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I’ve written before about the potential of “new media” to accelerate our cultural evolutionary processes (processes described in the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts), emphasizing the positive potential (see A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). But there are also dynamics in place which co-opt this meme-accelerator in service to our basest inclinations, systematically favoring the least well-informed and most poorly reasoned memes and paradigms over the best-informed and most well reasoned memes and paradigms.

This consciousness-contracting force is comprised of the following interacting factors, the first of which is laudable in and of itself, but combines with the other two in dysfunctional ways: 1) A shared popular commitment to respecting the right of each to express any position in public discourse without privileging some over others; 2) A wide-spread individual aversion to being embarrassed by having one’s own factual or logical error debunked in public discourse; 3) The pandering of many comment board and blog moderators to those who are so embarrassed, favoring empty sniping (which is accepted as the norm on such forums) over carefully constructed argument (which is considered too discomfiting a challenge to those who want a “safe” place to broadcast their often arbitrary, ideologically-derivative opinions).

I’ve encountered this dynamic repeatedly, targeted both by participants and, in service to popular inclinations, moderators as well, for introducing analytical thought into such forums. Most recently, the Denver Post has taken this dynamic to new depths, deleting three highly factual and analytical comments on my part, at the behest of someone who was offended by the factual and analytical content itself.   

The first comment was a list of points contesting a comment by the complaining individual (whose own comment was nothing but a string of ad hominems), citing economic studies, a demographic argument made by The Economist magazine, and historical facts. Other than starting with the word “hogwash,” and ending with the phrase “other than that, you really nailed it,” it was nothing but fact and argument. The second comment was a point-by-point debunking of his response, devoid of any ad hominem. The third was nothing more than a straight-forward and very dry correction of the assertion that the 15% tax rate paid by many of the wealthiest Americans is due to their charitable giving, noting that the 15% rate was the capital gains tax rate that many of them enjoyed, and not an artifact of deductions for charitable giving. Amazingly, the Denver Post on-line moderator deleted all three, at one point messaging me that he saw nothing wrong with my comments, but was deleting them anyway!

I contacted the Denver Post about this, and received assurances that they would discuss it and get back to me. They never did.

This is just the most egregious example of a larger, and more troubling dynamic: The privileging of angry ideological memes over factually informed and well-reasoned memes. Anyone who reads comment boards such as the Denver Post can’t help but notice the dominance of angry ideological voices. What many may not realize is that the moderators themselves actually contribute to ensuring that such voices dominate their comment boards, not because they necessarily agree with or prefer the tone of those voices, but rather because of a mistaken application of a democratic instinct: Protecting voices from factual and logical challenges to them.

In one sense, the larger endeavor we are in, the struggle over humanity’s future, is a contest between the forces of mindlessness and mindfulness, of belligerence and compassion, of bigotry and enlightenment. We must never forget, each and every one of us, that that struggle occurs within as well as without, within our own individual psyches, within our own groups and movements, within our own rationalizations and ideologies. But the two are a challenge that we face without distinction, for we share a mind, and when the forces of mindlessness prevail in our interactions, they also prevail in our own internal cognitive landscapes. The Denver Post, for instance, succeeded not only in silencing reason applied to fact in deference to irrationality applied to fictions, but also in reinforcing the belief that it was right to do so in the mind of one who least could afford to have that belief reinforced.

It is incumbent on each of us to confront these countervailing currents, sweeping through the same media of collective consciousness as I am using now; to level their waves of mindlessness with the interference of equal and opposite waves of mindfulness. As many know, my outline of a sustained strategy for doing so can be found in the essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. But this suggested paradigm, like the paradigms it is designed to affect, should be one which benefits from the genius of the many, from the refinements offered by time and numbers. It is now just a nascent thought, waiting to be developed. The only critical thread that must weave itself through all of our efforts is a commitment to continuing to strive to be reasonable and imaginative people of goodwill, working together with humility and compassion to confront the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world. The more successfully we spread that meme, the better off we will be.

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  • sblecher:

    Hello Steve, a few years ago, strictly in jest, I coined the expression,”Superstition and ignorance will triumph over science and enlightenment”. I’m afraid it’s really happening. There is a faction that I’ll call the Truculent Right. They’re the people who always cheer when Republican candidates talk about executions, electric fences, mass roundups of illegal immigrants, and having poor kids work as janitors. They seem to be angry 24/7, and I don’t know what keeps their heads from exploding, and I don’t know why they have a lynch mob mentality. Maybe they were abandoned at birth and raised by wolves, or beaten with a razor strap by wicked stepmothers. In any case, a lot of them hang out out on the Open Forum. There is an ultraconservative claque that’s not concerned with presenting any kind of logical arguments or writing a point by point rebuttal. They simply want to obliterate anybody who disagrees with them, and if a writer smells like a liberal they swarm him like killer bees. One thing that’s fun is to use a little humor or irony, because these people have no sense of humor, and hate anybody who they think is a wise guy. The moderators at the DP are only interested in selling papers and they don’t care about the quality of what’s written, other than deleting posts that contain criminal libel. If you have no influence and you want to get something off your chest, you can write a letter to the editor. If you are really wealthy, you don’t have to bother writing anything. If you have something to discuss, you simply invite your congressman over to your club for a friendly chat.

  • sblecher:

    On Bill Moyers” new PBS series yesterday, his guest was Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and social scientist who has been studying political and moral attitudes. He described in detail the makeup of the conservative mentality and the liberal mentality, and why it’s hard for one side to understand where the other side is coming from. He explains why each side demonizes the other and what can be done about it. Haidt’s insights appear to offer a way out of this trench warfare situation our political system is engaged in. You can find the whole program on the Moyers and Company web site. It’s very much worth watching. Haidt has a new book out titled, “The Righteous Mind” and I think i’ll buY it

  • Thanks Steve. Here’s the link: http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/.

    The dynamic you’re talking about is an important one, and the subject of some of my earlier essays. But I just want to clarify that it’s not exactly what I was talking about in my post above: This essay is about a particular phenomenon that systematically filters out more thoughtful contributions to popular public discourse (from whatever ideological location they may emanate), and preserves less thoughtful contributions, on the basis of an exaggerated “democratic” reflex (“all opinions are of equal value”), combined with a natural aversion to being corrected and moderators only concerned with making regular (generally, ideologically overwrought) participants “comfortable.” It’s something I encountered in a very sustained, concentrated form on one popular left-leaning political blog, where, in the wake of initial popularity of my posts, a number of regular participants openly resented them for being analytical (and therefore “condescending,” etc.), and where all others eventually just stayed out of their way when they engaged in amazingly harrassing behaviors, with the implicit (sometimes explicit) endorsement of the blog moderators.

    This particular phenomenon isn’t about the right-left rift, but rather about the thoughtful-ideological rift, which is quite a different one, despite some areas of overlap. In fact, ironically, had I been a right-wing analyst posting in the same fashion that I had, the majoirty left-leaning bloggers on the aforementioned site would have been much more tolerant of me, in the name of accommodating the voice of the opposition (though the right-wing minority would have still opposed me for violating the rules of engagement: No meaningful challenges to ideological positions)! This particular phenomenon, of a “clubbiness” among those who adhere to opposing ideologies but do so in similar ways, in an echo-chamber defined and legitimated by an ostentatious “tolerance” of substantively minority voices representing well-defined ideologies, but assiduously insulated from any excessive intrusion of analytical thought (the minority voice that is not tolerated), merits a separate essay of its own! Their issue was not with my ideological leanings, but with my introduction of in-depth analysis to what they considered to be a haven of brevity and (though they would not use this word) superficiality.

    The fact is that there are insightful, analytical positions associated with both the left and right, and that there are knee-jerk ideological positions associated with both the left and the right. I think that the focus on the ideological polarity is one more way to reduce a focus on actual analysis: There is a false notion among non-analytical moderates that reason is to be found at some mid-point between ideological poles, when in fact reason is to be found scattered across the entire spectrum, not necessarily evenly. By failing to privilege fact, reason and analysis, wherever they may lead, we give undue weight to competing ideologies as measures of “reasonableness” and determinants of public policy.

    While I happen to think that the distribution of reason is heavily skewed along the ideological spectrum, that’s not my current point. Rather, my point is that, regardless of ideology, there is a systematic bias in public discourse favoring brevity and superficiality, and disfavoring thoughtfulness and in-depth analysis. One aspect of this is the “sound-bite” requirement in political messaging and media reporting. But the aspect I’m focusing on now is the “discomfort” imposed by factual and logical analysis on those who are not engaging in it (whether from the left or right), their subjective feeling of having their “equally valuable” opinion discredited in an inappropriate way by such factual and logical analysis, and a both organic and sometimes centralized de facto censorship of more thoughtful contributions to public discourse that ensues.

  • sblecher:

    As I stated previously, politics is non-rational, but at the pragmatic end of the spectrum it contains rational elements, and when it’s very dogmatic it can be quite irrational. Since sites like the Open Forum of the DP deal with opinion, one opinion is as good as any other. The moderators don’t care as long as the writers aren’t excessively abusive. There are a lot of people who live in a purely subjective world and don’t value objective knowledge or analytical thinking. They can argue that global warming or evolution are hoaxes without ever checking any of the evidence, and they always feel threatened whenever anybody contradicts them. If you are indoctrinated by organized religion at an early age, dogmatic attitudes become second nature. You’re a lawyer and I’m an engineer, so we both value analytical reasoning, but we may be in the minority.

  • The point is, poorly reasoned and factually unsupported positions have to survive by recourse to means other than the use of reason and fact. If public forums let themselves be used as a vehicle for such alternative means of survival, not merely publishing those poorly reasoned and factually unsupported positions (as they should, if they are purely public forums and not in any way meant to be “peer-reviewed” or quality-controlled), but letting those who give them voice silence opposing reason and fact merely by complaining loudly enough that opposing reason and fact is offensive to them, while those who rely more on reason and fact are more inclined to let reason and fact prevail on its own merits (and indeed, as in my case, prefer that poorly reasoned or merely ad hominem arguments remain visible, so that they suffer by comparison), then those moderators are not the neutral bystanders you are implying they are. Instead, they cater to those who need to silence counterarguments in order not to be embarassed by them, while not accommodating those who merely want all arguments to be aired.

    If the moderators of those public forums are too inclined to respond to those who complain about being offended by deleting whatever it was that offended them (not, as you say, only if it is excessively abusive, but simply as happened in this case, because someone complained emphatically enough about it, and the fact of the complaint is taken to be sufficient evidence of an offense), then the problem is not just that some are clinging to poorly reasoned and factually unsupported positions, but that we, as a society, through the agency of public forum moderators, are systematically favoring poorly reasoned and factually unsupported positions in public discourse.

    A similar problem occurs in mainstream media: News outlets that attempt to achieve “objectivity” feel that letting reason and fact guide them will offend those who don’t let reason and fact guide them, and so seek a mid-point between prevailing ideological extremes instead (which might not be a very reasonable position at all). If a media market (e.g., a country) is itself ideologically skewed in one way or another (extreme examples like contemporary North Korea, or Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia make clear that such national biases at least sometimes exist, and a bit of thought makes clear that such national biases, to varying degrees, probably generally exist), and those who form its information source try to hit the mid-point of that nation’s zeitgeist, thus reinforcing that zeitgeist with a powerful feedback loop, then that media is not neutral, and certainly not “objective,” but rather a powerful force for deepening and heightening the prevailing national biases.

    I’m not talking about the ideological error of some people, but rather about a social systemic phenomenon that amplifies the ideological error of some people, rather than challenging all such ideological tendencies by feeding back signals biased in favor of reason and fact. Instead, mainstream mass media signals are biased in terms of the mid-point of prevailing cultural tendencies, and some “new media” decentralized public forum signals (such as The Denver Post Online) are biased in favor of those who rely more on complaining that they are offended by the fact that someone provides counterarguments (and often, I suspect, asking friends to make coordinated targeted complaints) than on making good arguments themselves.

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