Category Archives: Epistemology

On Experts

1_sQ6BPukCg_1bVTevcT_KOgDear Mr. Expert: You say that the people most critical of any job or pursuit are most often those who don’t have to actually do it. This is to a large extent true, and, at times, as you say, annoying. But I’m worried about how this argument is customarily used: namely, as a convenient way to silence critics and avoid answering difficult questions. “Trust me,” says the spook at the dinner party, “if you saw the scary intelligence reports I see every day, you’d know why we’ve gotta suspend civil liberties for a little while and wiretap grandma.”

Paternalism of this stamp works in healthy societies with a high degree of social trust, societies with well-functioning elites. It breaks down when that trust is betrayed and the people lose faith in their elites. For instance, if the power elite running the show in my society seems, for the most part, to know what they’re doing, if they seem to be doing a fairly good job, I might be inclined to accept the spook’s explanation on faith. But, as it happens, I don’t trust my government. Not now. Not recently. Because they’ve betrayed my trust on numerous occasions in the last decade. So, if it’s not too much trouble, I think I’d like to take a look at those intelligence reports you mentioned. If it’s all the same to you, I think I’d like to see them files, with my own two eyes. Okay? That cool with you?

Didn’t think so. But seriously, I’m willing to accept that there are some things that I simply cannot see (e.g., for reasons of national security). And I’m equally willing to accept that there’s a short list of things which are simply beyond my ken, things which are so complicated that I simply won’t be able to grasp them regardless of how hard you try to enlighten me. I have limitations. I get that. And I’m okay with that. But, still, Mr. Expert, don’t be too hasty! Don’t be so quick to conclude that you’ve smacked into the plexiglass of my intellectual limitations just because I don’t “get it” the first time around. If I don’t seem to be getting it, it could be because I’m just not that smart; but it’s probably because you’re just not very good at explaining yourself.

If fifteen years of teaching has taught me anything, it’s this: if the student isn’t getting it, it’s almost always the teacher’s fault. If I can’t seem to grasp what you’re saying, it’s probably because you’re using weird language that’s unfamiliar to me (e.g., professional jargon). If I’m not getting it, it’s probably because you’re leaving out vital parts of the explanation. So, then, the idea you’re trying to convey isn’t the problem; you, sir, are the problem. After all, let’s face it: the experts working on the really difficult stuff—the Nobel Prize winning stuff, the stuff that many of us are simply incapable of understanding—are now, as they have always been, a small subset of those known as experts. That’s the dirty little secret the high priests of expert worship don’t want us to know: namely, that most of what so-called experts do isn’t rocket science.

The list of things that I cannot see, or am incapable of seeing, is a short list. And it ought to be a short list. But it’s not a short list in 2017. All to the contrary: it’s a long list, and it’s getting longer and longer with each passing year. Why? In part, this is because our governments are moving in scary directions: towards a kind of Orwellian surveillance state that ought to give us all pause. But in many ways our governments are just mirroring a larger social trend. We are moving, with shocking rapidity, away from the open society our grandparents fought for, and towards a closed society ruled by experts. Winning an election, toppling a shitty government, bankrupting a corrupt corporation: these are all good things, and they’ll help, but they don’t go far enough, not nearly far enough. We need to reclaim and reassert the right of the citizen to doubt, question, and expect answers from experts.

That being said, what I’m saying doesn’t apply to all experts. Because clearly some of them are benign. For instance, if you’re studying ancient Egyptian scrolls (or something equally arcane), you can do whatever you wish. I don’t care. Knock yourself out. Have your little private parties, with your secret handshakes: it’s all good. But if you’re an expert whose work has a direct bearing upon the health and well-being of people I love, if you’re entrusted with the care of my children, my aging parents, my environment, my food, my water, my economy, well, then, you’re going to have to get over yourself, reach outside of your comfort zone, and tell me, in plain speech, what the f*ck you’re doing. And why you’re doing it. Telling me to sit down and shut up. Telling me to calm down and go home. Telling me that you’ve “got this” . . . well, that’s just not gonna fly anymore. Why? Because if the history of the last half century teaches us anything, it’s that you guys don’t always know what you’re doing. Nor do you always have my best interests in mind.

Still, fear not! I’m not about to go off on some wacky anti-vaccination rant. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you (or at least most of you) have worked long and hard to gain the expertise you have. Indeed, I’ll happily go much farther than that: most experts know, really know, a great deal more about their area of expertise than I ever will. And I respect that. But you need to respect my right to ask questions and expect answers. Does this mean that you’re going to have repeat yourself often? Yep. Does this mean you’re going to have to field some really stupid questions? Yep. But so what? Seriously, suck it up: because the alternative isn’t pretty. Open societies have always been societies filled with dilettantes and generalists: societies filled with soldiers who can write half-decent poetry, shopkeepers who moonlight as amateur entomologists, and stay-at-moms who can talk intelligently about foreign policy.

*

Experts in every field need to make themselves indispensable. If you’re an expert in, say, particle physics, this isn’t particularly hard. But if you’re an expert in something like fitness or literature, this can be challenging because everybody feels like these things ought to be more or less available to everyone. So the first job of, say, a literature prof, is to demonstrate that everything you think you know about Dostoevsky or Baldwin is bullshit, and you can’t possibly crack open another book without their expert guidance.

Likewise, the first job of a fitness expert is to demonstrate that everything you think you know about fitness is bullshit, and you can’t possibly commence a fitness program without their expert guidance. Hence stupid statements such as: bananas make your head explode at age 53, burpees were created by commies to pollute our precious bodily fluids, and carbs are the drone bombs sent down from the top of the food pyramid by the illuminati to kill our families in the middle of the night.

