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.