The main point of the author is how the victimization of injustice leads to victim-blaming. That victim-blaming in turn rationalizes and encourages further victimization and injustice. It relates to the victimization cycle as well, where victims too often become victimizers, a topic I’ve written about endlessly.
It makes one want to throw one’s hands up in despair.
Another side of my personality kicks in, however. I wonder what are the exceptions to the rule (or better yet, the exceptions to who rules, to how they rule, to what ways we are ruled, which is to say the exceptions to the rules of the status quo). The author doesn’t explore that.
It is like the rat studies I recently discussed. There was a study done in the late 70s and published in 1980 that had quite an impact because it fit American beliefs about depraved humanity. The rats were put into horrific conditions of immense distress and then given the opportunity to consume drugs until they died, which unsurprisingly is what they did.
Around the same time, there were other researchers with other views on the issue. One researcher considered that, if he “were kept isolated in cramped metal cages, tethered to a self-injection apparatus”, he too might give into drug addiction until sweet death delivered him from the inescapable torment. He thought that maybe these were far from optimal conditions for rats or for humans. He designed research that, instead, would create the most optimal conditions. This was the rat park.
Mainstream science and academia were resistant to his questioning of the status quo. He couldn’t get published and lost funding. Americans didn’t want to know the truth… or rather the American ruling elite didn’t want Americans to know the truth. The truth was that if conditions change so do the responses, even with something so compelling as physical addiction.
The just-world hypothesis research shows that in an a society based on injustice people act according to and rationalize that injustice. That is unsurprising, as it fits our preconceptions, which maybe ought to make us suspicious for what if the research was designed and the conclusions developed to fit our preconceptions. If we look a bit deeper, we can see this research also implies that in a society based on justice people would act according to and rationalize justice (consider intolerance, which research shows does decrease when children are raised in diverse communities, neighborhoods, and schools). The author missed that implication because it didn’t fit into the cynical and fatalist American mainstream view of social reality.
This brings me to thoughts I’ve had about the morality-punishment link. Conservatism is utterly dependent on tis link. But I doubt this link is as inevitable as it seems. It can be broken and often is broken, every time a problem is solved, a sickness cured, etc.
It isn’t hard to imagine a world where justice prevails. Some of the best science fiction is about that very possibility (e.g., Star Trek: The Next Generation). We create what we imagine. This might give us pause in our collective obsession with imagining dystopian futures, but it also offers hope as we are free to imagine the future in any way we so choose. Our visions of the future can justify the status quo or they can challenge it. It is time we enter a new era of the radical imagination.
* * * *
Here are two videos and then some writings about the just-world hypothesis:
“Question: why are so many leading modern scientists so dull and lacking in scientific ambition? Answer: because the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people. At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring Conscientious and Agreeable people. The progressive lengthening of scientific training and the reduced independence of career scientists have tended to deter vocational ‘revolutionary’ scientists in favour of industrious and socially adept individuals better suited to incremental ‘normal’ science. High general intelligence (IQ) is required for revolutionary science. But educational attainment depends on a combination of intelligence and the personality trait of Conscientiousness; and these attributes do not correlate closely. Therefore elite scientific institutions seeking potential revolutionary scientists need to use IQ tests as well as examination results to pick-out high IQ ‘under-achievers’. As well as high IQ, revolutionary science requires high creativity. Creativity is probably associated with moderately high levels of Eysenck’s personality trait of ‘Psychoticism’. Psychoticism combines qualities such as selfishness, independence from group norms, impulsivity and sensation-seeking; with a style of cognition that involves fluent, associative and rapid production of many ideas. But modern science selects for high Conscientiousness and high Agreeableness; therefore it enforces low Psychoticism and low creativity. Yet my counter-proposal to select elite revolutionary scientists on the basis of high IQ and moderately high Psychoticism may sound like a recipe for disaster, since resembles a formula for choosing gifted charlatans and confidence tricksters. A further vital ingredient is therefore necessary: devotion to the transcendental value of Truth. Elite revolutionary science should therefore be a place that welcomes brilliant, impulsive, inspired, antisocial oddballs – so long as they are also dedicated truth-seekers.”
In his book The Trickster and the Paranormal, Hansen discussed Trickster mythology, magicians, paranormal researchers, hoaxers, and debunkers. More interestingly, he went into some detail about Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types (which correlates to such things as IQ and personality traits) and Max Weber‘s concepts of rationalization, disenchantment, and bureaucratization. Relevant to the above quote, Hansen discussed the hierarchical nature of scientific institutions: how they maintain order, what personality types they reward with positions of authority, etc.
