Condescension and Mockery

As someone fully capable of harsh criticism with an edge of condescension or mockery, let me explain my personal view. There are rules of etiquette for such things. It’s best if you can somehow include yourself through self-deprecation and self-criticism or even, if you can pull it off with sincerity, a bit of humility. Admittedly, that can be a difficult thing to achieve, but a good balance to aspire toward.

This is why, for example, I like to criticize liberals and the liberal class. I am an unrepentant liberal, was raised in a pansy new agey liberal church, and have spent most of my life in a stereotypical small liberal college town. I’ve earned the right and maybe have an obligation to criticize liberals. I know the problems, failures, and weaknesses of liberalism through intimate personal experience and direct observation.

There is always a note of self-criticism in my criticism of my ideological tribe, liberals. And there is a familiarity and love in even my mockery. These are my people. My criticisms are barbed in a way only possible toward those one knows well, but the barb goes both ways and cuts me as well.

Another tactic is to broaden one’s scope. Be more general in your criticisms. So, if you’re an American, make a general criticism of Americans. Just make sure to clarify you’re making a generalization, something that should always be kept in mind since criticisms easily lead to generalizations. If you’re in a particular bad mood or feeling cynical, to be on the safe side you can include the entire human race in your criticisms—and that way it automatically pertains to you as well.

Sometimes there are harsh criticisms that need to be made, even though it is directed toward a group one doesn’t identify with. This is more tricky. It increases the likelihood of projection, scapegoating, and generally being an asshole spouting clueless opinions. Still, it can be done effectively, if taken with care.

Here is a good rule to go by. You should only make sweeping criticisms about categories people choose to belong to. People are free to identify with ideologies, religions, social movements, etc. What you should be more careful about is criticizing vast demographics of people based on traits they have little or no control over: gender, race, ethnicity, intelligence, place of birth, and other similar things.

This is what makes racism and misogyny so offensive. It is also what is so irritating about dismissing Sanders supporters as Bernie Bros or Trump supporters as white dudes (or worse still as white trash), The fact of the matter is that there is a large population of white men, especially those who are poor, who don’t vote at all—many who are demoralized by the system or even disenfranchised because of mass incarceration. It’s easy to forget that most of the poor, the homeless, welfare recipients, prisoners, and ex-cons are white.

Whites in general and white men in particular are not a homogeneous demographic. Among the white working class vote, the majority still supports Democrats and have done so for decades. The smugness of the liberal class might be changing that, though—not a promising direction for the Democratic Party. If as a Hillary Clinton supporter you are critical because so many lower income whites (I might add not just white men but also lower income minorities and women) have supported Sanders (or else Trump) instead of Clinton, where were your criticisms when that same demographic showed great support for Clinton the white woman over Obama the black man?

If you’re going to try to criticize others for perceived privilege, make sure you’re not doing so from a position of privilege. Besides being condescending, it is hypocritical and unhelpful and plain uncaring.

I have no problem with righteousness. Play that righteousness to the hilt and take it seriously on a moral level. Just make sure you’re being righteous for the right reasons. Be honest with yourself in being honest with others. We need more harsh criticism that is also honest criticism. If you feel genuinely condescending or whatever, express it fully. It’s only when we bring it to the light that we can see it for what it is. Express it and take responsibility for it—own it!

Even if it turns out you’re being an asshole, there is no shame in that. We are all assholes from time to time. In that case, just apologize and readjust your attitude.

Let me give some personal examples of what I’d consider inappropriate for being condescending and mocking in targeting particular groups.

As a white man, it would feel wrong to get haughty and self-righteous in relation to the experience of those I can’t begin to understand, specifically that of minorities and women. Or as an American, to think I know what it’s like to live in another society, no matter race or gender. Then again, I feel the same way about other groups I’m closer to in terms of social experience and identity.

My mother’s family came out of a poor white background, but I didn’t grow up around that social world. Even though I’m white and relatively poor, I don’t live in a poor white community and my immediate family is not of the poor white demographic. I can’t speak for or stand above in judgment toward poor whites in poor white communities. My ignorance and unfamiliarity is too great.

As another example, I did spend much of my younger life in the Deep South (the Carolinas, North and South). I was friends with and dated working class whites, including those who could be labeled as redneck or hillbilly. I still don’t think that gives me the full familiarity and understanding to put myself in a position of full judgment, much less condescension and mockery. I wouldn’t be comfortable with that, in the way I’m comfortable more directly and harshly criticizing my fellow liberals and Midwesterners.

There is a difference that matters. It is too easy and unfair to be demeaning and dismissive toward those you don’t really understand. We should always guard against that trap of closed-minded and prejudiced thinking. Condescension and mockery is often hidden in outward humor, but that can make it all the more hurtful. Our words need to be taken seriously. If we are to be critical in whatever form, we should choose our words carefully and consciously. In picking a worthy target, it’s best to err on the side of speaking truth to power, not kicking the weak while their down.

Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

I often criticize conservatives for their tendency toward higher rates (relative to liberals) of motivated reasoning about political issues. It’s not that conservatives are generally less rational on all issues, rather primarily on political issues. It’s not even that conservatives are less informed, rather that they are more misinformed; in fact, the average conservative is more misinformed to the degree they are more informed, a fact that frustrates me endlessly. From global warming to sex ed, it seems impossible to have a straightforward discussion of the facts.

