Conservative Mistrust & Ideological Certainty (part 2)

I have some further thoughts about the topic I wrote about in my last post:

Conservative Mistrust & Ideological Certainty (part 1)

I started reading the introduction of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. I immediately could tell that Hofstadter was a man who truly understood what intellectualism is about, but his book isn’t a paean to the glories of intellectualism. I sense that Hofstadter was trying to be fairminded even to those he is criticizing (a respectable trait that any intellectual should aspire towards). In this book, he is analyzing the specific history of intellectuality within the United States, the intellectuals themselves and those who opposed them. He doesn’t shy away from tough issues such as communism.

He clarifies a number of points. I’ll discuss two of them.

First, there generally isn’t a group of people who are entirely anti-intellectual. Those who use anti-intellectual arguments/rhetoric usually do so in response to some particular situation. The main opposition towards intellectuals is when they act as experts which goes against the populist grain of American culture (populist sentiments being particularly appealing to American conservatives). On the other hand, American intellectuals have at times been in alignment with this populism (e.g., the Progressive Era). Intellectualism isn’t inherently anti-populist and populism isn’t inherently anti-intellectual, but it’s obvious that in the US intellectualism and populism haven’t always gotten along.

Second, he distinguishes intelligence from intellectuality. Intelligence is universally valued, but intellectuality is not. Someone can be one while not being the other. The central distinction is that intelligence has practical ends and so can be known by its results (can be observed or even measured) whereas intellectuality doesn’t seek external justification. Intellectuality has two attributes that balance eachother: piety and playfulness. There is an almost religious sense that the intellectual has towards the moral values underpinning intellectual endeavors: truth and honesty, justice and fairness, etc. The intellectual endeavor is extremely serious and many intellectuals will dedicate their lives to it for very little reward (unlike businessmen or media personalities, few intellectuals become wealthy). Intellectualism is a calling. However, it’s playfulness (creativity, imagination, experimentation, openness, etc) that keeps the intellectual from turning into a zealot or ideologue. Also, I’d say this playfulness relates to the ability at role-playing, the ability to see different perspectives, the ability to empathize and understand.

The second point relates to psychological research which shows a correlation between liberalism and psychological factors such as the MBTI function Intuition, the FFM trait Openness to Experience, and Hartmann’s thin boundary type. I couldn’t help but think of MBTI Intution when reading Hofstadter’s description of intellectuality. Intuition is all about both the ability to think in terms of abstractions and imaginatively conceive of diverse possibilities. Intuitives tend to have a very playful sense of humor. Hofstadter’s seemed to be describing, in particular, the MBTI types INFP and INTP. There is other psychological research that I’m reminded of. There was a study that demonstrated a correlation between (as I recall) imagination, empathy (or emotional intelligence), and paranormal/spiritual experience… which makes sense according to Hartmann’s model of boundary types.

Conservatives like to call liberals bleeding hearts and it’s true that liberals on average have a stronger empathetic response (which would imply a higher emotional intelligence in that people tend to personally care about others to the extent that they understand the felt experience of others… not to imply, though, that conservatives entirely lack this because to entirely lack it would mean you’re a sociopath). What is interesting is that intellectualism is strongly correlated, especially in the US, with liberalism. For example, most scientists self-identify as liberals. So, what is the connection between empathy and intellectualism? This connection would be most clearly represented by the MBTI NF types (INFP, INFJ, ENFP, ENFJ), but even NT types would have an above average ability to understand the perspectives of others even if they didn’t experience this on an emotional level. My guess, however, is that most objectivists and anarcho-capitalists are NT types which would explain why they don’t identify with the average conservative who is probably an ST type.

I’ve noticed that some people speculate Ayn Rand was an INTJ. My dad, who has tested as an ENTJ, is fairly interested in Rand’s worldview. There is nothing comparable to the systematic logic of an INTJ or ENTJ… because these two types have Introverted Intuition which is a type of abstract thinking when taken to the extreme is utterly detached from outward reality and in some cases can lead to an idealization of outward reality. Let me use Rand as an example. Here are some quotes from the Wikipedia article titled “Objectivism (Ayn Rand)”:

Rand’s philosophy begins with three axioms: existence, identity, and consciousness.[6] Rand defined an axiom as “a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.”[7] As Leonard Peikoff noted, Rand’s argument “is not a proof that the axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity are true. It is proof that they are axioms, that they are at the base of knowledge and thus inescapable.”[8]

