August 1, 2015
by Les Lane
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AN INTERESTING EXPERIMENT

Okay, let’s cut to the chase. Last month we asked the following questions: What are the right’s cultural constructs? What are the left’s cultural constructs? What are the a priori premises upon which they each build these constructs? To sidestep motivated reasoning and avoid intellectual and social gridlock, it is useful for Progressives to know these things. Of course, different studies use different words to describe different concepts in different ways. In other words, this line of inquiry is a can of worms., but perseverance does yield actionable results. The core of the onion appears to be a combination of first, one’s attitude about how dangerous the world is, and second, one’s pessimism or optimism about human nature.

If you believe (likely at a subconscious level) that the world is, essentially, a dangerous place, and that humans are naturally prone to evil, then you will tend to be authoritarian, dogmatic, and comfortable with social/political/economic rank. After all, simple, straightforward, unambiguous beliefs, rules and regulations, leadership by the “most capable” among us, and authority-sanctioned punishment keep evil human tendencies boxed up, and the dangerous world at bay. According to an article by Jonathan Haidt at Edge.org entitled “What Makes People Vote Republican,” the patron saint of this moral system is sociologist Emile Durkheim. Haidt writes, “A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durhheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for outgroups…The basic social unit is the…hierarchically structured family, which serves as a model for other institutions.”

What a bunch of reactionary narrow-mindedness! But…wait a minute. “Self-control,” “duty,” “loyalty,” and “family” actually don’t sound so bad…

If, on the other hand, you find the world more interesting than terrifying and you believe that humans are naturally prone to good, then you will tend to be individualistic, comfortable with ambiguity, and concerned, above all, about fairness and reciprocity. According to Haidt, your patron saint is John Stuart Mill, and a Millian society at its best would be “a peaceful, open and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other’s rights and band together voluntarily…to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good.”

Now that’s what I’m talkin about! But…wait a minute. Individualism can devolve into excessive self-focus and comfort with ambiguity can lead to formlessness and world’s gone wild. I mean, how many more choices (flavors, colors, apps, sizes, models) will we be deluged with before we all drown?

As it turns out, nobody has the monopoly on morality or truth, and either side could destroy the world if left unchecked. Go figure. It just so happens that the far right appears to be way closer to accomplishing this right now than the far-left. Progressives need to step in and help save the world alright, but first they need to understand that trying to mercilessly and publicly crush patently absurd arguments with crystalline logic will, because of motivated reasoning on both sides, probably accomplish little. Instead, the secret may be to deploy logic in a more mindful and self-restrained manner, to put oneself in the other’s shoes and couch one’s appeals in language the other side can relate to.

So, instead of “Big oil and gas are destroying our planet and endangering billions because of greed and you’re too stupid to understand that!” we might try, “You know in Job we read ‘But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the LORD hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind. (12.7-10)’” And Isaiah must have been pretty upset when he said, “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. (24.5).” What covenant you ask? To be good stewards of creation for one thing.

The Bible a little too much to handle? Okay, try the Gipper. According to The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism, by Thomas Robertson, Ronald Reagan, in a 1970 business magazine, wrote, “Americans at last are beginning to realize man can no longer ignore his own damaging impact on his overall environment…We have permitted air and water pollution to become a national disgrace – a peril that threatens permanently to alter the delicate balance of ecology that preserves a livable natural environment.” Reagan was so right, and saw this coming so long ago!

Reagan make you queasy? Consider a little bit of commentary on world events: “Those crazy Chinese, with their pollution so bad they had to shut down over 800 factories for two weeks in order to get clean air for three days for the 2014 APEC summit in Beijing! Just another example of how communism is a self-serving sham perpetrated by an out-of-touch, greedy elite. Thank goodness America is more self-aware and sensible than that!”

These are perhaps not the best crafted examples – this is undiscovered country for many of us – but none of them contradict Progressive beliefs or values. And there is no shortage of raw material to use or conservatives to practice on. Logically speaking, what is the goal here? To continue to talk past one another while Rome burns, or to fix things? To save the world or to feel morally and intellectually superior while tearing out head hair in frustration?

Besides, if anyone can pull this off, Progressives can, because we are intelligent and logical and open-minded, and right about so many things. And humble…I forgot humble. What do we have to lose? It would be, if nothing else, an interesting experiment.

