Skepticism and Conspiracy

In a post about valid skepticism, Troy David Loy (Troythulu) takes up the issue of conspiracy theories. He was responding to a 2011 post by Steven Novella or rather the comment section. Novella seeks to differentiate between skepticism and cynicism, and he does so by way of the problems of conspiracy theory, what he refers to as conspiracy mongering.

The specific conspiracy theory he uses is of no interest to me, but there are many reasons this topic resonates. Skepticism is all the more important and all the more difficult in a paranoid society, which is inevitable under conditions of fear and anxiety as is found with high inequality and segregation. Even the conspiracy denialists easily end up being paranoid in seeing conspiracy theories everywhere, as if the conspiracy theorists are out to get them, out to destroy their rational world of truth. And no doubt there are destructive along with self-destructive elements in the United States, the paranoia often being justified. It is paranoia all around, paranoia reacting to paranoia (such as the two main parties bickering back and forth about the conspiracy theories involving the FBI, Russia, etc that each prefers in attacking the other side). It’s amusing. Frustrating at times, but amusing.

Let me dig in. Loy writes that, “one of the commenters [Starting Here] tries very hard to prove the very thesis of cynicism the post addresses in a classic and blatant display of the Dunning-Kruger effect, by conspiracy mongering, in dishonestly ignoring or dismissing all counterarguments, attempting to assert intellectual superiority by evading questions and repeating the same talking points using glaring errors in reasoning apparent to nearly everyone else in the thread, and especially obvious to Dr. Novella.”

Maybe so or maybe not. I have little motivation to get involved in that particular debate. It doesn’t seem all that meaningful what happened to Osama bin Laden’s body or the reasons behind it. I just don’t care. Even if there was a conspiracy involved, there are so many more important conspiracies to consider, specifically proven conspiracies. Besides, I would point out that this problem goes both ways. And the two sides feed into each other. No one can doubt that there is conspiracy mongering. But as or more common is conspiracy denialism. Besides, it appears that, in the comment section, there never was an agreement on what was the fundamental issue being debated and so no clear way of determining who ‘won’ the debate.

Anyway, not all conspiracies are mere theories, something I assume both sides would agree upon, the point of disagreement being how common and how well hidden. “I believe in facts about conspiracies,” Julian Assange explained and with insightful common sense added that, “Any time people with power plan in secret, they are conducting a conspiracy. So there are conspiracies everywhere. There are also crazed conspiracy theories. It’s important not to confuse these two. Generally, when there’s enough facts about a conspiracy we simply call this news. . . I’m constantly annoyed that people are distracted by false conspiracies such as 9/11, when all around we provide evidence of real conspiracies, for war or mass financial fraud.” The problem is the conspiracy mongers and conspiracy denialists are fond of obsessing over the extreme possibilities while ignoring what is right in front of their faces, although that could simply the nature of any ideological debate that polarizes people.

The thousands of known and surely thousands more unknown covert operations the US has committed were, by definition, conspiracies and many of them, before being proven as conspiracy facts, were dismissed as conspiracy theories. Every time a corporation from big tobacco to big oil hid information (including their own scientific research, as happened over a period of decades) from the government and the public, it was a conspiracy. The three biggest recent sex scandals (Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and now Sean Hutchison) involved numerous people covering up the abuse also over a period of decades, often involving institutions and large numbers of complicit actors, even to the point of involving direct efforts to shut down investigations (reminiscent of the Catholic sex abuse cases that might have involved thousands of victims, victimizers, co-conspirators, and colluding authority figures across numerous churches, communities, and countries over a period of generations, probably centuries, and yet the Vatican was able to successfully conspire in keeping it hushed up).

This form of conspiracy, favored by the Vatican and corporations alike, can even take advantage of the legal system to enforce secrecy — as explained by Eviatar Zerubavel:

“Needless to say, although victims certainly benefit from them financially and sometimes also reputationally, it is almost always the perpetrators of those wrongdoings who “insist on inserting confidentiality clauses in [secret] settlements— never the victims.” 27 Furthermore, the fact that the very existence of those settlements is often kept secret actually allows such wrongdoing to continue! Such secrecy implicitly empowers repeat offenders by sanctioning the isolation of their victims from one another, victims who are often unaware that those perpetrators have previously been accused of similar offenses: “The main loser in secret settlements is the public. Consumers are deprived of information they need to protect themselves from unsafe products. Workers are kept in the dark about unsafe working conditions … In 1933 the Johns Manville company settled a lawsuit by 11 employees who had been made sick by asbestos. If that settlement had not been kept secret for 45 years, thousands of other workers might not have contracted respiratory diseases.” 28 Similarly, when such settlements are used, for example, to protect a pedophile priest, his victims are unlikely to know that they are part of a larger general pattern of abuse. Instead, believing that they are alone, they view their own victimization as highly idiosyncratic and may even blame themselves in part for what happened.” (The Elephant in the Room, pp. 42-43)

He followed that up with two quotes from articles on the topic:

“One of the most troubling … aspects of the child sexual abuse scandal now roiling the Roman Catholic Church is the enabling role played by the court system. In case after case, judges have signed off on secret settlements of child-molestation suits, freeing the offending priests to molest again … One Boston judge who sealed court records in a priest molestation case [said] that she might not have done so “if I had been aware of how widespread this issue was.” It was, of course, rulings like hers … that helped hide just how big a problem sex abuse was in the church.”
~Ending Legal Secrecy

“[T]here is palpable unease … about the cumulative effect of so many secret agreements. “I’m ashamed I took their money now,” said Raymond P. Sinibaldi, who won a settlement from the church in 1995 after allegedly being abused by a priest … “I should have … filed a lawsuit and called a press conference to announce it. If we had done that, this problem would have been exposed long ago.””
~Walter V. Robinson, Scores of priests involved in sex abuse cases

It is through entirely legal maneuvers that conspiracies can be covered up or rather the conspiring to cover up itself is the conspiracy. But this doesn’t exclude the use of extralegal, whether or not explicitly illegal, means as well (e.g., Harvey Weinstein hiring former intelligence agents to shut down news stories about his sex abuse). A combination of tactics can allow multiple generations to be victimized while keeping the victims silenced and isolated. It’s a good example of how money is power and how far that power can extend.

Sadly, these kinds of cases happen all the time. We are constantly surrounded by conspiracies. And the ignorance among the public, both in terms of mongering and denialism, is itself pervasive. The ignorance of the other side is no proof of one’s own truth claims. In any given debate, it very well might be that both sides are wrong or else that each side only has part of the truth. Conspiracy theories, in particular, need to be taken on a case by case basis.

I could list dozens of horrendous US covert operations that most Americans still don’t know about and, assuming they would even acknowledge it, would shock them. The human experimentation tests by the US government alone are numerous, including cases where radioactive or poisonous material was spread over US populations. More well known are MKUltra and Tuskegee syphilis experiment, but other example could be included. This is the kind of thing that most Americans at the time and many Americans still today have a hard time believing their own government would do… and yet, in many cases, the government has admitted to them and released documents proving it, albeit sometimes so long after the fact that the key actors are dead.

A great example of a known conspiracy is the CIA orchestration of the 1953 Iranaian coup that was finally proven last year from a declassified document, after more than a half century of conspiracy theories about it. Another example was the assassination of Fred Hampton by local police in cahoots with the FBI, Hampton having been intentionally drugged by an informer right before the raid so that Hampton could be shot in his sleep, a blatant assassination that has yet to be officially acknowledged. One of the darker examples is the CIA involvement in drug trafficking which, when one tenacious journalist tried to reveal it, led to his career being destroyed and contributed to his suicide (discussed further down).

Maybe more disturbing would be such things as FBI’s COINTELPRO (part of a long history of Red Squads; the letter to MLK being a standard tactic similarly used against Black Panthers), CIA’s Operation Mockingbird (only declassified in 2007), CIA’s Operation CHAOS (related to other projects from the Office of Security: Project MERRIMAC, Project 2, Project RESISTANCE, etc; similar to work done by COINTELPRO in targeting domestic individuals and groups), and CIA-related Congress for Cultural Freedom (maybe the largest propaganda program in US history). To push a right-winger into full paranoia, just mention the fact that some Ivy League professors from the past have since been outed as spy masters who worked to promote propagandistic American studies and recruit students as new agents while creating lists of activists and dissenters, not to mention various US citizens in the arts and media (including journalists) who were on the payroll of the CIA.

Certainly, during the Cold War, few were aware what was going on and the corporate media rarely investigated it because that would have been upatriotic and unAmerican. My parents were in college during the height of this activity and they were completely oblivious because, as conspiracies go, they were highly successful operations. They didn’t become public knowledge until recent history. Most Americans alive during that time are still ignorant of those conspiracies and most of the conspirators have taken their secrets to the grave. Similarly, few people know what covert operations the FBI and CIA are involved in these days, although COINTELPRO-style practices have reemerged with the War on Terror such as entrapment being used to incite mentally unstable people toward planning terrorist acts.

Many argue that conspiracies can’t happen because someone will always speak or somehow find out, such as the heroic investigative journalists portrayed in Hollywood movies. That occasionally happens, but not very often. It’s a romantic vision of a fully functioning democratic society, which is to say it is a fantasy, a popular genre in America.

As an interesting twist, conspiracy theories themselves have been used as political weapons. During the Cold War, it wasn’t only common for major governments like the US to be involved in conspiracies. They also would sometimes invent and promote conspiracy theories for various agendas, as part of disinformation campaigns. This could be useful to create doubt, mistrust, paranoia, and outrage in targeted populations. Or else it was used to muddy the water, maybe even to help hide or distract from actual conspiracies. So, sometimes there are real conspiracies behind the conspiring to spread fake conspiracy theories, a tangle of conspiracy actions and theories.

Russia recently conspired to push conspiracy theories along with fake news on social media in order to agitate and divide the American public, along with at times simultaneously promoting rallies and counter-rallies in the same cities. The US has a long history of doing similar things in other countries and maybe in the US as well (it’s not always clear what many known domestic programs and projects were intended to accomplish and to what degree they were successful). Corporations also get involved in this kind of thing such as using front groups and astroturf, as has been well documented typically by way of investigative journalism done in alternative media (a recent example is that of drug companies bribing patient groups with millions of dollars to push opioids).

We are all being manipulated in various ways. It doesn’t take a paranoiac to realize this. Kathryn S. Olmstead, a history professor at UC Davis, concluded that (Real Enemies, pp. 239-240, 2011):

“Citizens of a democracy must be wary of official and alternative conspiracists alike, demanding proof for the theories. Yet Americans should be most skeptical of official theorists, because the most dangerous conspiracies and conspiracy theories flow from the center of American government, not from the margins of society.

“Since the First World War, officials of the U.S. government have encouraged conspiracy theories, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. They have engaged in conspiracies and used the cloak of national security to hide their actions from the American people. With cool calculation, they have promoted official conspiracy theories, sometimes demonstrably false ones, for their own purposes. They have assaulted civil liberties by spying on their domestic enemies. If antigovernment conspiracy theorists get the details wrong—and they often do—they get the basic issue right: it is the secret actions of the government that are the real enemies of democracy.”

A lot of weird stuff happened over the past century and, as conspiracies are rarely discovered in real time, surely is still going on. No doubt about that. Sometimes, there is good reason behind paranoia. That is the problem. When there is a long history of lies and disinfo, obfuscation and propaganda, it becomes difficult to know the truth and trust claims of truth. And once paranoia has taken hold of a society, it can make public debate almost impossible. That can be seen with recent leaks that showed how closely some in the media were working with political party leaders, going so far as not only to give them debate questions but also to allow them to edit articles before publishing. And without these leaks, we probably never would have learned about any of this

This leaves many of us in a paranoid state of not knowing what hasn’t yet been leaked and may never be leaked, just an occasional peek behind the grand wizard’s curtain. But if such leaked info doesn’t make you paranoid, then maybe you’re not paying attention or you’ve grown cynical, apathetic, and indifferent . The question is what to do with that info once we have it. It would be one thing if this was limited to the fantasies of conspiracy theorists. That isn’t the case, though. Various documents, released and leaked, and various investigations have shown how common are conspiracies in diverse institutions within our society. It is almost a full time job trying to keep up with it all.

There is some press that has helped to uncover this info, but we would know a lot less if not for the rare brave souls who succeed, with everything against them, to force the truth into the light. It’s probably safe to assume that even these leaks barely scratch the surface of what goes on… or at least there is no rational reason to assume the opposite. Of course, that doesn’t justify conspiracy mongering, especially as taken advantage of by right-wing pundits and demagogues. Yet neither does it warrant uninformed and thoughtless dismissals.

If you wait long enough, a few of the worst conspiracies might eventually be exposed — partly because the top secret documents, unless destroyed, sometimes come out one way or another, not always and maybe not usually but sometimes. The problem isn’t that there is a total lack of a free press, but corporate media has as a main motivation to make profit. Having a press that is theoretically free to report the truth is not the same thing as their possessing a moral and legal responsibility, much less a self-interested incentive, to report the truth since the freedom to seek profit is overarching. In the end, there is little profit in exposing dark secrets and ugly truths that will anger powerful actors who can derail your career and do you much wore harm, that is unprofitable other than as superficial infotainment portrayed in a way to not be taken seriously.

In passive complicity, most news reporters simply quote the official statements of governments and corporations. Hard-hitting investigative journalism is rare because it is difficult and expensive, not to mention it might repel certain advertisers who don’t want to be associated with it for various reasons, along with strings being pulled behind the scenes. This leads most news reporting to be safe and bland, the profitable middle ground between competing forces.

No far-fetched speculation is required to explain this. Still, one should keep in mind that most of corporate media has become consolidated into a handful of transnational mega-corporations. These have direct corporate links to other areas, such as their parent companies also owning highly profitable energy and defense corporations, not to mention how these corporation fund various think tanks, lobbyist groups, etc that have have direct ties to politicians and political parties (involving revolving doors where politicians are bribed with lucrative lobbyist positions and corporate hack engineer regulatory capture). Talk about an extreme and blatant conflict of interest, similar to the police investigating the police which unsurprisingly leads to few police ever being prosecuted. By the way, it should be noted that the defense industry is both heavily government-funded often by no-bid contracts and represents the single largest sector of the economy. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to acknowledge that humans are easily influenced by the incentives, connections, relationships, and life experiences that shape their personal and professional worldviews.

There are many vested interests involved that slant attitudes and actions without need of overt and intentional conspiracy, much of the influence would happen unconsciously and by way of social pressure (especially among peers and close associates), as the desire to fit in is powerful. Also, people in positions of power and authority, both in the public and private sector, tend to live in the same world and to share the same social circles, even living in the same neighborhoods, going to the same churches, sending their kids to the same schools. This biases their thinking, no different than it does for any other group of people. People conspire all the time, often without thinking about it that way, simply because they share the same biases and have an incentive to promote a shared worldview toward shared interests, agendas, and goals.

Most people are simply trying to accomplish what is important to them and don’t always stop to consider how it could be perceived by outsiders. Richard Nixon, for all his own tendencies toward conspiracies and conspiracy theorizing, showed little evidence of being self-aware enough to see clearly his own behavior and actions. Those in positions of power and authority are fallible humans like the rest of us — some might argue even more infallible in how, as studies have shown, those in the upper class have less ability to correctly read the emotions of others and how the highly educated have higher rates of smart idiot effect.

Uncomfortable knowledge doesn’t always get acknowledged easily, even when there are a few journalists investigating it. Consider Gary Webb who, in trying to expose the CIA conspiracy of drug trafficking, was attacked by other journalists working in the mainstream media and his life was made into a living hell. He dared to speak truth to power and that doesn’t always lead to someone being celebrated as heroic. Some of those who attacked him apologized later on after it was proven he was right, but such vindication was too late since he was already dead. It requires immense naivete to believe investigative journalism is easy and that it doesn’t take much effort to prove a conspiracy within mainstream debate.

Ryan Devereaux wrote:

“Looking back on the weeks immediately following the publication of “Dark Alliance,” the document offers a unique window into the CIA’s internal reaction to what it called “a genuine public relations crisis” while revealing just how little the agency ultimately had to do to swiftly extinguish the public outcry. Thanks in part to what author Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence staffer at the time of publication, describes as “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists,” the CIA’s Public Affairs officers watched with relief as the largest newspapers in the country rescued the agency from disaster, and, in the process, destroyed the reputation of an aggressive, award-winning reporter.”

And Ryan Grim wrote:

“It did not end well for Webb, however. Major media, led by The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, worked to discredit his story. Under intense pressure, Webb’s top editor abandoned him. Webb was drummed out of journalism. One LA Times reporter recently apologized for his leading role in the assault on Webb, but it came too late. Webb died in 2004 from an apparent suicide. Obituaries referred to his investigation as “discredited.””

Or consider the more recent situation of the Iraq War. Studies have since shown that the Bush administration told 935 proven lies in the run-up to the war. Many in the intelligence agencies, as later was shown, knew these were lies and remained silent. Even when some documents got released to news organizations, the reporting was minimal and superficial. Some reporting was even delayed without explanation or in particular cases, as has since been revealed, at the behest of the government. Whether or not you think of this as conspiracy, it clearly indicates various levels of complicity. There was a push for war and high pressure to justify it.

Jon Schwarz brought up that, “This lie should have been easily caught by the U.S. media, given Kamel’s 1995 CNN interview. Moreover, there were public documents sitting on the IAEA website stating the Kamel had told the agency “all nuclear weapons related activities had effectively ceased” in 1991″ (Trump is Right, Bush Lied). And Robin Andersen writes “one of the most curious media failures regarding coverage of the war in Iraq, about a secret meeting finally brought to the light of day, but not by US media” (Bush, Blair and the Lies That Justified the Illegal Iraq War). Andersen notes that even some media figures admitted that it was extremely odd that this was being ommitted from reporting with one of them, CNN’s Jackie Schechner, observing that it wasn’t for lack of interest as was well covered in the blogosphere. At around the same time, “Washington Post ombud Michael Getler noted that readers had complained about the lack of coverage, though no explanation for the omission was offered.”

The typical American doesn’t look to the blogosphere for breaking news about info involving world-shattering invents such as a war that has led to millions of dead innocents and trillions of dollars of costs. The mainstream (corporate) media remains the primary source of media consumption, but even when readers complained about this the media silence continued. It was far from being a single failure of media. Andersen goes on to write that, “At this point, another opportunity presented itself for thorough coverage of the British documents, yet the American media again missed a chance to expose the falsities that led to war and correct the historical record. The delayed coverage of the memo that finally “burst into the White House” reveals the current complexities of media failures. With the Iraq invasion, we see the reinvention of a war’s history even before it has ended.” But not all of the media was like this. In When Media Goes to War, Anthony DiMaggio makes a useful comparison (p. 41):

“[B]oth the New York Times and Independent closely quote politicians commensurate with their percentage of seats in government. In the United States, the New York Times made significant efforts to split coverage evenly between Democratic and Republican sources, while devoting little attention to antiwar protestors. Similarly, the Independent molds it reporting to reflect the power distribution among the United Kingdom’s three major parties. However, the Independent is twice as likely to quote antiwar protestors than the New York Times, suggesting that the British coverage is less reliant on official sources in dissenting against the war.”

This slanted reporting happened in complete opposition to the largest protest movement in world history and in opposition to the majority of Americans that initially opposed the war (the majority only shifting after near unanimous promotion by the corporate media). The New York Times is as mainstream as it gets in US media. And whatever one may think of it, one is forced to admit that there has never been an opportunity lost by the New York Times to beat the war drum, no matter which party controls Congress and the presidency. The reason even the supposed liberal corporate media has so often been war hungry is a question one must ask, even if one denies all possibility of political conspiracy and corporate conflict of interests. The silence among many in not asking about this speaks volumes.

About influence from above, David Dadge explored how corporate media can be made to fall in line with official doctrine or at least to not speak out against it too loudly (The War in Iraq and why the Media Failed Us, p. 146):

“On the internet, Yellowtimes.org was briefly closed down by its Internet Service Provider (ISP) for showing pictures of American fatalities and there were pressures on Hollywood stars such as Martin Sheen who vigorously protested against the war. Perhaps the worst decision made by a broadcaster was CBS’s decision to hold back on the publication of pictures showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American soldiers. The decision came after the Pentagon warned the broadcaster that such pictures might inflame tensions in Iraq. Given the importance of the story, CBS’s decision was a blatant disregard for objective and independent news reporting.

