Category Archives: Social Justice

Game Theory and the End of Democracy

Asian cultures tend to create games and systems that are inherently cooperative, in which everyone wins or loses together as a team. America, by contrast, is an explicitly and proudly antagonistic culture that pits one side against the other in most every aspect of life. Win-lose competitions drive our society starting with our board games, through our sports competitions, our educational system, our legal system, our capitalist financial system, and right up through our highly prized political system of checks and balances.

But in a system where one must lose so the other can win, it’s tough to be a gracious loser and sometimes just as hard to be a gracious winner. Win-lose competitions often do not end well. Yes, once or twice a gracious loser will walk across the field and congratulate a similarly gracious winner. But if the game is imbalanced, that good sportsmanship cannot be maintained. If one side keeps losing and sees no hope of winning, the game quickly goes sour for both sides. That thrilling boxing match suddenly turns into a repulsive beatdown that forces every feeling person turn away in disgust, and neither the winner nor the loser walk away feeling good.

Win-lose competitions are great fun as long as both sides believe they can win. But when one player starts to fall behind, they might try to distract the other player so that they can shift a chess piece, or they might grab some monopoly money from the bank when no one is paying attention. As the game becomes more lopsided, cheating becomes ever more irresistible. Sometimes the cheating becomes so intense that the entire game is corrupted and sometimes, by tacit agreement, both parties just abandon the rules altogether.

If one player finally becomes convinced that they can never win, why should they continue to play at all? When a chess player finally accepts that they cannot compete against world-class masters, or a runner accepts that their knee injuries make them unable to compete and win, why continue to participate? Of course, they lose interest in the game, they decide it’s stupid anyway, they might even angrily claim the other side cheats, upturn the game board, and insist we play some other game.

That is analogous to what has been happening in our real-life competitive game of politics. The Right has long seen that they are losing at this game of democratic elections. They tried cheating, they engaged in the political equivalent of unsportsmanlike misconduct, they exploited and abused the rules of the game, but it is still clear that they will not win another fair electoral match in the foreseeable future. Obviously, their natural inclination is to overturn the board, to declare that Democracy is stupid anyway, to turn it into a WWF version of political performance art, and even to embrace dictatorship.

From the perspective of the side that has no hope of winning in a fair democratic election, a totalitarian dictatorship that is hopefully more aligned to your perspectives is a rationally desirable alternative. Even if that dictatorship does not serve your own self interest, overturning the chess board at least denies your opponent a win.

So the message here is that the Progressives have finally succeeded in their generational effort to convince Conservatives that they can no longer win the game election game in America. It should be perfectly understandable that, once internalizing that stark reality, the Conservatives tried to cheat, tried to change the rules, and are now engaged in overturning the entire game.

This impulse to abandon the game rather than keep losing is aggravated and reinforced by a simultaneously lopsided win-lose economic system in which it is clear that the ultra-wealthy have claimed the winning cup so completely that none of the rest of us, but particularly rank and file Conservatives, can ever hope to do more than pitch in the minor-leagues.

What, did we think that Conservatives would just walk across the Continental divide, shake our hands, congratulate us on a well-earned victory, and accede to the increasingly progressive will of the majority?

Of course not. Of course they prefer to overturn the game, and end Democracy altogether, rather than lose at the competitive win-lose game that we have made it.

Let’s Stop Glorifying Soldiers

Today is Memorial Day. This holiday does make me reflect upon the many soldiers who lost their lives while serving in the military. Without doubt it brings great comfort to many. But for me, those thoughts unavoidably drift far beyond merely acknowledging and appreciating their sacrifice. I’m forced to ask, is this level of glorification justified? Is it a good thing? Does it go too far? And does it cause unanticipated and undesired harm?

How justified really is the extremely high level of recognition we ascribe to soldiers on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, at more routine events, and in the many popular references and acknowledgments that are so pervasive throughout our culture? Many may say it’s far too little and too perfunctory. But many others feel our reverence for and romanticization of the military is borderline pathological.

Yes, some soldiers die during their service. But we have many professions that suffer from similarly high death rates, in fact much higher if you only count combat deaths (see here). And if we look at harm to health and well-being more generally, the terrible cost suffered by other professions is even far more pronounced.

But even while acknowledging the actual numbers, we still like to think that military service is special; that soldiers didn’t merely make the ultimate sacrifice in the course of earning a paycheck. We imagine their sacrifice to be more noble because they were selflessly serving their country to protect our freedom and liberty and our democratic way of life.

In reality, that may at times be the big picture result of military service, but many professions likewise serve those same greater goals. But for individual soldiers, claims of noble motivation are highly exaggerated rationalizations. Many studies have shown that the primary motivation for joining the military is simply money. One such study by RAND (see here) identifies five primary reasons that people join the military:

  • Adventure and Travel
  • Benefits
  • Job Stability and Pay
  • Escaping a Negative Environment
  • Job Training

None of these driving motivations have anything to do with defending freedom and democracy. They are all simply based upon personal gain. Now, that’s not to say that serving a noble cause is not important to many in the military. But for most it’s secondary at best and a rationalization at worst.

That is not as true of many other service professions. Teachers, Peace Corps Volunteers, and many in legal, medical, or other service professions do often cite helping others as primary motivations for working in difficult, low-paying, and sometimes dangerous careers. Not so with most of the soldiers who are so honored by our culture.

So then we ask, what’s the harm? Certainly we should not fail to honor one group simply because we cannot similarly honor all deserving groups. Recognition is often not fair. It never can be. And maybe the goal of inducing soldiers to join the military is indeed so important to democracy that honoring them is a necessary pragmatic white-lie we maintain for the greater good.

