition to believing that all things must be explained by science. If such is the case, then if something is inexplicable by science (such as much of the pursuit of metaphysics), they are happy to brush it aside as poppycock. I’m not going to necessarily say they are wrong here. If someone came up to me and started to explain to me that they are truly, honestly an Aristotelean, I would laugh, perhaps quite rudely. There are some ideas about metaphysics which blatantly do undermine or contradict science, and I will agree with the skeptics that such claims can be reasonably dismissed. However, to throw away the entire pursuit of metaphysics based only on the idea that if something is not based on science, then it is worthless (or at least nothing better than a wild guess) is entirely unfounded on reason.

If I may interject, this is where brilliant men and women like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss (my favorite punching bags) are all too entirely destructive. A person listening to them or reading their philosophical works (e.g. The God Delusion) in a critical, knowledgable fashion can recognize most of their arguments as fundamentally baseless. The concept of God is, at least to a sophisticated philosopher or theologian, not a scientific claim, as Richard Dawkins purports. It is not reasonable to believe that science – a field heretofore confined to the material universe – must be the field that discovers what happens outside the material universe (before the big bang, for instance), as Lawrence Krauss purports. These are just a few examples of how scientism is actually dangerous to the pursuit of truth.

My studies and my thinking lead me to be an empiricist. I believe in science, and I believe in reason as a foundational principle in how we can discover truth. If we have evidence, that evidence should be used in a reasonable fashion to construct a truth narrative that is consistent with the rest of our truth narratives. While I do not have the space to defend these principles, I think that as the foundations of Western philosophy and science in the modern era, these are principles on which most of us can agree. In order for us to make a blanket statement that science is the sole criterion for truth, we need an incredible, mind-shattering amount of evidence. In other words, in order to establish the process of science as the sole methodology for determining truth, we must prove (a) that everything can be explained scientifically and (b) that other methods of seeking truth are always unreliable. As a philosophically generous person and a pragmatist, I might accept scientism if we can prove a significant majority of cases that fit these criteria. Of course, we do not even have that.

Science is a highly useful tool for understanding truth, but it has not yet knocked reason off its pedestal. Science and reason are cohorts in the quest to figure out how this reality in which we exist works, but one cannot exist without the other. The application of philosophy and rationality is as closely tied with our knowledge of that reality as is science. We cannot have truth without both.

Skepticism about Skepticism

Political theatre

I’m borrowing a term that, admittedly, is entirely non-clever and unoriginal for what I’d like to discuss here. The political theatre is probably an unfamiliar term for the majority of people, but I find that there really isn’t anything that’s a better explanation of the way that our modern system operates. However, I mean this a little more deeply than is probably to be expected.

When we talk about the political theatre, usually we use the term just to describe all the things that go along in politics, similarly to when we use the term “the sports arena.” However, that is entirely not the case here, and that is why I am somewhat reluctant to even use it. Politics simply is a theatre. It is an entertainment show, nothing more. It should occur to most people that most of politics seems to be focused on highly polarizing or highly emotional issues. It is not even simply this – political types attempt to focus and proliferate the passion that is associated with different issues in a way that amplifies the negative effects from the strife. For instance, Republicans and Democrats in the United States have been arguing over abortion for decades. The fact that politicians focus solely on this issue so often (think about how Republicans and Democrats get famous – it’s over issues like this [see Wendy Davis for example]) only illustrates the point further that there is an incentive for this obsession: an easy wedge issue for campaigns, and a distraction. These are two things that any politician is more than happy to have.

When you begin to think about it, politics in America (and across the world) has been so dramatized and personalized that now we experience something new – a rising class of elites that is directly pitted against the “little people.” This rising class of elites possesses a significant amount of control straight from the hands of the public because they are elected to act on wedge issues – issues which will never go away as long as these politicians want to hold sway over the public. While we argue about social problems, the politicians continue to get rich and make their friends rich. I have a lot of trouble believing that income inequality in the United States and other Western nations exists for much reason beyond this corruption. The fact that rich folks often pay less in effective taxes than the rest only goes to show that the focus of politicians is not on governing – it’s on wealth.

Insofar as getting out of a hole like this is concerned, I don’t know if there is much a person can do for now. The only way for a few ultra-powerful elites to be toppled is for a vast majority to oppose them. For now, most people would rather play right into their hands. Even now, the elites seize on the income inequality issue and attempt to make little band-aids to fix the “problem” (minimum wage, etc.), when the problem they see is merely a symptom of the pathogen they have injected and inflamed in our society – absolute corruption and greed in the face of all reason and compassion for other human beings. We have a serious problem, and it’s primarily a problem of information. Don’t get caught into the left-right dichotomy that has been set up for us – because it is not truly about left versus right. It has not been for a long time.