July 1, 2015
by Les Lane
Comments Off on BEND LIKE THE WILLOW

BEND LIKE THE WILLOW

Last month’s blog, in an effort to bridge the chasm between left “truth” and right “truthiness,” introduced the recent social intuitionist model of cognition that maintains that logic is actually a faithful servant of the emotions instead of their master, and that this is the best arrangement for productive and successful decision making. Three scenarios in which deployment of pure logic would lead to disaster were offered as springboards into the murky depths of what social intuitionists call “motivated reasoning.” This month, we take a closer look at motivated reasoning and how an understanding of it might empower progressives to help save the world from the short-sighted, panic-induced policies and thinking being championed by the far-right. What follows is based largely on an article published in Psychological Review in 2001 by Jonathan Haidt entitled “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.”

Haidt’s article opens with a scenario in which a brother and sister decide to make love. (Take note of your reaction.) Nobody else knows about it, both are consenting adults using protection, neither has regrets and no psychological backlash is evident. In fact, even though they agree not to do it again, they are glad they did it and they cherish what they shared. Was their action wrong?

Let’s say you are reading this with someone you respect. (It isn’t necessary to like them.) Chances are your first reaction is to recoil at the incestuous image. When your companion asks if you feel it is wrong you answer, without even having to think, that it is. “But how can you say that when no one was hurt? I think it was sweet.” What??!! How could they possibly believe…?! That’s crazy! Danger, Will Robinson! Your brain goes into overdrive to construct a logical argument to support your judgment (the “wag-the-dog illusion”). Your companion counters with their own logical argument, and that just makes you more determined to get them to see the truth before it’s too late.

Too late for what exactly?

Your reaction is immediate and strong. You do not spontaneously generate a list of logical pros and cons from which to make a reasoned choice, you go straight to judgment. Only afterward does your logic kick in to support that judgment. This, says social intuitionists, is how motivated reasoning works. You make an immediate judgment based on “intuition” or “instinct” or your “gut feeling” and provide logical reasons later. They have even identified the areas of the brain that handle each function. And here’s the kicker – unless you are very self-aware and somewhat trained in philosophy/logic, you are likely to hunker down into your post hoc “logical” interpretation even if a disinterested observer from Alpha Centauri Bb awards the rationality prize to your companion. Your companion/opponent is likely to do the same. Nobody’s mind will be changed and y’all might conveniently forget each other’s birthday that year. There is a better way.

First of all, understand that you are in good company with your nasty motivated reasoning and all – all other humans do it. In fact, Rationality Golden Boy and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson immortalized motivated reasoning in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice that Jefferson did not bother to construct a logical platform for these “self-evident truths.” He just stated them…as a priori premises… and then used them as a platform to brilliantly build a case for revolution against the English king.

So the first step in dealing with truthiness is to forgive yourself and your opponent for motivated reasoning and, like an intellectual Judo master, bend like the willow. Use motivated reasoning to your advantage. Use your knowledge of this invisible power, and your logic, to couch your explanations and arguments in the emotional terms of the cultural constructs that engender far right motivated reasoning and you are likely to encounter far less mindlessness. To change the course of a raging river of opinion, in other words, don’t try to build a dam in defiance of its torrent, go with it and gradually redirect the channel.

What are the right’s cultural constructs? What are the left’s cultural constructs? More to the point, what are the a priori premises upon which they each build their cultural constructs? Many of these premises are shared, and this provides lots of options for communication across the chasm. On the other hand, there are, arguably, two premises on each side that appear to be non-negotiable, that will probably require compromise. Stay tuned next month for that discussion. Fascinating stuff!

May 31, 2015
by Les Lane
Comments Off on NOW DO GO OFF HALF-COCKED

NOW DO GO OFF HALF-COCKED

Last month’s blog/column suggested that the power that makes the world go round is invisible. Because real power is invisible, and because progressives grasp this intuitively, they have much more power than they might think. The best defense/offense against the far right is to UNDERSTAND it – Knowledge is one form of invisible power – and then use this understanding intelligently. Progressives are good at that kind of thing.

