christians, Conservatives, creationism, culture, education, evolution, media, politics, racism, religion, religious right, Republicans, Things We Should Know, Uncategorized

It’s Not the End of the World

His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.

-George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

To those of you thoughtful (or at least conscious) enough to recognize the process described above, you probably have asked the same question I have: How do people who, for the most part, seem outwardly rational and functioning members of society, believe some of the political or religious ideology that has been spoon-fed to them? Many of the ideas espoused by extremists of all stripes are demonstrably false, so how can people go on believing them?

As far back as 1956, behavioural scientists have published studies dealing with this question – that year, Leon Festinger published When Prophecy Fails, a book that described the reactions of individuals faced with the by now quite common phenomenon of the world continuing on without ending. The individuals were members of an apocalyptic cult who had given away all of their belongings and waited upon the figurative mountaintop for the end of the world, which never came. How did these people deal with the fact that their beliefs, and the actions that followed their beliefs, had been proven unequivocally incorrect? Surprisingly, the cult members’ beliefs intensified, and they began proselytizing even more fervently.

This phenomenon was described by Festinger and his co-investigators as a type of cognitive dissonance, which occurs under specific circumstances:

1. The belief must be held with deep conviction and be relevant to the believer’s actions or behavior.

2. The belief must have produced actions that are difficult to undo.

3. The belief must be sufficiently specific and concerned with the real world such that it can be clearly disconfirmed.

4. The disconfirmatory evidence must be recognized by the believer.

5. The believer must have social support from other believers.

So to create the increased fervor, the members of the group must actually recognize that the evidence is against them. The social support of the other believers is crucial to the continuance of faith in what has clearly been disproven.

So, let’s apply this to those that myself and other authors here on the ‘Kog often find ourselves at odds with: Tea Partiers, religious fanatics, Conservatives, conservatives (note size of ‘c’), climate/evolution/science deniers, racists, alt med zealots, and so on. Our frustration in large part comes not from the fact that people have a particular belief; that’s their right in a democracy and none of us would have it any other way. The frustration arises (for me, at least) from the individuals’ dogged adherence to beliefs and customs that have been clearly shown through evidence to be non-productive, simply false, or even patently absurd – no amount of discussion or clarification will budge them from their metaphoric hilltops. As long as they have the security of knowing that others share their beliefs, they can cover themselves in that fact as with a warm blanket and weather any storms we may visit upon them.

Kinda makes you think, don’t it? Considering this over the past few days, I have recognized my own tendency to dig my heels in and push when encountering opposition; recognized also my quite literal anger at people who refuse to change their minds despite whatever evidence I may bring to bear. I have realized that I will quite clearly never change their minds or cause them to alter their behaviour one bit, just as their arguments won’t change me in the least. Engaging with the zealot on his own terms requires you to become a zealot, to attack the individual and react emotionally to the ‘ignorance’ you must crusade against. I have personally seen this in myself, and walked away grumbling from my computer, my day ruined by my ideological opposite number who has drawn me into reacting emotionally.

But, no more – evidence is evidence, and truth is truth despite some people’s objections to it. Some acts are just and some are unjust, and some ideologies deserve the time and energy that can be committed to teaching and learning different perspectives… And some, as much as my brain craves closure and victory, are not. The secret to creating and maintaining an online persona that carries some weight and the appearance of validity, as I see it, is recognizing the difference. Some people cannot and will not be convinced, so wasting the effort to try is folly. So, I shall no longer feed the trolls. I expect my blood pressure will be better overall as a result.

If you are so motivated, I’d love to hear some discussion of your experiences in the comments. I want this to be the start of a great conversation, not the end.

Halifax, Nova Scotia, politics

Really?

First, they make the decision to flood the under-capacity convention market with more space to be more under-capacity in downtown Halifax.

Then they decide it’s in the public interest to commit taxpayer money without showing the taxpayers who are funding this the business plan that says it’s a smart thing to do. They do this despite complaints from other downtown hotel owners and those considering the construction of new hotels in the area that they are effectively funding the construction of competition. (Could there be a legal avenue here?)