However, when pointing this all out, I want to be absolutely clear that I’m not denying the failures of liberalism, sadly the failures of liberalism being all too apparent to my liberal-minded sensibility. It’s also become clear to me that most people, especially conservatives, don’t understand the actual weaknesses and problems of liberalism. Liberals often get blamed for the problems of conservatism partly because many conservatives don’t want to take full responsibility for their own issues and also because liberals are prone to acting like conservatives, that latter point being one of the oddest aspects of the social science research.

Before I get into more complex factors, let me point out a simple example of liberal bias. There is one particular area where liberals are most strongly prone to motivated reasoning (Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain, Kindle Locations 6130-6132):

“In fact, although many of the psychology studies that I’ve surveyed seem to capture conservatives engaging in more intense motivated reasoning, liberals have been caught in the act too. I’ve shown that the best predictor of liberal bias, in a controlled motivated reasoning experiment, seems to be egalitarianism—e.g., liberals tend to be biased in favor of disadvantaged groups.”

Altemeyer has research showing authoritarians have higher rates of both social conservatism and hypocrisy. Some research confirms this and other research questions it. Part of the confusion might relate to the differences between hypocrisy and other types of biases. Are liberals also prone to their own version of hypocrisy? If so, how?

It is clear that liberals have biases they are prone to, but it isn’t clear that liberals are as predisposed to hypocrisy. It depends on how it is defined. Authoritarians are hypocritical in that they don’t apply the same standards to all people, and this makes perfect sense as authoritarians use criticism to defend their in-group which has nothing to do with the ideal of fairness. Authoritarians treat people differently when they should treat them the same. Liberals, however, have the opposite problem. Liberals treat people the same even when they maybe should treat people differently. Also, liberals in striving for an egalitarian balance of fairness can end up tipping the scale in the opposite direction. In this case, liberals could be judged as hypocritical in failing to achieve their own standard, instead just creating a different state of inegalitarian unfairness.

A real world result of this liberal failure can be found in affirmative action, what conservatives consider ‘reverse racism’. Going by liberal’s own standards of egalitarianism, many liberals have criticized the problems of affirmative action. What liberals criticize isn’t so much the intent as the result. If affirmative action achieved what it set out to achieve, then there would be no problem for liberals. Conservatives criticize it, instead, for its intent; but disagreeing with the intent doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with hypocrisy.

What interests me is less of how liberalism fails according to the conservative worldview and more how liberalism fails according to the very ideals, standards, and values held by liberals. There are certain attributes of liberal-mindedness that undermine liberalism. In some cases, the strengths are inseparable from the weaknesses. One strength of liberals is ‘openness’ (Jeffery J. Mondak, Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior, Kindle Locations 1214-1221):

“Again, openness to experience partly represents the inverse of dogmatism. People high in openness to experience are not rigid in their own views nor in the expectations they hold for others. Consistent with this depiction, negative correlations have been observed between openness to experience and multiple aspects of prejudice and intolerance. In one recent study with data from the United States and Russia, low openness to experience in both nations corresponded with stigmatizing attitudes toward HIV/AIDS (McCrae et al. 2007). Similarly, other research has identified negative relationships between openness to experience and racial prejudice (Duriez and Soenens 2006; Flynn 2005) and white racial identity (Silvestri and Richardson 2001), authoritarianism (Stenner 2005) and right-wing authoritarianism (Butler 2000; Sibley and Duckitt 2008), political intolerance (Marcus et al. 1995), and homophobia (Cullen, Wright, and Alessandri 2002).”

The research on ‘openness’ fits my own sense of self. I must admit that I’m proud in being less dogmatic, rigid, prejudiced, intolerant, authoritarian, etc. Those all seem like good things to me and I suppose most people in a liberal democracy would at least agree to the merits of ‘openness’ on abstract theoretical grounds. However, liberal-mindedness is defined by other traits as well. For example, liberals measure low on ‘conscientiousness’, a trait like all traits with weaknesses and strengths, but in light of liberalism let me focus on certain strengths that conservatives have in this realm (Mondak, Kindle Locations 1232-1238):

“Unsurprisingly, strong links exist between conscientiousness and job performance. It would be rather odd, after all, for workers who are not dependable, punctual, and hardworking to be named “Employee of the Month” with any great regularity.45 In part, the positive impact of conscientiousness on work performance may reflect the impact of honesty and integrity. In an interesting laboratory study, Horn, Nelson, and Brannick (2004) show a strong correspondence between conscientiousness and honest behavior, whereas Ones, Viswesvaran, and Schmidt (1993) find that integrity is linked positively with job performance and negatively with undesirable work behaviors such as absenteeism and employee theft.”

It’s probably because of ‘conscientiousness’ that conservative values are associated with morality and liberal values with immorality or amorality. Conscientiousness will make someone be the best of whatever they value or idealize. This will make them be hardworking employees, obedient Christians, and dutiful spouses. But this will also make them efficient bureaucrats and lockstep authoritarians. On the liberal side, it is the combination of high ‘openness’ and low ‘conscientiousness’ that leads to what conservatives see as moral relativism. Liberals are flexible and open to change, and this can lead to problems with not seeing morality as black and white, thus potentially turning moral dilemmas into stumbling blocks. Conservatives would morally fail by not questioning rules and commands whereas liberals fail for constantly being in a state of doubt and questioning, plus general curiosity about what is forbidden.