“The psychological attributes of intelligence and personality are usually seen as being quite distinct in nature: higher intelligence being regarded a ‘gift’ (bestowed mostly by heredity); while personality or ‘character’ is morally evaluated by others, on the assumption that it is mostly a consequence of choice? So a teacher is more likely to praise a child for their highly Conscientious personality (high ‘C’) – an ability to take the long view, work hard with self-discipline and persevere in the face of difficulty – than for possessing high IQ. Even in science, where high intelligence is greatly valued, it is seen as being more virtuous to be a reliable and steady worker. Yet it is probable that both IQ and personality traits (such as high-C) are about-equally inherited ‘gifts’ (heritability of both likely to be in excess of 0.5). Rankings of both IQ and C are generally stable throughout life (although absolute levels of both will typically increase throughout the lifespan, with IQ peaking in late-teens and C probably peaking in middle age). Furthermore, high IQ is not just an ability to be used only as required; higher IQ also carries various behavioural predispositions – as reflected in the positive correlation with the personality trait of Openness to Experience; and characteristically ‘left-wing’ or ‘enlightened’ socio-political values among high IQ individuals. However, IQ is ‘effortless’ while high-C emerges mainly in tough situations where exceptional effort is required. So we probably tend to regard personality in moral terms because this fits with a social system that provides incentives for virtuous behaviour (including Conscientiousness). In conclusion, high IQ should probably more often be regarded in morally evaluative terms because it is associated with behavioural predispositions; while C should probably be interpreted with more emphasis on its being a gift or natural ability. In particular, people with high levels of C are very lucky in modern societies, since they are usually well-rewarded for this aptitude. This includes science, where it seems that C has been selected-for more rigorously than IQ. Indeed, those ‘gifted’ with high Conscientiousness are in some ways even luckier than the very intelligent – because there are more jobs for reliable and hard-working people (even if they are relatively ‘dumb’) than for smart people with undependable personalities.”
This gets at the ideological divide. Conservatives tend to value high-C but not high IQ. Herman Cain, a typical far right conservative, gave voice to this view when he sought to explain away his lack of knowledge on important issues: “We need a leader, not a reader.”
It seems that American society in general has always valued high-C over high IQ. The American ideal has always been the “Self-made Man”, the doer rather than the thinker, the inventer rather than the philosopher. So the theory goes: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. For people who argue American culture is fundamentally conservative, this would seem to be what they are pointing at. The businessman as the leader, as the moral paragon. This is what the American vision of capitalism is all about, the ideal of meritocracy, proving oneself worthy by action and deed, success as outward accomplishment and upward mobility (in particular, up the corporate ladder).
To connect this back to the first article, I would make clear that the personality type rewarded with positions of authority and power within the corporations also is the same personality type rewarded with positions of authority and power within scientific institutions. What corporations and scientific institutions have in common is that both are hierarchical and, in Weberian terms, both are bureaucratic.
I came across various things this past month that taken together created a thought-web in my mind. For anyone who cares, let me explicate (or, if you prefer, skip to the end for my summarization).
– – –
The first thing was an interview on The Diane Rehm Show from a few weeks ago. The guest was Meredith Maran and she was talking about her book, My Lie. When she was younger, she got caught up in the repressed memory obsession of decades past. Therapists at the time were taught to look for signs of childhood molestation and trauma in adults. Her therapists convinced her that her psychological issues were caused by repression and she came to believe her father had done something to her as a child.
Years later after much conflict, she started questioning that there was any repressed memory there at all. She realized she had no clear memories and that she had made false allegations. The response of many callers (and commenters on the internet) was to scapegoat the author similar to how the author had scapegoated her own father.
I was too young at the time to remember that time of our culture. I did, however, get a taste of it having been a child during that time. When I went to college in the mid 90s, my parents warned me about cults which seems a bit silly in retrospect. Through study I’ve come to understand better why my parents and many people had such fears. The 80s was when the Cold War era was coming to an end. Decades of fear-mongering were coming home to roost. Before that time, people were paranoid of commies among us. The commies were gone as a serious threat but the culture of fear remained. The religious element that fueled much of the fear against the Godless commies now fueled fear about child molesters and satanic cults.
There was mass hysteria as our culture shifted into a new era. Mass hysteria is hard to understand from the outside and it’s easy to criticize with 20/20 hindsight. We can look back at people such as the author and wonder how she could’ve been so naive, so easily misled by others. But this mass hysteria included not just people like the author. It included the entire mainstream media and the entire community of psychotherapists and psychiatrists. It’s not called mass hysteria for nothing.
Fears always feel real because they are real even when what they get projected upon is innocent. In the future, people will look back upon our present terrorist fear-mongering in the same way we look back at other eras. Also, what makes fears real is that there usually is a kernel of truth. People do sometimes repress memories, but it’s very hard to know the truth about what is repressed especially when it happened in childhood. I have no doubt that child abuse is more common than it should be. The Catholic priest molestation issue is just the tip of the iceberg. As a society, we are only beginning to come to terms with this uncomfortable problem. The repressed memory hysteria was simply a part of this process of society dealing with what it would rather ignore. When something has been denied and dismissed for so long, it tends to manifest in rather negative ways.
The story of Meredith Maran reminded me of Derrick Jensen. He many books dealing with his personal experiences of childhood abuse and with victimization cycle in our society. I have no reason to think that Jensen’s memories of childhood are false. Unlike Maran, he has clear memories of specific events. It really doesn’t matter to me. The larger truth of victimization in our society is true whether or not any given case is true.
– – –
My thoughts temporarily stopped there. I meant to think more about the connection to Derrick Jensen and write a post about it, but I got distracted with other things. Last night, two things brought my mind back to the subject. I was sitting at work listening to the radio while playing around with my new Kindle.
On Coast to Coast AM, the guest was Daniel Pinchbeck who is an author I’m somewhat familiar with. Near the beginning of the interview, Pinchbeck briefly mentioned Terrence McKenna which made me happy. McKenna used to be a regular guest on C2CAM. Like Philip K. Dick, McKenna had a way of expressing wonder about the world.
