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

Shannon - nice post and great point!

Posted by: Wildmonk | Mar 26, 2007 7:11:45 AM

At work, my team is suffering greatly because of the incompetence of one member who, but for Affirmative Action, never would have been hired and most certainly would have been fired by now. We constantly b!tch about him to each other but always tiptoe around the actual cause of our suffering. The closest we get is "we can't get rid of him and we know why that is." However, a few of us in general have started voicing out loud our strong objection to all the Diversity crap thrown at us and even management is starting to treat it as a joke, in a subtle way, of course.

Another member of my team and I work great together and he started bashing Bush in a phone call. NO ONE bashes Bush to me and gets away with it and I read him chapter and verse, until he begged me to shut up. I reminded him I never brought politics up; he did (twice so far). He wondered aloud how he could like me so much and work so well with me when I'm a "Bush fan." (Which is not precisely true; I have many disagreements with W but none of them are the ones lefties hate him for. He's not nearly conservative enough for me.)

I've given up trying to explain such attitudes other than it's BDS. I never bring up politics but I never, ever back down from the challenge when a BDS sufferer attacks. I verbally flay them until they give up. It's the only way to live with yourself.

Fortunately, I haven't been under attack by a group. If I were in the arts, I'd become mute altogether.

Posted by: Peg C. | Mar 26, 2007 7:17:26 AM

"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."

Oh, the external tests exist, but since the experimental results tend to include ovens, killing fields and mass graves, it can be difficult to get the practitioners of these arts to admit they were actually conducting the experiment in the first place...

Posted by: richard mcenroe | Mar 26, 2007 7:20:58 AM

Conservaives all get their positions from conservaive talk show, magazines, etc as do Liberals get their from liberal magazines etc
Ask yourself: what magazine do you read regularly? What talk show people do you watch or listen to regularly? You s\ee: you are inj a church and want to get the mantra reinforced.You bring your position to those who affirm that position and then cite what they say to support what you believe!

and of course the comments suggest that it is the Left and certainly not us that thinks lockstep-like and by so stating this reaffirms what I have said: we know we are correct and THEY are wrong...if they have a modicum of truth, then what I believe is questionable. S to be fair min ded: both sides of the political rainbow suffer from thinking in a goosestep manner. Both sides.

Posted by: fred lapides | Mar 26, 2007 7:28:57 AM

I have many opinions that I choose to mostly not discuss at work, mostly because I'm there to work and on some level, I need to get along with the people whose opinions I don't share. I have had the "fights" I felt are important, but mostly I tend to keep my mouth shut and go my own way.

Just the same, they all know that there are many things in life that are important to me that aren't the things that are important to them. I couldn't have an intelligent conversation about American Idol to save my life. (Actually, I'm fairly certain that conversation about AI isn't intelligent, but YMMV.) I won't get into theological discussions because I don't feel they are conducive to "getting along" in the workplace. I occasionally explain my political opinions, but mostly I just keep to myself. It works for me within that 'peer group'.
Other places, like the coffee shop, I have political discussions that turn people on their ears. It's fun and I've changed a few minds and made a few people at least think about why they believe what they believe.

Posted by: Mel | Mar 26, 2007 7:32:16 AM

I'll have to say that by and large lefties tend to be far less tolerant of divergent views than even hardcore religious fundamentalists.

I'm in the odd position of being a socially liberal (quite) but fiscally conservative and pro-small government and have a strong pro-fight-the-enemy-in-his-house approach
to foreign policy. This has resulted in my currently being much more aligned with the republicans than the democrats -- I even voted for Bush despite some moderately strong disagreements with him on social policies.

with the background in, here is the rub: I've been able to talk abortion, gay marriage, and many other socially divisive subjects with very religious republicans. only *once* was I put in a situation where leaving the discussion was the apropriate response. I have *never* been able to have an equally frank conversation with people on an equivalent delta from the center on the left - the degree of hysteria there is very different. On the right, I get treated more like a wayward soul who is making an egregious error of judgement. On the left, I am treated like a dangerous heretical villain who might go on to eat the local children.

Posted by: yet another resident | Mar 26, 2007 8:03:53 AM

richard mcenroe.

Conservaives all get their positions from conservaive talk show, magazines, etc as do Liberals get their from liberal magazines etc

No, both sides get their positions from their own beliefs and life experiences. Talks show etc become popular when they reflect people's pre-existing beliefs, not the other way around.

S to be fair min ded: both sides of the political rainbow suffer from thinking in a goosestep manner. Both sides.

It's not an either/or phenomenon but rather one of degree.

I think it clear that today the tendency is much stronger on the Left than on the Right. I think the clearest indicator of this is the fact that the Left has not had an original idea in 30 plus years. Creativity requires variation, experiment and challenges to orthodoxy. When the Left was on the outside of major institutions working themselves in, they could do that. Now that they dominate certain fields, they are to terrified of dissent shattering their collectively maintained illusion of superior knowledge to allow people the freedom to try something new.

It is now the Right that shows diversity of thought and proposes new ideas while the Left merely enforces a lockstep adherence to an antiquated status quo.

Posted by: Shannon Love | Mar 26, 2007 8:11:39 AM

TO: Mike Rappaport
RE: A Motie Moment

"The other alternative would be that you independently considered every question and came up with the exact same answers that are now considered acceptable." -- Overcoming Bias Blog, as cited by Mike Rappaport

However, on the third hand, I might not be overly concerned about what my peers think about what I think. I might be just 'independent'.