The greater the hyperbole, the greater the insecurity. The thicker the jargon, the thinner the thought. The deeper the bullshit, the shallower the thinker. As Nietzsche rightly observed in The Joyful Wisdom: “Those who know they are deep strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd takes everything whose ground it cannot see to be deep: it is so timid and so reluctant to go in water.”

*

Horst Hutter’s classes at Concordia University changed my life, as they have changed the lives of hundreds of students over the course of the last 40 years. It was there, in his seminar, that I was first “struck and bitten by the words of philosophy, which cling on more fiercely than a snake.” And I know I’m not alone. Indeed, if I had $100 for every time, in the last 20 years, that I met someone who loved, and was profoundly transformed by, one of Horst’s classes, my student loans would have been paid off years ago.

Like countless others, I “shared the madness and Bacchic frenzy of philosophy” because of Horst. Though his classes do tend to focus on the works of Plato and Nietzsche, he’s not your typical narrow-minded academic specialist, as any former student will tell you. All to the contrary, Horst is the real deal: a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, a modern-day Socrates. To fully appreciate the effect that Horst has on his students, you really must go back to Plato’s Symposium, to Alcibiades’s drunken rant at the end of the dialogue, wherein he talks about the intoxicating effects of Socrates’s speech.

Horst was always a philosopher: even at three in morning, even when he was drunk or high, even when he was scared or angry, even when he was sad. He never stepped out of character because he wasn’t playing a part. That was key to his appeal and central to his charisma. He was a philosopher the way that a firefighter is a firefighter. A firefighter is still a firefighter when he’s woken up in his boxer shorts at three in the morning. The same cannot be said of the impostor, who is merely pretending to be a firefighter. All of his authority is derived from his firefighter costume. Without it, he fools no one; without it, he’s obviously a fraud.

The same is true, I think, of knowledge. People who actually know what they’re talking about in any field, people like Horst, may use professional jargon, the way a firefighter puts on his uniform, but they don’t need to. If you ask them to explain what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, in plain English, they’ll do so readily, and they’ll do so with ease. The same cannot be said of the impostor, who dresses up his ignorance in professional jargon. All of his authority rests upon the weasel words on the tip of his tongue. Without them, he fools no one; without them, he’s obviously a fraud.

*

A friend of mine grew up in gritty Gary, Indiana, a working-class suburb of Chicago. The nicest restaurant in town was a French bistro that was as famous for its food as its attitude. The tempestuous French expat who owned the place and ruled its kitchen with an iron fist was something of a local celebrity. His exacting standards and temper tantrums were the stuff of legend. Dude was known to lose it with some regularity: hurling abuse at employees and patrons alike in heavily-accented English.

At seventeen, my friend left Gary for college in Bloomington, where she fell in love with French literature. This newfound passion soon led to a year abroad in Strasbourg, where she perfected her French and participated in des Événements de mai 1968. When she got back to Gary a year later, her overjoyed parents insisted on taking her out to “the nice place” to celebrate her return. She tried to engage the moody chef in his mother tongue soon after they got to the restaurant. But to no avail. He refused to respond. In fact, he looked strangely frightened. Alas, it soon became clear that he wasn’t really French. Indeed, he didn’t even speak French!

This is the problem of knowledge, is it not? How do you know if the French chef is really French if you don’t speak French? How do you know who’s right about climate change if you don’t speak climatology? Who’s right about GMOs if you don’t speak botany? Who’s right about police brutality if you don’t speak black? As Aaron Haspel rightly observes in Everything (2015): “To determine who is expert requires an expert.”

*

I’m not a computer guy. So whenever I want to do computer stuff, I have to rely upon people who know about computer stuff. For instance, if I need to buy a new laptop, I’ll ask the ten computer people I know which one’s best. If nine out of ten say buy laptop X, and one says buy laptop Y, there are three ways I can deal with this information:

1. I can conclude that they’re all wrong. This may in fact be true. It’s definitely happened before. Sometimes entire fields, like phrenology, are proven wrong. But since I really don’t know shit about computers, I have no reasonable grounds for concluding this.

2. I can conclude that the one guy who said go for laptop Y is right. He might be right. Once again, this has definitely happened before. Minority voices within fields are sometimes vindicated and proven right. But since I really don’t know shit about computers, once again, I have no reasonable grounds for concluding this. Buying into the proclamations of a lone wolf is no better than a leap of faith when you don’t know jack about the subject matter.

3. I can conclude that laptop X is the one I should buy. Does this guarantee that it’s actually the best? Of course not. Majorities are wrong with some regularity. But when you’re dealing with something as complicated as climatology, which is far more complicated than laptop computers, let’s face it, most of us don’t know shit. As such, the most reasonable thing to do, though by no means a foolproof solution, is to go with what the majority of people who (seem to) know what they’re talking about believe to be true.

I happen to know a few climatologists. From the conversations I’ve had with them, it’s become abundantly clear to me that 99% of the people who weigh in on the subject in Social Media Land, myself included, don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. As Aaron Haspel puts it in Everything (2015): “Most people, on most matters, are not, in fact, entitled to an opinion.” Climate science is most definitely one of those matters.

When you’re not entitled to an opinion, you have a choice: you can buckle down and learn the subject or you can defer to the judgment of the majority of those who (seem to) know what they’re talking about. I’ve chosen to go with the latter in the full knowledge that I may one day be proven wrong. I know enough about climate science to know that it would take me years and years of study to really get a handle on the subject. Trusting those who’ve studied the subject in depth for decades seems like a pretty good bet to me. I like the odds.

To reject all conspiracy theories out of hand, you have to believe that all of the received wisdom of the present is true. History teaches us that such a faith is unwise. But to embrace a conspiracy theory that involves the rejection of an entire field you know very little about, you have to believe that you know better than all (or almost all) of the experts. Such a faith is, to my mind, far more unwise.

