Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Word Games: Encouragement

Do you ever try to encourage people?

Sure you do. We want to be encouraging friends, the kind of people who give esteem to others that empowers them to pursue valued goals. We expect teachers to encourage their students, parents to encourage their kids, pastors to encourage their charges, bosses to encourage their workers. It's resolutely seen as a positive thing to do, a moral good.

Break down the word a bit. We are granting someone courage, when we encourage them. Courage for what, exactly? Are we encouraging them to go for what they want? Because when someone is waffling between two choices, there's usually some complexity involved, but why do we push them one way or another? Do we push towards what they want, or what we think they should want? If it's the latter, should such an act still be called encouragement? Are we giving them courage, or something else?

The point is, the encouragement frequently has less to do with supporting their values and more to do with supporting our own. It's much more complex than just being a good friend. Assumptions are made, all the time, that we have some idea what it is that other people want. Now, when we've had a conversation with a friend who is wrestling with the notion of applying for a new job or talking to an attractive member of the opposite sex, we can say with some certainty that the friend really wants what they want and they just need some encouraging words. But in other cases - especially when we're talking about kids, or employees, or members of a church - there is hardly any obvious certainty about what they want, nor is that the point. Sometimes they enthusiastically tell you that they DON'T want what you are "encouraging" them to go for. Sometimes they tell you to fuck right off, go blow yourself, 'cause they aren't doing that shit. These people hardly need courage; they're filled with that. But then, we can say that we know better than they do, that they really do want it and they just haven't realized it yet or won't admit it to themselves. Then it's up to us to make the right thing happen - which happens to be what both of us supposedly want.

That's a little presumptuous, isn't it?

Damn right, and that facet of "encouragement" is important to understanding the politics of the word.

You want this. Really. You do.

When we're talking about subjects of real moral importance, the power of encouragement is two-fold: you give the person the push to do it, plus you effectively endorse this action as moral, or at least morally acceptable. You communicate that the action has value. That's why it's so important for people in positions of authority to do it; teachers, parents, and pastors are expected to encourage in moral terms. Our values are often molded by language use, remember. When impressionable people hear someone say that this is what they want to do, what conclusion is there to make?

Not that it's always consciously manipulative. You could just be assuming that the two of you share the same value system. You KNOW this other person wants to join the Peace Corps. If they take that path, you know that they would find it good. Here, there is the presumptuous, but necessary, assumption that everyone has about the same values, and you just help clarify them. We're often wrong, and that person could be cursing your name for prodding them to join the Peace Corps while they are there, but most sensible people have this uncanny ability to take a crappy experience and turn it around as a learning experience, even if they learned nothing except not to listen to the dumbass who recommended it. 

This process is an evolution of the parents and teachers encouraging the kids; we keep encouraging each other, and it helps maintain some hegemony in our values through these communications. And it's a positive hegemony, the unity of the righteous; our words have power, so much power that we can convince other people to believe what we believe simply by the personal equivalent of a product endorsement. We can convince some non-paranoid people so thoroughly that they think it was their idea in the first place. And it clearly works. Western values have been propagated like this for centuries. We are very, very good at messing with each other's heads.

Anyway, this is one of the ways that ideas get a subtle boost to their perceived value: I believe in you, because I know you have it in you to be what I think you should be! It's necessary to engage in this type of manipulation in an individualistic society where you can't just come out and tell people what to do. We would not recognize, or feel right in, a world without it. Lots of people would be adrift without the direction implied by such messages. Liberals are good at it: Obama encouraged people to rethink their stance on gun control. Liberal society encourages low-income kids to go to college. If they were being honest with themselves, they would probably admit that they think they can control society this way, but one thing is for sure; open-minded or not, they aren't going to encourage someone to pursue a value if they don't share it. Neither are you. When was the last time you encouraged someone to do something they really wanted to do, even though you thought it was disgusting in principle? I'll tell you: Never. The closest you've ever come is to say the words "I don't care."

Now, it's perfectly possible that most of us really don't know each other nearly as well as we assume. And pushing encouragement as a policy, on some level beyond the personal and intimate, is really stupid by just about any standard. There is a more honest word for all of this, if you strip away the presumptuousness and just admit how words work, and that your encouragement reveals your preferences, and your culture's preferences, more than those of the subject: Enforcement. If the government uses "soft power" abroad, then encouragement is "soft enforcement" of society's values in our daily lives. Well, maybe you should call it reinforcement.

Or, maybe we just don't want honesty.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Risk and Reliability

In Dr. Haidt's first TED talk (link in "The Problem with Dr. Haidt), he identified a personality trait that is closely aligned with liberalism: openness to experience. This is defined as a range of behaviors like high aesthetic sensitivity (you enjoy art to a greater-than-average degree), intellectual curiosity, and desire for variety; these traits are statistically known to be found in the same people and thus form a package deal. There are personality types high and low on openness to experience, with most people falling somewhere in the middle.

I started to wonder if there was a different trait that describes conservatives. If you Google "openness to experience" then you will find that low levels correlate with political conservatism and "authoritarian, ethnocentric, and prejudiced views," which is a good definition of liberal evil, but I don't think that adequately sums up the inverse attitude. There are some very, very rational reasons why a conservative outlook makes sense and liberal one, complete with Epicurean desire for new experiences, does not. What trait sums up the positive characteristics of the conservative mind?

Haidt was close in his TED talk when he talked about conservatives recognizing that social order was a precious thing that people should value, but he didn't quite encapsulate the attitude so much as try to give liberals a brief pause before they went back to unconsciously trying to undermine it. Then a term hit me from economics, one that I always liked, that characterized conservatism in a better way: loss aversion.

Underrated Good Sense

In economic talk, loss aversion is the tendency for people to prefer avoiding losses to realizing gains. Economists sometimes dislike loss aversion, because in raw number terms, it is irrational; it means that it hurts more to lose a hundred bucks than to realize a hundred dollar windfall. The tendency increases with the stakes: you might be willing to bet $5 on a flip of a coin for the possibility of winning $5, just for kicks, but you probably won't bet your $150,000 house on that same coin flip, even for the possibility of winning $150,000. This is, in strictest economic terms, inefficient; loss aversion causes people to pass up opportunities for gain where their odds of success are fairly good. 

But that's theory. Then you have reality: if you gamble your house on a coin flip, almost no amount of potential gain will keep you from looking like a dumbass. If you lose, which you would have a 50% chance of doing, you will be homeless and your life could very nearly be ruined. Taking chances on such things so you can realize outsize gains is moronic. Working for your gains like you aren't a moral delinquent is the obviously better way to create wealth from a standpoint of social order and productivity. I wonder how closely this intuition correlates with the Christian dictum to not be greedy and to avoid gambling.

As a larger point, over-valuing potential gains is hardly different from under-valuing the present situation. If you really value not being homeless, and you don't expect someone else to cover your losses, then you will not want to risk the house, and rightfully so. While it might be easy to paint conservatives as curmudgeons out to thwart your enjoyment of life, there is just as likely to be a measure of awareness involved, where they know that the present situation has value and know it can be lost if care is not taken.

I think much of the conservative attitude could be encapsulated by having an attitude towards risk that holds back from being desperate for change, and can find the positives in predictable routine. Material welfare, after all, is relative; adjusting your standards to having more doesn't necessarily make you any happier. When conservatives take chances, they are necessary chances where they do everything they can to improve their own odds. Staying in control is ingrained in them; it's part of taking responsibility, empowerment done right.

Overrated Immaturity

Most of us have known individuals high on openness to experience, and have probably learned to get annoyed by them. For them, questions of how much worse things could be hardly pop up, while there is a constant level of attention to how much better things could be. These are the kind of people who romanticize going for it all. They prefer living in cities where there is always something to do, and have high material lifestyle standards. Work is expected to be more a fulfilling creative activity than a job. They often see wealth as something to be consumed, not invested. They see something interesting, they want to jump in. Life is to be enjoyed, with stimulating sensations and living every minute to its fullest. They open their doors to all, non-judgmentally interested in everyone in their particular postal district. They push the kind of attitude where cost is no object. They want a good deal, maximum utility for minimum sacrifice. And because they see themselves as nice people, they want everyone to have that.

Everyone throws caution to the wind a few times in their life, but let's be honest about the assumptions that go along with some of this behavior. First and most importantly, you have to assume that you can trust people almost invariably. This results in taking tremendous levels of social good for granted. They give little thanks for military, police, or judicial system protection. They assume the best out of people, except for authority figures. Conservatives are more likely to demand that trust be earned, and with good reason. They are more likely to push for a set social standard of behavior instead of letting people do whatever and shrugging at the inevitable conflicts of interest that come with that. They know that understood duties and expectations work better than being lax in the name of individuality. The conservative does not want to accept the lowest common denominator in a culture they have invested themselves in. Meanwhile, the liberal will tolerate anything, and passionately defend the delinquents from the harshness of paying dues.