It’s this combination of factors that probably makes liberals more open to alternative views and new info, hence less misinformed about political issues (liberals are maybe no less likely to either be smart or be idiots, but they are less often ‘smart idiots’ — see smart idiot effect). This probably also would be the reason behind liberals being less partisan and more willing to compromise. Liberals aren’t known for their loyalty, even to liberal ideology. Liberalism is anti-authoritarianism which means liberals have a harder time effectively organizing; as it has been described, like trying to herd cats. Liberals dislike rigid hierarchies and strict chains-of-command, dislike strong traditional authority figures. All this makes political activism a bit on the challenging side.

Compare the Tea Party movement to the Occupy movement. The Tea Party, even with in-fighting, had clear leadership take over the movement, what from the liberal perspective seemed like a coopting of grassroots activism, but it was effective. The Tea Party elected many politicians into power. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, spent as much or more time simply making sure every person’s voice was heard in an egalitarian democratic fashion. They created hand signals to ensure communication. They created a sense of true grassroots activism that wasn’t co-opted like the Tea Party. Precisely for these reasons, Occupy hasn’t become a force in Washington like the Tea Party, despite it’s mass support from the American public.

This is where the real problems begin for liberals, beyond the basic challenges of organizing. Liberals are so flexible and so willing to change that they end up being prone to undermine their own liberal nature. On the opposite end, conservatives are so much less flexible and less willing to change that they are more effective in resisting what liberalism offers. This liberal weakness and conservative strength makes liberalism an easy target of anti-liberal tactics such as emotional manipulation and propaganda, especially in terms of fear and disgust which are the foundations of the conservative predisposition and moralistic ideology. Basically, when liberals are overly stressed to the point of feeling overwhelmed, they turn into conservatives:

Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities
John T. Jost, Christopher M. Federico, & Jaime L. Napier

“Given that nearly everyone wants to achieve at least some degree of certainty, is it possible that conservatism possesses a natural psychological advantage over liberalism? Although answering this question is obviously fraught with challenges, several lines of research suggest that this might be the case. First, a series of experiments by Skitka et al. (2002) demonstrated that “the default attributional position is a conservative response,” insofar as both liberals and conservatives are quick to draw individualistic (rather than system-level) conclusions about the causes of poverty, unemployment, disease, and other negative outcomes, but only liberals correct their initial response, taking into account extenuating circumstances. When a distraction (or cognitive load) is introduced, making it difficult for liberals to engage in correction processes, they tend to blame individuals for their fate to the same degree that conservatives do. Skitka et al. (2002) therefore concluded, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (p. 484; see also Kluegel & Smith 1986, Skitka 1999). Research by Crandall & Eidelman (2007) takes this general line of reasoning even further, showing that a host of everyday variables associated with increased cognitive load and/or increased need for cognitive closure, such as drinking alcohol, lead people to become more politically conservative. Both of these lines of research are consistent with the notion that conservative styles and opinions are generally simpler, more internally consistent, and less subject to ambiguity, in comparison with liberal styles and opinions (e.g., Tetlock 1983, 2007; Rokeach 1960; Tetlock 1983, 2007). A third reason to suggest that conservatism enjoys a psychological advantage over liberalism comes from research on system justification, which suggests that most people (including liberals) are motivated to adapt to and even rationalize aspects of the status quo, that is, to develop and maintain relatively favorable opinions about existing institutions and authorities and to dismiss or reject the possibility of change, especially in its more radical forms (Jost et al. 2004a). Studies show that justifying the status quo serves the palliative function of increasing positive affect, decreasing negative affect, and making people happier in general, but it also undermines support for social change and the redistribution of resources (Jost & Hunyady 2002, Napier & Jost 2008a, Wakslak et al. 2007).” [ . . . ]

“Although it is abundantly clear that processes associated with social identification, partisanship, and group interest can exert political influence in both liberal and conservative directions (e.g., Bartels 2000, Cohen 2003, Green et al. 2002), Jost et al. (2008a) speculated that—as with epistemic and existential motives—some relational motives could favor conservative outcomes in general. This is broadly consistent with the commonly held notion that conservatives are especially likely to value tradition, conformity, social order, and consensual adherence to rules, norms, and conventions (e.g., Altemeyer 1998, Conover & Feldman 1981, Feldman 2003, Haidt & Graham 2007, Jost 2006). It is also consistent with the assumption that it is generally easier to establish common ground with respect to the status quo than with respect to its many possible alternatives and to communicate effectively by transmitting messages that are relatively simple and unambiguous rather than reflecting the kind of complex, nuanced, and perhaps ambivalent cognitive and rhetorical styles that seem to be more common on the political left than the right (see Jost et al. 2008a).”