*

Embarking upon the study of something is like getting in a little rowboat in the middle of a small, narrow river. You can see the bottom and the shore’s right there. If you drop anchor, you’ll soon think you know everything there is to know about your little river. The feeling of mastery is intoxicating. But also illusory. You don’t know everything about that subject, you just think you do. You’re a sophomore (a wise fool). If you let the current take you farther downstream, you’ll notice that the river deepens and widens, and, sooner or later, spills into the sea.

People who really know about something know how much they don’t know. They’re in deep water and they know it. The same cannot be said of the veritable army of sophomores who’ve flooded Social Media Land recently, people who think they’ve mastered a topic because they’ve seen a few TED Talks, watched a few YouTube videos, and read a few Wikipedia articles. What these sophomores fail to grasp is that knowing enough about a field to follow the conversation is one thing, knowing enough to lead it is another thing altogether.

*

There once was a prosperous village at the foot of a mighty mountain. The climate was mild, the soil was strong, and the land was green, but the villagers rarely saw the sun. Today, like every day he could remember, the sky above Mountainville was obscured by a great big blanket of cloud. Shafts of sunlight were lost in its thick fluffy folds; only the mountain got through. He longed to see its peak, just as he longed to see a clear blue sky. Had he ever seen its peak? Had he ever seen a blue sky? He couldn’t remember.

He decided to climb the mountain. And so it was that the man became Novice. When he reached the clouds he turned and looked down upon the ant-sized villagers below, feeling triumphant: “How high I am! How far I’ve come! I’ll soon see the peak!” Alas, the cloud cover was far thicker than he’d thought it was. But he pressed on regardless. And so it was that Novice became Beginner.

The beauty of the big blue sky took his breath away. The vastness of the vista was astounding, exhilarating, dizzying. It was like seeing the world with glasses for the first time. He’d never seen so far in his life. Still, he was dismayed to discover that he was nowhere near the top. The peak wasn’t just above the clouds, as he’d always imagined; it was far, far above the clouds. But he pressed on regardless. And so it was that Beginner became Intermediate.

He was considerably older when he reached the peak and became Expert. The view from the mountaintop was indeed sublime. The world was bigger, and stranger, than he’d ever imagined. What’s more, on the other side of the mountain, he discovered an elevated plateau filled with a rich, volcanic soil: black and fertile. It was a lovely land to behold: lush and orderly, like a well-tended garden. The people of the plateau lived well.

Still, he was dismayed to discover that the peak he’d just scaled was in fact a false peak. On the other end of the idyllic plateau, a mightier mountain, at least twice as tall as the one behind him, stretched up towards the heavens like a Titan. And, lo and behold, ant-sized human figures were moving about its peak! Expert smiled at a passerby and said: “Who lives up there?”

“The Masters.”

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

The Video Game You’re In

imagesImagine that we’re both playing one of those virtual reality video games. We’ve put on these things that look like night vision goggles. The software was designed by natural selection to incorporate all, or almost all, of the key features of the immediate environment: those necessary to survival (e.g., where the walls are, the stairs, etc.). If there’s a coffee table in the middle of the living room that we could potentially trip over, you’ll see it in your simulation and I’ll see it in mine. If I speak, you’ll hear my voice; if you speak, I’ll hear yours.

But we could still be having vastly different experiences of the room. Because much of what we see is just a function of the video game we happen to be playing. The stuff that’s generated by the software (e.g., the bat I see flying around the room) looks every bit as real as you and the coffee table.

The real world exists. It’s out there. But we don’t have direct access to it. We can’t take the goggles off. Ever. But we can compare notes. If everyone else sees color, and I don’t, I might reasonably conclude that color exists and I’m colorblind. If everyone sees things, and I don’t, I might reasonably conclude that I was born blind. If I see a bat flying around the room all the time and you don’t, I might reasonably begin to suspect that the bat’s not real, that it’s just part of the simulation, part of the video game I’m playing.

Science is all about figuring out what’s out there. It’s a systematic attempt to figure out what’s real via measurement and experimentation. Psychology is far more agnostic about reality. It’s all about figuring out what’s real for you. It’s interested in the relationship between the video game you’re playing—the totality of what you see, real and imagined—and your experience of, and behavior in, the world. Religion is all about getting large numbers of people to play the same video game. Politics does the same thing.

When we argue about politics, we are, to a large extent, trying to get others to see things the way we see them, to play the video game we’re playing. This involves getting people to see features of reality that they may not normally see. But it also involves getting them to see things which are merely illusionary products of the video game you’re playing. I was born into a cult. As such, I understand, probably better than most, the importance of keeping people who haven’t quaffed the Kool-Aid around, people who aren’t playing my video game.

*

Although the idea that reality might be little more than a collective hallucination has probably occurred to thoughtful people since the beginning of time, it has achieved widespread acceptance only amongst certain kinds of people. In ancient China, it appealed primarily to government workers, eunuchs, urban-dwellers, and bureaucrats who were, for the most part, divorced from the earthy realities of farming and child-rearing, and the bloody realities of animal husbandry and military life. This detachment allowed them to develop a remarkably theoretical view of the world.

As I read Scott Adams’s blog this morning, it occurred to me that very little has changed. Articulations of the idea have changed—in ancient China it was couched in the language of Buddhism, in the twentieth century is was couched in the language of postmodernism, whilst today it’s often couched in the language of evolutionary biology—but the kinds of people it appeals to hasn’t changed. It still appeals primarily to men like Scott Adams who are, for the most part, divorced from the earthy realities of farming and child-rearing, and the bloody realities of animal husbandry and military life.

I take a long walk in the woods whenever I’m tempted by the likes of Scott Adams. Spending time in the woods reminds you that a real world exists out there, outside of the virtual world of fire-light shadows that we’ve created for ourselves (and each other).