There's a deep childishness to this; it is the kind of lifestyle usually made possible when the parents are still cleaning up your mess. Some conservatives have started calling this moral adolescence, and it fits.

These people are consuming their world, and even the most appropriate fear of instability or consequence-creating failure seems to be far from their minds. They might be really entertaining party guests, but do they know that they're cashing out decades or centuries' worth of social capital as they refuse to grow up and make it clear that doing so is a valid lifestyle option to everyone watching?

People who expect to be able to live in search of new experiences take risks, but do they recognize them? They certainly expect businesses, government, and basically everyone they surround themselves with to treat them with consideration, regardless of whether that expectation is rational or not. I would guess that "buyer beware" is a harsh thing to say here; they would rather the buyer not have to beware, that someone beware for them. Their reliance on systems of accountability is extreme, but if anything, they demonize those in that system. They are also the first people to demonize the familiar and glorify the mysterious and unknown, often without any reason to do so. This is related deeply to a drive towards new experiences and newness itself.

New is good from this perspective. Change is good, too; the present is imperfect and dreary. If you live this shallowly, then your old age is not going to treat you well, when you are wrinkly and broken down and boring. Society used to push people to build credit for themselves, so they could cash in at this point: Commitments like family, community, long-term loyalty to work and in your relationships that requires strong self-discipline and reliability - and appreciation of reliability - made the thing work from generation to generation. But are these types up for it? It makes a difference, because we are producing an awful lot of these people, and they will come to those who have invested expecting help later on. Their moral code is exactly that simple-minded, pushing endless and undiscriminating compassion with no way to justify using punishment effectively.

Since openness to experience is an inborn trait and somewhat equally distributed among people, one wonders about society's attitudes and how they became so much more permissive over the last half century. The obvious answer is, because the cultural incentives have changed. Traits that used to be associated with simple good character - steadfast loyalty, hard work, investment - seem to be pushed now as a way to build wealth and live the high life, instead of being the standard that others simply expected in order to receive respect. If anything, acting right gets promoted only as a lifestyle preference. Can a society survive where character is an option instead of a necessity? And do those who find such a society acceptable really need to have moral authority?

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Fluke of Honesty in Abortion Politics

So two days ago, this here article was written for the left-wing

Take a quick look at it, and what you will see will either be "well, duh" or just fucking shocking. It's a columnist saying that she knows, and does not care, that a fetus is a human being. She's openly saying that a fetus, humanity and all, is an unequal life. If it's shocking to you, then ironically, I think you are in the same position as this Mary Elizabeth Williams columnist who wrote the thing.

Google Williams, and what you will quickly find is that she is a cancer survivor and minor socialite who somehow landed a sweet writing gig despite being a moron. Her articles range from Charlie Sheen outrage (while giving him more press attention) to articles about school bullying in which she takes positions that no one reading could possibly disagree with. The term "milquetoast" basically covers it; she wastes electrons preaching to a very simple-minded choir.

I get the impression immediately that she thinks she's saying something radical here. And she is; other abortion supporters have rarely used such candor. But her bravery shows a tremendous level of political naivete. Most everyone in the modern world not totally beholden to religious ideas - which is most everyone in a secular society with a scientific world view - knows perfectly well that the precise instant of when a fetus becomes a human being is beside the point. It has to be deeply subjective, depending on what belief you need to have to justify your behavior and your empowerment; no one can ask the fetus. The last person to be this honest about abortion was George Carlin, who also burned the concept of the sanctity of life in the process and never pretended to believing in notions like "innocence". As a liberal, Williams is handcuffed to innocence in order to make the appropriate pleas for innocent victim groups. What the fuck was she thinking?

Does she even know how this works?! The arguments are part of the rhetorical arms race of political power, and evidently, Williams doesn't get that. She might be learning how things actually work, right now.

The Front

The way the abortion argument, like most other arguments, actually operates is like an evolved, well-trodden battlefield where advancements in combat technology have gone through waves of advancement and stagnation, mutually pushing each other at times into higher planes of development depending on the value of the territory that's being threatened. On this battlefield, the terrain is everything; political ideas each have their own characteristics that demand their own military solutions. Some weapons in the Idea Wars are tried and true, working in most places, which is where shit like freedom and equality comes from. But the basic point is, of course, victory.

Abortion is old enough to have been encapsulated in its own rhetorical systems on both sides designed to neutralize the threat of opposing forces, hollowed ground surrounded by interested martial parties, where the doctrine of the other side is well known. There is air and land combat, each representing a plane of thought on the issue. First things first, the air war has to play out so that we can figure out who owns the airspace and who therefore can control the high ground of the battlefield, stopping the ground forces in their tracks. So the MiG aircraft of the political right, featuring the fetus' right to live as a potent weapon, opens fire on the left's Dassault jets with their varied and powerful weapons, most of them developed in the sixties: the woman's right to privacy, the equality of women point, etcetera. 

You can hear the orders being shouted: "Ah, shit, here comes the left with their fetuses can't feel pain until the second trimester thing again. Obfuscate with freedom of religion! Reinforce at the flank!"

If the air war isn't definitively won, then the combat on the ground comes into its own. This is where people make decisions on the emotional, intuitive level. Here, the Leopard tanks of the left load their opening salvos with pictures of women with duct tape on their mouths and references to male dominance and patriarchy, while the right fuels up the rockets with pictures of cute babies, with the really BIG rockets showing the cute babies being cut to pieces during a D&E. The jet jockeys loathe the ground-pounders for their crude, ungentlemanly tactics, but at any given time, they could be shot down and have to use those tactics themselves. No mercy, motherfuckers!!!

I guess this battlefield is filled to overflowing with true believers. No one ever dies on this field, they just have to engage and retreat in accordance with how many people they can get on their side. But both sides also keep chasing the dragon of actually defeating an enemy, shutting them down completely by making some irrefutable point, which is absurd. The same shit happens with gun rights, gay rights, right to work, right to live, right to die, right to masturbate in a crowded movie theater, everyone trying to pull some more power out of the conflict for the side they identify with. And the dumb ones think they're heroes. We know this.

Which is what makes Williams' outburst a surprise. One would think that someone who can land a job writing in a politically partisan publication, and hold it for years, would understand the basics of the tactics at play. The "personhood" element of the abortion debate is tremendously important; the pro-abortion side has used this weapon, in not a person form, to counter the fetus' right to live weapon for decades, and it has worked as a philosophical CYA against the obvious charge of murder. Short-circuiting it is retarded, like sabotaging your own defenses, for no reason.

The Shell Game

There are other reasons to be for or against abortion: on the pro-abortion side, economist Steven Leavitt (without meaning to become a partisan) has argued persuasively that legalizing abortion helped reduce crime in the 1990's, although no liberal wants to actually use this argument because it basically says that killing off swaths of racial minorities helped society. For anti-abortionists, the obvious argument is defending the notions of sexual morality and responsibility, and maintaining the perception of usefulness for the structure of marriage. They use this on occasion, but it can't be an effective argument in a society that so strongly dislikes structure and loves cheap sex, almost as much as they love living like children well into middle age, if not forever. These alternative arguments are, actually, more compelling from a practical social management perspective than the usual arguments, but they hold no market appeal and are relegated to last-string status in the fight. Pulling them out and using them could very easily blow up in your face.

Which makes me wonder about a lot of people who fill the web and the airwaves "illuminating" on topics like this; how many of these people really believe their own bullshit? Denial is powerful; self-righteousness even more so. But in Williams' case, there's an element where she broke her own fourth wall, cracked the massive shell of built-up personal excuses, self-guided bullshit all, that allows most people to live their lives justifying who they are in a sympathetic, narrative fashion. Or, if you take the argument on its face, she really never had one and was in touch with her own inner Nietzsche to such a degree that she never needed one. I wonder the same thing about economists who say that people make unequal incomes despite their equality because they have different preferences for the kind of work they do, and it has no effect on their status as a valued person in the eyes of others. Give me a fucking break; the handful of people who genuinely don't care about money are massively outnumbered by people who want more but lack the importance - the power - to have it. It's a competition, a power game, and some people lose. That's fine to me, inevitable, but I don't buy the egalitarian bullshit to begin with. Economists often do, and most people have a need to feel righteous, which requires some ideological consistency. I have no idea how they do it.

Williams' outburst of honesty will either be defended as an emotional break of some kind, or it won't be defended at all because, like I said, Williams is such an intellectual lightweight that no one is going to give a sparkling shit about her opinion anyway. The only ones picking it up are right-wing bloggers and columnists; the left is well-advised to pretend it never happened, and it will disappear from the radar screens shortly enough. But I like the honesty of it, that she just went right ahead and basically said that empowering women is more important than the welfare of children, old news to those who recognized feminism's effect on the institutions of marriage and family. But on the left, they need to maintain that hypothetical distance between their own actions and the consequences for others, especially "innocent" others, in order to keep up appearances and keep it from being too obviously about power. I'd imagine that Williams has gotten a few emails from leftists saying, "hey, dumbass, shut the fuck up."