Then they try to force together a deal that leaves the city holding the bag for money lost in the old convention centre, as well as the tax revenue on a high-priced property in the city core.

And now they suggest to the federal government that their “contribution” to this white elephant could come from infrastructure money normally used for roads and bridges – you know, stuff we use on  a regular basis. Though in fairness, as a runner and eight months of the year cycle commuter here in metro, you don’t know how many times I’ve traveled along Windmill Rd. on the way to work saying “man, this road is fucking perfect!” Obviously the roads don’t need the cash.  And it will be obvious when the bridge commission raises their rates again later this year that they don’t need it. And it’s very obvious from the 2011 tax assessment on my home that the city doesn’t need it.

What about the school boards that are looking at cuts in the neighbourhood of 20%? Bloodykids – let ’em learn like the business leaders did – private schools funded by their rich parents the school of hard knocks.  Education is a privilege we evidently can’t afford, but hotels and empty conference rooms – whoah, baby! I gotta get me some of this action!

Sigh.

Could Darrell Dexter have bought that old chestnut that socialism is for kids who don’t know any better and that real governance means making the “hard decisions” that hurt the average man in favour of business? Could it be that he feels he’s not really at the adult table until he’s carrying water for them?

Could it be that as of today I am no longer a member of the Nova Scotia NDP? Yes, why I think it could.

I once thought that I too would outgrow my commitment to social democracy, that at some stage I would turn all conservative. I think I assumed there was something genetic in that saying attributed to Churchill that “all men with hearts are communists at twenty and all men with brains are conservative at thirty”.  But you know what? It didn’t happen to  me.  It didn’t happen because reality is on the side of the left; that selling out to corporate interests is a series of denials and delusions that there is something more natural about a “free” market, that it’s “God’s way”.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the falsehoods in Ayn Rand.

Darrell has apparently decided that in order to be take seriously, to be seen as a “real” premier of Nova Scotia he has to throw money hand over fist toward failed business ventures that will benefit no one but the immediate owners and those directly involved in the construction of bone-white elephants. Put that way, in light of this province’s history of electing idiot after fool after criminal, he’s likely right.

But sadly he’s not right in any way that I want to be part of. I’ll figure out who I’ll vote for next time at some point, but from this point forward, I’m no longer a member of the NDP.

politics, United States

The American Scene

It’s been a while, so I’ll ease myself back into the blogging chair with something general. Lord ™ knows, there’s material aplenty.

It’s been a year and a half since Barack Obama took office; a year and a half since hope for the birth of a new sanity in American politics was kindled in my heart. Well, as our Snow Barbie is wont to say, “How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?”

Yes, I’ll admit it, I was naive enough to dare hope that Obama’s intelligence, native ability, and vision were going to birth a new era.  I was in error – American politics when played “for real” is at best a crab-bucket and worst a pig-shit wrestling match. Native ability is worth nothing when you’re greased and rolling.

I was an idiot.

I was an idiot because I believed that the American people had collectively risen above issues of race and had chosen a superior candidate to lead them into a new day.  I was an idiot because on election night, 2008, I ignored the misgivings I felt when only 53% of the voting public actually voted for Obama over that pair of drooling idiots the Republicans put forward. Even then I said to myself, “Self, why on earth should this election have been this close?”

I was an idiot to believe that the Tight White Right would just sit there and let this smart, handsome, black man just stand there and preside over them. Furthermore, I was an idiot to think that the Republicans wouldn’t attempt to risk and destroy anything and everything in order to deny their opponents even the slightest accomplishment.

Welcome to the pig shit.

Here is the level of political discourse in the United States:

  • Barack Obama is not a Christian
  • Barack Obama is a Muslim
  • Barack Obama is not American
  • Barack Obama is a socialist
  • Muslims can’t build a mosque anywhere
  • Anchor babies. Yes, anchor babies. Fuck.

And what of the political scene?

