Good morning, World 🙂
Can I just get something off my chest?
One of the many joys of having friends all over the political spectrum is that my newsfeed is a slew of warring memes, tweets, and outbursts at all times. I get a front row seat for the most reactionary exchanges and derailed conversations on both the left and the right, and while it is amusing, I can’t help but feel a bit disheartened.
Because I keep seeing some terrible thinking going on here.
I realize that politics is an emotionally-charged topic for many of us, in part because we believe that if we could just get everyone else to think as we do, we could make the world a better place. Even the concept of democracy is predicated upon this notion; we stand in the way of each other’s vision of utopia, and if only we could persuade the other side to drop the rope, we could end the suffering of millions of innocent people once and for all. We can’t, so we vote.
However, regardless of our good intentions, evolution has not endowed us with an infallible sense-making apparatus. We take logical short cuts that would have saved our lives on the Sahara over five hundred thousand years ago, but pose an existential threat to our wellbeing now.
I would like to discuss a few of these errors in reasoning that I’ve been seeing for a while, especially surrounding hot-button political topics. And as always, if my own sense-making apparatus isn’t working properly, feel free to recalibrate it.
Appeals to emotion are more persuasive than appeals to reason. Unfortunately.
This is perhaps the most formidable stumbling block in our path, and I suspect it is not going away any time soon. Not until we more fully merge with AI, at any rate. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Advertisers figured out years ago that if you throw a bunch of facts and statistics at people, no one will buy your product. But if you stir their emotions and invoke their sense of desire, empathy or outrage, you’re bound to sell more units than if you laid out data sets to make your case. This is innocent enough if you’re rolling out a new flavour of oatmeal, but for other commodities such as news stories, articles, and intellectual media, this bug in our software can be readily exploited for profit.
If a piece of media gets a bunch of clicks and interactions in a short amount of time, the algorithm shoots it right to the top of the charts, increasing visibility, along with – you guessed it – clicks. This makes sensationalist topics that appeal to niche groups, such as salient social justice issues, all the more tantalizing to bloggers and copywriters who perhaps also feel an additional moral obligation to put these ideas out there. Your outrage is another person’s paycheck, or more nefariously, your vote.
This brings me to the matter at hand.
Politics is an advertising game. Your candidates are well-aware that winning elections is not about “MATH,” (sorry Andrew Yang, I’m still with you) it’s about appealing to your target audience by striking a chord on emotionally salient, clickable topics. By keeping people divided into special interest groups according to their race, gender, sexuality, and political persuasion, they can secure voting blocks for the next election.
Politics and science do not share the same ethos. Presidential candidates do not care about rigorously interrogating reality to uncover the truth, regardless of where this inquiry leads. They care about securing votes. If this means appealing to outrage culture and identity politics, then both sides of the aisle are more than willing to get their hands dirty. What is “true” and what is “popular” are entirely different domains, and most people do not have an interest in going against their tribe to thoroughly probe a controversial topic. They’d rather keep their friends and their profession, their “status in their tribe” intact. I can’t say that I blame them, but I also cannot say that I am among them.
Beware of availability bias, the psychological tendency to overestimate the probability of a phenomenon based on how easily we can recall an example of it. This is why the news is particularly adept at distorting our world view. For example, mass-shootings – terrible though they may be – only account for a tiny percentage of deaths in the United States annually, but the hysteria following each event suggests that this problem deserves legislation for stricter gun control measures. Stroke and cerebrovascular disease kill orders of magnitude more people every year, but this is harder to picture, isn’t it? And if we can’t picture an example of a problem, we’re unlikely to emotionally respond to its presence.
Accept that our moral intuitions may not be borne out by the data. This is a tough pill to swallow, but it is an important concept that we must understand. Just because we feel deeply in our hearts that “Good will always prevail” or “What goes around comes around” does not mean that these are actually laws by which the universe functions. What do we do when presented with data that does not support the ethical axioms we have taken onboard? Do we deny reality, cherry pick the data, and smear the researchers who uncover undesirable discoveries as a certain flavour of bigot? Or would we be wiser to acknowledge the unpleasant finding and conduct further research to mitigate the negative effects of such an uncovering?
Do not assume that you know someone’s views based on any superficial characteristic, such as their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth. Lumping people together and characterizing their views under the blanket of one trait is the essence of racism, sexism, and any other “ism” you care to name. People are more than their “group identity,” and you cannot assume to know anyone’s opinion based upon their immutable characteristics. History should have taught us this long ago.
Do not assume that if someone disagrees with you, this just shows how right you are. Imagine debating a pagan on whether or not the Greek Pantheon is an extant, grounded-in-reality canon of gods, and when you back them into a rhetorical corner, they resort to: “The fact that you don’t believe in Zeus just shows how much you need to work on your relationships with the gods of Olympus…” As obviously flawed as this reasoning is in this context, I’ve seen several incarnations of this argument of late.
Don’t assume that someone who disagrees with you is stupid or uneducated. While I’m on the subject of logical fallacies bouncing around the cybersphere, I’ve seen several candidates for president bellow ad hominem attacks along these lines, and it’s incredibly devaluing to the people who could most benefit from your message. They could well be an idiot who did not pass a high school science class… And they could still be correct. In the paraphrased words of the astronomer Carl Sagan, “Being smart is no safeguard against being dead wrong.” Treat your political adversaries like they still have value, because they do. Believe it or not, it is possible that we do not know everything, and that even the least intellectually gifted among us may still be worth listening to. If nothing else, they are an exercise in patience.
Do not assume you are morally superior to your opponent. Everyone believes they are arguing on the side of what is right, noble, and just. The only way to deduce this is to fiercely interrogate your own position with greater ferocity than your opposition will ever launch upon you, and ensure that your opinion has been reasoned from the ground up based on first principles rather than by analogy. I will return to this point later.
Do not try to mischaracterize your opponent’s position as a weaker, easier to defeat argument. This is called “strawmanning,” and you should be doing the opposite: “steelmanning.” Make the strongest case for the opposition that you possibly can, then knock that down. Your opponent should agree that your assessment of their argument is correct.
This exercise has several benefits, as it allows you to ask questions such as:
- How sure am I of my own beliefs, anyway?
- Am I making assumptions based upon what I want to be true, or am I being led by substantiated premises backed by solid evidence?
- What findings go against my expectations?
- What would change my mind?
- What negative repercussions would I face professionally and socially if I were to reconsider my position on this topic?
Beware of confirmation bias. Christopher Hitchens once said that he greeted ideas he wanted to be true with extra suspicion, because he knew he was more likely to grant them special favours than ideas he wanted to believe were false. This is incredibly important, and ties directly into the “assuming moral axioms” argument I stated above. Identify what idea you most want to be true, and treat it with an extra dose of skepticism.
Beware of cherry picked statistics. Instagram is surfeit with artistically rendered, cutesy graphics emblazoned with out-of-context statistics. Rather than seeking out social media feeds that reinforce your worldview, seek out data that confounds the conclusions you have drawn. Your goal should be to try to disprove your own conclusion, to batter it from all sides with as much ferocity as you can muster. If your claim still stands, you might be onto something, but only until new evidence presents itself. Continually reevaluate for error.
Reason from first principles rather than from analogy.
Analogies can be useful to demonstrate our points, but they can also be incredibly flawed. This is because they may not accurately represent all facets of the actual argument at hand. Rather than relying on easy-to-share analogies with eye-catching graphics, start out instead with a list of facts that you can boil down, to the greatest degree of certainty possible, to be true.
For example – if you’ll pardon my use of analogy, as well as a shameless self plug, ha – if you were to endeavor to write a werewolf shifter romance trilogy that would appeal to your reader base, you may be well served by studying the Amazon reviews of the best-selling books in this category, developing a list of the most upvoted criticism and praise that these novels received, and constructing your works of fiction in accordance with these expectations. You would not be well-served by reasoning by analogy – perhaps by looking at the rabid success of “Twilight” and aiming to create a copy of this work.
If you do not wish to engage in political conversations on social media, you do not have to post about them.
I’m always amazed at how quickly political conversations can fly off the rails on either side of the aisle, especially among my beloved vegans. Even something to the effect of “Are you open to hearing more thoughts on this?” can be greeted with an obscenity-laden rant, the ban hammer, or even just stone-cold silence, followed by passive aggressive posts on the same topic you tried to address. I’ll take that as a no.
I understand that these conversations can be uncomfortable. It is not easy to question the principles that you hold the most dear, especially when your social group and your professional life is unlikely to reward such questions with likes, adulation, and shares. But if you’re not posting on these ideas because you wish to receive feedback, why share them in the first place? Do you wish to preach to the masses without exposing yourself to the same criticism you would levy at another person?
Another reason comes to mind, and it is an understandable, human motivation born from a place that we all share: the need to feel accepted by our community, our “tribe.” “Virtue signalling” is an ugly word for this impulse, and I attempt to refrain from using it because the shields go up whenever this term enters the discussion, but that’s precisely what I see on social media. The most loved posts tend to be the ones that our peer groups feel the most morally obligated to “like” and “upvote,” and this feels good. Who doesn’t enjoy feeling accepted? Who doesn’t enjoy feeling loved?
I’m not immune to this, either. But I refuse to compromise my intellectual honesty so that I can be popular. This has cost me friendships. I truly hope that it does not cost me more. But it would be morally wrong for me to pretend to hold a view that I do not purely because I was afraid of the reputational costs of putting forth such ideas.
I welcome your counter arguments. Whether you are on the right or the left, I will listen to you. And if you don’t have time to engage with any of the above critically, but you still have information that you think I would benefit from, feel free to leave a link in the comment section.
Just pardon my delayed response in advance, because this post is now over 2,200 words long and I’ve sunk two hours into its creation. You’ve seen my kanban board, right? Gotta get crackin’!
P.S. If you’d like to receive a free copy of my book “Warmth: A Paranormal Romance Novella” you can do so here. Happy reading!