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Saturday, October 20, 2018

Sane about Politics

Politically speaking, most of my friends assume I'm whatever they aren't, since I'm not shy about pointing out where I think their ideas don't pan out--and in the partisan world of politics that must mean I'm on the other team. A few years ago, I would have said that, as a general rule of thumb, all sides are right about what's wrong with the others, and so all sides would do well to listen honestly to the critiques of their own side. That's no longer true, as the critiques jumped the shark around the time of Trump. So I'd like to turn that around and talk about what all the sides have right instead of what they have wrong.

In particular, if you just can't fathom how anybody who isn't stupid or evil could possibly support the other ideology, policy, or candidate, then read on because I will tell you.

As a prerequisite, we need to conquer cognitive dissonance up front. In the simplest and most common case, cognitive dissonance is when you see or hear something that you know can't be true, and so you find an alternate explanation for it. Where it is most striking on the other side is when the evidence is pretty clear, but they still can't see it for what it obviously is. And then we see and say that they are dogmatic, are in denial, and we write them off as stupid or evil (and dishonest).

But we are just as subject to this ourselves, and you are just as subject to this as anyone else. So how do you inoculate yourself against it so you can think clearly about divisive topics?

There are two main paths leading to cognitive dissonance, and both are avoidable with the same trick. One path is that our ability to perceive the world is limited by our model of it. That is, if you can't imagine something, you can't see it either. (Cue the apocryphal anecdote of the tribesmen who, having never seen further than twenty feet in their entire lives in the dense jungle, confronted with a far off herd of buffalo on the open plains could only see them as strange looking ants twenty feet away.) The other path is that if we are emotionally invested in a stance, then our emotions (not our reasoning) will block any challenge to that stance. And unfortunately it's surprisingly easy to become emotionally invested in a stance: Typically just stating it out loud, or making an impactful decision upon it, cements it as "ours" in a way that we will suffer (a ding to our social status, or a poorer outcome) if it turns out to be wrong.

The trick to avoiding this is, to borrow from Louis C.K.: "Of course ..., but maybe?" That is, for everything, always, keep a visibly, actively open mind about the alternatives, no matter how sure you are about them. Of course there is no god..., but maybe there is? Or: Of course there is a god..., but maybe there isn't? Of course Trump is an evil idiot..., but maybe he's neither? Of course Trump wants to make America great again..., but maybe he doesn't? Of course all races and genders have the same average IQs..., but maybe they don't? Of course the different races and genders have different average IQs..., but maybe they're the same? Of course homosexuality is sinful..., but maybe it's not? Of course homosexuality is perfectly fine..., but maybe it's unhealthy?

Can you do that? Pick your trigger topic if I didn't mention it. Can you "but maybe" it? If not, work on it. Let's be clear: it's perfectly fine to keep coming back to the same conclusion--you don't have to accept the alternative--but you have to be able to depart from your conclusion long enough to honestly consider the alternative.

Of course this is reality, but maybe we live in the Matrix.

The big power of "but maybe", besides helping you better flesh out your model of possibilities, is it gives you an emotional and epistemological escape hatch when your assumptions prove wrong--and some of them will eventually, guaranteed. When that happens, do you want to dogmatically entrench to the bitter end, or when the evidence becomes overwhelming, go insane? If not, then "but maybe" up front, with everything, no matter how sure you are about it. And say it, don't just think it, because it gives you the social freedom to change your mind later, and it teaches other people to think well. Or maybe it doesn't, but that's my current best understanding.

Now, keep that tool handy as we proceed, because you'll need it. Let's start with an easy topic like abortion:

Of course women should have the choice about what to do with their own bodies! Conservatives want to impose their personal morals on others, and men in general want to control women. It's the patriarchy vs. women.

Of course we shouldn't murder innocent human beings! The liberals are selfish, and immoral hypocrites, who would rather murder a baby than be burdened with caring for another.

