Saturday, March 24, 2018

The pessimist's paradox

If you engage in political discussion these days, you’ve almost certainly encountered a particular brand of pessimism.

I’m not talking about a general tenor of, “Everything is bad.”

Nor the pessimism in the Russian joke where you ask, “How are things?” and the pessimist answers, “Worse than yesterday,” while the optimist answers, “Better than tomorrow!”

And it’s not the pessimism of looking at climate change and saying, “We’re screwed. There’s too much CO2 in the atmosphere already, feedback loops have been triggered, and our societies don’t seem to be all that interested in doing anything serious about it anyway.”

(I’m temperamentally unable to live in that particular pessimism, but I can’t prove that it’s wrong.)

The one I’m talking about is, “It’s over. The oligarchs have won. What Cambridge Analytica showed is that with enough money, you can buy not just people’s votes, but their minds. Now that the transnational elites have that power, democratic elections can’t fix the problem.”

I appreciate the sentiment, and it sometimes crosses my mind.

But it also contains a paradox.

Because presumably the person making the statement has not had their mind bought. The person making the statement is still a fully autonomous subject, in charge of his or her own judgment, able to observe things as they really are.

And what they observe is that people are no longer fully autonomous subjects in charge of their own judgment. People have become mere pawns of the oligarchs and their newly empowered techniques of mind-control.

Other people, I mean.

I’m still an autonomous subject, in charge of my own judgment.

Which is why I can see that the rest of you have turned into zombies.

I don’t mean to deny that our moods, inclinations, and actions can be influenced by the things that other people make sure we see.

A recent Invisibilia podcast discussed evidence that the stories we’re exposed to can change not necessarily our own views on what’s right, but our views of what others think is right, and that in turn alters our behavior. (Scroll down to March 15, 2018.)

Three years ago Radio Lab was discussing Facebook’s experiments with tweaking people’s moods by altering what news items showed up in their feeds.

And let’s say you take a person who is maybe not a fan of Hillary Clinton, but sees some serious problems with Trump. If you can fill their mental environment with stories about how Clinton is linked to a pedophilia ring in the nonexistent basement of a DC pizza joint, you can probably get someone who might have voted for Clinton as the lesser of two evils to at least stay home, or maybe even vote for Trump.

So I’m not trying to laugh of the Facebook/CA/etc. story.

I’m just observing that, if you can see how other people are manipulated by propaganda, it must be true that that particular form of propaganda isn’t universally effective, because it didn’t work on you.

And so the important next step is to ask why you’re immune to it, so that we can help develop our social antibodies against it.

Because it’s not going away.


  1. Interesting. But I'm going to need to say on your last point, um... no. Why? Because for Fox News watchers, they are convinced that "the MSM" has brainwashed everyone and that they are immune to propaganda. (They use the expression "red pilled" from the Matrix to claim they are newly able to see the reality that the plugged-in people don't.) Meanwhile, I think those people are delusional and that I am immune to propaganda.

    So... we've gone into a zone in which there are no agreed upon shared facts. We knew that already. But it's also a zone in which both sides believe the other has been brainwashed and that they are immune to propaganda.

    So I don't think the biological metaphors work. Organisms do not hold split elections in which half of the organism votes one way and the other half votes the other. Biological analogies can have their place, but sometimes they just don't apply.

    On your original point on pessimism, I think it is more important than ever to retain the Gramscian notion of "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." That is, strong and factual analysis, yet belief that there can always be new possibilities. (See Moral Optimism)

    Just back from a #MarchForOurLives event, which is a classic instance of intellectual pessimism (gun laws won't change...) confronted by a wellspring of hope and determination.

    1. Lurking behind me as I wrote this was the rejoinder that *nobody* thinks they're brainwashed, and yet, our perceptions of reality are so different that at least half of us are seriously deluded, and the other possibility is that *nobody* has a clue and we're *all* deluded.

      And yet ...

      When I encounter someone who claims the earth is flat, I don't think, "Gee, they might just have a point."

      Of course there's more room for opinion in social questions than in the natural sciences, but when someone says, "Trump knows how to run a business," there's the objective reality of his bankruptcies and long history of stiffing his contractors.

      When someone online says the average person pays 58.6% of their income in taxes, they're objectively wrong, and if you probe deeper, you find they completely misunderstand brackets and marginal taxes, and they flat-out have the wrong numbers for Social Security and Medicare.

      Of course, I could be wrong about *those* things too, but if I am, I really have no business being an economics professor.

      I like your point about pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. And I think there's something sort of analogous, of being *open* to the idea that you might be wrong (including being aware of the problem of confirmation bias), while not surrendering to complete intellectual relativism.

    2. Yeah, don't get me wrong, I still believe in facts. I just get dismayed by the apparent mirror image paralysis.

      However, rather than go down that rabbit-hole, I'll leave here something to inspire you about the March for Our Lives:
      "And so we are left with the stark contrast — the sincerity of the students vs. the canned platitudes of the gun absolutists; the speed and vibrancy of a mass movement vs. the gridlock and sameness of our politics; the dogged determination of teenagers not yet world-weary vs. the sense of futility that pervades our politics. The outcome is not preordained. Yes, democracies are under assault. Xenophobes and nativists certainly have come out from under the rocks. The president has tried to make the abnormal commonplace and the unacceptable inevitable. But if nothing else, the marchers reminded us we have a choice. We can be fatalistic and passive, or determined and active. If teenagers can take the capital by storm, surely the rest of us can do something more than complain and yell at the TV."
      I think it goes well with your post!

    3. "We" and "they" perceive two different realities.

      The one piece of reality that we can most likely agree on is that we live in two different perceptions of reality.

    4. Oh, and thanks for the Jennifer Rubin link.

      Early on she mentions how quickly the teens have engineered a shift in attitudes that adults have been trying and failing to accomplish for years.

      I don't want to say that the kids have abjured tactics - my impression is that they have in some sense been very savvy in how they proceed.

      But their savvy has been in how to get their message out and bring people to their side by the force of their argument (and their lived experience), rather than in trimming their sails and trying to tweak their message to make it acceptable to existing opinion and avoid stepping on big, scary toes.

      When you say what you think, rather than what you think people are willing to hear, that adds to your sincerity. That won't help much with your convinced opponents, but perhaps it makes an impression on the undecided, and it energizes those who are already with you.

      On the other hand, maybe it's just that enough of us were finally ready to hear what the kids were ready to say.