Political theatre

Fixing our Definition of Freedom

It has seemed fashionable in America for quite some time to point to freedom as our guiding principle and liberty as a be-all-end-all for what we should seek to achieve. I think this is truly a good thing. I consider myself to be a libertarian in this sense, and I think that the United States has a history that is immersed in this principle of attempting to maximize potential freedom for its entire people (while, admittedly, exterminating, enslaving, and indenturing various “other” peoples). I want to highlight the fact that freedom is a vague word, and the Ayn Rand “conservatives” of today have hijacked the term for their own usage.

I find it instructive to at least briefly go over political history and the classical meanings of words. “Liberal,” in the classic sense, is a word that actually describes more accurately the beliefs of the modern day Ayn Rand conservative. I specify the Ayn Rand variety because I think there is a huge gap between them and a group which I think melds much better: moderates and neoconservatives. This Ayn Rand variety of classical liberalism typically adheres to an originalist interpretation of the Constitution and champions the cause of freedom most loudly. The freedom they speak of, though, is very anti-intellectual. I would argue, in fact, that it is a form of doublespeak which is truly very anti-freedom as well.

Meditate on that word for a moment. Freedom. What do we mean when we say that word? I personally like to envision broad horizons, the removal of chains, the open spirit, and a requirement of discipline for success. While a classical liberal (which I now use as synonymous for “Ayn Rand conservative”) might agree with this picture on a shallow level, but I would argue that they directly oppose that view. Freedom to the classical liberal is much more narrow and, if I may be so bold, is an immoral view directly opposed to the true meaning of the concept of freedom. Freedom, to the classical liberal, is very specifically the removal of power from those who do not have money (money is viewed as the equivalent of success, intelligence, and deserved power) to those who do have money. Therefore, governmental institutions are illegitimate in most of their pursuits, because they must take money from those who should rightfully have power. In other words, the “invisible hand” of the free market should guide the economy and government of a society, because those with more money are taken to be more deserving of power and more likely to use it properly.

I hope that explanation is explained well enough, as I could easily write a book on this subject. I find it extremely interesting. To make it simple, I will say that classical liberals believe that short-term, or absolute, freedom is the best application of the concept of freedom. My freedom to do as I please with what I own is more important than my ability to exercise that freedom at any point in time. A proper libertarian view is, I think, much more sophisticated and a more moral view of how to run a society. It is also easier to explain. Quite simply, the libertarian view is that of consequentialist freedom, rather than the absolute freedom, should be the benchmark for laws and societal norms.

Let me briefly explain what I mean by consequentialist freedom. As many of us understand, consequentialism is the popular moral philosophy stating that an action should be judged as moral, amoral, or immoral based on its consequences rather than an absolute standard. This system allows for me to decide that despite the law and moral norm that I should not kill a person, I may kill an intruder who is threatening my family in order to save my life and theirs. Absolutist morality would forbid all killing regardless of the circumstances or the consequences. Similarly, consequentialist freedom would take into account the practical implications of a law or policy rather than its strict rhetorical meaning. In other words, does a law, as far as best estimates show, improve a given person’s freedom to do as she wishes with her life? Does this law negatively impact another person’s ability to do as he wishes with his life? Does a poor person gain more freedom than a rich person loses with a given poverty program? Does this policy increase the level of “springboard equality”? (I use “springboard equality” as a term to describe the fact that some people, by definition, are less likely to become successful simply because their “springboard” was lower on the success scale due to poverty or other circumstances.)

Let me summarize. The modern day classical liberal (think Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and the folks who agree with them) believes that absolutist freedom is more valid than consequentialist freedom. They believe that freedom should be judged in a theoretical sense (if I had money, I could accomplish a wider number of tasks). Consequentialist freedom, the view of many progressives and more traditional libertarians, is the tradition of viewing freedom as a practical measure. My freedom to accomplish a task should be defined by whether or not I can actually accomplish that task in reality, not whether I could if I had money. Consequentialist freedom, therefore, is the most moral, most intellectual, and best benchmark for how we should proceed forward as a society. The debate ought to be how to accomplish that, and it is a valid debate to have. We cannot progress as a people if we continue to allow the debate to be over selfish, backwards absolutism over a more thoughtful, reasonable, and moral approach to improving our world.

Fixing our Definition of Freedom