On the Kindle, I was looking at books I might want to purchase. Out of curiosity, I looked at the reviews of some of Derrick Jensen’s newer books. I wasn’t thinking about Jensen because of my previous thoughts from some weeks past. Jensen just often comes up in my thoughts because his views have strongly influenced my own views. I’ve been wondering for a long time whether or not I wanted to buy Jensen’s two volume Endgame. I felt uncertain because I have the sense that Jensen’s views changed somewhat from his earliest books. Part of what made me become a fan was how he combined a sense of wonder with a sense of compassionate understanding of suffering (which is also the same combination in different form that made me a fan of Philip K. Dick), but it seemed that his later writings had lost some of the wonder that made A Language Older Than Words so beautiful and moving.
This is where the web of my thinking becomes a bit convoluted. One of the connections is that I had in mind is that of nature. Pinchbeck and McKenna discuss nature in terms of wonder. Jensen also shows his sense of wonder when he writes about nature. The difference is that Pinchbeck and McKenna seem to have an endless sense of wonder (McKenna’s enthusiasm was always contagious), whereas Jensen’s sense of wonder too often becomes eclipsed by the suffering of the world. A favorite middle position between these two attitudes is Philip K. Dick who expressed wonder and suffering as inseparable facets of the same reality.
As I was looking at the reviews of Jensen’s books, my inkling about Jensen was strengthened by two reviews I read. The first reviewer (of Endgame, volume 1) wrote about his mixed response to the book and to the author with whom he claims to have had an e-mail exchange. The reviewer’s personal experience was that Jensen was defensive about his personal trauma which made him question the author’s work:
Now I need to question the entire thesis of the book, since I find I now question the mental and emotional stability of the author. Now I look at the long screeds (rants), the repetition, the extreme focus on abuse and victimhood at every turn, the utter lack of humor, it all starts to add up to something that I frankly have second thoughts about putting much stock in. Yes, the world is in trouble, no doubt about it. Should I look at it all through a lens of abuse, violence, slavery and victimhood just because Derrick Jensen has personal issues which he projects onto everything he sees or comes into contact with? Maybe not. It’s been interesting, but the search for a sane approach to our problems continues, I’m afraid.
I will say that despite my immense gratitude to Derrick for his great work and despite my friendship with him, I sympathized with your post… up to a certain point. I do think Derrick can be harsh, often harsher than I would be in a similar circumstance. Of course, that hardly makes me right… he has experienced abuse on a level I cannot imagine.
Anyhow, the point at which I started to lose sympathy with your situation was when you actually quoted from your email to Derrick. I feel confident that I know what offended him, and I think he’s right. It may have been poor word choice on your part, I do not know. One thing you wrote is, “It strikes me that this trauma seems to be a primary “personal issue” that you are projecting onto the rest of the world.” Now, this is something Derrick has heard a lot, as have most activists who openly acknowledge that they have suffered from abuse, and he has responded to this kind of critique in his work. Derrick’s father, who raped and beat him and his siblings and mother, was an unusually extreme manifestation of the broader culture of objectification, exploitation, control, nihilism, and abuse which is civilization itself. Derrick is not “projecting” his abusive father onto the dominant institutions of the culture when he sees them obliterating life on Earth. 1% annual species extinction is real. 90%+ extirpation of large fish is real. Global deforestation is real. The BP spill and the endless spills in the Niger Delta are real. Global toxification is real. Resource wars and genocide and patriarchy and systematic rape are real. And so on, as infinitum, or as Derrick says, ad omnicidium, which is more to the point. This is not “projection.” Projection is when a battered child acts out toward neutral or compassionate elders because that child has learned to hate and fear all adults, or all men, or all men with beards, or something like that. It is not when a battered child learns the nature of batterers and fights to stop them. Projection is manifesting one’s hatred and fear of a particular abuser irrationally onto others who bear no actual relation to the abuser. This is profoundly different from Derrick’s analysis and activism, and I agree with Derrick that it is offensive to call we he does “projection.”
My own response was halfway between these two. I understand both views, but I think the commenter is incorrect in simply dismissing the power of projection. Any self-aware person knows that everyone projects their personal issues… well, everyone except maybe those who are enlightened. The reviewer probably was lacking a bit of tact and so was Jensen in his response. Both were probably feeling defensive.
Ignoring the issue of tact, I’ve often felt that Jensen has made a mythology out of his personal trauma… which I don’t mean as a criticism per se. Mythologizing of this sort is powerful and can be an effective way of creating a transformative vision of reality (e.g., Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis), but there are obvious dangers. In Jensen’s earliest work, there was a profound sense of wonder that blew me away and awoke me to the suffering in the world like few other authors. However, in Jensen’s later work, my perception is that the rage and frustration has tarnished some of that wonder.
To be fair, I don’t doubt that I’m projecting as well. It’s easy for everyone to get weighed down by life’s frustrations and lose our sense of wonder. Jensen has written about the attempt to regain that sense of wonder after having lost it and that inspired me. For that reason, it would sadden me if the ideology of anarcho-primitivism began to trump that regained wonder. I somehow doubt that any action taken without that sense of wonder will lead to positive results.
