When and how the virtue of academic truth seeking can turn into a vice

This past Friday, I went to the HxA Open Mind Conference 2018. At several moments during that day I distinctly experienced some disappointment and confusion, as I was thinking: “something is missing here“.

It may require some of the frequently invoked academic humility to follow the argument I am about to lay out, as it probably can not be considered an academic one–in the sense that I do not present any empiric study. Instead I rely on my own, anecdotal evidence. And the first question I have is: does personal experience even count? If not, does that not already pose a limitation on the free exchange of ideas, especially when it comes to stimulating new research topics?

For me, this conference–no less of an organization aiming for more viewpoint diversity–was somewhat disappointing mainly for its lack of a kind of diversity that I believe is essential for achieving the overarching goal. Why do I think that way? One thought in support of my line of arguing comes from Aristotle, who observed (probably not proved, mind!) that a virtue is the middle ground on a dimension that, if acted upon “in excess” in either direction (or, as I would put it, at the expense of other virtues or rather values), can become a vice. So what other virtues (or values) can become easily relegated to a second-best place, leading to problems?

The most pronounced experience of disappointment happened during a debate in which it became clear that all participants seemed to agree that “Trump is a bad President.” And even if persuasive evidence for this proposition could be presented, in either an academic or some other way, what are the consequences of believing this proposition, both for the people on stage as well as for people who, in the academy and out, have supported and quite possibly still support Trump?

To make this point, I would have liked to ask the following question at the end of this particular panel discussion: Imagine that I have voted for Trump in the last election. When I now listen to your mocking of Trump on stage, and no-one has the slightest bit of a problem with this, what place do you think I have in your organization or the academy? And if I do not have a place there, how do you believe you can persuade me of any truths that you may discover?

In other words, I believe that while academic truth seeking is an important goal, wherever it (seemingly) collides with or ignores respect (another important value), whatever truth may be discovered will probably not make it very far outside the circle of people the person touting their truth already “respects”.

So the main aspect I saw as lacking at the conference was respect. For what exactly? One of the major themes of critique of Trump for me came across as a variation of: “arguments need to be presented in an academic format, they need to follow reason and logic, and if a person does not use this academic format, their utterances are not arguments but mere opinions, and can be dismissed from the debate.” Put differently, what is happening is the formation of an “academic truth elite” by way of dismissing propositions not stated in “academic language”, creating a group of people who no longer care about the consequences of their attitudes towards those who cannot partake in their activities “on their level”. And to some extent, maybe a better slogan for Trump would have been “Drain the Intellectual Elites!”

The disappointment over this kind of thinking mainly stems from my belief that those conservatives who hold very critical views of the academy (and the scientific research and truth that comes out of arguably the more dogmatic fields, like some social sciences such as gender studies) typically are not in the business of making their arguments in an academic way, and yet I strongly feel that it would be a mistake to exclude their voices from the discourse.

What if, for instance, in an argument about the value of having two opposite-sex parents, a conservative offers the position: “children should grow up with a father and a mother!” In other words, attempting a translation into slightly more academic language: “I believe that men and women have different sets of qualities and traits, and children are better off being exposed to both sets during childrearing, modeled by the two people that most intimately interact with the child.” And if this person is not able to present specific empiric evidence in support of this proposition, does that mean it should be summarily dismissed? What if no-one in the academy is actually interested in studying this in search of evidence for this proposition, because—quite frankly—it would require rehashing long and dearly held beliefs that parents of either sex can perform all essential roles of child rearing equally well?

Importantly, I am not making the argument that gay parents are bad parents, let alone that they should not be allowed to be parents, although it is easy to twist what I said that way… What I am rather saying is that not being listened to when making an assertion for which one cannot produce academic evidence creates resentment.

In short, I was missing a sort of respect for viewpoints that are frequently not presented in an academic form. And the consequence I see, down the line, is that the people whose views are most sorely missed in the academy, something HxA set out to address, will still not be represented, because those views may not have any evidence to offer that satisfies the requirement of academic quality. And excluding viewpoints because they are not presented academically (yet), due to a lack of respect, from my perspective would be a mistake.

What I believe needs to happen is to apply the same rigorous methods of inquiry to positions that one does not agree with, even if they are being expressed in a way that does follow the academic format, particularly for the value of inclusion and diversity!

Mental Health Professionals and the President Trump Diagnosis

Over the past year, I have experienced several occasions at which mental health professionals voiced their opinion–up to a diagnosis–of President Donald Trump. It always struck me as extremely odd that those opinions more often than not contained elements of personal disdain, anger, or, sometimes it seemed, outright hatred.

Don’t mental health professionals, more than anyone, want to consider the often difficult conditions in which someone suffering from a set of symptoms–that are according to their manual diagnosable under a common label and category–finds themself in? And regardless of whether or not their assessment of President Trump could ever be considered objectively true… assuming that it is from their position, wouldn’t that instill in those professionals a sense of care and sensitivity, especially the sensitivity around the diagnosis as something that causes the diagnosed a lot of pain?

