Give Us This Day Our Daily Outrage

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I find the psychological whiplash of the news cycle exhausting and depressing these days. Yet, the worst part is not every new facet of the problems we face, but instead the constant demand for my emotional energy. “You’ll be horrified by this tweet” one headline promises. “The Trump nominee no one is talking about” blares an e-mail subject line. “Step up to protect migrant workers – call your senators NOW” insists a Facebook post. “New Russia revelations demand action!” orders a call to sign someone’s petition.

They’re not wrong, exactly—but it is too much. No one can do all these things. No one can spare the emotion to treat each of these with the gravity they deserve. And, perhaps most insidiously, the outrage is baked in. These things feed our anger, but they also assume it. Even well-intentioned organizations are using instant fury as their primary messaging strategy. It works, and yet along the way it sends an accidental message: anger is the only real way to respond.

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Hypocrisy is Easy

two-ways_vaisamuelyooCan you believe what the other side said this week? They’re such hypocrites—they say one thing when it applies to everyone else, and another thing entirely when it applies to them. It makes me so mad when people don’t hold to their own fundamental principals—I think the best response would be to create a snarky meme showing that and share it widely, divorced from the original context.

Well, sometimes I think that. Sometimes I just see the snarky meme from someone else and get that little rush of agreement. You know the one: the one that makes you feel good about being right, and just, and having enemies. And not just any enemies—the best enemies. They go out of their way to be spineless fools whose simpering evilness is so clear in their fundamental lack of a coherent worldview that it would be foolish to even listen to them.

Right?

So bear with me for a minute here.

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Hitting the Wrong Note

wrontnote_viamarimaThere are things you can say in polite company, and things you can say in private; we all know this, and yet we profess shock upon hearing publically those things we deem for limited specific company only. But it isn’t the sentiment we reject, it’s the form: we have an entire structure of polite register that allows us to express private sentiments publically, but less directly. That is, after all, the structure of formal English—to say with euphemism and evasion those things we could say bluntly with a more limited audience.

So there are really two kinds of shock to pick from when someone breaks these rules. One kind is shock at whatever private thing has been laid bare, no matter how it was said. The other kind is shock at the breaking of convention, and cares very little about the sentiment involved. For politicians, masters of gaming the rules, it is the breaking of those rules that requires response. For the rest of us, as decent human beings, it is the sentiment that requires response.

Thus we have now two kinds of shock that occur in concert, and thus also we have the strange discord inspired by dissonance: these two notes seem to ring together, and yet they ring false. Continue reading

No Reason to Lie

Pinocchio_ViaJean-EtienneSometimes, in the course of a debate or discussion, a secondhand statement comes under consideration. The actors in the debate must then evaluate how relevant that statement is to the their discussion. This happens in media during interviews, in class discussions, on the internet, with friends and family, and beyond. Wherever it happens, you are as likely as not to hear a particular phrase—“no reason to lie.”

“Look, he has no reason to lie.”

“Why would he lie?”

“She doesn’t get anything out of lying about this—she has no reason to.”

However it arises, the implication of the argument that someone “has no reason to lie” is that having no reason to lie is, itself, evidence for truth.

And our understanding of logic and evidence is so bad that we often accept that.

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Neglecting Hate

monkeys_viaNams82It hasn’t been a good week. You wouldn’t think much could be worse than a hate-motivated mass shooting against LGBTQ people who had gathered just to be themselves; but the killer also claimed to have been driven by an ideology of hate, inspired by a small segment of religion that hates people for not thinking the same things they do. And it isn’t just ISIS that does that, because there are large swathes of American Christianity and American Politics that say the same thing. So it was a bad start to the week.

And then something worse happened: while many people were still wrestling with how to think and feel and support each other and understand this attack, while many people were wondering if they were safe or if their friends were safe, a lot of people started saying horrible things. These people started saying things steeped in judgment, scorn, and self-righteousness. They buried the dead under a series of disproven talking points, and they buried the living right along with them.

They responded to hate by normalizing it.

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The Dangerous Middle

balance.jpgThere is a point in believing an idea where, regardless of where we began, we lose the habit of refining that idea. Instead of seeking to improve our positions, we begin to defend then. Instead of searching for the nuance, we begin to strip it away.

It isn’t every idea—but certain ideas seem to burrow into our politics, our religion, and our activism, and once they are firmly in place, we refuse to let them go. And we begin to vilify anyone who suggests otherwise. I cannot tell whether it is due to external elements, like deep social division, or internal elements, like an uncritical approach to one’s own beliefs. Perhaps it is both, or perhaps it is something else entirely. But I think it not coincidental that these are tribal ideas: they are ideas that mark our membership as much as they define our position.

