Friday, November 17, 2017

The Weinstein Effect, and Its Limits

When Donald Trump said “You can do anything if you’re a star,” he defined the privilege of powerful white men in a way that was so clear that everyone got it. While there were academics who had been stumbling around this point for a while, a combination of bad writing, dubious claims, and the perception of political bias on their part prevented anyone from paying too much attention to them; yet another good reason that post-modern verbosity is to be avoided. But when the senile man-baby let it all hang out in the Access Hollywood tape, he stated the idea in terms so simple a child could understand it. And when a huge mass of white men gave him a resounding cheer, in the form of an electoral victory, we all realized that it wasn’t just a few bad apples. They outed themselves, and they deserve all the political correctness they’re going to get. And they’re going to get a lot of it. The sheer blinkered ineptitude of it all is hilarious.

So the trap was set, and though Harvey Weinstein was the first to step into it, he wasn’t the one who created it. This is not the Weinstein effect, but the Trump effect. Weinstein was just the perfect example of what the trap was set for; like Trump, he is a serial predator, a monster who exploits his power to take advantage of women, and indeed, anyone less powerful than himself. Trump himself should have been caught by the trap, but it really wasn’t complete until he was elected—that was the last straw. It hasn’t caught him…yet, but it has caught others, like Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. Cosby, of course, had already been caught—and he might be the worst of all.

It has also caught Louis C. K. and, just yesterday, Al Franken. This is where I start to have a doubt about this. It isn’t that they deserve special treatment, but their behaviour and situations are different from the others. This is in large part about the abuse of power, but what is different about C.K. and Franken is that it is not clear that they were aware that they had power, not in the same obvious way that any of the others did. C.K. had a successful career, but in the neurotic fashion of most comedians he may not have equated this with power. Trump, Weinstein, Moore, and Spacey were aware of their power and used it to threaten people’s reputations and livelihoods, and to silence them; anything rather than change. They followed up assaults with lies, threats and legal action. This is their character. This is evil without remorse, a level of viciousness which is not apparent in the case of C. K. or Franken. Of course, Louis C. K. repeated this behaviour. It’s a strange kink, and it was a pattern of gross stupidity. But I don’t yet see evidence of evil.

Franken’s crime is even weaker; the fact that he did these actions on stage and before a camera (and if you look at the picture, he’s not even touching her) indicates that he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. Predators know they’re doing something wrong, they just don’t care. That he did it once indicates that this was not a habit. A lot of comedy is improv, which is funny maybe a third of the time, offensive about half of the time, and stupid most of the time. It’s about turning off your filters and doing whatever comes into your head. The woman in question didn’t get this because she was a radio personality, not a comedian.

In other words, it’s a mistake. We do not condemn people for making mistakes, especially when they recognize them and are willing to make amends. Mistakes are how you learn, and to condemn them is to damn us all to ignorance. While we want to remove people from power who deliberately and repeatedly employ their power to abuse others, we do not want to live in a world where mistakes can ruin your life. If you think otherwise, be careful of what you wish for.

There is one last element in this: presentism, which is the practice of applying current standards to the past. The Trump/Weinstein effect is only a year old, but it has managed to usher in a whole new standard for relations between the sexes. This is progress, but progress comes at a price: the past, and many of the people in it, suddenly becomes a disappointment. It is the job of liberals to advance progress, but it is the job of conservatives to slow it down so everyone can catch up, and to stop the bad ideas of liberals. Our enthusiasm must be held in check. We have just had a major cultural advance, and it can be hard to get our bearings in these circumstances. The question is, did the person accused know that what they were doing was wrong when they did it, or is it wrong in retrospect?

It is not the job of conservatives to defend the obviously guilty. The predators on our list knew that what they were doing was wrong at the time, and so did everyone else. Someone at the mall Moore hung around said everyone knew what he was up to. He was hunting underage girls, which was illegal then as it is now. Trump and Weinstein paid hush money. Louis C. K. said he didn’t want to talk about it, but admitted it all when it came out. He seemed to think at the time that it was okay if he asked the women beforehand and didn't touch them. Franken was caught like a deer in the headlights, and denied nothing. Again, there is an essential difference here. The predators did things in the past that were wrong at the time. The others did things in the past that in retrospect, have only become wrong in the present.