This reminds me of another reviewer who was reviewing another of Jensen’s books, What We Leave Behind:
While Jensen is clearly passionate and energizes people towards activism, I agree with Bill McKibben who is quoted on the back cover of Jensen’s book that he is “…occasionally unfair….” I know McKibben’s judgment is accurate because of what Jensen writes about Buckminster Fuller, in which he completely misinterprets Fuller. Fuller was not a “technotopian.” Fuller considered a tree or a dragonfly as the most exquisite technology, so when he uses the word technology he is not suggesting some future machine world; he’s talking about our entire physical environment. Fuller simply shows that by reforming our physical world we can bring out the best in every individual. That’s why Fuller embraced the ideas of Maria Montessori, for example. Fuller’s ideas begin and end with a reverence and awe of nature. Fuller’s roots go back to the transcendentalists of Emerson and his great aunt Margaret Fuller who celebrated enlightenment ideas not divorced from their spiritual underpinnings. When Jensen writes, “If the ultimate Fullerian future did exist, it wouldn’t include humans.” Or, “In short, technotopians are insane: out of touch with physical reality,” he is so wrong about Fuller that it calls everything else he writes into question.
I don’t recall Jensen’s opinions on Fuller. I’m assuming the reviewer is correctly quoting Jensen. Going by the reviewer’s commentary, I find myself in agreement with criticizing Jensen on seemingly misunderstanding Fuller. However, I don’t agree with the conclusion of calling “everything else he writes into question.” I understand Jensen’s biases and I share them to a large degree. I’m wary of technophilia that often is disconnected from the larger world, but I’m also wary of technophobia in that it can imply a lack or constraint of open-minded wonder.
Yes, I see all the destruction of civilization. I hate it. And I can feel that hate in the marrow of my bones. Civilization is unbelievably cruel. There is something fundamentally sick about our society, but I don’t know that it’s inevitable as Jensen believes. I don’t see as clear of a distinction between nature and technology. I find myself resonating with both the views of Jensen and of Fuller. I want to feel the rage at all that is wrong , but I don’t want to lose my sense of wonder in the process. As I wrote in a post once:
Yes, Jensen is correct about how humans victimize one another, is correct about how civilization is destroying all life on earth. And, yes, Ligotti is correct about how humans are paralyzed by suffering, is correct that all of human culture arose as a distraction from this primal horror. Yes, yes, yes. Even so, there is something beyond all of that.
– – –
What all of these authors (Maran, Jensen, Pinchbeck, McKenna, and PKD) share is some understanding of how humans create (collectively and individually) the world we live in.
Maran’s story is a morality tale about what can happen when someone gets lost in their own confused experience of suffering and fear. When Maran tried to make sense (give a story to) her experience, she accepted the story that society offered her. It took her a long time to question this culturally approved story and to explore again her own direct experience.
Jensen’s story of childhood trauma may be true, but that isn’t what matters. The significant aspect is that it has been made into a story, a story writ large creating a cultural mythology of all of civilization. Jensen started off questioning the story society gave him by exploring his own direct experience, but his retelling of childhood experiences made his past into something greater than mere memory.
I find this fascinating. Philip K. Dick did something similar with a bit more imaginative flair. He took his twin sister who died in infancy and his experience of Nixon era California and through his Exegesis and stories he created a sprawling Gnostic narrative of suffering and salvation sought.
So, I’m far from being entirely critical of this kind of mythologizing, but not all mythologizing is equal. Despite Jensen’s profound insights, I prefer PKD’s vision of the world. There is the imagination, but also even with all the suffering expressed PKD seems to take himself less seriously than Jensen. PKD never became a True Believer even of his own mythology. Although he wanted to believe, questions compelled him more than any answer. I’m more like PKD in this regard. However, I do have a bit of Jensen in me. I tend to take myself too seriously. I wish I had an ounce of PKD’s imagination.
I was just now reminded of a previous post of mine (The Elephant That Wasn’t There) where I covered similar territory. The first point I made was about the unreliability of memory:
None of us really knows how much of our memories are correct. Few of us are ever motivated or capable of fact-checking most of our memories. Stories we’ve encountered over our lifetimes (especially when young) can become incorporated into our own personal story… Science has proven that we literally re-member every time we recall something. The more often we recall something the less reliable the memory becomes. We don’t remember the thing itself. We remember our own retellings.
My concluding point was about the significance of this on the collective level:
In enacting our social rituals and retelling our social myths, what kind of reality are we collectively creating? When I look upon a structure like an ugly parking ramp, what kind of world am I looking upon? Why are we creating such a world? What is the motivation? If we stopped enacting these social rituals and stopped retelling these social myths, what would happen to this consensus reality of civilization we’ve created and what would replace it? Or what would be revealed?
I saw two videos that used the same phrase: epistemic closure. The first video surprised me because it’s not the type of phrase I usually come across when watching the mainstream media. The clip is from a CNN discussion and the person who used the phrase is Andrew Sullivan (in the last part of the video):
“The only answer is empiricism. You ask what the facts are and you do your best to find out what the truth is. And sometimes the truth is truly weird. It really is. And sometimes the truth is the truth. So, I think that is all you can do. I think the other thing I think you can do is constantly ask yourself whether you are trapped in your own, what they call, epistemic closure.”
Andrew Sullivan is talking about the media bubbles that can form, but he points out that we can always choose to step outside of any particular bubble. I think this relates to why people don’t trust institutions (especially media institutions) as much as they used to. It’s not that media is necessarily less trustworthy than it used to be. It’s just that people can more easily escape media bubbles than they used to be able to back when a few networks controlled nearly all of collective reality in this country. Epistemic closure used to be the normal mode of functioning, but new generations are growing up in a permanent state of epistemic openness and some of the older generations feel their world(-view) is threatened.