As a movement, liberalism rarely ever suffers from the condition of being too liberal for conditions have to be perfect for the liberal predisposition to fully manifest. Such perfect conditions don’t come around that often and they tend not to last very long. In moments of peace and prosperity, the general public can forget about possible threats and their emotional response becomes dampened, a contented optimism taking its place. Such a moment occurred after the Great Depression and once again after WWII, but after those brief moments conservatism ruled during the Cold War Era and into the post-9/11 Era. Liberals have at best hunkered down and at worst given their support to the conservative agenda (pushing deregulation, dismantling the welfare state, building up the military, going to war against Iraq, supporting the Patriot Act, maintaining Gitmo, empowering the executive branch, etc). Sadly, the liberal movement doesn’t make much of a worthy enemy for the conservative movement. Conservative leaders just have to say “Booh!” and liberal leaders run for cover.

One of the difficulties with liberalism is that liberal values are more dependent on higher abstract thinking while conservative values have an emotional punch that hits people in the guts. It’s because of the abstract nature of liberal values that many don’t even see them as being moral values at all or else only moral in their relation to conservative values. Conservatives are very good at political rhetoric, as Lakoff and others have noted. The results of this is that most Americans self-identify as conservatives, despite the fact that most Americans support liberal policies; both the public opinion polls and social science research support this conclusion — (another quote from the above linked Political Ideology paper):

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

This situation creates a major disadvantage for liberals. Many liberals don’t understand why it doesn’t work to rationally discuss the issues and objectively analyze the facts. Liberals haven’t yet learned (assuming they ever will learn)  how to use rhetoric as effectively as conservatives. Maybe there is something about the liberal predisposition that makes this a weakness. Maybe the intellectualizing tendencies of the ‘openness’ trait causes liberals to get stuck in abstract thinking and so they can’t really grasp gut-level symbolism. As explained by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler in their book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (Kindle Locations 1275-1280):

“Many have observed over the past two decades that Democrats insist on fighting “on the issues” (Tomasky zoo4). But it is perhaps better to conceive this approach as emphasizing the programmatic dimension of issues, while Republicans have done battle on their symbolic aspects. Building on President Clinton’s record of military deployment in the 19gos, Vice President Al Gore proposed significantly larger defense budgets than did George W. Bush in their contest for the presidency in zooo. Bush notably articulated a foreign policy doctrine of restraint, including his oft-noted insistence that he was opposed to “nation-building.” But the public did not see this as evidence that the Democrats are “tough” on defense because the public was not forming judgments based on careful inspection of policy differences. Instead, it drew on symbolic understandings of the parties that had been developing over decades.”

Liberals are perceived as weak. This perception has less to do with actual policies or issues of character. Al Gore was even a veteran while George W. Bush was a draft-dodger. But none of that matters in terms of political rhetoric. Bush was seen as being strong on military simply because he had a more masculine persona whereas Al Gore seemed like a pansy intellectual. Despite the superficiality of this public perception, there is a truth behind it. On average, liberals are less decisive and conservatives more decisive. This is why liberal ‘opennesss’ is in such polar opposition to authoritarianism. As such, liberals are weak in that they aren’t domineering.

If Al Gore had been elected president, even with being strong on the military, he probably would’ve been less prone to start wars of aggression like Bush did. Bush attacking Iraq on false premises was both illegal and immoral, but nonetheless it was certainly decisive. Bush in playing the conservative role of being strong did indeed assert America’s military strength, although the wisdom of such an act is questionable… questionable that is to a liberal who would more likely stop to ask questions before acting, especially before acting out of blind rage and vengeance. A pansy intellectual veteran like Al Gore probably would have been a more wise commander-in-chief, not that the American people necessarily value wisdom all that much.

When you want action, conservatives are who you want. Conservatives will act quickly and they will follow through. This decisive strength comes from their low ‘openness’ and high ‘conscientiousness’. Sometimes that is precisely what is needed. If this past decade we had been fighting an authoritarian leader like Hitler, Bush might have made an awesome commander-in-chief. He would’ve sent in American troops to kick ass and take names. But conservatives aren’t well-equipped for less black-and-white situations as we now face where the enemy is hard to determine and even harder to find.

Still, I can’t exactly blame people for turning to conservatives for a clear sense of certainty and direction. It’s simply a fact that liberals aren’t overly talented in this department. Liberals typically do make weak leaders, especially during times of conflict and uncertainty. Obama, for example, has appeared weak because he acts weak, always begging his opponents for cooperation, always willing to compromise on every ideal he espouses and every promise he makes. The only advantage Obama has is that his pathetically weak liberal leadership is refreshing after the massive failures of the conservative style of strong leadership.

It’s this liberal weakness that makes liberalism so hard to understand. The trait ‘openness’ can lead to chameleon-like behavior. This is why it is easier for a liberal to act like a conservative than a conservative to act like a liberal. To a certain extent, when a liberal acts like a conservative for all intents and purposes he is actually being a conservative. It is confusing trying to figure out who is a liberal. I often say Obama isn’t a liberal. In terms of policies, he follows the examples of conservatives, even his health care reform is modeled after the plan developed by Republicans. Obama doesn’t even identify as a liberal and yet he is considered the figurehead of the liberal movement. However, in terms of personality, I have no doubt that Obama would measure higher on ‘openness’ than George W. Bush and lower on ‘conscientiousness’ than John McCain… and so, at least in that sense, Obama is relatively liberal-minded.

