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February 24, 2016

On the all-too-common phenomenon of assuming one's ideological foes to be ignorant, immoral, or insane

Aaron Ross Powell has written a mostly-excellent essay on the extreme tribalism (although he doesn't call it that) which underlies the emotions aroused by virtually every contentious issue of the day.  As I opined in a previous post, the positions we take so earnestly are the rational end of a long chain of propositions that go all the way back to the one or more foundational propositions that form the foundation of our worldview (and are usually accepted without question).

Because our conclusions about the issue of the moment are so mindbogglingly obvious to us, we don't see how anybody could come to any other conclusion. If they do, it's a sure sign that they're ignorant, that they know better but are just too morally corrupt to embrace the right view, or that they are genuinely mentally ill.  I don't think I am amiss in assuming that most of us have felt this way about our ideological foes at one time or another, or have been the target of such speculation.

Here's how Powell illustrates the conflict:
Say we believe that Policy A, which we support, will lead to good Result X. We encounter someone who instead advocates for Policy B. Because of our certainty about the evidence and how to interpret it, too many of us too often see that person’s support for Policy B coming not from a good faith and reasoned belief that Policy B is a better way to get to Result X. Because if what we believe is both correct and obvious, then the advocate of Policy B must know that it will undermine the achievement of X. And if X is a good result, then this person doesn’t just disagree with us, but actively wants something bad to happen.

Unfortunately, this all-too-common way of thinking about political debate leads to serious problems, because it means that our empirical beliefs are essentially closed to critique unless that critique comes from someone who already shares our policy preferences. If our interlocutor doesn’t share our policy preferences, then before the conversation can get off the ground, we’ve already decided he is either stupid (he’s too dumb to see his error) or immoral (he maliciously prefers evil outcomes). But, of course, if our empirical priors or interpretive framework are wrong, then someone with better priors will likely come to a different policy conclusion.

Thus individual policy preferences exist as a signal of their holder’s intelligence or moral worth—and a challenge to one’s policy preferences gets interpreted as an attack on the holder’s smarts or basic goodness. Because we believe that certain policy preferences signal moral worth, we adopt our policy preferences based on how we would like to be perceived. And we hold to those policies regardless of their actual, real-world outcomes, or pay so little attention to their outcomes that we never feel the need to revise our political preferences.
If you see nothing wrong with this phenomenon, and your chief goal in any ideological conflict is to vanquish your foes, there's not much left to talk about.  Just carry on doing what you've always done.  The current chaos that is the 2016 presidential campaign is the world you live in and apparently enjoy.

If, on the other hand, you wonder if it's even possible to coexist with people who hold points of view that bug you so much, hoping that it is possible, stick around.  Understanding this ingrained human tendency to organize into tribes is, I believe, the only alternative to putting the maximum distance possible between all human beings.  I also believe that understanding our tribal thinking is the first step to finding a way to knowing how to bring others around to our point of view. 

This is going to be a running theme on this blog as I continue to ponder the riddles of human interaction.  I hope you'll find it worth the read.

February 22, 2016

The FBI v Apple

I'm not a big fan of Apple in general, but props to them for their principled refusal to open Pandora's Box by creating a custom version of the OS that bypasses the security features on the San Bernardino terrorist's iPhone.

There's no such thing as a one-time crack.  Even if the government itself doesn't exploit the cracked version of the OS (and they'd hardly miss an opportunity to exploit it), it's not unlikely that it will escape into the wild somehow.

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February 10, 2016

Why most online arguments about politics and religion end in a stalemate

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Scenario: Two people are engaged in mortal ideological combat on Facebook.  Each person argues their point passionately, genuinely baffled that what is manifestly obvious to them does not register at all with the other.  Since The Truth™ is so obvious, each combatant starts wondering why their opponent refuses to concede the point, eventually attributing such incorrigibility to bad character or, even worse, to mental illness. 

What is actually going on here?  Why do most skirmishes like these end with nobody persuaded and with bad feelings all around?

I believe this happens because the actual conflict usually does not lie in the topic itself, but in the long chain of presuppositions that lead rationally and inexorably to each person's view on the topic.  Within the closed system of a person's worldview, the point they're arguing makes complete sense to them, flowing logically from the worldview's foundational principles (i.e. the collection of assumptions forming the filter through which reality is interpreted), many or most of which are accepted as givens.

You won't get them to budge on the topic being debated unless either (a) you can convince them that the point they're arguing is inconsistent with the foundational principles of their worldview, or (b) you can somehow erode their confidence in the foundational principles themselves.

Strategy (a) is possible, but only those who embrace the same worldview are likely to see any success.  If someone of an opposing worldview tries this strategy, the natural reaction is to question the aggressor's motives (thus allowing the target to ignore the argument being made).

Even if strategy (b) has any chance of eventual success, the foundational principles aren't even part of the current debate, so forget about that.