Monday, January 21, 2013

Word Games: Wants and Needs

Given how much hot air has been expelled philosophically and politically over stuff like health care, education, food policy, and similar issues, I'd like to address the basis for how we look at luxury and necessity. So here goes.

Question: What do people need? And what separates needs from wants? What characterizes the difference between the two? Focus on material needs first.

Wants are obvious, and it seems like you can easily tell the difference between the two by pure intuition. Your first instinct might be to try and define needs by listing them off. An article lists a sensible set of what people might consider needs as:

  • A roof over your head
  • Enough food and water to maintain your health
  • Basic health care and hygiene products
  • Clothing (just what's necessary to remain comfortable and appropriately dressed)

Implied in this list is the practical definition of a need: We need what is biologically necessary to maintain life and a bare minimum of functionality as a human being. Some of these definitions (comfort, appropriate, basic, enough) are inherently case-by-case and subjective.

But anyway, it should also be readily apparent that almost every need on this list is readily met in modern America; if you work part-time at minimum wage, you can earn enough to supply those needs. I can say this because of how sketchy the minimum standard of some of those needs really is. You have to have a roof over your head; does that mean that you have to have a place you can call your own? You obviously don't need to own a house, because plenty of people live normally in rented residences. If you assume that most people can find a roommate, then you can pull this off for very little money, maybe a couple hundred bucks a month. There's no reason to think you can't co-habitate. Then there's the idea that, if you live in a big city with a high cost of living, you might want to consider hitching a ride out to the sticks and finding a cheaper area to live and work in.

Food: how many times per week can you eat Top Ramen? Clothing: off to Goodwill we go...

Wants and needs generally describes utility, from less necessary to most necessary; there is no solid line between must have and optional, just a perception of necessity to your life. It's totally subjective, relative, fueled by expectations. Really, if you can lower your standards to the barest level possible, then you can get by with dog food and a warm coat, assuming you live in the south. So where's the value in the terms, what is their purpose, if they don't describe anything tangibly apparent?

Simple: emotional manipulation.

How this Relates to Power: Offense and Defense

This is entirely a matter of morality and politics. The concept of want and need exist because society has found it necessary to delineate between the two, for moral purposes, which today means for political purposes. A need is something that the individual is morally justified in saying that society must make available for them, and on the other side, a need is something that a moral individual with the power to provide those things is morally obligated to provide to others. It's very much akin to a right. The terms don't really insinuate anything factual, but emphasize guilt and innocence in moral terms. No moral person can deny a fellow human being of what they need; to do so would be, quite simply, evil. And while society does not advocate outright theft, we sympathize differently if the thief was simply trying to provide himself - or, better, his family - with something they need. If society has not made the needed good readily available, then society is at fault. The perpetrator is the system, not the victimized individual, who was now just defending himself. When talking about needs, deprivation becomes a violent act. And it creates a drama for us to play with. We automatically take the route that the weak are deprived and the strong are depriving - our underdog fetish - and create crusades for ourselves. Most moralists that utilize the needs argument often seem to prefer that people not so enthusiastically pursue their wants; they call it greed. The true ideal of these moralists is a system in which the producers are motivated by love instead of self-interest, which is close to the Christian ideal of a society.

Put another way, differentiating between wants and needs is inherently propagandist. Saying you need something is a moral buzzword that gives greater weight to your statement that you should have something. It's another tool that people use to garner support from others who share their values, by claiming necessity as an obligation and expectation of help.

Now, there is no power on this earth that can invariably provide for people's needs, or even people's rights, no matter how you specifically define them. The most obvious case of this with the most basic need: survival. People get murdered every day in this country, and there not a damn thing any government can do to cut the homicide rate to zero. So, if the government says that everyone has the right to life and liberty, and every day fails to provide it, then how can you consider that government legitimate? Or is risk just a part of life... possibly the part of life that gives it value?

So the difference between a want and a need is the expected emotions in play. Obviously, I don't care for any of this. I would recommend using terms like gifts for things people give to us without expectation of return, exchanges for things given to us for something else, and privileges for things given to us by our country or family or any other institution, as a part of our membership. Life is a gift and a privilege. Those kinds of words encourage my preferred perspective; your child's education is not a need someone owes you, it is a privilege. Values are molded by language use.

Or does this suggestion lean me too far in the direction of promoting a status quo? Because it does do that; language that encourages appreciation instead of righteous demand creates stability, while language that encourages that other perspective promotes change. Given what's happened to the material quality of life and level of social restraint over the last two hundred years, and the ideological dysfunction this country has such a problem with, I think that we have had plenty of change. Life is already tremendously easy, to the point where it seems to have gotten cheapened.

Conclusion, For Now

Here's the real question: we obviously aren't owed what we want, but can we accept the possibility that we aren't owed anything at all? That everything we have requires fight, and that there is risk for us in this world that is - gasp! - our responsibility to perceive and weigh, with the consequences for failure coming down on us alone? Probably not, and the power games will continue. But the power games are a part of the responsibility that is life anyway. There is a tremendous amount of our language that exists strictly for the sake of those games, words that generate perspectives, perspectives that serve a worldview. I'm gonna be defining terms from the individualistic Western worldview more here, whenever Word Games is in the title. Justice, loyalty, honor, progress... there are plenty more words to go that could use some clarity.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Attention and Perspective

Values and the Creation of Individual Identity

Here's a decent, if dry, article talking about identity, just in case you want to see what current thinkers are doing in the area.

I want to go deep on this, because I think it will matter later as the discussion turns towards what is "true" and what isn't. Who you are as an individual is a result of the circumstances of your life; social, physical, internal biology, everything plays a role. Your mind was built to do two primary things: pattern recognition and evaluation. We recognize patterns of physical existence or behavior as discrete objects or principles, and then we gauge the value of those objects or principles by how they relate to us or other valued objects or principles. To put it simply, we recognize objects/entities and relationships between them, and we recognize what that means for whatever we care about.

Since I'm running with some praxeology ideas, let me break it down using some shit from Kant. I'm going to borrow very heavily from Robert Pirsig's description of Kant's notion of perspective and sensory understanding of reality, as written in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (if you haven't read that, I recommend it).

A couple of centuries ago, a philosopher named David Hume posed some questions about the relationships between what we perceive and what reality is. Hume was an empiricist; he believed that all knowledge we received was through the senses. But there were some issues between the connection of what we sensed and what we actually knew. We know that sensory data can be deceiving, and that leaps in logical connection are anything but reliable, so given that, how do we actually know anything? Put it this way; when we look at an object from a different point of view, the sensory perception changes. Pirsig used the example of a motorcycle; when you sit on a motorcycle, you see certain shapes, like the gas tank and the gauges. Then when you get off the motorcycle, and look at it from the side, you see a totally different set of shapes, leading to a totally different perception.

How do you know it's the same motorcycle?

Hume's answer was, if you follow strict rules of logic, you don't. This might seem weird, but it makes a huge difference if you're thinking about causation, and therefore thinking about the basis for all scientific reason. The connections your mind draws may or may not have anything to do with reality. Much of this could be in our heads; Pirsig was particularly bothered by questions pertaining to the scientific method. There are, as a practical matter, almost unlimited possible explanations for why things work how they work. The ability for the imagination to come up with explanations for phenomena seems to not boil down the possibilities, but to expand them. (I think this is one reason why scientists get pissed when the notion of GOD being an actor in the universe gets brought up. We can explain the universe mechanically, just not perfectly, and there have been huge paradigm shifts in science's understanding of how things work. Throwing God into the mix, which is unprovable with scientific tools, just pisses off everyone.)

Kant dealt with this fuzziness by creating the concept called a priori. Basically, the mind does not get its knowledge strictly through sense data. Instead, we essentially calculate what reality actually is by connecting the dots of perception. We synthesize a worldview. Time and space, particularly, give us a somewhat linear picture of what is happening, and the why is the result of calculations based on years of life experience telling us how things fit together. All this happens subconsciously, and it's going on constantly. We take in huge amounts of data all the time, prioritize it automatically, and integrate it into our understanding of the world. The result is an a priori worldview, which I think looks an awful lot like a computer constructing and revising a 3D model of reality in our imaginations at any given time, based on perceptions past and present.

Should we be integrating attention distribution into figuring out how the individual's a priori universe is constructed?

