Beyond Our Present Knowledge

When talking about revolutions of the mind, the most well known examples come from the past. The names that get mentioned are those like Galileo and Copernicus or, more recently, Darwin and Einstein. Most often, radical new theories and paradigms aren’t immediately recognized for what they are. It can take generations or even centuries for their contributions to be fully appreciated and for the full impact to be felt.

John Higgs argues that the entire twentieth century has been a period of rupture, when multiple lines of change merged. I agree with him. On a regular basis, I find myself wondering about how little we know and to what extent we are wrong about we think we know. There has never before been an era during which our understanding about the world and about ourselves has changed so dramatically and so quickly. And there is no sign in this trend abating, if anything quickening.

Some futurists see this leading toward a singularity, a tipping point beyond which everything will be transformed. It could happen. I wouldn’t bet against it. Still, I’m more neutral than optimistic about the end results. The future will be known in the future. The present is interesting enough, as it is, no matter where it will lead.

My focus has always been on a particular kind of thinker. I’m interested not just in those minds with a penchant for the alternative but more importantly those with probing insight. I like those who ask hard questions and considered challenging possibilities, throwing open the windows in the attic to let out the musty smell of old ideas.

That is why I spend so much time contemplating the likes of Julian Jaynes. Some consider him an oddball while others look to him as an inspiration or even a visionary. However you describe him, he was first and foremost a scholar of the highest order. Even as he crossed fields of knowledge, he presented his thoughts with firm logic and solid evidence. You can disagree with the case he made, but you have to give him credit for proposing the kind of theory few would even be capable of attempting. Besides that, he inspired and provoked other serious scholars and writers to take up his ideas or to consider other unconventional lines of thought.

For the same reason, I’ve had an even longer interest in Carl Jung. He was a similar wide-ranging thinker who came out of the psychological field, one of the greatest investigators of the human mind. He was likewise highly influential, an inspiration to generations of thinkers both within and outside of psychology. As I’ve mentioned previously, an unusual line of influence was that of his personality theory as it was developed by anthropologists in their own theorizing about and comparison of cultures. By way of Ruth Benedict and E.R. Dodds, that set the stage for Jayne’s focus on ancient cultures.

Let me share two other examples, limited to a single field of study. Corey Robin and Domenico Losurdo political theorists. The former made a powerful argument, in The Reactionary Mind, that conservatism isn’t what it seems. And the latter made a powerful argument, in Liberalism: A Counter-History, that liberalism isn’t what it seems. If either or both of them turn out to be even partly right about their theories, then much of the mainstream American discussion about ideology might be skewed at best and useless at worst. It could mean we have based nearly our entire political system on false ideas and confused beliefs.

While I’m at it, here are two more examples. More in line with Jaynes, there is Daniel Everett. And of an entirely different variety, there is Jacques Vallée. One is a linguist who was trained to become a missionary to the natives, specifically the Pirahã. The other was a respected astronomer who wandered into the territory of UFO research (an interest of Jung’s as well, as he saw it as symbolic of a new consciousness emerging). Both became influential thinkers because they came across anomalous information and chose not to ignore it. Everett more than met his match when he tried to convert the Pirahã, instead having found himself losing his religion and learning from them, and in the process he ended up challenging the entire field of linguistics. Vallée, a hard-nosed scientist, was surprised to see his fellow scientists throwing out inconvenient observational data because they feared the public attention it would draw. The particular theories of either Everett or Vallée is not as important as the info they pointed to, info that doesn’t fit accepted theories and yet had to be explained somehow.

That last example, Jacques Vallée, was particularly an out-of-the-box thinker. But all of them were outside mainstream thought, at least when they first proffered forth their views. These are the thinkers who have challenged me and expanded my own thinking. Because of them, I have immense knowledge and multiple perspectives crammed into my tiny brain. I’m reminded of them every time I read a more conventional writer, when all the exceptions and counter-evidence comes pouring out. It goes way beyond mere knowledge, as many conventional writers (including many academic scholars) also possess immense knowledge, but it’s conventional knowledge interpreted with conventional ideas, leading to conventional conclusions, serving conventional purposes, and in defense of a conventional worldview. Reading these conventional writers, you’d have no idea the revolution of the mind that has been occurring this past century or so and the even greater revolution of the mind yet to come.

The effects of this paradigm change will eventually be seen in the world around us, but it might take a while. If you live long enough, it will probably happen in your lifetime. Or if you exit stage left before the closing curtain, the changes will come for the generations following your own. Just don’t doubt a new world is coming. We are like the lords and serfs at the end of feudalism, not having a clue of the Enlightenment and revolutions that would quickly wash away the entire reality they knew. We aren’t just facing catastrophes in the world around us, possibilities of: world war, nuclear apocalypse, bio-terrorism, climate change, refugee crises, mass starvation, global plagues, robotic takeover, or whatever other form of darkness you wish to imagine. More transformative might be the catastrophes of the mind, maybe even at the level Julian Jaynes theorized with the collapse of the bicameral mind.

One way or another, something else will take the place of what exists now. Whatever that might be, it is beyond our present knowledge.

* * *

As a bonus, below is a nice personal view about Julian Jaynes as a man and a scholar. Even revolutionaries of the mind, after all, are humans like the rest of us. About the assessment of consciousness in the latter part of the essay, I have no strong opinion.

What It Feels Like To Hear Voices: Fond Memories of Julian Jaynes
by Stevan Harnad

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No One Knows

Here is a thought experiment. What if almost everything you think you know is wrong? It isn’t just a thought experiment. In all likelihood, it is true.