We are walking a line here, and that line divides the space between propriety and puritanism. I first noticed this in university in the early 80’s, when I said that the politics of feminism at the time resembled nothing so much as the anti-sex league of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sex is a complicated and awkward business, and most people don’t know their way around it, especially the young. People are going to get signals wrong, be too aggressive or too passive, they’re going to get drunk, they’re going to make decisions they later regret. Mistakes will be made, and again, we do not condemn people for making mistakes. The accused must always be innocent until proven guilty, and if there is only one witness for the prosecution, the integrity of that witness is of primary concern. No one can ever be granted to power to ruin another with mere words. 

Mistakes will be made, and they must be forgiven. Young men must learn how to avoid these mistakes, but young women must also learn to navigate the terrain and take these mistakes less personally. Deliberate malfeasance, however, must be met with steel, and clarifying the roles of men and women will make the lines more obvious. This won’t be done in a day—or a year, as we have recently tried—but it can be done.

Update: Well, things move fast. It seems that Louis CK did take deliberate steps to suppress the story, including threats, so he gets what he gets. Franken now faces multiple accusations, including from someone who worked for him as a Senator. This seems unbelievably stupid for someone in politics, but hey, look at the rest of the politicians.

Further Update: And then there's this. I'm still not convinced that Franken should have stepped down.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Special Snowflakes

Kelly McParland at the National Post is quite upset that the new Governor General disagreed with some people’s deeply held opinions. Never mind that the opinions are nonsense and that mocking these beliefs is entirely appropriate. No, you can’t do this, because it hurts their feelings, and you must never hurt anyone’s feelings, even with the truth.

The irony lost on the right is that this appeal to sentiment is the chief defence of political correctness. Indeed, it is often the only defence. In the victimhood culture found in certain bastions of the academic fringe, the primary argument seems to be that certain ideas are offensive, insensitive, and even traumatic triggers. It does not matter whether those ideas are true, and that is what makes the position so hard to refute; evidence and reason no longer count. It is a post-truth argument.

But it is also what philosopher Stephen Law calls the nuclear option, because it destroys everything on the field, including the person making it. Once you take a post-truth position, there is nothing left to argue—indeed, argument itself becomes pointless. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien begins by undermining Winston Smith’s moral position, but O’Brien’s main attack is to make the party the final arbiter of reality. Earlier in the novel Smith had written in his diary "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.” Objective reality is the foundation of independent thought. So O’Brien tortures Smith until he is willing to accept that two plus two equals five. Once he has broken Smith’s belief in independent truth, he is able to remould him to believe whatever the party wants. The Khmer Rouge put this in action in the real world: see the movie First they Killed my Father on Netflix.

Without truth, the future is, in O’Brien’s words, “a boot stamping on a human face forever.” There is no argument, no discussion, because all that becomes pointless. There is only the Triumph of the Will, brute force, because words don’t mean anything anymore. This could be Nazi thugs beating up on Jews, or Antifa thugs beating up people they disagree with (who are not always Nazis, but Antifa considers themselves to be judge and jury as well as executioner—as anarchists, they do not believe in the state monopoly of violence.) It could also be campus protesters who scream at students and professors for some nebulous offence, and will not even hear what they have to say, because what they have to say is no longer important. Or it could be internet trolls who threaten people based on some rumour; and of course, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true—it only matters that they don’t like the person.

But if there is no truth, there is also no good. Moral relativism is an inevitable consequence of epistemological relativism, and outright nihilism is a necessary result of a world without truth. Russian policy and propaganda under Putin reflects this belief. There is no truth, only conflicting narratives. There is no good, only competing interests. Everyone lies, everyone is dirty, and there is no standard by which anyone can be judged. 