What I'm thinking is, there are some obvious connections here between the "attention economy" and the creation of the individual worldview, and therefore the individual identity. Our ideas are what make us who we are; otherwise, it's all just physical sensation and sensory crap thrown together into a jumbled mess. So in the development of ideas, one particularly important form of data we take in are the ideas communicated to us by other people, and thus, our social environment makes us who we are, by allocating our attention to what matters, what has value, according to cultural norms. Our a priori worldview, the relationships and connections that matter, are connections made with social input, the distribution of attention affected by constant perceptions of value that are manipulated by the social environment... along with our particular biology, our physical environment, and all the other factors.

Imagine that you walk into Wal-Mart and look around. Just at the entrance to the store. What do your senses perceive? You will not simply see the huge, brightly lit structure housing lots of stuff, which is the most bland possible perception. Your attention will be drawn in certain directions. A greeter might annoy you. An endcap display might stick out - as it's meant to do - advertising a sale of some kind. We take in data selectively, but the data we select has everything to do with how things are presented to us. And you have a lifetime of experience figuring out what is valuable, so the sellers can use this, if they understand some of your values to begin with.

Most major programming is done during childhood. The younger we are, the more every experience matters in developing our perspective; without the thick backlog of prior experiences to already form a set of values and a worldview, kids are extremely impressionable. That makes economic sense: every experience is more valuable if you don't have many of them to begin with. So the connections we figure out in younger years set the background of our worldview. Perspectives on cause-and-effect with authority, with people who are close to equal with us, with those who serve, who is more predictable and can be trusted, what we can do to make impressions on people, our self-worth, everything starts in youth. And getting the attention of young people makes a difference for everyone involved with the kid: parents, teachers, advertisers in particular.

Certain features make things jump out at us. Bright colors, loud noises, anything that looks new or unusual and could therefore be a threat or a not-yet-experienced pleasure. Those are deep-seated attention-getters, because animals in the wild need that data and they've evolved to respond quickly to it. We've evolved it, too. Also, sexual features: tits, tits, and bigger tits, that'll get a guy's attention, along with child-bearin' hips and other ingrained elements of reproductively valuable recognition. (that's also not an excuse to stare. don't be rude when there's so much porn out there) And that's just the heavily genetic stuff. As we've lived in society for all our lives, we become attuned to different things and developed preferences for whatever provides positive feedback. We have ridiculous built-in software for facial pattern recognition, and it makes us extremely sensitive to other people's moods. We become attuned to signals of class and authority from others. Etcetera.

So, in the creation of our identities, we are predisposed to pay attention to certain things, and that predisposition has us valuing certain things. But also, other people know what some of our predispositions are, and use that to draw attention to what they want us to value. This is critical to understanding power, even in an environment, like ours, that tries to stress individual liberty. There's always manipulation at work in the social environment; the way we talk to each other, the way we dress, the car we drive, all of them draw a certain amount of attention and give a certain impression. Our a priori worldview is shaped by these exposures. This is my basic understanding of how values are created in people that draw them into the value systems of society at large and lead to hierarchies and shared worldviews. We're bound by perspective, and perspective is what makes you who you are. It's what makes some people similar and some people very different in outlook, and it's what makes cultures have patterns of thought, trends that work the same way markets work; interactions are exchanges, the currency of these exchanges is attention, and attention creates values in the individual by revising their worldview. Using this system, authorities have been able to organize society. And this type of thinking could let the subjectivity/objectivity debates rest for a minute. Physical reality is objective, but individual and cultural priorities are not. They are subjective, but it's a unifying subjectivity that gives us the ability to understand each other.

Coke and LSD

This is just a fun aside, but it's not just that advertisers can mess with this: You can fuck with this, fuck with your own perspective, all sorts of ways. One of the most radical ways evidently comes with dropping acid.

Disclaimer: I have not dropped acid, so I'm speaking from gathered impressions.

Acid seems to allow two things. For one, the evaluating part of the mind is somehow shifted to where you can see things differently; you can look at the world in the broad sense, take in all of it at once. The attention span is does not focus like normal. The process of seeing something and breaking it down and evaluating it doesn't happen. There is a huge broadening of the perspective. This is associated with a sense of breadth that reduces the ego.
Two, acid seems to provoke people to explore their own consciousness, maybe by becoming more distant to the internal thought process. Heavy trippers saw taking a hit or two as exploring inner space, tooling around in their own minds.
None of this causes aggression. Quite the opposite, it seems to zone the user out, unless there's a really bad trip going on. Even then, violence is rare. Screwed up perceptions of what's going on, not recognizing context, seems more common. It can make you stupid, or at least make you LOOK stupid.

Disclaimer: I also haven't done coke.

Then there's coke, which seems to take the evaluating side of us and crank it up to 11. It's very pleasurable to do this, because it's very empowering. The saying goes, "Cocaine makes you a new man. And the first thing that new man wants is more cocaine."

If LSD can space you out, then coke can turn you into Tony Montana, screaming that he'll take your bullets. One of these drugs is empowering only in the sense of giving an edge to someone looking to know himself better and see the world differently. The other is just purely empowering.

Anyway, I'm not telling you to change your perspective or be on guard for manipulation all the time or whatnot. Chances are, you've already been alive long enough to have some idea who you can trust and who you can't, who will steer you wrong and who's reinforcing notions you need. You instinctively look to survive and thrive in your environment. Cocaine is not necessary for empowerment; in fact, the intensity of it is probably counter-productive for getting along in the social environment and setting yourself up well in the long term. It's just an interesting way to look at things if you want to know how values work. It's all reinforcement, exposure, adaptability, most of it subconscious but some of it not. 


Not too long ago, when I actually submitted to the self-stabbing frustration of arguing with radical leftists, a conversation was started by one of them about debt. Of course, there's only one opinion that a radical leftist can have about debt; he simply must believe that it's wrong, evil, repressive, a manipulative trick that bad people play on good people in order to control them. Naturally, this conversation had started out talking about how people who had bought houses in 2006 or so had been fucked over, and some similar conversations about people who had credit cards.

The guy was plugging a book, this one here:

It's by an anthropologist with strong leftist tendencies writing about how debt and the money system came into being. I've read synopses, but not the book, and I'm not going to read the book. This pisses off some people, I know, but these people evidently haven't heard of the concept of opportunity costs; I have stacks of books on my to-read list and I'm not going to drop everything for one where the jist of it seemed so easy to grasp anyway. As far as the information goes, what I've read about it seems fine. It makes perfect, obvious sense to me that debt predates money and that money was created by authorities, all of this created as a control mechanism.

I just don't think that's a bad thing.

And I don't want to read a book about it by someone who's strongly inclined to present it as a bad thing. I know that emotional state, and I don't share it.

But as we piss and moan about shit like the current government debt limit, both pro and con, it's worth a second to take a look at just how central the concept of debt is to our world. This is how I see things having evolved; the book may or may not agree, I don't know.

Debt and Relationships

How do you come to understand who is valuable to you?

Life is pretty random about how we come into proximity with one another, but what's less random is that some people create a positive reaction in us, more so than others. There are people we want to be around. They make what we want, they ARE what we want, they help us. Sometimes it's what they don't do that they could have done that we like, especially if you're dealing with people that can hurt you. We usually try to create incentives to keep the people we like close, but those exchanges don't happen simultaneously, so we end up vaguely keeping track of positives and negatives over time, who helped someone else out last time, watching for who has been free-riding. These exchanges create inequalities. People bring different positives to the table, and they aren't all equal. This isn't something that happens on conscious terms, but over time, we develop positive and negative intuitions about individuals and types of people like this. Even the way we talk to each other is laden with this exchange notion. We call a conversation an exchange, which it is. Information for information, and flattery gets us everywhere. Intimacy could be defined by vulnerability, having debts to people. And it’s political; you tell me what I want to hear, and I return the favor (sometimes). Favors come in lots of different styles.

In the Really Old Days, people living in close proximity certainly did favors for each other all the time. Then, favors were turned around and repaid. What one favor was worth compared to another must have come up for debate; trying to pay off some guy that built you a fire and saved your life in winter, by giving him some nuts and berries, then calling it good, just isn't acceptable. So inequalities of value certainly created hierarchies of what was worth more, and the ensuing system of internally-tracked debts became more complex as people tried to define their world.

Take this process and try to turn it into something large-scale, and you immediately see the difficulty: no one can keep track of all these assholes who we may or may not owe favors to, and who may or may not owe us something. And as you carry out more transactions in an environment with more choices, you can't sit down and work out with people, "well, in exchange for this drinking gourd, I'll give you two strips of beef jerky, then come back and patch that hole in your roof next week." You need to standardize all these things, track them sensibly. Enter money.

The personal element was removed; in order to make a large-scale system work, the personal intimacy of favor and obligation must become more distant. Favors went from being personal to being statistically tracked, which, particularly for emotional types, seems deeply alienating. And it is; people become subject to the market. Money is power. It's just that the organization of modern society is only possible because of it. Without such impersonal tools and the huge command perspective they create, society at a scale beyond the hunter-gatherer tribe is impossible.