But maybe the issue isn't as obvious as it seems to either side, or at least, it's not about what it seems to be about. To the left, it is obviously about control, because that's what it is about for the left. To the right, it is obviously about the fair and ethical treatment of all beings, because that is what it is about for the right. But they each see the other in their own terms, because that's the limit of their model and so that's all they can see. Both need to extend their models to understand the other side. And for this particular issue they are unlikely ever to agree, but at least they can better understand each other and put the blame more squarely and fairly where it belongs:

The abortion issue is almost entirely about theism, and in particular about the soul. To someone who is a firm believer in the human soul (and in most views, that spark is granted at the moment of conception) abortion is murder, full stop. There is no difference between abortion at a week or abortion at three years: You are snuffing out a human life that was put here with the intention and potential to enjoy a full lifetime here on earth. And by definition it's an innocent soul, having had no opportunity to commit sins worthy of being killed for. It's not about control over women, it's about protecting the innocent. God chose her (and in most cases she chose her) to harbor that soul, and from that moment forward there is simply no option (other than cold-blooded murder) to de-intertwine their lives. It's an entirely kind and benevolent view--if you believe in souls.

If you don't believe in souls, or have a softer, more pragmatic definition thereof, then the whole definition of murder changes. We are no longer protecting a human soul and its life on earth, we are protecting the human entity itself--more of a process on a machine, which starts as almost nothing and becomes human as it develops. Rightly, we should ask what exactly are we protecting and why? The rational answer there likely leads to something far beyond the left's typical conception: Why not permit abortion until a few months post-partum? The only ones really invested in the baby entity at that point are the parents, and especially the mother. If she decides when the baby is three months old that she unequivocally doesn't love or want the thing, who are we to say she shouldn't mercifully end it and spare them both years of grief and suffering? The baby itself is nowhere near a level of cognitive development to have any awareness of, let alone feel anguish about, its impending demise, and for the world's limited space and resources surely it's better to make way for a child that will be loved and wanted. The logical place to draw the line is where the child starts to become more self-aware and independent, and has invested substantially into developing its own identity. At some point we call it a citizen of the world, and afford it all the associated and agreed upon protections--rules that it too will have to abide by, and that is the circle of civilization.

In practice of course the left caters to our natural empathy for cute things and likes to draw the line simply where it starts to become too emotionally and viscerally apparent that we're killing babies, which is perhaps a reasonable compromise given our emotional natures.

In any event, from these premises, it's entirely about control, because one couple's fetus-not-yet-human is simply nobody else's business any more than some old man's aborted ship in a bottle.

So, of course, of course! But maybe...

I personally side with the three month post-partum approach. But (I think) I reasonably well understand the other perspectives, and don't see any of the sides as largely evil, controlling, lazy, or stupid. A little stupid, but that's a prerequisite.

This brings me to an interlude about I Side With. I went through for the 2016 presidential election and carefully considered every question and topic, and (something I think many mistakenly overlook) thought carefully about the importance of each item to me. Things like abortion, I personally answered in favor of (pro choice in spades)... BUT I gave it fairly low importance. Because I'm not a woman so why should I care? Nice try, but no. Of course I am (given my premises) strongly in favor. But I didn't think it was highly at risk regardless of who got elected (still don't, but there is much to this), and I think it's far more important that, say, we stop selling and making war all over the world, and avoid economic disasters and nuclear holocausts, because I would rather be saddled with an unwanted baby in a healthy, happy, prosperous world than to be free to kill it in a shitty one.

Answers done, the results were in: Rand Paul hands down at the top, Trump right in the middle, and Clinton at the bottom. This is based strictly on policy, not my personal opinions of their characters.

So naturally, I didn't vote.

That result fits my generally contrarian stance, being ordered precisely the reverse to the power structure at the time. That's not coincidence: the things that are important to me are the things that are headed the most wrong at the moment, because those are the things that most need to be fixed and made better.

But I mention this all to segue into the broader topic of left vs. right, of course but maybe. Let's ignore the extremes, the communists and the religious zealots, and think about the middle left and the middle right, who are the swing votes.

Of course science is the best path to progress and reason, we need to protect the environment for future generations, we want to keep families together, protect the innocent and weak, help the misfortunate, give everyone equal opportunity, and allow people to pursue whatever love and recreations make them happy as long as they aren't hurting others in the process. Of course! The left wins here, hands down, and the right is hard to fathom other than as clinging desperately onto a past where they were handed power just for being white and male (or in the case of conservative women brainwashed to think that's their place or only real option). Of course we should teach science in the schools, make sure all children go to school, have minimum wages, welfare and universal health care, open borders, legalize gay marriage and drugs, and so on. These just naturally follow -- we have the goals, we create the policies that implement those goals, and we have progress, where the world just keeps getting better. That's the liberal view, and it's beautiful, isn't it? Of course!

But maybe... Maybe the right also wants progress and reason, a healthy environment for future generations, to keep families together, protect the innocent and weak, help the misfortunate, give everyone equal opportunity, and allow people to pursue whatever love and recreations make them happy as long as they aren't hurting others in the process. Sticking to the west for now, these sound like basic Christian ideals, no? So wait, what's going on here?

Maybe the real world isn't the ideal world. Maybe science is done by mere humans prone to hubris and mass bias, easily bought and paid for by commercial and political interests, and so is not meaningfully an implementation of the scientific method. Which then do we support above the other? Maybe academia, unlike most business, lacks negative feedback for being wrong--only for disagreeing with the consensus--and so can become unanchored from reality for a very long time. Maybe government is also made of humans, prone to corruption, power abuse, greed and waste. Maybe combining open borders and welfare creates an economic black hole of destruction that will make everyone worse off in the long run. Maybe the very structure of schools that we all take for granted as a vehicle of scientific inquiry and learning was successfully designed to crush curiosity and independence and create obedient worker bees. Maybe all the ideas the left has for the right way to raise kids, the right things and ways to teach them, the right things to eat, the right way to regulate their jobs and choices, the right vaccines to give them, maybe those ideas are wrong. Of course they're not! But maybe... What if they are, or what if they're wrong some of the time for some people? What if someone else knows better (for themselves, for their own family, for their local community) but in all the left's good intentions, they have prevented many from doing the right thing? What if those policies have destroyed childrens' creativity, ruined their health, priced them out of their first job, and saddled them with a college debt for a degree they can't use? Are you sure good intentions never go there? Are you sure the institutions of science and government are good enough, free enough from hubris and corruption, that we should grant them ever growing power and athority to dictate exactly how we all live?

Maybe any one-size-fits-all policy is worse than no policy at all. Maybe it's impossible to rule well globally, and decisions are best made locally. Maybe the best outcome in the near term isn't the best outcome in the long term. What if protecting people at the edges, preventing suffering, causes the edges to encroach further inward, thus actually increasing suffering in the long term? What if a strong welfare system amplifies genes that lead people to welfare? What if the intro to Idiocracy is right? What if less is more? Of course not! But maybe...

I'm mostly challenging the left's assumptions here because the right's worst assumptions are boring and come back to religion: Of course a gay man would be happier if he were de-programmed and returned to the natural state God intended him for! But maybe... your god is just a mass delusion.

Both sides have in common a trust in authority: The right trusts god and church, the left trusts science and government. Which is why they are two peas in a pod--at one time those were all the same thing, and the modern versions retain that structural heritage.

Of course these institutions are the best way forward. But maybe most people have a genetic predisposition to trust authorities to a degree that's invalid at this scale, and we would do much much better to combat that tendency and to encourage independent thought, independent behavior, to allow variety and trial and error, to allow people to succeed and to fail. Maybe in the long run that would lead to such better progress that all the world would be enormously happier and healthier.

Whatever your conclusions are about all of these things, the important take away here is: if you think your side is obviously right and the other is obviously stupid and evil, you're almost certainly wrong on all counts. Give a proper benefit of the doubt, truly consider the alternatives, think about the even bigger picture, the broader consequences, and allow for the possibilities that you don't like but might be true anyway. Beware especially of anything obvious because the obvious hides well from scrutiny.

Toward that end, here is an empirical gem in the world of politics and policy, a rare look at policy decisions that worked and have stood the test of time for many decades now. I think that all sides will agree with the goals, so keep an open mind about the methods and let the results speak for themselves. This essay is 14 years old, about something that happened twenty years before that, but again it has withstood the test of time (unlike, say, Venezuela's competing reform). Even if you find the whole thing so implausible that it must not be true, take away just one thing from it: This is the (economic) conservative vision--this is what they see as the outcome of their policies, and why they (benevolently) argue for what they do. You, they, we all are more on the same side than not:

Rolling Back Government: Lessons from New Zealand

Imo, these ideas are as germane and urgent today as ever.

Somewhat randomly, I happened there upon this also-good and germane lesson in history and empiricism:

A Short History of American Medical Insurance

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com