This is an ideal state of affairs for a criminal state, because it encourages apathy and cynicism. But it is not in any way compatible with Western traditional values, which are founded upon the principles of objective truth and moral realism. Putin knows this and sells this to Russians as a sign of his strength and independence, but for people on the right to accept this deepens the irony of their position to outright doublethink.

To be a conservative is to conserve, but if you aren’t protecting these core traditions, you aren’t conserving anything. This is one of the reasons I believe actual conservatives are almost extinct, and the right is now populated by radical nihilists. 

The right also likes to pose as the defenders of the West, but the attack on objectivity and moral realism from within our culture is a far greater threat than anything we face from the Muslim world. Indeed, our entire response to 9/11 has been wrong. It is the goal of terrorists to fool their enemies into overreacting, and that has been precisely what we have been doing every since.

The populist disdain for elites is a page taken right out of the communist playbook. Communist regimes were infamous for their body counts, not just through deliberate malfeasance, but because they distrusted anyone who knew anything, and let starvation and disease run rampant because those in charge had no idea what they were doing. None of this is conservative; expertise is one of the essential things that must be conserved because to lose it is to risk the loss of civilization itself. 

But the peak absurdity is the right’s depiction of university and college students as “special snowflakes” who complain when their feelings are hurt, while the right pursues the same strategy. It seems everyone is a special snowflake now. Don’t dare tell the truth, because it might offend someone.

Two plus two equals five. Long live Big Brother!

Monday, October 16, 2017

When to Doubt

You should fact-check a news item or internet posting whenever:

1. You find it flattering.
2. It is likely to inspire outrage or hatred in its intended audience.
3. It appeals to racial, social, national, religious, or political identity.
4. It appeals to sentimentality.
5. It claims deliberate malevolence when mere incompetence would suffice.
6. It involves a conspiracy which would require prolonged secrecy from a large group of people.
7. It reduces a complex problem to a simple sound byte.
8. It contradicts well established peer-reviewed science.

The best way to sell a lie is to make it emotionally appealing. A logical fallacy might be used to defend a lie, but the fallacy will only be convincing if people already want to believe it. Effective lies have an emotional payoff. If it’s something you want to believe, be on your guard.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Truth and Consequences III: The Narrative

[The world] is under the domination of the [evil cabal]. To liberate [the world] from the grip of the [evil cabal], a group of [plucky good guys], aided by the power of [the occult power] shall free [the world] from the tyranny of the [evil cabal], and [bring about an era of good things].

Recognize this? Let me put it in a form more easily recognizable—Star Wars:

“The galaxy is under the domination of the empire To liberate the world from the grip of the empire, a group of plucky rebels, aided by the power of the Force shall free the galaxy from the tyranny of the empire, and restore the republic”

Now, Communism:

“The world is under the domination of capitalism. To liberate the world from the grip of capitalism, a group of ardent communists, aided by the power of historical inevitability, shall free the world from the tyranny of capitalism, and bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Now, Libertarianism:

“The country is under the domination of government. To liberate the country from the grip of the government, a group of ingenious entrepreneurs, aided by the power of the market, shall free the country from the tyranny of government, and shall unleash the power of the markets.”

Fundamentalist Christianity:

“The nation is under the domination of Satan. To liberate the nation from the grip of Satan, a group of devout Christians, aided by the power of Jesus, shall free the country from the tyranny of Satan, and shall establish the Dominion of God.”

The Lord of the Rings:

“Middle Earth is under the domination of Sauron. To liberate Middle Earth from the grip of Sauron, a group of plucky adventurers, aided by the power of Valar, shall free Middle Earth from the tyranny of Sauron, and shall establish the Kingdom of Elessar.”


“The nation is under the domination of the mediocre masses. To liberate the nation from the grip of the masses, a group of brilliant businessmen, aided by the power of Capitalism, shall free the country from the tyranny of the masses, and shall establish Galt’s Gulch.”

