Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Boys and frogs

Bion of Borysthenes sounds like a character from Game of Thrones but is actually the philosopher Plutarch quotes as saying that, "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs die not in sport but in earnest."

The thing that has struck me about Trump's victory in the election is that no one seems to be very happy that he has won. Many of the students I teach will have voted for him, and I have some very vocal Facebook friends (former students) who are clearly delighted. But, as far as I can see, they are delighted that Hillary Clinton (and "the liberals" and "the SJWs") lost, not that Trump won. There is happy talk of building a wall, but it isn't serious. This unseriousness is interesting, I suspect, if we want to understand part of Trump's appeal. It's as if a yoke has been removed and its removal is being celebrated. That is (and here I'm both speculating pretty wildly and talking only about a very small and quite possibly unrepresentative data set), what they seem to want is not to keep Mexicans out of the country or to build a wall so much as to be allowed to talk about wanting to build a wall. Shouting "Build a wall!" makes them laugh. Some of them might actually support the building of such a wall, but I suspect that this too would be, at least in part, because they would find it funny to insult Mexico in this way. 

A seemingly related phenomenon is something I've noticed on Facebook for a while now, the 'funny' video of mishaps and stupidity that just happens to be dominated by African Americans suffering accidents or appearing foolish. These seem to be liked and shared out of a genuine sense that they are funny, and perhaps they are funny, but they obviously lend themselves to a racist agenda, and if you've learned to be sensitive to racism (through personal experience or education) then they aren't going to be comfortable viewing. I don't know whether these compilations are made with a racist purpose in mind, but I am sure that many people who watch them would be both offended and surprised if they were accused of racism for watching them. If there is racism there it is in being insufficiently sensitive to matters of race (not animus but merely the absence of caring) or in having some less passive racist attitude that is deep enough below full consciousness to cause laughter when it is satisfied. Like laughing at a dirty joke without really understanding why you are laughing.    

There is certainly insensitivity in all this (both laughing about building a wall and laughing at videos of black people falling over, etc.) and probably prejudice too. But it would take work to show that there is racial hostility there. So, for one thing, calling people who go in for this kind of thing racist is going to be a debatable move and, for another, demonstrating that it is a fair judgment will take some work. The accused don't want to have to do this work. Nor, of course, do they want to be accused of anything. Anti-racists are likely to seem much more like killjoys than loving moral improvers to them. Complaints about liberals and political correctness are often fueled partly, I suspect, by a desire to be less serious, which combines (1) a lazy reluctance to do the hard work of searching one's soul and thinking about the meaning of one's words and deeds with (2) a desire not to be accused, let alone convicted, of any wrongdoing. There is, or at least seems to be, a seriousness on the left that is not there, or not nearly as there, on the right. (This seriousness is not always a wholly good thing: it can veer off into self-righteousness or into obsession with things that don't really matter, but it is a hallmark of the left.)

The aspect of the unseriousness of the right that has immediately struck me is a sometimes wild, sometimes sneering, but always bullying humor. (Bullying because it is about disadvantaged people and because it is often aimed at people who are, at least temporarily, weak, E.g. people who cry over Trump's victory or hate crimes committed in Trump's name are likely to be mocked by Trump supporters.) But probably a more important aspect of it is the rejection of reality. News reports about bad things Trump supporters have done are simply rejected as untrue, while, of course, similar reports about bad things done by anti-Trump demonstrators are believed and exaggerated. Expertise itself is rejected as irrelevant. There is no truth, only interpretation. And there is passionate commitment to a certain frame of reference.

What is to be done? Of course I don't know, but it's tempting to attempt an analysis as a starting point. Two things stand out to me. The first is this unseriousness issue. I think many of us tend to think as if everyone is part of the reality-based community. Probably everyone is part of this community. But not as much as you might think. Not every Trump voter is motivated by things I can understand even if I don't agree with them, like a principled opposition to abortion or belief in certain principles of economics or the proper role of government. Some don't think in those terms at all. They don't really think at all. No doubt there are people on the other side like this too. I'm talking about tendencies, and I think there is (fairly uncontroversially) more of a pointy-head and bleeding heart tendency on the left and a blunt-head, cold heart tendency on the right. The blunt-headed response to inconvenient facts is to deny and ignore. The cold-hearted response to the suffering of others is denial and mockery. And this is what we see. Not from all Republicans, of course, but to a surprising degree. (Having a cold heart does not rule out laughter or emotion. But I suspect these emotions are likely to be of a particular kind. Sentimentality will loom large, for instance.)