But the degree to which debt connects us to the social world makes it too important for some people to simply accept this. The biggest problem is that the system denies us the primary predicate of every exchange: attention. The depth of relationship that happens when we really know someone goes out the window too quickly. Efficiency kills the intimacy, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the nature of the system is to worship quantity over quality. The interpersonal exchanges, the debts, bound us together in small-scale society; now that they’ve become so regular and so coldly rational, they seem to tear people apart.

Nietzsche's Lens 

I wonder about one thing particularly; does the author of that book agree with Nietzsche? He might even mention him. In Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche specifically states that the concept of guilt stemmed from market exchange. He's very specific about it, even giving intriguing evidence for it (and Nietzsche rarely bothered with petty, self-depricating notions like evidence). The German word schuld, meaning guilt, seems to stem from the word schulden, meaning debts. (Nietzsche was a philologist, btw. My amateurish sense of language says that the English word should is related, as well. Like, "you should do this, it's the right thing to do." Should creates a normative condition, its moral nature obvious as hell. I seriously doubt that I'm the first person to notice this: English gets about 60% of its root words from German)

Basically, Nietzsche said that our understanding of morality was rooted in creditor-debtor relationships. And creditor-debtor relationships all make the assumption that the debtor has the capability to pay back what he owes, that it is within his power to fulfill the obligations. This insinuates the concept - Nietzsche might have said, the luxurious power of - responsibility. If it can be assumed that you have the capability to make things happen to pay what you owe, then it can be assumed that you have a level of control over your world that allows you to create and affect your environment at will. If you haven't read Genealogy, read it. My book recommendations are better than that other book recommendation, trust me. And ignore all those parts that the Nazis took too seriously.

Debt and Justice

What irritates is the perception of injustice that comes from the lack of intimacy. Market economies extend these notions of responsibility and empowerment out to everyone, which seems to be a problem, given how unequal people are. We assume, with our "free markets", that people have the ability to go out and work, so if they can't repay their debts, then the blame is on them. Ah, blame, that ugly-ass word; you can logically blame a poor person with no sense for running up a credit card tab he can’t pay, but emotionally, if you know such a person, would you actually do it? Leftists are so emotional about this stuff... But you can see their point. The individual, particularly the broke individual, does not control the economy. Given that money is power, that should be obvious. They aren't starting their own business, they aren't going back to college (although we try to make this absurdly easy), and they may not even have gas money. How can you blame someone in such a position?

You see this situation, and you want to help. Much of our moral thought has revolved around helping, and doing it unconditionally, do it for everyone without being concerned with tracking debts, which sounds very romantic and appealing.

Help ALL the people! It's so Christian, all of this. Jesus died to pay our debts. We should all be equal; these games that create inequalities are just stupid, right? It’s no one’s fault. The leftist wants everyone to relax and be cool; don't keep track of the debts, don't bother. Just do for others, be nice, serve instead of empowering yourself. Don't think about how opportunity costs mean that for every person you serve, you're passing up serving another, and no matter what, you end up having to prioritize and show that you value some more than others. The leftist reads that debt book linked at the top, and comes to the conclusion that it was all basically a conspiracy to enslave people.

Children, children... 

There are so many ways to see this morally, you can take it to tremendous depth, with definitions of justice and all that. I had about three pages written on here trying to do it. But the point is very simple: systemization is hell, and the large scale of civilization is the problem. Organization itself is oppressive at that level. Organization demands that you connect someone’s value to the value of their actions. Organization turns emotional exchanges into faceless, rational ones. It’s easy for the individual and the system take each other for granted. Anyone who actually does the math rationally sees how good the exchange is compared to any other viable system, or no system at all. But this has nothing to do with a rational understanding of justice or calculations of utility based on how much worse things could be. It has everything to do with emotions. It’s about the perception of cruelty. Deprivation and blame are cruel.

Older societies knew this, and they created some system to deal with it; those systems were called religions. Religion justifies the debts and pushes you to give thanks while personifying the power. Without it, the whole situation is just something faceless that you don’t control, but that controls you.

Without it, there’s no solution to this emotionally except to man the fuck up. There is no personal, yet large-scale, organization. Wal-Mart cannot deliver truly personal customer service. Wal-mart can't even be a personal employer. Even relatively small corporations - and governments - hire thousands, sell to millions, and have to see people as statistics. The system can’t be run on Christian principles. They have to track value, factually, coldly, with rational self-interest. That’s how they survive and stabilize the mess.

That’s why it works. We show up on time and pay our debts because the system can create consequences for not doing so. We’ve been trained for it. The rigor of it will never be fun. At most, we can take comfort in routine, but lots of people, particularly young people, don’t want more routine. They want more intimacy, to be special and highly valued. It’s not personal enough. It doesn’t resound in us. The system DOES devalue the individual. There are a lot of us; of course we aren’t worth much. Supply and demand.

But to deny the validity of debt is to deny the harsh, masculine sense of honor that insists on accepting the exchange system as having meaning, and the inevitability that people will take debts and payments as measurements of their individual worth, with all the hierarchical alienation that implies. Assaulting that idea might feel good, but like so much other political garbage, it's just public masturbation.

You might think of the people you've seen who take pleasure in service, who genuinely seem to act out of love, and think that either this debt thing, this monetizing of value, is complete bullshit or that it's obsolete. It's tempting to think that we can do without it, that we can run society on people doing out of love and doing what they enjoy. But no one has come up with a way to run shit according to emotional needs. If you take the notion of incentives and power seriously, trying it on a large scale could only create a brittle, irrational society where the concept of responsibility would become an issue of emotion management, just as susceptible to manipulation and control by those with power, but without the honest coercion of cash money. It couldn't possibly be stable, and in any measurable sense, it would have to be worse.

But it’s never going to do any good to point this out to kids.

We've run up something like fifteen trillion in debt. Not personally, socially. And it's our society, our system, like it or not. My moral principles say that we should pay it down, without fucking over investors with inflation or getting into a pissing match with the creditors who loaned us their economic power on the assumption that we were good for it. It will be painful to do this. But we earned it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Problem with Dr. Haidt

About a year ago, a book called The Righteous Mind by Dr. Jonathan Haidt stirred up much controversy. In the usual course of the dynamics associated with the free market of ideas, his observations created a big splash, and then fell by the wayside as attention was re-directed elsewhere. But I still think we need to talk about this, so here you go:

Above is a link to a TED talk given by Haidt, and below is a link to one of Haidt's essays on religion and its value in society.

I like Dr. Haidt. Sometimes he can be a bit New Age wonky, but his research has led him to re-examine conservative ideas critically and brought him to some surprisingly positive conclusions. At least, those conclusions surprised him. Nevertheless, there are elements of what he's trying to do - bring about greater civil discourse through understanding - that totally misses the boat. What he's missed corresponds with what I'm trying to do by talking about praxeology and looking at the situation through an economic perspective.

Haidt's assumption, that the conflicts between the ideologies at play are rooted in misunderstanding, is purely liberal. So while he now proclaims himself to be a centrist, he's still extremely liberal, and as such, he's doomed to completely misunderstand the economic reality of the situation. This has nothing to do with misunderstandings. It has everything to do with the competitive nature of ideology itself, and the questions of power that are totally inseparable from it.

The liberal and conservative ideologies are competing, people. They are in a marketplace of ideas, much like Haidt's book came and went in that marketplace, and the ideologies want more market share. This has nothing to do with right versus wrong, in the usual sense of the word, because right versus wrong are issues that are hashed out within the marketplace and do not govern it. The marketplace is ABOVE ideology, so long as the structure of Western society remains individualistic. Ideas are sold. The alternative is essentially moral authoritarianism, and every player in this situation is a moral authoritarian to some degree because everyone thinks that they are right, as Haidt said. You can try to reduce the power of this by creating a pluralist cultural environment, but making that the goal would be to openly say that there is no right and wrong, and it's all a matter of perspective. That's true, but it kills legitimacy, solves nothing, and it couldn't possibly matter less. The question has everything to do with the dominant form of cultural perspective, and how it shapes individual perspectives.

Look at what's happening right now with the gun control situation. Liberals (modern liberals, not classical) want more gun regulation. They don't want this because they're trying to tell you what to do, at least not in their minds. When Obama talked about gun control recently, he urged political enemies to "examine their conscience" and surrounded himself with children, which shows one of three things: naivete, self-righteousness, or absurdly divisive political gamesmanship. It's likely a combination of the three, none of which means that he doesn't mean well. It's just that when we're talking about morality, liberals have based their cultural understandings on the belief that, to some degree, all cultures are kind of the same and can coexist peacefully. And they've made sweeping judgments about right and wrong in the process.