Well, my concern about this kind of pragmatic logic is two-fold. First, it is not at all clear that the good accomplished by our huge military overcomes the bad. But secondly, I am pretty confident that our glorification of the military does real, profound harm to our social fabric by propagating guns, military dress and equipment, and paramilitary behaviors that are incredibly damaging to our country. Beyond mass shootings, our fetishizing over everything military has become inextricably intertwined with the greatest dangers to our democracy emerging from within.

I have to think that our exaggerated romanticizing over soldiers is a significant enabling factor in the marketing of the real dangers and threats we face as a people. Glorifying soldiers, their equipment, and military solutions only models and ennobles this kind of behavior in civil society. We see this distorted and dangerous military mimicry escalating almost daily.

Maybe military behavior, however noble in theory, has become so corrupted in popular society that it is time to reevaluate our long-standing military traditions and their increasingly theoretical and irrelevant positive values.

So what should we do differently?

My suggestion is that we treat Memorial Day more like a remembrance of people who died in natural disasters or mass shootings. We remember these people as victims, not heroes. Rather than creating romanticized narratives of altruism and self-sacrifice, we should mourn the tragic, often needless, loss of friends and family. We should show icons of hope and renewal rather than parading our flags and shooting off rifles in militaristic displays. We should mourn the foreign policies that have put so many in harm’s way, dismantle a military-industrial complex that drives so many into the military, and stop feeding the delusions of so many disturbed, gun-crazy individuals in our society who are driven by the distorted ideas of military honor that they take away from Memorial Day and other military exhibitions.

Spider-Man Gets It

After being snowed in for a week, I finally got out to see Spider-Man: No Way Home (see here). It was a super fun action movie. But as with all good writing, it also made me think interesting thoughts, such as what makes people bad, redemption, and the effect of superpowers our real world.

The following contains movie spoilers. If you have not seen it yet, and think you might like to, close this article and come back after you’ve checked it out!

With sympathy to those of you who have little patience for superhero stuff, I’ll set up the story really simply. A group of supervillains are brought into our universe by accident. They immediately do what supervillains do; they unleash their terrible powers to create widespread havoc and death.

Spiderman does find a way to send them back to their own universes. Despite intense pressure to do so, and despite the horrible threat that these supervillains pose, he cannot bring himself to effectively deport them to wreak havoc in their old universes. So instead, he tries desperately to help each of them to become better people who can live peacefully in any universe.

Each of these supervillains has a different background and unique challenges that contribute to their evil behavior. Since I don’t have the room in this article to talk about all of them, I’ll focus on just one. That supervillain is called Electro and he is played in the movie by Jamie Foxx.

Electro has the ability to literally siphon electricity from electrical grids and to fire it in lightning-like bolts and bursts. His destructive power is fantastic. But when Spider-Man manages to destroy his electrical emitter, Electro immediately becomes your uncle. Suddenly he is no longer a crazed and maniacal supervillain, but a pretty ordinary next door neighbor. He is no more crazed and maniacal than your typical muffler-repairman and just about as dangerous. In fact, once his power is taken away, it’s hard to imagine that he was ever any kind of threat.

This sudden and dramatic transformation isn’t as unlikely as it may seem at first. Superpowers do actually exist in our real world, and they do induce the same kind of deadly behavior in many otherwise harmless people. Take those superpowers away, and those real-world supervillains are just your uncle, your neighbor, or your muffler-repairman.

These real-world superpowers most typically take the form of public or private office, wealth, or guns.

High offices are in limited supply. And great wealth is still relatively hard to come by. So while dangerous, people with those superpowers are somewhat rare. While they do exist and can do great damage, there can never be too many Donald Trump or Lex Luthor type supervillains in the world. And also, these supervillains are somewhat constrained by the precariousness of their positions of power.

But anyone today can buy a semi-automatic weapon and become a real-world supervillain that rivals Electro in destructive power. And relative to the rich and the office-holders, many of these people have few constraints that restrain their unleashing of that power – at least one time.

As Spider-Man often repeats, “with great power comes great responsibility.” There are certainly some, like Spider-Man, who take that to heart and strive to use their power, their office, their wealth, or their gun, to make the world a better place.

But it is also true to observe that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And as Spider-Man: No Way Home shows us, there are many who are intoxicated by great power and who, like Electro, would be perfectly decent citizens if not for that power.

So yea, guns.

Guns grant anyone a superpower. By making guns so easily available, we have created a nascent army of actual and potential supervillains.

Many rationalize that guns are not the problem. But that is simply wrong. As Spider-Man: No Way Home shows us, the means to destroy is exactly the problem. When people who can be drawn toward violence are allowed to have guns, it’s like giving Electro his superpower back. Without that power, he is not particularly dangerous. But with that power in his hands, he cannot help but become a supervillain.

For too many people, the lure to use their superpower can be overwhelming. If you could shoot lightning bolts, how could you not? You possess a voice. Are you never frustrated enough to shout out in anger with it? The mere possession of a superpower fundamentally inverts every calculation. With guns, your muffler-repair guy becomes a mass shooter. Without guns, well he’s just your muffler-repair guy.

Electro could not both possess a device of mass destruction and not use it. Modern guns grant less flashy but similarly destructive superpowers. We should not be so foolish as to give everyone access to them. Giving everyone access to Twitter is dangerous enough.

Spider-Man realized this. The weapons are the problem, not the people who possess them.

Spider-Man gets it. Why can’t we?

Trump Exposed Our Stupidity

I have long expressed the speculation that we are probably no smarter than the population of ancient Babylon. Yes, we may have more technology and more knowledge, but brains evolve very slowly and have probably long ago reached intrinsic intellectual limits like the maximum size of an insect with an exoskeleton. Similarly, we are probably no smarter overall than people were way back when.