“While many of these censorious acts were at arm’s length from the government, it is hard not to see them as part of the environment created by the Bush administration. These acts point to a subtle manipulation of the media environment by calling on the public’s patriotism and making commercial enterprises extremely nervous about the impact of unpopular dissent on share prices. The comments by the Bush administration also encouraged a strong conservative media that channeled the public’s displeasure at dissent and unleashed it on the media. As a result, in late 2002 and early 2003, journalists began to feel extremely uncomfortable about taking on the Bush administration.

“The manipulation of the media environment, therefore, contained three vital elements: comments by senior administration officials showing that dissent is unpatriotic; mobilization of the public”s support for those comments; and pressure on journalists from other elements of the media and private commerce to support the administration’s actions. However, adding to these pressures, and perhaps for the first time in the history of the United States, the Bush administration also sharply questioned the media’s role within American society: a tactical decision that further damaged the media’s ability to challenge the government.

“President Bush’s admission to a journalist that he disputes the idea that the media reflects what the public is thinking is prejudicial to the media’s role. Although it is not necessarily wrong to confront the media’s own assumptions about itself, when this comment is seen in conjunction with the comments of other senior Bush administration officials, such as Andrew Card, who is on record as saying he does not believe the media have a check and balance function, it is disturbing. Accepting these comments at face value, it would appear that before and during the Iraq war the Bush administration either sought to use the mainstream media as an information delivery system or simply bypassed them altogether.”

Much of the corporate media has since then offered better reporting as the Iraq War winds down, some journalists even having admitted failure in not challenging the Bush administration, but it’s always easy to see more clearly years later when the fear of dissent has lessened. It reminds me of the corporate media’s failure to fully and honestly report on the stolen 2000 election and the peculiarities of the 2004 election (a conspiracy of silence about the conspiracy itself, based on equal parts open secret and willful ignorance), except the difference being that I’ve yet to hear anyone apologize for this failure. Am I a ‘conspiracy monger’ because my views don’t fall in line with the mainstream narrative fed to the American public by the bipartisan system of power and the plutocratic-owned corporate media?

(See also: News Incorporated ed. by Elliot D. Cohen, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda by Anthony R. Dimaggio, Constructing America’s War Culture ed. by Thomas J. Conroy & Jarice Hanson,  Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy by Douglas Kellner, Whitewashing War  by Christopher R. Leahey, Anatomy of Deceit by Marcy Wheeler, When the Press Fails by W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence & Steven Livingston; the kind of books including serious scholarship typically ignored by the conspiracy denialists.)

That is how oppressive groupthink operates, under conditions of national duress exploited by psychopathic and authoritarian power mongers. Social science studies have shown how people become increasingly conservative-minded during times of fear, anxiety, and stress. One study showed that liberals who early on saw repeated footage of the 9/11 attacks were more supportive of Bush’s War on Terror than those who heard about it over the radio (and one might consider that almost anyone working in media would be included in that group of repeated video watchers on 9/11). Many Americans, including within the media, suddenly became uber-patriotic and dissent wasn’t tolerated.

Does anyone remember how oppressive the public atmosphere became during that time? Major media figures were fired for having politically incorrect views in opposing war. Matt Taibbi pointed out that presently “people like Chris Matthews are giving people a hard time about their positions on Iraq. Where was MSNBC on Iraq back in the day? I mean, they were letting go of people like Phil Donahue and Jesse Ventura for having, you know, unpatriotic positions on the Iraq War. Everybody was in on this thing, except for maybe this program and a few other scattered journalists.”

Plus, there has been endless studies showing a wide variety of biases in media, which is part and parcel of the whole manufacturing of consent (with or without any intended conspiracy, as manufacturing consent simply requires a systemic shutting down of debate by how the forum of debate is structured). Even without these biases being proof of conspiracy, it is because of these biases that conspiracies so often can fly under the radar, sometimes for decades, as official narratives too often go unchallenged (e.g., the myths surrounding the Vietnam War). How many journalists are there who are actually brave enough to go through the potentially the career-destroying despair that Gary Webb experienced? Probably not many.

I’m in no way of supporting conspiracy mongers. But I’m well enough informed about proven conspiracies to not fall into the equally ignorant trap of denialism. I’m an agnostic about such things. I don’t affirm or deny what I don’t know, even as I do base my opinions on the evidence and patterns seen in past known cases. If there isn’t always a conspiracy of politics and power, there is most definitely a conspiracy of ignorance in American society (e.g., the propaganda wars over school textbooks). I’m all for skepticism, but skepticism is only as good as the knowledge it is based on and the public debate within which it operates. How many self-identified skeptics of conspiracy theories could honestly claim to be widely read and well informed about the US history of proven conspiracies? What do we do if the Dunning-Kruger effect applies equally to many on both sides of the debate?

In Novella’s comment section, someone going by the username rezistnzisfutl says that, “We all know that there’s funny business that goes on with the government. The same can be said really about any organization out there. I think the point of this article is that skeptics hold out for evidence for whatever is being claimed, while cynics will often assume a lot whether there’s evidence or not. It’s not to say that cynics are necessarily wrong, but typically for skeptics, disbelief or withholding of judgment is the default position until actual legitimate evidence is presented for a claim.” Demonstrating confused thought, he goes on to say that, “It’s more likely that news outlets are more interested in ratings and advertising dollars, than being the lapdogs of the government or corporations.” He is talking as if news outlets were not also corporations, which indicates a bizarre if maybe common psychological disconnect.

He then throws out what he considers to be a clincher: “There are many competing news organization and independent news sources that would jump at the opportunity to blow conspiracies wide open given the chance, if actual evidence of these things surfaced. Those kinds of things would make fortunes and put small orgs on the map.” In that case, show me the immense wealth that Gary Webb accrued. Show me the high life of luxury exhibited by Julia Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, etc. Or show me the fortune made by Raymond Lemme who mysteriously died in investigating the 2000 election in Florida.

In discussing that last one among much else, I offered this thought: “I don’t know what to do with this kind of thing. To most people, this is the territory of conspiracy theorists, ya know crazy paranoiacs. It should, therefore, be dismissed from thought and banished from public debate. The problem is that I’m psychologically incapable of ignoring inconvenient and uncomfortable facts. Call it depressive realism. I just can’t turn away, as if it doesn’t matter.”

Amusingly, the two sides in that comment section debate mostly seem to be talking past one another. On the otherhand, I saw good points made on both sides. In the end, the most reasonable conclusion was made by someone with the username Kobra — he simply stated that, “This conversation is moot because you cannot translate the scientific skeptical model into other domains, like business, or politics.” What does skepticism mean toward systems of power that seek to manipulate our beliefs and doubts about what is true, not to mention ideological and cultural worldviews that bias our thoughts and experiences at fundamental levels of our being?

Both sides assume they are the rational skeptics and those on the other side are the irrational fools. But in being intellectually humble, how do you prove you aren’t the one being an irrational fool or simply misinformed and misguided? How can you know what you don’t know, know that what you think you know isn’t false or partial, and know that there isn’t something else you really should know? We should be skeptical toward skepticism itself.

* * *

From an earlier post:
Conspiracy Theory And Fact

We have voluminous official documentation and other evidence about conspiracies that weren’t known while they were happening, often only becoming verified decades later. Even when evidence shows the official story doesn’t make sense, any alternative explanation is a conspiracy theory by default, until some damning evidence finally comes forth. But even deathbed confessions by insiders (spymasters, covert operation agents, etc) are regularly dismissed for the type of people who get involved in conspiracies are those with reputations of secrecy and deceit.

Probably most of what militaries, alphabet soup agencies, organized crime, corporations, etc does in secret never comes to light. Conspiracies, if successful, are designed to be hard to prove with few paper trails and a surfeit of plausible deniability.

I’m not sure why anyone should find this surprising. It’s not hard to keep a secret, when all involved have a vested interest to keep it secret or who, like soldiers, are trained to be subservient by maintaining silence. Conspirators, in particular, are legally complicit and so have little motive to admit anything. If all else fails, there are endless means to keep people silent, from blackmail to assassinating them (when one pays attention, one finds an amazingly improbable number of alleged conspirators, subpoenaed witnesses, and investigators who end up dying by mysterious accidents and unforeseen suicides).

Take something like the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident—if not a proven false flag operation, then at least a conspiracy to hide the truth. Far from being a minor incident, it justified the US entering into the Vietnam War. It just so happens that those in power had been in the process of looking for an excuse to officially declare war, although illegal covert military operations had been going on for a while. Anyway, it turns out that parts of the official account never happened or not the way it was officially stated, but evidence didn’t finally come out in mainstream reporting until after the war was already over an government documents were only declassified in 2005.

That was decades later! And that was a situation with multiple naval ships and naval crews from multiple countries, and so involved numerous potential eye witnesses. Declassified records show that even US Senators at the time knew the official story was false. Certainly, officials in the other involved governments also had information about what actually happened and didn’t happen. Few conspiracies have ever involved so many.

The Gulf of Tonkin is not much different than the WMDs that got us into the Iraq War. Even the CIA didn’t believe Iraq had WMDs (not unlike when the CIA knew that the Soviet Union posed no threat when politicians were pushing to start the Cold War and not unlike when the CIA knew John F. Kennedy was lying during his presidential campaign about the weaponry the Soviet Union possessed, both incidents of CIA collusion by inaction not known until long after the historical era had passed). Besides, those in the Bush administration knew they were misleading the public in connecting Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 terrorists. It was a conspiracy and one that operated right out in the open, for those who had eyes to see. All it took was a servile mainstream media and a submissive public. Too many people don’t want to know the truth, even when the truth is obvious. That is what can make conspiracies so easy to commit. Most people want to believe whatever they’re told, especially when the person telling it to them is an authority figure.

It’s the same reason the Vatican was able to hush up the sex abuse for decades, as most people simply don’t want to talk about it, what is called a conspiracy of silence. Netflix’s documentary “The Keepers” focuses on a Catholic school where this happened. It goes into great detail about how an offender could sexually abuse so many children while so many people around him remained oblivious or else refused to see. Even most of the victims never talked about it and the few that did were ignored. The one person, a nun, who seriously challenged the conspiracy of silence apparently was murdered. And more damning, there is strong evidence the police were involved in shutting down investigations, because the priest who was molesting children had family ties.

The documentary finally managed to put the pieces together almost a half century later. That is praise for this one tenacious investigator, but it is hardly evidence of a fully functioning free press that it took so long for the depravity of it to be revealed. So, don’t feed me any bullshit about there being no way conspiracies can be kept secret.

Consider another example from the private sector. Recent investigative reporting from an alternative media organization (Inside Climate News) found that Exxon and other major oil/gas corporations knew about man-made climate change since the 1970s.

Numerous people in these corporations, from scientists to upper management, were aware of this knowledge. There were even internal documents showing this knowledge. This was and is a problem that not only has threatened the earth’s biosphere and global population but has also been a national threat to powerful countries like the US. Yet a successful campaign of lies, obfuscation, and disinformation (involving not just PR but also powerful political lobbyist organizations, think tanks, and front groups) lasted for decades apparently without any of the conspirators coming forward to speak out about the conspiracy or, if they did, it never received much MSM news coverage.

According to some, conspiracies like this are highly implausible. Yet these particular implausible conspiracies have been proven true. Conspiracy theorists jumped on the Tonkin story early on as they noticed the unexplained discrepancies. And for a long time many have written about the tactics of oil/gas corporations. But until documents are released or discovered conspiracy theories can be almost impossible to prove as conspiracy facts. The problem is that documents usually only come out after massive private investigation has already indicated conspiracy and long after any involved could be held accountable. Overwhelming proof can take a generation or generations to accumulate. Even so, most of what governments and corporations do in secret is never disclosed by those responsible, as the wealthy and powerful have little incentive do so. The government alone has mountains of top secret documents, only a fraction of which have ever been made public by way of leaks or freedom of information requests.

* * *

Let me finish this post by taking it into a different direction. What makes a conspiracy possible? It’s not just secrecy and corruption but what these represent. It is a culture of distrust dependent on a culture of silence and hence a conspiracy of silence. In this mix, individual and collective shame, fear, and outrage drive a cycle of victimization.

In discussing the Tulsa race war, James S. Hirsch says that speaking of “a “culture of silence” would have been more appropriate than a “conspiracy of silence”” (Riot and Remembrance, p.326). Conspiracies would never happen without silence. As Tim Madigan put it, a “culture of silence” breeds “cultural amnesia” (The Burning). And if you don’t understand the power of silence, it is understandable that conspiracies will seem absurd or else highly improbable.

I would add that this is far from being ancient history nor limited to a single place. There has been a collective amnesia about racial issues all across our society. My grandmother grew up near Tulsa when the race war happened, she spent her young adulthood in a Klan center, and then she eventually moved her own family including my father into a sundown town — yet my father doesn’t recall any discussions in his family about race and racism, a refusal to speak in one generation creating ignorance in the next, a complete silencing such that my father would also move his family to a sundown community with total unawareness, probably because on an unconscious level it felt comfortable to him.

This relates to what some, myself included, refer to as “the perplexing issue of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. The study of ignorance, agnotology, would also be the study of what is hidden, both to public and private awareness. All of this connects to ideas I first came across in the writings of Derrick Jensen, ideas about the victimization cycle, silencing, dissociation, splitting, doubling, etc.”

This is where social science and historical scholarship would aid skeptics in better understanding the world around them — linked to why Kobra was correct in saying that, “This conversation is moot because you cannot translate the scientific skeptical model into other domains, like business, or politics.” The skeptical attitude we need has to go much deeper into what it means to be human, specifically in the kind of society we find ourselves in.

It could be argued that the heart of the issue is shame. Whether or not a conspiracy originates in shame, it creates the conditions for shame which further entrenches the conspiratorial mindset of distrust, fear, and anxiety. And shame has immense power in silencing victmizers and victims alike. That is what happens where trauma ripples outward, leaving silence in its wake. In communities that have experienced some collective trauma, there is a resistance to speaking that will be enforced by social pressure, if not by law. This has been seen in cities that have experienced racial violence, sometimes with the victims expelled from the community as in sundown towns and sometimes with public records expunged of evidence. This can leave a mere residue of the event(s) that occurred, often a mere absence rather than a presence such as all or nearly all of the black population disappearing from one census to the next, but when asked about it few if anyone remembers or will talk. Tulsa was a rare case in eventually having been formally investigated, although not until 1997 which was more than three quarters of a century later.

For whatever reason, the 1990s was the time when the multi-generational shadow of a conspiracy of silence began to lift, the time period in which James W. Loewen wrote his groundbreaking book on sundown towns. Having attended high school in the 1990s, it wasn’t until recent years that I learned that one of the places I grew up in was a sundown suburb, but of course no one talked about it at the time.

The conspiracy of silence can operate in an odd way. It’s a sense of collective guilt, whether or not anyone was actually guilty. Loewen spoke of how, “Recent events in Martinsville, Indiana, provide an eerie example of cognitive dissonance at work” (Sundown Towns, p. 327). It was a known sundown town when a black woman, having transgressed the sundown code of getting out of town before the sun sets, was murdered in 1968: “So most people (correctly) assumed the motive to be rage at Jenkins as a black person for being in the city after dark,” wrote Loewen, continuing that:

“In the aftermath of the murder, NAACP leaders and reporters from outside the town levied criticism at the city’s police department, alleging lack of interest in solving the crime. Martinsville residents responded by appearing to define the situation as “us” against “them,” “them” being outsiders and nonwhites. The community seemed to close ranks behind the murderer and refused to turn him in, whoever he was. “The town became a clam,” said an Indianapolis newspaper reporter.65 Now Martinsville came to see itself not just as a sundown town—it already defined itself as that—but as a community that united in silence to protect the murderer of a black woman who had innocently violated its sundown taboo. To justify this behavior required still more extreme racism, which in turn prompted additional racist behaviors and thus festered further. […]

“Ironically, it turned out that no one from Martinsville murdered Carol Jenkins. On May 8, 2002, police arrested Kenneth Richmond, a 70-year-old who had never lived in Martinsville, based on the eyewitness account of his daughter, who sat in his car and watched while he did it when she was seven years old. Although many people inside as well as outside Martinsville believed its residents had been sheltering the murderer these 34 years, in fact no one in the town had known who did it. No matter: cognitive dissonance kicked in anyway. Again, if situations are defined as real, they are real in their consequences. Because everyone thought the community had closed ranks in defense of the murderer, additional acts of racism in the aftermath seemed all the more appropriate. Today, having intensified its racism for more than three decades in defense of its imagined refusal to turn over the murderer, Martinsville is finding it hard to reverse course.” (p. 328-329)

It was a conspiracy of silence based on nothing other than an imagined shared past that became an imagined shared identity. No one would tell the secret of this horrific crime, going to the grave with it if necessary, but it turns out there was no secret other than a sense of collective guilt. Successful conspiracies always draw people in psychologically, the oppressive sense of secrecy sometimes keeping people from even questioning its validity. Keeping secrets is normal human behavior and humans are quite talented at it. This is why it is so easy for conspiracies to happen, in particular when the stakes are so much higher.

Also, there is usually no one who has any advantage to bring attention to a conspiracy. In towns with history of racial violence or exclusion, it’s rare for anyone to talk and, as they are so common across the country, such places rarely gain much public attention. When a conspiracy of silence becomes a norm within a country, breaking that norm is difficult and can be costly. At the local level, there is more often than not no mention of the history of racism by local historians, historical societies, historical markers, and history books; by local newspapers, chambers of commerce, authority figures, and residents; even professors working in local colleges.

In the sundown town my father grew up in, there was a sundown sign on a road seen coming into town and the sign was there when my father was growing up, but as I said no one talked about it. My grandfather was a respected local minister and was racist, and it seems he played a role like so many others in suppressing this dark reality. This was standard behavior, as Loewen notes: “One might imagine that priests and preachers might chide their congregations about their un-Christian attitude toward people of color, but clergy, like local historians, avoid controversy by not saying anything bad about their town” (p. 199).

People in a town can successfully conspire not to talk about what everyone knows and even the living memory can be quickly suppressed, such as my father’s convenient inability to remember anything out of the ordinary. Well, it wasn’t out of the ordinary, as many communities in Indiana and across the country were sundown towns: “Outside the traditional South—states historically dominated by slavery, where sundown towns are rare—probably a majority of all incorporated places kept out African Americans” (p. 4). It was the social reality that was so pervasive that it didn’t need to be acknowledged — racism was the air everyone breathed.

This ability to suppress dark secrets, even when they are open secrets, is not some magical ability limited to racists in racist towns. This is basic human nature. Any group of people can act this way: churches, sports organizations, corporations, etc — this would be even more true for intelligence agencies that carefully select their employees, highly train them, and enforce protocols of secrecy with severe punishments to those who leak (e.g., almost any other CIA, NSA, etc employee that was as careless with classified documents as was Hillary Clinton would already be in prison).

If intelligence agencies weren’t highly talented at implementing successful conspiracies that rarely were exposed, they would be complete failures at their job. That isn’t to suggest most conspiracies represent hidden evil for most conspiracies are of no grand consequence, simply ordinary covert operations (heck, something as simple as a surprise birthday party is a conspiracy), and even those that are of greater importance probably are by and large well-intentioned according to the purposes and public mandate that officials involved believe themselves to be serving. The entire design of intelligence organizations is conspiracy, to conspire (i.e., covertly plan and enact activities, theoretically in service of national security and law enforcement). If the US government was as incompetent as conspiracy denialists believe, we would have lost World War II the Cold War. It seems too many people like to imagine absurd caricatures of conspiracies and conspiracy theorists.

That isn’t to deny there aren’t conspiracy mongers, even some that fit the caricatures, although I would re-emphasize the point that at least ome conspiracy mongers are likely disinformation agents, agent provocateurs, and controlled opposition. Consider the Breitbart News Network, the single largest and most influential conspiracy mongering operations in the country; it just so happens to have been heavily funded by and serving the interest of the Mercer family, one of the wealthiest and most powerful plutocratic families in the United States and the world. Certainly, the Mercer family pushing conspiracy theories is serving a self-interested political purpose. That is to say the conspiracy mongering obscures the real conspiracy of corporatism, the tight grip big biz has over big gov.