Almost everything people thought they knew in the past has turned out to be wrong, partly or entirely. There is no reason to think the same isn’t still the case. We are constantly learning new things that add to or alter prior fields of knowledge.

We live in a scientific age. Even so, there are more things we don’t know than we do know. Our scientific knowledge remains narrow and shallow. The universe is vast. Even the earth is vast. Heck, human nature is vast, in its myriad expressions and potentials.

In some ways, science gives a false sense of how much we know. We end up taking many things as scientific that aren’t actually so. Take the examples of consciousness and free will, both areas about which we have little scientific knowledge.

We have no more reason to believe consciousness is limited to the brain than to believe that consciousness is inherent to matter. We have no more reason to believe that free will exists than to believe it doesn’t. These are non-falsifiable hypotheses, which is to say we don’t know how to test them in order to prove them one way or another.

Yet we go about our lives as if these are decided facts, that we are conscious free agents in a mostly non-conscious world. This is what we believe based on our cultural biases. Past societies had different beliefs about consciousness and agency. Future societies likely will have different beliefs than our own and they will look at us as oddly as we look at ancient people. Our present hyper-individualism may one day seem as bizarre as the ancient bicameral mind.

We forget how primitive our society still is. In many ways, not much has changed over the past centuries or even across the recent millennia. Humans still live their lives basically the same. For as long as civilization has existed, people live in houses and ride on wheeled vehicles. When we have health conditions, invasively cutting into people is still often standard procedure, just as people have been doing for a long long time. Political and military power hasn’t really changed either, except in scale. The most fundamental aspects of our lives are remarkably unchanged.

At the same time, we are on the edge of vast changes. Just in my life, technology has leapt ahead far beyond the imaginings of most people in the generations before mine. Our knowledge of genetics, climate change, and even biblical studies has been irrevocably altered—throwing on its head, much of the earlier consensus.

We can’t comprehend what any of it means or where it is heading. All that we can be certain is that paradigms are going to be shattered over this next century. What will replace them no one knows.

The Shamelessness of Shaming

There’s a reason education sucks, it’s the same reason that it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners, now. The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they’re an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. [..]

But I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago.

You know what they want? Obedient workers,­ people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.

~ George Carlin

I was watching one of those videos showing how stupid kids are these days. It was the 2014 video from Texas Tech University. I think I’ve seen it before or one of the videos like it.

But the video itself isn’t important. It was highly edited and far from being an honest polling or scientific survey. It’s easy to focus on a few people and try to paint an entire demographic in bad light. It’s the same way the American media, political elite, and middle-to-upper classes love to shame the poor. It is good to keep in mind some of the kids in the video might be the first generation in their family to have gone to college.

This shaming has been going on for the entirety of US history, which is a relevant fact. Do the makers of such videos know the history of shaming? If not, what excuse do they have for being ignorant? It is fair to dismiss this bullshit shaming out of hand, because it is bullshit. People who participate in it are the ones who should feel ashamed.

The motivation behind the video, that of shaming people, irritated me. I went to a mediocre high school. And I know many people have gone to even worse high schools. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, and it just gets worse in poor areas. Few students get a good education and aren’t prepared for college, if and when they get there. I dropped out of college because of how underprepared and overwhelmed I was, although depression and learning disability played a role.

Anyway, the following are some of my thoughts.

* * *

I try to stay humble and keep perspective.

I know that when I came out of high school I was extremely ignorant. If anyone had asked me any questions about history, I would have given some really clueless answers, assuming I responded at all. It has taken me a couple of decades of serious reading and research to lessen that vast ignorance and I still remain ignorant about most areas of knowledge.

Learning is hard, for most of us. On top of that, many people have bad or uninspiring experiences of school. I suspect it is a rare person who makes it out of school with curiosity intact and a love of learning instilled in them.

I do find it sad that Americans aren’t better educated. But shaming them for a failed education system isn’t likely to improve anything. I understand the humor of wrong answers. And yet I save my outrage for the social problems and political incompetence that keeps producing ignorant Americans, generation after generation.

* * *

Ignorance is the starting point we all have in life. And it takes immense effort to move very far from that starting point.

I doubt people are more ignorant than they ever were. The closest equivalent to the Civil War for earlier generations might have been the War of 1812. If you asked young Americans a few generations ago why the War of 1812 was fought, most probably couldn’t have told you. It simply wouldn’t have felt relevant to them. Even talking to the older generations alive right now, those of my parents age and above, I’m constantly surprised by how little they know about American history and world history. It certainly isn’t limited to a single generation.

In the not too distant past, most people didn’t have much if any education at all. Even in early 20th century before universal public education, few Americans graduated high school or even elementary school. A large part of the population wasn’t even literate generations ago. In the late 1800s, about 1 in 5 Americans couldn’t read. Even though our education system is far from perfect, the improvements in public education are vast. We should fully appreciate that, even as we seek to do better.

I’d make another point. People tend to only know about what is close to their lives. When I was growing up, the Cold War was still going on. When my parents were growing up, the last of the Civil War veterans and former slaves were still living. When my grandparents were growing up, the last of the Indian Wars were fought. When my great grandparents were growing up, Reconstruction was still happening or had ended not too long before. When my great great grandparents were growing up, the Civil War took place—some of them having been born born near the death of the last American founders and could have met John Quincy Adams.

For most of US history, the country was young. No event was further back than a few generations. Now that we are in the 21st century, the the major events that shaped the country are beginning to feel ever more distant. There is also simply more history to be learned. Learning about US history for a kid born in the past was easier for the simple reason there was less to learn, but even then most Americans didn’t learn much history.