Given the number of people in our population who believe in any sort of crazy, nonsensical, disproven claim, it’s hard to deny that we have a lot of really stupid people in our population. Despite that, we have long preferred to respect the intelligence of our fellow humans and at worst characterize them as misled, uninformed, uneducated, and so on. Not stupid though. Oh no, we’re not saying that.

When Trump came to power I said that was further proof of how stupid we are. Clearly we are not stupid in all ways, but I was talking about the particular set of “social intelligence” smarts that might allow us to form a just and sustainable social system. As social stupidity exerted itself throughout the Trump era, more and more people found they had no choice but to refer to his supporters as simply stupid.

Still, most continued to resist that harsh point-blank criticism. They hung on to hope that Trump voters were simply misinformed by Fox News.

Then Covid came along. As it became clear that many Trump supporters and some others were continuing to resist vaccines and thereby placing themselves and others at mortal risk, the rest of us have pretty much been forced to admit that, yes, they are just plain stupid. We can no longer continue to pretend that any less critical adjective is sufficient to describe them.

Trump has not made people stupid. Stupid people created Trump. Trump didn’t tell them what to think, he threw out trial balloons at his rallies and he echoed whatever they cheered to most strongly. He led stupid people wherever they told him they wanted to go.

The stupid people don’t worship Trump. They don’t even follow Trump. The moment he tries to take them where they don’t want to go, they rebel. They boo him as they did when he tried to urge them to get vaccinated. As horrible as Trump may be, the real problem is not Trump, the real problem are the stupid people who created and continue to empower Trumpism.

Look, it’s clear we have different kinds of smart and stupid. Some people may be brilliant in lots of ways, but still be quite hopelessly stupid at math. You don’t want them teaching math to your kids. In the same way, we should accept that some people, as smart as they may be in lots of ways, are simply hopelessly stupid when it comes to social policy and they should not be allowed anywhere near making it.

In their excellent book, Hating America, authors Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin document the dire misgivings that many 18th century European intellectuals expressed regarding the formation of a Democracy in America (see here). They warned that a system that empowered uninformed and stupid masses to make critical decisions was doomed to be dysfunctional and destructive. Their concern was elevated by their certainty that America, with all its vast resources, would become very powerful. Putting that much power in the hands of the stupid masses would be disastrous, they warned.

It has taken longer than those European intellectuals feared, but their predictions and warnings are finally coming true. A powerful America, dysfunctional and destructive in its behavior, careening down the road to a calamitous global future with stupid people behind the wheel.

Why now? I mean, the stupid people who support Trumpism – if not Trump himself – have always been here. They spewed nonsense in ancient Babylon, they owned slaves in America, and lynched free Blacks more recently. They have always hated government, believed in nonsense, proudly flew their Confederate flags, denied climate change, and rejected vaccinations. But we have managed pretty well so far. We have made progress despite them. So why worry about them now? What makes them more dangerous today?

I’ll give two reasons why our stupid population is more dangerous today – social media and guns. Social media gives them the critical ability to mutually-reinforce their stupidity, to coordinate, to rise up in online or real-world mobs, and to take over our government through coordinated action or even under threats of violence. Social media promised to empower the masses, and unfortunately it has succeeded.

And guns give these people the real power not only to mobilize, coerce, and threaten, but to exert their will through with profoundly horrifying violence and destruction.

It is long past time that we all accept and acknowledge that we have, and always will have, a socially stupid and dangerous fraction of people in our population. We must further accept that no amount of education, media campaigns, or empathetic outreach – or even fear of death – will dissuade these people from their stupid behavior. We cannot “bring them around.” We rather must find ways to moderate them, disempower them, and achieve a fair and sustainable society despite them.

We need, as George Will has said, sane and rational people in our representative form of government who can moderate our worst, stupidest, passions. But social media, and increasingly guns and threats of violence, are installing stupid people in our government who then gerrymander and create other pathways to bring in even more stupid people.

Eliminating, or strongly controlling, the two major enablers of stupidity, social media and guns, is essential if we are going to survive our socially stupid population and prove those European intellectuals wrong about the unavoidable fate of a Democratic system of government.

I Say Give Them Time

As my readers know I occasionally take exception to comments made by highly respected intellectuals. I hope that when I do so it is not to engage in a gratuitous attack, but to offer an important counterpoint. In that spirit I must take exception to recent comments made by the highly respected thinker and author Malcolm Gladwell (see here).

The comments I refer to were offered by Mr. Gladwell when he appeared on The Beat with Ari Melber last week. The full text can be heard on the Ari Melber podcast dated July 3rd, 2021.

Mr. Melber introduced the segment by pointing out that we live in a period in which Republicans are attempting to revise history and promote lies. He asked Mr. Gladwell for his thoughts about all of that and whether there were any solutions. It should be noted that this question was asked in the context of promoting Mr. Gladwell as an expert on human thinking and behavior.

Here is a slightly polished transcription of the response by Mr. Gladwell:

I think about the role of time. I wonder whether we’re in too much of a hurry to pass judgment on the people who continue to lie about what happened on Jan 6th, there are many forms that denial takes. One of it is that I honestly don’t believe that anything went wrong there. Another form is that I do believe but I’m not ready to admit it yet. A lot of what looks like a kind of malignant denial in the republican party right now is probably just people who aren’t ready to come clean and renounce a lot of what they were saying for the previous four years. I say give them time.