None of this is exactly a shocking revelation to anyone who has paid attention to what American society has become since the Gilded Age. We shouldn’t ignore the actual psychopaths, social dominators, and authoritarians involved. But more importantly, we shouldn’t forget that the potential for secrecy and silence is within us all. Even when people commit wrongdoing in collaboration with others (i.e., conspiracy), they rarely think of themselves as bad people, much less evil conspirators. What is disturbing about some conspiracies is how normal they are, most people simply going through the motions, going along to get along, giving into pressure and doing what is expected, and then of course rationalizing it all in their own mind. Conspiracy is one of the easiest things in the world. Breaking silence and revealing secrets is immensely more difficult. It feels bad to confront what is bad and it is even more challenging to simply acknowledge that there is something that needs to be confronted, especially when the response you will get is to be treated as a troublemaker or even a threat, possibly with harsh consequences following such as ostracism, career destruction, and/or imprisonment.

Conspiracies, once set into motion, can be maintained with little effort for all that is required is to do nothing or to do what one has always done, just keep your head down. And once you have been made into a collaborator or made to perceive yourself that way, immense guilt, shame, and fear will powerfully keep most people in line. Besides, most conspiracies operate by few people knowing all that is involved or to what end, making it all the easier to rationalize one’s actions.

* * *

Riot and Remembrance:
The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy
by James S. Hirsch
pp. 168-171

THE RIOT disappeared from sight. There were no memorials to honor the dead, no public ceremonies to observe an anniversary or express regret. Tulsans, black and white, made no public acknowledgment of the riot. Greenwood’s damaged buildings were evidence of the assault, but in time they too were toppled or rebuilt The riot was not mentioned in Oklahoma’s history books from the 1920s and 1930s, including Oklahoma: A History of the State and Its People, The Story of Oklahoma, Readings in Oklahoma History, Oklahoma: Its Origins and Development, Our Oklahoma, and Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State. Angie Debo was a fearless Oklahoma historian— she was known as a “warrior scholar”— who chronicled how federal government agencies and business interests swindled land from the Indians. In 1943 she published Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Capital, but even this popular history made only brief and superficial reference to the riot. The Chronicles of Oklahoma, a quarterly journal on state history published by the Oklahoma Historical Society, has never rim a story on the riot It began publication in 1921.

Efforts to cover up the riot were rare but unmistakable. The most egregious example was the Tribune’s decision to excise from its bound volumes the front-page story of May 31, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” Equally irresponsible was the shredding of that day’s editorial page. Years later, scholars discovered that police and state militia documents associated with the riot were also missing.

These efforts to suppress information, however, do not account for the lack of serious scrutiny given the riot. Any scholar, journalist, or interested citizen could piece together the incident through court records, newspaper articles, photographs, and interviews. But such an investigation rarely happened. For most white Tulsans, the disaster was as isolated as Greenwood itself. One of America’s most distinguished historians, Daniel J. Boorstin, grew up in Tulsa and was six years old at the time of the riot. He graduated from Central High School and devoted his professional life to studying history, writing some twenty books and winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Discoverers, about man’s quest to know the world. But Boorstin never wrote about what may have been the greatest race riot in American history, even though his own father might have been a rich source of information. In 1921 Sam Boorstin was the lawyer for the Tulsa Tribune. In an essay about the optimistic ethos of Tulsa in Cleopatra’s Nose (1994), Daniel Boorstin mentioned the city’s “dark shadows— such as the relentless segregation, the brutal race riots of the 1920s, and the Ku Klux Klan. But these were not visible or prominent in my life.” *

The white Tulsans’ response to the riot has been called “a conspiracy of silence” or “a culture of silence.” The subject was certainly ignored in schools, newspapers, and churches. During the middle 1930s, the Tribune ran a daily feature on its editorial page describing what had happened in Tulsa on that date fifteen years earlier; but on the fifteenth anniversary of the riot, the paper ran a series of frivolous items. “Central high school’s crowning social event of the term just closed was the senior prom in the gymnasium with about 200 guests in attendance,” the Tribune dutifully reported. “The grand march was led by Miss Sara Little and Seth Hughes.”

Many whites viewed the riot as one of those inexplicable events, an act of nature. A brief article in the Tulsa World on November 7, 1949, proclaimed the incident as the “top horror of city history . .  . Mass murder of whites and Negroes began on June 1. No one knew then or remembers now how the shooting began.”

But the incident survived as a kind of underground phenomenon, a memory quietly passed along and enhanced by the city’s pioneers at picnics, church suppers, and other gatherings. In time, the riot acquired new shades of meaning: it was viewed as a healing event in the city’s history, a catalyst for progress between the races, and an opportunity for magnanimous outreach.

This revisionism was captured in Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State, written for the Federal Writers’ Project around 1940. (Its reports became the American Guide travel series.) The report said that vigilantes invaded Greenwood and laid it waste by fire, but after two days of martial law, “The whites organized a systematic rehabilitation program for the devastated Negro section and gave generous aid to the Negroes left homeless by the fires. Nationwide publicity of the most lurid sort naturally followed the tragedy, and Tulsa’s whites and Negroes joined in an effort to live down the incident by working diligently— and on the whole successfully— for a better mutual understanding.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Whites not only avoided rehabilitation but were also engaged in systematic discrimination in the 1930s (when the Guide was researched). Most southern and southwestern cities routinely assigned public service jobs to African Americans, but not Tulsa. Eight black policemen patrolled Greenwood, but the city otherwise did not have a single black employee. Tulsa and its private utility companies hired only whites as meter readers in black neighborhoods. Tulsa was also one of the few cities to have only white carriers deliver mail in the black community. The city not only segregated its schools but used different-colored checks to pay white and black teachers. In the federal building, the U.S. government had 425 employees, only 8 of whom were black: 4 men swept the floors during the day, and 4 women scrubbed them at night The Mid-Continent Petroleum Corporation operated the world’s largest inland refinery in Tulsa, employing more than 3,000 people. It had no Negro employees. There were also no Negro Girl Scouts. A director for the organization explained, “If the Negro girls wore Scout uniforms, the white girls would take theirs off.”

Sundown Towns:
A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism

by James W. Loewen
pp. 210-213

Academic historians have long put down what they call “local history,” deploring its shallow boosterism. But silence about sundown towns is hardly confined to local historians; professional historians and social scientists have also failed to notice them. Most Americans—historians and social scientists included—like to dwell on good things. Speaking to a conference of social studies teachers in Indiana, Tim Long, an Indiana teacher, noted how this characteristic can mislead: Today if you ask Hoosiers, “How many of you know of an Underground Railroad site in Indiana?” everyone raises their hands. “How many of you know of a Ku Klux Klan member in Indiana?” Few raise their hands. Yet Indiana had a million KKK members and few abolitionists. The same holds for sundown towns: Indiana had many more sundown towns after 1890 than it had towns that helped escaping slaves before 1860. Furthermore, Indiana’s sundown towns kept out African Americans throughout most of the twentieth century, some of them to this day, while its towns that aided slaves did so for about ten years a century and a half ago. Nevertheless, historians, popular writers, and local historical societies in Indiana have spent far more time researching and writing about Underground Railroad sites than sundown towns. The Underground Railroad shows us at our best. Sundown towns show us at our worst.37 Authors have written entire books on sundown towns without ever mentioning their racial policies.38 I am reminded of the Hindi scene of the elephant in the living room: everyone in the room is too polite to mention the elephant, but nevertheless, it dominates the living room. Some city planners seem particularly oblivious to race. […]

Two anthropologists, Carl Withers and Art Gallaher, each wrote an entire book on Wheatland, Missouri, a sundown town in a sundown county. Gallaher never mentioned race, and Withers’s entire treatment is one sentence in a footnote, “However, no Negroes live now in the county.” Penologist James Jacobs wrote “The Politics of Corrections” about the correctional center in Vienna, Illinois, but even though its subitle focused upon “Town/Prison Relations,” he never mentioned that Vienna was a sundown town, while most of the prisoners were black and Latino. This pattern of evasion continues: most entries on sundown suburbs in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, for instance, published in 2004, do not mention their striking racial composition, let alone explain how it was achieved. […]

Journalists, too, have dropped the ball. We have seen how business interests sometimes stop local newspapers from saying anything bad about a town. Propensities within journalism also minimize coverage of racial exclusion. Occasionally a race riot or a heinous crime relates to sundown towns and has caused the topic to become newsworthy. […]

Reporters for the New Yorker and People covered the 2002 arrest of the man who killed African American Carol Jenkins for being in Martinsville, Indiana, after dark, but the result was to demonize Martinsville as distinctive. As a result, I could not get an official of the Indiana Historical Bureau to address how general sundown towns might be in Indiana; instead, she repeated, “Martinsville is an entity unto itself—a real redneck town.” But Martinsville is not unusual. For the most part, precisely what is so alarming about sundown towns—their astonishing prevalence across the country—is what has made them not newsworthy, except on special occasions. Murders sell newspapers. Chronic social pathology does not.42

Journalism has been called the “first draft of history,” and the lack of coverage of sundown towns in the press, along with the reluctance of local historians to write anything revealing about their towns, has made it easy for professional historians and social scientists to overlook racial exclusion when they write about sundown communities. Most white writers of fiction similarly leave out race. In White Diaspora, Catherine Jurca notes that suburban novelists find the racial composition of their communities “so unremarkable” that they never think about it.43

So far as I can tell, only a handful of books on individual sundown towns has ever seen print, and this is the first general treatment of the topic.44 That is an astounding statement, given the number of sundown towns across the United States and across the decades. Social scientists and historians may also have failed to write about sundown towns because they have trouble thinking to include those who aren’t there. “People find it very difficult to learn that the absence of a feature is informative,” note psychologists Frank Kardes and David Sanbonmatsu. Writers who don’t notice the absence of people of color see nothing to explain and pay the topic no attention at all. Where does the subject even fit? Is this book African American history? Assuredly not—most of the towns it describes have not had even one African American resident for decades. It is white history . . . but “white history” is not a subject heading in college course lists, the Library of Congress catalog, or most people’s minds. Perhaps the new but growing field of “whiteness studies” will provide a home for sundown town research.45

I don’t mean to excuse these omissions. The absence of prior work on sundown towns is troubling. Omitted events usually signify hidden fault lines in our culture. If a given community has not admitted on its landscape to having been a sundown town in the past, that may be partly because it has not yet developed good race relations in the present. It follows that America may not have admitted to having sundown towns in its history books because it has not yet developed good race relations as a society. Optimistically, ending this cover-up now may be both symptom and cause of better race relations.

p. 424

Once we know what happened, we can start to reconcile. Publicizing a town’s racist actions can bring shame upon the community, but recalling and admitting them is the first step in redressing them. In every sundown town live potential allies—people who care about justice and welcome the truth. As a white man said in Corbin, Kentucky, on camera in 1990, “Forgetting just continues the wrong.” “Recovering sundown towns” (or wider metropolitan areas or states) might set up truth and reconciliation commissions modeled after South Africa’s to reveal the important historical facts that underlie their continuing whiteness, reconcile with African Americans in nearby communities, and thus set in motion a new more welcoming atmosphere. 8

The next step after learning and publicizing the truth is an apology, preferably by an official of the sundown town itself. In 2003, Bob Reynolds, mayor of Harrison, Arkansas, which has been all-white ever since it drove out its African Americans in race riots in 1905 and 1909, met with other community leaders to draw up a collective statement addressing the problem. It says in part, “The perception that hangs over our city is the result of two factors: one, unique evils resulting from past events, and two, the silence of the general population toward those events of 1905 and 1909.” The group, “United Christian Leaders,” is trying to change Harrison, and it knows that truth is the starting place. “98 years is long enough to be silent,” said Wayne Kelly, one of the group’s members. George Holcomb, a retiree who is also a reporter for the Harrison Daily Times, supports a grand jury investigation into the race riots: “Get the records, study them, give the people an account of what happened. Who lost property, what they owned, who had it stolen from them and who ended up with it.”

A Language Older Than Words
by Derrick Jensen
p. 4

We don’t stop these atrocities, because we don’t talk about them. We don’t talk about them, because we don’t think about them. We don’t think about them, because they’re too horrific to comprehend. As trauma expert Judith Herman writes, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.”

pp. 262-263

I’m not saying that Dave’s condition as a wage slave is the same as the condition of a woman about to be shot by a Nazi police officer. Nor am I saying that to grow up in a violent household is the same as to be murdered and mutilated by a United States Cavalry trooper. Nor am I saying that the Holocaust is the same as the destruction of indigenous peoples, nor am I saying that clearcuts are the same as rape. To make any of these claims would be absurd. Underlying the different forms of coercion is a unifying factor: Silence. The necessity of silencing victims before, during, and after exploitation or annihilation, and the necessity at these same times of silencing one’s own conscience and ones conscious awareness of relationship is undeniable. These radically different atrocities share mechanisms of silencing;

pp. 346-348

If we have become so inured to the coercion that engulfs, forms, and deforms us that we no longer perceive it for the aberration it is, how much more is this true for our ignorance of the trauma that characterizes our way of life? Salmon are going extinct? Pass the toast, man, I’m hungry. A quarter of a million dead in Iraq? Damnit, I’m gonna be late for work. If coercion is our habitat, then trauma is the food we daily take into our bodies.

I spoke with Dr. Judith Herman, one of the world’s experts on the effects of psychological trauma. I asked her about the relationship between atrocity and silence.

She said, “Atrocities are actions so horrifying they go beyond words. For people who witness or experience atrocities, there is a kind of silencing that comes from not knowing how to put these experiences into speech. At the same time, atrocities are the crimes perpetrators most want to hide. This creates a powerful convergence of interest: no one wants to speak about them. No one wants to remember them. Everyone wants to pretend they didn’t happen.”

I asked her about a line she once wrote: “In order to escape accountability the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting.”

“This is something with which we are all familiar. It seems that the more extreme the crimes, the more determined the efforts to deny the crimes happened. So we have, for example, almost a hundred years after the fact, an active and apparently state-sponsored effort on the part of the Turkish government to deny there was ever an Armenian genocide. We still have a whole industry of Holocaust denial. I just came back from Bosnia where, because there hasn’t been an effective medium for truth-telling and for establishing a record of what happened, you have the nationalist governmental entities continuing to insist that ethnic cleansing didn’t happen, that the various war crimes and atrocities committed in that war simply didn’t occur.”

“How does this happen?”

“On the most blatant level, it’s a matter of denying the crimes took place. Whether it’s genocide, military aggression, rape, wife beating, or child abuse, the same dynamic plays itself out, beginning with an indignant, almost rageful denial, and the suggestion that the person bringing forward the information— whether it’s the victim or another informant— is lying, crazy, malicious, or has been put up to it by someone else. Then of course there are a number of fallback positions to which perpetrators can retreat if the evidence is so overwhelming and irrefutable it cannot be ignored, or rather, suppressed. This, too, is something we re familiar with: the whole raft of predictable rationalizations used to excuse everything from rape to genocide: the victim exaggerates; the victim enjoyed it; the victim provoked or otherwise brought it on herself; the victim wasn’t really harmed; and even if some slight damage has been done, it’s now time to forget the past and get on with our lives: in the interests of preserving peace— or in the case of domestic violence, preserving family harmony— we need to draw a veil over these matters. The incidents should never be discussed, and preferably should be forgotten altogether.”

The Elephant in the Room:
Silence and Denial in Everyday Life

by Eviatar Zerubavel
pp. 13-16

As one might expect, what we ignore or avoid socially is often also ignored or avoided academically, 40 and conspiracies of silence are therefore still a somewhat undertheorized as well as understudied phenomenon. Furthermore, they typically consist of nonoccurrences, which, by definition, are rather difficult to observe. After all, it is much easier to study what people do discuss than what they do not (not to mention the difficulty of telling the difference between simply not talking about something and specifically avoiding it). 41

Yet despite all these difficulties, there have been a number of attempts to study conspiracies of silence. To date, those studies have, without exception, been focally confined to the way we collectively avoid specific topics such as race, homosexuality, the threat of nuclear annihilation, or the Holocaust. But no attempt has yet been made to transcend their specificity in an effort to examine such conspiracies as a general phenomenon. 42 Unfortunately, there is a lack of dialogue between those who study family secrets and those who study state secrets, and feminist writings on silence are virtually oblivious to its nongendered aspects. That naturally prevents us from noticing the strikingly similar manner in which couples, organizations, and even entire nations collectively deny the presence of “elephants” in their midst. Identifying these similarities, however, requires that we ignore the specific contents of conspiracies of silence and focus instead on their formal properties.

The formal features of such conspiracies are revealed when we examine the dynamics of denial at the level of families that ignore a member’s drinking problem as well as of nations that refuse to acknowledge the glaring incompetence of their leaders. […]

“The best way to disrupt moral behavior,” notes political theorist C. Fred Alford, “is not to discuss it and not to discuss not discussing it.” “Don’t talk about ethical issues,” he facetiously proposes, “and don’t talk about our not talking about ethical issues.” 45 As moral beings we cannot keep on non-discussing “undiscussables.” Breaking this insidious cycle of denial calls for an open discussion of the very phenomenon of undiscussability.

pp. 26-27

Furthermore, there are certain things that are never supposed to be discussed, or sometimes even mentioned, at all.

Consider here also the strong taboo, so memorably depicted in films like Prince of the City, Mississippi Burning, In the Heat of the Night, A Few Good Men, Bad Day at Black Rock, or Serpico, against washing one’s community’s “dirty laundry” in public. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are informal codes of silence such as the omerta, the traditional Sicilian code of honor that prohibits Mafia members from “ratting” on fellow members, or the infamous “blue wall of silence” that, ironically enough, similarly prevents police officers from reporting corrupt fellow officers, not to mention the actual secrecy oaths people must take in order to become members of secret societies or underground movements. Equally prohibitive are the “cultures of silence” that prevent oil workers from reporting oil spills and fraternity members from testifying against fellow brothers facing rape charges, and that have led senior tobacco company executives to suppress the findings of studies showing the incontrovertible health risks involved in smoking, and prevented the typically sensationalist, gossipy British and American press from publicizing the imminent abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, or the sexual indiscretions of President John F. Kennedy. 29

A most effective way to make sure that people would actually stay away from conversational “no-go zones” 30 is to keep the tabooed object nameless, as when Catholic preachers, for example, carefully avoid mentioning sodomy (the “nameless sin”) by name. 31 It is as if refraining from talking about something will ultimately make it virtually unthinkable, as in the famous dystopian world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where it was practically impossible “to follow a heretical thought further than the perception that it was heretical; beyond that point the necessary words were nonexistent.”

pp. 47-50

It only takes one person to produce speech, but it requires the cooperation of all to produce silence. —Robert E. Pittenger et al.,

The First Five Minutes

The Double Wall of Silence As we approach denial from a sociological rather than a more traditional psychological perspective, we soon realize that it usually involves more than just one person and that we are actually dealing with “co-denial,” a social phenomenon involving more than just individuals. 1 In order to study conspiracies of silence we must first recognize, therefore, that, whether it is only a couple of friends or a large organization, they always involve an entire social system.

Co-denial presupposes mutual avoidance. Only when the proverbial elephant in the room is jointly avoided by everyone around it, indeed, are we actually dealing with a “conspiracy” of silence.