The second video is about epistemic closure in terms of philosophy versus science… with philosophy being idealized as the opposite of epistemic closure and science in the form of scientism being criticized.
The latter video is a bit dry compared to the first, but the two caught my attention as I randomly happened to watch them around the same time. I don’t normally come across ‘epistemic closure’ being mentioned in YouTube videos. This serendipity caused me to consider ‘epistemic closure’ in terms of the thought web that my mind has been tangled in.
Science in it’s most extreme form (as scientism) and in it’s manifestation as respected institution is an example of epistemic closure… or, in other terms, the bureaucratization that creates Max Weber’s Iron Cage… which, of course, always reminds me of PKD’s gnostic description of this world as the Black Iron Prison – Wonder vs the Wonder-Killers: two related thought experiments:
Our idealizing and rewarding sociopathic behavior has created modern bureaucratic civilization. Maybe this alters our very experience of reality. In terms of Robert Anton Wilson’s reality tunnels, maybe we get trapped in a specific worldview. It could be the world isn’t as we think it is or rather that the world becomes as we think it is. The Iron Cage not only destroys the ancient societies of superstition but also destroys the very experience of the supernatural. Research shows that thin boundary types claim to have more supernatural experiences. Research also shows that most people in general have supernatural experiences. The Iron Cage not only disconnects us from a larger context of the supernatural. It disconnects our personal experience from society and often disconnects the individual from their own experience. Maybe there is some truth to the supernatural worldview, but we simply can’t see it because we are trapped in a reality tunnel, trapped in the Iron Cage, in the Black Iron Prison.
This subject is discussed in immense detail in Hansen’s book (The Trickster and the Paranormal). Hansen explains why science has such difficulty grappling with the fundamental issues of our experience of reality. I should point out that neither Hansen nor PKD perceives science as the enemy. However, science is just one viewpoint and when we hold too tightly to one model of reality we become blind to other perspectives, other experiences.
I want to add that I’m wary about criticizing science. Between scientism and anti-intellectualism, I suspect the latter is the greater problem. Besides, I doubt most scientists subscribe to scientism. There is an important distinction between scientific method and scientism. Also, there is an important distinction between scientific research and scientific application. Technology, of course, has many problems which someone like Jensen is correct in criticizing… but I generally think of technology in and of itself as being value neutral (although I understand Jensen would argue the opposite). I don’t think Jensen’s luddite anarcho-primitivism is any more helpful than the anti-intellectualism of certain types of right-wingers.
There is some similarity between anti-technology and anti-intellectualism. Both show a suspicion of modernism, of modern civilization… but, in Jensen’s case, one aspect saves him from complete epistemic closure – Playing for Keeps:
“PEOPLE WHO READ MY WORK often say, “Okay, so it’s clear you don’t like this culture, but what do you want to replace it?” The answer is that I don’t want any one culture to replace this culture. I want ten thousand cultures to replace this culture, each one arising organically from its own place. That’s how humans inhabited the planet (or, more precisely, their landbases, since each group inhabited a place, and not the whole world, which is precisely the point), before this culture set about reducing all cultures to one.”
Which is basically what Noam Chomsky says:
Political anarchism is only ever respectable when it includes some element of self-questioning epistemological anarchism. There are no easy answers. And any easy answer that is given by society is probably wrong and possibly dangerous. That also goes along with any narrative offered by any authority, whether a media pundit or a therapist. Answers must come from within one’s experience rather than be forced onto one’s experience. This attitude needs to be taught at a young age. Unfortunately, our education system teaches the opposite which destroys the natural joy of learning, the natural curiosity and wonder about the world. It’s easier to teach kids to be obedient and rote memorize factoids.
– – –
So, that’s that. I just had all of that jumbling around in my head and needed to express it.
The basic point is this:
1) People want an explanation for the world and for their personal experiences.
2) The most powerful form of explanation is that which is told as a story.
3) Stories can induce wonder, but they can also stunt it.
4) Stories become most dangerous when we forget they are stories.
5) We should respect the power of stories even as we question them.
First, there is a difference between the morality of intentions and the morality of results. To use the example of that post, there is a difference between having family values and valuing family. Intentions may correspond to results or they may not. My conclusion was that results are more important. Also, I speculated that intention when righteously held may actually undermine genuinely moral results. Or it could be that stated intention (rhetoric) can hide self-perceived moral failure (such as a minister teaching family values while using the services of a prostitute or a politician advocating against gay rights while being gay himself).
Second, I admitted to having some tendencies toward righteousness. I don’t think, for this reason (among others), that I’d make a good parent. Of the families I’ve known, those with relatively more righteous parents have had relatively worse results (in that their families are less close and less happy). In general, a righteously judgmental sense of morality is not conducive to creating a better society. My opinion is supported by the research I’ve seen and by books I’ve read such as George Lakoff’s Moral Politics and Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians. I have in the past shared some of the data correlating liberalism and real world moral results: Liberal Pragmatism, Conservative Dogmatism. I think liberals have more objective reason to be righteous on certain issues, but it’s just not in the nature of most liberals to be righteous or else to be loudly vocal about what they feel righteous about and to force it onto others. A notable exception are the New Atheists, but even the righteousness of the New Atheists pales in comparison to the righteousness of fundamentalists.