Like Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand likes axioms. To me, these are just ideas based on arguments. The problem with calling them axioms is that it gives me the sense that there are unstated assumptions underlying the argument for these axioms. These axioms don’t stand alone. For one, the very statement of these axioms is dependent on language (specifically, the English language in this case) and dependent on a philosophical tradition (specifically, the Western tradition in this case). If you put these axioms to a group of philosophy professors, they could debate them endlessly and never come to a conclusion about them. Rand’s perception that she defeats her opponents before even beginning the debate is just pure intellectual hubris. It’s a very simpleminded mentality.

As Rand wrote, “A leaf … cannot be all red and green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A.”[9]

Essentially, this is binary (black/white) thinking. It’s easy to point out any number of examples that contradict this style of either/or philosophizing. Most issues in life consist of multiple categories and blurring between categories. Even something so simple as gender involves complexities such as hermaphrodites.

Objectivism holds that the mind cannot create reality, but rather, it is a means of discovering reality.[14]

This is such an over-simplification that I hardly know what to say about it. Our minds aren’t separate from the reality being perceived. Speaking about whether reality is created or not is pointless speculation, but what we can say is that the mind does create the perception of reality. To anyone who doesn’t understand this, I’d recommend reading the vast literature on the mind-body connection and I’d particularly recommend reading about enactivism.

Objectivist philosophy derives its explanations of action and causation from the axiom of identity, calling causation “the law of identity applied to action.”[15] According to Rand, it is entities that act, and every action is the action of an entity. The way entities act is caused by the specific nature (or “identity”) of those entities; if they were different they would act differently.[16]

This touches upon Rothbard’s own axiom of “Humans act”. This variety of conservative is obsessed with action, with doing and achieving. In Rand’s view, mind and reality are separate to some extent which seems to relate to a more general focus on what separates, what makes “A is A” and what makes “B is B”. It’s why this type is so centrally focused on ownership. You can only own that which is somehow outside of the one who owns. Many of these people even speak of individuality in terms of self-ownership which is a truly bizarre concept. The self, like anything else, is just an object to be owned and to do with as one wishes (manipulated, used, destroyed, sold, etc). The self has no intrinsic value and so it’s only value is what it’s worth on the market.

I’d suggest that this attitude is based in Hartmann’s thick boundary type. Research shows that the person with a thicker boundary has a stronger sense of separation between themselves and others, between themselves and the world, between the present and the past, between fantasy and reality, between body and mind. It’s a fundamentally distinct way of viewing and being in the world. It would seem that Rand had an impressively strong sense of thick boundary.

Objectivist epistemology maintains that all knowledge is ultimately based on perception. “Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident.”[20] Rand considered the validity of the senses to be axiomatic, and claimed that purported arguments to the contrary all commit the fallacy of the “stolen concept”[21] by presupposing the validity of concepts that, in turn, presuppose the validity of the senses.[22] She thought that perception, being physiologically determined, is incapable of error. So optical illusions, for example, are errors in the conceptual identification of what is seen, not errors in sight itself.[23]

Reality is what reality is (A is A). You see what you get. And there is nothing else

According to Rand, attaining knowledge beyond what is given in perception requires both volition (or the exercise of free will) and adherence to a specific method of validation through observation, concept-formation, and the application of inductive and deductive logic. A belief in, say, dragons, however sincere, does not oblige reality to contain any dragons. For anything that cannot be directly observed, a process of “proof” identifying the basis in reality of the claimed item of knowledge is necessary in order to establish its truth.[25]

Objectivism rejects both faith and “feeling” as sources of knowledge. Rand acknowledged the importance of emotion in human beings, but she maintained that emotions are a consequence of the conscious or subconscious ideas that a person already accepts, not a means of achieving awareness of reality. “Emotions are not tools of cognition.”[26] Peikoff uses “emotionalism”[27] as a synonym for irrationality.

Truth is nothing more than the combination of perceived reality (A is A) and pure rationality. This is a very self-contained attitude. Rand or Rothbard is presenting something that they consider to be self-evident for anyone willing to see the obvious (the axiomatic truth) and able to logically deduce the inevitable conclusion (from those axioms).

