Learning other political languages

Lately I’ve been reading The Three Languages of Politics, a fine little book by Arnold Kling that argues there are three primary axes according to which we think politically.

While these axes can be coextensive, and if one is thinking clearly each will come to bear on their political thinking, in practice we often keep to our preferred axis. In so doing, we limit our political imaginations and transform political conversation into a petty feat of demonstrating our allegiance to some political tribe. This is a primary process by which polarization occurs, of course, and is only compounded further by the geographic and social segregation of our political tribes.

So, what are the axes and which is preferred by each tribe?

Kling argues that conservatives tend to frame their views along the civilization-barbarism axis, progressives prefer the oppressor-oppressed axis, and libertarians appeal to the liberty-coercion axis.

One may find this all very simplistic, but that’s part of the point. These are thought to be the primary, not sole, axes by which we render our political judgements (or at least, by which we talk about politics). In practice, almost everyone uses a combination of all axes. Nevertheless, most of us are prone to underweight one or two of these axes in our thinking due to our partisan blinders.

Let’s suppose a person is mugged at gunpoint. This model would hold that a progressive is more likely than others to consider society’s complicity in producing muggers. A conservative is likely to appeal to the mugger’s lack of virtue or self-reliance, in turn a consequence of social degradation. In contrast to these, a libertarian is more likely to focus on the actual instance of coercion by the mugger, and perhaps discount the more distal causes as speculative and unnecessary.

We can disagree about how to weigh the relative importance of these, but all three perspectives (at least) are required to gain insight into mugging. Because we’re often inclined toward the perspective that predominates in our tribe, we should pay special attention to those we’re predisposed to discount, and ask if that’s justified or if our dismissal of another perspective is merely a product of our ideological bias.

Let’s reinforce the distinction with a more controversial issue: abortion.

On this model, when discussing the morality and legality of abortion, a progressive will typically appeal to the oppressive circumstances leading one to choose abortion in the first place, such as poverty. A conservative will tend to argue it’s a question of moral character, or an unwillingness to sacrifice oneself in order to raise the child. A libertarian view emphasizes the autonomy of the woman, her right to a kind of bodily integrity, provided the fetus does not have a similar claim to liberty. Whether it has such a claim is largely shaped by our scientific understanding, and therefore subject to evolve as the science evolves, rather than an a priori (and often speculative) moral principle.

One interesting aspect of this minimal framework is how it can be used to predict how one partisan will respond to another partisan’s view as well.

The progressive might suggest the conservative is uncaring and ignorant to social injustices, at best, or actively seeking to dominate women’s bodies at worst. Talk of moral character is perceived as evidence of the conservative’s oppressor nature, seeking to impose their values onto others. This is in line with the regular mailings I receive from Planned Parenthood’s political front, claiming that pro-lifers are waging war on women. (A strange view, given roughly half of women are pro-life, and the sexes hold just about the same views on the topic. In my view, the rhetoric is on a par with that of the “Abortion Holocaust” people.)

The conservative may claim the progressive holds callous views with respect to human life, and are evidence of society’s moral degradation. They may acknowledge the unfortunate circumstances of the pregnant woman, while insisting on the importance of self-sacrifice. They may champion the possibility of giving the child up for adoption, or similar alternatives that they find more morally prudent.

The libertarian will tend to discount these background matters and focus on the act itself. They will perhaps argue that scientific understanding is paramount, helping us to assess whether the fetus can feel pain, or otherwise has characteristics that may lead us to recognize it as an entity with natural rights. That somewhere between conception and eight months twenty-nine days, the entity becomes a person, and that science can help inform us when that roughly takes place. Otherwise, the entity should be regarded as a form of private property, and the woman’s liberty to choose abortion must be defended.

Naturally, these axes can be applied to most any political or social question. It is most constructive – to the ends of persuading others, and enhancing our own understanding – when we accept the (at least partial) relevance and validity of each axis, and aim to synthesize the axes we’re instinctively apt to disregard into our understanding.

For the mugger, we can accept their lack of moral character, while also maintaining that their circumstances played some role in this. We can hold these conclusions, while also finding them a bit speculative. As a result, we may seek to weigh more heavily the essential fact that the mugged person was violated, and that the mugger is likely to harm others.

If one is conservative and hopes to make inroads with a progressive, they may validate the concern about the mugger’s upbringing and impoverished circumstances, while emphasizing that many virtuous people come from miserable conditions, and that ultimately we are defined by our decisions. A progressive hoping to make inroads with a conservative on this topic may concede that we are responsible for these decisions, but argue that the range of possible decisions is narrowed when one is subject to adverse circumstances.

Similarly, even with highly contentious matters as abortion, it is possible – indeed vital to our understanding – to synthesize these perspectives accordingly.

We can respect the woman’s claim to exercising control over her body, while finding it unsettling and abstractly even a bit degrading to terminate potential human life. We can help address this tension by determining what factors lead us to attribute rights to some entity, and decide when an entity deserves protection, as informed by our scientific understanding. If we have a strong moral view, we can advocate for a sort of “harm reduction”, advocating for conditions that enable women to choose to give birth if it’s what they desire. These concerns or views are not fundamentally incompatible, and there’s plenty of room for productive compromise.