  • Americans are still afraid of their shadows
  • Fear is still the chosen tool of the Right and is winning the battle against reasoned argument in public discourse. Go figure.
  • Democrats, nominally the Left in the US,  continue to buy into the notion that their views are somehow childish and in order to appear “all growed up” they have to face the “reality” as proposed by Wall St. lobbyists.
  • Democrats are going to get rolled in the fall, will lose the Congress and beginning a cycle of  investigations and recriminations that will make it look like Ken Starr was giving Bill Clinton a warm stone massage.

Sigh.

culture, economics, justice, law, media, politics, Things We Should Know

G20, Canadians 0

I have been following, probably to a lesser degree than I might have, the protests surrounding the G20 summit in Toronto. What I find interesting is that the summit itself has been eclipsed by the violent clashes occurring outside the security perimeter – perfectly natural, after all, violence has always provided better ‘copy’ than negotiation and discussion. In that sense, the protesters have accomplished one mission: their messages are being covered, if only in a primarily negative fashion and only as a peripeheral story to their methods of propagating the message.

For what it’s worth, I wish to offer a few observations:

It is important for the general public to remember that all of the protesters are not violent, and all of those acting violently are not legitimate members of social activist groups – it is said by some that there is a cadre of ‘professional protesters’ who travel from event to event to cause disruption. I would certainly not want to see everyone painted with the same broad brush as ‘violent’ or ‘irresponsible’. Nor, as it happens, do I particularly like having all police portrayed as ‘jack-booted thugs’ or provocateurs. There is reportedly evidence that some covert provocation by undercover police has occurred in the past, however, in the age of YouTube and the ‘citizen journalist’, such actions are a clear liability. The police are paid to maintain order, and I have no doubt that they arrived on the front lines with the ideal of doing this job – that being said, police, first and foremost, are human beings, and human beings make mistakes; they lash out when attacked, due to fear (they are greatly outnumbered by shouting, angry protestors), or out of an over-developed sense of duty. The violent members of the police services, as with the protestors, are vastly outnumbered by those who do their jobs well, and with integrity. Remember that just because the violent individuals on both sides get the most attention, that does not make them representative of the whole.

Speaking of representation, I was interested and curious after reading some stories on the CBC as to whether or not many of the individuals, violent and otherwise, among the protesters are politically active in other ways, such as voting. A quick search revealed this study, which indicates that surveyed individuals in the 15 to 21 and 22 to 24 year-old age groups are the most active in “non-voting political behavior”, and the least active in actually voting (even allowing, of course, for the fact that the voting age is 18). While understanding that younger adults are cynical and disillusioned with the political process, I think we have done a poor job in educating younger people about the importance of voting – it is the acceptable democratic method of social change, as opposed to the proposed ‘violent revolution’. We already have the means to enact social change and ensure that the individuals who represent us truly have our best interests at heart – the organized, purposeful, collective casting of ballots. Demanding social change while declining to participate in any meaningful way in the process available seems dishonest, in my opinion. Call me naive if you must, but I’m an optimist – I believe if we truly want social change, if we want to replace the current regime, it is within out power collectively as Canadians to create the change – ‘be’ the change, in other words. Revolution worked in Russia in 1917, but is unlikely to have any meaningful effect beyond the disruption of the lives and livelihoods of individuals not even concerned with the protests – the small businessmen and so on. If you want justice, you have to be a full participant in the creation of the just society, become one of its builders, and not focus on the violent destruction of the old regime. Each of us, every day, in any given moment, create and maintain justice within society according to our moral codes – let that creation dominate through the political process rather than abetting wanton destruction.