We are only shocked by ignorance today because, unlike in the past, we have come to believe that people shouldn’t be ignorant. It used be that people didn’t care about history all that much, for it didn’t put a roof over their heads or food on their tables. It is interesting that the world has changed so much that we now consider ignorance, the normal state of humanity, to be a mark of shame.

If we actually care about knowledge so much, why don’t we improve education and fund it better for all students?

* * *

I was thinking about what kinds of knowledge is valued.

Kids these days are taught a ton of info, a wider spectrum of knowledge than in past generations. For example, I bet the youth today know more about the larger world than did the youth a century ago. WWI was the first generation of Americans who even saw much of the world beyond US borders. And now traveling the world is common.

What we are taught is based on what those in power deem important. But that is dependent on historical situations and events. At present, kids are probably learning a lot about the Middle East and their knowledge in this area would put most adult Americans to shame. The focus of education in the past, for those who got an education, would have been far different.

I’ve talked to my parents about their childhood and young adulthood. My mom didn’t even know about the Cold War until the Reagan presidency, despite her having been born in the early Cold War. My parents barely knew what was happening in the Civil Rights movement when they were in high school and college. My parents didn’t know about sundown towns, even though my dad grew up in one and both of my parents went to college in one.

My dad also had never heard of bombing and terrorism of Black Wall Street, which occurred a short distance away from his mother’s childhood home. She moved to a major Klan center in high school. Her and my maternal grandfather had to have known the town they moved their young family to was a sundown town, as there were signs that said so. Yet no one talked about any of this and my father was raised in ignorance.

My maternal grandparents didn’t get much education. It is understandable that they didn’t know much. But my paternal grandparents were college educated. When the last of the Indian Wars happened in their childhoods, did any of my grandparents know about it. If not, why not? Like the Tulsa Riots, some of those Indian Wars happened not all that far from where my maternal grandmother spent her early life.

What excuses this ignorance? Nothing. Yet this is the common fate of humanity. We remain ignorant, unless we individually and collectively put immense effort toward informing ourselves. There is all kinds of knowledge we don’t value as a society, even when we should.

* * *

The impulse to shame is easy to give into. I do it myself on occasion.

I think this impulse comes from a place of frustration and apathy, verging on cynicism. We all see the problems we collectively face and we don’t know what to do about them. So, we look for scapegoats. Sometimes that means the youth and at other times it means the poor, minorities, or immigrants.

It is easier to project onto others and pretend one isn’t a part of the problem. It is easier to ridicule others than to try to understand. It is easier to blame than to help. Our laughter has a nervous edge to it, as we all realize the problem points back to all of us. It’s the kind of humor people distract themselves with.

Instead, why don’t we simply deal with the problem?

More Words

I’ve written so often about knowledge and ignorance, truth and denialism. My mind ever returns to the topic, because it is impossible to ignore in this media-saturated modern world. There are worthy things to debate and criticize, but it is rare to come across much of worth amidst all the noise, all the opinionating and outrage.

I don’t want to just dismiss it all. I don’t want to ignore it and live blissfully in my own private reality or my own narrow media bubble. I feel compelled to understand the world around me. I actually do care about what makes people tick, not just to better persuade them to my own view, but more importantly to understand humanity itself.

Still, noble aspirations aside, it can be frustrating and I often let it show. Why do we make everything so hard? Why do we fight tooth and nail against being forced to face reality? Humans are strange creatures.

At some point, yet more argument seems pointless. No amount of data and evidence will change anything. We can’t deal with even relatively minor problems. Hope seems like an act of desperation in face of the more immense global challenges. Humanity will change when we are forced to change, when maintaining the status quo becomes impossible.

It is irrational to expect most humans to be rational about almost anything of significance. But that doesn’t mean speaking out doesn’t matter.

I considered offering some detailed thoughts and observations, but I already expressed my self a bit in another post. Instead, I’ll just point to a somewhat random selection of what others have already written, a few books and articles I’ve come across recently—my main focus has been climate change:

Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?
By Madhusree Mukerjee

It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine
By Daniel Smith

Learning to Die in the Antrhopocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
By Roy Scranton

Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – And What it Means for Our Future
By Dale Jamieson

Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
By Timothy Morton

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor
By Rob Nixon

The Culture of Make Believe
By Derrick Jensen

The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life
By Eviatar Zerubavel

States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering
By Stanley Cohen

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life
By Kari Marie Norgaard

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
By George Marshall

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action
by Per EspenStoknes

How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate
By Andrew Hoffman

The Republican War on Science
By Chris Mooney

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future
By Donald R. Prothero

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand
By Haydn Washington

Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming
By James Hoggan

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

The man who studies the spread of ignorance
By Georgina Kenyon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
By Naomi Klein

Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Process of Creative Self-Destruction
By Christopher Wright & Daniel Nyberg

Exxon: The Road Not Taken
By Neela Banerjee

Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA
By E.G. Vallianatos

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil
By Timothy Mitchell

Democracy Inc.: How Members Of Congress Have Cashed In On Their Jobs
By The Washington Post, David S. Fallis, Scott Higham (Author), Dan Keating, & Kimberly Kindy

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
By Sheldon S. Wolin

Language and Knowledge, Parable and Gesture

“Man exists in language like a fly trapped in a bottle: that which it cannot see is precisely that through which it sees the world.”
~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

“As William Edwards Deming famously demonstrated, no system can understand itself, and why it does what it does, including the American social system. Not knowing shit about why your society does what it [does] makes for a pretty nasty case of existential unease. So we create institutions whose function is to pretend to know, which makes everyone feel better.”
~ Joe Bageant, America: Y Ur Peeps B So Dum?

