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Thursday, March 22, 2007

What You Can't Say
Mike Rappaport

Extremely interesting article, courtesy of the comments at the eye opening Overcoming Bias Blog, on What You Can't Say.  Here are a couple of excerpts, but they do don't do the whole article justice:

[Are our opinions the result of moral fashion?]

Let's start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?

If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that.  If everything you believe is something you're supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence?  Odds are it isn't.  Odds are you just think whatever you're told.

The other alternative would be that you independently considered every question and came up with the exact same answers that are now considered acceptable.  That seems unlikely, because you'd also have to make the same mistakes.  Mapmakers deliberately put slight mistakes in their maps so they can tell when someone copies them.  If another map has the same mistake, that's very convincing evidence.

Like every other era in history, our moral map almost certainly contains a few mistakes.  And anyone who makes the same mistakes probably didn't do it by accident.  It would be like someone claiming they had independently decided in 1972 that bell-bottom jeans were a good idea.

And this bit:

When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get the wrong answers on tests.  But when people are bad at open-mindedness they don't know it.  In fact they tend to think the opposite. Remember, it's the nature of fashion to be invisible.  It wouldn't work otherwise. 

These two points remind me of many liberal people I know in New York (and elsewhere): they get their ideas from liberal opinion leaders, and they hardly realize it, and they believe they're open-minded, even though they won't brook disagreement with their adopted views.

Of course, it is hard to see our own faults, so who knows what others would say of me.  Of course, sometimes the others don't agree.  Some people call me a squish -- a moderate or compromiser -- while others think me an extremist (or put more charitably a strong advocate of certain principles).   I actually think in a way both are true.

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Mike Rappaport


>Let's start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?

>If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you're supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence?

Not being afraid to express your opinions doesn't equal believing only what you are supposed to believe. It could simply be the result of having thought through your opinions and not being ashamed of the choices you've made (with or against the norm).

Posted by: Todd | Mar 23, 2007 9:35:02 AM

And being afraid to express an opinion doesn't mean it's wrong or not acceptable. In fact the issue has nothing to do with it.

Being mostly conservative, and being active in theater, I don't even bother telling people my opinion. I'll get screamed at, called a hatemonger, told how stupid I am, by the loving, caring, "open minded" Left. I lost a number of friends after the last election, I just could not put up with their hatred anymore.

I especially like when they say "you're one of the good ones". As if they're stereotypes aren't wrong, I'm just an exception. yeah right.

Posted by: PlutosDad | Mar 26, 2007 5:56:58 AM

I'm with Todd: the test is inadequate, because one might not give a damn whether one's opinions offend one's peers. Indeed, one might enjoy playing turd in the punchbowl. I know I do.

Posted by: lola5 | Mar 26, 2007 6:08:00 AM

Maybe the test should be phrased as: "Do you have any opinions that, if you expressed them in your usual peer group, would not be met with disagreement?" rather than in terms of being "afraid" to express yourself.

Posted by: Mike | Mar 26, 2007 6:16:33 AM

Define peers. That is the kicker in the equation. If I were to go to wiki I would read "A peer group is a group of people of approximately the same age, social status, and interests." Therefore by definition they would already tend to agree with my views; therefore, why would I be reluctant?

Now if you change peers to strangers then there maybe an issue. Where I live my views are not popular, too close to DC.

Posted by: All | Mar 26, 2007 6:20:57 AM

It has always amused me... and saved a lot of energy to conform on the surface in the little things that are expected of you, but to non-conform underneath, about the things that you really, really belive and have thought through carefully. People who were ostentatious about their nonconformity seemed to spend all their energy on the superficial, fashionable level. Underneath they were really pretty conventional, and in a little while they would drift on to something else.

I liked the original point about not getting sidetracked fighting unneccessary fights. Well, unless you liked to fight, or be the turd in the punchbowl. I'd rather be subversive.

Posted by: Sgt. Mom | Mar 26, 2007 6:23:36 AM

I agree with Sgt.Mom that superficial conformity (in such matters as dress, polite manners, etc.) makes it much easier to hold heterodox views (carefully considered) about bit matters. This seemed obvious to me as long ago as high school in the early 1960s, when I noticed that most of the focus against the beatniks seemed to concentrated on the behavior rather than ideas - which never seemed very clearly defined. I also noticed during the later 1960's and 1970s that if you kept your hair reasonable short (not crew cut, jut not outlandishly long) and dressed neatly (again, not completely 'square', just clearly neat and pressed), adults would listed to your ideas and no one would bother you, whereas the kids who were ostentatiously long-haired and tatterdemalion in dress were constantly hassled by the police and not taken seriously.

Additionally, at the university, it was clear that the most interesting thinkers focused their unconventionality in ideas, rather than in their superficial dress.

Posted by: CatoRenasci | Mar 26, 2007 6:50:53 AM

"Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?"

I believe I took this the wrong way when first considered because the answer that immediately sprang to mind was "no" for reasons later expressed in the above comments.
Shortly after answering, it occurred to me that what you really might be asking is:

"Do you hold opinions that you know to be in opposition to those held by your peers and are you cautious in your approach when voicing those opinions to your peers?"

After reading your post, that is what I came away with and the answer is an unqualified "Yes". However, that does not alter the goal of satisfying my opinions that may be in opposition to those held by my peers - only the actions required to do so. If judgement is not exercised when undertaking those actions necessary to achieve goals based upon your opinions, the effectiveness of your actions are almost certainly diminished. Does consideration of the appropriate action required to achieve a specific goal periodically include the risk of not taking any action and thereby being labeled a "squish"? You bet, but action for the sake of action is a great way to wind up being labeled an "extremist" and wind up not accomplishing what you had intended or worse yet accomplishing the complete opposite of that which you intended.
In the end, the people I admire most are those with the fortitude and judgement to be most effective by knowing when, where and how to act.
Sometimes those people even hold opinions directly in opposition to my own.
Stating this does not mean I won't try to murder them if ultimately forced to choose between their side or mine in a life or death struggle. I both train and work towards having the necessary judgement and resolve to risk all if and when called upon. No, stating my admiration simply means that I respect the abilities of others who also may possess the necessary judgement and resolve to risk all for their cause.