Beyond (and inextricably bound within) the political is the personal – how we act, what we do, whom we choose to help or hurt. Concern for our fellow citizens – the expression of justice, of tolerance and of lending assistance where possible – is the basis of democracy, particularly a democracy such as ours which is based on a pretty good (but not perfect) social safety net. Behind this altruism, however, is the single most important unit of society, the individual, who maintains (or breaks) the social covenant as she sees fit on a constant basis through interactions with others – society is not imposed from the top down, but is built and maintained, moment by moment, by the individuals, the ‘bricks’ that are its component parts. Humanity, however, is descended from animals (no matter what creationists may tell you), and the proof of this ascent lies in our behavior, in the actions between thoughts, in our instincts. One of the more fascinating parts of Social Psychology lies in the realm of Collective Behavior, as discussed with great clarity over the years by writers such as Eric Hoffer in The True Believer, and by Erich Goode in the excellent textbook Collective Behavior (who knew?). Human social interaction is by nature complex, but the behavior of crowds as they become mobs has been examined in great detail, and is, to some degree, predictable. The social dynamics of the crowd-to-mob transition rely on  particular elements to unfold: first, the ‘power’ granted to the individual by the collective – to put it another way, as individuals, we can be known quantities; as part of a collective, we are anonymous, and therefore more free to express ourselves physically and emotionally – witness on a small scale the strident nature of the anonymous message boards on the Internet, and keep in mind that each of these is a building block of a collective expression of order or disorder. Second, observation of crowds has proven the importance of leadership – one or more individuals, usually a small number, who define the ‘agenda’ for the collective. How they act sets the tone for the dynamics that follow. If, for example, the natural leaders from whom the collective takes their cues are peaceful by nature, the dynamic will remain a peaceful one – which is why all crowds, at concerts and sporting events, do not become mobs. On the other hand, if the leaders, being more expressive or lacking impulse control, are more violent or begin to destroy property, then the crowd’s transformation to a mob is virtually assured – in many cases, all it takes is one act of violence to transform the collective, empowered by the anonymity of numbers, into the anarchist army. Third, there must be that act – the violent action, the thrown brick or punch, that acts as the ‘tipping point’ in the collective mood, and unless the emotional impact of this act is diffused immediately, the transition is inevitable. It is for these reasons, despite complaints of excess on the part of police and security services, that motivates the array of precautions in Toronto. The police understand the potentially negative consequences of collective behavior, even if we or the protestors do not.

Finally, as time goes on, the patient observer will take note of the escalating rhetoric on the Internet, again motivated by anonymity and the protection it provides. The attacks will become more personal and the rhetoric more heated, until the faceless and inherently evil ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ Other becomes unworthy of respect or calm dialogue – in fact, as individuals, they are to be torn down and destroyed as effectively as are physical structures. Although not a physically ‘present’ collective, the concept of the tipping point still applies – the first one to ‘flame’ the opposition sets the tone for what follows, despite the efforts of some individuals to foster a more civil dialogue. The Other, meanwhile, becomes dehumanized, and the attacks become personal, until the level of vehemence approaches a point which would never be reached in a face-to-face confrontation on the same subject.

I make these observations with a goal in mind – not to bore you, as may well be the case, but hopefully to point out the imperfections of both sides in this ‘struggle’. I don’t pretend to be an expert in capitalism or colonialism, so I have deliberately left these issues out of the equation; ultimately, these are but ideologies which require human agency to exist.

And that’s the point, really – despite the perception of the monolith labeled ‘SOCIETY’ that we percieve, we, individuals, citizens, police and protesters, are society writ small. And, frankly, it is a little humbling, despite the accelerated growth of technology,  just how fragile our collective is, under the right conditions. In the building of a society, we are all keystones.

Note: Edited to reflect a quite accurate comment that I had stated an opinion as fact.

health care, politics, Republicans, United States

Nice umm, “system” you’ve got there…

A breast-feeding baby in Colorado has been denied health insurance at four months of age because he’s heavy. According to the article, insurance companies deny health insurance on grounds of obesity for any baby above the 95th percentile in weight. Read another way, one in twenty babies are denied health insurance, regardless of their state of health.

Given that obesity in the entire population looks like this:

map24we can confirm that the fear-mongering that goes for “debate” over health care reform is simply lizard-brained ideology trumping facts, common sense, and even self-interest.