*

Walking through the woods with a seasoned birdwatcher, someone like my cousin Michael, is a mind-blowing experience. You see things you’ve never seen. Hear things you’ve never heard. It’s like a veil is lifted, revealing a whole new world: a magical world, that was always there. I’ve spent years and years exploring the forests of Mount Royal Park. And I thought I knew them pretty well. Far better than most. But my cousin and his wife disabused me of this notion last summer. I went for a walk on the Mountain with them whilst they were in town.

Michael and May live in British Columbia and it was their first time on Mount Royal. Yet they saw things I’ve never seen, and heard things I’ve never heard. Not, I hasten to add, because they’ve got superhuman senses (Spider-Man’s hearing, Superman’s sight), but rather because they’ve been avid birders for decades. They’ve trained themselves to see what’s always there, what the rest of us miss.

What’s true on Mount Royal is true of intellectual life: if you’ve spent years and years training yourself to see one particular feature of the human world, such as race or class or gender, you can probably see a great deal that the rest of us miss. Seeing the world through your knowing eyes is something we should all do from time to time. Because it’s good to know where the monsters are concealed, and how the patterns are revealed. But it’s also good to remember that there are other deeply meaningful things going on in the forest besides the birds.

I’ve yet to meet a birder who believes birds are the only thing worth seeing in the forest, just as I’ve yet to meet an entomologist who believes butterflies are the only thing worth seeing in the garden. But I’ve met plenty of intellectuals and activists who seem to believe that the particular pattern they’ve trained themselves to see is the only pattern worth seeing.

Our progressive profs promised us a Savior in grad school: a solution to this problem. The Hydra-Headed God of Intersectionality was supposed to rescue us from rocks and ruin. But She didn’t. And She hasn’t. The problems and the patterns remain: most working-class white guys who grew up poor talk about class a whole lot, most middle-class white women foreground gender, and most people of color try to get us to remember race. To some extent this is a simple function of privilege. Privilege is, after all, for the most part invisible to those who possess it. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find a wealthy white woman who only seems to see sexism. Nor should we be surprised to find a middle-class African-American man who only seems to see racism.

Claims and counterclaims of epistemic privilege aren’t going to get us anywhere interesting. Same is true of personalizing and demonizing. We’ve been down those dismal roads before. We’ve been to those lonely dead-ends. Perhaps it’s time to remember that we’re an intensely social species, blessed with language and imagination. Perhaps it’s time to remember that we’re remarkably good at learning from each other. Perhaps it’s time to go for a long walk in the woods. Show me where the birds are, friend. You’ve got my full attention. I can’t wait to see what you see.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

Credo Quia Absurdum

fake-newsIt really set the tone, didn’t it? Soon after Donald Trump was sworn into office, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, got up in front of the whole world and lied through his teeth, falsely claiming that the Inauguration drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period. Both in person and around the globe.” What Spicer said remains demonstrably false. But if you think it was all about fake news, alternative facts, or the post-fact era, you’re missing the point. It was a loyalty test. The Trump administration wasn’t trying to fool you; they were testing you.

Enlightened leaders, who wish to rule by the consent of the governed, use language to clarify and convince. Tyrants, who wish to rule by brute force and blind loyalty, use language to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book: the tyrant says something patently false and waits to see who parrots it. Those who do can be trusted. Those who don’t cannot be trusted. As Tertullian puts it in De Carne Christi: “It is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”

To those of you who persist in saying that the facts don’t matter and ideas don’t have consequences: may I suggest that you read up on the history of The Istanbul Pogrom of 1955. It really is a case in point: the direct result of a fake news story. Okay, so here’s the deal: the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki was bombed on September 5th, 1955. The Turkish dude who planted the bomb was quickly apprehended. He confessed to the crime soon after he was arrested. Although the Turkish press knew this, they led the public to believe that the consulate had been bombed by a Greek dude.

An angry Turkish mob soon gathered in tremendous numbers and proceeded to trash Istanbul’s Greek neighborhood for about nine hours. It was a disgusting orgy of violence: raping, killing, burning, beating, looting. And the Turkish cops did practically nothing to stop it. The Istanbul Pogrom of 1955 greatly accelerated the emigration of ethnic Greeks from Turkey. In 1927, the Greek population of Turkey was 119,822. In 1978, it was about 7,000. Today, it’s less than half that.

The wisdom of a powerful group is made manifest whenever it feels threatened by an idea. The stupid ones burn the book and kill the author, and the crude ones discredit the source. The smart ones discredit the idea, whilst the brilliant ones fight the idea they hate with the ideas they love. But the wisest, and most machiavellian, aren’t nearly so clumsy. They don’t attack the intellectual who produced the idea, they attack intellectuals and intellectualism. They don’t attack the radical idea, they attack ideas in general, and the elitists who value them. Then they change the channel.

Trashing journalists and the media has been a mainstay of Western intellectual life at least as far back as Nietzsche, who implored his readers to “live in ignorance of what seems most important to your age!” Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Aaron Haspel, thinkers I’ve profited from immensely, are similarly hard on the media. Taleb’s contempt for journalists is legendary. In the revised 2016 edition of The Bed of Procrustes he says that he takes “a ritual bath after any contact, or correspondence (even emails), with . . . journalists, and those in similarly depraved pursuits”—whilst Haspel quips in Everything (2015): “News is noise.” I was once quite partial to this view. But far less so lately.

If the citizenry buys into the idea that journalism is little more than propaganda, and journalists are little more than paid trolls, who benefits from this, if not paid trolls and bullshit artists like Sean Hannity, who can now afford to hide in plain sight, with get-out-of-jail-free cards in their wallets which read: “Everybody’s Doing It Why Can’t We?” Same is true of those who denigrate science: they’re usually doing so because serious science is a threat to their particular brand of bullshit.