Integrating with this is Rand’s view that the primary focus of man’s free will is in the choice: to think or not to think. “Thinking is not an automatic function. In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.”[43] According to Rand, therefore, possessing free will, human beings must choose their values: one does not automatically hold his own life as his ultimate value. Whether in fact a person’s actions promote and fulfill his own life or not is a question of fact, as it is with all other organisms, but whether a person will act in order to promote his well-being is up to him, not hard-wired into his physiology.

This is an extension of something along the lines of the axiom “humans act”. The idealizing of freedom and choosing seems to be a form of heroic existentialism as expressed with Sartre’s radical freedom (it’s because there is no inherent value that we are absolutely free). By acting, we define who we are and we claim self-ownership. The “undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism” is a passive experience that must be acted upon.

Rand summarizes:

If [man] chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course. Reality confronts a man with a great many ‘must’s’, but all of them are conditional: the formula of realistic necessity is: ‘you must, if -‘ and the if stands for man’s choice: ‘if you want to achieve a certain goal’.[46]

Reality is what reality is, but reality in and of itself is separate from and opposed to rational self-interest. Nature must be tamed by man in order for him to attain his self-imposed goal. Reality is a world of objects and before anything else the object of the self must be taken control of. The method of taking control is rationality and hence actively forcing order upon one’s experience.

What is most important in all of this is that everything from this perspective (whether objectivism or anarcho-capitalism) begins with the claim of self-evident axioms. This must be understood in it’s larger context. The more intelligent defenders of this position don’t claim that everything is limited to this axiomatic approach. Much of the hard sciences necessitate research that can lead to objective conclusions, but the social sciences are dismissed out of some generalized criticism of positivism. What this comes down to is that social scientists can’t come to absolute conclusions and therefore all social science is complete bunk. So, all psychology, all sociology, all anthropology, all Keynesian economics based on data about humans, all of it is meaningless. Humans can objectively study the physical world but humans can’t objectively study humans.

Mises Non-Trivial Insight
By Robert P. Murphy

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the economics of Ludwig von Mises is his insistence on the a priori approach. For Mises, economic “laws” must be logically deduced from antecedent axioms, so that—assuming the initial assumptions are true—the conclusions reached are just as valid as any result in Euclidean geometry.This stands in sharp contrast to the method of the positivists, a camp that includes most of today’s practicing economists. In their opinion, economics can only be “scientific” if it adopts the procedures used by the natural scientists. Roughly, the positivists feel that economists should form hypotheses with testable implications, and then collect data to measure the accuracy of their predictions. Those tendencies that enjoy the most success in this sense are then deemed to be better “laws” than conjectures that do not fit the data so well.

Against the mainstream’s impressive mathematical tools and vast budgets spent on data collection, the Misesians meekly insist that economics must start from the premise that humans act. This action axiom lies at the core of “praxeology,” Mises’ term for the science of human action. The Misesians argue that all of the true economic laws can be derived from this simple axiom (sometimes with additional assumptions about the world, such as the fact that labor is onerous).

I think the motivation in this is the desire to see humans as free agents that can’t be predicted and the fear that anyone who would want to predict humans would also want to control humans. That is the real issue and all of the rationalized argumentation is just window dressing. There is a comforting simplicity in this plea for axiomatic truths and logical conclusions. It’s not unlike the theologians desire to understand the perfection of God through the perfection of rationality bestowed upon man by that very same God. It’s a desire for the world to just make sense. The social scientists gather immense data and portray a complex world. The social scientists are experts who debate issues the common man can’t understand. It’s understandable that anti-intellectualism can be an attractive alternative in response to these experts in control of our fates. When politicians call upon experts, how can we know what they discuss behind closed doors? Why should we trust these experts who live their comfortable lives in their ivory towers?

There really is no way to argue against this mistrust. It’s not unusual for this mistrust to be, especially during social turmoil and economic hard times, to turn into paranoid suspicion. It’s ultimate a sense of fear about what is beyond the individual. We do face many complex issues that have resulted from industrialization and globalization. It’s just a fact that we no longer live in a time when a single person can understand everything and can do everything for himself. It’s tempting to idealize the Jeffersonian libertarianism of a pre-industrial age or to idealize the simple unregulated capitalism when industrialization was barely taking hold. Once upon a time, Americans were innocently naive about environmental destruction, about pollution-related diseases, about the degradation of urbanization. The first century or so of American history seems almost utopian in hindsight. Why couldn’t that have continued? It would be nice to believe that capitalism, if left to its own devices, would’ve brought nothing but good. Why did the government have to ruin everything?