No surprise, of course, but confirmation nonetheless.

The comparison with this is rather striking, no?

statemapredbluer512h/t for the link to the original Denver Post article.

Barack Obama, Conservatives, culture, Democrats, entertainment, Google, Liberal, media, Past indiscretions biting you in the ass, politics, religious right, Republicans, Things We Should Know, United States, us versus them

Politics, Society and Technology: the Perils of Entitlement

As I was cruising the intertubes this morning, waiting patiently for the NFL to kick off, I came across a blog entry on Huffington Post by Jeffrey Feldman, entitled “The Outrage Pandemic“. It describes the rising tide of outrage from both the Right and the Left in regard to President Barack Obama, particularly now that he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This got me to thinking about a few seemingly random things, which may not be so random.

We live now in an age where everything is instant – gratification of the need for attention, for knowledge and for fame is mere moments away for most people. Blogs for example are, or rather were, unique venues for the everyday individual who once was one of the faceless masses to be fed information to provide tasty opinionated snacks to the world (I am as guilty as anyone of checking the blog stats to see if anyone is reading what I have written, and how the ‘Kog is doing in general – I respect and admire my co-authors, and I’m glad I was invited to participate in this grand experiment). Add YouTube videos and Wikipedia to the mix, and we have unprecedented access to instant gratification, in the form of information, entertainment, or infotainment, from almost everywhere in the world.

What is problematic in the access to ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ we all enjoy is the atomization of social life – when everyone can write their own newspaper, or make their own movies, or, more tellingly, limit themselves to reading the ‘news’ from the viewpoint they prefer, shared experience becomes less… shared. The common experience of having access to a limited number of media that still existed until about 15 years ago has been lost, replaced by the ability to create a world that reflects you, and to search for others who share your views, no matter how extreme.

Add to the atomization phenomenon the usual action and interaction associated with anonymous communication, and the landscape becomes considerably more volatile. It has been said, quite rightly, that you can be literally anyone online – it’s why I don’t bother with chatrooms. The sneaking suspicion that the 18-year-old nymphet at the other end of an intertube is actually a hairy, naked trucker in a cheap hotel ruins the whole experience for me. Sometimes it is possible to know, or suspect, too much. But, that’s not the important aspect I am talking about (whew). The translation of thought into text without much usable context (the emoticon is useful, if annoying, but not foolproof) leads to misunderstanding, and the usual human interaction to perceived disagreement or outright verbal or textual attack is an emotional one, completely out of proportion with any reaction to a similar real-world situation. To borrow from theories of collective behavior, a group of individuals becomes a mob because of the combination of:

  1. A reasonably large group of people (critical mass, if you will)
  2. A precipitating or ‘trigger’ event
  3. An individual who recognizes the protection of numbers, and escalates his behavior to violence
  4. A cascade effect in which others in the collective follow the extreme behavior, losing shared or ‘normal’ morality in the crowd, as it were.

Now, imagine the same idea, translated to a single individual, who wears his cloak of anonymity granted not by a crowd, but a keyboard. There are no immediate repercussions to negative actions, at least no physical threat of incarceration or personal injury, so actions and reactions can become routinely larger than life – the internet age has created a uniquely bipolar citizen. In essence, we become our own individualized mob. How’s that for a contradiction?

To cast back a bit for the next thread in the narrative, let’s take a look at the 1970’s – not too closely, or we’ll be blinded by hairspray and huge collars. The ’70s have been referred to as the ‘me decade’ – the sexual revolution resulted in a revolutionary sense of permissiveness, and an indulgence of hedonism that has been unequaled since – thanks primarily to the negative impacts of recreational drugs and sexually transmitted disease. The ’80s were the ‘greed is good’ decade, which led to more self-indulgence, not to mention teased hair and fluorescent colours. Gratification of the need for entertainment, in particular, became more the order of the day as cable television networks grew. The most important, and potentially most negative aspect of this development is the launch of CNN in 1980. News became entertainment, the personal continued to be political, and every small development in the evolution of social life was placed under a microscope. Access to this unending stream of information, rather than being a boon to society, meant that people were getting used to having all the information they needed, all the time – there arguably never was a better time to be politically active, as information was becoming more readily available, but was still limited, to a degree. The ‘me decade’ morphed into ‘me too decade’.