“One important characteristic of language, according to Agamben, is that it is based on the presupposition of a subject to which it refers. Aristotle argued that language, ‘saying something about something’, necessarily brings about a distinction between a first ‘something’ (a subject) and a second ‘something’ (a predicate). And this is meaningful only if the first ‘something’ is presupposed . This subject, the immediate, the non-linguistic, is a presupposition of language. At the same time, language seems to precede the subject it presupposes; the world can only be known through language. That there is language that gives meaning and facilitates the transmission of this meaning is a presupposition that precedes every communication because communication always begins with language. 2

“Agamben compares our relationship with language with Wittgenstein’s image of a fly in a bottle: ‘Man exists in language like a fly trapped in a bottle: that which it cannot see is precisely that through which it sees the world.’ 3 According to Agamben, contemporary thought has recognized that we are imprisoned within the limits of the presuppositional structure of language, within this glass. But contemporary thought has not seen that it is possible to leave the glass (PO, 46).

Our age does indeed stand in front of language just as the man from the country in the parable stands in front of the door of the Law. What threatens thinking here is the possibility that thinking might find itself condemned to infinite negotiations with the doorkeeper or, even worse, that it might end by itself assuming the role of the doorkeeper who, without really blocking the entry, shelters the Nothing onto which the door opens. (HS, 54)

[ . . . ]

“What is compared in the parable , as for example in the messianic parables in the gospel of Matthew, is not only the kingdom of God with the terms used in the parables (a field in which wheat and weeds are mixed), but the discourse about the kingdom and the kingdom itself. In that sense, the messianic parables in Matthew are parables about language, for what is meant is language itself. And this, according to Agamben, is also the meaning of Kafka’s parable ‘On Parables’. Kafka is looking for a way beyond language that is only possible by becoming language itself; beyond the distinction between sign and what is signified:

If you’d follow the parables, you’d become parables yourselves and with that, free of the everyday struggle.(TR, 43) 17

“What Kafka indicates here, according to Agamben, is an indistinguishability between being and language. What does this process of becoming language look like? Agamben sees a hint of this in one of Kafka’s journal entries. On 18 October 1921, Kafka wrote in his journal:

Life calls again. It is entirely conceivable that life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons. 18

“According to Agamben, this refers to an old tradition followed by the Kabbalists in which magic is, in essence , a science of secret names. Everything has its apparent name and a hidden name and those who know this hidden name have power over life and death and the death of those to whom this name belongs. But, Agamben proposes , there is also another tradition that holds that this secret name is not so much the key by which the magician can gain power over a subject as it is a monogram by which things can be liberated from language. The secret name is the name the being received in Eden. If it is spoken aloud, all its apparent names fall away; the whole Babel of names disappears. ‘To have a name is to be guilty. And justice, like magic, is nameless’ (P, 22). The secret name is the gesture that restores the creature to the unexpressed. Thus, Agamben argues, magic is not the secret knowledge of names and their transcendent meaning, but a breaking free from the name. ‘Happy and without a name, the creature knocks at the gates of the land of the magi, who speaks in gestures alone’ (P, 22).”
~ Anke Snoek, Agamben’s Joyful Kafka (pp. 110118, Kindle Locations 2704-2883)

The Stories We Know

It suddenly occurred to me where I might have first came across the idea of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.

This would have been almost two decades ago, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s in the years following my graduating from high school in 1994. I probably was back in Iowa City, Iowa at the time and regularly visiting bookstores, in particular the famous Prairie Lights. I was reading a lot of weird stuff at the time, both non-fiction and fiction. Along with reading the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, I came across Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. I then read some of Ellison’s own fiction collections.

In his book Strange Wine, he has his typical introductory comments that are typically entertaining. He told of an anecdote that had been shared with him by Dan Blocker, an actor from the show Bonanza who played the character Hoss Cartwright. Blocker pointed out that the incident was far from unusual and, based on that, Ellison explored the idea of knowing and not knowing, specifically in terms of the distinction between reality and imagination, between unmediated experience and media portrayals.

Here is Blocker’s anecdote as written in Strange Wine introduction (Kindle Locations 54-62):

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

Ellison sees this as representative of a change that has happened in our society because of the boob tube. He was writing in the 1970s and it was a time when nationalized mass media was really hitting its stride. He described all the hours people spent watching television and the state of mind it creates.

Before the Bonanza story, Ellison shared another story about a news reporter who shot herself in the head live on television. He sees this as indicative of how media has become our very sense of reality. Killing oneself during a live broadcast makes the incident more real. I think he goes a bit overboard on his diatribe against media, but he has a point. I would simply broaden his point and extend it back in time.

Mediated reality isn’t a new invention. Ever since written language and bound books, the world has never been the same. Christians were the first group to bind books. This allowed them to spread their mediated reality far and wide. Even though there was no evidence that Jesus ever existed, this messianic figure became more real to people than the people around them. Untold numbers of people killed and died in the name of a man who may have simply been a fictional character.

To understand the power of the Bible as mediated reality, take the experience of Daniel Everett. He once was a Christian who became a missionary living among the Amazonian Piraha tribe. These people didn’t understand Christianity because they didn’t understand reality mediated through books. They only trusted information they had experienced themselves or someone they knew had experienced. When they asked Everett if he had experienced any of the events in the Bible, Everett had to admit he hadn’t even met Jesus. The idea of blind faith was meaningless to the Piraha. Instead of converting them to Christianity, they converted him to atheism.

