More on Obama

Lawrence Lessig recently posted this calm, engaging presentation on his site: 20 minutes or so on why I am 4Barack (Lessig Blog).

I’d like to add a note or two…
Continue reading “More on Obama”

Moral Dimensions

Without going into a lot of detail about it (no time!) I wanted to quote from this article discussing the ideas of Jonathan Haidt. It’s actually supposed to be a review of George Lakoff’s writing on political language, but it gets further into Haidt’s ideas and research as a better alternative. He’s not so kind to dear Lakoff (whose earlier work is very influential among many of my IA friends).

Essentially, the article draws a distinction between Lakoff’s idea that people act based on their metaphorical-linguistic interpretation of the world and Haidt’s psycho-evolutionary (?) view that there are deeper things than what we think of as language that guide us individually and socially. And Haidt is working to name those things, and figure out how they function.

Oddly enough, I remembered once I’d gotten a paragraph into this post that I linked to and wrote about Haidt a couple of years before. But I hadn’t really looked into it much further. Now I’m really wanting to read more of his work.

Haidt maps five major scales against which we can categorize (or measure) our moral responses. One of those is the one that seems least changeable or approachable by reason, the one that describes our visceral reaction of elevation or disgust in the presence of certain things we find taboo, without necessarily being able to explain why in a purely rational or utilitarian way.

Will Wilkinson — What’s the Frequency Lakoff?

Most intriguing is the possibility of systematic left-right differences on the purity dimension, which Haidt pegs as the source of religious emotion. In a fascinating chapter in his illuminating recent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt explains how a primal biological system—the disgust system—designed to keep us clear of rotten meat, expanded over our evolutionary history to encompass sexual norms, physical deformations, and much more. …

The flipside of disgust is the emotion Haidt calls “elevation,” based in a sense of purification and transcendence of our animal incarnation. Cultures the world over picture humanity as midway on a ladder of being between the demonically disgusting and the divinely pure. Most world religions express it through taboos of food, body, and sex, and in rituals of de-animalizing purification and sacralization. The warm, open sense of elevation and the shivering nausea of disgust are high and low notes in the same emotional key.

Haidt’s suggestion is partly that morally broad-band conservatives are better able to exploit the emotional logic of religiosity by deploying rhetoric and imagery that calls on powerful sentiments of elevation and disgust. A bit deaf to the divine, narrow-band liberals are at a disadvantage to stir religious Americans. And there are a lot of religious Americans out there.

I like this approach because it doesn’t refute the linguistic approach so much as explain it in a larger context. (Lakoff has come under criticism for his possibly over-simplification about how people live by metaphor — I”ll leave that debate to the experts.)

And it explains how people can have a real change of heart in their lives, how their morals can shift. Just this week, the mayor of San Diego decided to reverse a view he’d held for years, both personally and as a campaign promise, to veto any marriage-equality bill. Evidently one of his scales changed the other — he was caught in a classic Euthyphro conundrum between loyalty to his party and loyalty to the reality of his daughter. Unlike with Euthyphro, family won out. Or perhaps the particular experience of his daughter convinced him that the general assumption of homosexuality as evil is flawed? Who knows.

Whatever the cause, once you get a bit of a handle on Haidt’s model, you can almost see the bars in the chart shifting in front of you when you hear of such a change in someone.

And you can see very plainly how Karl Rove and others have masterfully manipulated this tendency. They have an intuitive grasp of this gut-level “digust/elevation” complex, and how to use it to get voters to act. I wonder, too, if it helps explain the weird fixation “socially conservative” people of all stripes had with the “Passion of Christ” film? Just think — that extreme level of detailed violence to a human being ramping up the digust meter, with the elevation meter being cranked just as high from the sense of transcendent salvation and martyr’s love that the gruesome ritual killing represented. What a combination.

The downside to Democrats here is that they can’t fake it. According to Wilkinson, there’s no way to just word-massage their way into this emotional dynamic with the public on the current dominant issues that tap into it. In his words, “Their best long-term hopes rest in moving the fight to a battlefield with more favorable terrain.”

(PS: I dig Wilkinson’s blog name too — a nice oblique reference to Wittgenstein, who said the aim of Philosophy is to “shew the fly the way out of the bottle.” )

Edited to Add: There’s a nice writeup on Haidt in the Times here.

How bad does it have to be?

I haven’t been doing much political posting here for a while, in the interest of trying to keep a user-experience design focus, for the most part.

But things are getting weirder and weirder in this land of ours. Or, at least, it’s becoming more clear how weird it’s been for quite a while.

I think many of us already knew that Cheney was creepy and secretive, and that he’d managed to cultivate an unusual amount of power for a VP. But I don’t know that many of us suspected how deep it really goes, or how dark.

Hertzberg gets to the point in the New Yorker:

More than anyone else, including his mentor and departed co-conspirator, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney has been the intellectual author and bureaucratic facilitator of the crimes and misdemeanors that have inflicted unprecedented disgrace on our country’s moral and political standing: the casual trashing of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions; the claim of authority to seize suspects, including American citizens, and imprison them indefinitely and incommunicado, with no right to due process of law; the outright encouragement of “cruel,” “inhuman,” and “degrading” treatment of prisoners; the use of undoubted torture, including waterboarding (Cheney: “a no-brainer for me”), which for a century the United States had prosecuted as a war crime; and, of course, the bloody, nightmarish Iraq war itself, launched under false pretenses, conducted with stupefying incompetence, and escalated long after public support for it had evaporated, at the cost of scores of thousands of lives, nearly half a trillion dollars, and the crippling of America’s armed forces, which no longer overawe and will take years to rebuild.

Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of very humane and decent things Cheney has done in the world. It’s perhaps not fair to judge someone solely on the negatives. But what a list of negatives … I suspect he’s hit a tipping point, pushing him from merely corrupt to, well, evil.

Am I being harsh? Is this rhetoric too strong?

The question then becomes: how bad does it have to be for the rhetoric to be necessary? How corrupt and destructive does a public leader need to be in order to justify demonic, polemical characterization — which is often necessary to jar people’s frames of reference enough to wake up and see this is not just another administration, that it’s not just garden-variety incompetence or greed?

So, really, that’s what this post is about. That question. I wonder, in history, how it felt for people living in countries that were doing just fine and seemed nice and moderate and sane, but that were on the brink of catastrophy? What did the signs look like?

It seems like, in all the narratives I hear from such situations, regular people kept making excuses for their leaders, or buying into some watered-down version of their leaders’ more extreme views. “Oh, I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that.” “Oh, come on, this is (insert year here) in (insert country or region here) — that could never happen here!”

I remember news reports from Somalia in the early 90s, when reporters walked around in the ruins talking to people who had been poets, artists, teachers, doctors. There was talk of how modern and sane and moderate Somalia had been, how it had been one of the cultural (in a Western sense, I’m sure) jewels of Africa. Turned to blood and rubble.

People want to believe their leaders aren’t “as bad as all that.” Even people who don’t like their current leaders tend to have a sort of boundary that keeps them from thinking their leader could truly be a dictator in the making.

How bad does our administration have to be in order for us to say, out loud, these are criminals, and they must be stopped? And then, even if we do, what then?

Insurgencies as Markets

Fascinating post in Danger Room about a new War College research paper explains that insurgencies aren’t even a species of conventional warfare, but very different. Definitely check out the post, but here’s an interesting tidbit:

…the dynamics of contemporary insurgency are more like a violent and competitive market than war in the traditional sense where clear and discrete combatants seek strategic victory.

So here’s an interesting syllogism: If Markets are Conversations, and Insurgencies are Markets, then are Insurgencies = Conversations?

From what the report says, it might be the best way to think of them. The report essentially recommends playing neutral mediator — even if you think one side is better than the other.

This makes me wonder if anybody involved in dealing with Iraq ever paid attention back in the 80s when Hill Street Blues was on. When I was a kid, I remember thinking how strange it was to see cops in a room with “bad guy” gang leaders, negotiating things like truces. I thought: “The bad guys are right there, why don’t you arrest them??” But I realized soon enough that they’d only be replaced by more bad-guy leaders, and that until they brought a modicum of peace between the gangs, they would never manage to reduce violent crime in the city.

Of course, that’s the somewhat idealized TV version, which is much less messy than real life. But isn’t it still a great idea that often works? Or at least, isn’t it an idea that should be tried first, before you just try crushing the bad guys?