These people may profess rationality, but human motivation ultimately is non-rational. George Lakoff makes a good argument for this in his book Moral Politics. All logic about political views comes down to rationalization. Lakoff argues that we begin with metaphors by which we frame our experiences and try to understand them, but in doing so we filter all of reality through this frame (or, as Robert Anton Wilson say it, through our “reality tunnel”). This framing is prior to our verbalization of it. This is further supported by the psychological research (yes, the social science that is dismissed by Mises and Rothbard). Studies show that humans are born with or else develop early on certain psychological traits, but you don’t have to trust the experts. Go to a hospital nursery or a playground where children are playing and you will observe for yourself the distinctive personalities.

The only reason that the anarcho-capitalists and similar types can dismiss this science is because they’re ignorant of the scientific process. It really can’t be called anything other than anti-intellectualism. I don’t even know what they mean by positivism. They dismiss all social science based on the claim that it is positivist which is odd considering that there are anti-positivist social scientists such as Max Weber. Anyways, I don’t see how the world would be improved if we were able to somehow get rid of all social science and get rid of all the experts. So much of our society is built on social science. There is no aspect of capitalism or politics that isn’t informed by social science. Social science is the basis of all advertising and PR. Social science is used for product design and architecture. Social science is used in military training and military strategy. Social science helps city planners design efficient roadways and helps utility companies determine the patterns of customer behavior.

There is this strange notion that social science is about abstract data disconnected from the practical world. If social science can be used to control people as some fear, that only proves how effective it is in a practical sense. The arguments against social science are distractions from the real moral issues. Those who don’t see themselves as experts fear those who sometimes act as experts. These people want self-control and self-ownership which is how they define freedom, but this ideal of freedom is itself an abstraction. These people can offer no real world examples of a society that operated according to their ideals.

There is a serious disconnection here between American populism and intellectualism, but there is no reason it has to be this way. The average person can only have a negative view of intellectuality if he wasn’t ever taught intellectuality in his own schooling. If every American was taught how to think intellectually and taught to value intellectuality, then intellectualism would become a populist value. Most people have the capacity for intellectual thought. Even if the average person doesn’t desire to dedicate their life to intellectuality, it would still be of value for all citizens to get an intellectual education. The only way to counter fear and suspicion is through knowledge.

Conservative Mistrust & Ideological Certainty (part 1)

I’ve noticed a connection of attitudes in a certain type of person, but I’m not sure what it means. This post is largely speculation. I have a book by Richard Hofstadter on anti-intellectualism in the US and so I’ll write in more detail about this in the future. For now, I just want to point out some thoughts and observations.

Many have noted for the past half century or so that America has a strain of anti-intellectualism that comes to the forefront every so often. I don’t know if this anti-intellectual attitude always correlates with conservatism, but it has in recent history going back to at least the beginnings of movement conservatism. Of course, movement conservatism laid the groundwork for the religious right to gain political power and obviously the religious right has had issues with science ever since science began. It’s true that many popular conservatives were religiously proud/righteous with an element of folksy anti-intellectualism (George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, etc), but it goes beyond just religion versus science.

This critical attitude towards science, whether motivated by religious belief or not, expresses a basic sense of distrust about experts who claim to know more than the average person (implying they are somehow more worthy). This is the dreaded intellectual elite and scientists are just one variety. Other varieties of intellectual elitists are academics and even politicians. The conservative idealizes the businessman who has knowledge and experience of the real world. The intellectual elite (in academic ivory towers or far away in Washington) are disconnected from the real world and so they aren’t to be trusted. It’s why conservatives claim that government is the problem… not that it ever stops them from trying to elect their own to government or stop them from lobbying politicians.