Many maintain that media isn’t about truth, it’s about power. It’s a popular view these days. But I don’t buy it. Is media often about power? Absolutely. Too often? Probably. But there’s still a world of difference between The New York Times and the propaganda machines that masquerade as media outlets in totalitarian states like North Korea and the former Soviet Union. There’s still a world of difference between Peter Jennings and Alex Jones.

I read Adbusters religiously in my early twenties, and I was a bible-thumping Pentecostal in my teens, so I know full well why folks on the far left and the far right are in love with this false equivalency. They love it because it levels the playing field. After all, if news is nothing but propaganda, and it’s all just about power, then we can spew out our own bullshit with impunity, and we can do it with a clean conscience.

Removing a well established institution from your society is like getting a seemingly superfluous part of your body—like your appendix or your tonsils—surgically removed. We too often discover the usefulness of things like the tonsils after they’ve been irretrievably removed. So, before you entrust the body politic to the radical’s knife, it’s good to ask: Is this institution performing an important function? And, if it is, who’s going to perform it after it’s gone?

Trashing the mainstream media without a viable alternative in mind is like invading Iraq without an exit strategy and toppling Saddam Hussein. The monsters that slither out of the chaos to fill the power vacuum are sure to be much, much worse. Be careful what you wish for, friends, be careful what you wish for. Order is fragile.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

Why the Open Society Needs Annoying People

If Socrates was alive today and on Facebook he’d be that annoying guy that keeps asking uncomfortable questions, bringing up annoying facts. This was, writes John Ralston Saul, his modus operandi: “He spent his life wandering around Athens annoying everyone in the city.” Trolls used to wander around the internet doing the same thing. But they’ve been doing it less and less these days because it’s getting easier and easier to block them. In the Wild West days of the internet, when online communities tended to govern themselves anarchically, troll management was all about extinction. Hence the expression: “DON’T FEED THE TROLL!”

But these days it’s all about creating “safe spaces” with the likeminded. This is decidedly unwise because the muscles of the mind atrophy in these echo chambers: moral clarity gives way to sanctimony; shared values give way to group-think; ethical reasoning gives way to circular reasoning; sound judgment gives way to a reactionary adherence to dogma; and a clear conception of who your real enemies are gives way to a fanatical demonization of all who disagree. To wit: safe spaces may be comfortable, but they’re anything but safe.

Refusing to engage with a nasty little troll is everyone’s right, but silencing them altogether is rarely a good idea. In Bright-Sided (2010), Barbara Ehrenreich maintains that getting rid of all of the “negative people” in your life is a recipe for disaster: “What would it mean in practice to eliminate all the ‘negative people’ from one’s life? It might be a good move to separate from a chronically carping spouse, but it is not so easy to abandon the whiny toddler, the colicky infant, or the sullen teenager. And at the workplace, while it’s probably advisable to detect and terminate those who show signs of becoming mass killers, there are other annoying people who might actually have something useful to say: the financial officer who keeps worrying about the bank’s subprime mortgage exposure or the auto executive who questions the company’s over-investment in SUVs and trucks. Purge everyone who ‘brings you down,’ and you risk being very lonely or, what is worse, cut off from reality. The challenge of family life, or group life of any kind, is to keep gauging the moods of others, accommodating to their insights, and offering comfort when needed.”

Just as ecosystems become less resilient, and more fragile, when you reduce their biodiversity (by eradicating species), epistemic communities become less resilient, and more fragile, when you reduce their intellectual and ideological diversity (by eradicating radical ideas). Numerous studies have demonstrated that the only thing worse than thinking through important political matters alone, is thinking through important political matters amongst people who share all of your assumptions.

We need to be exposed to challenging unorthodox ideas on a fairly regular basis. But social media (and search engines like Google) are making it easier and easier for us to silence radical voices (by dismissing them as “trolls”), and retreat into homogeneous online echo chambers. This is a worrisome trend. The ease with which we can Facebook “block” trolls ought to give pause to all who value democracy, intelligent debate, and the open society. Why? Because no amount of intelligence or education can replace this kind of diversity. Because smart people with MAs and PhDs are blinded by bias.

Reasoning researcher David Perkins has demonstrated in numerous studies that IQ is a remarkably poor predictor of a person’s capacity for “fair and balanced” reasoning. Most of his studies look something like this: 1) Give the person an IQ test to establish their score. 2) Ask them how they feel about a contentious political issue. 3) Now ask them to come up with reasons and arguments to support the other side. 4) Ask them to come up with reasons and arguments to support their side. As you might imagine, pretty much everyone sucks at finding support for the other side. What’s interesting, though, is that people with high IQs suck just as much as people with low IQs. All of this changes, however, when people are asked to come up with support for their side. There you see a big difference.

Test subjects with high IQs can come up with many more reasons and arguments to support their position than those with low IQs, regardless of which side they happened to be on! What’s more, Perkins found that people with high IQs are exceptionally good at presenting their position in a clear, elegant, and logically-consistent fashion, which, as you might imagine, makes whatever they happen to be saying seem that much more plausible. Alas, you might say that people with low IQs are like terrible lawyers, whilst people with high IQs are like really good lawyers, but neither, Perkins maintains, is particularly fair and balanced: “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”

In The Righteous Mind (2012), Jonathan Haidt maintains that higher education only makes this problem worse: “high school students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to college, and the college students who generate a lot of arguments are the ones who are more likely to go on to graduate school. Schools don’t teach people to reason thoroughly; they select the applicants with higher IQs, and people with higher IQs are able to generate more reasons.” Haidt concludes that moral rationalists who think that education and an obsessive adherence to argumentative hygiene can save us are sorely mistaken; just as mistaken, in fact, as Tedsters and technocrats who think we should sideline the citizen and put the nerds in charge.

