Astroturf, Democracy, and Doublethink

Logically, it’s impossible to simultaneously believe in democracy and the notion of “astroturfing.” Democracy assumes free will and belief in the ability of individual citizens to act responsibly on their own behalf. Belief in “astroturfing” is based on the assumption that any organized opposition to one’s own point of view must either consist of evil political puppet masters or mind numbed robots who obey them thoughtlessly like so many Pavlov’s dogs. Belief in “astroturfing” logically excludes the belief that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” is legitimate or even desirable if extended to political opponents.

Similarly, it’s logically impossible to believe that all of one’s political opponents are morally bankrupt demons and simultaneously accept the principle, inherent in democracy, that opposition to one’s own opinion is legitimate. The two points of view are mutually exclusive.

Orwell was right again. Doublethink is real. We do live in a world where two plus two equals five. Our political landscape is crowded with those who actually simultaneously believe that all organized political opposition to their opinions is “astroturfing” on the one hand, and that they genuinely support “democracy” on the other. We also suffer from an overabundance of pious peacocks who strut about on the “moral high ground,” shouting down anathemas on the evil ones who don’t agree with them, and simultaneously honestly believe they are genuine supporters of “democracy.”

It’s encouraging to see that these “defenders of democracy” are not only playing into the hands of their political opponents, but making themselves ridiculous in the process.

The Amity-Enmity Complex: Does This Ring a Bell?

Every habitué of Internet forums and blogs should be very familiar with the kind of behavior Phil Bowermaster refers to in this comment left in response to a post on transhumanism at Accelerating Future:

But that’s not to say that technology has played no role in the recent evolution of political discourse. The rise of the blogosphere and sites like Daily Kos and Free Republic have established a new “accelerated” rhetorical framework for politics which now seems to be more or less universally applied. The basic assumption behind the framework is that there is Our Group and then there is the Other. Any ideas from the Other are subjected to a three-step analysis and response:

1. Hysteria / overreaction

2. Vilification

3. Condemnation

This process has worked great for the political blogs in drawing in huge masses of eager readers, mostly the same people who think they’re up to date on current events because they watch The Colbert Report or listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Does it ring a bell?

Consequences; Good and Evil, Part II – A World of Euthyphros

Euthyphro appears in one of the dialogs of Socrates as a man so cocksure he knew the difference between good and evil that he was prosecuting his own father for murder. Socrates, using his well known dialectic technique, revealed to both Euthyphro and his listeners that he really didn’t have a clue. It turned out he had no logical basis for his certainty in matters of morality. No one has really come any closer to providing one in the ensuing two and a half millennia, and yet, if the daily flood of moral denunciations and ostentatious public piety on the Internet are any indication, there are more Euthyphros about than ever before.

We flatter ourselves about our unique ability to reason, but it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. In fact, our intellects are blunt tools. Normally, we respond to our environments emotionally, like other animals. By “emotionally” I don’t mean “hysterically.” I merely mean we act according to innate predispositions and preconceived notions that have little if any connection with intelligent thought. We really have little choice in the matter. It’s the way we’re programmed to interact with others of our species. If we tried to apply logical thought to each such interaction, we would be as awkward as someone who tried to apply logical thought to each step in walking. Our perceptions of good and evil are part of this mental software, and we perceive them as absolutes, just as other animals do. Why? Because they work best that way, or at least they did at the time our morality evolved. There weren’t a whole lot of philosophers around in those days, and morality didn’t promote our survival as something relative we had to stop and carefully think about each time we applied it. It promoted our survival as an imperative, as an absolute. Today we still experience it as in imperative and an absolute, as something having a real, objective existence of its own outside of ourselves. In fact, it really doesn’t.

This wasn’t a problem 100,000 years ago. Today, it is potentially a big problem. We have experienced vast social changes in a time that is very short when measured on an evolutionary timescale. Our mental software has had no chance to evolve in response to the changes. It is no longer clear that the way in which we perceive good and evil and act according to those perceptions promotes our survival. In fact, in the context of our current societies, “moral” behavior may well be self-destructive. Assuming we decide survival is still a worthy goal, we can no longer afford to be as self-assured as Euthyphro.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that we are programmed to have a dual moral code. I have already mentioned it in earlier posts as the Amity – Enmity Complex. As Sir Arthur Keith put it,

The process which secures the evolution of an isolated group of humanity is a combination of two principles which at first sight seem incompatible – namely, cooperation with competition. So far as concerns the internal affairs of a local group, the warm emotional spirit of amity, sympathy, loyalty, and of mutual help prevails; but so far as concerns external affairs – its attitude towards surrounding groups – an opposite spirit is dominant: one of antagonism, of suspicion, distrust, contempt, or of open enmity.

