Friday, February 1, 2013

"I'm Intervening!"

The environment exceeding on the level of our unconsciousness
For example, what does the billboard say?
"Come and play, come and play
Forget about the movement"
Your anger is a gift.

- Rage Against the Machine, "Freedom," Rage Against the Machine (Epic, 1992).*

Outrage, I believe, is also a drug.

So says Nathaniel Givens over at Difficult Run. This is in relation to his multiple posts on epistemic humility at Times & Seasons, in which he does a fabulous job of introducing behavioral economics as a framework for understanding our approach to truth. Nathaniel's thoughts are well-articulated and unique and deserve to be read in full. In fact, readers may recognize similar themes in my very first post. Humility breeds innovation and progress (whether spiritual, economic, social, etc.). Prideful polarization, to say the least, does not. And given the way we cognitively develop beliefs (biases and all), we could all do with a little humility.[1] But humility goes far beyond "tolerance" or "open-mindedness" (two concepts I am personally not fond of due to their constant misuse and corruption). Some of the most "tolerant" and "open-minded" individuals are far from humble. They take great pride in being tolerant and open-minded toward View X,  while, ironically, being very intolerant (downright hostile) and closed off to View Y. This unfortunately crosses all religious, social, and political spectrums. And it stifles the development of what Steven Johnson calls "the slow hunch" (notice the blog title).

Nathaniel points to research that shows "people are willing to pay for non-instrumental information that will increase their probability of being right without actually influencing their decision." In other words, "we seek to feel certain rather than to be correct." Plenty of psychological research demonstrates this to be the case. People develop beliefs based largely on presupposed values rather than any sense of objectivity. More often than not we suffer from the "backfire effect" when introduced to evidence that contradicts our beliefs. What this artificial certainty leads to is what Nathaniel calls "a perpetual feedback loop of outrage."

And the extremists love it.

Being high on pride is an enjoyable experience. An analysis by social scientist Arthur C. Brooks found that political extremists tend to be some of the happiest people in America.[2] Ideologues "believe with perfect certainty in the correctness of their political dogmas. People want to hold the truth; questioning is uncomfortable." What's worse, extremists intend to upset people: both those who agree with their view (in order to rally them) and those who disagree (simply to piss them off). Political opposites in their mind "are not just mistaken, but bad people, who are also stupid and selfish." On public surveys, extreme liberals and conservatives rated their opposites with a feeling thermometer reading of 20 and below (50 being neutral). This may not be surprising until you realize that the average American gave the likes of Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Cuba, and Iran higher ratings. One-fifth of extreme liberals went as far as to give conservatives a score of zero. "In 2002, even Saddam Hussein received an average score of 8 from Americans across the political spectrum."

You mad yet? Good.

These extremists (both conservative and liberal) also have a self-inflated opinion of their compassion toward others according to the collected data. Yet, they fall below moderates in categories such as being willing to "endure all things for the one I love" or small acts of honesty (e.g. returning change mistakenly given by a cashier). As Nate Oman noted elsewhere on T&S, "[O]ften the passionate hatred of injustice is simply a manifestation of a talent for passionate hatred." It is easy to be outraged. Actually doing something useful takes a bit more work. In many ways, it is similar to the mentality of "raising awareness," which earned the #18 spot on the list "Stuff White People Like":

An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.” Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it.

This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges. Because, the only challenge of raising awareness is people not being aware. In a worst case scenario, if you fail someone doesn’t know about the problem. End of story.

What makes this even more appealing for white people is that you can raise “awareness” through expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and bracelets. In other words, white people just have to keep doing stuff they like, EXCEPT now they can feel better about making a difference.

Raising awareness is also awesome because once you raise awareness to an acceptable, aribtrary level, you can just back off and say “Bam! did my part. Now it’s your turn. Fix it.”

So to summarize – you get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction, telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?). Once again, white people find a way to score that sweet double victory.

Just like Live 8’s Bob Geldof said, "Something must be done, even if it doesn't work." True morality apparently means being outraged and then making others aware you're outraged via Facebook. In essence, the moral high road takes Mr. Incredible's approach to intervention.

*Despite their outrage, I like Rage Against the Machine. I own Rage Against the Machine, Evil Empire, and The Battle of Los Angeles, not to mention every Audioslave album. Even though Tom Morello may chastise me (as he did Paul Ryan) for not "understanding" his music because I do not ascribe to his leftist extremism, I nonetheless think their brand of funk-driven rap metal rocks.

1. To accompany Nathaniel's posts, see Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies--How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (New York: Times Books, 2011); Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011); Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Revised and Expanded Version (New York: HarperCollins, 2009); Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012); David Tayman, "Of Prophets, Elephants, Truth and Charity," Worlds Without End (Jan. 24, 2013).

2. Arthur C. Brooks, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America--and How We Can Get More of It (New York: Basic Books, 2008), Kindle edition. All quotes and information from Ch. 1: "The Politics of Happiness."

3. The New Republic explains the list quite well: ""Stuff White People Like" isn’t about white people in general, but rather about a very specific demographic sliver of left-leaning, city-dwelling white folk...These people have previously been trapped and tagged alternately as yuppies, or Bobos, or...grups. Basically, they embody the uneasy marriage of urban affluence and liberal (and/or progressive, and/or alternative, and/or “indie”) ideals. For example, there are plenty of white people in America who fairly obviously don’t like (#15) yoga or (#46) The Sunday New York Times or (#28) not having a TV."


  1. I overheard a conversation in the USA about three years ago. "Sure, China might have a bit of a problem with human rights, but boy do they have their budget and bureaucratic expenditure under control!"