No matter how alarming today’s conservative zeitgeist is, and regardless of the eternal innate potential of humans to self-destruct, there are strong historical, sociological and psychological reasons for believing that progress continues apace, and political sanity and reconciliation beckon from the not-too-distant future. Perhaps a more pressing need is to avoid having our heads explode when we argue with individuals from the other side of the aisle. This month’s blog begins to unravel the invisible motivations behind conservative actions and attitudes so that we can construct solid, “reality-based” common ground between truth and truthiness that conservatives and progressives can safely cross.

A good place to start is with Chris Mooney, former science journalist, podcaster and host, current staff writer for The Washington Post, and author of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. Articles by Mooney in Mother Jones claim that a growing number of serious scientific studies (my reading suggested there may be over 100) performed all over the world converge on the premise that our brains don’t make moral judgments the way we think they do. Instead, as philosopher David Hume suggested 277 years ago, LOGIC IS NOT THE MASTER OF THE EMOTIONS, BUT A SERVANT OF THEM, and as modern researchers add, THAT IS THE WAY IT HAS TO BE FOR LOGIC TO BE TRULY USEFUL.

Now calm down! Before you go off half-cocked let me explain!

Imagine you are gliding silently through the jungle/tall grass/rocks 2,000,000 years ago. Your muscles glisten in the moonlight, a fierce smile plays on your face as your piercing eyes continually scan your surroundin…sorry, got a little carried away. Anyway, you hear a sudden noise! You stop and ponder: “Hmmm…a noise. But none of my other senses picked anything up. But then, it’s pretty dark, so I can’t really see well. And I have a cold so my sense of smell might be compromised. But is it compromised sufficiently to be unreliable? I think maybe a statistical determination of the degree to which I can depend on my sense of smell is called for here…”

Or you are researching an important paper that’s due tomorrow. You have been reading journal articles and scanning academic tomes for two days, and the more you read, the more you are unsure logically what position you should take on the issue. Lines of reasoning, experimental data and survey conclusions scatter like branches of lightening in every direction. One thing leads to another and another and another ad infinitum. You want to be brilliant, but you need to be on time. You sigh as you open just one more website on the subject and sip your fourth cup of coffee.

Or you’re a boss, a coordinator, a person with the answers. Subordinate and superordinate co-workers deluge you every day with assignments, requests, demands, suggestions, complaints, information, interpersonal disputes, etc. You have to respond correctly and quickly every minute of every day to keep your job and be considered for promotion. So you sit down and begin to consider the latest dispute through the lenses of utilitarianism, deontology, virtue theory, and social contract theory respectively in a focused effort to reach a fair and reasonable judgment.

What’s wrong with these scenarios?

Exactly! You are likely to be chewed up and spit out by a large predator, your teacher, or your boss in that order. (Is there really a difference?) What’s the solution? You go with your gut! Which, by the way, you probably did a minute ago when I stated that logic was the servant, not the master of emotion. Be honest – What was your immediate reaction? If you became a little angry and confused, good job. That is what was supposed to happen. That is how Nature designed you and everyone else. It’s called “motivated reasoning.”
There is not enough room on this page, or enough free time in your life, to go into motivated reasoning right now. So stay tuned. How it informs the attempted suicide bombing of everything we all hold dear in this country, and how progressives can use a knowledge of it to continue to turn the tide with minimum loss of life will be touched upon next month. (The tide is already turning, but we can speed it up and spread goodness and light while we’re doing it.)

Here’s a hint: After I brazenly challenged the sacred principle of Rationality above, I didn’t say: “I know you think Enlightenment philosopher Rene’ Descartes was a particularly talented individual but, if you read him carefully enough, you would discover multiple inconsistencies – here I’ll list them for you – that invalidate a disturbing number of his conclusions.” I didn’t do that because chances are you would have immediately begun correcting my own logic and we would have gotten stuck in a tit-for-tat. Instead, I told you stories that made you feel something.

Oh – spoiler alert – Enlightenment rationality will come out just fine in the end.

By the way, if you begin to feel a connection with your fellow progressives through the efforts of WHYR or its parent organization, the Baton Rouge Progressive Network, help us survive by setting up a sustaining donation. Just click on “support WHYR” and follow instructions. Thanks so much.