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A Certain Point of View

argument_viaThomasHalfmann

Certainty is a funny thing. You might think the idea of certainty naturally admits that things are subjective, that absolute proof is difficult, and that beliefs must be updated to reflect changing evidence. But that isn’t how we practice certainty—instead of signaling a spectrum of probable truth, it seems to have become an arbiter of validity.

When someone is certain, that should be a commentary on the evidence they have for a position. Somehow, though, certainty has been divorced from that spectrum of evidence. Instead of certainty being the extreme end, it has become the correct end; the rest of the spectrum is collapsed and we are left with the binary of certainty and uncertainty. It that strange dichotomous world, anything uncertain isn’t worth considering—as though lack of absolutism frees us from any tether to the real world.

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Pomp and Cowardice

Syria-vote-640x480The first effect of fear is to sharpen our self-preservation and to enhance our awareness of danger. Those instincts are useful, but hyperbolic—they claim the unfamiliar is more dangerous than it is, and the familiar more benign than we should reasonably presume.

The second effect of fear is that we act, but the choice of action depends on whether we use our fear as an impetus or as a caution.

There are a lot of people consumed by their fear. It’s okay to be afraid, and it’s even okay to be overwhelmed by it. But it is not okay to use your fear to justify prejudice and xenophobia. And it really is not okay to deny your unthinking fearfulness and spin it as a virtue.

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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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The Apotheosis of Form

I like to think about words. I believe that thinking about the words we choose is a wonderful way of pushing the bounds of our thinking. I believe that choosing our words carefully and drilling down in the nuances of their meaning helps us understand both what we personally believe and how others’ thinking is subtly different. I believe that strongly enough that I’ve written a number of posts now about the importance of choosing your words carefully.

Anna_Chromy_Cloak_Of_ConscienceIn the discussions I’ve had on this topic, though, another theme has emerged: that of treating our words as if they are the only things that matter. I was discussing this with a close friend recently and she brought up the idea of “liberal shibboleths,” which I think is a brilliantly simple way to explain this problem. A shibboleth, after all, is “the watchword of a party,” and often “some peculiarity in things of little importance.” And before I single out liberals for illiberal use of shibboleths, there are plenty of conservative shibboleths, libertarian shibboleths, progressive shibboleths, and so on.

I and my friend both have seen moments when a well-meaning person is rebuked by members of the in-group for use of the wrong words. Sometimes that rebuke is called for—there are, indeed, people who are offensive with intent, and those people should be called on their behavior. But what of the rest? If someone reaches out honestly to understand a thing they are not, it’s natural that they not know how to speak about it. Why do we treat them as if they should? These are people who have taken a step outside their comfort zone—they do not need us to critique their form, they need us to show them new ideas.

There is value in treating people with respect. There is respect in describing people with the words they choose and not the words we choose. There is respect in recognizing what is offensive, and why, and avoiding it. But there is also value, and respect, in presuming the best of intentions. Certainly when a prominent white man publicly speaks of women as girls, the inherent sexism of his statement is worth critique. But if that man had gone to some of his colleagues with an honest desire to learn and asked how he should handle situations with “girls” in his lab?

Someone who wants to learn is a rare and precious commodity. What would you teach in such a moment? Would you teach this man that he is making unwarranted assumptions about half the human race? Would you teach him that basic human decency should not be dependent on gender? Would you teach him about women’s experiences when men view them as erratic, emotional, unintelligible aliens, instead of as human beings?

Or would you take this moment, this rare open moment, to teach him only that he is using the wrong word?

The thing I did not mention before is that a shibboleth is not merely a password or a badge of membership—it is a tool of exclusion. We know, by the words they use, who agrees with us and who does not. If we are complacent and unwilling to engage our own ideas, if we prefer superficial discussion with no dissent, the shibboleths tell us who to echo and who to exile.

In my opinion, the way we engage with outsiders is the true test—of whether our groups are bent on real, deep discussion and self-improvement, or whether they are rigid places where ritual is king and doubt is forbidden. We, who profess to be open to multiple ideas; we, who profess to believe in human rights and human decency; we, who claim to value discourse and discussion: it is incumbent on us to pay more than lip service to these ideals.

We can choose our words carefully, and we should. But we can make those choices out of understanding rather than prescription, and when we speak to those who disagree we should not conflate the two. The form is what we see, but it cannot be what we teach—because form, without the ideals to inspire it, is dead.