I have drifted away from my point, which is less about head shape or heart temperature and more about sobriety or maturity, contact with and interest in reality. The Trump supporters I am talking about--not the ones who held their noses while voting for him but the ones who voted with a smirk--are like drunk people. Drunk people who have become attached to a joke and keep telling it and laughing no matter what. There is no point in wondering what policies might have appealed to them more. Perhaps we can ask how and why they got so drunk. But also people just aren't all that rational. When you find yourself asking "What were they thinking?" the answer is usually that they weren't thinking at all.

Which brings me to the second thing I was going to mention. Could better education or better media make people think more, be more serious, care about reality rather than their preferred fantasy-filled bubble? I hope so. At the very least it might make some people more ashamed of not doing so. One way to see the problem with the media is that there is so much of it, so many sources to choose from. This is defended in two ways:
  1. Free speech: what are you going to do?
  2. The market will sort the good from the bad: don't worry
But of course the market doesn't support truth. The market is for bread and circuses. So we get very little real news and lots of infotainment. We also get the idea that truth is a quaint myth, that everyone is biased, and therefore it's OK for me to be biased. Which encourages not only bias but tribalism. Not only do 'my truths' not have to track the truth or be sensitive to reality, but they are mine as opposed to yours. So our disagreement is not about the truth or about reality but about me versus you, us against them. People are probably always going to tend to think this way, but there is a relatively easy solution that might well be only partial but sufficient: improve funding for public news (e.g. PBS) and tighten regulations that have been relaxed on private news media (so that, e.g., Rupert Murdoch has less influence). This in itself would do something to restore faith in truth.

There is, I believe, a similar kind of relativism in education, though motivated by a desire to be tolerant and inclusive. Hardly anyone studies philosophy in school, but everyone studies English. And the field of English, along with many other fields, probably including Education itself, has become dominated by (a crude and muddled kind of) postmodernism. (Or, at least, I know people who teach English at several different colleges and most of them tend to be postmodern in what strikes me as a deeply problematic way.) At the college-level this means that quite a few courses are basically exercises in propaganda. (Not all are, certainly, and there is conservative propaganda as well as liberal propaganda, but I would be surprised if a degree in sociology, say, didn't include a big dose of propaganda. And this is one reason why the liberal arts are under attack from conservative politicians.) In public schools that's harder to get away with, but I do think the relativism part of postmodernism is probably taught to a lot of children. The very idea of a reasoned defense of something that is not mathematical or scientific seems to be almost unintelligible to a lot of my students. That is not relativism, but it's easy to conclude that every view is equally justified if they are all equally arbitrary. This is not good for public discourse. I have heard that postmodernism was replaced by new historicism, and that this too is now a thing of the past. So perhaps this is just an educational fashion that will go away. Let's hope so.

There is a pretty deep commitment to relativism, though, in both economics (let's maximize utility and--this is the relativist or quasi-relativist bit--define utility as preference-satisfaction because that doesn't involve moral judgment and is measurable) and large parts of the humanities and social sciences. Even if it goes away it might not be replaced by anything good. It's hard to see public education becoming anything other than a mill dominated by standardized tests, the "needs" of the economy, and doses of political propaganda injected into the curriculum by whoever is in power at the time (I mean state legislatures, not lefty teachers). This will be a shame, but not the end of the world.

I haven't really said what I meant to say. I'm sure I've left some things out, but I've also failed to hit the nail on the head, and probably will fail again if I try to sum up what I was going to say. But here's an attempt anyway. Both thoughts have to do with liberal democracy as an ideal from the Age of Reason. We, both Republicans and Democrats of a certain socio-economic class at least, tend to think about elections in terms of policies and rational arguments for and against them. But a big chunk of people just aren't, mostly, like that. To win their support or to represent them accurately you need to operate in a completely different way. Perhaps this point could be captured by talk about sound-bites or narrative, or perhaps with reference to different language-games, but I think it's more a question of mood or sobriety. Your mind has to be moved into a different gear. Whether that's a good thing to do is another matter, but I think it's a point that is repeatedly (learned and then) forgotten in politics. The frogs (and their would-be defenders) can't understand why they are being stoned, and the boys just laugh.