While this admonition for patience may sound superficially learned and wise, I find it naïve, wrong both theoretically and factually, and damagingly counterproductive. While I certainly don’t expect Mr. Gladwell to cite all his supporting evidence in a short interview segment like this, I don’t believe he has any. I suspect this is simply well-meaning but unrealistic platitude, analogous to “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s OK, except that he is putting forth an unsupported platitude as the conclusion of a purported expert in human thinking.

But such an expert on human thinking should understand that neural networks simply do not function in a way that would make “give them time” a reasonable strategy. As long as Republicans continue to hear the same old lies repeated over and over, they are not going to eventually recognize and reject them. Repeated exposure does not reveal lies but rather transforms our brains to accept them more deeply.

Our neural networks are influenced mainly by the quantity and repetition of the training “facts” they are exposed to. They have little capacity to judge the quality of those facts. Any training fact, in this case any idea the neural network is exposed to, is judged as valid by our neural network machinery in proportion to how often it is reinforced. And by the way, I know most of us want to believe that we collectively are not so susceptible to this because we want to believe that we personally are not. But we are.

So, my objection to Gladwell is that he does not truly understand how our neural networks function because if he did he would understand that “I say give them time” is counterproductive advice at this time. Now, yes, it would be good advice if we were confident that Trump voters are being exposed regularly and primarily to truthful information. If that were the case I would agree, yes, give their neural networks more exposure time. However, I don’t believe that there is any reasonable basis to think that giving them more time will serve any purpose except to further reinforce the lies they are continually exposed to from Trump, the Republican Party, and Fox News. We are simply not ready to just be patient and let the truth seep in and percolate.

The more nuanced advice, in my opinion, to the question posed by Ari Melber is that we must discredit and stem the flow of misinformation from these sources and expose Republicans regularly to truly factual information. Once we do that, then, yes, I say just give them time for their neural networks to become comfortable with it. With enough exposure their neural networks will transform whether they want them to or not. But to accept the status quo right now and “give them time” as Mr. Gladwell suggests would be horribly premature and ill-advised.

America Without God?

I don’t often rebut other articles, but on occasion I feel that I would be intellectually negligent not to do so. One such article that requires a response is entitled “America Without God” (see here). It was recently published in The Atlantic by contributing writer Shadi Hamid, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute. This article is so bloated with egregiously specious arguments that it is a real challenge to rebut it concisely.

The tl;dr that is being put forth by Mr. Hamid boils down to the following fallacious assertions…

  1. Religiosity, or religious-like conviction, is a universal and unavoidable human condition that must inevitably manifest itself in some fashion.
  2. This “religiosity” is nebulous, but seems to be defined by Hamid as an innate human compulsion to embrace an “ultimate loyalty” expressed through “strongly held ideological convictions.”
  3. As religion has declined, the resulting “God-shaped hole” has been filled by a similarly fervent set of political convictions.
  4. This “sublimation” of religion into politics has not resulted in a more rational world as promised and expected. Therefore, secularism is disproven as better set of beliefs.
  5. Religiosity cannot be “effectively channeled into political belief without the structures of actual religion to temper and postpone judgment.”
  6. Christianity is superior since it motivates people to be forgiving and to “withhold final judgements for another time – perhaps until eternity.
  7. Without a religious reawakening, we are left with either “world-weary resignation,” “violence,” or a “divisive wokeism.”
  8. Therefore, we should give up on secularism and re-embrace Christianity as our best hope for a better world. If we do not, dire consequences will result.

Sigh, where do I start?

First, like many articles in The Atlantic, this one is bloated and convoluted and loaded with gratuitous and irrelevant references and quotes. I don’t know if this is simply to fill space, or to argue by quantity, or to argue by creating the perception of authority, but one should not be misled into thinking that because it is hard to follow that it must be really smart.

By way of contrast I will quickly and clearly list some of the problems with this article…

  1. There is no evidence that “religiosity” is a necessary or unavoidable condition. It may be difficult to stop drinking whisky without dipping into the cooking sherry, but this does not disprove sobriety.
  2. The vast majority of Trump supporters are also the most gullibly religious believers in our population. They did not turn to Trump to fill any “God-shaped void.” They embrace Trumpism because their religious rationalizations have conditioned their brains to accept nonsense.
  3. The Left has not embraced “wokeism” to fill any void left by secularism just as atheists in general have not felt compelled to turn to anything beyond sound rational thinking.
  4. To assert that “secularism has failed” as a given is a ridiculous claim. First, we are still hugely religious as a nation. Second, secularism HAS succeeded dramatically in making our nation a saner and more inclusive place for all and has protected us from the worst extremes of religious zealotry.
  5. To claim that Christianity “tempers” our worst impulses is again asserted as a given without any serious credibility. There are countless burned, tortured, and lynched spirits that can attest to Christian forgiveness.
  6. And why is an eternal deferral of judgement and punishment a good thing? Justice must be timely to be fair and must be exacted in the real world.
  7. Lastly, but hardly the last flaw, is the fear-mongering that forms the final argument. Embrace Christianity or all the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah will be befall you!

The author is clearly motivated by a revulsion of Trumpism, a movement only rational-sounding to religious magical thinkers, then makes a false equivalence with wokeism, and concludes that the problem is secularism and that the cure is yet more religion. He attempts to maneuver us into an intellectual false choice between a secular dystopia and acceptance of organized religion as the only possible alternative. This is, quite simply, nonsense.

Look, I know I am being harsh. But this is a high-profile article that is receiving a lot of publicity. The author is out on the interview circuit spreading this nonsense of pro-religious manipulation and fear-mongering on talk-shows all across the country.