Hate is as intrinsic to our moral universe as love. But the result of hate directed against “out-groups” containing tens or hundreds of millions of members armed with modern weapons is quite different than that of hate directed against a small neighboring clan armed with sticks and stones. If the “other” is another country, the result may be a general war in which tens of millions of citizens on either side who have been inoffensively living their lives are marshaled into armies to kill each other, or slaughtered by bombing raids on their cities, or overrun by the enemy and subjected to all the familiar horrors of war. If the “other” is another social class, the result may be the murder of 100 million “bourgeoisie,” and, as we have seen in the case of Russia and Cambodia, the annihilation of a large percentage of the most intelligent and productive citizens, effectively resulting in national decapitation. If the “other” is another ethnic group, the result may be a Holocaust. If the “other” is another religious sect, the results may be the indiscriminate slaughter and devastation of another Crusade or Jihad, not to mention the butchery of hundreds of thousands of “witches.”

Sometimes, shaken by all this devastation, we try to adjust our moral systems, creating new “evils” to combat the old ones. Irrational hatred of Jews becomes the evil of anti-Semitism. Irrational hatred of other races becomes the evil of racism. Irrational hatred of those who seem to be better off than ourselves becomes the evil of class warfare. Irrational hatred of other religious groups becomes the evil of bigotry. The creation of all these new “evils” as a way to combat irrational hatred of specific out-groups is like trying to behead the hydra. In the end, the hatred is natural. It will always seek an object, and, if one is put out of bounds, it will find a new one. We must stop treating symptoms. Instead, we need to grasp the nature of the disease itself. We must come to grips with the reality that it is our nature to hate as much as it is our nature to love. We must understand the fundamental behavioral traits which give rise to hate and control them, because hate no longer promotes our survival, it threatens it. In a world full of nuclear weapons the stakes are getting higher every day.

If you’re looking for corroborating data, visit some Internet forums. You won’t find many disinterested philosophers. Rather, you’ll find lots of people whose “points of view” are easily recognizable as corresponding to some familiar ideological dogma. They are all busily demonizing people who subscribe to dogmas different from their own, with posts and comments that commonly call the moral virtue of their opponents into question, even as they rush for the moral high ground themselves. Take a look at what any one of these specimens says about any given ideologically loaded topic, that is, any topic that happens to part of the ideological box they live in in one fashion or another, and you will find that you can predict with very high accuracy what their opinion will be on any other topic that happens also to be a part of that particular box. This does not bespeak independent, logical thought. Rather, it is characteristic of a species with a hard-wired predisposition to adopt a dual moral code, and which happens to be intelligent enough to distinguish in-groups and out-groups in terms of ideas as well as more mundane features such as facial features and smell.

If we want to survive, we will probably have to learn to do a better job of controlling these behavioral traits. It won’t be easy. One finds some of the most intelligent thinkers around, people who reject the existence of supernatural beings and who accept the hypothesis that morality is an evolved characteristic without a quibble, turning around and, virtually in the next breath, referring to morality as if it were a real, objective thing, universally applicable not only to themselves, but to others as well. Take, for example, Richard Dawkins. In chapter 6 of his recently published book, “The God Delusion,” he explicitly accepts the evolutionary roots of morality. In the very next chapter, he turns around and presents the moral Zeitgeist, a version of morality that changes with the times, but which Dawkins otherwise endows with all the characteristics of an objective moral code and an absolute legitimacy that transcends anything that could properly apply to the subjective trait he describes in the previous chapter. He treats religious believers with all the animosity normally reserved for an out-group, and, at least in my opinion, happens to suffer from a rather commonplace variant of European anti-Americanism. You can read the book and see if you detect the tell-tale symptoms yourself. If a man as brilliant as Dawkins can’t escape the moral treadmill, things don’t look too promising for the rest of us. Still, I suspect it would behoove us to continue groping for a solution.

What might that solution look like? The problem is extremely complex, and I have no infallible nostrums. However, the solution will certainly not take the form of amoral behavior, or failure to act consistently according to a fixed moral code. However, it will need to be a moral code that, while compatible with the kind of creature we are, will promote our survival, rather than our self-destruction. It will also need to be one for which even Euthyphro could provide a rational justification. We will consider what such a code might look like in a later post.

Ostentatious Piety in the Asylum

The blogosphere is a crazy place. Read posts and comments where you will, and you will find the online asylum is filled to bursting with people who are cocksure they know what is good and what is evil, and are quite convinced their standards apply to everyone else in the world. No matter whether they are leftists or rightists, infidels or true believers, they are all convinced they have a monopoly on the true morality. One typically finds them pointing out how people they happen not to agree with don’t quite measure up to their universal standard.