I too am a vocally righteous liberal. If a person lacks respect for others or for intellectuality, if someone uses sociopathic rationalizations or apologetic sophistry, I will not treat that person with an ounce more respect than they deserve (which is approximately zero). This doesn’t mean I immediately go on the attack with everyone I disagree. I can at times be aggressive because I see how rightwingers try to manipulate the liberal attitude of tolerance. It relates to how apologists pretend to be intellectual by using logical arguments as sophistry and selectively uses data.
What annoys me isn’t necessarily righteousness itself but how it’s used and what it’s used for. Of course, I’m annoyed by my own righteous tendencies and so I try to keep it in check. I don’t see righteousness as it’s own justification in the way that the fundamentalist sees righteous belief as it’s own justification. If I feel strongly about something, I check and double-check the facts. Before I let the chain out on my righteousness, I make sure I’m actually right. Righteousness is fine as long as it’s equally balanced by humility. I admit I can be wrong and I actively seek out evidence that can prove my opinions incorrect. I’m righteous about intellectuality, about clear thinking, about objective facts. To me, that is a moral application of righteousness. A belief, no matter how righteously held, doesn’t justify itself. Justification can only come from a larger context that includes other perspectives and other data. Righteousness should be used to break free of limiting beliefs and shouldn’t be used to enclose oneself within dogma.
Even more importantly, righteousness should always be turned toward oneself first: self-awareness, self-analysis, self-criticism. I think those who judge others are inviting judgment upon themselves by others. Also, from the perspective of Jesus’ teachings, righteousness should be primarily and most strongly directed at those in power. The Christian who likes to judge the poor and the homeless, the desperate and the disenfranchised is no real Christian. The Christian who defends the rich and powerful (whether Rand Paul defending BP or Catholics defending the Pope) and so forsakes the poor and powerless is no real Christian. In this sense, there seems to be a contagion of hyopcrisy among many social conservatives (certainly among the leadership anyways).
Righteousness is a useful but dangerous tool. It does no good to defend those in power who can defend themselves just fine. And it does no good to beat a man while he is down. Defending the wealthy elite while complaining about the “welfare queens” is just plain wrong and comes close to being evil of sociopathic proportions. Righteousness in the hands of dogmatic haters leads to 9/11 attacks and the shootings of abortion doctors. In the US, this righteousness is directly fueled by the rightwing pundits such as Bill O’Reilly endless calling Dr. Tiller, “Tiller the Baby Killer”. Surprise, surprise. A crazy rightwinger kills Dr. Tiller. And guess what? O’Reilly considers himself a good, righteous Christian. Why does O’Reilly have so much righteous hate? Abortion is bad? If O’Reilly were to look at the data (which righteous ideologues rarely do), he would know that countries with legal abortions have lower abortion rates. But, ya see, it isn’t about making the world a better place. The righteous ideologue simply wants to think of himself as being right… and damn the consequences.
Let me share two examples of liberal righteousness.
The first example is Derrick Jensen who is a righteous environmentalists. I think it’s obvious that he has plenty of justification for his righteousness. No rational and compassionate person (meaning everyone besides righteous ideologues) could deny the data he shares in his books. Jensen analyzes in detail the sociopathic tendencies of our society. However, he sometimes, out of frustration, pushes his rhetoric a bit far. It’s hard to know if he pushes too far or not considering the potential dire consequences of the present trajectory of our civilization. It’s not like Jensen is a fundamentalist warning about the end of the world because of his interpretation of biblical prophecy. Jensen is talking about the real world. He seems like a genuine intellectual and I sense he’d be open-minded about new info that challenged his own views. As far as I can tell, Jensen’s righteousness is based in the actual facts. So, it’s not a blind righteousness. Furthermore, it’s a righteousness directed toward those in power… meaning those who have the power to change the world for the better if they so chose.
The second example is Barbara Ehrenreich who is a righteous journalist. Like Jensen, she seems to base her righteousness on objective data and not mere ideological belief. I’ve seen videos of her speaking, but I’ve only just started reading her book Bright-Sided. In that book, she is criticizing a type of optimism popular in America which is superficial and which is too often used to rationalize egregiously immoral or otherwise dysfunctional behavior. I’m not sure she talks about righteousness, but I get the sense that righteousness would relate to her portrayal of positive thinking. She does go in some detail about Christianity and so makes the direct connection to belief as an unquestioning, uncritical mindset. It reminds me of research I’ve seen on positive thinking which shows optimists have a tendency to take credit when results are seen as beneficial or desirable (whether or not the optimist actually earned this credit) and optimists have a tendency to blame externalities (unforeseen factors, other people, etc) when reults are seen as having turned out bad. When an entire society embraces positive thinking, major catastrophes happen. Blinded by optimism, those responsible can honestly claim to not having seen it coming (despite all the evidence that should’ve been heeded as a warning).
The righteous are always right even when they turn out to be wrong. It’s like how social conservatives blame the failure of abstinence only sex education not on the programs themselves but on society. Society is seen as having failed the values preached by the righteous person, but the righteous person will never see themselves as having failed society. So, to go back to the original example, “family values” are believed to never fail even when the results would seem to point towards failure. Families fail and societies fail according to this view, but family values can never fail because the fundamentalist perceives them as having originated from thousands of years of righteous tradition or even from the righteous Word of God. This is righteousness as defensive self-rationalization.
The main moral purpose that righteousness should be applied to is righteousness misused. That is my ideal, anyways. I don’t know how often I live up to my ideal, but I try. Hopefully, my results correspond with my intentions.
