Saturday, July 15, 2017

I Don't Hate You

This post is for the rural man, or at least the man rural-at-heart.  It is for the working class, high-school educated, plainspoken and plain-minded man.  He's a man of common sense.  He's a man of modest means and traditional values.

And similar women, who like a man's man.

These women are stay-at-home moms, or if they work they stick to traditional professions that don't require a college degree, such as clerking, waitressing, or dental hygiene.   The men tend to work in trades, or operate small businesses.  They build stuff, fix stuff, make stuff with their hands.

They know how to change the oil and they'll be damned if they're going to pay someone to do it for them.

They speak their mind.  What you see is what you get.  (What else could it be?)

Adherence to gender roles.  Common, popular pastimes such as hunting, fishing, and quilting.  Popular music such as country, rock, and pop.  But mostly country.

They believe in God.  Or at least assume they do - maybe they don't really need to give it much thought.  That's just what you do.

You just do what you do.  There's a reason you do it: because everyone does it.  And so do you.  Because once you start questioning things, well, then you might as well start questioning everything.  You begin to sound "fancy", think a little high of yourself.  What, do you think you're better than us?

Well, that's the point of this post.

Much has been said after the election of Trump about the "forgotten man", the "silent majority".  One of the things that has been said is that liberal, cosmopolitan, coastal "elites" such as myself look down on, and feel superior to these people.

Kevin Drum outright assumed it to be the case.

"is there really any question that liberal city folks tend to sneer at rural working-class folks? I’m not even talking about stuff like abortion and guns and gay marriage, where we disagree over major points of policy. I’m talking about lifestyle. Krugman talks about fast food, and that’s a decent example. Working-class folks like fast food, which explains why Donald Trump liked to show pictures of himself eating McDonald’s or KFC. It’s a sign that he’s one of them."
He was responding to  Krugman column that dismissed the idea.  Krugman said his inbox was flooded with people accusing people like him of sneering at them.
Do the liberals sneer at the Joe Sixpacks? Actually, I’ve never heard it — the people I hang out with do understand that living the way they do takes a lot more money and time than hard-pressed Americans have, and aren’t especially judgmental about lifestyles.
But conservatives weren't having it, and published Drum's piece as a stunning admission.

It kind of makes you wonder, what is it to sneer?  When I play complex music, go to an art museum, follow a niche fashion trend, see a foreign film, eat an interesting type of food.... am I sneering?

It's hard to say.  I've tried Coors beer and it is terrible.  So many of those pop songs are written by committee, and don't do anything interesting.  I don't like hunting because it seems mean.  I stopped believing in God when I was a teenager because my questions very quickly overtook their answers.  Why can't guys cry?  Have you seen the scene in Latcho Drom where everyone in Romania comes out of their houses at once, their gypsy music synchronized - it's incredible!

So, am I sneering?  I suppose more info would be required.  Let's assume I'm not merely being a jerk.  Jerks can "sneer" at anything they don't like.  That tells us very little about the rural/cosmopolitan, white collar (WC)/ blue collar (BC) divide.  Let's focus on the element of "sophistication" in our interests.

But what is "sophistication"?  It is difficult to define.  From Wikipedia:

Modern definitions include quality of refinement — displaying good tastewisdom and subtlety rather than crudeness, stupidity and vulgarity. In the perception of social class, sophistication can link with concepts such as statusprivilege and superiority.
Quality of refinement.  OK, so something labored over, come to after much thought, maybe an evolution of iteration.  But not necessarily the product of enjoyment itself.  An ancient text is the exact opposite of this.  However, how we come to appreciate the text definitely requires a cultural refinement.  One does not get up one day and arbitrarily set out to find and read ancient texts.

So, we're onto something here.  An appreciation that has been refined, delicately labored over - maybe for hours, months, years.  The refinement can be a repertoire of understanding of a class of things (music, food).  But it can also be an attitude or response to certain things (religion, culture).

Yet is this type of appreciation the province only of the educated, cosmopolitan class?  I can think of many ways in which a rural BC type has refined tastes.  His interests and abilities will be greatly refined.  How to weld, how to ride a horse, how to tie down a load, bow hunting versus bow fishing, the difference between Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Williams Sr.  Note: I'm shooting in the dark here because it ain't my culture.  But let's just assume that every culture has its own tangled history of refinement.