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Imagine a worldview as a tree.  The trunk and roots are the foundational principles; the opinion being argued at the moment is more akin to a cluster of leaves at the end of one of the tree's branches.  Everything between the cluster and the trunk is the chain of presuppositions connecting the opinion to the foundational principles.  Even if someone succeeds in damaging or lopping off that cluster, it'll grow back in due time -- nothing really gained or lost.

Facebook is where I'm most likely to encounter people of significantly differing worldviews.  I've developed an instinct for recognizing when, for my potential opponent, an opinion represents a leafy cluster or something closer to the trunk.  If the former, I'm more likely to refrain from joining the fray, because the most likely outcome is bad feelings and nothing else.  If the latter, I might cautiously engage, in the hope that something worthwhile might transpire.

With the leafy-cluster topics, I will occasionally come across a viewpoint that baffles me so much that I step back and ask myself, How could someone possibly hold such an opinion?  Then, over time, through observation and sometimes through tactfully-worded questioning, I will attempt to discern that opinion's chain of presuppositions.  As I analyze the presuppositions, I usually am forced to reanalyze and reaffirm the presuppositions of my own worldview.

While very rare, the process does occasionally lead me to soften or change my opinions (or at least stop thinking of my opponent as insane).  But -- and this is the point -- I came to this conclusion on my own, not as the result of being outmaneuvered in an online argument.

December 10, 2015

The Christmas Story is about [whatever has the Left worked up at the moment]

Not long ago, I remember hearing the Christmas Story being about a homeless, unwed mother being shunned by society.

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Now, the Story is about a Middle Eastern refugee family.  Sheesh.

It's bad enough when the secular left tries to hijack Jesus for its causes; it's downright shameful when a church does so, betraying its ignorance of the Book upon which its faith supposedly rests.

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For the record, Jesus' family fled to Egypt during a period when the government was seeking to murder Him -- but He was almost certainly a year (or more) old by then, when the family was living comfortably in a house (Matt 2:11) in Bethlehem.  At no point during the birth narrative was the family fleeing anything.

You can read it yourself, if you like.  That'll give you a leg up on the church pictured here.

September 8, 2015

Pointless Petition du jour: The meaning of inauguration oaths taken by public office holders

Secular jihadists have set their sights on the inauguration oath typically taken by many public office holders.  Here is a new petition -- undoubtedly inspired by the Kim Davis kerfuffle -- at whitehouse.gov:

I think it's worth pondering the purpose of inauguration oaths.

The whole point of an oath is to increase the credibility of a promise. The oath-taker is essentially calling judgment down upon him/herself if the promise isn't kept.  When the oath-taker is considered to be sincere in such an oath, it generally adds weight to the promise being made.  If the oath-taker doesn't believe in a higher power, the oath is pointless both to the one doing the promising and to the one being promised.

In this light, swearing on the Constitution (as the petition demands) is even more pointless, regardless of one's belief system -- what does "I swear by the Constitution that I will obey the Constitution" even mean?

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The real issue is not that many people prefer to add meaning to their oath by placing their hand on the text that underlies their moral value system; the real issue is that the oath itself is effectively meaningless to the oath-taker.

At one time, the inauguration oath served a real purpose in a culture where the moral value system of Christianity served as an actual constraint on the behavior of the citizenry and (in many cases) public officials.  Now that Christianity is being systematically purged from the culture, even pro forma declarations of religious sentiment among public officials are becoming less common.

So, again: is there any point to inauguration oaths any more?  It's not like most oath-takers are actually sincere in the affirmations being made (or fear any repercussions of violating those affirmations), so why undergo the ritual in the first place?

August 29, 2015

Donald Trump frightens me, and so do his followers

Donald Trump frightens me, and so do his followers. I'm going on my general observations of the Trump phenomenon, so in the unlikely event you're a Trump fan AND you're a constitutionalist, my apologies for lumping you in with the rest -- I'm curious to know how both sentiments can coexist. With that said...

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Trump, like Obama before him, and like any good demagogue, has the ability to connect deeply with the emotions of his followers, rather than their minds. It seems that Trump's fans would allow him to be every bit the tyrant he's essentially pledged to be (and must be to "fix" our country outside of the constitutional boundaries of the president's powers)...as long as he delivers on his promise to secure the borders.

I've often argued that George W. Bush, whatever other qualities he may have had, was no friend of the Constitution. Chancellor Trump would be much, much worse in this regard.

If Trump wins the nomination, our country will lose in the end -- no matter who takes the general election.

August 28, 2015

Something to remember as you ponder the merits of the "living wage" movement

Looking at schemes like the "living wage" movement, it might be tempting to think that the Left was interested in reforming capitalism.  A closer look reveals that this isn't the case.

If reform was the goal, you'd see the left investing its considerable resources to create banks, large corporations, and small businesses (like restaurants), and to run them according to the best progressive principles. 

We don't see that at all.  Instead, the Left does nothing but make crippling demands of existing banks, large corporations, and small businesses.

The left doesn't want to reform capitalism; it wants to destroy capitalism, and make paupers of us all (except the governing elites, of course).

If I'm wrong, I'm open to hearing the evidence.

August 15, 2015

Scratch an anti-GMO activist, and you'll likely find a Marxist underneath

Slate's Will Saletan has a great article (published July 15) on his year-long investigation into the anti-GMO movement. He says this in his introduction (emphasis added):
The central premise of these laws—and the main source of consumer anxiety, which has sparked corporate interest in GMO-free food—is concern about health. Last year, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans said it’s generally “unsafe to eat genetically modified foods.” Vermont says the primary purpose of its labeling law is to help people “avoid potential health risks of food produced from genetic engineering.” Chipotle notes that 300 scientists have “signed a statement rejecting the claim that there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs for human consumption.” Until more studies are conducted, Chipotle says, “We believe it is prudent to take a cautious approach toward GMOs.”
The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all declared that there’s no good evidence GMOs are unsafe. Hundreds of studies back up that conclusion. But many of us don’t trust these assurances. We’re drawn to skeptics who say that there’s more to the story, that some studies have found risks associated with GMOs, and that Monsanto is covering it up.
I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.
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Saletan's presentation is copiously documented, unlike most of the anti-GMO alarmism we encounter on Facebook and in other social media.

The science behind the anti-GMO movement has always been, and continues to be, fatally weak, but no matter: it SOUNDS plausible enough to scare the average consumer.  What motivates the most ardent anti-GMO activists is not a commitment to scientific truth, but rather a commitment to anticapitalism.

Because GMO food can be patented, evil corporations profit from its consumption.  No matter that genetic improvements to plant genomes can and do literally save lives, especially in the third world (through vitamin infusion and through integration of natural resistance to drought, pests, and disease, among other things) -- Marxist ideology trumps the lives and health of these people.

July 31, 2015

What happened to C-Pol?

For over a decade, this blog was called "C-POL: Constitutionalist, Conservative Politics". Over time, my deep-thought ponderings have been moving away from the rough-and-tumble of everyday political wrangling and toward the larger philosophical, ideological, and cultural currents of our age.  

I've changed the title of the blog to highlight my conviction that the "fundamental transformation" (to adapt President Obama's phrase) of the United States that's currently underway is, in the long run, bad not only for this country but for the world in general.

Scoff if you must; I'm okay with that.  I aim to make my case as time goes on.  I'm okay with being on the "wrong side of history" if I'm actually right.

Are the denizens of the 'progressive' left champions of democracy?

Although the progressives fancy themselves to champion democracy, they are accomplishing some of the greatest strides in their cultural revolution through the least democratic means -- through presidential executive action and through the decisions of a few federal judges.  In other words, through oligarchy, not through democracy.

The people's representatives are in Congress.  The left pretty much has no use for the people's representatives.  Under progressive rule, the laws come from everywhere BUT the place mandated by our Constitution.

Just like pretty much every left-wing uprising that has ever occurred, the revolutionaries claim to be acting on behalf of the masses, but the masses don't always have the right opinions, do they?

(Note: I realize that under our Constitution, the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy.  Just going with the progressive lingo here.)

The anticapitalist left's ironic dependence on the fruits of capitalism (cont'd)

Illustrated marvelously in this Banksy canvas wall print available at... drum roll, please... Walmart:

May 19, 2015

Intellectual diversity is a threat to progressive hegemony, and it shall not be tolerated

Carl Trueman writes in First Things about the fact that modern universities seem designed to prevent vigorous-yet-civil debate about contentious issues.  As the progressive tribe solidifies its hold on western culture, the name of the game is conformity to the progressive ideal.  Not only will dissent not be tolerated; it will be punished in any way possible.
Universities [...] are not supposed to be confessional institutions inculcating a particular creed, nor should they be built on politicized extensions of child-rearing philosophies founded on self-esteem. They should be places where debate is part of the way of life, and where one has to live shoulder to shoulder with those with whom one differs. Yet they have become the very places where this inability to disagree is now apparently cultivated as a positive virtue. The truly educated person is now no longer the person who understands an opposing viewpoint even as he rejects it. For even to understand an alternative viewpoint is to collude in the oppression which such an opinion embodies.

I suspect that the future health of democracy depends upon university administrators worrying less about the dangers posed by whatever is the micro-aggression du jour and more about providing safe places for those who actually want to hold opinions and have debates. Safe places, that is, that are marked by the very risks and danger involved in intellectual engagement.
Trueman's hope (expressed in the second paragraph of the excerpt) is no more than a pipe dream, at least for now.