Case in point, I enlisted in the Army in 1970, when most of my contemporaries hated the Army.

Now, I'm a born again christian and they aren't particularly popular either.

RE: The Moral Map

"Like every other era in history, our moral map almost certainly contains a few mistakes." -- Overcoming Bias Blog, as cited by Mike Rappaport

Actually, if you've got a good moral map in the first place, it certainly helps in dealing with those contemporaries who will likely despise you for speaking your honestly held opinion.


[Do not be dismayed when the world despises you, persecutes you and says all kinds of bad things about you for My sake. -- some Wag, about 2000 years ago]

Posted by: Chuck Pelto | Mar 26, 2007 8:19:12 AM

TO: richard mcenroe
RE: Magazines? Talk Radio?

"Conservaives all get their positions from conservaive talk show, magazines, etc as do Liberals get their from liberal magazines etc. Ask yourself: what magazine do you read regularly? What talk show people do you watch or listen to regularly? You see: you are in a church and want to get the mantra reinforced. You bring your position to those who affirm that position and then cite what they say to support what you believe!" -- richard mcenroe

Not really. I don't subscribe to any magazine. Nor to I listen to any radio.

And as for blogging....well....I come to places like this and challenge people like you and Mike.

However, I am reminded that there ARE a lot of people out there who behave as you and Mike allege. WAY more than there should be, in my honest opinion. They probably out-number the truly independent thinkers and therein lies the proverbial rub; how do we overcome such mindless thinking?

Personally, I lay the blame at the feet of the vaunted American public education system.


[He thinks by infection, catching opinions like most people catch a cold.]

Posted by: Chuck Pelto | Mar 26, 2007 8:28:12 AM

Re: open-minded liberals in New York. My standard example against their being open-minded is sports. Are they open-minded enough to follow soccer or cricket? Almost certainly not. If they were, I'd be seeing much more coverage of those sports in The New York Times.

Posted by: John Pepple | Mar 26, 2007 8:59:15 AM

As a moderate trapped in a liberal world, I choose not to discuss politics with all my Peace Corps and LA friends simply because I grow bored of arguing about politics. LIfe is about much more.

I take comfort in knowing all of my friends must be wrong.

I don't think a person has to be afraid to make this choice, just weary of the endless loop.

I do have the periodic debates but nothing like 4-5 years ago.

My conservative friends back home think I am a flaming liberal so that is why I'm pretty confident that I must be a moderate. I piss off both sides of the aisle.

Posted by: BEB | Mar 26, 2007 9:45:44 AM

Todd makes the jump from "reluctant" to "afraid." I am reluctant to express my opinions much more often than afraid. At most social gatherings I don't wish to discuss politics or religion. I want to talk with people about their lives, children, etc. I'm more interested in them, personally, than how they vote.

I've lost friends and distances familly members because of political/social beliefs. I don't really care. But politics don't dominate my life, thus I'm reluctant to express opinions. But if you insist, you may lose me as a friend or choose not to be my friend because I don't agree with you.

Posted by: DADvocate | Mar 26, 2007 9:57:29 AM

Shannon Love: Yes, I tend to agree. But in philosophy (at least the analytic type that I was trained in), an external test would be whether or not a viewpoint avoids implying a contradiction. That's pretty weak, though, and doesn't get invoked very often.

In my area of Greek philosophy, I try to use several other external tests in addition to the contradiction test, namely: (1) justification in terms of the texts we have (of Plato, for example), (2) whether what we scholars are saying about what was said back then is coherent, (3) whether what we are saying is plausible, and (4) whether what we are saying explains any mysteries (such as the mystery of why Aristotle claims that Plato held some strange, unwritten doctrines, which I believe I have explained).

But others seem not to agree, and I cannot claim to be successful in my area. And those who are postmodernists do not seem to see (1) as an external test at all.

Posted by: John Pepple | Mar 26, 2007 10:08:58 AM

When I'm with people I've known for a long time, my opinions would not surprise anyone since I've made my views known on a wide variety of things for a long time. But if I'm a guest at a party where to make my opinions known could be considered rude I will keep silent unless asked and even then will usually couch my feelings in such a way as to not offend. But if the need for politeness disappears, then I am more than happy to opine.

But among my friends, while we all may be considered on the conservative end of the spectrum, consensus is rare. Opinions vary considerably depending on the issue but it is always respectful. Now when I get into discussions with lefties, the arguments against me usually come down to me being a religious zealot or a woman hater or some other pejorative description. Rarely has it been a worthwhile endeavor. Maybe I haven't found the respectful liberals yet.

Posted by: Donald Zeiter | Mar 26, 2007 2:22:42 PM

"Todd makes the jump from "reluctant" to "afraid." "

I noticed that as well. My reluctance has nothing to do with fear. I'm just following the old advice of never talking about religion or politics in a social setting.

Donald, sorry you haven't found any yet, but there are respectful liberals. The only problem with a lot of them (and a lot of conservatives) is that they often surround themselves with people of the same mind and as a group they begin to vilify people that believe differently. People that know me and know my positions probably think of me as not like the rest of those liberals/conservatives (remember I get branded as either depending on the company I am keeping) because I don't fit their stereotype.

Posted by: BEB | Mar 26, 2007 2:56:39 PM