The commercialization of the internet in the mid-1990s enhanced the public’s access to information – which had its’ downside in the fact that not all sources are reliable – in fact, I would venture to say that 90% of the information available on the ‘net is opinion rather than objective fact. It became too easy to find others seeking information, or willing to share information in such a way as to make it more palatable to certain tastes. The ability of bloggers to vilify politicians or other public figures because of the emotional volitility of anonymity, and the ability of readers to limit their interactions to like-minded individuals has led to the evolution of the know-nothing know-it-all, and the growth of the political rabble-rousing we see constantly around us, particularly in relation to American politics.

So, we have passed the ‘me decade’ and the ‘me too’ decade, and entered, around the turn of the century, the ‘me too, right now decade’. The failure of anyone to live up to our comfortable vision of society, cultured online, of nodding heads and reinforcement of emotionally comfortable and fiercely defended beliefs leads to the inevitable volatility of reaction. What we have is a generation of people who have grown up online, in which very few vote but almost all pontificate on the slightest outrage committeed by those who do not respect the boundaries of our own little undiscovered countries.

This is not limited to the political Right – we see now the political Left dogging the footsteps of a President with intelligence and wisdom, but who is unable, as is any human or organization, to fulfil the immediate wants and needs of everyone, all at once. Therefore, the rhetoric becomes more vehement, the outrage more emotional – those who do not agree or who do not cater to our beliefs are instantly the ‘enemy’, the ‘other’, the traitor who consorts with terrorists because they diagree with your vision of America – which in reality is limited to the boundaries of your home office or your parents’ basement. There is no longer an ‘America’ for people to be proud of, but several million Americas on every street, and sometimes more than one in every home.

Sometimes the citizens of these atomized Americas come together and share their outrage, but the emotional reaction, unmuted by people who may disagree, continues to build until the individual begets the crowd, which begets the mob. We are not, and are unable to, translate the interactive processes that are built by personal contact and childhood interaction to the internet – rather, the interactive rituals and emotional responses of the internet are being translated to real life, with dire consequences. Disagreement becomes hatred, disappointment becomes betrayal, caution becomes intolerable delay. The lure of the emotional and the instant is too strong.

President Obama has had the misfortune of becoming the leader of the free world at a time when personal interaction has degraded to black and white – the ‘for us or against us’ mentality was not limited to the inside of President Bush’s head. If Obama fulfils his promise of hope and progess, he will earn the hatred of those who benefit from the status quo, either emotionally or financially. If he fails, he will be vilified by those who feel that change is the only way to make the world better – in every way, both politically and personally. If he even achieves half of his lofty goals, he will still make enemies of people on both sides.

As has become obvious from some of my prior posts, I have high hopes for Barack Obama – I think he represents a change long overdue in American politics, as well as in global relations. My fear is that the Lyndon Johnson-esque Great Society that he envisions will be sabotaged by the millions of ‘better’ societies that live in the emotional cores of those on both sides, and that people will guard their personal borders against unwanted information or action to such a degree that co-operation in moving forward will be impossible. Those that are most highly motivated to speak are inevitably the loudest and most dogmatic on both sides, and the voices of entitlement, the shouts of the ‘me too, right now’ generation may drown out the reasoned, intelligent dialogue he offers.

The telegraph linked us on a very basic level. The telephone enabled contact with one another. Television and radio showed us, through pictures and words, the world outside our windows. Now, the internet, the great boon to mankind, has enabled us to examine, to know, and to experience, the inside of our own heads.  Will it rule us, and decide our future for us, or will we reclaim ourselves, our knowledge, and our bonds to each other? Who knows.

Make no mistake, however, the future may depend on our mastery of our tools, and of ourselves.