Beyond this point, it becomes a bit murky. It’s not limited to anti-intellectualism per se. There are even intellectual conservatives that express this attitude of mistrust. For the more intelligent conservative, they’ll express this mistrust epistemologically. They might not entirely dismiss science, but they think scientists overreach. What they do trust is cold hard facts. They even mistrust scientific research. There are various reasons for this which I don’t entirely understand, but one of them is a fear that scientists have agendas (projection?). A person can only mistrust the agendas of scientists if they mistrust the scientific process which is designed to filter out personal agendas (and other subjective biases) over time. This would seem to based on a fear that the entire scientific paradigm is an agenda not to be trusted or to be trusted with great wariness. Maybe science has a role, but it shouldn’t be as primary as we make it. Maybe it’s a belief that scientists should focus on more practical matters like doing research that can lead to technology rather than studying social issues or measuring atmospheric pollution. There might even be a religious element (or a religious holdover for non-religious conservatives) in that scientists are treading on the divine when they investigate beyond mundane subjects.

This mistrust extends also to economics which is something I just realized today. I watched some videos and was involved with some discussions where this mistrust of science was put into the context of politics and economics. The issue with science was connected to economics by way of mathematics. It seems to be a mistrust about how (or if) mathematical models correlate to the sensate world. Even if there is scientific research that corroborates a correlation, doubt remains in terms of causation and explanation. A mathematical model remains an abstract theory and there potentially could be many abstract theories that correlate to the same real world phenomena. This same argument was being used against Keynesian economics because Keynesian theorists like to use mathematical models and to make predictions based on those models.

Even though different reasons are given, I sense that all these varieties of mistrust originate from the same general attitude of mistrust. I’d assume that it relates to the fear traditioal conservatives have about radical change. Psychological research shows that conservatives have a stronger disgust response (for example, toward rotten fruit)… not that many conservatives would trust this particular psychological research. I’ve noted that conservatives tend not to have as much interest in psychology. Also, surveys have shown that most scientists self-identify as liberal. Is there something inherently “liberal” about science? Or is there something about a scientific education that encourages a liberal mindset? Furthermore, why do liberals seem more trusting of the governmnet, science, and of radical change? Does it come down to the simple fact that research has shown liberalism to correlate to the psychological trait “openness to experience”?

Since research shows liberals are more open to experience, then what do conservatives mean by having more trust in the “real world”? It seems that conservatives define reality as being logical in that any fundamental truth should stand on it’s own. Any real truth would be obviously true.

Many who make these arguments are minarchists or anarcho-capitalists, objectivists or libertarians… or something else along these lines (even mainstream Republicans will at times make these arguments). Two of the major influences for many of these people (either directly or indirectly) are Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. A popular website is the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The following is a section from an article on that website which demonstrates the style of argument:

Psychology versus Praxeology
By Robert P. Murphy

Of course, even this experimental confirmation does not prove the universal truth of the bystander effect.  It could be that, despite their best efforts, the psychologists did not really pick a representative sample of test subjects.  Moreover, even if the bystander effect is indeed a fact for the current population of humans, there is nothing to prevent the emergence in one hundred years of a new breed of humans who, whether through culture or genetics, do not obey the bystander effect.  Just like any “law” from the natural sciences, the “laws” of psychology (insofar as they are validated by the experimental method) are only tentative.

In contrast, let us analyze a typical economic law:  If the government runs a deficit, then interest rates will be higher than they otherwise would have been.  Now this law too seems commonsensical (just as the bystander effect), but it is more than that:  Once the economist takes care to precisely specify the definitions of the terms, he or she can actually prove the proposition as an exercise in pure logic.  There is no reason to go out and “test” whether it is true, because this would miss the point.  It would be as nonsensical as “testing” whether the interior angles of a triangle (in Euclidean geometry) add up to 180 degrees.

From this perspective, science can only at best deal with relative truths. Logic, however, deals with absolute truths (i.e., axioms):

Statistics, he pointed out, cannot trump logic.

And:

Contrary to the mainstream positivist position, in which all economic theories must lead to falsifiable predictions that can be tested, Ludwig von Mises believed that valid economic theorems must be deducible from the axiom, “Humans act.”

Mathematical data and the scientific research it’s based upon can only ever at best be of secondary importance. These people demand their worldview be absolutely logically consisten, facts be damned. The problem is that the world is infinitely complex. The human ability to use logic is limited. A theory can be logically consistent and yet still be wrong. Also, this idea of axioms is strange. In what way is “Humans act” an axiom that is beyond questioning. There are tons of assumptions this so-called “axiom” is based upon.