The open society our grandparents fought for desperately needs difficult people, even though they’re often full of shit, even though their motives are frequently somewhat less than noble. The truth or falsity of what difficult people say is to some extent irrelevant, as is their mental health. Fixating on either of these questions invariably leads to a convenient rationalization for silencing them. Besides, as my friend Graeme Blake rightly observes, “one unusual feature of life is that intelligent, thoughtful people can have violently opposing opinions.” Consequently, the guy who looks like an angry asshole to you might look like a passionate activist to me, and vice versa. Alas, quips Blake: “Trolldom is in the eye of the beholder.”

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A hard-core feminist friend of mine was once faced with a moral dilemma: her mom, a hard-core traditionalist, insisted that her wedding invitation be addressed to Mr. & Mrs. Dad’s Full Name. Needless to say, this offended her feminist sensibilities: “It’s like she wants to erase her own identity!” Of course she caved. Because she’s a decent person who realizes that you’ve gotta call people what they want to be called (even if you think it’s silly). This is a simple truth of social life that’s lost on Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto professor who has, rather ridiculously, decided that he’s going to heroically stand up for the right to be a prick to trans students. That being said, prosecuting Peterson for being a prick is equally ridiculous. Indeed, probably more so. As my friend Matt Talley puts it: “just because it’s decent, doesn’t mean it should be legally mandated behavior.” Being a prick’s bad, but outlawing pricks is worse.

Many of the criticisms of The Open Society that I hear from the far left and the far right come down to the same thing: The Open Society is, like a big city, far too loud, rude, uncouth, hectic, smelly, stinky, disgusting, profane, disorderly, gross. They say that if The Open Society is going to survive and thrive, if it’s to have a future, it must become The Respectful Society. I know it sounds like a good idea, maybe even a noble idea, but The Respectful Society people on the far left and the far right long for is little more than a mirage, a misleading myth. There have always been but two choices available to us: We can live in The Open Society, which is a messy, chaotic place where nobody gets their way all the time, a place where everybody has to put up with shit they don’t like. Or we can live in The Closed Society, which is, in practice, usually just one big fat “safe space” for the ruling majority.

Although I find some of his ideas maddening, I’m glad that, for now, we live in the kind of Open Society that makes it possible for Jordan Peterson to voice his opposition. He’s not my enemy. But if you’re one of those people who wants to silence him, or get him fired, you are. Regardless, beware of those who claim that the latest Twitter pile-on, or canceled talk, is a victory for social justice. As Margaret Atwood makes clear in her dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), even in a totalitarian theocracy like Gilead, the oppressed are allowed to beat a scapegoat to death from time to time.

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Isaiah dreamed of a peaceful world without predation: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat . . . and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” John Lennon dreamed of a peaceful world without religion, nation states, and private property: “Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world.” We dream of a peaceful online world without trolls. But what if banishing trolls altogether isn’t feasible? Or legal? Or even desirable? What then? Well, maybe every movement needs to have its own trolls, the way that every bar has its own bouncers, every country its own army, and every body its own white blood cells. Jezebel is a case in point. Its witty writers can be every bit as clever and cutting as their online opponents. Jezebel has, for that very reason, come to constitute online feminism’s white blood cells, online feminism’s bouncers, online feminism’s trolls.

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When the (supposedly) sacrilegious film The Last Temptation of Christ came out in 1988, the conservative Pentecostal church I attended as a teenager convened an emergency meeting, made protest signs, and demonstrated outside of the theaters showing the movie. These were hard-core Christian fundamentalists, and they were pissed. The movie infuriated them. Yet no one suggested that we shut down the movie theater, or prevent people from seeing the film.

When some local activists learned that a (supposedly) misogynistic poet was coming to town for a poetry reading, they discussed various ways to forcibly prevent Zachariah Wells from speaking, and forcibly prevent people from getting into the building to hear him. One person actually suggested rushing the stage at The Atwater Library, grabbing all of the copies of his new book, taking them outside, and throwing them in the snow.

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Every time we allow a piece of public space to be seized and transformed into someone’s private little safe space, every time we allow touchiness to trump tolerance, we become a little less free. Our thin-skinned age needs to remember that The Open Society isn’t a safe space; it’s a tolerant space. And tolerance isn’t tolerance unless it hurts. The Respectful Society isn’t a new and improved version of The Open Society; it’s a new and improved version of The Closed Society. Every new generation seems to think they’ve figured out how to have freedom and creativity without the mess, without the vulgarity and vice. Our capacity for historical amnesia never ceases to amaze me. Free societies have always been messy as fuck.

Much of what passes for tolerance these days is in fact a kind of glorified indifference. Indifference is a highly effective coping mechanism. I’d be a total stress case if it weren’t for my well-developed capacity for indifference. But indifference isn’t tolerance. So the next time you’re about to self-righteously pat yourself on the back for your tolerance, ask yourself: Was it hard to tolerate this? Did it require effort? Did it cost me anything? If the answer’s NO, if it was more or less effortless, you’re probably trafficking in counterfeit virtue. Because tolerance isn’t tolerance unless it hurts. We tolerate the heat. We tolerate the cold.

It’s easy to be open-minded about things you deem trivial or unimportant. It’s much harder to be open-minded about things you care about. For instance, it’s easy to tolerate your friend’s belief in astrology or prayer when you secretly think it’s all bullshit and you really couldn’t give a shit one way or the other. But when a diehard feminist decides to put up with her sexist little brother, despite all of his MRA bullshit, I know I’m looking at real tolerance. Likewise, when a hardcore fundamentalist decides to accept and love his gay son (and his son’s partner), despite his heartfelt beliefs about homosexuality, I know I’m looking at real tolerance.