May 10, 2015
by Les Lane
Comments Off on From the Backstage: Power is Invisible

From the Backstage: Power is Invisible

To use current lingo, Baton Rouge Community Radio 96.9 FM WHYR identifies as progressive. It is the broadcast voice, in fact, of the Baton Rouge Progressive Network (BRPN). But what exactly does “progressive” mean? A while back active volunteers and board members, guided brilliantly by Rebecca, BRPN’s board chair, developed a short document entitled “Core Values.” The whole thing is a work of art, but one of the most striking sections is “Thoughtfulness,” and it contains (among other things) the following bullets:

  • We are committed to objectivity, reason, and critical thinking. We seek to push past ideology, false dichotomies, and surface-level discourse to foster a shared understanding grounded in reality and multiple perspectives.
  • We strive to empathize with others, even those with whom we disagree, recognizing the extent to which we are all products of our environment.
  • We refrain from thinking our personal and cultural norms and beliefs are superior to others’ norms and beliefs. In critiquing others, we first turn that same critical lens on ourselves.
  • We acknowledge that just because we do not understand something does not mean it is wrong; it only means we do not understand it. We assume responsibility for educating ourselves about that of which we are ignorant.

That block of text is a thing of beauty…beauty and power. Not the visible letters, those are just black squiggly things. The beauty lies in the combinations of certain words, and the cadence of the language. The power lies in the invisible ideals the words and cadence express that resonate with the mental, emotional and spiritual energy of progressive readers. What this text demonstrates so well is that REAL POWER IS INVISIBLE.

Think about it: That which we call a “road” is really just petroleum and gravel poured onto dirt. One could just as easily take a nap or build a clubhouse on it as drive on it. And the yellow and white streaks of paint on it…please! They couldn’t stop a two-year-old! Yet people use “roads” routinely to move two -ton machines at breakneck speeds in opposite directions without incident.

What’s more, these people get those two-ton machines by giving somebody in a tie a piece of plastic to play with for a few minutes. They get life sustaining food or 32” plasma TVs by handing out small pieces of pretty cotton paper. This is crazy! Further down the rabbit hole, something called “bitcoins” twinkle alluringly.

What makes all of this possible isn’t the visible asphalt or plastic or currency or…computer screen pictures. What makes this possible is the invisible power of trusting agreement that drivers, shoppers, merchants, and nerds enter into without thought on a daily basis. Real power is invisible.

Just in case this horse isn’t completely dead*, here’s one more. A military tank is very visible and very powerful, right? Nope, not on its own. Okay, so the tank is just an inert mass of death-dealing munitions and such. What about the operators? They are visible and have the power to…Nope. It isn’t the operators per se, it’s the invisible motivations of the operators that make possible the rearrangement of real estate a tank is capable of. Real power is invisible.

So what does all of this have to do with WHYR and its listeners? Progressives in Baton Rouge may often feel invisible and powerless. They shouldn’t, because they aren’t. First of all, BRPN’s website lists 74 local progressive organizations, not counting labor unions. Not people, organizations! Second, BRPN runs a progressive radio station not beholden to anyone, that can broadcast music, news and programming no commercial station (shackled by the bottom line as they are) dares to. But most importantly, progressives understand intuitively that real power comes not from flash and bling, not from loudness or rudeness, and certainly not from large numbers of non-thinkers mindlessly parroting absurd social and economic talking points, but from things like realistically inclusive ideals, trusting agreements and cooperation, and focused psychological motivation. Perhaps a note about the tank is relevant here too. No matter how big and ugly a sign of power is, it is no more powerful than the invisible force that animates it. A bigger, uglier, power sign isn’t the best defense, knowledge of the invisible force is. One wonders what might happen if the tank operators’ loving grandmothers suddenly showed up in front of it holding apple pies. Now that’s real power.

Are Baton Rouge progressives invisible and powerless? HEL HECK NO! Not with a networking hub (BRPN), 74 organizations, our own radio station, and the knowledge of what really makes the world go round. Things be jammin’ for Baton Rouge progressives! So get out and get with it. Donate, volunteer, attend meetings and events, get involved. FEEL YOUR POWER!! MUAH-HA-HA-HA-HAAAA!!!

*(No actual horses were harmed in the making of this blog.)