The other point, I suppose, is that liberal democracy might need Enlightenment ideals/values to function, and when those values/ideals die out, as they seem to be doing or to have done, on both the left and the right, then it is not clear that democracy as we know it can function. I don't think  the Enlightenment is completely dead yet. But the future looks very uncertain, and not in a good way.

As I say, though, I feel as though I have not really said what I wanted to say here. Rai Gaita does a much better job with some similar thoughts here. [h/t Reshef Agam-Segal]   


  1. ". . . what they seem to want is not to keep Mexicans out of the country or to build a wall so much as to be allowed to talk about wanting to build a wall."

    Yes, I think this goes a long way toward explaining why so many Trump supporters didn't seem to care about the substance or truth of what he said. His was an expressive campaign, consisting of saying things that excited people (more than most of us would have guessed, I suspect) but which his target audience never demanded be seen as serious proposals. In fact, he's already shifting about on the "build a wall" business, something he consistently claimed, whenever challenged, that he meant to do in reality ("we're gonna build a wall, a great wall and make it higher"), even though many people pointed out that walls weren't appropriate along much of the southern border, given the terrain, and that there were other means of securing the border. "Build a wall" was his (and his followers') code for "secure the border by whatever means necessary" so not building an actual wall would likely be no problem for him with supporters as long as he intensifies the nation's focus on, and introduces initiatives to, increase border security.

    Similarly, "make Mexico pay for it" had a more metaphorical than literal sense in his rhetoric and that's what his followers took it for (vs. those of us who found him appalling because we took him literally). It's simply inconceivable that Mexico would pay to build a wall strictly for U.S. interests but Trump noticed how that trope resonated and so he kept at it, yanking the appropriate strings on the campaign trail with such references. If he now proceeds to secure the border he can very likely get away with exacting only a kind of psychic payment from Mexico, however. So this was more Trumpian rhetoric.

    It's why he seems to lie with equanimity. Lying doesn't mean to him what it means many of us. For him rhetoric is about pulling the right levers in an audience, evoking the right sort of response -- in his case a kind of mass adulation, which he seems to crave and whose opposite prompts in him visceral anger, a lashing out at those who aren't "nice" to him. Those of us looking for meaning in his words were looking in the wrong place which, perhaps, explains our failure to be moved.

    For him semantics are always rooted in pragmatics. His words only "mean" what they do, what they can prompt in others' direct responses to him (cheers, shouts, votes) rather than in their mental lives (the thoughts and beliefs they have in response to his words).

    Trump seems to be a man focused not on reaching others' beliefs to change or influence them but on achieving particular kinds of externally observable responses, the sort which serve him either by leading to more revenue or, as in this case, more votes.

    Where belief is relatively unimportant, so too is truth, thus explaining the man's remarkable penchant for self-contradiction and statements at odds with known facts. To some of us we all have that tendency but in Trump it seems to be remarkably highly developed and the concern for conceptual validity seemingly atrophied. A neurological issue or merely an educational one?

    1. I don't know. His rhetoric is worrying, though, because it makes it so hard to know what you are going to get. (Well, and because it suggests we might get some very bad things.)

    2. His rhetoric IS worrying, as are his lack of fidelity to truth and his behavior. Late night tweeting is infantile, as is constantly hitting back at every perceived slight but basking in the praise of others (not to mention the adulation of crowds).

      Watching Trump at work in this election year has reminded me that language and rationality don't always go together, even if language is probably a pre-requisite for being rational. If meaning is about connecting words to thoughts, then ultimately even expressing meaning is a pragmatic activity because the point is to use words that prompt certain behaviors in others because the prompted behaviors are directly linked to the mental lives of our interlocutors, to the thoughts they have on hearing the words.

      We don't need to have the same associations, the same mental images to understand each other, but we have to have enough similarity to prompt mutually comprehensible behaviors. If that's true then a guy like Trump isn't so much diverging from rationality per se as he is out of balance with how most of us use words.

      Most of us, I think, care about what thoughts our words prompt in others, which is why truth matters to us. If I say X and someone hears it as X then presumably he or she will have a certain amount of shared thoughts, thoughts which relate to the world I see and am speaking about. If he or she doesn't, then my statement X won't be X to him or her and we get misunderstandings. But Trump seems to mainly care about what his interlocutors (audiences generally) do rather than what they think. He wants his words to prompt certain kinds of responses but doesn't concern himself with how close the underlying response-provoking thoughts match his.