The truth is that we have not yet given secularism a chance to show us a saner world free from religion. The truth is that many of us are atheists and quite comfortable. We will not recant on our death bed nor will we ever pray in a foxhole, and we do not need to fill any God-shaped hole with Trumpism or Wokeism or any other *ism.

Now, that is not to say there is no problem. I have always emphasized that as an atheist I would not want to simply “do away with religion.” Religion has trained our brains to accept nonsense. We must fix that first or else we’ll simply adopt other nonsense, yes like Trumpism.

Reason can be our rock. Our best hope as a species is not merely the least destructive catechism of nonsense. We can learn to be rational. That is why my focus has always been on teaching fact-based thinking rather than attacking religion. My book (see here) was based on the premise that we must eliminate magical thinking, religious or non, by teaching rational thinking.

So I have still not given up on the vision of a rational, ethical, and healthy secular world and I assume John Lennon would not take back his words either…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

A Healthy Model of Equality

Thomas Jefferson prominently enshrined the phrase “all men are created equal” in our Declaration of Independence. This phrase has ever since embodied perhaps the single most important and enduring foundation of the American experiment (see here).

Certainly all people of good-will respect and value this “immortal declaration.” And certainly no one limits their interpretation to the literal meaning of the phrase. For if children quickly and demonstrably became unequal, the idea of equality at creation would lose any practical or useful meaning whatsoever. So we generally accept that “created equal” also implies that we remain equal throughout our lives, independent of what we do or do not accomplish in life.

But this must be much more than a mere rhetorical or theoretical equality. It must extend far beyond a mere begrudging recognition that all people have the right to basic human rights and dignity. It must be a practical working belief that operates at the real functional interpersonal level which allows us to work together in this human project as equal partners.

Indeed, without a sincere and unqualified recognition of the equality of all individuals, our social fabric cannot endure. It is not possible to have a fair and just society if we feel, even deep down, that some are deserving and others are not; that some are superior merely by virtue of their social status or race or gender or even by their level of accomplishment in life. To allow for such fundamental bases of inequality is to travel down the road toward slavery and subjugation and exploitation and ultimately into the abyss of social disfunction.

Yet, moving beyond a mere allowance of certain inalienable rights to a true respect for each individuals capabilities and worth is not easy. In fact that is a huge understatement. For in our everyday life in every social interaction we see that people are simply not equal. It is laughably obvious that in fact we are not equal by wide margins. Some folks are brilliant, others stupid. Some sane, others insane. Some gifted, others inept. Some strong, others puny. Some have lived honorable lives, others lives of ignobility.

The truth is, we cannot help but observe glaringly wide disparities on any measure of worth you care to assess.

So how can we truly hold the ideal of equality alongside the reality of inequality harmoniously in our minds? How can we sincerely believe in equality without lying to ourselves about the reality? And how can we acknowledge the reality without lying to ourselves about our belief in the ideal?

This requires some rationalization. Rationalization is not a bad thing. We all have to find some coherent model for reconciling contradictory ideas. Therefore, we all must find some kind of understanding that allows a recognition of equality to thrive, fully and harmoniously in our individual brains and in our collective psyche, alongside the reality of inequality.

You may already have your own rationalization that works well for you. But here’s how I rationalize it. It’s not perfect, but no model can be. It has long worked pretty well for me.

  1. Excluding physical or chemical debilitation, a human’s total capacity to think is neurologically dependent upon their physical brain capacity.
  2. All human brains are the same size, or close enough as the differences do not matter. Therefore our total brain “power” is essentially the same and all of it is used in some manner.
  3. Brains exhibit a wide spectrum of capabilities. Think of it as an impracticably wide bar chart. Each bar is a narrow trait, like perhaps “math,” or “kindness,” or “neuromuscular control,” but much finer grained than those.
  4. Everyone’s bar chart is a unique. It is a signature of who they are. Everyone has some high bars and some low bars. But the total area under the bars adds up to the same total power.
  5. Some bars are particularly valued by society at any given time, some are measured on an SAT exam and some are not. Some make you a business tycoon, some a starving artist. But although some signatures may be seen as more important to society, or lead to greater success, all are equal and all are valuable to society.

So, in my rationalization all people are truly equal. True, some may be less appreciated or less helpful in a given situation, but all are nevertheless worthy of true respect in my mind for their unique strengths. There is no contradiction whatsoever with the observed differences between individuals. Aspiration and reality are fully reconciled.

This model has helped me to reconcile equality with differences. It has in fact helped me appreciate equality by virtue of our differences. It has helped me to feel proud of my own personal strengths while simultaneously humble about my weaknesses and while still being as worthy and as flawed as anyone overall. It has helped me recognize that being smart or skilled in one area does not make anyone particularly smart or skilled in another. That has helped me apply a healthy level of skepticism to opinions put forth by “smart” people in areas outside their proven expertise and to allow that otherwise uninformed people can offer valuable insights in others. It has helped me understand that traits like “smart” or “sane” are not simple binaries but complex and nuanced and somewhat arbitrary. We are all smart in some things and delusional others (see here). It has also helped me to value undervalued traits and to recognize that disrespecting people for one very low bar of their chart does not mean you disrespect them in totality and that respect overall does not require you to respect every trait.

And further, we should value the undervalued signatures in our society more than we do. It is our failure and our loss if we do not identify and utilize whatever unique strengths each individual has. There are no useless skillsets, only underutilized and underappreciated skillsets.

I think these rationalizations have led me in a healthy direction. Maybe this model will help you come to a more healthy and helpful view of equality as well.

A Right Makes It Right for the Right

In order to continue to rationalize and legitimize their support for Trump and all of the reprehensible things he says and does, Conservatives have had to abandon any semblance of principled ethical decision-making. They have retreated in their ethical justification to one recurring assertion…

Well he has the Right to do it.