And I could go on and on.

We should, first of all, realize that this is a fantasy. Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings are here, along with hundreds (if not thousands) of other lesser known works of fantasy and science fiction. And the reason we love them is that they paint us as heroes. Religions and ideologies are based upon simple narratives, and they too will be wrong. 

Next, we should realize that people who apparently have leapt the fence between allegiances have not changed very much at all. Malcolm Muggeridge switched from being an ardent communist to being a devout Catholic. David Horowitz similarly went from Communist to extreme right wing. Michael Shermer went from Fundamentalist Christian to Objectivist to Libertarian. But none of them changed narrative. They only changed the names in the slots of the narrative.

They never changed their minds at all.

Reality is infinitely more complex, and not nearly as flattering. The social and political fabric of our society are like a mass of human biomes linked together, with a constant struggle between infectious bodies and antibodies from various portions of the body politic, or like ideological storm systems driven by the biases of millions, reacting together and against each other fanned to greater and greater force by people who may not even care about ideology, but sell outrage because it makes them money. If a storm can be created by the wings of a butterfly, perhaps we ourselves are the butterflies, and the storm is simply the result of our lack of awareness. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth leading, and he was right.

If you focus on the good in others you will be drawn to that and become good; if you focus on evil, real or imaginary, you will become the very evil you hate. It explains a lot about history, and why this narrative is so dangerous—it places the battle against an enemy at the centre, and leaves the final state of affairs as an afterthought. The neo-cons followed this narrative in Iraq; get rid of the bad guy, and the end of history, a utopia of democracy and capitalism, would result. And we all know how that turned out.

This simplistic narrative will never accomplish anything. To build a better future, we must focus on a positive goal, not on who we wish to defeat. This is harder, and will take more time, and we will have to deal with opposition (though we will do better to get them onside rather that crush them.) It will not be simple, but it will be true.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Truth and Consequences II: The Silo

Back in my early twenties I encountered the Church of Scientology, and became interested in cults and how people could be convinced to abandon their own ability to think. I collected cult literature of all kinds (this was before the internet) and read books about various odd sects, including Christian Fundamentalists. I also remember coming across a movie called Ticket to Heaven, a Canadian movie with a very good cast (including a very young Kim Catrall and a riveting performance by R. H. Thomson as the deprogrammer) which was a fairly accurate portrayal of a young man’s induction and rescue from a Moonie like cult.

One common feature to all of these organizations was a process of epistemological isolation, which usually began as physical isolation but then moved on to instilling a distrust of all other sources of information. Once this was achieved, the convert could be released into the world, albeit with frequent guidance from the cult, because they would meet any disconfirming views with distrust. 

I believe we are witnessing something similar, but on a unprecedented scale, with alt news. It is not merely the lies that are told, but a systemic and comprehensive attack upon other sources, and worse, the capacity for independent critical thought. It is also unprecedented in that this is not a centralized strategy, but a distributed ideological cluster which has linked up on the internet to form a cohesive whole. This is something that was not possible without the internet—indeed, the very structure of the internet not only makes this possible, but likely.

I had originally thought that this attack on reason and evidence was the fallout of post modernism, with both the right and the left drawing on the epistemological relativism of the academic left. This certainly seemed to be the case with Karl Rove and his “reality-based community” rant. But the real roots of this go back much further, to the amateur theology of Fundamentalist Christians, and their attempts to defend it.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, North America was a cultural backwater, with barely trained ministers coming up with doctrines that no respectable Christian Church would support: Biblical Literalism, the Rapture, and wild speculations about the meaning of the Book of Revelations. Many were expelled from traditional Churches and went on to found their own. As they coalesced into a movement, they were faced with opponents on two fronts: science and the theory of evolution, and the learned elites, particularly theologians, who knew that their version of the Christian religion was a heretical break from all tradition and therefore illegitimate. To counter this they invented an ideology of falsehood, by which reason, evidence, and learning are the enemy, the imposition of arrogant elites, and even the tools of the devil. The ideology of Christian Fundamentalists kept their members safe from outside influences, but also kept them hermetically sealed from the truth. 