As a fiction writer, Ellison should understand the power of words to make the imagined seem real. It isn’t just about television and movies or today about the internet. All of culture and civilization is built on various forms of mediated reality. The earliest forms of media through art and the spoken word had a similar revolutionary impact.

We humans live in a world of ideas and beliefs, frames and narratives. We never know anything unfiltered. This is how we can know and not know at the same time. The stories we tell force coherency to the inconsistency within our own minds. Stories are what gives our lives meaning. We are storytelling animals and for us the stories we tell are our reality. A collective story passed on from generation to generation is the most powerful of all.

Looking the Other way: Willful Ignorance and Intentional Blindness

Ignorant. There is no word like it. Calling someone ‘uninformed’ or ‘misinformed’ doesn’t have the same force nor even the exact same meaning. No word can take the place of ‘ignorant’.

Yet it is politically incorrect to call someone ignorant. I’ve had comments deleted on Amazon reviews because I called someone ignorant when I meant it as a literal statement in that person was, as defined by the dictionary, “lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular.” It is considered mean-spirited to point out that someone is ignorant, even when or especially when it is true.

This just makes it all the more frustrating. Our society has a taboo about facing ignorance. We wouldn’t know how to function as a society without such ignorance. It can feel like it goes beyond even just ignorance. Along with an unwillingness to talk about ignorance, there is an ignorance of ignorance. It is the default position for nearly all social interactions and public discourses.

It can seem pointless even trying to blame anyone for being ignorant. The seeming unconscious obliviousness is immense. People are just ignorant. They don’t know any better, so the story goes.

My focus has been mostly on racism as of late. The ignorance in this area is more frustrating still. It is a systemic and institutional ignorance that makes possible the systemic and institutional racism.

Why are so many people ignorant about the continuing reality of racism?

“It can be tempting to think that today most white people are racist primarily because of an inadvertent lack of knowledge about the cultures and lives of people of color. Many white people in the United States and other white privileged countries do not often personally interact with people of color, and when they do, such interactions often are of the trivial sort found in consumer exchanges. Given the de facto but persistent racial segregation of many cities, neighborhoods, and schools and the paucity of non-stereotypical portrayals of people of color on television and in Hollywood movies, white solipsism is a real problem.”
~ Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness, Kindle Locations 219-223

But is ignorance reality a default state? How can an unintentional passivity toward racism cause it to be to remain so stubbornly in place?

There is a study that was about attentional focus. It measured this by eye gaze. As I recall, it had to do with differences between liberals and conservatives. There was something that either conservatives don’t appreciate or doesn’t fit into their worldview. They put an image of this thing or something like that in their visual field. What the researchers found was that the people who had a vested interest in not seeing something intentionally didn’t look in the direction of what they didn’t want to see. At some level, they had seen it, even though in questions they acknowledged no awareness of it being there.

These people went to great effort to maintain their experiential blindness. This is how willful ignorance operates. There is an intention behind the behavior, even if it isn’t fully conscious.

“A similar temptation is to think that white people are racist because they lack accurate knowledge about the (alleged) scientific, biological basis for racial categories. This view of racism holds that many people fail to understand that there are no necessary and sufficient biological or genetic conditions for dividing the human population into distinct races. Because of this failure, they mistakenly think that race and racial hierarchies are real. Demonstrate the lack of scientific basis for race, so says this eliminativist view, and racism will disappear because the categories on which it is based-white, black, and so on-will have disappeared. Racial categories and the racism they support are like the emperor who wears no clothes. All one need do is honestly point out the emperor’s nakedness, and the illusion of his clothing will disappear. Dismantling the biological theories of race upon which racism rests likewise requires merely the same straightforward good will to acknowledge the obvious: the lack of the scientific data to support racial categorization.’
~ Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness, Kindle Locations 227-232

I’m a lover of knowledge. I want to believe that knowledge matters. The issue isn’t really about knowledge, but about ignorance and the two aren’t necessarily oppositional. People know and don’t know things all the time. People are fully capable of dividing their minds and their lives, never making the connections that would cause them to see the full picture.

Knowledge isn’t just about facts, but more importantly about comprehension, about a visceral and emotional sense of really getting what something means and why it matters. Knowledge isn’t an abstract intellectual exercise. Truth is a moral force or it is nothing at all.

Pointing out data without a way of conveying meaning won’t undo ignorance. List the numbers of dead in the recent genocide against Palestinians won’t have an impact. But if you forced someone to spend a week having Israeli bombs falling all around them with dead bodies and destruction that couldn’t be ignored, all of a sudden that list of numbers would be viscerally real and would have an emotional impact. Mere knowledge that could be easily dismissed would become a truth with moral force.

Westerners can be told the data that objectively proves genocide. But data is just data. There is great power of the mind to not really see or comprehend the data, to dismiss it, ignore it and rationalize it away. It isn’t unintentional.

The oppression of dark-skinned people in Palestine follows the same basic pattern of the oppression of dark-skinned people in America. The mechanisms are the same. The details really don’t matter in defense of the social order and in upholding the status quo. Much has changed in the US over the centuries. Racism morphs to fit the times and yet basically continues on.

I sometimes try to make sense of this as mere inertia. But that doesn’t really explain anything at all. That is just an avoidance of responsibility and an avoidance of the despair that would accompany taking responsibility.

“Rather than an innocuous oversight, it was an active, deliberate achievement that was carefully (though not necessarily consciously) constructed, maintained, and protected. Du Bois eventually saw that to understand the white ignorance of non-white people, one has to hear the active verb “to ignore” at the root of the noun.”