But these types of refinement have different value in society.  They come from different places and mean different things.  Sure, tying down a load is an important skill when you're hauling lumber, but it doesn't help you understand modern art.  And understanding a Pollack surely won't tie down a load.   But they each have different significance in different groups.  In the country, knowing the Allegory of the Cave won't help you by the barbecue.  In the city, changing your own oil isn't so useful if everyone is riding the subway.

One way to think about types of refinement might be in the degree to which they are defined locally, either geographically speaking or by concrete utility.  A narrow cultural group identifies what it refines, the utility of a type of knowledge guides its refinement.  For example, a traditional recipe for mashed potatoes.  The best way to fish for trout.  By contrast, other forms of refinement are defined globally, and by abstract utility.  For example, coffee from different continent.  The difference between liberal and illiberal democracy.

But beyond being useful in conversation or daily living, what about the value of these types of knowledge in larger society?  What does it mean for a society to value a type of knowledge?

You could get at the question empirically, once you decide what determines value.  How useful is the knowledge in one's life, and then how will people treat you when you demonstrate that knowledge?  When high status people demonstrate certain types of knowledge, or an appreciation for them, the knowledge is being "valued" by larger society.  It is a reciprocal process, as high status both reflects the knowledge - the knowledge plays a role in their attainment of status, as well as amplifies the knowledge - the knowledge becomes more valuable as it is displayed by those with high status.

When the president endorses gay marriage knowledge, it gains status (at least among some segment of society).  But his endorsement as well shows us that that gay marriage knowledge has become valuable enough to have been a part of the president's rise to his current position.  In the case of Obama, he never campaigned on it, but when he came out in support, it fell in line perfectly with his progressive values.

So, I think we've arrived at a couple of things here.  First, the more certain forms of knowledge are identified with status, the more valuable they become.  Likewise, the less other knowledge is identified with status, the less valuable they become.  Secondly, some forms of knowledge are political, which inherently implies conflict.

Our political moment, occurring across the globe, in the West and East, between the rural and the cities, is very much about a clash of status.  The march of globalism is aligned with a march of liberal, progressive values.  The modern world has given enormous status to global, complex knowledge, in terms both of utility in personal achievement, but as well in terms of what the "elites" are seen as valuing.  The world leaders, the TV pundits, the movie stars, the professors, the scientists - are all giving status to the refinement of global, complex knowledge.

One can imagine how someone who has not spent their time refining their global, abstract knowledge, but instead has spent their life refining the local, concrete knowledge, and sees their knowledge losing status, might feel resentment creep in.  It must not feel good to be in the possession of low-status knowledge.

And here's the kicker: what if your knowledge is now not only seen as uninteresting, but harmful?  What if your views on civil rights, feminism, homosexuality, religion, regulation, government, science, etc. are seen by those with global, abstract knowledge as damaging to people and the planet?  It must be tempting to take this personally, and see them as hating you.  Even when they say, "we don't hate you, just your ideas", would they believed?  After all, when the fundamentalist Christian says, "We don't hate gays, we just don't believe homosexuality is a sin", are they to be believed?

Well, maybe that is a good question.  If they act to limit the rights of gays, treat them unequally, or in any other way insult their character, then they are acting in a way that has historically been synonymous with hatred.  The bible is followed by interpretation, and that is an interpretation that aligns with hate.

So, the question has become: when I drink my microbrew, when I watch my foreign films, am I acting in a way that resembles hate?  Surely not.  But what about my thoughts on political issues?  Here I acknowledge that many of my views can be considered hateful.  I hate discrimination against women, gays or people of color, the treating of them in any way as less worthy.  I hate the dismantling of regulations that would protect people or the environment.  I hate the ignoring or dismissal of science, especially when it impacts our world.  I hate the callousness with which some would rather see less government even if it results in more misery and less opportunity for others.

I might even sneer at those who would act in such a way as to support such actions.

But do I sneer at you simply because you have spent your life refining a different type of knowledge?  Do I hate you?

I really don't.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Flat Earth Society and the Art of Conversation

I came across this very strange article today on a meeting of a Flat Earth Society in Fort Collins, CO.

The Fort Collins group — mostly white and mostly male, college-age to septuagenarian — touts itself as the first community of Flat Earthers in the United States. Sister groups have since spawned in Boston, New York, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Chicago.
Before I knew it I was watching one of their youtube videos. I'll just leave out the substance of their bizarre belief for now. Something else piqued my interest. The video was - as one might imagine - very conscious of the fact that what was being said sounded crazy. And so special attention was given to the notion of civil discourse. You can only imagine how much ridicule these people must face.