This idea has spread and become quite useful to certain political factions (not all of them on the right), but I think it is clear that these factions are operating as cults, and now the cult-like nature is made clear by its source of origin—an actual Christian Cult, which came to dominate the political right in the 1980’s, and that still thrives and animates much of conservative politics. I was astonished to learn, in the early 80’s, that my father, an apparently devout Catholic, had in fact become a Fundamentalist Christian through conservative tracts from America, which carried within them the assumptions of that sect.

The task remains to prove to many of those involved that they are in fact part of a cult. Of course, the basis of most political affiliations now is emotion, not reason or evidence, but it might be worth a shot. That will be the subject of my next posting.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Truth or Consequences

In the current environment of “alternative facts”, I am beginning to suspect that the real cultural divide is not between political affiliations, but an epistemological argument.

Friendship is based upon trust. You must be able to trust what your friends say, without resorting to fact checking. If you cannot trust what they say, their is no basis for friendship. This is not just a matter of knowledge, but of judgement: we must not only trust what they read, but their ability to discern the truth. If they are ignorant, they must confess their ignorance, or remain silent. If they make strong claims that later turn out to be false, and they do so repeatedly, time spent with them becomes a cognitive drain, rather than an easy-going exchange. Vigilance should only be required for enemies, not for friends.

People may have their own opinions. But if they have their own facts, they are not merely different. They are mad.

Internet silos offering politically convenient lies first appeared in the nineties, and have proliferated ever since, to the point that they should now be considered main stream media. The effect on society has been devastating, splitting our society into angry factions. All of this is represented to be the result of diverging political views, but liberals and conservatives used to work together. The dividing line is not opinion or political inclination, but a dispute about basic facts. This should never happen, as there is a method for resolving such disputes. It is usually called the scientific method, but it predates modern science. It is a regimented approach to evidence and sound reason, which, if pursued earnestly, will converge upon a single point of fact. Artistic pursuits diverge and proliferate. Scientific truths converge to a single point. If you destroyed all art, literature, and religion, something entirely different would eventually emerge. If you erased all science and it came back, it would ultimately be the same as it was before it was lost.

This is why mistakes about the facts are failures of judgement—there is a way to establish the truth, but the person doesn’t know this, or can’t be bothered. There is more involved here than bad evidence; there is a proclivity to accept bad arguments—logical fallacies, bald appeals to emotion or identity, and the like. A common strategy is an appeal to vanity. People are convinced by what is flattering. On the right, most of this flattery is directed at those who are white, male, and intelligent, but note that all of these are things are something they are born with, rather than anything they have achieved. What you find flattering, what you want to believe, should immediately be suspect. 

We do not live in the world of fact or objectivity, but in the world of dreams. Only with great effort can we achieve a glimpse of truth. Science and philosophy are hard, and they are not our first home. So, though I am an atheist, I will tell you that it is possible to sell your soul to the devil, and have the devil show up to collect. You can be a servant of lies, and more than that—as such, you can be damned. This sounds extreme, but I know people who are damned, who have no contact with other human beings, who spend all of their time screaming into their computer to people who have long ago ceased to listen or care. Who will befriend you when nothing you say can be trusted? I cannot imagine anything closer to banishment to the lower planes of hell than this.

And this makes me wonder, when we encounter internet trolls, whether we are hearing the screams of the damned, the lost souls who have alienated all human contact, and are now adrift, raging in the abyss for all that they have lost and cannot seem to regain.

If you love anything other than the truth, then the truth may hurt you. It will keep you from what you love, if what you love is less than worthy, like your own pride and prejudices. It will destroy your idols. It will make your gods and heroes human. But if you love the truth, it will not hurt you. This is why we must pledge allegiance to the truth, and why we must love each other with all our failures and frailties. The truth does not falsify the love of others, for that is a love of not just what is, but what could be, and the numinous space between. 