In practical terms, this chameleon-like behavior means there has probably never been a consistent application of liberal ideology at any point in history. You might say that most liberals are simply conservatives who sometimes don’t act like conservatives. The failure of liberalism, like the failure of much of the Left in general, is that it has never been fully attempted. Maybe liberalism by nature could never be entirely implemented. Liberalism is weak because it requires perfect conditions to manifest, a slight change in the weather and it wilts. Liberals talk a good game with their idealism, but the uninspiring disorganization of liberals can never compete with the authoritarian-leaning organizational skills of conservatives.

All that liberals are really good for is moderating the extremism of the Right, keeping it from going all the way over the edge to authoritarianism. This is where the misunderstanding is the greatest. Liberalism isn’t just a mirror image of conservatism, rather liberalism relates to conservatism at an angle. In terms of the Left-Right spectrum, liberalism is actually closer to the center between the extremes. It can play this moderating role because of its ability to more easily switch attitudes. Liberalism is less about a specific ideology. What liberalism does is focus on how things relate and thus playing the middle. There is a liminal quality in this, neither fully this nor that.

This is why strong ideologues, both left-wingers and right-wingers, so often strongly criticize liberalism. Liberals don’t want left-wing revolution and they don’t want right-wing counterrevolution. Liberals just want everyone to get along. This makes sense because liberals can only be themselves during times of peace and prosperity. The moment liberals feel threatened, they simply stop being liberals. The reason liberals promote such things as democracy is that they want to create a world where liberalism isn’t constantly under attack, but this ideal has never and may never come to be. The democracy we have is half-assed at best, constantly being undermined by illiberal and anti-liberal forces.

Liberalism is weak and liberals know it. Liberalism can never win through force and conservatives know it.

Stephen Bloom & Iowa: 2 Anecdotes

The other night I was talking with someone about Stephen Bloom’s article about Iowa. This person graduated from UI for journalism. She didn’t take any classes from Professor Bloom and she hadn’t read the recent article by him, but she did work in the same building as him. She interacted with him enough to have formed an opinion of him as a person.

Going by her description, he doesn’t sound like a nice person. The two anecdotes she offered showed him as being very confrontational and judgmental.

The first anecdote was when she was working in the same building. She needed to get office supplies and so went down to the office supply room. With the supplies in hand, she got back on the elevator where Bloom now was. He accused her of stealing office supplies for no apparent reason, besides her carrying office supplies. It was her job to get office supplies which is why she had a key that allowed to her to open the office supply room. Bloom simply saw a student with office supplies and somehow just knew this person was guilty.

This girl, by the way, is very normal looking and a life-long Iowan. She doesn’t have crazy hair, doesn’t have tatoos, doesn’t dress in any odd way. She doesn’t do drugs or look like someone who does drugs, especially not meth. She has perfectly fine teeth, not yellow or decaying or fallen out. If anything, she is so blandly normal looking as to be easily not noticed. Bloom apparently is just generally suspicious of all Iowans. Since all Iowans are poverty-stricken meth-heads, it follows that they need to steal office supplies to support their habits.

The second anecdote she heard from a friend who took Bloom’s class. He presented a news article about a guy who hanged himself. The article apparently described the incident in some detail and was well written. He asked the class what they thought of it. Many pointed out that it was well written. Bloom then said that the person who died was his friend and he verbally attacked all the students who had made positive comments about the article. After that, he presented a letter-to-the-editor by what I think was the young daughter of the deceased and he praised the letter.

Bloom thought it was mean of the journalist to heartlessly describe the man’s death, but he the implication seems to be that he thought the emotional and subjective expression of the girl was somehow good journalism. This is ironic considering that Bloom was similarly inconsiderate toward Iowans in his recent article, filled with bigoted stereotypes. The difference, though, is that the journalist describing the death was being accurate and Bloom made up a lot of his facts and details… or else over-generalized and exaggerated. Also, it is odd that Bloom believes emotional subjectivity is better than factual journalism. It is apparent that Bloom takes many things personally and so writes his own journalism from a subjective rather than objective position.

Literary Criticism and Science

Literary Criticism and Science

Posted on Nov 29th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Explorer Marmalade

Boston Globe logo

Measure for Measure

Literary criticism could be one of our best tools for understanding the human condition. But first, it needs a radical change: embracing science

By Jonathan Gottschall

Access_public Access: Public 2 Comments Print Post this!views (86)  

starlight : StarLight Dancing

about 3 hours later

starlight said

i agree…joy*

Marmalade : Gaia Child

about 6 hours later

Marmalade said

I agree too.  I love fiction and I love reading criticism about fiction, but there is often something lacking.  Art and science need not be opposed.

I found many reviews of this article and there was some resistance to his proposal.  He has obviously hit a nerve.  The artists on the defense of their territory.

I don’t think Gottschall was saying that traditional theorizing is bad.  What I think he means is that theories should be treated as tentative hypotheses rather than as facts.  Subjective insight and personal opinion is perfectly valid, but there is no reason that more objective means need to be denied.  Even scientists have subjective insights and personal opinions, and then they test them when possible.

One reviewer thought Gottschall missed the point.  The reviewer said that Gottschall wasn’t saying anything that wasn’t obvious to commonsense.  I would agree that the examples he used seem commonsense to me, but obviously they don’t to decades of literary critics. 

