Posts Tagged ‘politics’

SERMON: “Changing Minds” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Philosophers over the centuries have struggled to come to terms with what a human is, at heart: are we rational or primarily emotional beings?  If current research is to believed, it would seem that the answer to that question is “yes”.  Humans are both rational and emotional.  Which means that we are often irrational for emotional reasons.  But, according to Jonathon Haidt (in The Righteous Mind, reviewed this blog), it appears that the notion that we can detach our reason from our emotions is a bit of a pipe dream, as it seems that the emotions are a vital support system for our intellect and reason.

On consideration this makes sense.  After all, both our emotions and our reason have evolved together for a long, long time.  If one or the other were superfluous, one or the other would have been cast adrift (by natural selection) a long time ago.  This by no means tells us that our particular blend of feeling and thinking are the perfect answer to meeting life’s challenges.  It only tells us that this combination is what came of the raw animal materials evolution had to work with, and that it was sufficient to the challenge of our specie’s survival.

There have been a rash of studies of late comparing the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” mind.  I have no doubt that there is validity to the comparisons that show that “conservative” minded people crave stability over novelty, and that the “liberal” minded are just the opposite.  (The potentially nefarious aspect of this news is the way in which this “fact” can be employed as yet one more cudgel to minimize the views of one’s political enemies.  Science is always influenced by the cultural ideas current in the society at large, so I am awaiting the further research that will put these findings in a more complete perspective).

But in the meantime, we are left with the realization that not all human minds work in the same way.  Certainly we are all on a limited spectrum, so we’re not really talking apples and car alarms here, but variations on a theme.  As Haidt points out in his research (described so well in The Righteous Mind), all of us humans have a moral sense, but this sense turns out to act more like a collection of different moral “taste buds” than universally-calibrated on and off switches.  Which means the thing that morally outrages me may only mildly bother you.  This, I think, is clearly true, and it is the main reason that liberals and conservatives can shout at each other all the live long day and not make a dent in each other’s views.

This is the damnable and frustrating thing about this kind of knowledge: it seems to make any idea of human unanimity appear ever more remote.  We may have moved a great distance from our original blood-kin tribalism, but we remain tribal to a large degree, and our current level of tribalism may have moved beyond the nationalism that marked the last few centuries of our history to a more ideological form of in-group identification.  Hence, the rationalist idea that one can simply educate an uninformed person with facts and thereby change that person’s opinion is proving unequal to the challenge of obliterating the many strains of dangerous ignorance that plague our species.

Of course I’m thinking of one of the great current divides, which is that between Islam and “the West” (which could just as easily be called “Christiandom”, though with much qualification).  Never mind that the fundamentalist Christian and the fundamentalist Muslim have much more in common than they would care to admit, they would certainly consider themselves as inhabiting completely opposite world views.

And this is where we can find as good of an example as any of one of the great unacknowledged barriers to a reason-based shift in worldview: identity.

Being the profoundly social animals that we are, we seek out other humans among whom we feel comfortable and understood.  And so we might join a church with a list of doctrines that we can easily assent to, and thereafter shape ourselves ever more like our fellow church members in both our moral likes and dislikes.  It’s easy to see that membership groups like this are not random cross-sections of a variety of people, but tend to be naturally self-selecting populations.  (As my brother Chuck once told me: “A church is a group of people who all share the same sin”).

And so it immediately becomes apparent why any human who has identified with one group or another would be doubly resistant to a radical change in their views on any topic that is important to their inclusion in the group.  Add to this the reality that our brains process information that comes from a trusted source by first believing it without question, and doubting it only after much extra post-hoc effort, and you have a naturally strong resistance to change.

Playing with my "Evolving Darwin" toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

Playing with my “Evolving Darwin” toy set on a Pacific Beach delights me, but would deeply offend others, even though science is on the side of the story these toys tell.

There is, of course, another barrier to consensus, and that is found in those whose worldview happens to be one that does not easily align with physical reality.  I’m talking here about “faith” positions, that allow any and all kinds of physical phenomenon to be interpreted in a way that confirms religious or ideological world views.  For example, a natural weather event such as a hurricane, or the explosion of a meteor over Russia, will be taken as events with a spiritual (as opposed to a natural) cause.  This kind of thinking creates what I’d call an “insulated ignorance”, meaning it is a lack of knowledge that is active in preserving a certain informational vacuum (active far beyond the usual passing discomfort any of us feels when having to admit we were wrong on a fact).  We see this especially with regards to historic worldviews that have been carried forward into a period of history where science continues to present factual challenges that — if these worldviews are to survive — simply must not be accepted.  They are living artifacts of human ignorance, fighting tooth and nail for their very lives.

So when we look at the reality of how most humans really operate, the real question turns out to be not why more people aren’t open to changing their minds, but why we thought people could easily change their minds in the first place?

Liberal or conservative, it turns out that most humans are innately conservative (at least if we consider the “moderate” human to also be “conservative” in relation to the “liberal” members of the tribe).  In evolutionary terms, this mix makes sense.  Every tribe needs risk takers to rise to unusual challenges, but it also needs those who are more attuned to staying home and keeping the woodpile stocked and the tent mended.  And there is a reason that most religious conversations occur among the young (whose personalities are still very much in flux), and much more rarely in adults (who have already begun to “lock in” to their ideology).

I see myself as having become someone who responds to evidence, and who is willing to change his mind about things when facts prove me wrong.  Now, one could argue that I’m no better at this than any other human, but I don’t think that case would be strong.  True, I’m susceptible to all of the quirks of a human brain whose reason is linked to feeling, but I have also taken advantage of the plasticity of the brain and have developed a relationship between my feelings and my thinking so that it actually feels better for me to see that my views are aligned with our physical reality as much as possible.  For a human, I think I do pretty well on that score.  But that’s the thing.  I am still human.

And I can’t assume that others experience anything like the “positive” feelings I do when absorbing certain (potentially) unnerving scientific facts.   For instance, I feel okay accepting the reality that I am most likely not a divine or spiritual being connected to any sort of intelligent creator, or that my body is an evolved version of the body-plan of a lobe-finned fish, or that any and all sense of my self as a distinct personality will cease as soon as my brain stops working.  I’ve worked to make my peace with these evidence-based ideas.

But, then, I am not deeply invested in a church group with the added group-binding agents of a wife and children and extended family.  True, there was a time when my fall from belief was a source of conflict (and led to ruptured relationships) but that time has (mostly) passed.  I do still worry that my words or actions (as they broadcast my deeply-held views) will offend others or damage vital personal relationships.  Because, let’s face it, ours is a culture that is permeated with religious and quasi-religious beliefs, be they Christian or “New Age”, and so my (irreligious) views are always going to be at odds with the majority of my fellow humans (even most of my closer friends).  Fortunately for all of us, part of our innate social sense is to make allowance for those we love, and it is in the space carved out by such selective social blindness that we find room to stay close to each other, even when we hold very different views on important matters.

Plus, knowing that I am not immune to being wrong (I do have a human brain, after all), I have to maintain a certain humility about even the things that I am most firmly convinced are true (especially those things).  And it is this humility among thoughtful people that allows profound ideological differences to coexist without triggering deep social disruption.

There could yet be a wave of reason that will sweep across the globe, dampening the fires of religious extremism or the blinders of ideological dogmatism.  Maybe when that happens there will be enough “safety in numbers” that the more “conservative” questioning humans will be willing to jump ship, confident that they won’t be the only ones foregoing the security of their ideological group.

But in the meantime we are left with the unsettling reality that a substantial percentage of humans are resistant (to a greater or lesser degree) to the penetration into their reason of the scientific evidence as it pertains to their own existence.  Reality may, indeed, have a “liberal” bias.  But humans, most certainly, do not.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The End of Men, And The Rise of Women” by Hanna Rosin.

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Back in the deep, dark eighties, I read The Great Cosmic Mother, which was basically an early attempt to redress the exclusion of women’s contributions to human history.  I had just recently lost my (monotheistic) religion, and what I was after was a good accounting of our pre-Christian history.  “The Great Cosmic Mother” held the promise of giving me some useful data on the ways my ancestors lived and believed before Jesus came along.

It was a huge book, filled with page after page of Goddess propaganda and sweeping assertions, wrapped around some tantalizing data (roughly one-third “good stuff”, and two thirds “fluff”).  By the time I was done with it, I came to a conclusion:  “Some day”, I thought, “this field of research will mature, and someone will write a really good book on this subject”.  “The End of Men” is that book.

Hanna Rosin begins her book in a way that sounds like a rousing cheer for the state of affairs her title hints at: Women are finding themselves rising to the challenge of a shifting economy and workplace, freed to do so by birth control and gains in women’s rights, even as many men appear to be falling by the wayside, cast adrift in a world they are either unable or unwilling to adapt to.  The “macho man” is dying out, and the “super woman” is ascending.

But then the true nature of this book begins to appear.  This is not political broadside delighting in the demise of men (and tradition male culture), neither is it a “wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing” book that is actually criticizing women for becoming “bitches” in the workplace.  “The End of Men” is the serious, thoughtful, mature examination of women and culture that I hoped “The Great Cosmic Mother” would have been.

The two books deal in very different realms, true, but they are motivated by the same love of (and concern for) women and their issues.  But “The End of Men” is serious reportage.  The further I read the more I noticed how many of the author’s statements were arising out of reputable research papers, or from her own original interviews with women around the world.  This is not a feminist firebrand at work, but a serious reporter.

The title is dramatic and attention-grabbing, but it is not inaccurate.  For a lot of men (in industrialized economies, at least), a mode of being has passed into history.  Manufacturing jobs that once allowed men with low education to nevertheless work and support families (and thereby support their notion of themselves as the “head” of their families) are nearly gone.  And women have (one could argue) “had to” step up to feed their families and see to their own needs.

And so this is in many ways an economic story, and, as such, it has relevance not just to women, but very much to the men who are being “left behind” by history.

As a man who has grown up with the feminist movement as a constant companion, I welcome this kind of quality writing on a subject that impacts so many people’s most basic ideas of happiness and fulfillment.  I can’t think of anyone who would not benefit from reading it.  The author is nonjudgmental in her view point, but insightful and critical enough to dig beneath the surfaces of the lives her reporting brings her into contact with.

It remains to be seen how the hard-charging, eighty-hour-a-week professional working woman will fare when she finally breaks out into the very top tiers of corporate and political America (something that is becoming inevitable at this point).  In some ways she has become the template and signal for when the struggle for women’s equality is over.

Of course, this is not the whole story for women (any more than that small percentage of men at the top is the whole story for my own gender).  And women are also facing adaptive challenges as they lose their grip on their own familiar (if restrictive) social identities while rising up to outnumber men (as they now do) in many professional and academic fields.

For women, like any army claiming new territory, the ultimate challenge may be knowing when to declare “victory”.  Letting up too soon could allow gains to slip backwards.  Fighting too long prolongs needless suffering.  It’s something we’re all going to have to figure out eventually.

I highly recommend this book to men and women alike.  It tells us a great deal about the social and economic history that is happening to us right now.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!



Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

(This opinion piece of mine appeared in The Las Cruces Sun News on Monday, July 2, 2012)

The conventional wisdom is that we are a politically divided nation, with “both sides” moving further apart, ever more determined to not give an inch, leaving the moderate “middle” a virtual no-mans land where even angels fear to tread.

What can we do about it?  I have at least one idea, and it has nothing to do with the leadership in Washington, D.C., or the political party you belong to.  It does, however, have everything to do with you and me, and it is this:

Lighten up.

I’m not asking you to change your party or your stripes or your deeply-held beliefs — I’m just begging you to take a step back from the vein-bulging rage and indignation.

Don’t want to?  Great.  Then kiss your beloved country goodbye and get ready for our next Civil War.  Won’t that be fun!

Here’s my own story of the simple (though challenging) act I am asking of my fellow citizens:  I didn’t vote for George W. Bush for President, but once he was elected, I hoped (for our nation’s sake) that he would “succeed”.  But soon I came to feel that he was heavily favoring a large (but not majority) population that shared (unlike me) his cultural, political, and religious views.  He led us into a war that I felt was questionable, at best, and reckless at worst.  I came to view him as a terrible human being.  I believed he was an idiot and the puppet of a neo-conservative conspiracy to force America into the role of an imperial power.  I demonized him, and I got angry.  I hated the man.

So when Dan Rather came forward with “evidence” of President Bush’s “draft dodging” I was ready — no, happy — to believe it.

But then there came a moment when I realized that my anger and my hatred had now become part of the problem of America.  My blind, political rage was really just a counterproductive indulgence.  Whatever George Bush’s faults as our President, he was just a man, not that much better or worse than any other.  So when I learned that the “smoking gun” that Dan Rather had shown to America was not legitimate, I stopped believing that President Bush was guilty of that particular act.  I let it go.

I’ve come to understand that those we entrust with our governance can only accomplish as much as we allow them to.  So when the citizenry is as mad and dug in as we currently are, the fallible human beings that we have elected are forced to dance to the tune our angry fiddles are playing.

So the problem that we have to solve will not be fixed by sending ever more extreme (or “pure”) elected officials to the state house or Washington D.C.  The folks we have there now are already deadlocked like two fighting dogs afraid to loosen the grip of their jaws on each other’s necks, while the rest of us languish, the economy staggers, and real people suffer as history keeps on marching, marching, happy to pass us by.

No.  The only problem we can solve is right here in our own hearts.  Only then will our most intelligent and reasonable run for office.

I pick on the TEA Party.  But, then, I have actually taken the time to get to know them and to find out what they think, believe, and feel passionately about (many of my liberal friends think me crazy for even attempting this).  And I’ve learned something important from these talks with my fellow citizens:  1) They feel deeply about what they believe, (I do not for a moment doubt their sincerity, even if I disagree with their conclusions), and; 2) No matter how hard we tried to find common ground in our conversations, I realized that there will always remain an unbridgeable gap between my view of America and theirs.

And there you have the one, historic problem of America that will not go away (even with a Civil War): there are large swaths of our population that will never agree (have they ever?).  So what do we do?  Kill each other?  Attempt to shut each other out of access to government?  That’s what we’re trying to do right now (and you can see how well it is working as China and India are busily working to displace America as the world leader in technology, education and innovation).

As much as we love to de-humanize our political leadership, smearing them as fascists, socialists or crooks, these people in our capitals are the contents of our own hearts and minds projected on a big screen.  Which means that the bad movie we are watching is not the corruption of our nation, or our government: it is the corruption of our own reason by irrational outrage and inflamed imagination.  And the only cure for that will have to come when one person at a time takes a tiny step back and recognizes that the politicians and liberals and conservatives that we are so angry at are our fellow citizens and human beings who we should treat as we would want to be treated.  Maybe then our politicians will have the freedom to do their work of making the political compromises that have served our nation so well throughout our history — the kind of compromises that show respect for the beliefs, hopes and aspirations of all of our citizens.  Even the ones we don’t agree with.

If we can do this — if you and I can do this — then there will always be hope for this nation that we all share.

Bob Diven

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Ill Fares the Land” by Tony Judt

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

“If we have learned nothing else from the 20th century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences.” — p.224

I picked this book because of the author, Tony Judt.  I had seen him interviewed on the Charlie Rose program, and had thoroughly enjoyed his ambitious and eye-opening book Post War (reviewed on this blog).  I knew that he had recently died (in 2010), and Ill Fares the Land — as the last book published during his lifetime — held the promise of a final summation from this insightful historian.

So what does Judt have to say to us at this moment in history?  Quite a lot.  The book is, at its core, a statement on the values of social democracy with arguments from the recent history of both the United States and Europe.  It is a political book, yes, but one illustrated at every turn by historical examples of detail, clarity and honest perspective.  No blanket statements here, but a consistent recognition of both the complexities of organizing “the state” and the critical difference our view of that state always makes in its ability to function and function well.

This is a timely book.  One of my annoyances with the TEA Party is that their extreme anti-Federalist views have made of me a defender of our Republican form of government.  In that sense, I’ll be glad when I can get back to criticizing my government (once, that is, that I feel that my government is more secure from this internal threat).  Not unrelated to that, the very words “Socialism” and “Government” have become punching bags (a reality that Judt recognizes).  So how are we to rehabilitate the very real accomplishments of social (socialist?) government policies over the last one hundred years?  The author presents what, to me, is a reasonable and vital approach: social democracy.

I’ll leave the discovery of the details of that view to the reader.  But this is a rousing book based in historical reality (a quality I would not attribute to the historicist pap that keeps the chain store displays full).  It is the kind of reasoned, passionate, humane argument that can actually lead to a better society for more of its inhabitants.

Clearly I resonated with the ideas in this book.  And if the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is any indication, so do a great deal of other Americans.  Perhaps it is time that the one-sided argument against an effective “state” be, at last, counterbalanced.  I recommend this book as just one humane step in that direction.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.” by Michael Shermer

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

The Believing Brain started off strong for me, and included an unexpected narrative of author Michael Shermer’s own journey from belief to skepticism.  But in that narrative the seeds of the books later flaws were sown.

For though this book is a thorough guide to what we know about how the brain works in regard to belief, the skepticism of the author seems to stop at his own door, and the reader is “treated” to several lengthy passages that essentially make the case for why Democrats and Republicans believe silly stuff, but that the author’s own Rayndian-influenced Libertarianism is above the belief-dependent fray.

In this I was reminded of Sam Harris book “The End of Faith” where, after elegantly critiquing the irrational belief that is the basis of all human religion, takes a side-tour into the wonders of Transcendental Meditation!

Make no mistake: there is good, solid information in The Believing Brain, and it contains a useful catalog of the many biases we humans are given to.  But I think there are better sources for this information, and I would send a curious reader to two other books I’ve reviewed on this site (that are both free from the intellectual side-trips on offer here).  The books I’d recommend are:

“Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality” by Hannah Holmes.


“Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus

Although I have to credit this book with bringing to my awareness the useful concept of “Belief-dependant-realism”, I found the book, overall, to be an odd amalgam of subjects where, in addition to the aforementioned foray into Libertarianism, the final two chapters are devoted to cosmology, and the various “multiverse” theories.  Interesting, sure, but…

One thing I did derive from this book was an enlarged awareness that none of us is truly capable of living outside of the biases of our own brains.  That is sobering and a bit discouraging.  But, then again, it might free up a bit of our analytical energy to use in more fruitful pursuits.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!

The REV is invited to a TEA Party rally (VIDEO)

Friday, April 16th, 2010

TEA Party Bob

The not-so-reverend bob visits the TEA Party Protest on "Tax Day".

The not-so-reverend bob visits the TEA Party Protest on "Tax Day".