Blowing Bubbles

Study #27 - Oil and WaterAfter the 2016 election, there was a proliferation of discussion around the idea of filter bubbles and ideological blinders. For my part, at least, I heard a lot of people applying the idea of a filter bubble to explain why the election didn’t make sense to so many Americans. We stayed in our own groups, the reasoning went, and so we underestimated how different other groups were from our own. It certainly seems like that was part of the problem.

Now, nine months after the election, we are pregnant with our dissatisfaction. Trump’s administration has systematically alienated so many people that even right-wing media questions his capacity to succeed. His administration is less popular at this point than any previous administration has been. Liberals and conservatives alike talk about retaking our country.

But we’re not popping our bubbles; we’re reinforcing them. The people who believe in Trump still believe in Trump, and now they also disbelieve any story that undermines him. The people who hate Trump hate him, and exaggerate any story that confirms his ineptitude. The people who are disgusted and checked out have decided it’s okay to check out, and they confirm that bias, too. The media who focused on every whim of our reality-show presidential candidate have expanded our entire political discourse into a will-they-won’t-they, what-did-Trump-tweet-now, who’s-on-top storm of sensationalism. Instead of seeing the consequence of our preconceptions before the election and changing our approaches, we’re doubling down.

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Under What Conditions?

bush_library_oval_office_replicaI do not support Donald Trump. But what if I did? He legitimately won the election under our democratic system; only a quarter of the country voted for him, but that is the system we have. His rhetoric is divisive and untethered from evidence, but that is the rhetoric we decided was acceptable. The choices he makes, whether we like it or not, will shape our country and possibly the world for many years to come.

One thing I am sure of is that being politically divided and unwilling to change our views is a self-reinforcing feedback loop. It’s easy to use division to justify more. But I don’t want to do that. I want to have solidly-evidenced political positions.

I don’t plan to say “oh, give him a chance,” because our country already decided to give him that on November 8th, and because I do not personally expect him to become any more respectful or honest as president than he was in the year preceding the election. Nor do I intend to shut up about what I disagree with, because critiquing the government is patriotic and quashing dissent is undemocratic.

So he’d have my critique even if he already had my support. But what would he have to do to get my support? Under what conditions would I say “Well, I didn’t expect it, but he’s doing a good job”? If my opposition to Trump is partisan, there will be no such conditions. But if my opposition to Trump is based on his policies and actions, I should be able to say under what conditions I would change my mind.

Here they are:

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Five Pieces for January

shepardfaireyUsually, at the end of each month I compile links to stories and pieces I found thought-provoking in some way. But this past month has been an inundation of news, most of it bad, and I’m reluctant to feed into the chaos by recapping it all. Instead, here are five pieces that helped me understand something differently about the state of the world:

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Ignorance Vs Malice

twohead_viaolegshpyrkoI have long held the position that one should never attribute to malice that which is explainable by incompetence or ignorance. Inherent in that position are two presumptions: first, that intentions and actions can be judged separately in the same cases; second, that most people are selfish, but not malicious. In most situations, that means presuming good intentions even when a person’s actions cause harm or damage common goals. With most people, I find that presumption is justified and leads to better relationships and easier problem-solving.

Yet I have been struggling lately with where to draw the line. At what point is the explanation of incompetence or ignorance no longer plausible? How much foolishness must I allow to cover over blatant harm? Yes, I can believe that many people act on specific priorities to benefit themselves, and without anticipating the consequences.

But what do you do when someone has been given every chance to uncover their own errors, and refused? At what point does willful refusal to consider different perspectives cross over from ignorance to malice?

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The Novel and the New

notnow_viaellaOver the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to disproportionate police violence against disproportionately black Americans. For many black Americans, this was a breakthrough into the mainstream for a challenge they have lived with their entire lives. For many white Americans, this is a new and surprising piece of information about the world.

If you are a white American, it’s understandable that you would find it novel to think black Americans have more to fear from police officers. After all, you may have lived your entire life without worrying much about the police, and certainly without feeling like you have no control over whether you live or die at a traffic stop. You might wonder what we, a free and just society, should do about this new problem.

But of course it isn’t a new problem—just novel to you. It’s an old problem, and what’s new is that white people, by and large, now know about it.

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The Collective Endeavor

Philae on Comet 67P Churyumov-GerasimenkoWe know very well that science is not truth—indeed, central to science is the idea that we must acknowledge both the subjectivity of human perception and the limits of individual knowledge. So science does not aim to replace those perceptions; it aims instead to refine them. Science strips away the biases of the individual, the biases of the community, the biases of particularity, and the biases of variable conditions. In so doing it aims not for a pure and incontrovertible view of the world, but merely a verifiable view.

Science is thus not truth, merely the lens through which we view truth. Yes, its role is to bring truth as nearly into focus as it may, but greater than that is its role of ensuring that we are all using the same lens. By prescribing the method, science drives us all to view the world with the limits of our collective understanding rather than the limits of our personal understanding.

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The Usefulness of Bad Ideas

lightbulbFor someone who takes a lot of interest in the structures that underlie societies, I have to confess that it took a long time for me to realize that ideas and structures are not distinct. I spent a lot of energy being frustrated by things that, to me, seemed wrong and unconscionable. In many ways I still do, but I’ve also found a better framing to help me understand how bad ideas persist.

Ten years ago, I would have said that bad ideas are a result of greed, corruption, lack of empathy, or intolerance. For example, why do people constantly argue about getting rid of social programs, alias lazy welfare queens? Easy—they’re greedy and unempathetic and don’t care about anyone but themselves and their friends. If they stopped to think for one second about other people, they’d realize that the problems are structures, not people.

I think it took far too long for me to realize the double standard of that statement.

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