Even if it is commonsense, it doesn’t necessarily mean its true.  That is where scientific research comes in.  Science is filled with examples of the seemingly obvious turning out to be false 

One critic of Gottschall said that as an academic he didn’t want to be forced to do tedious research.  That is fine and no one as yet is forcing academics to do this.  Different academics can focus on different aspects.  However, the most simple of theories must be tested by someone which is tedious, but that is strength of science… slow but sure.  There hasn’t been much scientific research on literature and so the early research is unlikely to be exciting.

In a way, Gottschall isn’t saying anything all that new.  The early psychologists were attempting to make their field reputable by grounding myth and the storytelling impulse within the psyche… which then could be scientifically studied.  Since then, evolutionary theories have been incorporated to give the needed scientific context for considering possible explanations.  How the blank slate view of the mind ever became popular is beyond me.

Glenn Beck: My Personal Response

I’ve been highly critical of Glenn Beck.  I feel that this criticism is deserved, but it’s also exaggerated by my depressive nature which leads me to be cynical and easily irritated.  Also, my depressive nature exaggerates my idealistic tendencies, and as I perceive Beck he stands in opposition to many things I deeply value.

There are many things I value.  Some things I value simply because they make life bearable such as entertaining distractions and personal space.  But other things I value because they give my life meaning and purpose, and without them I’d feel utterly lost.

One of my greatest values is my ideal of truth.  My definition of truth is wide including intelligence, intellectual humility, curiosity, self-honesty, authenticity, etc.  From my perspective, Beck doesn’t seem to live up to these values.  And at times it seems to me that he holds certain values that entirely oppose my own.  For example, when Beck is trying to convey what he considers to be the truth, he’ll often go in to conspiracy theory mode and he takes massive leaps of logic.  His relationship to objectivity and facts is very loose.  I don’t get the sense that he values truth above belief, and so his version of truth seems to be anything that serves his ideological agenda.

It’s not that Beck is the worse example that could be found, but his example is important as the media attention he gets in the US is only second to the president.  I don’t feel Beck deserves the attention he gets and I think he has a negative influence on public debate.  On the personal side, Beck simply depresses me.  Just knowing he exists and is being listened to depresses me.

The irony is that some people perceive Beck as being authentic and sincere when he rants.  I suppose I somewhat understand.  At times, Beck does seem to lack the ability to self-censor.  To some people, thinking before speaking is considered untrustworthy.  Obama’s good speaking skills are a major reason why some don’t like him.  The assumption is that if someone speaks well they’re not telling it like it is.  In this equation, bluntness equals honesty and lack of tact equals authenticity.  Related to this is anti-intellectualism.  The idea is that book-smart people are more capable of being deceptive or else that they’re just being haughty elites who don’t care about normal Americans.

So, this was the appeal of Bush jr and Palin.  Palin seems like the genuine article as she clearly represents the rural religious right “white culture” (which is a quickly shrinking demographic), but Bush jr’s simple country boy behavior and speech wasn’t really how he was raised.  He didn’t grow up on a rural farm in Texas and I’m sure he didn’t talk that way in Ivy league college, but still it was a very convincing routine.

Similarly, I see Beck’s behavior as an act.  He has been a professional entertainer his entire adult life.  Acting isn’t inherently inauthentic, but Beck’s act feels inauthentic because he is using his acting ability to influence people in a way that to me feels manipulative.  Some people take his theatrics as real and his emotional charisma does make his theatrics very convincing.  Also, the fact that Beck believes his own act (and has become identified with his entertainer persona) makes it all the more reprehensible.

Am I being unfair?  I will admit that Beck is authentic in at least two ways.  First, it does seem that his emotions are sincere in that he expresses what he actually feels, but without self-awareness this leads to insincere projection of emotions.  Too much of his populist anger seems like scapegoating.  That relates to the second aspect of his authenticity.  Many people are feeling afraid about where the world is heading and that is an honest response.  Beck is connecting with something true in the experience of many people, but even so fear-mongering isn’t helpful and in fact can be dangerous. 

I know that I’m being overly critical.  Just as Beck projects his unhappiness onto Obama, I’m sure I’m projecting my unhappiness onto Beck.  That is what people do.  The difference, though, is that I don’t have great influence on the American public.  Also, I’m self-aware enough to realize my criticisms are biased.  I express my emotions, but then I look at them objectively and try to separate them from my arguments.

Glenn Beck isn’t evil.  Beck may be an attention-whore and rabble-rouser, but in his own way he means well.  Beck is the type of person who is able to connect well with the public and because of this we should hold him up to a higher moral standard.  I think Beck is comparable to Bush or Palin in this sense.  All of them mean well in their own way, but there is also a willing naivette about them that makes them easily used as pawns by people who are more conniving.  Bush was manipulated by the likes of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld.  Palin was used by McCain and the entire Republican party.  And Beck has been one of the many puppets of Roger Aisles and Rupert Murdoch.

I can’t say that I’m morally superior to Glenn Beck as I have plenty of my own faults, but I do try to be fair.  I don’t want to scapegoat Glenn Beck in the way that he has scapegoated others.  It’s certain attitudes and beliefs that I’m against, and Beck just happens to be the most vocal spokesperson at the moment.