We hear it all the time nowadays. But look, let’s be clear. We value and respect the Rights that we afford to each other through social norms, mutual respect, and as codified in our Constitution. But let’s also be clear, simply asserting that one has a strictly legal right to do something does not make it right to do. Acknowledging that someone technically has a right to do something does not excuse one from recognizing any other ethical considerations.

Having a legal or technical Right to do something doesn’t make it a wise thing to do, or a courteous thing to do, or a sensible thing to do, or even an honorable thing to do. In fact, sometimes asserting one’s Right is a dick thing to do. It may even be a selfish and unconscionable thing to do. Asserting a Right can in fact be the sociopathic thing to do.

It may be my Right to wear my stovepipe hat in a crowded movie theatre, but it’s a dick move. It may be my Right tell you that your little child looks like a mutant Klingon, but no one should do that. It may be my Right to exploit loopholes so that I pay no taxes on my millions, but really? And it may be my Right to brandish my gun and wave my Confederate flag around, but is it really right to exercise those particular Rights in that manner?

Similarly, the Congress may technically have had the “Right” to block Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland for eight months, but it was a dick thing to do. They technically had the “right” to appoint Amy Coney Barrett only weeks before a Presidential election, but it was still hypocritical and low-class to assert that Right. The President may technically have the “right” to personally intervene in Federal criminal cases to serve his own personal agenda, but it is still wrong. Trump may claim a “right” to grant pardons to anyone he wishes, or redirect resources, or to have private conversations with dictators, or any of a million other things. He may have the “right” to lie about matters personal and official, but it is still unethical. Simply put, his “right” to do those things does not make any of them the right thing to do. It certainly does not excuse them or make them into behaviors that we must accept.

It is not surprising that Trump, self-serving child that he is, would assert a “right” to do practically anything he wishes. Nor that Mitch McConnell would assert that any dirty tactic he may employ is within his “rights.” But it is really sad that so many outsiders, so many pundits and elected representatives, folks whose ethical responsibility it is to be ethically responsible, respond to concerns about ethical integrity only by saying “well he has the right to do that.”

Claiming that someone else has “the right to do that” is a weaselly and cowardly attempt to appear ethically-grounded while in fact abandoning anything beyond a pathetic pretense of ethical integrity. Conversely, quite often the truly right thing to do ethically is to put aside one’s own personal selfish “rights” to service a far greater and more noble good.

And it must be pointed out that very often these “rights” invoked are usually not affirmative, specifically granted rights, or even generally accepted rights. Most often these are matters of common human decency that no one ever felt they needed to enumerate in some gargantuan list of all the things no honorable person would ever do, or would even think of doing.

The lack of a specific prohibition is not a Right.

Yet, for the most part, this is the new Trumpian ethical low that we Americans have fallen to. If your totally reprehensible and unthinkable behavior has no specific law against it beyond hundreds of years of decorum and mutual respect, then you claim that it is your “right” to do that thing. And if you are a partisan or sycophant, you excuse that behavior by simply pointing out that it is technically and legally within their rights.

Invoking a technical right to do something is one of the most abused, misused, disingenuous, and yes even unethical, levels of ethical thinking and behavior. So realize that when apologists justify bad behavior as a “right,” they are almost certainly resorting to the weakest possible justification that they hope sounds principled, lofty, and unassailable.

We should not so easily let them off the ethical hook by simply invoking this sort of disingenuous justification.

The Emergence of Malignant Liberalism

I defy anyone to question my liberal credentials. I’m now in my sixties and since my youth I’ve raised my voice against Conservatism, Religion, Guns, our War Economy, Unrestrained Capitalism, Blind Patriotism, Social Injustice, and Environmental Abuse. I’ve spent many years volunteering and working around the world at all levels of the global socio-economic spectrum. I’ve written and spoken out about difficult and delicate topics both formally and informally. I’ve received threats, including death threats, and been often told explicitly to “love it or leave it!” Despite all that I have always proudly identified as an “extreme Liberal,” if not a radical one.

So it is with a sad heart that I must acknowledge that I’m now embarrassed to identify as a Liberal. For me, the Liberal extremists have jumped off the deep end and I refuse to follow them into the abyss. Liberalism has grown and mutated into something almost as toxic as the social poisons they claim they wish to cure.

Modern Liberalism has metastasized into something akin to a religion.

Like religious people, the new Liberals have their rigid dogma. You must prove your devotion by adopting all the accepted language of the religion. You must be willing to dutifully demonstrate your devotion by declaring your preferred pronouns. You must accept every tenet, behave just so, or risk their form of excommunication, the terminal cancellation.

Like “born again” religious fanatics, these Liberals talk of being being “woke.” They tend to be upper-middle class people who suddenly discover the “devil” of poverty and injustice. They then take up their verbal swords with religious fervor to spread their message and enforce their dictates. They wield the language of their religion with terms like “intersectionality,” and “toxic masculinity,” and “microaggression,” and “appropriation” with all the pseudo-scholarly conviction of a television preacher.

And like religious zealots, they have unwavering conviction that their cause is righteous and just and that it is their newfound mission to force proper behavior upon others by any means necessary. Any collateral harm to individuals is justified in service of the long-term mission. Like any religion, they preach love and inclusion while practicing hate and exclusion.

Frankly, as with religious leaders, I suspect that for most of the hard-core Liberal fanatics it’s not really about the mission at all. It’s all about reveling in the role of spiritual leader. Of establishing oneself as one of the “high holies” who sits upon a moral throne above all others.

For vast majority of “regular” liberals, life is now all about towing the line, keeping your head down, saying the right things, not saying anything for fear of saying the wrong thing, and staying silent when others fall victim to the new inquisition – all in the hopes of keeping the wrath of the righteous woke from coming down upon you.

Religion doesn’t have to be religious. Secular causes can serve all the same base emotional and social functions that religion does. And when they do, they are vulnerable to all the same terrible excesses.

As an atheist, I’m repelled by any religion, particularly secular religions that rise like malignant creeping vines to crush the life out of important social causes that I care deeply about.

Perhaps now I’ll be told once again to “love or leave” this power-crazed liberal nation.

Three Major Flaws in your Thinking

BrainwavesEEGToday I’d like to point out three severe and consequential flaws in your thinking. I know, I know, you’re wondering how I could possibly presume that you have major flaws in your thinking. Well, I can safely presume so because these flaws are so innate that it is a statistical certainty that you exhibit them much the time. I suffer from them myself, we all do.

Our first flaw arises from our assumption that human thinking must be internally consistent; that there must necessarily be some logical consistency to our thinking and our actions. This is reinforced by our own perception that whatever our neural networks tell us, no matter how internally inconsistent, nevertheless seems totally logical to us. But the reality is that our human neural networks can accommodate any level of inconsistency. We learn whatever “training facts,” good or bad, that are presented to us sufficiently often. Our brains have no inherent internal consistency checks beyond the approval and rejection patterns they are taught. For example, training in science can improve these check patterns,  whereas training in religion necessarily weakens them. But nothing inherently prevents bad facts and connections from getting introduced into our networks. (Note that the flexibility of our neural networks to accommodate literally anything <was> an evolutionary advantage for us.)

Our second flaw is that we have an amazing ability to rationalize whatever random facts we are sufficiently exposed to so as to make them seem totally logical and consistent to us. We can maintain unquestioning certainty in any proposition A, but at the same time be perfectly comfortable with proposition B, even if B is in total opposition with and incompatible with proposition A. We easily rationalize some explanation to create the illusion of internal consistency and dismiss any inconsistencies. If our network is repeatedly exposed to the belief that aliens are waiting to pick us up after we die, that idea gradually becomes more and more reasonable to us, until eventually we are ready to drink poison. At each point in the deepening of those network pathways, we easily rationalize away any logical or empirical inconsistency. We observe extreme examples of this in clinical cases but such rationalization affects all our thinking. (Note that our ability to rationalize incoherent ideas so as to seem perfectly coherent to us was an evolutionary necessity to deal with the problems produced by flaw #1.) 

The third flaw is that we get fooled by our perception of and need to attribute intent and volition to our thoughts and actions. We imagine that we decide things consciously when the truth is that most everything we think and do is largely the instantaneous unconscious output of our uniquely individual neural network pathways. We don’t so much arrive at a decision as we rationalize a post-facto explanation after we realize what we just thought or did. Our consciousness is like the General who follows the army wherever it goes, and tells himself he is in charge. We feel drawn to a Match date. Afterwards when we are asked what attracted us to that person, so we come up something like her eyes or his laugh. But the truth is that our attraction was so automatic and so complex and so deeply buried, that we really have no idea. Still, we feel compelled to come with some explanation to reassure us that we made a reasoned conscious decision. (Certainly our illusion of control is a fundamental element of what we perceive as our consciousness.)

So these are our three core flaws. First, our brains can learn any set of random facts and cannot help but accept those “facts” as undeniable and obvious truths. Second, we can and do rationalize whatever our neural network tells us, however crazy and nonsensical, so as to make us feel OK enough about ourselves to at least allow us to function in the world. And thirdly, when we ascribe post-facto rationalizations to explain our neural network conclusions, we mistakenly believe that the rationalizations came first. Believing otherwise conflicts unacceptably with our need to feel in control of our thoughts and actions.

I submit that understanding these flaws is incredibly important. Truly incorporating an understanding of these flaws into your analysis of new information shifts the paradigm dramatically. It opens up powerful new insights into understanding people better, promotes more constructive evaluation of their thoughts and actions, and reveals more effective options for working with or influencing them.

On the other hand, failure to consider these inherent flaws misdirects and undermines all of our interpersonal and social interactions. It causes tremendous frustration, misunderstanding, and counterproductive interactions.

I am going to give some more concrete examples of how ignoring these flaws causes problems and how integrating them into your thinking opens up new possibilities. But before I do that, I have to digress a bit and emphasize that we are the worst judge of our own thoughts and conclusions. By definition, whatever our neural network thinks is what seems inescapably logical and true to us. Therefore, our first thought must always be, am I the one whose neural network is flawed here? Sometimes we can recognize this in ourselves, sometimes we might accept it when others point it out, but most of the time it is exceedingly difficult for us to recognize let alone correct our own network programming. When our networks change, it is usually a process of which we are largely unaware, and happens through repeated exposure to different training facts.

But just because we cannot fully trust our own thinking doesn’t mean we should question everything we think. We simply cannot and should not question every idea we have learned. We have learned the Earth is spherical. We shouldn’t feel so insecure as to question that, or be intellectually bullied into entertaining new flat Earth theories to prove our open-mindedness or scientific integrity. Knowing when to maintain ones confidence in our knowledge and when to question it, is of course incredibly challenging.

And this does not mean we are all equally flawed or that we cannot improve. The measure is how well our individual networks comport with objective reality and sound reason. Some of our networks have more fact-based programming than others. Eliminating bad programming is not hopeless. It is possible, even irresistible when it happens. Our neural networks are quite malleable given new training facts good or bad. My neural network once told me that any young bald tattooed male was a neo-Nazi, that any slovenly guy wearing bagging jeans below his butt was a thug, and any metro guy sporting a bushy Khomeini beard was an insecure, over-compensating douchebag. Repeated exposure to facts to the contrary have reprogrammed my neural network on at least two of those.