This way of argument reminds me of Christian apologists who sometimes are very intelligent and knowledgeable within their narrow frame of interest. Christian apologists often are great debaters and are capable of twisting around words. Their thinking is usually circular and self-contained… meaning it’s logically self-consistent. However, an apologist isn’t interested in new data. The apologists already knows everything that matters. The apologists “axioms” came from God himself.

The axiom in both cases is seen as being unquestionable, a tenet of faith.

I still feel confused about all of this. I don’t understand what motivates it. It’s an attitude about the world and not a specific worldview. People with the same attitude might entirely disagree about the worldview and yet still use the same style of argument to defend their own worldview. It’s very strange. Personally, I find it frustrating. No matter what data I bring up (about poverty or global warming or whatever) will usually be dismissed out of hand or else turned into a philosophical debate about postmodern epistemology. It’s like these people want to avoid the fundamental issues themselves. They feel safest within their system of thought and do everything to defend their system of thought from all that is external to it.

The worst of these people are intellectually dishonest. They use logic as rhetoric, as apologetics, as sophistry. Some of them are quite clever at this game. However, not all of them seem intellectually dishonest. Some will accept scientific research when it accords with their own worldview. For example, Stefan Molyneux uses the psychological research on trauma and I agree with his understanding of this issue, but he uses it to defend a particular ideology which isn’t based on any real world examples.

This attitude of mistrust towards institutions beyond the individual is coupled with a self-certainty held within the individual or within the group that the individual belongs to.

The liberal attitude is different, but I’m not sure how to pinpoint this difference. Liberals can be extremely questioning of the same things conservatives question. So, why does liberal questioning begin and end in a sense of openness? Most liberal who are scientists or interested in science would openly state that science is imperfect. Still, there is a basic trust in the scientific process like there is a basic trust in the political process. I’ve pointed out in another blog how this plays out on the political level (the beginning of the blog post is posted below):

Liberal Trust vs Conservative Mistrust

The other day, I came across data that showed a difference between Republicans and Democrats (Republicans Support Big Government… just as long as Republicans are in power). Republicans support big government when there is a Republican president, but they fight, fear-monger, criticize and obstruct what they label as big government when a Democrat is president. Democrats, however, show more even support for big government no matter which party is in power. For example, almost the same number of Democrats support Obama as supported Reagan. This explains the point (which I think Cenk Uygur made) that bipartisanship is usually Democrats agreeing with Republicans but rarely the other way around.

There is a fundamental difference in worldview. This probably relates as well to my argument that liberals are less dogmatic in their ideology (Liberal Pragmatism, Conservative Dogmatism). Conservatives seem more likely to see themselves as principled and so more willing to stand by their principles no matter what. It’s not that liberals aren’t principled, but a major liberal value is trying to understand the views of others and working towards a middle ground of agreement or at least acceptance. Liberals aren’t against big business in the same way or to the same degree as conservatives are against big government. Instead, liberals think capitalism and democracy need to work together without either being subsumed to the other.

Obviously, there is a very fundamental difference in the conservative and liberal worldviews. Anarcho-capitalists, objectivists & (righwing) libertarians often criticize Republicans and mainstream conservatives, but nonetheless they are clearly conservatives themselves… even if they don’t like to label themselves as conservatives. Ignoring all the differences of ideology, what specifically makes a conservative a conservative and a liberal a liberal? Is it just a difference of psychological traits?

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Continued in part 2:

 

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Self-Enclosed Stories, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

I often watch the videos of Stefan Molyneux. I highly admire some of his insights, but I’m also highly critical of the conclusions he bases on these insights. Here is a very high quality video he just made to which I have a mixed response.

He tells a compelling story. It’s not unlike the story told by Alex Jones and other right-leaning libertarians. Stefan is essentially an intelligent conspiracy theorist which I don’t mean as an insult. It’s just an apt description.

I have a cynical nature with a bit of intelligent paranoia thrown in. I’m quite fond of criticizing the government and the established system of modern civilization. So, I resonate with the general attitude of questioning as seen with Alex Jones or in a less bombastic way with Stefan Molyneux. I resonate, but I also feel repulsed by a tendency towards fear-mongering. At worst, this kind of fear-mongering leads to a dark sensationalism as portrayed in the above video.

My own sensibility is not any less dark, but I lean leftwards away from this rightwing way of portraying a cultural narrative. I’m not sure exactly what the difference is. Liberals seem less prone to use overt emotional persuasion/manipulation. A particular kind of right-leaning libertarian makes progressive leftwingers such as Michael Moore seem like moderates.