So, let me be clear.  I don’t doubt that Beck has the potential for doing good.  Everyone has all kinds of potential.  I just wish Beck would be more clear about what he is for rather than what he is against.  He strongly dislikes the government.  I get it and I agree, but stopping at angry populism doesn’t do much for me.

A major part of my issue is that at the end of the day I don’t know what Beck is trying to accomplish and exactly what standpoint he is taking.  Is he a libertarian or not?  Is he a religious extremist or not?  Is he a conspiracy theorist or not?  Is he a tool of the Republican party or not?  Beck has too many hats that can’t be worn at the same time.  If he wants to be independent of all such labels, then he should start by immediately removing himself from any association to Fox.  And if Beck wants to be taken seriously as pro-American patriot, then he should respect the multi-racial and inter-racial “non-white cultures” that are becoming the new majority culture.  Don’t pretend to love America if you hate half of the people who live in America.

I’ll make one last point.  Despite my dislike, some of Beck’s sentiment resonates with me.  I don’t feel the government represents me.  And I don’t feel the media represents me.  But the problem with Beck as a critic is that he is one of the major voices both in the mainstream media and in public debate about politics.  Beck is one of the major influences that has helped to create a very negative atmosphere in politics.  And Beck’s popularity is representative of how tv news has lost focus on what is good journalism.  Fr0m my perspective, Beck is part of the problem he complains about.  What depresses me is that I don’t feel anyone in the “respectable” mainstream represents me including those like Beck complaining about it all.  Comedy Central probably represents me better than all of the news networks combined.

Hybrid Books

Curling Up With Hybrid Books, Videos Included
By Motoko Rich
(The New York Times)

The article is decently informative, but it doesn’t offer much analysis.  I found it irritating how the author concluded.  There are always critics of every new technology.  Experts and others have been warning about the death of the book for the last century and the book industry is still very profitable.

Video (or hyperlinks or whatever) aren’t going to destroy people’s ability to read text.  People will still have the choice to read books with plain text.  This merely increases the options.

Videos don’t make people stupid.  Every technology demands different kinds of intelligence.  Even video games increase intelligence.  These new hybrid books will make reading more interactive which will most definitely increase intelligence.

However, it’s very rare to see an intelligent criticism of evolving technology.  People were complaining about written text when it was replacing oral culture.  There were those who believe telephones and television would destroy society when they were invented.  Change is change.  Get over it and quit complaining.

Criticisms of Spiral Dynamics

I’m actually a major fan of Spiral Dynamics, but I’m more of a fan in terms of serious intellectual interest which still allows for plenty of room for doubt.  I’m a curious guy and Spiral Dynamics is just one theory, one possibility.  I love models that bring order or demonstrate a pattern to some realm of human experience.  I do intuitively sense that there is some truth to Spiral Dynamics.  However, I’m always a bit wary of broad generalizations.  And so…

Criticisms of Spiral Dynamics (from the Wikipedia article on Spiral Dynamics)

Critics point out that the model’s implications are political as well as developmental and that while the terminology of the theory is self-consciously inclusive, the practical implications of the model can be seen as socially elitist and authoritarian.[2] In their work on the subject, Beck emphasizes that one of the characteristics of “tier two” individuals, also called “Spiral Wizards“, is their ability to make superior decisions for all parties concerned and to manufacture consent for their approaches at lower levels using resonant terms and ideas. In addition to outlining an underlying developmental theory, Spiral Dynamics gives explicit suggestions to these “Wizards” for both consensual and non-consensual management of “lower-tier” individuals. One critic of Spiral Dynamics, Michel Bauwens, has argued that some conceptions of what it means to be “second tier” have come to resemble Nietzsche‘s idea of the Übermensch.[3] Co author Cowan no longer supports the ideas of his ex-partner Beck.

The emphasis Spiral Dynamics places on exercising power derived from greater developmental attainments has also been characterized as derivative of a number of other past political theories emphasizing decision-making by a select elite, including Plato‘s idealization of the philosopher king.[citation needed] It should also be noted that, within this paradigm, Spiral Dynamics is itself characterized as a “second tier” concept, implicitly flattering those who support the theory and potentially inviting confirmation biases.[citation needed]

Further, some criticisms of Spiral Dynamics have been dismissed as expressions of lower-level memes, particularly the “mean green meme.” This internal refutation of external critiques was one of philosopher Karl Popper‘s criteria for establishing that a system of belief is non-falsifiable and for distinguishing non-science from genuine scientific theory.[4]

Some critics dispute the universality of deeper linear or emergent transitions as proposed in Spiral Dynamics, due to the high degree of variation they see among human cultures over time. The claim that humans have changed systemically on psycho-social dimensions, such as self concept or the human propensity and reasons for self sacrifice, over the time period proposed in Spiral Dynamics, is not supported by mainstream anthropology, the social sciences, or evolutionary biology.[5]

Thomas Verenna: Character and Scholarship

The blogger hambydammit on his blog Life Without a Net posted a book recommendation of Thomas Verenna’s new book Of Men and Muses (here).  I’ve left a few comments:

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I understand he is a friend and so you obviously have a different kind of relationship with him than others who’ve known him from online. Even so, I think it’s unfair of you to imply that only one person ruined his credibility. I’ve seen him around in many discussions and he has a way of irritating all kinds of people and let me say it has nothing to do with being smarter than everyone else. He apparently lacks certain practical interpersonal skills.