Should we tolerate everything? Of course not. Tolerance without reasonable limits is like walking around with a “KICK ME” sign that you put on your own back. Some things are intolerable. Some things shouldn’t be tolerated. And we all have to balance the moral imperative to be tolerant with other equally valid moral imperatives: such as the need to be kind, loving, humble, and just. Ultimately, we choose to tolerate that which we can live with but are not exactly cool with.

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Jonathan Haidt has found that when you give conservatives a questionnaire and ask them to answer it like a liberal, they’re able to do so with ease. When you ask them to answer like a libertarian, they’re able to do that too. Libertarians aren’t nearly as adept as conservatives, but they’re still fairly good at imagining how a conservative or a liberal might answer the questionnaire. Alas, the real outliers are the liberals. In numerous studies, with respectable sample sizes, Haidt has demonstrated that liberals simply don’t have a clue. When you ask them to answer the questionnaire like a conservative, they answer it like a fascist. When you ask them to answer it like a libertarian, they answer it like a sociopath. The liberal conception of what makes the average conservative or libertarian tick is, Haidt concludes, way off.

Are liberals less imaginative than conservatives and libertarians? I highly doubt it. The virtues and vices are, it seems, to be found everywhere to varying degrees. Why, then, do liberals do so terribly on this “ideological Turing test”? And why do conservatives do so well? Haidt maintains that conservatives do well because they base their moral thinking on all six of the moral foundations (Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, Liberty, Care & Fairness). Liberals do poorly because they base their moral thinking on only two of them (Care & Fairness). Haidt’s explanation is fascinating. But it’s got way too many moving parts and a fatal flaw: namely, it implicitly presumes that liberals are somehow spectacularly deficient in imagination. I find it hard to believe that any sizable group of human beings could be spectacularly deficient in any virtue (or vice). That’s why I’ve come up with a simpler explanation for Haidt’s robust findings: liberals suck at this test because shutting down certain parts of your imagination has become central to what it means to be liberal.

Liberals haven’t just demonized their political opponents, they’ve demonized the very act of trying to think like their political opponents. Trying to sympathize with, say, a Trump supporter, has come to constitute a kind of thought-crime for many liberals (and almost all progressives). So it’s not that liberals have less imagination than conservatives or libertarians; it’s that they’ve set up mental firewalls that actively prevent them from even going there. Just as Odysseus’s men stopped up their ears with wax so they wouldn’t be tempted by the seductive song of the Sirens, many liberals have, it seems, set up taboo boundaries which more or less ensure that they’ll never have to empathize with a conservative or a libertarian. Strategically speaking, this is decidedly unwise. The three truly great treatises on the art of war—Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Art of War (1521), Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832), and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—are in agreement on this: you must understand your enemy before you can defeat him.

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I once had a young man with Asperger’s in my class. Poor guy managed to alienate the entire class before Labor Day. He would hit on the young women in the class in ways that varied from the laughably clueless to the downright disgusting. He once loudly declared to the shy young woman sitting next to him: “You have really nice boobs!” To another he said, after class, but within my earshot: “My penis gets really hard when I look at you!” I eventually had to kick him out of the class. Not, however, because of his inappropriate comments and lascivious staring, but rather because he simply couldn’t take a hint. He was very persistent.

Like many guys who suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome, he’d keep telling a joke, even when everything about his interlocutor’s body language was shouting: I’m not finding you funny! What’s worse, much worse: once he started hitting on a woman in my class, he’d keep going even when everything about her body language and tone of voice was shouting: I’m not interested! Go away! You’re making me really uncomfortable! Alas, he never picked up on these clues. Why? Because people with Asperger’s don’t pick up on tone. But the rest of us do pick up on tone, and it greatly influences how we respond to people, and how they respond to us.

Anyone who’s spent any amount of time around young children or animals knows that tone is extremely important, often more important than content. And that’s why I’ve long since concluded that most of the people in Social Media Land who moralistically insist that tone doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter are lying through their teeth. If you strapped them up to a lie-detector, you’d soon discover that they know full well that tone matters. They just can’t be bothered. Because delivering diatribes has always been easier than delving into dialogue. Because demonization has always been easier than democratic deliberation. Because being enraged has always been easier than being engaged. And pompous preaching has always been easier than painstaking persuasion.

Activists and intellectuals like to think that they’re better than the proverbial loud obnoxious American tourist in Europe, but they often sound just like him: repeating themselves again and again, louder and louder each time, to someone who doesn’t speak English, as if deafness were the problem. We seem to have forgotten that which was obvious to our ancestors: namely, that well-crafted apologetics are primarily for internal consumption. They shore up the belief system of the faithful by providing all of the requisite intellectual cover. They provide people who already agree with you with all sorts of fantastic reasons for agreeing with you.

Good arguments can convince the undecided, especially if they happen to resonate with their lived experience, but they rarely convince the folks on the other side of the issue. Does this mean that the whole intellectual enterprise is a sham and the Open Society is doomed? Of course not. We reason together all the time, and we do it well often; but there are limits to reason, and limits to reasoning together. Acknowledging these limits, and respecting them, can actually make it easier for us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and respect the humanity of those who disagree with us.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

Lindsay Shepherd and the Problem of Group Polarization

Whenever you get a group of people together who share certain basic assumptions, there’s a natural tendency for the group to gravitate toward the most uncompromising positions. Social psychologists call this tendency group polarization. It explains why Trump’s victory came as such as surprise to the kind of people who listen to NPR, watch CNN, and read the New York Times; just as it explains why the Bush Administration invaded Iraq without an exit strategy. At a certain point, the neoconservative ideologues running the show, people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, stopped inviting people who disagreed with their assumptions, people like Colin Powell, to the planning meetings.