Noam Chomsky is no less critical of the government than Molyneux, but Chomsky would never make a video like the above. As another example, Derrick Jensen easily competes with Molyneux on the level of cynical analysis of our present society… and, yet, there is a difference. What is this difference?

Both Chomsky and Jensen have a more open-ended analysis. They’re less likely to come to an absolute conclusion, less likely to tell an ideological narrative. Derrick Jensen explicitly says that no ideology is right, no single answer will solve our problems. Molyneux, however, is selling a specific ideology: anarcho-capitalism. So, the story Molyneux is telling leads to a specific ideological vision of how society should be.

In this, I sense something like naivette. Molyneux believes in his ideological vision. He has faith in the theory of anarcho-capitalism even though there is no real-world evidence supporting it.

The story told by Stefan Molyneux and by Alex Jones could be true. I have a strong suspicion that parts of it are true. My worry is that there are elements of truth mixed in with massive amounts of speculation. Alex Jones is particularly bad about ungrounded speculation, but even the more moderate Molyneux dangerously courts with the paranoid vision. The specific danger I see is that stories have a way of becoming self-enclosed worldviews which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Victimization: Culture & Education

There is a good deal else that would not exist without “poisonous pedagogy.” It would be inconceivable, for example, for politicians mouthing empty clichés to attain the highest positions of power by democratic means. But since voters, who as children would normally have been capable of seeing through these clichés with the aid of their feelings, were specifically forbidden to do so in their early years, they lose this ability as adults. The capacity to experience the strong feelings of childhood and puberty (which are so often stifled by child-rearing methods, beatings, or even drugs) could provide the individual with an important means of orientation with which he or she could easily determine whether politicians are speaking from genuine experience or are merely parroting time-worn platitudes for the sake of manipulating voters. Our whole system of raising and educating children provides the power-hungry with a ready-made railway network they can use to reach the destination of their choice. They need only push the buttons that parents and educators have already installed.”

 ~ Alice Miller (as quoted from Poisonous pedagogy)

This video is an insightful analysis.  I don’t have in opinion about the book in question (The Catcher in the Rye) since it’s been many years since I read it.  There is another video about it from the movie Six Degrees of Separation.  I like what Will Smith’s character is saying about imagination.

The two views of the book are a bit different, but maybe there is a connection.  What kills the imagination?  Imagination is very personal.  For the imagination to become externalized and objectified (as entertainment or organized religion) implies that a violent disconnection has occurred.  So, what about our society is responsible for this?

Since I’m reading Derrick Jensen right now, I have been thinking about the connection between abuse and hierarchy.  Jensen discusses it in terms of the victimization cycle of victims becoming victimizers and the culture of power and fear (in particular, Jensen discusses all of this in relation to child abuse including his own personal experience).  Related to the imagination and the individual, Jensen also talks about the commodification of our culture.  Imagination becomes a commodity as entertainment and people become commodities as workers.  This process is largely dependent on proper ‘education’.

The guy in the first video pointed out something I hadn’t heard before.  He mentioned that both prostitutes and those who seek them out tend to have histories of sexual abuse as children.  I had heard about this being true for sex workers, but it’s strange that sexually abused people would seek eachother out to form this kind of business relationship.

I think it’s important that he connects abuse to general dysfunction both in the individual and society.  Abuse early in life messes up a person psychologically and often turn to self-medication.  Everyone blames the victim, says this guy… and he has a theory about it.  “Of the three major kinds of abuse (verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse), it is the verbal abuse victims who become the political leaders… Those who are physically abused become the workers… While those who are sexually abused often become the criminal class.” 

Civilization isn’t the normal state of the human species.  People have to be formed correctly at a young age to fit into such an unnatural situation.  Mostly this isn’t planned out in a conscious way (and conscious awareness of the process is discouraged by the system itself).  Abuse is self-replicating.  In a society based on victimization, it is easier for a victim to become a victimizer than it is for a victim to become a defender of victims.  We are all victims in various ways as we live in a very oppressive society, but abuse makes for a good example because it’s more obvious (for anyone who wants to see).  Child abuse is very common in our society and most often children are abused by their parents.  A child is statistically safer around strangers.  Rape, whether of children or adults, is also very common. 