I originally knew of him through his alias and didn’t know his real name. I accidentally came across his blog without realizing who he was and he acted like a righteous know-it-all. He seemed unable to admit when he didn’t know something. That isn’t to say that he isn’t intelligent. I generally agreed with much that he said, but he just had such a disagreeable personality… or at least that is how he seems online… maybe he’s more easygoing and friendly in normal life.

Anyways, I won’t judge his scholarship based on his personality. I’ll check for some more reviews of his book and see what others think. His name is well enough known in the onine biblical studies community and so publicity shouldn’t be a problem. This book will be the test of whether his scholarship can actually stand up to criticism.

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Sounds like you have a balanced attitude. I have a couple of responses to Verenna.

First, many people have criticized him of making dishonest and misleading statements (from plagiarism to claiming he knows what he doesn’t). I can’t verify many of these criticisms, but in my own dealings with him he does seem to lack humility and an openness to new perspectives. He certainly doesn’t take criticism well and practically invites people to dismiss him in his own dismissal of others.

Second, I do give his scholarship a chance as Robert M. Price reviews his work positively. I respect Price, but I mistrust Verenna’s using Price as a reference for his own views. Verenna dismissed out of hand the work of D.M. Murdock all the while admitting he had never read her work, but in the same discussion throws out the name of Price. The problem is that Price changed from criticism to praise once he read Murdock’s work and even wrote an introduction to one of Murdock’s books. Verenna’s attitude toward Murdock (who has more respectable credentials than he does) demonstrates an intellectual sloppiness not to mention an unfounded righteousness that is just plain annoying.

So, I’m mixed. He does have some intelligence and there is potential that he might add something worthy to the discussion of biblical studies. For me, the jury is still out. I’ll keep my eyes out for further book reviews before deciding whether to buy this book.

 – – –

I generally agree with your attitude.  I’m not a fan of web drama and haven’t directly been involved with the conflicts involving Verenna, but it seems that Verenna himself wasn’t shy about web drama and at least in the past was a willing partner to some of the conflict.

I tend to ignore criticisms if I only hear them once or only from one person.  However, the criticisms of Verenna involve large numbers of people in very extensive discussions on respectable forums.  It’s hard to ignore.

Even so, I still would’ve not given much credence to it all if he didn’t act the way he did in the discussions I had with him.  I judge him on my personal experience (when I didn’t even know who he was and so I wasn’t judging him based on any preconceived biases about his character).  It isn’t ad hominem.  He in fact dismissed authors he himself admitted to having not read.  So, that much would seem to be a fact.

It is clear to me that he does (unless he has remedied the situation by further study) lack knowledge about certain issues he speaks about authoritatively (and so that fairly places doubt on his scholarship in general).  If he hasn’t read Murdock, he shouldn’t claim to have a worthy opinion.  Both Price and Murdock have more credentials than he does, and Price respects Murdock.  None of this is ad hominem or mere web drama.  This is a fact, but I’m open to this fact being revised (by either his recanting his uninformed judgment or else by informing his judgment on this matter).  I truly hope he has studied further since I last interacted with him, but in order for that to happen he’d first have to humbly admit he lacked knowledge about it.  Personality issues only rub me the wrong way when they influence a person’s intellectual ability.

Valid criticisms can’t be ignored as just web drama.  It’d be much easier to ascertain the worth of Verenna’s scholarhip if he himself had originally ignored (rather than fed) the web drama.  His scholarship is mired in web drama because of his own actions.  As a counter-example, Price has managed to remain above the fray of web drama and his scholarship is clearly respectable partly for that very reason.

However, it does appear that Verenna is trying to become more respectable.  I wish him well in that endeavor.  Maybe this book is a step in that direction.  If his scholarship is worthy, then I’m more than happy to consider his viewpoint.  So far, I’ve looked around at the book reviews and haven’t seen any in-depth analysis of what he writes about.  He does seem to have a few people who strongly support him and so I’m hoping one of them will go into more detail.  I look forward to seeing more discussion.

 – – –

I understand your perspective.  I don’t care that much about the web stuff other than I tend to look at multiple viewpoints when researching a subject.  It’s basically impossible to do a web search about multiple perspectives without coming across web drama.  I mostly avoid web drama and it was an accident that I came across Verenna’s blog.

I’m more interested in the questions than specific answers.  At the same time, I’m interested in how questions are asked and how answers pursued.  Specifically about Verenna, I am extremely curious about the subject he writes about and my views aren’t too far off from his.

I guess that I’m just not sure at the moment what his scholarship offers in respect to the scholarship of others.  There are quite a few active authors who write about mythicism and who are critical of literalism.  Is he adding new insight… if so, precisely what insight?  Or is he writing for laymen and so bringing clarity to a complex subject?  Either insight or clarity is worthy, but a little of both would be wonderful.

I would buy his book right now, but I’m not as yet prepared to spend the money and time on it.  Sadly, I can’t read everything that catches my attention.  I truly am hoping that his book sparks discussion because then I could better see what he is bringing to the table.