We are ignorant because we ignore. This is willful ignorance. It isn’t just racial bias in institutions, residue of past racism. No, racism is alive and well, in the minds of all of us. We are afraid to call a spade a spade. It is politically incorrect to point out that our society is still racist.

Black Feminism and Epistemology of Ignorance

I have some thoughts that have been simmering on the back burner for a while now. It is specifically relates to black feminism. That isn’t something I normally read about, but I came across a quote by Angela Davis and started reading one of her books, The Meaning of Freedom (Kindle Locations 170-174):

“More than once I have heard people say, “If only a new Black Panther Party could be organized, then we could seriously deal with The Man, you know?” But suppose we were to say: “There is no Man anymore.” There is suffering. There is oppression. There is terrifying racism. But this racism does not come from the mythical “Man.” Moreover, it is laced with sexism and homophobia and unprecedented class exploitation associated with a dangerously globalized capitalism. We need new ideas and new strategies that will take us into the twenty-first century.”

This quote was on my mind when the “Not All Men” meme went viral. It really put things in contrast. Davis’ reference to the mythical “Man” refers as much to feminist issues as to racial issues. There literally is no “All Men”. It isn’t fundamentally about blame or evasion of responsibility, as the “Not All Men” argument was framed.

The grand insight of black feminism has been that there is no singular vantage point for all women, no universal set of truths for all feminism. Black feminists saw middle class white feminists as part of the same racial and class hierarchy. Identity politics can create a kind of blindness to important distinctions and inconvenient knowledge.

As a basic example, a middle class white woman in America has more privilege and experiences less violence and oppression than a poor black man in post-colonial Africa (or even most poor black men in America). Or, as another example, consider the issue of women and violence. Most rape and abuse happens to poor minority women, not middle class white women. As far as that goes, a black man in prison is probably more likely to be raped and abused than a middle class white woman.

It isn’t just about being a man or woman. It isn’t just about being black or white. It isn’t just about being rich or poor. It isn’t about any single thing. It is how these factors and issues combine in the lived experiences of particular people and populations.

Generalizations can be misleading and dangerous. They can be used to ignore the real issues. This is how race becomes a proxy for class and in many ways so does gender, for women make less money than men. If class is the most major issue, then all the rest of identity politics can be problematic when they don’t take this into account.

It was from there that I began looking more into intersectionality (where identities and disadvantages intersect), which is related to the larger fields of feminist epistemology and philosophy of science. Intersectionality as a basic understanding has been developing for a long time, across many fields. A major connection goes back to Marxism and its influence on feminist thought through standpoint theory:

“Standpoint theory supports what feminist theorist Sandra Harding calls strong objectivity, or the notion that the perspectives of marginalized and/or oppressed individuals can help to create more objective accounts of the world. Through the outsider-within phenomenon, these individuals are placed in a unique position to point to patterns of behavior that those immersed in the dominant group culture are unable to recognize.[2] Standpoint theory gives voice to the marginalized groups by allowing them to challenge the status quo as the outsider within. The status quo representing the dominant white male position of privilege.[3]

“The predominant culture in which all groups exist is not experienced in the same way by all persons or groups. The views of those who belong to groups with more social power are validated more than those in marginalized groups. Those in marginalized groups must learn to be bicultural, or to “pass” in the dominant culture to survive, even though that perspective is not their own.[4] For persons of color, in an effort to help organizations achieve their diversity initiatives, there is an expectation that they will check their color at the door in order to assimilate into the existing culture and discursive practices.[5]

One’s viewpoint depends on one’s social identities and one’s social position. This isn’t just a philosophical debate, for it has real world consequences. Studies show that environment has a strong influence on individual development and behavior.

Recent studies on the upper class and lower class makes this abundantly clear. Wealthier people have less empathic accuracy in that they are less able to read the emotional experience of others, to understand and appreciate the persepctive of others. They don’t listen to and pay attention to others as much. They also express fewer pro-social behaviors such as being more rude and aggressive (e.g., driving behavior) along with being less generous.

This goes straight to the class issue. Blacks and women, most especially black women, are among the poorest people in America and in the world. Being poor, in some ways, makes them more likely to act in ways that are considered caring and humane. To be on the bottom of society, an individual is more dependent on and interdependent with others.

This could explain why middle and upper class people, both black and white, don’t understand the family structures and support systems of the poor. All they see are marriages under stressful conditions, calling the families weak or broken, but they don’t see the strength of communities surviving under almost impossible conditions.. The ignorance of this judgment from privilege hit home for me when I read the following passage from Stephen Steinberg’s “Poor Culture”:

“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””

Those rich in wealth are poor in so many other ways. And those poor in wealth are rich in so many ways. It depends on what you value. People can’t value what they don’t see and understand.

The issue of knowledge and ignorance has been perplexing me for most of my adult life. My perplexity has been caught between the rocks of despair and the riptide of outrage.  I have thought about and written about this endlessly. It is what anchors me in place. It is the mystery around which everything else revolves.

I was glad to come across the book Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, a collection of papers by various authors. In the Introduction, Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana state that “ignorance results from humans’ situatedness as knowers. Because we are located, partial beings, we cannot know everything” (Kindle Locations 64-65). This line of thought is continued in Chapter 2 with “Epistemologies of Ignorance: Three Types” by Linda Martin Alcoff. In that essay, Alcoff explains that both knowledge and ignorance are situated (Kindle Locations 607-611):

“Thus from the fact of our general situatedness it follows that ignorance should be understood as contextual, since it does not accrue to me simply as an individual outside of a particular situation. I may be a trained linguist with the ability to communicate in eight languages, or an excellent seamstress capable of making my own designs from scratch, but insofar as I am attending a medical operation, I am ignorant of the skills needed to fully assess the health of the patient. What is determinative of ignorance is the interplay between my individual epistemic situatedness- my location, experience, perceptual abilities, and so forth, not all of which will be relevant in any given case-and what is called for in reaching conclusions about this particular object of inquiry.”