I’m a person who likes to do research on topics that interest me, but I like to do research in general even when it isn’t a topic that interests me too much. If I’m making specific argument in a discussion, I want to make sure that I’m not being biased and that I’m using confirmed data.
The problem is that I find few other people are willing to do the same kind of research. Most people just believe what they want to believe. Many people even seem to assume that the facts would agree with their opinions if they ever bothered to look at the facts. This kind of righteous self-certainty annoys me, but even moreso it just perplexes me.
I realize people have limited time to do research for themselves. That is fine. But if that is the case, then shouldn’t the person refrain from making any absolute claims. Instead of making declarations, shouldn’t they use language such as “I think…”, “I suspect…”, “My best guess is”…, “It would seem reasonable…”, or “I could be wrong, but…”.
Often, though, it seems that the less data someone has the more certain they declare their ‘knowledge’. What bugs me even more is that many people are willing to directly dismiss or generally act dismissive towards the data that another person presents. They’ll ask you to cite every fact you present all the while refusing to present any facts of their own. It’s easy to be dismissive.
In response, I’ll sometimes do the detailed research and present specific quotes from specific sources, but it usually doesn’t change anything. If the person truly wanted to know the facts, then they could’ve done the research for themselves. Or could they? I sometimes think that many (most?) people lack certain intellectual skills such as how to research data and how to think critically about it. Research takes effort and understanding it well requires much intelligence and education (which would include self-education).
I think, however, there is also a systemic failure of education in the US. I went to public schools. I can tell you that I learned very little of my intellectual skills from my schooling. Most of what I learned came from my parents and from simply reading and thinking a lot.
There is also would seem to be a cultural factor, but I’m not certain as my knowledge of other cultures is limited. What I’ve observed is that many people believe it’s more reasonable to deny something without facts than to claim something without facts. This is obviously wrong as any denial of a claim is simply another claim stated in the negative. To deny a belief in God is no more reasonable than to claim a belief in God. Neither theist or atheist has objective data, and so the only reasonable conclusion is agnosticism.
All in all, I do think atheists and scientific-minded people tend to be more reasonable than those prone to religious extremism (whether it’s Christian fundamentalism or New Age woo). Most scientists in the world agree that Darwinian evolution and Climate Change are accurate appraisals of reality. This is based on science from around the world funded by many different organizations. However, religious folk and other rightwingers are willing to deny the evidence without offering any of their own counter-evidence. To put it simply, this isn’t a rational response.
How can the rationally-minded educated class reach this large segment of society that gladly throws out all evidence without even looking at it much less trying to understand it? Even intelligent rightwingers will deny science which is even more bewildering. I guess it makes sense that unless you’ve been educated in science you’re less likely to understand science. Getting a college education (in business management for example) won’t necessarily make you any better prepared for understanding science. Most of the people who go into scientific fields are liberals (with independents being the next largest group and conservatives being a small percentage). The question is why do conservatives mistrust science? The only way you could mistrust science is by mistrusting objectivity altogether because science is the best method humans have in determining objective facts.
It might not be that most people are incapable of being rational. It could be that either they have psychological reasons not to use rationality in certain contexts. Psychological research shows two key factors: (1) People are good at compartmentalizing different cognitive functions and different parts of their lives, and (2) People are good at rationalizing their behavior and conclusions. The unconscious mind has more influence on us than does our conscious mind.
The question, then, is why do some people become more capable of intellectual skills or at least more identified with being an intellectual. What makes someone willing and able to question social norms and ‘commonsense’ assumptions? What motivates someone to look critically upon all statements? If this isn’t a ‘natural’ ability (i.e., not common), then why do a few people learn to excel at it? And why are some people willing to admit intellectual limitations (their own and that of the human species in general) and some aren’t? Will intellectual ability always be held by a minority? Is it possible to teach the average person effective critical thinking skills? If it is possible, why have we as a society chosen not to do so?
This post is some commentary that initially was a part of the post John Bior Deng: R.I.P.. So, my thoughts here are about the social context of a white officer shooting a black homeless guy.
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Racism is very central to this topic, but it’s mixed with classism… and the two can’t be entirely separated.
Would Bohnenkamp aggressively confronted a clean-cut white guy in a business suit if that person had dropped a bottle? Probably not. Would Deputy Stotler have shot a clean-cut white guy in a business suit if he was holding a knife after being beat up by a homeless black guy? Probably not. If this case had been investigated by an all black (or even just a mixed race) group of officials instead of an all white group of officials, would they have written a different report about the justification of a white guy shooting a black guy? Probably so. If Deputy Stotler had been a black guy who shot Bohnenkamp because he was beating up Deng after disobeying his commands, would racism have been considered more seriously by the all white investigators? Probably so.
People constantly complain any time race is brought up, and it’s almost impossible to explain racism to someone whose racism is unconscious. We’re all prejudiced in various ways. It’s just human nature. Are these racism deniers ideologically motivated? Are they being disingenuous? Or are they some combination of naive and ignorant?
Polls show that a large percentage of people believe that racism is an issue in the US and that a large percentage perceive racism in themselves. Think about that, and then consider that the extremely racist people are the ones who are least likely to admit to it (even on a poll). Research has even proven people are racist. It’s mostly unconscious, of course… even for those who are aware of racism.
Psychologists have studied in great detail how people form social identities, how people create a sense of belonging, and how people exclude those who are different. Humans (like any other animal) identifies with those who are most similar to them. Studies have shown people tend to have spouses and friends who are like them. People tend to help and hire those they can relate to. This is commonsense (which just so happens to be supported by science).