As the foremost expression of co-denial, silence is a collective endeavor, and it involves a collaborative effort on the parts of both the potential generator and recipient of a given piece of information to stay away from it. “Unlike the activity of speech, which does not require more than a single actor, silence demands collaboration.” 2 A conspiracy of silence presupposes discretion on the part of the non-producer of the information as well as inattention on the part of its non-consumers. It is precisely the collaborative efforts of those who avoid mentioning the elephant in the room and those who correspondingly refrain from asking about it that make it a conspiracy. […]

The “equal protection” provided to those who show no evil as well as to those who see no evil is the result of the symmetrical nature of the relations between the opposing social forces underlying conspiracies of silence. Such symmetry is evident even in highly asymmetrical relations, as so perfectly exemplified by the reluctance of both children and parents to discuss sexual matters with one another, the former feeling uncomfortable asking (and later telling) and the latter feeling equally uncomfortable telling (and later asking). Consider also the remarkable symmetry between someone’s wish to keep some atrocity secret and another’s urge to deny its reality even to oneself, as exemplified by the symbiotic relations between the politically incurious Alicia and her ever-evasive husband Roberto in the film The Official Story. Or note the chillingly symmetrical dynamics of silence between the fearsome perpetrators and the fearful witnesses of these atrocities, as exemplified by the Nazis’ efforts to hide the horrors of their concentration camps from nearby residents who in turn willingly turned a blind eye to their existence. 7

By collaboratively seeing and showing, or hearing and speaking, no evil we thus construct a “double wall” of silence, originally theorized by psychologist Dan Bar-On in the context of the relations between former Nazi perpetrators and their children yet, ironically, equally central to the dynamics between their victims and their children. After all, the heavy silence hanging over many Holocaust survivors’ homes is a product of “the interweaving of two kinds of conflicted energy: on the part of the survivor, [the] suppression of telling; on the part of the descendant, [the] fear of finding out.” (As one child of survivors recalls, talking about the Holocaust “was never overtly forbidden. By no means was I or my brother ever shushed when we attempted to steer the conversation [there]. We simply never made such attempts.”) That explains how someone may indeed remain forever unclear as to who actually prevented her mother from telling her how her grandmother was killed: “I don’t know whether the stopping of the conversation was my own doing or hers.” It was most likely both.

pp. 54-57

As we might expect, the likelihood of participating in a conspiracy of silence is greatly affected by one’s proximity to the proverbial elephant. The closer one gets to it, the more pressure one feels to deny its presence. Indeed, it is the people standing in the street and watching the royal procession rather than those who are actually part of it who are the first ones to break through the wall of denial and publicly acknowledge that the emperor has in fact no clothes. 18

Just as significant is the effect of social proximity among those standing around the elephant. After all, the socially “closer” we are, the more we tend to trust, and therefore the less likely we are to refrain from talking more openly with, one another. Formal relations and the social environments that foster them (such as bureaucracy), on the other hand, are more likely to discourage openness and thereby promote silence.

Equally significant is the political “distance” between us. We generally tend to trust our equals more than our superiors. Social systems with particularly hierarchical structures and thus more pronounced power differences therefore produce greater reluctance toward openness and candor.

Yet the one structural factor that most dramatically affects the likelihood of participating in conspiracies of silence is the actual number of conspirators involved. In marked contrast to ordinary secrets, the value of which is a direct function of their exclusivity (that is, of the paucity of people who share them), 19 open secrets actually become more tightly guarded as more, rather than fewer, people are “in the know.” Indeed, the larger the number of participants in the conspiracy, the “heavier” and more “resounding” the silence. Prohibiting strictly one-on-one encounters such as Winston and Julia’s illicit rendezvous in Nineteen Eighty-Four may thus be the most effective way for a dystopian police state to ensure that certain things are never openly discussed.

As famously demonstrated by one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, Georg Simmel, one only needs to compare social interactions among three as opposed to two persons to appreciate the extent to which the dynamics of social interactions are affected by the number of participants involved in them. And indeed, unlike two-person conspiracies of silence, even ones involving only three conspirators already presuppose the potential presence of a new key player in the social organization of denial, namely the silent bystander. […]

Silent bystanders act as enablers because watching others ignore something encourages one to deny its presence. As evident from studies that show how social pressure affects our perception, it is psychologically much more difficult to trust one’s senses and remain convinced that what one sees or hears is actually there when no one else around one seems to notice it. The discrepancy between others’ apparent inability to notice it and one’s own sensory experience creates a sense of ambiguity that further increases the likelihood that one would ultimately succumb to the social pressure and opt for denial. 22

Such pressure is further compounded as the number of silent bystanders increases. […] Moreover, the actual experience of watching several other people ignore the elephant together is significantly different from watching each of them ignore it by himself, because it involves the added impact of observing each of them watch the others ignore it as well! Instead of several isolated individuals in denial, one is thus surrounded by a group of people who are obviously all participating in one and the same conspiracy. Furthermore, moving from two- to three-person, let alone wider, conspiracies of silence involves a significant shift from a strictly interpersonal kind of social pressure to the collective kind we call group pressure, whereby breaking the silence actually violates not only some individuals’ personal sense of comfort, but a collectively sacred social taboo, thereby evoking a heightened sense of fear.

pp. 80-82

Inherently delusional, denial inevitably distorts one’s sense of reality, a problem further exacerbated when others collude in it through their silence. After all, it is hard to remain convinced that one is actually seeing and not just imagining the elephant in the room when no one else seems to acknowledge its presence. […] Lacking a firm basis for authenticating one’s perceptual experience, one may thus come to distrust one’s own senses and, as so chillingly portrayed in the film Gaslight, slowly lose one’s grip on reality.

The fact that no one else around us acknowledges the presence of “elephants” also tends to make them seem more frightening. Indeed, silence is not just a product, but also a major source, of fear (which also explains why it impedes the recovery of persons who have been traumatized). 7 To overcome fear we therefore often need to discuss the undiscussables that help produce it in the first place. 8

As so poignantly portrayed in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” conspiracies of silence always involve some dissonance between what one inwardly experiences and what one outwardly expresses: “‘ What!’ thought the emperor. ‘I can’t see a thing!’ [But] aloud he said, ‘It is very lovely’ … All the councilors, ministers, and men of great importance … saw no more than the emperor had seen [but] they said the same thing that he had said … ‘It is magnificent! Beautiful! Excellent!’ All of their mouths agreed, though none of their eyes had seen anything.” 9 As one can tell from these bitingly satirical descriptions, such dissonance involves the kind of duplicity associated by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four with “doublethink”: “His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions … knowing them to be contradictory.” 10 Such duplicity presupposes a certain amount of cynicism. As a former Nazi doctor explains the inherently perverse logic of doublethink, “I couldn’t ask [Dr.] Klein ‘Don’t send this man to the gas chamber,’ because I didn’t know that he went to the gas chamber. You see, that was a secret. Everybody [knew] the secret, but it was a secret.” It also requires, however, a certain denial of one’s feelings. Although those Nazi doctors certainly knew that Jews “were not being resettled but killed, and that the ‘Final Solution’ meant killing all of them,” the fact that they could use such inherently anesthetic euphemistic expressions nevertheless meant that “killing … need[ ed] not be experienced … as killing,” and the more they used such language, the deeper they entered the “realm [of] nonfeeling,” increasingly becoming emotionally numb. 11

Needless to say, such denial of one’s feelings is psychologically exhausting. “Don’t think about it,” Harrison tells herself as she tries to ignore her feelings about her incestuous relationship with her father; yet denying those feelings, she slowly comes to realize, “seems to require an enormous effort.” 12

Conspiracies of silence may also trigger feelings of loneliness. The discrepancy between what one actually notices and what others around one acknowledge noticing undermines the quest for intersubjectivity, the very essence of sociality, 13 and often generates a deep sense of isolation. Whereas open communication brings us closer, silence makes us feel more distant from one another. “The word, even the most contradictious word,” notes Thomas Mann, “preserves contact —it is silence which isolates.”

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Progress and Reaction in a Liberal Age

I have some thoughts rumbling around in my head. Let me try to lay them out and put order to them. What I’m pondering is liberalism and conservatism, progressive reform and the reactionary mind, oppression and backlash.

One conclusion I’ve come to is that, ever since the Enlightenment, we live in a liberal age dominated by a liberal paradigm. So, in a sense, we are all liberals. Even reactionaries are defined by the liberalism they are reacting to. This relates to Corey Robin’s observation of how reactionaries are constantly co-opting ideas, rhetoric, and tactics from the political left. Reaction, in and of itself, has no substance other than what it takes from elsewhere. This is why conservatives, the main variety of reactionaries, often get called classical liberals. A conservative is simply what a liberal used to be and conservatism as such merely rides along on the coattails of liberalism.

This isn’t necessarily a compliment to liberalism. The liberal paradigm ultimately gets not just all the credit but also all the blame. What we call liberals and conservatives are simply the progressive and regressive manifestations of this paradigm. The progressive-oriented have tended to be called ‘liberals’ for the very reason these are the people identified with the social order, the post-Enlightenment progress that has built the entire world we know. But this easily turns those on the political left toward another variety of reaction. Liberals, as they age, find themselves relatively further and further to the right as the population over the generations keeps moving left. This is how liberals, as they age, can sometimes start thinking of themselves as conservatives. It’s not that the liberal changed but the world around them.

As reactionaries have no ideological loyalty, liberals can lack a certain kind of discernment. Liberals have a tendency toward psychological openness and curiosity along with a tolerance for cognitive dissonance (simultaneously holding two different thoughts or seeing two different perspectives). This can lead liberals to be accepting of or even sympathetic toward reactionaries, even when it is contradictory and harmful to liberalism. Furthermore, when experiencing cognitive overload, liberals easily take on reactionary traits and, if stress and anxiety continue long enough, the liberal can be permanently transformed into a reactionary (as a beautiful elf is tortured until becoming an orc).

We are living under conditions that are the opposite of being optimal for and conducive toward healthy liberal-mindedness. That isn’t to say the liberal paradigm is going to disappear any time soon. What it does mean is that the political left will get wonky for quite a while. American society, in particular, has become so oppressive and dysfunctional that there is no hope for a genuinely progressive liberalism. Right now, the progressive worldview is on the defense and that causes liberals to attack the political left as or more harshly than they do the political right. As they increasingly take on reactionary traits, mainstream liberals trying to hold onto power will defend what is left of the status quo by any means necessary.

Yet there is still that urge for progress, even as it gets demented through frustration and outrage. It was inevitable that the #MeToo movement would go too far. The same pattern is always seen following a period of oppression that leads to a populist lashing out or at least that is how some will perceive it. It is what is seen in any revolutionary era, such as how many at the time saw the American and French revolutions going too far, and indeed both led to large numbers of deaths and refugees, but that is what happens under oppressive regimes when the struggle and suffering of the masses becomes intolerable. The judgment of going too far was also made against the labor movement and the civil rights movement. Those stuck in the reactionary mind will see any challenge to their agenda of rigid hierarchy as being too much and so deserving of being crushed. And as reactionary worldview takes hold of society, almost everyone starts taking on the traits of the reactionary mind, hence reaction leading to ever more reaction until hopefully a new stability is achieved.

All of this has more to do with psychological tendencies than political ideologies. We all carry the potential for reaction as we carry the potential for progressivism. That struggle within human nature is what it means to live in a liberal age.

Motivated Reasoning in a Post-Fact Age

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationship with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

In this supposed post-fact age dominated by alt-facts, it has come to be questioned how much truth matters. This is hardly a new concern, simply because we have proud ignoramus as president, as Ron Suskind years ago wrote of Karl Rove:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.”

When ignorance is cynically wielded as a weapon, what power can truth have? The problem of ignorance isn’t only about what we don’t know but what we ignore, sometimes what pretend to not know, sometimes even to ourselves by way of dissociation or else by way of welcoming any comforting lie. There are cognitive biases and failures that we are prone to, as our shared human inheritance, but it has been claimed that some are more prone than others — as I’ve argued in the past (6 years ago):

Research shows that liberals are more willing to challenge authority and so lack the submissive attitude of unquestioning respect toward authority which is common among conservatives. For example, more liberals than conservatives state they’d be willing to slap their own father. ‘Openness’ is the main psychological trait that correlates to liberalism. What ‘openness’ is about is cognitive complexity, capacity for cognitive dissonance, intellectual curiosity, desire to experiment and explore, etc. But ‘openness’ also relates to being less inclined to fall into motivated reasoning (confirmation bias, backfire effect, etc)… on issues related to politics, anyway. I’ll point out the obvious fact that ‘openness’ can’t operate while submitting to authority. […]

Relatively speaking, liberals are more rational than conservatives when it comes to political issues (or so the research shows it to be the case in liberal democracies like the US). This is significant since the political issues that provoke the strongest motivated reasoning are always mired in moral issues, all of politics ultimately being inseparable from morality. In practical terms, this doesn’t necessarily mean liberals are more well informed for that has more to do with education and there are plenty of well educated conservatives; but what it does mean (as shown by research; read Mooney’s book for a helpful summary) is that liberals are less misinformed while conservatives are more misinformed. The odd part is that conservatives are more misinformed to the degree they are informed, what is described as the “smart idiot” effect. This also relates to how conservatives and experts (well educated conservatives fitting both categories) are most prone to the backfire effect which is when challenging info causes someone to become even stronger in their opinions.

Is that true? Does the evidence still support this assessment? That is what I’ll explore.

Let me be clear. One of my favorite hobbies is criticizing and complaining about liberals (e.g., Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures) and increasingly left-wingers as well (e.g., Is there a balance point in a society of extremes?). I end up obsessing more about the political left than the political right and my conclusions are often far from kind, to such an extent that I’ve lost some liberal friends these past couple of years (even my sister-in-law, a good liberal and partisan Democrat, who likes me on a personal level admitted that she blocked me on Facebook because of my political views). I personally know liberalism as someone who is a liberal, having been raised in a liberal church and having spent most of my life in a liberal town. But when I speak of conservatism, I also do so from a personal perspective, having been raised by conservative parents and having spent much of my life in conservative places (even this liberal town is in a rural farm state that is conservative in many ways, the state government presently controlled by right-wing Republicans).

My picking on conservatism isn’t separate from my picking on liberals. One of the main irritations about liberals is how easily, under conditions of stress and cognitive overload, they begin thinking and acting like conservatives. Under those conditions, liberals will share the same tendencies and biases as conservatives. The difference is that it requires pushing liberals out of their preferred mindset to get this response from them. This interests me more, the conditions that create and change ideological mindsets — that isn’t exactly my focus here, but it relates.

My own view is more in line with Chris Mooney, as opposed to Jonathan Haidt (I should point out that when I first read about Haidt’s research many years ago I found it quite compelling or at least interesting, but I later changed my mind as I read his book and analyzed his arguments and data more closely). Some see these two thinkers as making the same basic argument. It’s true that they rarely disagree about much (at least, not strongly when the two dialogue in person), and Mooney goes so far as to praise Haidt while sometimes dismissing apparent differences. I understand how their their arguments resonate, as they both started from a liberal position and from there sought to understand the American ideological divide. They share a common goal, to improve understanding and communication. Still, I sense something fundamentally different not just about their views but how they approach and hold those views. Their ultimate conclusions diverge greatly, Mooney leaning to the left and Haidt leaning over backwards toward the right. As I see it, much of what Haidt says is way off the mark. And for this reason, he is an example of the kind of public intellectual that confuses and annoys me, despite his amiable personality and liberal-minded good intentions. Mooney, though also being a fairly standard liberal, has a way of being more direct and so what can seem more honest, calling a spade a spade (The Republican Brain, Kindle Locations 2075-2079):

“You will probably have noted by now that the moral intuition research of Haidt and Ditto is not fully separate from the [cognitive] research covered in the last chapter. It overlaps. For instance, take conservatives’ greater respect for authority, and their stronger loyalty to the in-group, the tribe, the team. Respect for authority, at its extreme, is hard to distinguish from authoritarianism. And viewing the world with a strong distinction between the in-group and the out-group clearly relates to having lower integrative complexity and less tolerance of difference (although it can also, on a more positive note, mean showing loyalty and allegiance to one’s friends, and more patriotism).”

As I compared the two elsewhere:

So, Haidt’s view of intuition being greater than reasoning has some truth to it while also containing much speculation. We know that all people are predisposed to motivated reasoning. Yes, such bias can manifest as post hoc rationalizations of our intuited moral values. What Haidt ignores or doesn’t fully acknowledge, intentionally or not, is that not all people are equally predisposed to motivated reasoning in all types of situations. Mooney’s book presents a logical argument based on damning evidence about how conservatives are more predisposed to motivated reasoning when it comes to political issues, and it is clear that political issues are inseparable from moral issues in these cases of motivated reasoning.

A major example of motivated reasoning is the backfire effect. It has been well researched at this point. And the research shows it to be complex and context-dependent, as is presumably true of any cognitive biases. One early result found was that two oddly paired groups were most prone to the backfire effect, conservatives and the highly educated with highly educated conservatives being the worst (I’ll further discuss this finding below).

What can we make of this? As always, it depends. It’s not that conservatives are inherently anti-truth and anti-fact, anti-intellectual and anti-science. If you go back almost a half century ago, conservatives actually had slightly greater trust in science than liberals at the time, the two having switched places over time (the same was true with average IQ, having been higher among Republicans under Reagan but since then having been higher among Democrats, but intriguing piece of data is straying too far afield).

Why is that? Why did this change occur? There might be a simple explanation for it. During the Cold War, scientists were highly respected and science heavily funded by government in the fight against communism. For conservatives, the Cold War was all about an ideological war and a defense of the American Way. A major form that took was a technological competition between the two global superpowers, a space race and a nuclear weapons conflict. Science was a tool of ideology and the ideology in question was in line with an authoritarian vision of establishment power and a socially conservative vision of a status quo social order (an era during which perceived leftist radicals and deviants were the victims of big gov and big biz oppression, targeted by witch-hunts, blackballing, COINTELPRO, etc). Government funding of science and technology was often directly linked to the the military (e.g., R&D that created an early version of the internet as a communication system that would survive a military attack), and hence proof and expression of American greatness as part of the Whiggish view of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. Liberal values were also useful in the fight against communism and, unsurprisingly, during the early Cold War even conservatives like Ike and Nixon would publicly praise liberalism.

Humans in general are swayed by consensus views as an indicator of social norms. But conservatives are particularly motivated, as consensus among authority figures can be useful for conformity within and enforcement of the social order. In the anti-communist mindset back then, science and liberalism were part of the status quo of idealized American greatness as embodied in the American Dream (industrialized technology being commodified and experienced through a growing middle class of citizen-consumers; e.g., “Better living through chemistry”), what supposedly differentiated us from the backward authoritarianism of the Soviet regime (the ‘progressive’ authoritarianism of neocon corporatism is so much better!).

As the USSR weakened and eventually the Cold War ended, that consensus was broken and there was no longer a foreign authoritarian power posing a real threat. Liberalism and science no longer served any ideological purpose for the conservative agenda. So, to the conservative mind, liberalism once again became the enemy and so scientists were treated as liberal elites to be opposed (of course, excluding all of the scientists working for corporations and right-wing think tanks, as the big money of capitalism washes away their sins of intellectual pride; and also conveniently ignoring the sizable proportion of scientists along with engineering and tech field professors in universities who are on the political right).

When the US lost its only major global competitor with the collapse of the Soviet Union, consensus seemed irrelevant. America ruled the world and the Cold War had pushed conservatives into power. Conservatives didn’t need to make any concessions or compromises with the ideological opposition, as decades of persecution had broken the back of the political left. Conservatives no longer felt a need to justify themselves or look for allies. But that is changing now that the American star is on the decline and new global competitors are taking the stage. We have the opportunity to put pressure back on the political right for they are vulnerable to persuasion right now by anyone who will take advantage of it.

This brings me back to some of the research on backfire effect. This pressure seems to work. In Cosmos Magazine, Jeff Glorfeld offers a happy thought: “The added negative effect of conservatism plus high education was completely neutralised through exposure to the fact of scientific agreement around man-made climate change.” Consensus prevails! What this means is that defeating backfire effect requires pulling out the big guns. Repeat, repeat, repeat the facts of consensus. Don’t be shy about it!

More generally, I must admit that the backfire effect research doesn’t allow for simple conclusions. Some of it even seems contradictory, but I suspect this is because of the multiple factors (many of them confounding) involved. There is no single population and single set of conditions and so it’s unsurprising that various studies using different subjects from different backgrounds would come to different results (and we aren’t even talking about the even larger biases and problems of this kind of WEIRD research). Some of what we presently think we know about backfire effect and similar motivated reasoning might turn out to be wrong, misinterpreted, or more nuanced.

Let me give an example. Related to the above discussion about consensus, previous research wasn’t replicated by recent research (see: Wood & Porter’s published The Elusive Backfire Effect; Guess & Coppock’s unpublished The Exception, Not the Rule?). It indicates backfire effect might not be so strong and common, after all (not that the original researchers ever claimed it was ubiquitous and, showing no backfire effect of their own, the original researchers have supported the publishing of this new data). Also, there is no new evidence of any ideological disparity, if anything demonstrating that moderates are the least prone to it (are we to assume moderates are the least ideologically dogmatic in the partisan sense or are they simply the most apathetic with fewer ideological commitments because of intellectual laziness, thoughtlessness, or whatever?). Does this disprove the prior research? Flynn, Nyhand, and Reifler responded with some commentary.

Whatever it might or might not mean, I wouldn’t allow this to comfort you too much. Even though “[t]his finding is contested by other research that finds limited evidence that corrective information contributes to such a ‘backfire effect,'” writes Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich (Truth Decay, p. 83), “even this research suggests that altering preexisting beliefs can be difficult.” One of the authors of the published work, Ethan Porter, admits that what “Our work shows is that people do accept new information, but we have no evidence that this then affects their downstream policy attitudes.”

This latter suspicion was confirmed, at least among certain people. The original researchers collaborated with the challenging researchers. They again couldn’t find backfire effect, which seems to put the original research into doubt, although it is a bit early to come to strong conclusions. What they did find was maybe even more disheartening, as written about in a Vox piece by Brian Resnick — that “facts make an impression. They just don’t matter for our decision-making, which is a conclusion that’s abundant in psychology science.” And this is specifically relevant for the present: “there’s still a big problem: Trump supporters know their candidate lies, but that doesn’t change how they feel about him. Which prompts a scary thought: Is this just a Trump phenomenon? Or can any charismatic politician get away with being called out on lies?” It still doesn’t disprove the backfire effect, since it’s possible that they had already backfired as far back as they could go at this point: “Many of his supporters may have to come to terms with his records of misstatements by the time this study was conducted.” Further research will be required.

If we take this latest research as is, it would simply justify the view of backfire effect being the least of our worries. Backfire effect can only occur after facts are shown to someone and they look at them. But how often do political debates even get to the point where facts get exchanged, much less acknowledged?

“At least it’s nice to know that facts do make an impression, right? On the other hand, we tend to avoid confronting facts that run hostile to our political allegiances. Getting partisans to confront facts might be easy in the context of an online experiment. It’s much harder to do in the real world.”

* * *

Let me make a note. Ideological mindsets are as much social constructs as are races. They are part of a particular social order and cultural worldview. Conservatives and liberals didn’t exist until the Enlightenment. Any such labels are one of many possible ways of grouping diverse potentials and tendencies within human nature.

That might explain why, as research shows (in the American population at least), there is an overlap between conservatism and authoritarianism. But that is just another way of saying all authoritarians, left and right, are socially conservative (the reason why it is sometimes referred to as right-wing authoritarianism, as there is no such thing as socially liberal authoritarianism) — whereas fiscal conservatism has no known positive or negative correlation to authoritarianism (so-called fiscal conservatism simply being an old form of liberalism, i.e., classical liberalism). So, this is the reason authoritarians are mostly found on the political right in countries like the United States and on the political left in countries like Russia (left and liberal not being the same thing, as always depending on what specific ideologies we are talking about).

It depends on context, on definition and perception. There is no singular ‘conservatism’ for its just a general way of speaking about overlapping patterns of ideology, culture, personality, and neurology. The overlap of social conservatism and fiscal conservatism in contemporary American thought might be more of a fluke of historical conditions. Russell Kirk, the godfather of modern American conservatism, actually thought the two were fundamentally incompatible.

* * *

Why the Right Wing’s War on Facts Is Driving the Divide in America
by Sophia A. McClennen

A recent study by the Duke Reporters’ Lab shows that, in addition to a partisan difference in the frequency of lying, there is a partisan division over the very idea of fact-checking itself.

The researchers logged 792 statements mentioning fact-checkers and coded them as positive, negative or neutral. While a majority of citations (68 percent) were neutral, they found a dramatic divide in the source of negative comments. The study noted 71 accusations of bias against fact-checkers. Conservative websites were responsible for 97 percent of them.

The study shows that conservative sites take a hostile, negative attitude toward the practice of fact-checking. In some cases the tone is hardly subtle. In one example, they cite Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online, who noted that Hillary Clinton’s record with the truth was far from spotless. “Even PolitiFact, the hackiest and most biased of the fact-checking outfits, which bends over like a Bangkok hooker to defend Democrats, has a long list of her more recent lies.”

Goldberg seems pleased that Politifact has a list of Clinton’s lies, but at the same time he feels compelled to denigrate the fact-checking operation that produced the list. In fact, the Duke study shows that even when conservative sites are happy to reference fact-checks that bolster their ideological perspective, they often still find a way to denigrate their sources.

How Campaign Messages Are Received and Processed
by David Helfert

Left Brain, Right Brain

Other neurological studies seem congruent with Westen’s findings. In the 1980s, pop psychology began to describe people as either left or right brained and suggested that the characteristic determined whether they tended to be more artistic, sensitive, thoughtful, creative, emotional, or analytical, depending on which lobes of the brain dominated their thought processing and behavior. The theory that everyone is either one or the other has been roundly disputed in recent years. Now, however, it appears there may be something to the basic idea after all, and that the unique characteristics of the left and right lobes of the brain may have consequences in political communication.

Journalist and author Chris Mooney has written extensively on how different kinds of political messages are received and processed by different people. Mooney has built on Westen’s research about neurological differences in processing varying kinds of messages. In his 2012 book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, he points to research that finds the predisposition to process stimuli in one lobe of the brain or the other is due to an actual physical difference in the size of the respective lobes.

Some people, says Mooney, actually have a larger right brain lobe, including the limbic system, which supports emotion, behavior, motivation, and long-term memory. Other people, he says, have a larger left brain lobe and tend to process most information through their prefrontal cortex, the lobes that help in reasoning and logical processing.

Mooney suggests that this neurological difference can reflect political tendencies. In The Republican Brain, Mooney describes “a recent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of 90 University College of London students that found on average, political conservatives actually had a larger right lobe, including the amygdalae, while political liberals had more gray matter in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC),” part of the brain’s frontal lobe, with many links to the prefrontal cortex.

This seems consistent with studies conducted in 2013 by Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics at the University of Exeter in the UK, and colleagues at the University of California. Their research was described in “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans” in the international online journal PLOS ONE.

The study used data from a previous experiment in which a group of people were asked to play a simple gambling task. Schreiber’s team took the brain activity measurement of eighty-two people and cross-referenced them with the participants’ publicly available political party registration data. They found that Republicans tended to use their right amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the body’s fight-or-flight system, when making risk-taking decisions; Democrats tended to show greater activity in their left insula, an area associated with self and social awareness.

Schreiber claims the insula/amygdala brain function model offers an 82.9 percent accuracy rate in predicting whether a person is a Democrat or Republican. In comparison, the longstanding model using the party affiliation of parents to predict a child’s affiliation is accurate about 69.5 percent of the time. Another model based on the differences in brain structure distinguishes liberals from conservatives with 71.6 percent accuracy.

Mooney cites other academic research findings indicating that people whose limbic system is more involved in processing information are less likely to change their minds. Once they have arrived at a position on an issue that is congruent with their belief system and values, they are unlikely to change their minds even when presented with irrefutable evidence to support a different viewpoint. They will actually reject or discount facts or attempt to discredit the source of facts that conflict with their position.

Motivated Reasoning

A series of related behavioral concepts could shed light on why different people seem to react differently to various political messages. One of the best known concepts is motivated reasoning, which is based on research findings, such as that described by Mooney, that some people tend to process most information through the prefrontal cortex of their brains while others tend to receive and process information through the limbic system.

Other research has found that subjects who tend to process information through the prefrontal lobes of the brain tend to be more open to new information, and to be more politically liberal. Those subjects who tend to process information through the emotion-centers in the brain tend to be more politically conservative.

How Warnings About False Claims Become Recommendations
by Skurnik, Yoon, Park, & Schwarz

Telling people that a consumer claim is false can make them misremember it as true. In two experiments older adults were especially susceptible to this “illusion of truth” effect. Repeatedly identifying a claim as false helped older adults remember it as false in the short term, but paradoxically made them more likely to remember it as true after a three-day delay. This unintended effect of repetition comes from increased familiarity with the claim itself, but decreased recollection of the claim’s original context. Findings provide insight into susceptibility over time to memory distortions and exploitation via repetition of claims in media and advertising.

Misinformation lingers in memory: Failure of three pro-vaccination strategies
by Pluviano, Watt , & Sala

People’s inability to update their memories in light of corrective information may have important public health consequences, as in the case of vaccination choice. In the present study, we compare three potentially effective strategies in vaccine promotion: one contrasting myths vs. facts, one employing fact and icon boxes, and one showing images of non-vaccinated sick children. Beliefs in the autism/vaccines link and in vaccines side effects, along with intention to vaccinate a future child, were evaluated both immediately after the correction intervention and after a 7-day delay to reveal possible backfire effects. Results show that existing strategies to correct vaccine misinformation are ineffective and often backfire, resulting in the unintended opposite effect, reinforcing ill-founded beliefs about vaccination and reducing intentions to vaccinate.

Sometimes busting myths can backfire
by Bethany Brookshire

But bursting mythical bubbles can also backfire. The first problem is that people are easily persuaded by things they hear more often. “The mere repetition of a myth leads people to believe it to be more true,” notes Christina Peter, a communication scientist at the Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich.

And unfortunately, our brains don’t remember myths in a very helpful way. “There’s a lot of research that tells us people have a hard time remembering negations,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol in England. We remember myths not as myths, but rather as statements that are additionally tagged as “false.” So instead of remembering “cheese is nothing like crack,” our brains remember “cheese is like crack (false).” As our memories fade, the qualifier on the statement may fade too, leaving us with the false idea that brie really is the next cocaine.

Peter and her colleague Thomas Koch decided to find out how best to combat this backfire effect — our tendency to misremember myths as fact — when confronted with scientific information. They recruited 335 volunteers and asked them to read three newspaper articles. The first and last were decoys. The important one was in the middle, and concerned a new in-home bowel cancer test. The article included eight statements about the new test, with each immediately identified as fact or myth, and with an explanation of why the items were true or false.

The scientists also asked the participants to focus on different things. They asked one group to form an opinion about the articles as they read them. They asked another just to study the language.

After all the groups were done reading, Peter and Koch presented them with the eight statements from the bowel test article, and asked them whether they were true or false. Then the scientists asked the participants those questions again after five days to test what they retained.

Readers who focused just on the language of the articles suffered from the backfire effect.  They were more likely to remember false statements as true than to remember true statements as false. This backfire effect got stronger when they saw the statements again five days later, and it influenced what they thought of the bowel test. The articles described the test in a slightly negative light. But if people remembered more of the myths as facts, they ended up with a positive view of the test. Oops.

But the backfire effect changed if participants formed an opinion as they read. Participants who were making up their minds on the fly made errors half as often as those who were reading only for language.

Peter says the results suggest that when presenting readers with new information, “try to avoid repeating false information,” since that may be what remains in people’s minds. And in some situations, Peter says, asking readers for their opinion or getting them to form an opinion as they read might help them distinguish between what is truth and what is myth. Peter and Koch published their results in the January Science Communication.

Backfire Effect Not Significant
by Steven Novella

For me there are two main limitations of this study – the first is that it is difficult to extrapolate from the artificial setting of a psychological study to an emotional discussion around the dinner table (or in the comments to a blog). It seems likely that people are much more willing to be reasonable in the former setting.

Second, we have no idea how persistent the correction effect is. People may immediately correct their belief, but then quickly forget the new information that runs counter to their narrative. That would be consistent with my personal experience, at least some of the time. It seems I can correct someone’s false information, with objective references, but then a month later they repeat their original claim as if the prior conversation never happened. I would love to see some long term follow up to these studies.

So if people do not respond to ideologically inconvenient facts by forming counterarguments and moving away from them (again – that is the backfire effect) then what do they do? The authors discuss a competing hypothesis, that people are fundamentally intellectually lazy. In fact, forming counterarguments is a lot of mental work that people will tend to avoid. It is much easier to just ignore the new facts.

Further there is evidence that to some extent people not only ignore facts, they may think that facts are not important. They may conclude that the specific fact they are being presented is not relevant to their ideological belief. Or they may believe that facts in general are not important.

What that generally means is that they dismiss facts as being biased and subjective. You have your facts, but I have my facts, and everyone is entitled to their opinion – meaning they get to choose which facts to believe.

Of course all of this is exacerbated by the echochamber effect. People overwhelmingly seek out sources of information that are in line with their ideology.

I think it is very important to recognize that the backfire effect is a small or perhaps even nonexistent phenomenon. The problem with belief in the backfire effect is that it portrays people as hopelessly biased, and suggests that attempts at educating people or changing their mind is fruitless. It suggests that the problem of incorrect beliefs is an unfixable inherent problem with human psychology.

Mick West says:
January 4, 2018 at 11:52 am
The primary problem with this study is that it is only measuring the IMMEDIATE effect of corrections. As they say in the final sentence of the discussion, there’s little backfire effect to correcting ideologically biased misinformation “at least for a brief moment”. It tells use nothing about what might happen weeks or months later. In fact the design of the study seems more like a reading comprehension test than about measuring changes in belief.

I’d recommend people have a look at the overview of backfire effects in The Debunking Handbook by Cook & Lewandowsky (free online). They identify three types: Familiarity Backfire, Overkill Backfire, and Worldview Backfire. Worldview backfire (which the Wood & Porter study measures) is more manifest as a disconfirmation bias, something which Wood and Porter dismiss, but don’t measure – not because people are too lazy to come up with alternative explanations, but because the immediate nature of the study does not allow the participants time for any mental gymnastics. The other two forms of backfire are likewise things that happen over time.

So I’d not put too large an asterisk on the backfire effect just yet.

B.S. says:
January 4, 2018 at 2:35 pm
I think that the backfire effect is most likely an emotional response. I’m reading “Crucial Conversations” right now and this book describes emotional responses to uncomfortable conversations- attacking someone who disagrees with you (perceived as an adversary) and defending yourself without thinking are a huge portion of this book. This model seems to fits both anecdotal observations of the backfire effect and this new research.
The mechanical turn questions appear to be emotionless and have no cues from an opponent with an opposing view. The corrections were all “neutral data from [cited] governmental sources.”. I’d bet that changing the factual correction to “No it isn’t you asshole! President Obama has deported illegal immigrants at twice the rate of Bush!” (note no source cited, because we rarely remember them in conversations) would elicit some sort of backfire effect that would likely be even larger if delivered emotionally and in person by an “adversary”. Maybe this all means that the key to eliminating any backfire effect is removing emotion from your response and accurately citing neutral sources. Maybe this means that dispassionate real-time fact checking of politicians could actually make a difference. Regardless, this is an interesting addition to the literature and conversation. It restores some of my hope.

NiroZ says:
January 4, 2018 at 11:37 pm
I’d wager that the reason for this would be in line with the research for motivational interviewing (a therapy technique) as well as the research around stigma, shame and vulnerability. Basically, when people make arguments that appear to be part of the ‘backfire’ effect, they’re actually responding to the feeling of being cornered, the loss of control and power in find found incorrect and the possible sense of alienation they feel about identifying with an ‘incorrect’ belief. If this is correct, it’s likely that these people would, under the right circumstances/ to people they feel safe with, admit that X belief is wrong, but they need adhere to it for other reasons (to belong in a group, to annoy someone they dislike, to avoid losing face).

Nidwin says:
January 5, 2018 at 3:41 am
From my experience the backfire effect kicks in when folks can’t say “woops, was I wrong on that one”.

Folks only change their minds as long as the subject doesn’t breech their little personal cocoon. And even then it’s often FIFO (first in first out).

Who is Jordan Peterson?

Jordan Peterson has attracted a lot of media attention. I have no interest in discussing his views on gender pronouns. And I’m not going to write a hit piece on him. But I was curious to understand where he is coming from. I looked at a bunch of articles and videos about him along with some of his talks and interviews. A few things stood out to me. Here is how he identifies himself:

“Politically, I am a classic British liberal. Temperamentally, I am high in openness, which tilts me to the left, although I am also conscientious, which tilts me to the right. Philosophically I am an individualist, not a collectivist, of the right or the left. Metaphisically, I am an American pragmatist, who has been strongly influenced by the psychoanalytic and clinical thinking of Freud, Jung and the psychotherapists who have followed in their wake.”

This makes me think of a classical liberal like Edmund Burke but not classical liberal like Thomas Paine. In the American tradition, Peterson might be more in line with Russel Kirk, what some would now call paleoconservative, expressing a dislike of libertarians (“chirping sectaries“) and mistrust of laissez faire capitalism — having written the most famous book on American conservatism, Kirk once voted for a socialist candidate for president rather than voting for the imperialists in either of the two main parties (this relates to Kirk’s ‘conservativsm’ having prioritized moral character over political ideology). Burke has been claimed by both the right and the left for he offers much to choose from: politician of the liberal party, anti-corporatist, progressive reformer, willing to challenge established authority,  and critic of imperialism; yet also traditionalist of sorts by way of moral imagination, British nationalist, anti-radical, reactionary tendencies, fear of revolution (although initially supported American Revolution), and suspicion toward abstract ideology.

Peterson likewise has much that appeals to people across the political spectrum. But maybe like Burke, he dislikes what he perceives as the extremists at both ends of the spectrum. At the moment, it’s his more conservative-sounding positions that are getting all the media attention. Here is an example from his popular book, 12 Rules for Life (p. 156):

“Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?”

This is the whole focus on individualism and meritocracy, a major strain within classical liberalism that is presently advocated most loudly by conservatives and right-wingers, although much of it still fits within the contemporary liberal worldview (this post began as a comment responding to a Canadian friend who, as a progressive liberal, recommended Peterson to me). He seems to be of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps school of thought, which is a mainstay of American ideology — and even though a Canadian, Peterson admits to being influenced by American thought. Those on the political right eat up that rhetoric of hyper-individualism, as it fits into the ideological worldview of social Darwinism and capitalist realism.

Having recently watched an interview with Johann Hari about his new book on depression, I would note that what Peterson says is the complete opposite message. Hari’s view is based on the idea that there is no way for us to reorder our experience without also reordering our lives, our relationships, our communities, and our society, not to mention maybe also our economy and government. And this might be where Peterson diverges from paleoconservatism which heavily emphasizes the social aspect of social conservatism. Russell Kirk, in this area of thought, would more likely agree with Hari than Peterson. When Peterson calls himself a classical liberal or British liberal, this expresses a turning away from the traditional aspects of social conservatism that put the social before the individual.

I would argue that, as individuals in this society, the worst problems and greatest challenges we are facing are systemic and not individual. There has been worsening inequality, decreasing mobility, and and increasing mental illness (at least in the US) for generations (e.g., higher rates of urbanization has been strongly correlated to higher rates of schizophrenia). I could go on and on about all of that, as I’ve done many times before. The younger generation are experiencing pressure like no generation ever has before and so Peterson’s traditional(-sounding) advice designed from a simpler era is probably not all that helpful in these complex times — for, even if we were to agree that he points to enduring truths, the context of changing conditions would change the significance and applicability of those truths.

Many have noted that Peterson isn’t saying anything new, the comforting familiarity of his message being part of the attraction, but many of the struggles right now are new or else are taking different form and greater severity. Yet if Peterson offers nothing original, then how is he genuinely challenging anyone, either in how we act as individuals or in how we relate as a society. Harkening back to supposed traditional wisdom maybe misses the point, especially when it ends up offering further support for the anti-traditional social order defended by the modern reactionary mind. All that this does is feed into pseudo-nostalgic fantasies, as preached by a professor playing the role of a stern father figure. That is assuming my assessment of his message is correct.