OK, back on point now. Below are some examples of comments we might say or hear in conversation, along with some analysis and interpretation based on an awareness of our three flaws. I use the variable <topic> to allow you to fill in the blank with practically anything. It can be something unquestionably true, like <climate change is real>, or <god is a fantasy>, or <Trump is a moron>. Alternatively, if you believe obvious nonsense like <climate change is a hoax>, or <god is real>, or <Trump is the greatest President ever>, using those examples can still help just as much to improve your comfort level and relations with the other side.

I don’t understand how Jack can believe <topic>. He is so smart!

We often hear this sort of perplexed sentiment. How can so many smart people believe such stupid things? Well, remember flaw #1. Our brains can be both smart and stupid at the same time, and usually are. There are no smart or stupid brains, there are only factually-trained neural network patterns and speciously trained neural network patterns. Some folks have more quality programming, but that doesn’t prevent bad programming from sneaking in. There should be no surprise to find that otherwise smart people often believe some very stupid things.

Jill must be crazy if she believes <topic>.

Just like no one is completely smart, no one is completely crazy. Jill may have some crazy ideas that exist perfectly well along side a lot of mostly sane ideas. Everyone has some crazy programming and we only consider them insane when the level of crazy passes some socially acceptable threshold.

I believe Ben when he says <topic> is true because he won a Nobel Prize.

A common variant of the previous sentiments. Ben may have won a Nobel Prize, he may teach at Harvard, and may pen opinion pieces for the New York Times, so therefore we should give him the benefit of the doubt when we listen to his opinions. However, we should also be cognizant of the fact that he may still be totally bonkers on any particular idea. Conversely, just because someone is generally bonkers, we should be skeptical of anything they say but still be open to the possibility that they may be reasoning more clearly than most on any particular issue. This is why we consider “argument by authority” to be a form of specious argument.

It makes me so mad that Jerry claims that <topic> is real!

Don’t get too mad. Jerry kinda can’t help it. His neural network training has resulted in a network that clearly tells him that <topic> must obviously be absolutely true. Too much Fox News, religious exposure, or relentless brainwashing will do that to anyone, even you.

How can Bonnie actually claim that she supports <topic> when she denies <topic>???

First, recall flaw #1. Bonnie can believe any number of incompatible things without any problem at all. And further, flaw #2 allows her to rationalize a perfectly compelling reason to excuse any inconsistency.

Clyde believes in <topic> so he’ll never support <topic>.

Not true. Remember our flaws again. Clyde’s neural network can in fact accommodate one topic without changing the other one, and still rationalize them perfectly well. All it takes is exposure to the appropriate “training facts.” In fact, consistent with flaw #3, after his network programming changes, Clyde will maintain that he consciously arrived at that new conclusion through careful study and the application of rigorous logic.

Sonny is conducting a survey to understand why voters support <topic>.

Social scientists in particular should be more cognizant of this one. How often do we go to great efforts to ask people why they believe something or why they did something. But remember flaw #3. Mostly what they will report to you is simply their rationalization based on flaw #2. It may not, and usually doesn’t, have anything to do with their extremely complex neural network programming. That is why “subjective” studies designed to learn how to satisfy people usually fail to produce results that actually do influence them. Sonny should look for more objective measures for insight and predictive value.

Cher should support <topic> because it is factually supported and logically sound!

Appeals to evidence and logic often fail because peoples’ neural network has already been trained to accept other “evidence” and to rationalize away contrary logic. It should be no surprise that they reject your evidence and conclusions and it doesn’t accomplish anything to expect Cher to see it, let alone berate or belittle her when she does not.

And that brings us to the big reveal of this article…

There is a fourth flaw that is far worse than the other three we have discussed so far. And that is the flaw that most of us suffer from when we fail to integrate an deep awareness of flaws 1-3 into our thinking. We may not be able to completely control or eliminate flaws 1-3, but we can correct flaw number 4!

This discussion may have left you feeling helpless to understand, let alone influence, our truth-agnostic neural networks. But it also presents opportunities. These insights suggest two powerful approaches.

The first approach is more long-term. We must gradually retrain flawed neural networks. This can be accomplished through education, marketing, advertising, example-setting, and social awareness campaigns to name a few. None of these efforts need to be direct, nor do they require any buy-in by the target audience. The reality of network training is that it is largely unconscious, involuntary, and automatic. If our neural networks are exposed to sufficient nonsense, they will gradually find that nonsense more and more reasonable. But the encouraging realization is that reprogramming works just as well – or better – for sound propositions. And to be clear, this can happen quite rapidly. Look at how quickly huge numbers of neural networks have moved on a wide range of influence campaigns from the latest fashion or music craze to tobacco reduction to interracial relationships.

The second approach can be instantaneous. Rather than attempt to reprogram neural networks, you force them to jump through an alternate pathway to a different conclusion. This can happen with just a tiny and seemingly unrelated change in the inputs, and the result is analogous to suddenly shifting from the clear perception of a witch-silhouette, to that of a vase. Your network paths have not changed, yet one moment you conclude that you clearly see a witch, and the next it becomes equally obvious that it is actually a vase. For example, when Karl Rove changed the name of legislation, he didn’t try to modify people’s neural network programming, he merely changed an input to trigger a very different output result.

I hope these observations have given you a new lens through which you can observe, interpret, and influence human behavior in uniquely new and more productive ways. If you keep them in mind, you will find that they inform much of what you hear, think, and say.