The author then connects this situatedness to race (Kindle Locations 698-699):

“most whites in the United States seem to believe that the United States is a form of society based mostly on individual merit, while most nonwhites seem to believe that the United States is a form of society based on a racial contract.”

That caught my attention because it relates to the studies on socioeconomic class. The studies found that wealthier people tend to take individual credit for their wealth, for their position and privilege. Poor people tend to emphasize the importance of their environment.

This seems to directly correlate to the differences in seeing families as nuclear versus as extended networks of support. For the wealthier, even families are seen as individualistic and isolated, and of course they see that as normal despite how unusual it has been throughout history and continues to be for most families throughout the world. Nuclear families are a fairly recent invention and hardly the sign of a healthy society.

Upper class white Westerners are truly weird (and WEIRD–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and they don’t even know it. However, some might argue that the ‘D’ for democracy isn’t entirely accurate, considering forms of imperialism still remain dominant in the West, for democratic rhetoric is too often simply used to rationalize power. White Westerners have the privilege to be ignorant of how racism, classism, and other forms of oppression continues in their own countries and are enforced on other countries.

This is a major point made by Alcoff (Kindle Locations 700-706):

“Mills suggests that “whiteness,” which he carefully defines as a political construct rather than simply an ethnic category, brings with it a “cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of all social realities,” that it ensures that whites will live in a “racial fantasyland, [or] a `consensual hallucination,”‘ and that the root of all this is the “cognitive and moral economy psychically required for conquest, colonization, and enslavement” (Mills 1997, 18-19). If it is true that most people prefer to think of themselves as moral or at least excusable in their actions, then in unjust societies those in dominant and privileged positions must be able to construct representations of themselves and others to support a fantasyland of moral approbation. Thus such whites might believe that the academy is a meritocracy, that modernity began in Europe and then spread outward, and that global poverty is disconnected from Western wealth. The persistence of such myths in spite of increasing empirical and theoretical counterevidence certainly suggests that the cognitive dysfunctions responsible for myth maintenance are more than a matter of differences in group experiences or expertise.”

This is what we face with the overwhelming injustice and suffering in the world today. This is why so many people remain ignorant and remain ignorant of their ignorance. This is how people simultaneously know and don’t know.

As Angela Davis suggests, “We need new ideas and new strategies”. We need to get past our conceptual blindness, our cultural biases, our vested interests. We need to get past all of that toward a broader view, toward a greater sense of shared vision and common cause.

I want to add a caveat as part of my conclusion.

In this endeavor, we should especially listen to those who are in a position to know what we don’t know or don’t fully understand. This isn’t about being allies to the disadvantaged, but about expanding our sense of humanity. It is also to realize every position has its own sets of knowledge and sets of ignorance.

We all have disadvantages, including the wealthy, as the studies show. As for the rest of us not so disadvantaged with wealth, we are the majority of people in the world. Even most white men lack much power and influence in a wealthy country like the U.S. We also shouldn’t forget that most poor people in this country are white. One of the most ignored and silenced groups in America are poor rural whites. They have a position of knowledge on our society that gets heard less often than that of poor urban blacks.

Identity politics can be self-destructive when it divides us. This is where intersectionality is so important. What intersectionality speaks to is what connects, what crosses the artificial boundaries we create. That is the potential we need to find a new language to communicate.

* * * *

If you’re interested in learning about the studies on economic class, here are some videos and articles that go into the details:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business-jan-june13-makingsense_06-21/

http://blog.ted.com/2013/12/20/6-studies-of-money-and-the-mind/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-wealth-reduces-compassion/

http://nymag.com/news/features/money-brain-2012-7/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/under-the-influence/201208/how-the-rich-are-different-the-poor-ii-empathy

http://www.livescience.com/8978-read-emotions-helps-poor.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/07/03/money-may-make-you-mean-but-can-you-buy-a-heart/

http://www.inc.com/laura-montini/how-the-mind-makes-sense-of-advantage.html

http://bigthink.com/Mind-Matters/study-more-privilege-means-less-empathy

http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/rich-really-poor-in-generosity-empathy-and-altruism-study/830627/

http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/21/opinion/marsh-wealth-happiness-romney/

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/08/social-status-empathy-philanthropy

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/10/08/do_the_rich_care_less_power_imbalances_can_lead_to_empathy_inequality_between.html

Most Americans Know What is True

There is one topic I return to more often than most, a topic that has been on my mind for about a decade now. This topic has to do with the confluence of ideology, labels, and social science. I’ve written about this topic more than I care to remember.

I’m about equally interested in conservatism and liberalism (along with other ideological labels). But liberalism in some ways has intrigued me more because of all the massive confusion surrounding the label. Most Americans hold fairly strong left-leaning views on many of the most important major issues.

There are a number of facts that have become permanently caught in my craw. I considered two of these in a post from not too long ago, Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism. In that post, I pointed out that most Americans are more in agreement with one another than they are with the more right-leaning political elites who claim to speak for and represent them. But there is a complicating factor involving the odd mixture of liberalism and conservatism in the American Mind (I never get tired of quoting this fascinating explanation):

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).

What the heck is a symbolic conservatism? I’m not quite sure. I don’t know if anyone has that one figured out yet.