“Believe me, there’s only humiliation in this. We do it because we believe it.”

But this stood out to me as a very good point.

I find the notion of a flat Earth ridiculous and disturbing on many levels. But there is no reason I can't also be respectful and kind to people I disagree with. We can never be reminded enough to lead with love. If I've learned anything in the last decade or so of the internet age, it is that changing people's minds is nearly impossible, and that nothing good ever comes from being disrespectful or ungracious.

I've come to be very hesitant in engaging in argument online because I only seem to be the worse for it. When someone types something I find insulting or needlessly offensive towards me or my ideas, my emotions rise. I can either choose to respond, hopefully alleviating the discomfort by delivering a well-placed rejoinder. What sort of relief, I'm not sure. Maybe it is that my words will stand as a corrective, showing the individual and the world that they were wrong and I was right - worthy, respectable, smart, etc. after all. My identity, my pride, was restored. However, this is rarely the case.

The conversation - limited in expression by the nature of the online, text-based format - more often becomes even more heated. My sense of offense increases. And of course, during the time in which I have typed my reply and the response appears (sometimes, minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes days) my discomfort lingers. It gnaws at me. I'm personally offended. I'm offended for my fellow thinkers. I'm offended for the world. This feeling is the product of what people often describe on the internet as toxic.

So what is really the point, then? What are we doing, hammering away at our keyboards?

The New York Times has a great feature in its comments section. You are able to sort the comments into "readers' picks", or "Times Picks". The former distinguished by number of upvotes a comment receives, the latter by having been chosen as interesting by Times staff. I find myself often times spending as much time exploring the comments as the piece itself. The comments give a quick-take on what average readers think of the subject - what stood out to them, what they agree or disagree with. They sometimes share an anecdote that confirms a perspective in the piece. Or they might add a perspective that was missing. The number of votes a comment receives telegraphs how much the point resonates with the public. There is a reply feature, however the design of the comments doesn't really provide for any real back-and forth.  

And I'm fine with that.  There is a special kind of person that enjoys internet bickering.  In theory, the formation of thoughts, the civil exchange and mutual quest for knowledge is a good thing.  But it is so rare.  The anonymity of the internet, even just the constrained nature of the written word, makes friendly, compassionate dialogue difficult.  Tone is lost.  Nuanced inflection is gone.  Uptilted, winking, eyes-rolled, wincing, knowing smirks - all of the saucy, spicy bits in human communication are lost.  In the real world (the "meat world", I've recently heard it put, which I think is brilliant), this is all quickly and deftly added to language as spoken.  Great writers can capture this spirit, but only with difficulty and great labor.  Children learn it before they learn to speak.

So, hamfisted internet commentariate, let that be a thought for thee: no matter the brilliance and depth of your thought, before you click "submit" on that comment, remember that even a 2 year old likely has you beat in nuance of delivery.  Something even a Flat-Earther can teach us.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

On Behaving "As If" There Is Free Will

I can't find the quote, but it is as long the lines of "Free will doesn't exist, but we must behave as if it does."

I wonder if this "as if" behavior can be described in a behaviorist account?