      Such matches seem to carry no weight with him, at least when he is speaking in a public way. His words are entirely response oriented, manipulative. He seems to have little concern for what his listeners are actually thinking as long as they are doing what he wants.

      In a sense he lacks what might best be described as the normal balance which most of us have between using our words as action prompts and as thought prompts. The interior dimension of language use doesn't really seem to concern him. Not that he is unaware of the mental lives of his interlocutors but that his interest in it is only directed at the extent to which whatever thoughts they are experiencing on hearing his words leads to the actions he desires of them. He is treating them not as fellow subjects in one very important sense (and this makes this a moral question, I think) but as creatures on a different order than himself (Pavlovian creatures to be induced to certain actions by signaling rather than communicated with). Is this the source of Trumpian narcissism then?

  2. I think Trump has just showed us what was always at play in the electorate, to borrow a phrase we have never been modern, when the engineered systems/infrastructures of our daily doings begin to collapse than people can no longer unthinkingly depend on the institutionalized-thinking-of-experts (think of how little I have to understand in order to use my bank) and they fall back into their usual tribalistic folk-psychologies.

    1. Maybe so, although I think those tribalistic ways of thinking can be manipulated in various ways. They aren't simply given or inevitable.

    2. the content is of course contingent/man-made and can be manipulated but the styles (paranoid and such) not so much.

    3. http://homebrave.com/home-of-the-brave//the-greater-yellowstone-grizzly-part-three
      "nobody likes the pubic meetings"

    4. oops public, i blame trump...

    5. the content is of course contingent/man-made and can be manipulated but the styles (paranoid and such) not so much.

      Could well be. And I blame Trump too

  3. He is treating them not as fellow subjects in one very important sense (and this makes this a moral question, I think) but as creatures on a different order than himself (Pavlovian creatures to be induced to certain actions by signaling rather than communicated with).

    I agree. I just read David Egan's paper "Playing Well: Wittgenstein's Language-Games and the Ethics of Discourse", which has some interesting things to say about taking conversation seriously (and not doing so), especially around pp. 12-13.

    As for the source of Trumpian narcissism, I just don't know.

  4. Thanks. Will have a look. More and more it seems to me that the things we think and believe about the world hinge on a mode of "thinking about" that is fundamentally agential (not impersonally agential, but agential as subjects are) and that this way of thinking (and thus of acting) is only comprehensible through exploration of the dimensions and the role of subjectness itself.

    We too often see the world in merely physical terms, an array of objects, including the people before us, and so we forget entirely that it is subjects that distinguish our kind of world (a world in which we are always engaged with other intentional forms of life) and we are engaged like this just because we can and do recognize subjectness when we meet it in many of the "things" around us.

    But what does recognizing subjectness mean? Understanding what it means to recognize a subject carries, I think, profound implications, especially of a moral type, and it is there that we need to look if we want to understand how valuing things shapes our form of life, including those things we do which seem to be beyond ordinary explication along strictly scientific lines, such as our odd inclination to formulate and argue about moral beliefs and the behaviors that express them. (I find myself, of late, drawn back to Buber who was not a very rigorous or sophisticated philosopher and yet seems to have homed right in on the role of subjectness in our world, a role that is always about I's and "thou's" -- to use Buber's own idiosyncratic form of reference).

    1. I don't know Buber's work at all, but I'm sure it's worth studying.

    2. I think Buber's contribution rests on an insight about the dimension of subjectness within which we all exist but barely notice, the way we fail to notice the air we breathe until, perhaps, we are deprived of it or a fish fails to notice the water through which it swims. It's fundamental to its being and thus to every aspect of its experience and yet it's transparent to it precisely because it's so ubiquitous. Just as vision is transparent to to the viewer, awareness to the one who is aware, so being a subject (having the elements of subjectness, a mental life) goes unnoticed by subjects. Yet it is in that where we can find the impetus for valuing if we look and, more particularly and perhaps more interestingly, the source and basis for our moral claims. Buber never makes that point, or anything quite like it, but he noticed the significance of seeing subjectness in other things and what that means for our condition, our subjective way of being in the world. In some ways, it's easy to see why he is overlooked in mainstream, technical philosophy . . . and why he is admired in other quarters: foremost of these being the domain of thinking in which existentialists move.

  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLuglURnyIQ

    1. Yes, be careful of what you wish for and all that. Also, praying to Jupiter seems to be a bad idea.