Group polarization also explains the breathtaking stupidity of Lindsay Shepherd’s inquisitors at Wilfred Laurier University. These people speak, as someone rightly observed on Twitter, “like people who are used to standing up in front of a class and talking for a long time without being challenged or interrupted.” Surrounding yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear is toxic. Sweet as it sometimes sounds, the siren song of the safe space must be resisted, lest ye be shipwrecked on the rocky coast of the Isle of Impotentia.

There’s no harm in group polarization if you’re just having fun or brainstorming. But if you actually want to change the world, if you actually want to communicate and be relevant, it’s a tendency that must be actively resisted. In The Righteous Mind (2013), psychologist Jonathan Haidt maintains that the best way to resist group polarization is to actively cultivate viewpoint diversity. Talk to people who you disagree with on a regular basis. You don’t have to agree with them. But you should at least listen to them. Bite your lip if you have to. Be respectful. Be charitable. And—for God’s sake!—avoid conversation killers like: You’re a racist! You’re a libtard SJW! You’re a Randroid! You’re a feminazi! You’re a regressive leftist! You’re a rape apologist! You’re antisemitic! You’re Islamophobic! You’re a de facto defender of white supremacy! As the Lindsay Shepherd fiasco makes clear, shouting people down, silencing them, resorting to name-calling prematurely (e.g., You’re transphobic!)—these things just alienate people.

If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality, and a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested, a Lindsay Shepherd is a middle-of-the-road moderate who’s been called a white supremacist by a thousand strangers on Twitter. Just as the violent suppression of the labor movement pushed a lot of good people into the communist camp in the 20th century, I fear that the outrageous attacks on nonconformists like Jordan Peterson and Lindsay Shepherd may radicalize a lot of middle-of-the-road moderates. As Malcolm Gladwell makes clear in David and Goliath (2014), when you crack down on terrorism by demonizing an entire community, you invariably end up strengthening support for the terrorists; and when you crack down on the civil rights movement in a draconian fashion, you invariably end up strengthening support for the civil rights movement. What’s happening on the left at the moment is striking similar. Demonize everyone who seems to disagree with you and you’ll invariably end up strengthening support for those who actually disagree with you.

Telling people off and preaching to the choir can be fun. But it’s a dangerous kind of fun. Because you get intellectually lazy. Because you start speaking in a specialized jargon that no one outside of your safe space can understand. Because you develop a contempt for everyone outside of your élite group of cool kids that frequently leads you to dehumanize those who disagree with you. Live in your little bubble long enough, and you’ll become downright delusional, like that ill-clad emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen tale.

This is especially true if you and your little possé of likeminded homies become powerful (e.g., by winning an election, taking over a department, capturing an important institution, etc.). As Aaron Haspel rightly observes in Everything (2015): “The less you are contradicted, the stupider you become. The more powerful you become, the less you are contradicted.” Wanna change the world? Stop preaching to the 20% who agree with you and arguing with the 20% who disagree with you; focus, instead, on the 60% who aren’t sure.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

2 + 2 ≠ APPLE

812819_10151282185427683_1288364200_oIf I ask Jessica “What’s 2+2?” and she responds “5”, that’s the wrong answer. But at least it’s a reasonable response. Jessica has responded numerically, which indicates that she understood the nature of the question. If I ask little Jimmy “What’s 2+2?” and he responds “APPLE”, that’s a much bigger problem, because his response fails to acknowledge the nature of the question.

If I ask Bob and Sophia “What’s 2+2?” and they both say “4”, you might be ready to reach for your gold star stickers. But the Socrates of The Republic would stop you. He’s not satisfied. Not yet. Like that annoying math teacher who wouldn’t give you full marks until you showed him all your work, Socrates wouldn’t give Bob and Sophia gold stars until they had demonstrated to him that they understood precisely why 2+2=4. He interrogates Sophia first, after separating them. Using four of the fingers on her left hand, she shows him that she understands what numbers are, what they represent, and how they can be added to each other. Socrates smiles, pats her on the head, and gives her a gold star.

He then turns to Bob, who’s thoroughly baffled. As it turns out, he really doesn’t know why 2+2=4. When pressed, he tells Socrates that he “knows” that the answer’s “4” because his father told him so. “And how did your father come to know that 2+2=4, Bob?” “His father (my grandfather) told him.” “And how did your grandfather come to know that 2+2=4?” “Well, um, I’m pretty sure that his father (my great grandfather) told him. It’s been, like, you know, passed down, from generation to generation.” Alas, the stony stare says it all: Bob’s not getting his gold star.

The Socrates of The Republic would say that Bob’s “4” is inferior to Jessica’s “5” and really no better than Jimmy’s “APPLE”. But the Socrates of The Laws, the Athenian Stranger, seems to have come to the conclusion that civilization depends, to a large extent, upon people like Bob: people who live by rules they don’t understand, people who’ve inherited a wealth of folk wisdom from their ancestors. Bob may not be able to explain why willow bark tea takes away your aches and pains, but he knows it works. He lives by a bunch of handy heuristics which keep him out of trouble (for the most part). Besides, expecting everyone to be like curious, philosophical Sophia is absurdly idealistic.

Most people simply aren’t interested in figuring out how things work. They’re too busy living life, raising kids, having fun, working hard, and thinking about what to have for dinner. So long as a thing works, and works well, most people really don’t care how it works. We drive cars that we don’t understand, use computers that we don’t understand, talk on cellphones that we don’t understand, pay taxes to a government that we don’t understand, obey laws that we don’t understand, and subscribe to scientific theories like evolution that we don’t understand. The way that most of us sleepwalk through life horrified the idealistic young author of The Republic. But the older, wiser Plato, who penned The Laws, is far less troubled by the Bobs of this world.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)