I'm going to skip over some of Haidt's talk of harm/care and fairness/injustice here and just say, liberals simply think that violence is bad and that anything that could contextually promote violence is therefore inherently bad. They see guns as an evil, preferring them to be held only by the elected and therefore legitimate state, and being pissed by the idea that anyone could see guns as desirable or necessary. In the process of this, they've waged a propaganda war aimed at changing minds - or as they see it, bringing them around to reason - on the subject of gun ownership. All the idiotic blathering about what constitutes an assault weapon, or how many bullets in a magazine are too many, couldn't possibly matter less. What they're trying to do is bring guns into cultural disrepute, and doing so requires the passage of laws that make it clear that guns are dangerous and bad.

In the marketplace of ideas, the currency in play is the attention span of society at large, which is an inherently scarce resource, and they're fighting for more. They don't see it that way, because they believe, in the grandest style of any religious zealot, that what they're fighting for is in some sense deeply, objectively, and inarguably right if you understand the situation. They're wrong, but that's my opinion. I am not of that cultural school, and neither are huge numbers of Americans. The Americans who want to keep their guns and maintain a respectable image for gun owners see the assault at work, and CAN see it because they disagree. But morality blinds, and what guys like Haidt both understand and do not admit is that their own morality is a subjective matter which, if stripped from them, would constitute an assault on their ideological identity and they want nothing more than to preserve it. They don't have to worry, because another thing that liberals typically don't admit is that their understanding of right and wrong is already so broadly shared in this country that it simply doesn't come under attack. The fringe liberals - hardcore feminists, pseudo-socialists, extreme egalitarians of all stripes - come under attack, but there aren't many people that stupid. The basis for liberal ideology, focused on secularism and empathy, is soundly dominant in the marketplace of ideas.

This will get its own post eventually, but... Living in a country so deeply individualistic, I think one reason that liberals are under the impression that competing ideologies can co-exist so easily is constant exposure to consumerism. There's an anti-monopolist sentiment. They believe that having two people living side by side with totally different ideologies is as straightforward as having two people live side by side that own different brands of car. It doesn't make a difference if you drive a Chevy and I drive a Ford, so it shouldn't matter that you're a conservative and I'm a liberal. Just mind your business, right? They look at principles like clothes you put on. That's bullshit. It does matter. Your ideas are your identity, and an attack on them - or a marginalization of them - is an attack on you. We have to live under the same laws, raise our children close to each other, and interact in the public sphere in countless other ways. Environmentalists have figured out that selling people on the ideas one by one doesn't work worth a shit when it's time to actually get things done, especially if there is genuine sacrifice involved, and Haidt recognized the "commons dilemma". What can a society do if people don't agree on basic values, basic moral principles, and basic visions of the future? Can it even be called a society anymore?

If this is incompatible with your conception of freedom, then you don't understand some of the deep subjectivity inherent in ideas of freedom in the Western context. When it comes down to it, freedom as a concept makes no sense unless you make massive moral assumptions. You are not free to beat, kill, or rape, so to a great degree, the philosophical basis of freedom says that to be free is to be good. The part of what constitutes goodness makes up huge rafts of our political and cultural debates. Haidt skips over the deep philosophy himself in creating his moral foundations, because he doesn't want to make any actual statements of what is genuinely right or not; he'd prefer to keep that a subjective matter, up to the people. He does not say that liberals are wrong, instead seeing the situation as ying and yang, where balance is necessary for - what do you think? - maximum social welfare. His credit to conservatism is strictly based on not changing too fast. He still wants change, and you can guess his preferred direction: more equality, more choice, more empowerment in all its forms for everyone. He doesn't play with questions of legitimate authority or legitimate values. He doesn't really participate, and in refusing to do so, doesn't contribute much. It's interesting stuff, but not productive. He will not take on the responsibilities of leadership and make the decisions, or even advise on them. Like I said, it isn't a problem of understanding, and his idea that understanding will fix anything is baseless, born of ideological predisposition.

When Haidt really gets this, and really gets how placing ideas into this context deeply devalues the perspective of the individuals who hold those ideas, then he will realize just how futile it is to try and make the world compatible with everyone's ideology simultaneously. Pluralism is a joke. Western societies used to be filled with families that put up walls between their houses as a matter of course. Those walls will have to come back up, figuratively and maybe literally, if we want to preserve the value of our own identities. We already don't want to send our kids to the same schools or let them watch the same TV shows, knowing that some asshole's views that contradict our own will get shoved into their faces. We are already separating into camps. And it needs to happen, because serious questions of ideology don't get resolved by putting them on a shelf at Wal-Mart and letting people just pick and choose whichever ones they want. It kills the prerogative of any society to utilize any serious discipline when you do that. No, the way that ideologies come into their own and create social stability is the way they've always done it:

One side has to win. 

God help us if an internally inconsistent, ridiculous ideology like modern liberalism pulls out a victory.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Wiki World History

This is a map of the world in which countries are represented by the word that appears with the greatest frequency in their respective Wikipedia entries.

There seems to be a theme going on, just for those of you who aren't clear on what has made the world into what it is today. Always remember this phrase: History is written by the winners.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Nietzsche on Pleasure and Displeasure

"Displeasure" and "pleasure" are the most stupid means imaginable of expressing judgments; which naturally does not mean that the judgments made audible in this manner must be stupid. The abandonment of all substantiation and logicality, a Yes and No in the reduction to a passionate desire to have or a rejection, an imperative abbreviation whose utility is unmistakable: this is pleasure and displeasure. It originates in the central sphere of the intellect; its presupposition is an infinitely speeded-up perception, ordering, subsumption, calculating, inferring: pleasure and displeasure are always terminal phenomena, not "causes."  -Nietzsche, The Will to Power, A. 669
 This is why I love Nietzsche; I laughed my ass off when I read that first line. But going on:
The decision about what arouses pleasure and what arouses displeasure depends upon the degree of power: something that in relation to a small quantum of power appears dangerous and seems to require the speediest defense, can evoke, given the consciousness of greater power, a voluptuous excitation and a feeling of pleasure.
All feelings of pleasure and displeasure presuppose a calculation of utility and harmfulness to the whole; in other words, a sphere where an end (a state) is desired and means for it are selected. Pleasure and displeasure are never "basic facts."
Exactly. This is very praxeological thinking. We know, somewhere in our minds which center on elevating ourselves in the world, that little things with no biochemical reason to incite pleasure still manage to make us feel great. If you get twenty bucks back from your cellphone company because you overpaid your bill, then okay, that's nice. If you get twenty bucks back from your cellphone company because you think they screwed you, and you've been haggling with them for hours on the phone in order to set things back to the way it should be, then you've won a victory. It's much more satisfying. We love it when our side wins, in football or politics or just when we argue in a bar, the group we identify with having unquestionably risen in esteem and power. The material benefit are totally secondary; a good steak is good, but it's great when we get it for free or get it because we won a bet. We live our lives in the sphere of power; we want our bills paid off, even if we've been running on automatic Billpay for years and we haven't wasted any amount of time handling said bills for as long. The greater income on its way and its material benefits are nice, but it doesn't fully encapsulate what it means to be debt free. And owning our own business has a satisfaction all its own, even for all the stress it creates; we know full well in all these situations, a burden has been lifted, a dependency or obligation relieved. An inequality of power has been righted, and it's not the point to reach for a position of equality, so long as we know the scales have tipped in our favor.

Sexual predation always come down to questions of power. Maybe some fully disconnected asshole guys do it just for the sensation of busting a nut, but for most part, it always seems to be a power game gone horribly awry, the subtle dynamics of affection meaningless in their eyes. Feminists recognize this, with the correct moral assumption that the sexual playing field is forever rightfully turned in favor of the woman. They decide. Can a decent man ever be satisfied having acquired sex by means other than through the desire of the woman for him? Aren't force or rohypnol comparatively unsatisfying and, in the end, far more frustrating for how he had to circumvent her preferences in order to get what he wanted? Didn't he want it because it meant that she wanted him? It has to be that way. Women have tremendous power over men. Their expectations can be completely ridiculous and the situation can be totally unfair to any observer pretending to objectivity, but men want women on the assumption that they will be wanted back, empowered by her desire. Women seem to want the same thing... "He's MINE! Mine mine mine!" Men hear this and say, "Baby, calm down..." Smiling all the way to the bedroom.

Pleasure and displeasure are subjective, dependent on the values of the individual experiencing it. Trying to boil down any sort of ethics based on it requires codifying experiences into "pleasurable" and "displeasurable" in a way that never works. There are always exceptions, one person's situation invalid to the next; there is no "objective" pleasure. There is only empowerment, and our evolved sense of what is good and bad came from the empowerment of past experiences. We enjoy sex and food because the acquisition of sex and food is valuable and empowering to us. We did not evolve to pursue these desires. These desires evolved in us, to empower us, assuring our continued existence. To say that we should pursue some fixed understanding of what is pleasurable is to halt the evolution and give in to a simple-minded Epicureanism that has signified the decay of hedonistic societies before ours. It has to be better to think, decide, pursue, and achieve, putting yourself into what you value and taking every stress and pain as a down payment on the future. The conflicts of interest don't just make the entire mess far more sporting; they make life life.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hierarchy Part 1: To Begin

How Society Organizes Itself

"All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at any given time is a function of power, and not truth."                  -Nietzsche
Warning, January 2016: this is a long blog, one of the first I wrote, long before even trying for brevity. You're going to need a solid half hour to really get anything of value from it.

I'm not sure what, of my ideas, has been stated before and what hasn't, so feel free to inform me of what this looks like in the comments. The topic is human hierarchies. I'm going to address Weber and his divisions of hierarchical style as I go through; I cannot address every theoretical style I know of because the social sciences have nothing really solid beyond Weber as far as hierarchical types go, and some writers have thrown out possible alternatives all over the place. Few of them have been really vetted by anyone, no decisions about what type of perspective is best, since academia doesn't really make decisions about what ideas have value and what ideas don't. Different theories just gain in popularity and occasionally fall, possibly replaced by something more appealing, market style. Now, it's my turn.

A note on convention: dividing concepts (and by concepts, I mean everything that can be analyzed, so basically everything) into types is THE age-old method for understanding things better. You break something down to its component parts to understand its function in order that you may comprehend how it works and, ostensibly, be able to use that knowledge, empowering yourself. This is a large part of what academia does to gain insights. There's nothing wrong with it, but particularly when we discuss something that develops organically instead of by design, it should be understood that all divisions are matters of convenience. There are always alternative ways to understand how something works, and that applies even to man-made stuff. Go to a grocery store to shop for milk, and you will likely divide the milk up by volume of the containers; generic and name-brand, notable for price differences; type of milk, like 2% or Vitamin D; and otherwise, you won't notice much. Your priorities are probably on price and taste. Someone else, someone with an activist streak, might subdivide it up as which milk is in eco-friendly containers, which milk is made by a company known to abstain from hormone use in cows, and the like. The differences make a big difference to much of what I'm going to say, because after the initial subdivision, the focus will shift towards hierarchies that revolve around perceptions and values. For our two hypothetical milk shoppers, they will have different perceptions of what matters in milk, where the important divisions are to be made, because they have different values. They will focus on aspects of the milk differently because of divergences in priorities and, to some minor extent, worldview. This makes all the difference in the world when we're talking about how people organize their world.

The key term here is values, which as a concept, joins economic and philosophical ideas. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, subjective values have a tremendous impact on our actions; through our actions, we bring our values into the world. We direct physical resources and each other's actions in accordance to our values, a tremendous substantiation of power. So this needs to be broken down, systematized a bit... and you should probably ignore the contradiction between my appreciation for systematization and my appreciation for Nietzsche, who hated systematization.

The Big Split: Explicit and Implicit Hierarchies

As I said, all subdivisions are matters of convenience, and the most important division to be made when dealing with hierarchy is to split the concept of hierarchy as practiced by people into the two types: explicit and implicit.

Explicit Hierarchies

Explicit hierarchies are what most people think of when they think about hierarchy. These are the jobs with rank on the uniform or title after the name on the business card. When you see a diagram that looks like a pyramid or something, and it's got names in positions and all that, you're seeing a hierarchy. There are a lot of different ways to organize them; in fact, a recent trend in business is to NOT organize them at all, to just get people together and let them work things out. But the thing about explicit hierarchies is that they are known. There's no hiding their nature; the system exists and the people in it are fully aware of its existence, what their role in it is, what their title is, and what their responsibilities are. Most often, such hierarchies are institutional, but that doesn't mean they are part of institutions where they reside. That puts the emphasis in the wrong place. The hierarchy IS the institution. All the physical trappings of it exist only to house the people within it, whose operations make up the actual institution. Explicit hierarchies are generally what happens when something needs to get done, so people are organized, and the roles of the individuals fit into a system of organization that turns the people from a mob into a machine. Jonathan Haidt would call them 'super-organisms'.

Now, not all explicit hierarchies are the same and some are better designed than others. In most, there is constant concern over corruption and constant debate over who is exactly supposed to do what, where the privileges and limitations are, and so on. That is among the greatest strength of explicit hierarchies; the organization can be manipulated by rules, the rules stemming from values that are assumed to be broadly shared among those with an interest in the group. The goals of the group - anything from the broad and basic need for the group to continue surviving to the specific needs of modern states, corporations, and political movements - are assumed to be legitimate because the members of the group all share a perspective which values the fruits of the group's labor. All these goals, from defense to profit to glorifying David Hasselhoff, give rise to a functionalist notion of hierarchy, one organized around the realization of something valued by those in the group. This understanding of organization focuses on specialization, which conveniently need not be seen through the lens of power so long as everyone is doing what they're supposed to be doing.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever been a part of an explicit hierarchy that there's the theory as to how it is supposed to work, and then there's how it actually works. Sometimes, it doesn't work at all. Sometimes, it works despite itself, because if the goal that the organization is supposed to achieve is important and therefore valuable (like staying in business or winning the war), then the people who are a part of it will adapt, change arrangements, maneuver in order to get the big stuff taken care of. (this kind of behavior forms a parallel implicit hierarchy) That's all a matter of incentives. It's probably best to look at explicit hierarchies as a theoretical framework only. They evolve in many different ways, are extremely sensitive to the personalities involved, extremely sensitive to the beliefs and values of the people within, and can be affected tremendously by perceptions of good or bad function and a million other factors. Keeping one running smoothly requires a certain competence that's different for every organization but where certain abilities - leadership, being organized, being a good judge of character, having a sense of purpose - usually pay off.

Most of these hierarchies, in contemporary times, are not presented as being hierarchical in the old-school sense. The positions people hold are not explicitly positions of power, but are rather assumed to be functional subdivisions; John, head of accounting, makes more money and talks to the boss face to face, but that's a functional necessity of his accounting job, not necessarily a statement that John is superior to other workers. In some cases, the company may explicitly say that John has the capacity to give instruction, demanding compliance, only in his own department and even then only in a very limited scope. Shawn the janitor still knows better than to call John a cocksucker to his face, of course, because this is mostly bullshit. Cultural self-deceptions will come into the conversation later, but the concept of functionalism allows a manner of excusing itself and appeasing popular conceptions of right and wrong, without losing the benefits of organization.

There are lots of other ways to break down explicit hierarchy, but it's important to understand that they vary widely in operating philosophy and, therefore, in the levels of control used. Except for the most committed anti-statists, we are all a part of at least one: the government (in my case, of the US). Certain people in the government have the prerogative to make important judgments that affect the lives of others, the code of law relies on cultural understandings of what's right and wrong, etcetera.

Implicit Hierarchies

This category encapsulates much of the direction of my thought over the years and a full reckoning of its workings won't fit on this blog, so I'll try to be clear here and not fit everything onto one post. If you think this idea is complete bullshit, then this entire blog probably isn't for you.

Implicit hierarchies operate with no assumed structure, and the differences in value between different people arise as a result of individual evaluations. Basically, implicit hierarchies operate like markets.

When you look at a product in a market, you can often come to some conclusions about how valuable something is, what you'd pay for it, or what someone else would have to pay for it for you to call them a dumbass. You know that some things are more valuable than others. This could be because some things are more useful in the raw utilitarian sense, but to make yet another division of convenience, there are items useful because of what they do, and items useful because of what they are. We're talking about two different kind of value here, but both of them play in the perception of the subject. In any case, whatever type of value is at work, one thing should be obvious: as a matter of real-world importance, not everything is created equal.

This applies to people, too. You do judge people as you go through your life, even if you say you don't and you hate the idea. We push equality and non-judgmentalism very hard, but to not evaluate people is to refuse honest thought. You know that you don't value your mother the same way you value someone who's name you picked randomly out of a phone book. You know the formal structures of positions and authority at work, and then you know who you get along with, who actually has good information, which people turn to for advice regardless of their title. If you own the business, you know where your most valuable consumer demographics are, and who your most reliable employees are; you need this information, because your ass relies on people's performance. In your family, you know who can be counted on and who you shouldn't loan money to and who's marriage is going to fail. You can say people are different and that doesn't make them better or worse, but when something actually needs to be done, or things like money or marriage that you value are at risk, that sort of thinking has to go out the window by necessity. It's also been fairly well-proven that people prefer to spend time around others who are similar to them; how closely you identify with someone affects how you evaluate them. Thus, you organize people as you do products in a market, or to put it another way, you dice up the parts of your social environment and prioritize in accordance to your values. This means that there is an emergent hierarchy, one for every participant, that is quite fluid and does not operate by giving orders in the sense of an explicit hierarchy. It holds power because of how it can influence the subject; your values, constantly changing, change in response to what, and who, you think is important. We aren't talking about who you have to tolerate telling you what to do at work, or in any other analogous situation; we're talking about the people who you look up to, the people you need, the people who affect your values. Some people are evaluated as being higher than others with enough consistency to give those people greater influence over the social environment.