Even if a police officer intentionally tries not to be racist, he is still going to profile. It would be difficult to do his job without profiling. If Deputy Stotler hadn’t profiled Deng and Bohnenkamp, he wouldn’t have been able to act. He had limited information and had to make a quick decision. He was forced to simplify these people in front of him into stereotypes according to his cultural biases and past experience (we all do this all of the time and research shows that first impressions don’t easily change). Anyways, he isn’t going to stop in that moment to ask himself whether he is being racist… but it’s obvious in hindsight that his judgments were influenced by various prejudices.
I don’t know how such implicit racism can be changed. Maybe it never can be fully ended. Still, there seems to be something worthy in at least just being honest about it.
Let me go into more details by citing some sources.
I was listening to an interview of Dan Ariely who is the author of Predictably Irrational. He pointed out one particular statistic which is significant. Different type of people were tested on honesty. Police officers only came out as average on honesty (meaning they’re no more trustworthy than the rest of us), but police officers perceived themselves as being more honest than others (which implies that officers are better than average at ignoring, forgetting, and/or rationalizing away their moments of dishonesty). So, if the police are as honest and dishonest as the rest of us, then what is the norm (and shouldn’t we expect officers to be above the norm)? Here is an article about the commonality of dishonesty in everyday life:
My point being that the police aren’t above the typical self-deceptions, rationalizations, and situational morality that are common to all of humanity. The police aren’t, by virtue of their profession, therefore moral exemplars for all of us to blindly trust. We should question the actions of police as we would question the actions of anyone (be they rich or poor, black or white). Therefore, in an incident involving the police, the witness acounts given by the police should be given no more weight than the witness accounts by the general public (but I’m willing to bet that most investigations do give weight to the former). The question of honesty vs dishonesty is very relevant to racism because there isn’t as much overt racism these days, but racism still has great influence on us as individuals and on society as a whole.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Most Americans know that racism is an issue in this country. The question is how much (that’s where the arguments start) and if — and to what degree — that racism animates critics of the president.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in January found that 71 percent of whites and 85 percent of blacks think that racism in our society is at least somewhat of a problem.
How much discrimination is there? The world may never know, but we admit that we misjudge it.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted in January of last year found that 60 percent of whites agree that they underestimate the amount of discrimination that there is against blacks and 59 percent of blacks agree that they overestimate the amount of racism against them. How can we measure truth when everyone’s twisting it?
A better question might be how much racial prejudice are people aware of and willing to acknowledge.
An ABC News poll released in January asked, “If you honestly assessed yourself, would you say that you have at least some feelings of racial prejudice?” Thirty-eight percent of blacks answered yes, as did 34 percent of whites.
Then the question becomes whether this racial prejudice plays a part in the opposition to the president. Again, it’s impossible to know, but a 2003 study by Rice University researchers and published in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies offers an interesting insight into its potential to be present: “One of the greatest challenges facing black leaders is aversive racism, a subtle but insidious form of prejudice that emerges when people can justify their negative feelings toward blacks based on factors other than race.” Sound familiar?
I put in bold a very important insight. On the Iowa City Press Citizen online comments section, people constantly talk about taking care of the problem with public housing on the South side. It just so happens that many black people happen to live in that neighborhood. It’s useless for people to deny racism because most biases work unconsciously. Going by the statistics, I feel particularly mistrustful of anyone who outright denies racism.
The Deng case has to be understood in the lager context. America, obviously, has a long history of racism which lingers on. However, the larger national context relates to the local context. Iowa City isn’t just mostly white but also mostly upper middle class (I’ve heard it’s the highest concentration of educated people in the US). At about the same time Deng incident, another supposed homeless guy (who was white) died by falling from a construction site. What became clear was that some people considered the homeless to be less worthy than other citizens. Some people even expressed happiness that there was less scum in the world. It was questionable whether the other guy was even homeless as he was a local guy with family in town who may even have been working at the construction site, but the paper labelled him homeless and so he officially was. To be poor, homeless or simply a minority is to stick out in this town. You’re inevitably going to get more attention including attention from the police.
The racism/classism issue became even more clear with the news reporting (and online comments) about violence in one part of town. Relative to many places, the violence was extremely minor and it was only a few troublemakers who were causing most of it. But, to many Iowa Citians, this was a crime wave that was destroying our entire world, our safe little haven. The blame was rather distorted because people don’t bother to look at facts, but fear without facts just makes some people feel even more certain (and makes them louder) about their opinions.
The problem that was focused on was public housing. Despite the fact that public housing is based on laws set at the state and national level, people wanted to blame the evil liberals on the city council. I find that rather funny. Last year, 2 white professors were charged with sexual misconduct (both which led to their suicides) and at that time the evil liberals at the university were blamed. It’s always the liberals fault in this town. Furthermore, last year a white banker was caught stealing money which led him to kill himself along with his family and a white mother killed her children. Did any of the fear-mongerers now complaining about the poor and homeless ever complain last year about the crime wave of upstanding white citizens? No, they didn’t. Did the people now arguing for a curfew for teenagers argue for a curfew for middle-aged people? No, they didn’t.
This is a topic that could be written about endlessly and deserves much deep consideration and analysis, but I’ll end it for now. For more of my thoughts, the following are some blog posts of mine inspired by these recent local news events: