Does success make it impossible to speak truth to power?
Yesterday's post brought some more thought to mind: Does becoming a "success" — however you might define that — make it all the more difficult, if not outright impossible, to speak truth to power? Or, for that matter, speak the truth at all?
Why we accept the existence of crass psychological manipulation as part of the unspoken cost of modern living.
One of the key tricks of propaganda — PR, advertising, or whatever — is to make the audience think whatever it is you're pushing was their idea all along. Don't just give the people what they want; give them what they think they want. The less they notice they are being manipulated, the better. And if they do notice it, just convince them you didn't so much give them any thoughts as you did awaken them.
Sometimes the best argument is the one you walk away from.
Someone in my feed managed to post the single most offensive thing I've seen said about Ferguson et al. since the whole mess started. No, I won't repeat it. ("Whitesplaining" is the best term I can come up with to describe it.) My response to this has been to leave them the heck alone. Forever.
No, I'm not inclined to confront the person in question about this, in big part because I have never been very good at, nor particularly inclined to be good at, rubbing people's noses in their politics. I don't think it changes anyone's mind, for one, and two, it only makes me all the more despondent of the already crummy human condition. Wastes time, annoys the pig.
Breeding monsters, and all that.
It is not only the sleep of reason that can engender monsters, as Goya wrote in one of his etchings. Lucid, vigilant reason, when it flows freely, is just as capable of formulating impeccable theories on the inequality of human races; justifying slavery; proving the inferiority of women, the black, or the yellow, the innate evil of the Jew; legitimizing the extermination of the heretic; and supporting conquest, colonialism, and war between nations or classes.
I went back to the previously linked essay and encountered this very good graf in it as well, although I see it now more in the light of the essay's questionable conclusions — it's part of a general build-up towards saying "Aw, reason 'n science, they ain't all that and a bag of chips, are they?" or something analogous to it.
What's alarming about statements like this is how they sit cheek-by-jowl with other statements about how an illiterate populace is all the easier to oppress. Yes, and I would argue that so is a populace that is generally ignorant of critical thinking and science as a discipline (as opposed to just a pile of facts, a slew of discoveries, or a bunch of technical innovations that resulted from the above). Doesn't matter if it's a government or a corporation that's holding the leashes; you're still clamped into one of 'em.
I know full well by now how reason alone isn't a defense against tyranny or oppression. The Jews of Łódź did not need to mount a counter-argument against the Nazis to justify resistance to them. If anything, reason works as a way to lay out an argument for those who are on the fence, rather than to change the minds of those who already have one made up.
But none of this makes reasoning a worthless or ineffectual pursuit. You might as well complain a mountain bike is not a very good rowboat.
Why does it always come down to having to choose between science and art, between Shakespeare or the bomb?
... since there is no way of eradicating man’s destructive drive—which is the price he pays for the faculty of invention—we should try to direct it toward books instead of gadgets. Literature can mitigate this drive without much risk. ... Unlike the scientific civilization that has made us more fragile than our ancestors were before they learned to fight the tiger, under a literary civilization more impractical, passive, and dreamy men would be born. But at least these men would be less dangerous to their fellows than we have grown to be since we voted for the gadgets and against the book.
A good essay, but with some dunderheaded conclusions.
To understand doesn't mean we have to forgive. See: comic book movies, et al.
I don’t [get defensive when reviewing comic book movies] because I’m afraid of getting death threats from easily irritated comic book fans (which hasn’t happened to me, and thanks). I do it because as someone who got a lot out of comics growing up, and still has a healthy respect for the graphic form, I find comic book movies kind of frustrating, and am bent out of shape by having my frustration chalked up to a lack of understanding of the form.
That last bit is something I run into a great deal with fans. Many of them assume that knowing about something intimately and thoroughly will automatically equate to excusing or justifying its weaknesses, shortcomings, excesses, and indulgences.
"As long as people are reading something..."
Been traveling, and will be hitting the road again soon. But first, a meditation on the idea that it doesn't matter what people read, as long as they read something:
... much supposedly literary fiction also repeats weary formulas, while some novels marketed as genre fiction move toward the exploratory by denying readers the sameness the format led them to expect. And of course many literary writers have made hay “subverting” genre forms. However, if the “I-don’t-mind-people-reading-Twilight-because-it could-lead-to-higher-things” platitude continues to be trotted out, it is because despite all the blurring that has occurred over recent years, we still have no trouble recognizing the difference between the repetitive formula offering easy pleasure and the more strenuous attempt to engage with the world in new ways.
I'd argue that we have trouble recognizing it when the two cross over or learn from each others' best attributes, but that this happens rarely enough it's no surprise it's missed. An author like Georges Simenon was excellent at providing what seemed like mere entertainment, while at the same time delving into things typically left to "serious" fiction; authors of his caliber don't come around much anymore, if at all.
Hollywood's mania for sequels makes sense in light of how forgettable the films are. With no follow-up, who would remember they even exist?
A comment I made on Twitter earlier (yeah, I do that from time to time) deserves revisiting here in depth.
Hollywood's mania for sequels makes sense in light of how forgettable the films are. With no follow-up, who would remember they even exist? The inherently disposable nature of the films is a design feature, not a flaw. That's how they get you to buy next year's model.
On the self that plays tricks on the self by being the self, or something.
It's been an unproductive day on multiple fronts, which ended with me shelving my current work and writing a few notes to people for the sake of further research on stuff I couldn't see from 30,000 feet up. In the long run it'll get worked out, but the short-term frustration that comes from hitting such a wall is always a bummer. When in such a state, I get philosophical.
Brad Warner has a nice post up about the way our happiness-seeking activities constitute a trick played on us by our brains. Many of the things we think will make us happy, don't. Or they only make us happy in a qualified sense: they only work because they're encouraged by a set of social circumstances, which is why bragging about your new car is generally wasted breath amongst people who can't drive. The point he makes is that we shouldn't give up on happiness, but that we should seek it differently — by looking at our desires as scrutinously as we can and understanding where they really come from and why.
The last and simplest — you'll see soon how the pun is intended — of Krugman's rules of research is "Simplify, simplify".
... always try to express your ideas in the simplest possible model. The act of stripping down to this minimalist model will force you to get to the essence of what you are trying to say (and will also make obvious to you those situations in which you actually have nothing to say). And this minimalist model will then be easy to explain to other economists as well.
In the same way, it helps to think about what you're trying to do in the simplest possible way, both as an explanatory device and as a disciplinary one. Explanatory first.
On why taboos aren't just prejudices.
Some notes on Richard Dawkins and his turning his nose up at the idea of taboos as being antiquarian concepts:
... taboos exist because humans are emotional creatures. We feel upset and disgust, and taboos exist to protect us from such feelings. Introducing rape gratuitously into a public discussion upsets some people unnecessarily. Etiquette dictates that we don't do this ... And disgust, like it or not, is the basis for some moral judgments - such as the belief that some things such as human organs or sex be not traded in markets.
Demanding that there be no taboo zones and that reason and logic go everywhere is, in this sense, a demand that people be dessicated calculating machines devoid of emotion. Even if this were desirable - which is very dubious - it is a futile call.
... Dawkins is being inconsistent. What he's demanding is not so much that everyone be dispassionate but that they share his disgust at some things and his lack of disgust at others. He's complaining: "Why can't everyone be like me?" ... In this sense, rationalism is close to narcissism.
People, especially intellectuals, tend to forget how important a role the emotions play in assessing ideas. Almost no one takes an idea on face value as if they were a computer processing a program; emotions and our sense of self are inextricably bound up with the way we process even the most neutral of things.
I suspect a lot of the arguments against taboos come down to an objection against repressive behavior. Don't tell us what to do; people need to have free minds and free lives; etc. What's missing here is any sense of what happens when you break a taboo: you create an emotional reaction, often one of disgust and animosity, and often in the very people you're trying to convince of the unworthiness of a taboo. In short, you're shooting yourself in the foot. (One of the tricks Dale Carnegie taught his followers was that if you want to get somebody to do something, you let them think it was their idea all along, not an idea you're pushing on them.)
I don't think any of this constitutes an argument against rationalism, though. I think it does constitute an argument against the idea that rationalism is always pure. It also continues to convince me that Richard Dawkins, for all of his smarts, is a heartless toad.
On daring to be silly.
"Dare to be silly" — that's a rule, courtesy of Paul Krugman, that I should barely have to elaborate on. The evocation of it alone should be enough, whether or not you're a Krugman fan (or a Weird Al fan, for that matter), but the context for the word "silly" is worth detailing. Krugman found that the really valuable work to be done was not in making safe but unadventurous extensions to existing theories, but rather to take bold, potentially foolish-seeming steps — what he deemed the use of silly assumptions:
What seems terribly hard for many economists to accept is that all our models involve silly assumptions. Given what we know about cognitive psychology, utility maximization is a ludicrous concept; equilibrium pretty foolish outside of financial markets; perfect competition a howler for most industries. The reason for making these assumptions is not that they are reasonable but that they seem to help us produce models that are helpful metaphors for things that we think happen in the real world.
In other words, the silliness is a function of the fact that such work is often open to ridicule for trying to look at things differently, and derive a useful model from that perspective.