And, of course, we have enough perception to look at ourselves through this lens, albeit with tremendous distortions. The consequences for holding a low esteem among others can be severe. You know that when someone is disappointed, disgusted, pitying, or dismissive with you, you don't have much value to them. The game revolves around perceptions, which makes it superficial in our way of understanding it, but it is a necessary and highly refined superficiality. We can communicate quite a bit with someone we don't know well through understood facial expressions, posture, dress, and references to common experiences. (Have you ever had a conversation with someone you didn't know but who liked the same movies you like? Easy, isn't it?) Icebreakers and shared worldview keep things together, forms of communications without outright communication, signals creating an entire dimension that we usually aren't consciously aware of.

We've been doing this kind of thing since we were kids. Making friends in school was always a matter of finding the people who are like you, which raises the perception that you are both yourself valuable and worth the company of someone likeable. Same with dating; you find someone on your level, or maybe a bit above. (The best possible scenario with a couple is two people who are both slightly delusional, thinking themselves unworthy of the other, lucky to be there. The expectations work out nicely.) Associating with those 'above your pay grade' makes you look good and primes you to move up, although associating with people WAY higher than you usually will just make everyone uncomfortable and make you look like a sycophantic douchebag. It's complicated, obviously, particularly in America, a nation of endless informal, implicit subdivisions but with a passionate hatred of explicit hierarchy.

The perspective at work here is so obvious - what I'm referring to will be instantly recognizable to most people as the philosophy of success - that some people will be tempted to say that it's pointless to discuss it. But even in economics, where unequal value should be assumed, the official assumption is that people are equal and it's only their labor or some such other tangential quality that comes in for judgment. The idea that economic dynamics actually describe the dynamics of power in a hierarchical sense, or the workings of self-esteem to some relevant degree, doesn't get much play, unless you're an Objectivist. Even then, hierarchy is not the chosen word. America's hatred of hierarchy, literally written into the Declaration, has made honest discussion of it moot, even though addressing it as a fact of life might be preferable to denial.

So organize the people you care about into your own personal rankings system. Assign everyone a value, like a dollar value, in accordance to where they rank. If you duplicate this process with everyone and then throw everyone's values together, aggregate them, you'd probably begin to see patterns that look like a social hierarchy we'd recognize. Again, that's assuming people were being honest, and they usually aren't; lots of people would probably say that they value the homeless guy the same as they value the CEO, but that's what society has told them is the right thing to say. In reality, those people would probably move some things around on their schedule and wait in line for a couple of hours to see an actress who showed up in town to sign autographs, or be extra-nice to a foreign dignitary who showed up where they work with with bevy of armed guards. The president of Monsanto might not be liked, but the fact that thousands or millions of people have an opinion of him at all shows his importance, his social power, in contrast to normal people. Such people can create a reaction that most people cannot, and you have to admit, getting a negative reaction is, in some ways, better than getting no reaction at all. The reinforcements at play matter. People are reacting to you. The homeless guy might get some pocket change. If actions speak louder than words, then you simply can't deny that people value one another unequally.

An economist, being very open-minded, might see some shade of the term 'utility schedule' in here, or some of Samuelson's 'revealed preferences', but it goes much deeper. Unless you're a moral realist - and only the really unimaginative people can adopt that position seriously - you know that values are circumstantial and encapsulated in nothing more solid than the individual mind. So if values aren't solid, then where do they come from? What forces prompt significant change in what you care about?

Individual reason as the decision making variable is effectively out; Dr. Haidt has done excellent research to undermine that myth. Instead, intuition now guides, and our intuitions have a source: society, as we perceive it, guides them. The circumstances of our existence, almost entirely man-made, and therefore social in nature, guide them. The deep source of our decisions is far more emotional than rational, or more accurately, our emotions have a deep-seated logic to them that is often misunderstood. That logic comes from how we adapt to our social environment. Some social and biological sciences have started moving in the direction of figuring those adaptations out, but they probably aren't going anywhere unless they understand the hierarchical nature of human interaction.

Given that the implicit/explicit divide is a matter of convenience and not some deep-lined fact, every form of social organization has elements of both implicit and explicit in them. Personal disputes, stemming from personal relationships which always have some shade of implicit hierarchy to them (even if the respective position changes minute-by-minute), constantly bring up 'technicalities' (Were we actually even dating then? Did I say I would come by tomorrow, or did I say I'd come by when I had the time? What promises have I made, and what are the consequences for breaking them?) Even the most rigid working environment still has people who's jobs are made easier by showing respect to particularly valuable members of the team. Trying to work out issues of interpersonal power drives culture, and most of our passionate, involving emotions - love and hate, jealousy and greed, change and tradition, taboos and stigmas - have roots in power struggle. The issues at play define the lion's share of who we are.


Can you measure any of this? Sure. Money is the form of measurement we're used to when it comes to gauging power - I would make the case that money is socially legitimate power - but there are other currencies, and probably the most under-recognized is attention. This will eventually get its own post, but for now, look at attention as cultural currency. If you want to influence people, first things first, you have to get their attention. It's a very precious commodity, like gold, and every advertiser in the world knows it. Marketing is skill meant to use money to get attention, then take that attention and turn it into a greater amount of money. It's attention investment. You don't simply appeal to people's values in doing this; you can change people's values by creating certain perceptions.

Seen from this perspective, the hypothetical marketplace of ideas can take some genuine shape. With attention as the currency, ideas become products, created and marketed like physical products, transported along an infrastructure of communications technology varying in sophistication from language, to face-to-face mouth-and-ears conversation, to physical writing, to books, to the internet. What do these products look like? You know the answer: from religious ideas like God to philosophical ideas like justice, from love of the football team to the impression that Hondas are reliable, they all count. Art, specifically, gains a measure of respect when done well; art is a highly compressed form of communication, the jpeg of human interaction. In fact, you could make an excellent argument that all communication is a matter of art, not news at all to rhetoricians and poets. Nietzsche's characterization of all language as metaphor, from On Truth and Lying, holds here.

In a situation where the individual makes the decisions, and those decisions aggregate to push society on its path, being able to attract attention and use it skilfully means having a tremendous level of power. The same can be said for money, and the similarities in the issues surrounding the two currencies are striking. Most of the issues that come up with the money supply - our concerns over its distribution, inflation, deflation, currency crises - could theoretically come up with attention as well, albeit with limits; no central attention bank will be printing off fiat attention. But to the extent that money can be used to gauge power over material goods, so attention can be used to gauge cultural influence today. We can talk like entertainment doesn't affect behavior, but plenty of people have woken up to the realization that understandings of what society considers right and wrong can be drawn from what's popular. At times, these exposures inform us where the limits are, and what other people like. And in a world where people have more choices than ever when it comes to what they pay attention to, understanding what works in drawing attention is a tremendous asset in the power struggle. To maximize power, you need to know the trends.

The idea of an 'attention economy' is not new, and people in the business and advertising world have been pursuing the idea for years already. But philosophically, the idea has drawn little appreciation. Economically, it doesn't draw enough. Only businesspeople - who are more sophisticated in their understanding of people anyway - really seem to be interested in systematizing the idea at all. But you cannot deny the modern importance of having lots of brand recognition, or lots of blog visits (thanks!), or on a more personal note, lots of interest from the opposite sex, or having friends that are willing to spend real time listening to you and focusing on your problems. In many cases, attention is invested by people on terms more old-fashioned than rational: doing what a friend is supposed to do, being a good boss, learning about serious problems because it's 'right' in some sense beyond economic thinking. But it IS economic thinking. Personal commitments are investments of attention, and the security of living in communities, having families, muscling through hard times and taking part in the reciprocal altruism that forges relationships makes economic sense if viewed through a certain lens. The development of this lens forms the focal point of praxeology as I'm trying to move it.

Ideas on the development of social structure and culture need to take into account the distribution of attention for the same reason they need to take the distribution of money into account. Certainly there have been significant effects, the most obvious being technological innovations like the printing press and the web. Some of the functional purposes of religion could probably be better understood through this lens as well. Religion's ability to affect the values of people, to promote certain social attitudes and social structures, has certainly relied on the expectation that religious ideas can draw the attention of the community regularly. In some way, our values are forged by what we pay attention to, so the flow of ideas throughout society can certainly be traced to attention distribution in some way. One thing I have to cover is how, given the self-interested nature of life, ideas like altruism and unconditional love became so important for society's sense of morality. I'm not going to totally follow the Nietzschean line there.

The principle of attention as currency also has the potential to impact some matters of philosophy, particularly political and economic philosophy, which are really power discussions anyway. The structural matters will come up in the next blog. The philosophical stuff will come up, well, whenever the hell I feel like it. That's it for now.