Ignoring that, Peterson is quite liberal in other ways. He supposedly is fine with abortion, supports public healthcare, etc (then again, even American right-libertarians like Charles Murray, infamous for the racist book he co-authored, will support some liberal positions such as basic income). And it seems many on the political left have been drawn to his more academic views on psychology, religion, and such. I kept coming across people, often students and colleagues, who said they agreed with and appreciated much that he has taught and so respected and supported him but thought he went off the rails on issues of gender realism, racialism, genetic determinism, and evolutionary psychology — topics outside of his main area of expertise, clinical psychology.

Those latter issues are why he has gained support from the reactionary alt-right that also supports Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. Peterson distances himself from his alt-right supporters and yet he has done multiple video talks with Stefan Molyneux, an alt-right cult figure (anarcho-capitalist turned white nationalist and well known Trump supporter). Out of curiosity some years back, I spent months watching Molyneux’s videos and debating his followers and so I know what kind of person he is (see here for my posts about him). James Damore who was interviewed by Peterson also did an interview with Molyneux, the initial two interviews he did after being fired by Google.

Peterson apparently has said he would talk to anyone and this includes the bigoted and wacky right (Sargon, Mark Steyn, Laura Southern, etc). That is fine and even maybe admirable, specifically if, as he claims, his goal is to reach out to different audiences. But he sends mixed messages by associating with such people on a regular basis, even moreso when he doesn’t challenge their reactionary beliefs and so could be interpreted as offering them cover. That is no reason by itself to judge him guilty by association, though. Just something to keep in mind, considering there does appear to be a clear pattern of associations, potentially implying an intention or sympathy. It makes my Spidey sense tingle, but others can judge for themselves.

I’ll end with a discussion about this issue:

djakoeba
“[Stefan Molyneux] is a maniac, crazy dude who thinks he has all the answers. Still don’t know why Jordan Peterson engages in long interviews with people like Stefan, Sargon, Mark Steyn, The reality call show (tara or something – a racist 22 year old with 11k subscribers) and even Laura Southern. Each and everyone of them is an absolute low life with “racist tendencies” to put it mildly and they have no problem twisting facts and lying.”
“Why does JP engages with these people?”

knowthyself2000
“Let me answer this JBP question with a JBP reference: The hero returns to resurrect his dead culture.
“It’s not in the Doc’s nature to withhold himself from anyone, particularly these kids who need rescuing from Neverland so badly.
“He’s doing them a service, and you can be sure he’s softened them up and they’ll all mature because of him.
“Would you rather these people go without a compassionate sensible voice to interrupt their radicalization?”

djakoeba
“I was thinking along the same lines but it seems nonsense if you look at how it plays out. JP defended Laura Southern when she was banned by patreon for giving out instructions which endangered refugees. That is absolutely horrible and despicable but JP never said anything about that. JP tweets about patreon and how they are “censoring” her. What??
“He is only empowering these people. I never heard him directly challenging the idea’s of them in their interviews. He is definitely doing them a service. A legit professor is talking to them? One of the most popular guys on the biggest podcast in the world is obviously doing a service to them by coming on their show and talking about “western civilization”. JP isn’t interrupting them, he is empowering them. They will use what they need from him and move on.”

knowthyself2000
“They never dare bring up that shit around him. Talking to them is not a service. He’ll talk to anyone and that’s part of his reputation.”

How Universal Is The Mind?

One expression of the misguided nature vs nurture debate is the understanding of our humanity. In wondering about the universality of Western views, we have already framed the issue in terms of Western dualism. The moment we begin speaking in specific terms, from mind to psyche, we’ve already smuggled in cultural preconceptions and biases.

Sabrina Golonka discusses several other linguistic cultures (Korean, Japanese, and Russian) in comparison to English. She suggests that dualism, even if variously articulated, underlies each conceptual tradition — a general distinction between visible and invisible. But all of those are highly modernized societies built on millennia of civilizational projects, from imperialism to industrialization. It would be even more interesting and insightful to look into the linguistic worldviews of indigenous cultures.

The Piraha, for example, are linguistically limited in only speaking about what they directly experience or about what those they personally know have directly experienced. They don’t talk about what is ‘invisible’, whether within the human sphere or beyond in the world, and as such they aren’t prone to theoretical speculations.

What is clear is that the Piraha’s mode of perception and description is far different, even to the point that what they see is sometimes invisible to those who aren’t Piraha. There is an anecdote shared by Daniel Everett. The Piraha crowded on the riverbank pointing to the spirit they saw on the other side, but Everett and his family saw nothing. That brings doubt to the framework of visible vs invisible. The Piraha were fascinated by what becomes invisible such as a person disappearing around the bend of a trail, although their fascination ended at that liminal point at the edge of the visible, not extending beyond it.

Another useful example would be the Australian Aborigine. The Songlines were traditionally integrated with their sense of identity and reality, signifying an experience that is invisible within the reality tunnel of WEIRD society (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Prior to contact, individualism as we know it may have been entirely unknown for Songlines express a profoundly collective sense of being in the world.

If any kind of dualism between visible and invisible did exist within the Aboriginal worldview, it more likely would have been on a communal level of experience. In their culture, ritual songs are learned and then what they represent becomes visible to the initiated, however this process might be made sense of within Aboriginal language. A song makes some aspect of the world visible, which is to invoke a particular reality and the beings that inhabit that reality. This is what Westerners would interpret as states of mind, but that is clearly an inadequate understanding of the fully immersive and embodied experience.

Western psychology has made non-Western experience invisible to most Westerners. There is the invisible we talk about within our own cultural worldview, what we perceive as known and familiar, no matter how intangible. But even more important is the unknown and unfamiliar that is so fundamentally invisible that we are incapable of talking about it. This doesn’t merely limit our understanding. Entire ways of being in the world are precluded by the words and concepts we use. Our sense of our own humanity is lesser for it and, as cultural languages go extinct, this state of affairs worsens with the near complete monocultural destruction of the very alternatives that most powerfully challenge our assumptions.

* * *

How Universal Is The Mind?
by Sabrina Golonka

So, back to the mind and our current view of cognition. Cross-linguistic research shows that, generally speaking, every culture has a folk model of a person consisting of visible and invisible (psychological) aspects (Wierzbicka, 2005). While there is agreement that the visible part of the person refers to the body, there is considerable variation in how different cultures think about the invisible (psychological) part. In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of “the mind” and the modern view of cognition. But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood? […]

In a larger sense, the fact that there seems to be a universal belief that people consist of visible and invisible aspects explains much of the appeal of cognitive psychology over behaviourism. Cognitive psychology allows us to invoke invisible, internal states as causes of behaviour, which fits nicely with the broad, cultural assumption that the mind causes us to act in certain ways.

To the extent that you agree that the modern conception of “cognition” is strongly related to the Western, English-speaking view of “the mind”, it is worth asking what cognitive psychology would look like if it had developed in Japan or Russia. Would text-books have chapter headings on the ability to connect with other people (kokoro) or feelings or morality (dusa) instead of on decision-making and memory? This possibility highlights the potential arbitrariness of how we’ve carved up the psychological realm – what we take for objective reality is revealed to be shaped by culture and language.

I recently wrote a blog about a related topic. In Pāli and Sanskrit – ancient Indian languages – there is no collective term for emotions. They do have words for all of the basic emotions and some others, but they do not think of them as a category distinct from thought. I have yet to think through all of the implications of this observation but clearly the ancient Indian view on psychology must have been very different to ours.

Han 21 December 2011 at 17:06

Very interesting post. Have you looked into Julian Jaynes’s strange and marvelous book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”? Even if you regard bicameralism as iffy, there’s an interesting section on the creation of metaphorical spaces — body-words that become “containers” for feelings, thoughts, attributes etc. The culturally distinct descriptors of the “invisible” may be related to historical accidents that vary from place to place.

Simon 9 January 2012 at 06:33

Also relevant might be Lakoff and Johnson’s “Philosophy in the Flesh” looking at, in their formulation, the inevitably metaphorical nature of thought and speech and the ultimate grounding of (almost) all metaphors in our physical experience from embodiment in the world.

Verbal Behavior

There is a somewhat interesting discussion of the friendship between B.F. Skinner and W.V.O. Quine. The piece explores their shared interests and possible influences on one another. It’s not exactly an area of personal interest, but it got me thinking about Julian Jaynes.

Skinner is famous for his behaviorist research. When behaviorism is mentioned, what immediately comes to mind for most people is Pavlov’s dog. But behaviorism wasn’t limited to animals and simple responses to stimuli. Skinner developed his theory toward verbal behavior as well. As Michael Karson explains,

“Skinner called his behaviorism “radical,” (i.e., thorough or complete) because he rejected then-behaviorism’s lack of interest in private events. Just as Galileo insisted that the laws of physics would apply in the sky just as much as on the ground, Skinner insisted that the laws of psychology would apply just as much to the psychologist’s inner life as to the rat’s observable life.

“Consciousness has nothing to do with the so-called and now-solved philosophical problem of mind-body duality, or in current terms, how the physical brain can give rise to immaterial thought. The answer to this pseudo-problem is that even though thought seems to be immaterial, it is not. Thought is no more immaterial than sound, light, or odor. Even educated people used to believe, a long time ago, that these things were immaterial, but now we know that sound requires a material medium to transmit waves, light is made up of photons, and odor consists of molecules. Thus, hearing, seeing, and smelling are not immaterial activities, and there is nothing in so-called consciousness besides hearing, seeing, and smelling (and tasting and feeling). Once you learn how to see and hear things that are there, you can also see and hear things that are not there, just as you can kick a ball that is not there once you have learned to kick a ball that is there. Engaging in the behavior of seeing and hearing things that are not there is called imagination. Its survival value is obvious, since it allows trial and error learning in the safe space of imagination. There is nothing in so-called consciousness that is not some version of the five senses operating on their own. Once you have learned to hear words spoken in a way that makes sense, you can have thoughts; thinking is hearing yourself make language; it is verbal behavior and nothing more. It’s not private speech, as once was believed; thinking is private hearing.”

It’s amazing how much this is resonates with Jaynes’ bicameral theory. This maybe shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Jaynes was trained in behaviorism and early on did animal research. He was mentored by the behaviorist Frank A. Beach and was friends with Edward Boring who wrote a book about consciousness in relation to behaviorism. Reading about Skinner’s ideas about verbal behavior, I was reminded of Jaynes’ view of authorization as it relates to linguistic commands and how they become internalized to form an interiorized mind-space (i.e., Jaynesian consciousness).

I’m not the only person to think along these lines. On Reddit, someone wrote: “It is possible that before there were verbal communities that reinforced the basic verbal operants in full, people didn’t have complete “thinking” and really ran on operant auto-pilot since they didn’t have a full covert verbal repertoire and internal reinforcement/shaping process for verbal responses covert or overt, but this would be aeons before 2-3 kya. Wonder if Jaynes ever encountered Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior”…” Jaynes only references Skinner once in his book on bicameralism and consciousness. But he discusses behaviorism in general to some extent.

In the introduction, he describes behaviorism in this way: “From the outside, this revolt against consciousness seemed to storm the ancient citadels of human thought and set its arrogant banners up in one university after another. But having once been a part of its major school, I confess it was not really what it seemed. Off the printed page, behaviorism was only a refusal to talk about consciousness. Nobody really believed he was not conscious. And there was a very real hypocrisy abroad, as those interested in its problems were forcibly excluded from academic psychology, as text after text tried to smother the unwanted problem from student view. In essence, behaviorism was a method, not the theory that it tried to be. And as a method, it exorcised old ghosts. It gave psychology a thorough house cleaning. And now the closets have been swept out and the cupboards washed and aired, and we are ready to examine the problem again.” As dissatisfying as animal research was for Jaynes, it nonetheless set the stage for deeper questioning by way of a broader approach. It made possible new understanding.

Like Skinner, he wanted to take the next step, shifting from behavior to experience. Even their strategies to accomplish this appear to have been similar. Sensory experience itself becomes internalized, according to both of their theories. For Jaynes, perception of external space becomes the metaphorical model for a sense of internal space. When Karson says of Skinner’s view that “thinking is hearing yourself make language,” that seems close to Jaynes discussion of hearing voices as it develops into an ‘I’ and a ‘me’, the sense of identity split into subject and object which asserted was required for one to hear one’s own thoughts.

I don’t know Skinner’s thinking in detail or how it changed over time. He too pushed beyond the bounds of behavioral research. It’s not clear that Jaynes’ ever acknowledged this commonality. In his 1990 afterword to his book, Jaynes’ makes his one mention of Skinner without pointing out Skinner’s work on verbal behavior:

“This conclusion is incorrect. Self-awareness usually means the consciousness of our own persona over time, a sense of who we are, our hopes and fears, as we daydream about ourselves in relation to others. We do not see our conscious selves in mirrors, even though that image may become the emblem of the self in many cases. The chimpanzees in this experiment and the two-year old child learned a point-to-point relation between a mirror image and the body, wonderful as that is. Rubbing a spot noticed in the mirror is not essentially different from rubbing a spot noticed on the body without a mirror. The animal is not shown to be imagining himself anywhere else, or thinking of his life over time, or introspecting in any sense — all signs of a conscious life.

“This less interesting, more primitive interpretation was made even clearer by an ingenious experiment done in Skinner’s laboratory (Epstein, 1981). Essentially the same paradigm was followed with pigeons, except that it required a series of specific trainings with the mirror, whereas the chimpanzee or child in the earlier experiments was, of course, self-trained. But after about fifteen hours of such training when the contingencies were carefully controlled, it was found that a pigeon also could use a mirror to locate a blue spot on its body which it could not see directly, though it had never been explicitly trained to do so. I do not think that a pigeon because it can be so trained has a self-concept.”

Jaynes was making the simple, if oft overlooked, point that perception of body is not the same thing as consciousness of mind. A behavioral response to one’s own body isn’t fundamentally different than a behavioral response to anything else. Behavioral responses are found in every species. This isn’t helpful in exploring consciousness itself. Skinner too wanted to get beyond this level of basic behavioral research, so it seems. Interestingly, without any mention of Skinner, Jaynes does use the exact phrasing of Skinner in speaking about the unconscious learning of ‘verbal behavior’ (Book One, Chapter 1):

“Another simple experiment can demonstrate this. Ask someone to sit opposite you and to say words, as many words as he can think of, pausing two or three seconds after each of them for you to write them down. If after every plural noun (or adjective, or abstract word, or whatever you choose) you say “good” or “right” as you write it down, or simply “mmm-hmm” or smile, or repeat the plural word pleasantly, the frequency of plural nouns (or whatever) will increase significantly as he goes on saying words. The important thing here is that the subject is not aware that he is learning anything at all. [13] He is not conscious that he is trying to find a way to make you increase your encouraging remarks, or even of his solution to that problem. Every day, in all our conversations, we are constantly training and being trained by each other in this manner, and yet we are never conscious of it.”

This is just a passing comment in using one example among many, and he states that “Such unconscious learning is not confined to verbal behavior.” He doesn’t further explore language in this immediate section or repeat again the phrase ‘verbal behavior’ in any other section, although the notion of verbal behavior is central to the entire book. But a decade after the original publication date of his book, Jaynes wrote a paper where he does talk about Skinner’s ideas about language:

“One needs language for consciousness. We think consciousness is learned by children between two and a half and five or six years in what we can call the verbal surround, or the verbal community as B.F Skinner calls it. It is an aspect of learning to speak. Mental words are out there as part of the culture and part of the family. A child fits himself into these words and uses them even before he knows the meaning of them. A mother is constantly instilling the seeds of consciousness in a two- and three-year-old, telling the child to stop and think, asking him “What shall we do today?” or “Do you remember when we did such and such or were somewhere?” And all this while metaphor and analogy are hard at work. There are many different ways that different children come to this, but indeed I would say that children without some kind of language are not conscious.”
(Jaynes, J. 1986. “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind.” Canadian Psychology, 27, 128– 148.)

I don’t have access to that paper. That quote comes from an article by John E. Limber: “Language and consciousness: Jaynes’s “Preposterous idea” reconsidered.” It is found in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness edited by Marcel Kuijsten (pp. 169-202).

Anyway, the point Jaynes makes is that language is required for consciousness as an inner sense of self because language is required to hear ourselves think. So verbal behavior is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the emergence of consciousness as we know it. As long as verbal behavior remains an external event, conscious experience won’t follow. Humans have to learn to hear themselves as they hear others, to split themselves into a speaker and a listener.

This relates to what makes possible the differentiation of hearing a voice being spoken by someone in the external world and hearing a voice as a memory of someone in one’s internal mind-space. Without this distinction, imagination isn’t possible for anything imagined would become a hallucination where internal and external hearing are conflated or rather never separated. Jaynes proposes this is why ancient texts regularly describe people as hearing voices of deities and deified kings, spirits and ancestors. The bicameral person, according to the theory, hears their own voice without being conscious that it is their own thought.

All of that emerges from those early studies of animal behavior. Behaviorism plays a key role simply in placing the emphasis on behavior. From there, one can come to the insight that consciousness is a neurocognitive behavior modeled on physical and verbal behavior. The self is a metaphor built on embodied experience in the world. This relates to many similar views, such as that humans learn a theory of mind within themselves by first developing a theory of mind in perceiving others. This goes along with attention schema and the attribution of consciousness. And some have pointed out what is called the double subject fallacy, a hidden form of dualism that infects neuroscience. However described, it gets at the same issue.

It all comes down our being both social animals and inhabitants of the world. Human development begins with a focus outward, culture and language determining what kind of identity forms. How we learn to behave is who we become.

Gender and Personality on the Autism Spectrum

There is ongoing debate about autism, such as how it is defined and what causes it, which in turn leads to how it is and should be diagnosed. Some have speculated that autism in girls and women is underdiagnosed:

However, it’s unclear whether this gender bias is the result of genetics or reflects differences in diagnosis or the way females manifest symptoms of the disorder. Girls with autism tend to actively compensate for their symptoms in ways that boys don’t, which may account for the discrepancy, says Skuse.

As a result, the females enrolled in studies may tend to be severely affected and carry multiple mutations. “There is some suggestion that higher-functioning females are out there in the general population, but they’re not being referred,” he says.

Here is what one could argue. Maybe it is most likely that the bias is not just in diagnosis for there would be a directly related bias in the research itself. After all, it is diagnosis that determines the subjects in the autism studies. So, if diagnosis is biased, there is no reason to assume that the subjects are representative of the full autistic population. Biased input would inevitably lead to biased results and hence biased conclusions. Basically, these studies at present might not be able to tell us anything about possible gender differences.

A reason given for the alleged failure to detect female autism is that “it may be because girls are better at masking the symptoms – better at copying social norms while not necessarily understanding them.” That might be true of many boys and men as well.

I have some Asperger’s-like traits, although I’ve never been diagnosed. Maybe it’s because I learned to fit in. I was socially clueless when younger and social situations stress me out, a set of factors exacerbated by my inner-focused nature. I don’t connect easily with others. But you wouldn’t notice that from casually interacting with me. I know how to pretend to be normal. It’s maybe why therapy has never worked for me, as I’ve developed a habit of effectively hiding my problems. It’s a survival mechanism that I learned young.

What occurs to me is that I’m a Jungian Feeling type. Myers-Briggs testing has found that most Feeling types are female, although about 30% are male. The same pattern in the opposite direction is seen with Thinking types. There is a general pattern that follows along gender lines. Still, that approximate third of the population is a significant number. That might mean that a third of male autistics don’t fit into the male pattern, maybe while a third of female autistics do.

So the seeming gender difference found in autism could be more about personality differences. And those personality differences may or may not be genetic in nature. Much of this could instead be culturally learned behavior. It wouldn’t only be cultural biases in diagnosis of autism for, if that is so, it would also be cultural biases in how autism is expressed. In that case, the question is what might be the relationship between culture, personality, gender, and neurocognitive development. There are obviously many complex factors involved, such as considering how a significant number of people don’t fall into simple gender categories: “It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA.” Since gender isn’t binary, the expressions of autism presumably also wouldn’t be binary.

It would be easy to test my speculation if formulated as a hypothesis. My prediction would be that Thinking type females would be more likely to be diagnosed as autstic. And the opposite prediction would be that Feeling type males would be less likely. That is simply to say that autism would express differently depending on personality traits/functions. Similar research could be done with FFM/Big Five, and maybe such research already has been done. A related issue that would need to be disentangled is whether autism is more common among certain personalities or simply more diagnosed among certain personalities, an issue that could be studied either in relation to or separate from gender.

All of this is particularly complicated for certain Myers-Briggs types. My specific type is INFP. This type is one of the most talented types when it comes to masking behavior, “known as being inscrutable.” As Carl Jung described dominant introverted feeling (what Myers-Briggs divides into two types: INFP and ISFP):

They are mostly silent, inaccessible, hard to understand; often they hide behind a childish or banal mask, and their temperament is inclined to melancholy…Their outward demeanor is harmonious, inconspicuous…with no desire to affect others, to impress, influence or change them in any way. If this is more pronounced, it arouses suspicion of indifference and coldness…Although there is a constant readiness for peaceful and harmonious co-existence, strangers are shown no touch of amiability, no gleam of responsive warmth…It might seem on a superficial view that they have no feelings at all.
(Psych. Types, Para. 640-641)

An INFP aspie would make for a rather confusing specimen. It is the dominant introverted feeling that is so hard to discern. And this introverted feeling is hidden behind the chameleon-like and outward-facing extraverted intuition, what is in the position called the auxiliary function. Extraverted intuition is the ultimate mask to hide behind, as it is highly fluid and adaptable. And as the auxiliary function, extraverted intuition plays the role of mediation with and defense against the outside world.

Maybe a significant number of autistics have hidden introverted feeling. This would fit the autistic pattern of feeling strongly in response to others (high functioning affective empathy) while not easily connecting to others (low functioning cognitive empathy). By its nature, there is no straightforward way for introverted feeling to be expressed in social behavior. Yet an INFP can be talented at learning normal social behavior, as extraverted intuition helps them to be mimics. Or failing that, they could stonewall anyone trying to figure them out. Usually being conflict avoidant, most dominant introverted feeling types will go along to get along, as long as no one treads on their core sense of value.

Here is a more general point:

I think it’s a bit silly to make a distinction between “male” and “female” interests in the first place and realize that it can also be healthy for women to take interest in more traditionally “male” subjects such as science and technology and that doesn’t always mean that they have a disorder. In making a diagnosis they should always be aware of the underlying pattern rather than the actual interest and keep in mind that interests may differ for each individual, so (e.g.) whether a female is obsessively talking about computers or fashion should not matter, because the pattern is the same. Indeed, it probably is more obvious in the first case, especially when society is more geared toward male/female stereotyping [so “masculine” interests for women stand out]. And besides, narrow interests is but 1 clue, it doesn’t count for every individual with an ASD; they may have a range of interests, just as typical people do.

Also, as some typologists argue, the US has been an society dominated by ESTJ types that is becoming dominated by ENTJ types (John Giannini, Compass of the Soul). The commonality then is E_TJ, that is to say dominant extraverted thinking. This typological bias is how American culture defines and enforces the social norms of the male gender. Unsurprisingly, that would also be how autism gets diagnosed, according to extraversion and thinking.

On the other hand, autism that was introverted and/or feeling would express in entirely different ways. In particular, dominant introverted feeling would express as strong affective empathy, rather than the (stereotypically) masculine tendency toward emotional detachment. Also, introversion taken on its own, whether in relation to feeling or thinking, would be more internalized and hence less observable — meaning obsessions that would be unlikely to seen in outward behavior: more subtle and nuanced or else more hidden and masked.

This personality perspective might be immensely more helpful than using a gender lens alone. It’s also a more psychologically complex frame of interpretation, appealing to my personality predilections. Considering that autism and Asperger’s was originally observed and defined by men, one might wonder what kind of personalities they had. Their personalities might have determined which personalities they were drawn to in studying and hence drawn to in using as the standard for their early models of the autism spectrum.

Ian Cheng on Julian Jaynes

Down an Internet Rabbit Hole With an Artist as Your Guide
by Daniel McDermon

The art of Ian Cheng, for example, is commonly described in relation to video games, a clear influence. But the SI: Visions episode about him touches only lightly on that connection and on Mr. Cheng’s career, which includes a solo exhibition earlier this year at MoMA PS1. Instead, viewers go on a short but heady intellectual journey, narrated by Mr. Cheng, who discusses improv theater and the esoteric theories of the psychologist Julian Jaynes.

Jaynes, Mr. Cheng said, posits that ancient people weren’t conscious in the way that modern humans are. “You and I hear an internal voice and we perceive it to be a voice that comes from us,” Mr. Cheng says in the video. But Jaynes argued that those voices might well have been perceived as other people.

In that theory, Mr. Cheng explained in an interview, “The mind is actually composed of many sub-people inside of you, and any one of those people is getting the spotlight at any given time.” It’s a model of consciousness that is echoed in the film “Inside Out,” in which an adolescent girl’s mind comprises five different characters.

This conception of consciousness and motivation helped him build out the triad of digital simulations that were shown at MoMA PS1. In those works, Mr. Cheng created characters and landscapes, but the narrative that unfolds is beyond his control. He has referred to them as “video games that play themselves.”

Dark Triad Domination

It has been noted that some indigenous languages have words that can be interpreted as what, in English, is referred to as psychopathic, sociopathic, narcissistic, Machiavellian, etc. This is the region of the Dark Triad. One Inuit language has the word ‘kunlangeta‘, meaning “his mind knows what to do but he does not do it.” That could be thought of as describing a psychopath’s possession of cognitive empathy while lacking affective empathy. Or consider the Yoruba word ‘arankan‘ that “is applied to a person who always goes his own way regardless of others, who is uncooperative, full of malice, and bullheaded.”

These are tribal societies. Immense value is placed on kinship loyalty, culture of trust, community survival, collective well-being, and public good. Even though they aren’t oppressive authoritarian states, the modern Western notion of hyper-individualism wouldn’t make much sense within these close-knit groups. Sacrifice of individual freedom and rights is a given under such social conditions, since individuals are intimately related to one another and physically dependent upon one another. Actually, it wouldn’t likely be experienced as sacrifice at all since it would simply be the normal state of affairs, the shared reality within which they exist — their identity being social rather than individual.

This got me thinking about psychopathy and modern society. Research has found that, at least in some Western countries, the rate of psychopathy is not only high in prison populations but equally as high among the economic and political elite. My father left upper management in a major corporation because of how ruthless was the backstabbing, a win at all costs social Darwinism. This is what defines a country like the United States, as these social dominators are the most revered and emulated individuals. Psychopaths and such, instead of being eliminated or banished, are promoted and empowered.

What occurred to me is the difference for tribal societies is that hyper-individualism is seen not only as abnormal but dangerous and so intolerable. Maybe the heavy focus on individualism in the modern West inevitably leads to the psychopathological traits of the Dark Triad. As such, that would mean there is something severely abnormal and dysfunctional about Western societies (WEIRD – Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic). Psychopaths, in particular, are the ultimate individualists and so they will be the ultimate winners in an individualistic culture — their relentless confidence and ruthless competitiveness, their Machiavellian manipulations and persuasive charm supporting a narcissistic optimism and leading to success.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this. First off, there might be something about urbanization itself or a correlated factor that exacerbates mental illness. Studies have found, for example, an increase in psychosis across the recent generations of city-dwellers — precisely during the period of populations being further urbanized and concentrated. It reminds one of the study done on crowding large numbers of rats in a small contained cage until they turned anti-social, aggressive, and violent. If these rats were humans, we might describe this behavior in terms of psychopathy or sociopathy.

There is a second thing to consider, as discussed by Barbara Oakley in her book Evil Genes (pp. 265-6). About rural populations, she writes that, “Psychopathy is rare in those settings, notes psychologist David Cooke, who has studied psychopathy across cultures.” And she continues:

“But what about more urban environments? Cooke’s research has shown, surprisingly, that there are more psychopaths from Scotland prisons of England and Wales than there are in Scottish prisons. (Clearly, this is not to say that the Scottish are more given to psychopathy than anyone else.) Studies of migration records showed that many Scottish psychopaths had migrated to the more populated metropolitan areas of the south. Cooke hypothesized that, in the more crowded metropolitan areas, the psychopath could attack or steal with little danger that the victim would recognize or catch him. Additionally, the psychopath’s impulsivity and need for stimulation could also play a role in propelling the move to the dazzling delights of the big city — he would have no affection for family and friends to keep him tethered back home. Densely populated areas, apparently, are the equivalent for psychopaths of ponds and puddles for malarial mosquitoes.”

As Oakley’s book is on genetics, she goes in an unsurprising direction in pointing out how some violent individuals have been able to pass on their genetics to large numbers of descendants. The most famous example being Genghis Khan. She writes that (p. 268),

“These recent discoveries reinforce the findings of the anthropologist Laura Betzig. Her 1986 Despotism and Differential Reproduction provides a cornucopia of evidence documenting the increased capacity of those with more power — and frequently, Machiavellian tendencies — to have offspring. […] As Machiavellian researcher Richard Christie and his colleague Florence Geis aptly note: “[H]igh population density and highly competitive environments have been found to increase the use of antisocial and Machiavellian strategies, and my in fact foster the ability of those who possess those strategies to reproduce.” […] Beltzig’s ultimte point is not that the corrupt attain power but that those corrupted individuals who achieved power in preindustrial agricultural societies had far more opportunity to reproduce, generally through polygyny, and pass on their genes. In fact, the more Machiavellian, that is, despotic, a man might be, the more polygynous he tended to be — grabbing and keeping for himself as many beautiful women as he could. Some researchers have posited that envy is itself a useful, possibly geneticall linked trait, “serving a key role in survival, motivating achievement, serving the conscience of self and other, and alerting us to inequities that, if fueled, can lead to esclaated violence.” Thus, genese related to envy — not to mention other more problematic temperaments — might have gradually found increased prevalence in such environments.”

That kind of genetic hypothesis is highly speculative, to say the least. Their could be some truth value in them, if one wanted to give the benefit of the doubt, but we have no direct evidence that such is the case. At present, these speculations are yet more just-so stories and they will remain so until we can better control confounding factors in order to directly ascertain causal factors. Anyway, genetic determinism in this simplistic sense is largely moot at this point, as the science is moving on into new understandings. Besides being unhelpful, such speculations are unnecessary. We already have plenty of social science research that proves changing environmental conditions alters social behavior — besides what I’ve already mentioned, there is such examples as the fascinating rat park research. There is no debate to be had about the immense influence of external influences, such as factors of socioeconomic class and high inequality: Power Causes Brain Damage by Justin Renteria, How Wealth Reduces Compassion by Daisy Grewal, Got Money? Then You Might Lack Compassion by Jeffrey Kluger, Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity by Ken Stern, Rich People Literally See the World Differently by Drake Baer, The rich really DO ignore the poor by Cheyenne Macdonald, Propagandopoly: Monopoly as an Ideological Tool by Naomi Russo, A ‘Rigged’ Game Of Monopoly Reveals How Feeling Wealthy Changes Our Behavior [TED VIDEO] by Planetsave, etc.

Knowing the causes is important. But knowing the consequences is just as important. No matter what increases Dark Triad behaviors, they can have widespread and long-lasting repurcussions, maybe even permanently altering entire societies in how they function. Following her speculations, Oakley gets down to the nitty gritty (p. 270):

“Questions we might reasonably ask are — has the percentage of Machiavellians and other more problematic personality types increased in the human population, or in certain human populations, since the advent of agriculture? And if the answer is yes, does the increase in these less savory types change a group’s culture? In other words, is there a tipping point of Machiavellian and emote control behavior that can subtly or not so subtly affect the way the members of a society interact? Certainly a high expectation of meeting a “cheater,” for example, would profoundly impact the trust that appears to form the grease of modern democratic societies and might make the development of democratic processes in certain areas more difficult. Crudely put, an increase in successfully sinister types from 2 percent, say, to 4 percent of a population would double the pool of Machiavellians vying for power. And it is the people in power who set the emotional tone, perhaps through mirroring and emotional contagion, for their followers and those around them. As Judith Rich Harris points out, higher-status members of a group are looked at more, which means they have more influence on how a person becomes socialized.”

The key factor in much of this seems to be concentration. Simply concentrating populations, humans or rats, leads to social problems related to mental health issues. On top of that, there is the troubling concern of what kind of people are being concentrated and where they are being concentrated — psychopaths being concentrated not only in big cities and prisons but worse still in positions of wealth and power, authority and influence. We live in a society that creates the conditions for the Dark Triad to increase and flourish. This is how the success of those born psychopaths encourages others to follow their example in developing into sociopaths, which in turn makes the Dark Triad mindset into a dominant ethos within mainstream culture.

The main thing on my mind is individualism. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, such as in terms of the bundle theory of the mind and the separate individual, connected to my long term interest in community and the social nature of humans. In relation to individualism, there is the millennia-old cultural divide between Germanic ‘freedom‘ and Roman ‘liberty‘. But because Anglo-American society mixed up the two, this became incorrectly framed by Isaiah Berlin in terms of positive and negative. In Contemporary Political Theory, J. C. Johari writes that (p. 266), “Despite this all, it may be commented that though Berlin advances the argument that the two aspects of liberty cannot be so distinguished in practical terms, one may differ from him and come to hold that his ultimate preference is for the defence of the negative view of liberty. Hence, he obviously belongs to the category of Mill and Hayek.”  He states this “is evident from his emphatic affirmation” in the following assertion by Berlin:

“The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this sense or else metaphor. To strive to be free is to seek to remove obstacles; to struggle for personal freedom is to seek to curb interference, exploitation, enslavement by men whose ends are theirs, not one’s own. Freedom, at least in its political sense, is coterminous with the absence of bullying or domination.”

Berlin makes a common mistake here. Liberty was defined by not being a slave in a slave-based society, which is what existed in the Roman Empire. But that isn’t freedom, an entirely different term with an etymology related to ‘friend’ and with a meaning that indicated membership in an autonomous community — such freedom meant not being under the oppression of a slave-based society (e.g., German tribes remaining independent of the Roman Empire). Liberty, not freedom, was determined by one’s individual status of lacking oppression in an oppressive social order. This is why liberty has a negative connotation for it is what you lack, rather than what you possess. A homeless man starving alone on the street with no friend in the world to help him and no community to support him, such a man has liberty but not freedom. He is ‘free’ to do what he wants under those oppressive conditions and constraints, as no one is physically detaining him.

This notion of liberty has had a purchase on the American mind because of the history of racial and socioeconomic oppression. After the Civil War, blacks had negative liberty in no longer being slaves but they definitely did not have positive freedom through access to resources and opportunities, instead being shackled by systemic and institutional racism that maintained their exploited status as a permanent underclass — along with slavery overtly continuing in other forms through false criminal charges leading to prison labor, such that the criminal charges justified blaming the individual for their own lack of freedom which maintained the outward perception of negative liberty. Other populations such as Native Americans faced a similar dilemma. But is one actually free when the chains holding one down are invisible but still all too real? If liberty is an abstraction detached from lived experience and real world results, of what value is such liberty? The nature of negative liberty has always had a superficial and illusory quality about it in how it is maintained through public narrative. Unlike freedom, liberty as a social construct is highly effective as a tool for social control and oppression.

This point is made by another critic of Berlin’s perspective. “It is hard for me to see that Berlin is consistent on this point,” writes L. H. Crocker (Positive Liberty, p. 69). “Surely not all alterable human failures to open doors are cases of bullying. After all, it is often through neglect that opportunities fail to be created for the disadvantaged. It is initially more plausible that all failures to open doors are the result of domination in some sense or another.” I can’t help but think that Dark Triad individuals would feel right at home in a culture of liberty where individuals have the ‘freedom’ to oppress and be oppressed. Embodying this sick mentality, Margaret Thatcher once gave perfect voice to the sociopathic worldview — speaking of the victims of disadvantage and desperation, she claimed that, “They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.” That is to say, there is no freedom.

The question, then, is whether or not we want freedom. A society is only free to the degree that as a society freedom is demanded. To deny society itself is an attempt to deny the very basis of freedom, but that is just a trick of rhetoric. A free people know their own freedom by acting freely, even if that means fighting the oppressors who seek to deny that freedom. Thatcher intentionally conflated society and government, something never heard in the clear-eyed wisdom of a revolutionary social democrat like Thomas Paine“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” These words expressed the values of negative liberty as made perfect sense for someone living in an empire built on colonialism, corporatism, and slavery. But the same words gave hint to a cultural memory of Germanic positive freedom. It wasn’t a principled libertarian hatred of governance, rather the principled radical protest against a sociopathic social order. As Paine made clear, this unhappy situation wasn’t the natural state of humanity, neither inevitable nor desirable, much less tolerable.

The Inuits would find a way for psychopaths to ‘accidentally’ fall off the ice, never to trouble the community again. As for the American revolutionaries, they preferred more overt methods, from tar and feathering to armed revolt. So, now to regain our freedom as a people, what recourse do we have in abolishing the present Dark Triad domination?

* * *

Here are some pieces on individualism and community, as contrasted between far different societies. These involve issues of mental health (from depression to addiction), and social problems (from authoritarianism to capitalist realism) — as well as other topics, including carnival and revolution.

Self, Other, & World

Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past:
The Case for an Ontological Turn
by Greg Anderson

“[…] This ontological individualism would have been scarcely intelligible to, say, the inhabitants of precolonial Bali or Hawai’i, where the divine king or chief, the visible incarnation of the god Lono, was “the condition of possibility of the community,” and thus “encompasse[d] the people in his own person, as a projection of his own being,” such that his subjects were all “particular instances of the chief’s existence.” 12 It would have been barely imaginable, for that matter, in the world of medieval Europe, where conventional wisdom proverbially figured sovereign and subjects as the head and limbs of a single, primordial “body politic” or corpus mysticum. 13 And the idea of a natural, presocial individual would be wholly confounding to, say, traditional Hindus and the Hagen people of Papua New Guinea, who objectify all persons as permeable, partible “dividuals” or “social microcosms,” as provisional embodiments of all the actions, gifts, and accomplishments of others that have made their lives possible.1

“We alone in the modern capitalist west, it seems, regard individuality as the true, primordial estate of the human person. We alone believe that humans are always already unitary, integrated selves, all born with a natural, presocial disposition to pursue a rationally calculated self-interest and act competitively upon our no less natural, no less presocial rights to life, liberty, and private property. We alone are thus inclined to see forms of sociality, like relations of kinship, nationality, ritual, class, and so forth, as somehow contingent, exogenous phenomena, not as essential constituents of our very subjectivity, of who or what we really are as beings. And we alone believe that social being exists to serve individual being, rather than the other way round. Because we alone imagine that individual humans are free-standing units in the first place, “unsocially sociable” beings who ontologically precede whatever “society” our self-interest prompts us to form at any given time.”

What Kinship Is-And Is Not
by Marshall Sahlins, p. 2

“In brief, the idea of kinship in question is “mutuality of being”: people who are intrinsic to one another’s existence— thus “mutual person(s),” “life itself,” “intersubjective belonging,” “transbodily being,” and the like. I argue that “mutuality of being” will cover the variety of ethnographically documented ways that kinship is locally constituted, whether by procreation, social construction, or some combination of these. Moreover, it will apply equally to interpersonal kinship relations, whether “consanguineal” or “affinal,” as well as to group arrangements of descent. Finally, “mutuality of being” will logically motivate certain otherwise enigmatic effects of kinship bonds— of the kind often called “mystical”— whereby what one person does or suffers also happens to others. Like the biblical sins of the father that descend on the sons, where being is mutual, there experience is more than individual.”

Music and Dance on the Mind

We aren’t as different from ancient humanity as it might seem. Our societies have changed drastically, suppressing old urges and potentialities. Yet the same basic human nature still lurks within us, hidden in the underbrush along the well trod paths of the mind. The hive mind is what the human species naturally falls back upon, from millennia of collective habit. The problem we face is we’ve lost the ability to express well our natural predisposition toward group-mindedness, too easily getting locked into groupthink, a tendency easily manipulated.

Considering this, we have good reason to be wary, not knowing what we could tap into. We don’t understand our own minds and so we naively underestimate the power of humanity’s social nature. With the right conditions, hiving is easy to elicit but hard to control or shut down. The danger is that the more we idolize individuality the more prone we become to what is so far beyond the individual. It is the glare of hyper-individualism that casts the shadow of authoritarianism.

Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

I’ve often thought that individualism, in particular hyper-individualism, isn’t the natural state of human nature. By this, I mean that it isn’t how human nature manifested for the hundreds of thosands of years prior to modern Western civilization. Julian Jaynes theorizes that, even in early Western civilization, humans didn’t have a clear sense of separate individuality. He points out that in the earliest literature humans were all the time hearing voices outside of themselves (giving them advice, telling them what to do, making declarations, chastising them, etc), maybe not unlike in the way we hear a voice in our head.

We moderns have internalized those external voices of collective culture. This seems normal to us. This is not just about pacifiers. It’s about technology in general. The most profound technology ever invented was written text (along with the binding of books and the printing press). All the time I see my little niece absorbed in a book, even though she can’t yet read. Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.

All modern civilization is built on this process of individualization. I don’t know if it is overall good or bad. I’m sure much of our destructive tendencies are caused by the relationship between individualization and objectification. Nature as a living world that could speak to us has become mere matter without mind or soul. So, the cost of this process has been high… but then again, the innovative creativeness has exploded as this individualizing process has increasingly taken hold in recent centuries.

“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough, Kindle Locations 3337-3342

“And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.”

Delirium of Hyper-Individualism

Individualism is a strange thing. For anyone who has spent much time meditating, it’s obvious that there is no there there. It slips through one’s grasp like an ancient philosopher trying to study aether. The individual self is the modernization of the soul. Like the ghost in the machine and the god in the gaps, it is a theological belief defined by its absence in the world. It’s a social construct, a statement that is easily misunderstood.

In modern society, individualism has been raised up to an entire ideological worldview. It is all-encompassing, having infiltrated nearly every aspect of our social lives and become internalized as a cognitive frame. Traditional societies didn’t have this obsession with an idealized self as isolated and autonomous. Go back far enough and the records seem to show societies that didn’t even have a concept, much less an experience, of individuality.

Yet for all its dominance, the ideology of individualism is superficial. It doesn’t explain much of our social order and personal behavior. We don’t act as if we actually believe in it. It’s a convenient fiction that we so easily disregard when inconvenient, as if it isn’t all that important after all. In our most direct experience, individuality simply makes no sense. We are social creatures through and through. We don’t know how to be anything else, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

The ultimate value of this individualistic ideology is, ironically, as social control and social justification.

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?
By Mark Fisher, pp. 18-20

“[…] In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS . In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.”

There is always an individual to blame. It sucks to be an individual these days, I tell ya. I should know because I’m one of those faulty miserable individuals. I’ve been one my whole life. If it weren’t for all of us pathetic and depraved individuals, capitalism would be utopia. I beat myself up all the time for failing the great dream of capitalism. Maybe I need to buy more stuff.

“The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.”

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

[…] in the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher (p. 20):

“[…] But incoherence at the level of what Brown calls ‘political rationality’ does nothing to prevent symbiosis at the level of political subjectivity, and, although they proceeded from very different guiding assumptions, Brown argues that neoliberalism and neoconservatism worked together to undermine the public sphere and democracy, producing a governed citizen who looks to find solutions in products, not political processes. As Brown claims,

“the choosing subject and the governed subject are far from opposites … Frankfurt school intellectuals and, before them, Plato theorized the open compatibility between individual choice and political domination, and depicted democratic subjects who are available to political tyranny or authoritarianism precisely because they are absorbed in a province of choice and need-satisfaction that they mistake for freedom.”

“Extrapolating a little from Brown’s arguments, we might hypothesize that what held the bizarre synthesis of neoconservatism and neoliberalism together was their shared objects of abomination: the so called Nanny State and its dependents. Despite evincing an anti-statist rhetoric, neoliberalism is in practice not opposed to the state per se – as the bank bail-outs of 2008 demonstrated – but rather to particular uses of state funds; meanwhile, neoconservatism’s strong state was confined to military and police functions, and defined itself against a welfare state held to undermine individual moral responsibility.”

[…] what Robin describes touches upon my recent post about the morality-punishment link. As I pointed out, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation imagines the possibility of a social order that serves humans, instead of the other way around. I concluded that, “Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.” The neoliberal vision subordinates the individual to the moral order. The purpose of forcing the individual into a permanent state of anxiety and fear is to preoccupy their minds and their time, to redirect all the resources of the individual back into the system itself. The emphasis on the individual isn’t because individualism is important as a central ideal but because the individual is the weak point that must be carefully managed. Also, focusing on the individual deflects our gaze from the structure and its attendant problems.

This brings me to how this relates to corporations in neoliberalism (Fisher, pp. 69-70):

“For this reason, it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Žižek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. But the evasion is actually a two step procedure – since structure will often be invoked (either implicitly or openly) precisely at the point when there is the possibility of individuals who belong to the corporate structure being punished. At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals – but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor. And it is not as if corporations are the deep-level agents behind everything; they are themselves constrained by/ expressions of the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a-subject: Capital.”

Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams

The modern self is not normal, by historical and evolutionary standards. Extremely unnatural and unhealthy conditions have developed, our minds having correspondingly grown malformed like the binding of feet. Our hyper-individuality is built on disconnection and, in place of human connection, we take on various addictions, not just to drugs and alcohol but also to work, consumerism, entertainment, social media, and on and on. The more we cling to an unchanging sense of bounded self, the more burdened we become trying to hold it all together, hunched over with the load we carry on our shoulders. We are possessed by the identities we possess.

This addiction angle interests me. Our addiction is the result of our isolated selves. Yet even as our addiction attempts to fill emptiness, to reach out beyond ourselves toward something, anything, a compulsive relationship devoid of the human, we isolate ourselves further. As Johann Hari explained in Chasing the Scream (Kindle Locations 3521-3544):

There were three questions I had never understood. Why did the drug war begin when it did, in the early twentieth century? Why were people so receptive to Harry Anslinger’s message? And once it was clear that it was having the opposite effect to the one that was intended— that it was increasing addiction and supercharging crime— why was it intensified, rather than abandoned?

I think Bruce Alexander’s breakthrough may hold the answer.

“Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them,” Bruce explained in a lecture in London31 in 2011. “The need to fill an inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era, to a greater or lesser degree.”

A sense of dislocation has been spreading through our societies like a bone cancer throughout the twentieth century. We all feel it: we have become richer, but less connected to one another. Countless studies prove this is more than a hunch, but here’s just one: the average number of close friends a person has has been steadily falling. We are increasingly alone, so we are increasingly addicted. “We’re talking about learning to live with the modern age,” Bruce believes. The modern world has many incredible benefits, but it also brings with it a source of deep stress that is unique: dislocation. “Being atomized and fragmented and all on [your] own— that’s no part of human evolution and it’s no part of the evolution of any society,” he told me.

And then there is another kicker. At the same time that our bonds with one another have been withering, we are told— incessantly, all day, every day, by a vast advertising-shopping machine— to invest our hopes and dreams in a very different direction: buying and consuming objects. Gabor tells me: “The whole economy is based around appealing to and heightening every false need and desire, for the purpose of selling products. So people are always trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in products.” This is a key reason why, he says, “we live in a highly addicted society.” We have separated from one another and turned instead to things for happiness— but things can only ever offer us the thinnest of satisfactions.

This is where the drug war comes in. These processes began in the early twentieth century— and the drug war followed soon after. The drug war wasn’t just driven, then, by a race panic. It was driven by an addiction panic— and it had a real cause. But the cause wasn’t a growth in drugs. It was a growth in dislocation.

The drug war began when it did because we were afraid of our own addictive impulses, rising all around us because we were so alone. So, like an evangelical preacher who rages against gays because he is afraid of his own desire to have sex with men, are we raging against addicts because we are afraid of our own growing vulnerability to addiction?

In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.

I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.

That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.

Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press.

Another thing happened with suppression of festivities. Local community began to break down as power became centralized in far off places and the classes became divided, which Ehrenreich details. The aristocracy used to be inseparable from their feudal roles and this meant participating in local festivities where, as part of the celebration, a king might wrestle with a blacksmith. As the divides between people grew into vast chasms, the social identities held and social roles played became hardened into place. This went along with a growing inequality of wealth and power. And as research has shown, wherever there is inequality also there is found high rates of social problems and mental health issues.

It’s maybe unsurprising that what followed from this was colonial imperialism and a racialized social order, class conflict and revolution. A society formed that was simultaneously rigid in certain ways and destabilized in others. The individuals became increasingly atomized and isolated. With the loss of kinship and community, the cheap replacement we got is identity politics. The natural human bonds are lost or constrained. Social relations are narrowed down. Correspondingly, our imaginations are hobbled and we can’t envision society being any other way. Most tragic, we forget that human society used to be far different, a collective amnesia forcing us into a collective trance. Our entire sense of reality is held in the vice grip of historical moment we find ourselves in.

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

A wide variety of research and data is pointing to a basic conclusion. Environmental conditions (physical, social, political, and economic) are of penultimate importance. So, why do we treat as sick individuals those who suffer the consequences of the externalized costs of society?

Here is the sticking point. Systemic and collective problems in some ways are the easiest to deal with. The problems, once understood, are essentially simple and their solutions tend to be straightforward. Even so, the very largeness of these problems make them hard for us to confront. We want someone to blame. But who do we blame when the entire society is dysfunctional?

If we recognize the problems as symptoms, we are forced to acknowledge our collective agency and shared fate. For those who understand this, they are up against countervailing forces that maintain the status quo. Even if a psychiatrist realizes that their patient is experiencing the symptoms of larger social issues, how is that psychiatrist supposed to help the patient? Who is going to diagnose the entire society and demand it seek rehabilitation?

Winter Season and Holiday Spirit

With this revelry and reversal follows, along with licentiousness and transgression, drunkenness and bawdiness, fun and games, song and dance, feasting and festival. It is a time for celebration of this year’s harvest and blessing of next year’s harvest. Bounty and community. Death and rebirth. The old year must be brought to a close and the new year welcomed. This is the period when gods, ancestors, spirits, and demons must be solicited, honored, appeased, or driven out. The noise of song, gunfire, and such serves many purposes.

In the heart of winter, some of the most important religious events took place. This includes Christmas, of course, but also the various celebrations around the same time. A particular winter festival season that began on All Hallows Eve (i.e., Halloween) ended with the Twelfth Night. This included carnival-like revelry and a Lord of Misrule. There was also the tradition of going house to house, of singing and pranks, of demanding treats/gifts and threats if they weren’t forthcoming. It was a time of community and sharing, and those who didn’t willingly participate might be punished. Winter, a harsh time of need, was when the group took precedence. […]

I’m also reminded of the Santa Claus as St. Nick. This invokes an image of jollity and generosity. And this connects to wintertime as period of community needs and interdependence, of sharing and gifting, of hospitality and kindness. This includes enforcement of social norms which easily could transform into the challenging of social norms.

It’s maybe in this context we should think of the masked vigilantes participating in the Boston Tea Party. Like carnival, there had developed a tradition of politics out-of-doors, often occurring on the town commons. And on those town commons, large trees became identified as liberty trees — under which people gathered, upon which notices were nailed, and sometimes where effigies were hung. This was an old tradition that originated in Northern Europe, where a tree was the center of a community, the place of law-giving and community decision-making. In Europe, the commons had become the place of festivals and celebrations, such as carnival. And so the commons came to be the site of revolutionary fervor as well.

The most famous Liberty Tree was a great elm near the Boston common. It was there that many consider the birth of the American Revolution, as it was the site of early acts of defiance. This is where the Sons of Liberty met, organized, and protested. This would eventually lead to that even greater act of defiance on Saturnalia eve, the Boston Tea Party. One of the participants in the Boston Tea Party and later in the Revolutionary War, Samuel Sprague, is buried in the Boston Common.

There is something many don’t understand about the American Revolution. It wasn’t so much a fight against oppression in general and certainly not about mere taxation in particular. What angered those Bostonians and many other colonists was that they had become accustomed to community-centered self-governance and this was being challenged. The tea tax wasn’t just an imposition of imperial power but also colonial corporatism. The East India Company was not acting as a moral member of the community, in its taking advantage by monopolizing trade. Winter had long been the time of year when bad actors in the community would be punished. Selfishness was not to be tolerated.

Those Boston Tea Partiers were simply teaching a lesson about the Christmas spirit. And in the festival tradition, they chose the guise of Native Americans which to their minds would have symbolized freedom and an inversion of power. What revolution meant to them was a demand for return of what was taken from them, making the world right again. It was revelry with a purpose.

* * *

As addiction is key, below is some other stuff in terms of individualism and social problems, mental health and abnormal psychology. It seems that high rates of addiction are caused by the same and/or related factors involved in depression, anxiety, dark triad, etc. It’s a pattern of dysfunction found most strongly in WEIRD societies and increasingly in other developed societies, such as seen in Japan as the traditional social order breaks down (e.g., increasing number of elderly Japanese dying alone and forgotten). This pattern is seen clearly in the weirdest of WEIRD, such as with sociopathic organizations like Amazon which I bet has high prevalence of addiction among employees.

Drug addiction makes possible human adaptation to inhuman conditions. It’s part of a victimization cycle that allows victimizers to not only take power but to enforce the very conditions of victimization. The first step is isolating the victim by creating a fractured society of dislocation, disconnection, and division. Psychopaths rule by imposing a sociopathic social order, a sociopathic economic and political system. This is the environment in which the dark triad flourishes and, in coping with the horror of it, so many turn to addiction to numb the pain and distress, anxiety and fear. Addiction is the ‘normal’ state of existence under the isolated individualism of social Darwinism and late stage capitalism.

Addiction is the expression of disconnection, the embodiment of isolation. Without these anti-social conditions, the dark triad could never take hold and dominate all of society.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
~ Johann Harri

“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

The New Individualism
by Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert
pp. 117-118

Giddens tells us that reflexivity, powered by processes of globalization, stands closest to autonomy. In a world in which tradition has more thoroughly been swept away than ever before, contingency appears unavoidable. And with contingency comes the potential to remake the world and negotiate lifestyle options — about who to be, how to act, whom to love and how to live together. The promised autonomy of reflexivity is, however, also a problem, since choice necessarily brings with it ambivalence, doubt and uncertainty. There is no way out of this paradox, though of the various, necessarily unsuccessful, attempts people make to avoid the dilemmas of reflexivity Giddens identifies ‘addiction’ as being of key importance to the present age. As he writes:

Once institutional reflexivity reaches into virtually all parts of everyday social life, almost any pattern or habit can become an addiction. The idea of addiction makes little sense in a traditional culture, where it is normal to do today what one did yesterday . . . Addictions, then, are a negative index of the degree to which the reflexive project of the self moves to the centre-stage in late modernity.

Reflexivity’s promise of freedom carries with it the burden of continual choice and deals with all the complexities of emotional life. ‘Every addiction’, writes Giddens, ‘is a defensive reaction, and an escape, a recognition of lack of autonomy that casts a shadow over the competence of the self.’

How Individualism Undermines Our Health Care
from Shared Justice

Addictions Originate in Unhappiness—and Compassion Could Be the Cure
by Gabor Maté

Dislocation Theory of Addiction
by Bruce K. Alexander

Addiction, Environmental Crisis, and Global Capitalism
by Bruce K. Alexander

Healing Addiction Through Community: A Much Longer Road Than it Seems?
by Bruce K. Alexander

What Lab experiments Can Tell Us About The Cause And Cure For Addiction
by Mark

#7 Theory of Dislocation
by Ross Banister

‘The globalisation of addiction’ by Bruce Alexander
review by Mike Jay

The cost of the loneliness epidemic
from Broccoli & Brains

The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think
by Johann Hari

The Politics of Loneliness
by Michael Bader

America’s deadly epidemic of loneliness
by Michael Bader

Addiction and Modernity: A Comment on a Global Theory of Addiction
by Robert Granfield

The Addicted Narcissist: How Substance Addiction Contributes to Pathological Narcissism With Implications for Treatment
by Kim Laurence

Edge of the Depths

“In Science there are no ‘depths’; there is surface everywhere.”
~ Rodolf Carnap

I was reading Richard S. Hallam’s Virtual Selves, Real Persons. I’ve enjoyed it, but I find a point of disagreement or maybe merely doubt and questioning. He emphasizes persons as being real, in that they are somehow pre-existing and separate. He distinguishes the person from selves, although this distinction isn’t necessarily relevant to my thoughts here.

I’m not sure to what degree our views diverge, as I find much of the text to be insightful and a wonderful overview. However, to demonstrate my misgivings, the author only mentions David Hume’s bundle theory a couple of times on a few pages (in a several hundred page book), a rather slight discussion for such a key perspective. He does give a bit more space to Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory, but even Jaynes is isolated to one fairly small section and not fully integrated into the author’s larger analysis.

The commonality between Humes and Jaynes is that they perceived conscious identity as being more nebulous — no there there. In my own experience, that feels more right to me. As one dives down into the psyche, the waters become quite murky, so dark that one can’t even see one’s hands in front of one’s face, much less know what one might be attempting to grasp. Notions of separateness, at a great enough depth, fades away — one finds oneself floating in darkness with no certain sense of distance or direction. I don’t know how to explain this, if one hasn’t experienced altered states of mind, from extended meditation to psychedelic trips.

This is far from a new line of thought for me, but it kept jumping out at me as I read Hallam’s book. His writing is scholarly to a high degree and, for me, that is never a criticism. The downside is that a scholarly perspective alone can’t be taken into the depths. Jaynes solved this dilemma by maintaining a dual focus, intellectual argument balanced with a sense of wonder — speaking of our search for certainty, he said that, “Beyond that, there is only awe.

I keep coming back to that. For all I appreciate of Hallam’s book, I never once experienced awe. Then again, he probably wasn’t attempting to communicate awe. So, it’s not exactly that I judge this as a failing, even if it can feel like an inadequacy from the perspective of human experience or at least my experience. In the throes of awe, we are humbled into an existential state of ignorance. A term like ‘separation’ becomes yet another word. To take consciousness directly and fully is to lose any sense of separateness for, then, there is consciousness alone — not my consciousness and your consciousness, just consciousness.

I could and have made more intellectual arguments about consciousness and how strange it can be. It’s not clear to me, as it is clear to some, that there is any universal experience of consciousness (human or otherwise). There seems to be a wide variety of states of mind found across diverse societies and species. Consider animism that seems so alien to the modern sensibility. What does ‘separation’ mean in an animate world that doesn’t assume the individual as the starting point of human existence?

I don’t need to rationally analyze any of this. Rationality as easily turns into rationalization, justifying what we think we already know. All I can say is that, intuitively, Hume’s bundle theory makes more sense of what I know directly within my own mind, whatever that may say about the minds of others. That viewpoint can’t be scientifically proven for the experience behind it is inscrutable, not an object to be weighed and measured, even as brain scans remain fascinating. Consciousness can’t be found by pulling apart Hume’s bundle anymore than a frog’s soul can be found by dissecting its beating heart — consciousness having a similar metaphysical status as the soul. Something like the bundle theory either makes sense or not. Consciousness is a mystery, no matter how unsatisfying that may seem. Science can take us to the edge of the depths, but that is where it stops. To step off that edge requires something else entirely.

Actually, stepping off rarely happens since few, if any, ever choose to sink into the depths. One slips and falls and the depths envelop one. Severe depression was my initiation experience, the weight dragging me down. There are many possible entry points to this otherness. When that happens, thoughts on consciousness stop being intellectual speculation and thought experiment. One knows consciousness as well as one will ever know it when one drowns in it. If one thrashes their way back to the surface, then and only then can one offer meaningful insight but more likely one is lost in silence, water still choking in one’s throat.

This is why Julian Jaynes, for all of his brilliance and insight, reached the end of his life filled with frustration at what felt like a failure to communicate. As his historical argument went, individuals don’t change their mindsets so much as the social system that maintains a particular mindset is changed, which in the case of bicameralism meant the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations. Until our society faces a similar crises and is collectively thrown into the depths, separation will remain the dominant mode of experience and understanding. As for what might replace it, that is anyone’s guess.

Here we stand, our footing not entirely secure, at the edge of the depths.