Now, certain as they are that they know the difference between good and evil (and assuming, of course, that human beings really are intelligent), one would think that they would be able to tell you, logically, and going back to first principles, why what they consider good is really good, and why what they consider evil is really evil. If so, one would be thinking wrong. Of all those currently strutting about on the moral high ground preening themselves on their superior virtue, you could probably count the number who could even make a convincing attempt with the fingers on one hand.

Good and evil have no objective existence, and yet our brains are hard wired to perceive them as not only real, but absolute. Even I, the philosopher king of this blog, perceive them that way. That would all be well and good if our situation were still the same as it was when morality evolved. It isn’t though. The world is now much more complex, and we are armed with nuclear weapons in place of sticks and stones. Second guessing mother nature is always a dubious proposition. Refusing to act as moral beings because we consider ourselves too clever and sophisticated for such atavistic nonsense is a strategy that is more than likely to blow up in our faces. Still, it would behoove us to occasionally step back and ask ourselves whether what we consider good and evil really promote our survival or not. These categories only exist in our minds because that’s what they did in the past. If they prompt us to act self-destructively in the new world we’ve inherited, perhaps its a sign we need to turn off the autopilot, and start relying on our reason.

The Case of Sarah Palin, or Why do the Heathen Rage, and the People Imagine a Vain Thing?

I’ve never been particularly impressed by Sarah Palin. She seems to me a rather commonplace person trying to react to very unnatural, unusual, and, of course, hostile circumstances. The reactions to her one can find at websites such as this, this, and this are irrational but very predictable and typical manifestations of amity-enmity behavior. Sarah Palin was the personification of an out-group for the liberal/progressive in-group from the moment she left the gate. They duly trooped to the boundaries of their intellectual territory and began shrieking at her like so many howler monkeys. The reaction in the “objective” mainstream media was remarkably slanted, even for this day and age. They were so intent on making sure the rest of us were aware she was the “bad guy” that they completely lost their bearings. One felt sorry for her in spite of ones self.

Well, we can expect more of the same until those for whom she has become the manifestation of evil are convinced that they are, after all, beating a dead horse. I rather suspect it will go on much longer than necessary, as good “bad guys” are hard to find.

Bunin, Nazhivin, and Ideological Demonization

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Ivan Bunin was a Russian man of letters who experienced the Russian revolution firsthand, and published his impressions in the book, “Cursed Days.” As the title would imply, he didn’t like what he saw. For example, he objected to a phenomenon we would, nowadays, refer to as ideological demonization. He describes it very accurately in connection with ad hominem attacks on one Nazhivin, a poet villified by the Bolsheviks and their hangers on in the midst of the Russian Civil War:

“Because of his book, though, Nazhivin is beginning to be persecuted in a malicious, coarse, and most obscene type of way.
“Why?
“For the simple reason that he dared to say things that violated the credo of the left.
“It would seem that one could simply say to Nazhivin: ‘In our view you have made a mistake because of this or that.’
“One could express himself even more strongly and say, ‘It is not good that you have said this or that.’ – if the person really deserves such a remark.
“But when reviewers begin mocking this outstanding Russian person and writer, when they start slandering him with all kinds of cliches, as leftists are often wont to do, …I …hardly the newest person in this literature…decisively protest their actions and hope that my views will be shared by many of my colleague writers.
“I repeat: One may or may not agree with Nazhivin. One may argue with him, refute him… but to rebuke him in an indecent way, to rush off in a frenzy and seek to silence a great Russian individual and writer – such actions are not ‘liberal,’ nor should they be tolerated or allowed.”

Sound familiar? It should. Ninety years later, the sort of ideological demonization Bunin refers to has not disappeared. Far from it! One can spend days hopping from blog to blog, website to website, “news” channel to “news” channel, and never encounter a serious argument against this or that political point of view that doesn’t amount to a melange of ad hominem attacks, snarky remarks, and name calling, accompanied by the striking of virtuous poses from the “moral high ground.”

This phenomenon has long been a trademark of the ideological left in the US, but is now increasingly affecting the right, so that mutual villification has become the rule. One rarely finds cool, detached, objective arguments on any ideologically loaded topic. Instead, one hears a recitation of the reasons ones opponent is a villain, accompanied by much moralistic preening. The truth suffers. How refreshing it would be to find, if only once in a great while, an attack on an opponent’s arguments rather than his or her character. What a pleasant surprise it would be to find some ideologically loaded topic discussed on its merits, without the implication that anyone holding an opposing point of view must not only be wrong, but necessarily suffer from some kind of a moral deficit as well.

The shallowness necessarily associated with this form of “debate” eventually becomes oppressive. One reflects that none of these furious zealots would be remotely capable of explaining, based on first principles, why one action is good and another evil, and recalls a remark once uttered by Nietzsche: “Virtuous indignation is a crutch for the intellectually crippled.”

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