If you blame the victimizers, you’d be blaming a large percentage of our entire society and most victimizers were also once victims.  To go by the theory presented in the video, maybe blaming the victims in the first place promotes victims becoming victimizers.  The separation between victims and victimizers is less than we like to think.  There is the cartoon of the boss who yells at the employee who goes home to yell at his wife who yells at the kid who yells at the dog.  That is a simplification of the process.  Everyone wants to be in the position of the abuser rather than the abused.  If the employee becomes the new boss, he will then yell at his employees.  When the kid grows up to be a parent, he will yell at his kids or his wife.

No single person can be blamed.  The victimization is systemic to our entire culture.  It can be seen in the news and in entertainment.  It can be seen in politics and war.  It can be seen in the police force and in business practices.  It can be seen at work and at home.  It’s all around us and we are all apart of it.  The key point that Jensen makes is that we shouldn’t blame ourselves for being born into this society.  We do what we can.  We should understand that we all are the walking wounded and should be compassionate.

I must admit that I find it difficult to be compassionate at times.  I’m one of the walking wounded as well.  My own suffering sometimes makes me more compassionate and sometimes less.  I wish I were capable of always being kind and caring, but it is always a challenge.  I found helpful the attitude expressed by Thomas Ligotti which comes down to hate the sin, not the sinner.  In speaking about his own pessimism (which could be applied to Derrick Jensen’s pessimism), he writes:

“It would be a sign of callousness to bemoan the fact that pessimistic writers do not rate and may be denounced in both good conscience and good company. This judgment makes every kind of sense in a world of card-carrying or crypto-optimists. Once you understand that, you can spare yourself from suffering excessively at the hands of ‘normal people’, a pestilent confederation of upstanding creatures who in concert keep the conspiracy going by rehashing their patented banalities and watchwords. This is not to say that such people do not have their struggles and responsibilities, their pains and sufferings, and their deaths by accident, murder, or disease, which only makes all the  more pestilent their normal thinking that being alive is all right and that happiness should attend upon the arrival of life’s newcomers, who, it is always assumed, will be normal.”

 ~ “Thinking Horror” by Thomas Ligotti, Collapse IV (which is an extract from the soon to be available The Conspiracy Against the Human Race)

If you criticize society, those who identify with society and promote it’s values will at the very least criticize you in return.  But if this is all they do, be thankful.  Many people throughout history (and in the present as well), have been ostracized and imprisoned, beaten and killed for criticizing society.  As long as you merely criticize, those with vested interests often don’t care.  But as soon as you attempt to act on those criticisms, prepare yourself be punished and put back in your place.

Knowing this, you have two responses.  You can go by Ligotti’s advice… Don’t provoke the dangerous animal!  Or you can go by Jensen’s advice… Someone has to stop the dangerous animal from continuing to kill.  I understand Jensen’s view, but I don’t have it in me to fight the system.  I’ll write my criticisms and hope for the best.

In conclusion, the following is a quote from an article that strengthens the argument about the connection between society, trauma, and addiction (I’ve written along similar lines in the post Homelessness and Civilization).  Dislocation is one of the most fundamental aspects of victimization and one which Derrick Jensen speaks of in terms of destroying stable traditional cultures.

The Roots of Addictionin Free Market Society
by Bruce K. Alexander

As free market globalization speeds up, so does the spread of dislocation and addiction.

In order for “free markets” to be “free,” the exchange of labour, land, currency, and consumer goods must not be encumbered by elements of psychosocial integration such as clan loyalties, village responsibilities, guild or union rights, charity, family obligations, social roles, or religious values. Cultural traditions “distort” the free play of the laws of supply and demand, and thus must be suppressed. In free market economies, for example, people are expected to move to where jobs can be found, and to adjust their work lives and cultural tastes to the demands of a global market.

People who cannot achieve psychosocial integration develop “substitute” lifestyles. Substitute lifestyles entail excessive habits including—butnot restricted to—drug use, and social relationships that are not sufficiently close, stable, or culturally acceptable to afford more than minimal psychosocial integration. People who can find no better way of achieving psychosocial integration cling to their substitute lifestyles with a tenacity that is properly called addiction.

In case you’re interested in the evidence and arguments behind the view of the first video, the same guy made some other related videos: