Thursday, October 10, 2013

Friends and family plan

In surveying the newspaper this morning - my local paper stopped coming, apparently of its own accord, so I was stuck with the paper of record - I was struck by a recurring theme, and one that's recurred to me often over the last few months.  The continent's elites - economic, political, social and technological - are in the grip of a Dunning-Kruger effect so powerful they're willing to cut off everyone's noses to prove they're right.  Its not just that the general analytical skill of these elites is best represented in the XKCD cartoon about girls and math; its not just that the question "stupid or evil?" has no apparent answer when it comes to the continuous desire of the elites to push economic policy, birth control, energy policy, military solutions, and countless other arenas that have not just failed in the past but are failing with rank and odious consequences for everyone.  The stunning displays of obstinate ideologically-motivated incompetence we see in the news every morning are being modeled by everyday people, at work and at school.  People feel willing and justified in saying or doing stupid things every day to the people around them because in society as a whole there are no consequences at the top of the heap.  So its okay for people to say the President is a Nazi Stalinist who wants to force socialist medicine on all of us and enslave us to a life of indentured zombitude, and as a result people come into their places of work and make my life, and yours, a constant exercise in "what are they trying to do here?"

The vast majority of this problem, the Dunning-Kruger reservoir if you will, lies in the minds of older white men.  Oh sure you've got problems with other groups of people, and many women are full participants in the political and economic insanity that currently passes for tactical politics here in the US.  But let's be honest: Its the men.  These are men who until very recently were under the impression they were good guys, who may have believed a leveling of opportunity was a good idea and, in any event, it wouldn't affect them much anyway.  These men usually feel pretty independent, as well, their confidence a result of hard work and a little luck on their part, and no large scale efforts on the part of society to help them out, that they can think of.  And as a result of this they're tired of paying taxes to help out people who don't seem to get any better, and they're tired, most of all, of losing power.  These men are your friends, your family, your neighbors.  You may even be an older white man.

There's the essential contradiction at the heart of the older white guy view, of course: "Its a good thing for everyone to be more empowered and have better opportunities, as long as I personally don't lose any power or opportunities."  The corollary of this is the conviction that they got where they were without handouts or help - that the vast machinery of politics and economics that puts the vast majority of the wealth in the hands of a few wealthy white men, and then men in general, and then white women third, hasn't helped them out.  A rising tide lifts all boats, and if you happen to be on the boats with the white people you'll find more good stuff.

And objectively many of these people, these white men, have suffered.  They live paycheck to paycheck.  They are treated like dirt.  But in the long chain of being we all know hangs down from the clouds where the 1% live, white men alone are assumed to be endowed innately with potential.  If you're a woman, or black, or Jivaro or from a tiny village Sarawak then there's always the possibility you're a prodigy but the odds are objectively against you, even if Tom Friedman thinks you could be building smartphone apps tomorrow.  You didn't have the luck to be born white and male.

So these guys are fighting back everywhere against the tide of history.  They are apoplectic that a black man has been elected President twice, the last time with more votes than the first, that they've tried 42 times to cancel his signature policy achievement via the levers of power that they themselves set up, and failed each time.  They've lost and they refuse to believe it; they're wrong about what people want, and they can't understand how that can be.  They've been rejected, as a race, sex (not gender) and class, and not being picked for the team for the first time is a stunning reversal.  They have, after all, for the most part tried to be good stewards of their power, just adding a little something-something here and there for themselves - but all of that was for their family, mind you, for the wife and kids.  And so they've taken hostages all over the country: in the state legislatures, in the hospitals, in the companies we work and the schools we send our kids to.  Pity the poor white guy: He's owed some kind of credit, he figures, because if it wasn't for him none of you would even have a shot at power.  He invented democracy, for heaven's sake! 

We normally expect people who are wrong to understand they're wrong, climb off their position and move on.  Certainly the expectation since, say, Descartes is that when people are shown the right way, persuaded finally by the evidence, that they will abjure their wrong positions and agree to the truth.  But where, outside of a very limited subset of academic culture, does that actually happen?

So I propose a new line of research.  We need to figure out how to get people to come around from being wrong.  Because while many of these older white guys are finally, for example, beginning to admit that climate change might be an actual fact and that human activity might have something to do with it, they're still clinging to the notion that its inevitable anyway and so there's no consequences to them being wrong and continuing to advocate their wrong positions.  There are many issues where we can let them be wrong, but many where we can't afford to, where the whole IBDYBD approach is even more morally bankrupt than it appears.  But we don't know what to do about wrong people in this society.  We know how to persuade; we know all about the weight of evidence.  But what we don't have are techniques that let us work with or around wrong people.

Or maybe we do.  I suppose a Google search is in order.

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