In behaviorism, we talk about the concept of stimulus prompts and "rule following". A stimulus prompt is basically a cue for us to engage in certain behavior. Through learning (repeated reinforcement delivered after prompted behavior), the prompt takes on stimulus control: it changes our behavior. Think of a checklist, "wash hands" sign, exit sign, etc. Rule following is much the same, whereas the rule is like a prompt, however the rule doesn't have to have previously been directly reinforced. Rather it can have been inferred, and is generally defined as under stimulus control of previous rule-following behavior. That is, if we have followed similar rules before (and have been reinforced), we will be more likely to follow them in the future.
In this way, thoughts can function as either prompts or rules. In our daily life, we behave according to a mixture of external and internal prompts. Behaviorists call these discriminative stimuli, as they have been followed by either punishment or reinforcement, and are thus defined by our discrimination of them as signals for the availability for reinforcement of punishment ("exit" means leaving behavior will be reinforced; "open" means entering behavior will be reinforced; "poison" means eating behavior will be punished, etc.).
Behaviorists also have a way of describing consciousness (which of course can mean many things) One of the meanings of consciousness though, is the behavior of labeling, via verbal behavior. This is described as operant learning in which certain stimuli take on stimulus control for verbal behavior, either spoken or thought, after having been reinforced in a specific verbal community. For instance, when I see a chair, I can say "chair" or think "chair", because as a child I received reinforcement from the community for emitting that behavior. It could have been direct praise, or conditioned praise in the form of a good grade, or simply the ability to communicate which led to some other kind of reward. We call this "tacting". (We have a different way of describing requests, as their reinforcement is defined as coming directly from the obtaining of the request, i.e. "water" means we directly get that thing. A seemingly minor difference but has important implications for the early acquisition of language). The reverse of this, of course, is listening behavior, in which a stimulus controlling for verbal behavior (tact), is reversed. The chair object controls for the word "chair", but then the word "chair" controls for the object chair.
OK, so I have a hard time describing the behaviorist description of these phenomenon because there are just so many basic concepts that need to be understood to truly appreciate the position! But returning to consciousness, what you might call an active consciousness, in which we are aware that we are conscious, is this process of labeling. When I am thinking about thinking, I am "tacting" my thoughts. Likewise when I am thinking about what someone else has said. However, "tacting" only refers to stimuli that are physically present (chair, desk, apple). We have another level of description for things that are under stimulus control of verbal behavior, but are not in the environment - and may have never been physically contacted. We call this "interverbal" behavior. Most of language involves this type of verbal behavior, as well as abstract thought such as mathematics or literature. This is also the kind of thought we need to engage in for complex thought, such as when planning for future events, or recalling an order of events.
So, what is the implication of this for our thoughts? We can have thoughts that are direct responses to our immediate environment, our distant environment, or responses to words. Our fluency in all of these is determined by a number of factors. First, we have to have been reinforced for the response ("knowing" the verbal behavior), but we also need to have the establishing operation in place. What we mean by this is that there must be a basic desire in place that is being satiated by the behavior. For instance, if you have been reading all of this and trying to understand me (and hats off to you!), you will have to have been motivated to do so. The motivation is maybe generalized social reinforcement, in which you have been previously reinforced for the behavior of engaging in verbal behavior with others. You may also have been previously reinforced for acquiring new ideas and achieving constancy in your thoughts and how they align with the world - truth feels good, right? But maybe I haven't been making sense, and therefore the opposite has occurred, and my words have been extra work for you, in which case you aren't receiving reinforcement from them - they are not rewarding.
The establishing operation - how motivated you are - is not verbal behavior, and largely hidden within the skin. You can learn to tact this behavior, by noticing your heart rate, stiffness, or certain negative thoughts that may arise - "This guy is ridiculous!", and therefore tact your motivation as decreasing for continuing to read my writing. Or, maybe you enjoy arguing and my writing is actually reinforcing, because it is stimulating something else in you - maybe your enjoyment of "tearing down" my argument. In which case, the response I get to this might have been evoked by an establishing operation (EO) for argument, followed by my writing, which was a stimulus (SD) for the availability of reinforcement (R+), which in this case was the satiation of that desire for argument (socially reinforced, of course, by the internet community).
Behaviorists see every behavior (thought or action) as taking place within the 4 term contingency (EO - SD - Bx - R+). Further, this can only be understood as "molar", as opposed to "molecular". That is, as taking place in large chunks, over time. We take place in a continuum of phylogenic (genetic organisms) and ontogenic (life history) interaction.
So, for any given behavior, there is no room for "free will". We are constrained by our past and environment. We will go on behaving no matter what. Even if we were to protest and lay down motionless on the floor, that behavior will have had to have been the function of the four-term contingency.
If we then throw up our hands and say, I must behave "as if" I have free choice, we are basically tacting our behavior, or examining it interverbally, and establishing a rule, or prompt for ourselves. However, as for its effect on our behavior, it will only function as an SD for future behavior's possible reinforcement. That is, the way we behave following having this thought will encounter a consequence in the environment. So it can effect behavior change - you can effect behavior change, but the SD will always be a part of the environment.
In terms of this larger discussion, the way I relate what Garfield is saying about Buddhism and "awareness of the self" and behaviorism, is that the "self" as free actor does not exist, but rather refers to an organism existing within its environment. However the way that we often use the term "self" is as an efficacious agent somehow acting out of time. That incorrect narrative leads both to inaccurate narratives of others, as well as ourselves. How this inaccurate narrative causes problems is interesting, but that it is an incorrect narrative, as a behaviorist, I would say is established science.