The love of ego is always at war with the truth. The love of others is not.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Strength and Vulnerability

In the business world I often encounter the git-shit-done mentality, which values competence, discipline, and the strong determination to achieve a goal, often to the point of ruthlessness. Those who can perform are strongly encouraged and rewarded, but anyone regarded as less than capable is likely to the shown the door. “Sorry, best of luck in future endeavours, but you don’t belong here.” This world is frank, sometimes to the point of being brutal, and will accept anyone who can do the job. Contrary to the opinions of those who think that feminism and multi-race and multi-cultural initiatives in the workplace are the consequence of political correctness, these are actually the natural outcome of capitalism. Competence trumps all other concerns, and outweighs sex, race, or culture. The decline of the white man in the work force is not the result of affirmative action—it was affirmative action that put him in a position of precedence in the first place.

On the other hand, there is a tradition that I greatly respect, the shared understanding that humans are deeply flawed, so often voiced in the Christian and other traditions, which urge us to band together, forgive each other’s weaknesses, and work together to overcome them (and yet, I am an atheist.) There is a parallel to this in the scientific method—which I would call the modern method, and has taken root in other places far antecedent to modernity (the Islamic Caliphate of the late first millennium AD was one)—which requires a process of peer review, recognizing that people make mistakes and only together have we any chance of getting things right. This understanding of human weakness has been supported by recent advances in behavioural economics (particularly by Daniel Kahneman), which has advanced the idea that we are largely irrational and prone to poor judgements. The opposition between this admission of human frailty and the world of business is nowhere more clear than in the failure of neoliberalism as an economic ideology. Neo-liberalism regards humans as rational self-maximizers—indeed, this is the foundational assumption of Neo-liberalism, its theory of human nature. But then, all ideologies are founded on a faulty simplified model of human nature.

But here’s the thing: the traditions that emphasize human frailty often abandon all hope of man-made solutions. To be blunt, thoughts and prayers won’t git-shit-done. We have to dare to use our judgement and our abilities, flawed as they may be, because no hand from the sky will save us. God is not returning his calls. We have to solve our own problems, and all the hand wringing in the world won’t accomplish that. And the weak remain at the mercy of the strong, so we must compel the competent to help those who need it, because there is another iron law of capitalism; when the markets collapse, capitalism will collapse, and the rich will lose everything. There’s no point in being worth 50 billion dollars when a dollar is worthless. And it will be if capitalism fails. The thing that most Marxists miss is Marx’s awe of capitalism’s productive capacity. Redistribution isn’t an option if there is nothing to redistribute. Capitalism produces; socialism redistributes, but they must work together.

Beyond that, the culture of victimhood, which exploits the traditions of mercy to an absurd extent, has no future. It relies upon pity, which is exclusive to respect, especially in the long run, and it has no grasp upon the elite beyond what they permit, and therefore has no influence beyond the narrow world of academia. Indeed, it quickly exhausts its welcome. It is instructive to note that the era of political correctness began precisely at the time of the Reagan revolution, and is now fading at precisely the moment that the polity is taking a dramatic shift to the left. The academic left was always politically inert, and in fact, politically regressive. It achieved the opposite of all its stated goals, and serves only the political right, who trot out tales of their excesses to scare their constituency. 

Still, all this is on the political and macro level. At the personal level, the cult of competency has much to learn from the tradition of frailty, both in the way that it deals with its own members and with the people who lay outside of it bounds. Steve Jobs was ruthless to those in his organization, but his success was in his capacity to be the customer from hell, probably his only competence. He demanded the best for the average non-technical user, and in that respect, became an unlikely advocate for mercy. While many techies regard people who cannot use their products as idiots, Jobs turned that accusation on his team for not making products that the average person could use, and made it clear to them that if they could not do that, they were the idiots. The prevailing neoliberal ideology regards the people who cannot succeed in it as idiots. It is time to tell them that if so many people cannot succeed under their leadership, it is they who are the idiots.