To paraphrase what General George S. Patton - a person I most certainly do admire - once said:

"The goal of war is not to die for your own opinions, but to make the other bastard die for his"

Posted by: Brian | Mar 26, 2007 6:53:27 AM

I think our economic lives profoundly influence how we think about broader issues. The degree to which any individual can disagree with one's superiors and peers without suffering harm to one's career varies significantly from field to field. In turn, the degree to which mere human opinion plays a role in an individuals success within a field determines how conformist to common opinion within a field an individual must be to succeed.

For example, individuals in science or engineering rather routinely challenge both their peers and superiors because they have highly objective, non-human evidence by which to determine if an individuals ideas are wrong or right. A scientific hypothesis either predicts or it does not. Technological artifacts either work or they do not. Likewise, people who create businesses either succeed or fail to earn profits. Mavericks in such fields can overturn a group consensus by the simply expedient of doing something that succeeds or fails. Regardless of how popular an idea might be within the field, a successful counter-idea can kill it. As a result, great diversity of thought exist in these fields.

However, fields in which no external test exist for the validity or usefulness of the ideas in a field become dominated by the group consensus and individuals must conform to the the beliefs of their peers and superiors in order to succeed. In the arts, journalism and especially in the academic liberal-arts, no external test exist for ideas. The fields deal with untestable information. Ideas persist and their creator receive rewards based solely on their popularity. No non-human information can destroy an idea. The ideas do not have to work in any sense, they must merely appeal to a large number of people within the field.

Further, since those within the field cannot prove the validity of their ideas to people outside the field by objective means, they rely on the presentation of a unified front to convey veracity. This why academics and journalist all tend to tell the same story. The general public can only assume that truth must be what everyone who purports to understand the problem says it is. Any individual who deviates from the pack consensus places everything in doubt. All members of field therefor have a vested interest in settling on a story and sticking to it. Mavericks threaten the status and position of everyone and therefor cannot be tolerated.

As a result, little diversity of thought exist within these fields. (Their differences with the ideas outside their fields don't count because those difference do not impact an individuals success.)

I don't think it mere coincidence that Leftist dominate those fields in which objective standards do not exist. Instead, I think Leftism reflects the world view of those who live in a world lacking objective standards. Leftist are so savage in attacking those who disagree or worse, those who once agreed but have abandoned the fold, because in the end they only have their collective consensus to support their claims. Mavericks must be destroyed.

Posted by: Shannon Love | Mar 26, 2007 7:05:54 AM

Ok - let's all not miss the point here. The concept here is that ideas are often no different from clothing - you wear what others among your immediate peers find acceptable. Now this is true for both Left and Right so the only fitting conclusion is that this is a human attribute rather than a political one.

Like PlutosDad, however, I think it is pretty clear that, at this juncture in history, the Left has a far more serious problem with intolerance than the Right. That this is so comes from two sources: one structural and one temporary. First, Collectivist philosophies of all stripes require social cohesion - and thus conformance - to a far greater degree than individualist philosophies. If you disagree with the group, you aren't just stupid or wrong, you are *evil.* It is not enough, for example, to live in peace with members of another social or ethnic group, you must *embrace* them. Indeed, their are countless dissertations concerning "structural racism" or "structural sexism" that depend on the idea that the worst kinds of bigotry is that which is present but not overtly expressed. Thus, someone who goes through life peacefully but with a dislike of any given protected group is just as guilty of promoting a racist/sexist/homophobic society as the obvious bigot. It is a very short step to the conclusion that such people must be aggressively rooted out, exposed and reeducated. In this, tolerance of another's beliefs is evil because it permits bigotry to thrive. Indeed, even the defense of free thought and criticism of attempts to root out heretics is just a "cover" for the project of maintaining white/heterosexual/normative culture. If you think I'm wrong, just take out an ad in a College newspaper advocating mere tolerance (and nothing more) of any given protected group (this being the only requirement under individualistic creeds). It isn't the protected group that will attack you, it is the arrayed forces of the Post-Modern Collectivist creed.

While there are plenty of soft-lefties and Democrats that are far more reasonable than the picture painted above, all of us should be worried that the Gramscian/Structural Lefties seem to be in the ascendancy within the Democratic party.

The second reason that I think that today's Left expresses far more intolerance than the Right is a quite temporary one. After years of successfully marching through the institutions of American cultural and political life, the Left has experienced nearly 25 years of setbacks. Just when their intellectual foundations firmed up (with many of the ideas above), they see their power waning. That their ideas and ideals may simply wrong does not apparently enter their consciousness: it is extremely disconcerting to finally put the full measure of America's unique evil (again, in the Lefties view, not mine) right on center stage only to be given a trip to the wilderness. They cannot help but be outraged. Of course, this expresses itself in modern terms: Bush's wiretapping (no different from Clinton's) becomes "shredding the Constitution." The Iraq war isn't an attempt (relatively modest by historical standards) to roll back an Islamic thug-state to give Democracy a chance, it is "the worse blunder in the history of the Republic." We just have to hope that saner minds will prevail before the Left once again takes up violence as the "only tool left" to deal with the "moral outrage" they find every time society ignores their analysis of our ills.

Posted by: Wildmonk | Mar 26, 2007 7:07:44 AM