I also pointed out that even most Southerners are on the left side of the spectrum. It’s just that most Southerners are disenfranchized. If most Southerners voted, Republicans would never be able to win another election in the South without completely altering what they campaign on.

The claim of a polarized population is overstated. This brings me to a new angle. I came across another piece of data that now can be permanently caught in my craw with the rest. It is from a book by Cass R. Sunstein, not an author I normally read, but the book looked intriguing. He wrote (How to Humble a Wingnut and Other Lessons from Behavioral Economics, Kindle Locations 249-253):

Recent studies by Yale University’s John Bullock and his co-authors suggest that with respect to facts, Democrats and Republicans disagree a lot less than we might think.

True, surveys reveal big differences. But if people are given economic rewards for giving the right answer, the partisan divisions start to become a lot smaller. Here’s the kicker: With respect to facts , there is a real difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe.

This was from a fairly short essay that ends with this conclusion (Kindle Locations 271-282):

What’s going on here? Bullock and his colleagues think that when people answer factual questions about politics, they engage in a degree of cheerleading, even at the expense of the truth. In a survey setting, there is no cost to doing that.

With economic incentives, of course, the calculus is altered. If you stand to earn some money with an accurate answer, cheerleading becomes much less attractive . And if you will lose real money with an inaccurate answer, you will put a higher premium on accuracy.

What is especially striking is that Bullock and his colleagues were able to slash polarization with very modest monetary rewards. If the incentives were greater (say, $ 100 for a correct answer and $ 25 for “I don’t know”), there is every reason to expect that partisan differences would diminish still more.

It might seem disturbing to find such a divergence between what people say and what they actually believe, but in a way, these findings are immensely encouraging. They suggest that with respect to facts, partisan differences are much less sharp than they seem—and that political polarization is often an artifact of the survey setting.

When Democrats and Republicans claim to disagree, they might be reporting which side they are on, not what they really think. Whatever they say in response to survey questions, they know, in their heart of hearts, that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

Incentives can make people honest. And when honest, people agree a lot more. This reminds me of research showing that, by doing word jumble puzzles and such, people can be primed for rational thought and indeed they do think more rationally under those conditions. Between incentives and priming, we could have a much higher quality public debate and political action.

This also reminds me of implicit knowledge (see here and here). Many writers have observed the strange phenomenon of people simultaneously knowing and not knowing. Maybe this directly relates to incentives and similar factors. It might not just be an issue of incentives to be honest, but also incentives to be self-aware, to admit to themselves what they already know, even when such truths might be uncomfortable and inconvenient.

A further confounding factor, as research also shows, the political elites and the political activists are very much polarized. Those with the most power and influence are the stumbling blocks for democracy or any other moral and effective political process. This plays straight into the cheerleading of the masses. Too many people will simply go along with what the pundits and politicians tell them, unless some other motivation causes them to think more carefully and become more self-aware.

One wonders what the public debate would be like about issues from global warming to economic inequality, if the incentives were different. A single honest public debate could transform our society. It would be a shock to the entire social, political, and economic system.

Truth-Seeking, An Engaged Citizenry

We should always take seriously the views we disagree with. Dismissing or ridiculing is a bad habit to get into. If we leave a claim unchallenged, it remains powerful. We should stand up for our convictions and we should give respect to the convictions of others, especially when there is conflict.

An example of this is the Right’s view of sexuality and family values, a set of very emotional and polarizing issues. I’ve heard the argument that the decline of the Roman Empire correlated with an increase of homosexuality. This is taken as an assumption, but it is a serious argument that shouldn’t go unchallenged. I know a variant of it can be found in some history books. There apparently were some people in the late Roman Empire, as it became Christianized, who began to complain more about sexual deviancy.

The problem with this argument, the problem we should point out again and again, is that there is no actual data that homosexuality was increasing. Also, we should endlessly repeat that, either way, correlation isn’t causation. An increase of allegations isn’t the same thing as an increase of what is being alleged. Nor does it say much about the real reasons of societal decline, which were complex and about which there is little consensus.

This kind of argument is also applied to our own time.

These past decades saw an increase of fear-mongering about violent crime even as violent crime was decreasing. A culture of fear-mongering and scapegoating rarely has much to do with objective reality. For this reason, we should never let such unjustified paranoia and blame to stand unchallenged. The point is to be persistent and stubborn, even to a fault. We should never back down when it comes to false claims. But if we believe a claim is false, it is up to us to prove it. And we should do so loudly and publicly.

That is the responsibility of every citizen in a democracy, if they care to keep the democracy they have. We should never underestimate the enemies of democracy, no matter where it comes from, whether from our opponents or apparent allies. We have to hold ourselves up to a higher standard and maintain the moral high ground.

It isn’t just about rhetoric and persuasion. We must put truth before all else, and we should follow truth wherever it leads. And if what we assumed to be true turns out to be false, we should admit to that loudly and publicly. That is the only way we can have a positive influence. We should never be afraid of what we know and what we can’t be certain of. Intellectual humility is a strength, not a weakness.

We must demand this of others, as we demand it of ourselves. It is necessary that we strive to model our own ideals. Democracy means little, if not taken as a personal set of values to live by. Principled conviction is only a moral good when based on honesty, when putting the public good before mere self-interest. What is the point of winning a debate when you lose your own integrity?

Any public good worthy of the name is based in truth and honesty. When we collectively prioritize such public good, we will finally have a democracy, not just in name and form but also in substance. The public good doesn’t necessitate agreement about everything. Disagreement can actually be useful when based on fair-minded public debate. That is what is called an engaged citizenry.