For virtually any political or social question, each axis should play some role in our thinking, and it is likely that we all underweight the axes that other tribes follow. When we do not correct for this, we participate in toxic polarization, reinforce and deepen it, and allow our minds to be colonized by the loudest partisans.

That is a tragedy for our understanding, for finding productive compromise, and for our relationships with those who think differently and have something to teach us.

Toxic garbage dumpsters

Katie Herzog argues that call-out culture is a toxic garbage dumpster fire of trash:

There’s a name for this behavior: witch hunts. Someone is accused, judged, and condemned for an alleged or apparent transgression, and the townspeople on Facebook and Twitter grab their pitchforks and rush to the burn pile. There may be little evidence to support the prevailing narrative, but that hardly matters. […]

In a recent Wired piece, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote about contemporary censorship, which comes not from governments but from our own social networks. “The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself,” she wrote. “As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out.”

Dangerous knowledge

Paul Goodman reflecting1 on a group of campus hecklers in 1967:

I realized that they did not believe there was a nature of things. [To them] there was no knowledge but only the sociology of knowledge. They had learned so well that physical and sociological research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they were doubtful that there was such a thing as simple truth, for instance that the table was made of wood—maybe it was plastic imitation.

To be required to know something was a trap by which the young were put down and co-opted. Then I knew my guests and I could not get through to them. I had imagined that the worldwide student protest had to do with changing political and moral institutions, and I was sympathetic to this. But I now saw that we had to do with a religious crisis. Not only all institutions but all learning had been corrupted by the Whore of Babylon…

  1. From New Reformation, p. 70-71

Ideology is the enemy

In the course of answering how philosophy can make itself more relevant, Nancy Bauer writes:

Good philosophy of all stripes fosters in the practitioner the virtue of epistemic humility.

The best philosophy teachers are the ones who are able to model this virtue. They show their students, à la Socrates in at least the early Platonic dialogues, how the right kind of conversation can bring to consciousness the utter preposterousness of something that one has always taken for granted and then how to survive finding oneself turned around in one’s shoes. Epistemic humility sometimes takes the form of humbleness, but not always. It can be intensely empowering for people who have always assumed that the systematically poor way the world treats them is fundamentally the way they deserve to be treated.

The worst enemy of the best philosophy is ideology in all its forms. Philosophy at its best evinces deep skepticism about the stories powerful people and institutions tell about How Things Are. It models the virtues of not knowing what one thought one knew. The natural home of philosophy is in the agora, not the ivory tower. The question is whether the academy can bear to confront that truth.

Bread, circuses, and the web

Tristan Harris on designing for time well spent:

[W]e live in an attention economy.

An attention economy means that no matter what you aim to make (an app or a website), you win by getting people to spend time. So what starts as an honest competition to make useful things that people spend their time on, must devolve into a ruthless competition to seduce our deepest instincts to get more of people’s time — a race to the bottom of the brain stem.

The problem is, to fix it, you can’t ask anyone who’s in that competition NOT to maximize the time their users spend. Because someone else (another app, or another website) will swoop in and siphon that time away to them instead. […]

So we’re not going to get out of this situation, or convince those apps or websites to do something else until we create a new kind of competition — until there’s a newthing apps and websites can compete for.

And what if we could make that? What if instead of competing to get us to spend time, apps and websites were competing to help us spend our time well? What if they competed to create net positive contributions to people’s lives?

I don’t want to be distracted anymore. I want a world that helps me spend my time well.

Last year, I wrote about how this fight for our attention is most obvious in the case of notifications:

Each and every notification constitutes a minor encroachment on our lives. One every so often might not be a big deal, but if you live with the defaults, you’re going to get notifications constantly. This is emotionally draining.

If a person acted the way that many notifications do, you’d think they were being psychologically abusive.

Harris and others are organizing practitioners, and developing these ideas further, with Time Well Spent.

Special thanks to Anne for sharing.

The origin and fragility of ideas

Publikwork on the origin of ideas:

No one knows. Their origins are as inscrutable as crop circles and Stonehenge.

Oh, plenty of people claim to know the secret; plenty more have a sure-fire, foolproof method for sparking brilliant new thoughts. On demand. At the snap of your fingers. Well, I’m here to tell you, ideas can’t be trained. They don’t come when they’re called; they won’t fetch or roll over, either. They’ll play dead, though. They’re doing it now. At this very moment.

I thought I had one, but when I looked closely, it wasn’t moving. No signs of life. I nudged it with my foot, I poked it with a stick, nothing, no response. Great, now what? Well, once in a while I’ll find a stray idea in the shower or under the covers, so I checked there, but nope. Not this time. The cupboards are bare.

Virginia Woolf on thoughts1:

Thought — to call it by a prouder name than it deserved — had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until — you know the little tug — the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. […]

Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help, he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. Such thoughts were the work of a moment. As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face assumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done. The only charge I could bring against the Fellows and Scholars of whatever the college might happen to be was that in protection of their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in succession they had sent my little fish into hiding.

  1. From A Room of One’s Own, 1929.