At the very least, I would have wanted for mental health professionals to approach Trump with an attitude of “how would life be like in those shoes? how could I understand him and his motivations? what is driving him?” This typically requires a lot of empathy and the capacity to look beyond the consequences of someone’s behavior.

As someone who has cheated on former boyfriends of mine, I can understand how they, as the people who got hurt directly, would have difficulties asking themselves, “what contributed to this behavior?” But people do typically not engage in what is considered morally wrong behavior for the purpose of hurting people, or because they actively ignore the negative consequences. The motivation lies in something positive they want to get from it, and understanding that seems so much more helpful when trying to approach these people about the behavior that is painful for others, instead of labeling them as “cheaters” or “selfish”.

Do I believe President Trump is mentally ill? Well, only as ill as a large part of society is. And I want to briefly describe the growing disconnect I experience when people talk about him. As a discloser, I am not a mental health professional–I don’t even have an academic degree, for that matter–and have merely worked in an IT and data analysis support role in the field of psychological science and research for the past 15 or so years.

First, my experiences of President Trump, all of which are second-hand, in the sense that I never met him in person, would lead me to the following general observations and inferences:

While he was still a real-estate developer in New York, Donald Trump seemed to want to be part of a Manhattan group of peers very, very much. And he was rejected many, many times, but tried again, and again, and again. From that I infer that one of his strongest motivators in life has been a desire for belonging. A desire for approval from his peers, and an increasing willingness to incur ridicule and laughter from those he would consider “not getting it”, that is those not interested in winning this approval, those playing a different game, if you will.

In light of that, I believe that his thoroughly enjoying the crowds at rallies, the people seemingly approving of him, through applause and cheering, makes for one of the most exhilarating experiences in his life. Maybe it’s his coping mechanism… In those moments, he doesn’t see his supporters as low-lifes, which is an often thinly veiled characterization of them–let’s just think back to the “basket of deplorables” comment, and how little outrage this garnered in the media, and sometimes outright support, even now.

And, as a necessary aside, please compare this to the outrage about the “shithole countries” language. I mean, what a hypocrisy, to say that talking about foreign nations using derogatory terms is “bad behavior”, but then the media using similarly disrespectful language when talking about Trump’s voters, fellow Americans no less.

But President Trump’s language leads me to another conclusion: when he is in front of crowds, he wants, and maybe by now craves and needs, their approval. He calls himself a genius, a claim I do not necessarily support, but I think he is certainly smart enough to know exactly what the crowd wants to hear. Just as a skilled stand-up comedian will refine their routine with every telling, Trump’s use of foul language, humor, hyperbole, as well as his making fun of readily available targets (for his audience) all speak to his ability to engage a crowd in ways that those on the receiving end will resonate with, will approve of, and will respond to with the desired applause and cheering.

Does that mean Trump is not dangerous? Well, that depends on how you define dangerous as a personal rather than a situational characteristic. “The situation” absolutely comes with grave risks, particularly an escalation of violence in a way that would make use of nuclear weapons an almost inevitable aspect.

From those who are emotionally close to Trump, who consider themselves his friends and family, I have really only ever heard how much they like him. And as much as I believe people can always delude themselves, I do not believe in conspiracy theories. So the simplest and most parsimonious explanation I have for their account of President Trump is that in one-on-one settings where he feels at ease and supported, he is probably gregarious and non-threatening. These occasions have probably become very, very rare for him. Maybe one explanation for his very frequent escape visits to a beloved activity in solitary peace: golf.

This all leaves me with the thought that his life, both before and after the election, probably has been tough for him. For someone to crave approval so much as to draw the ire and condemnation of half the nation on him, and still not give up (for the approval of the other half) is a remarkable show of determination, whatever else it is. Most people I know would find it difficult to cope with a handful of detractors, but President Trump got used to it during his real-estate years. And from his perspective he came out on top, so he kept going. This may be a reason for his loyal supporters to admire him the most, his unwavering “sticking to his guns”.

Over the past few months, I have sometimes wished that, as a friend, I could just tell him something like, “Hey, Donald, you know, it’s OK. I know it probably hurts a lot to see that so many people don’t get you. They really are just totally scared that, because you are President now, you could do something out of the spur of the moment that would make their lives a disaster, and so they wish you would stop yourself more often when you come up with the next quip. The people who don’t like you are just afraid that what they perceive as a lack of self control will, well, cost them their lives. So, uhh, I know this sounds like I also don’t trust you, and I know it’s really important for you to be trusted… But could you maybe just ask me or some other good friend before you tweet about North Korea, to take a look at it first? It’s just, you know, it could really end up bad…”

I believe and would hope that such an approach has a higher chance of reaching through his defenses than a constant stream of criticism, labels, diagnoses, accusations, declarations of unfitness, inferences of racism, etc.

Whatever objective reality may or may not exist, and whatever diagnosable condition President Trump may or may not have, I would hope that mental health professionals, more than everyone else, would understand that approaching any human being with an attitude of pressure and a clear lack of empathy really can hardly be considered the gold standard of treatment, medically or interpersonally.

Capitalism and the labor market in its current form as a source of pain—and ultimately violence

After mulling this over for many weeks, my belief in the hypothesis I am describing below has become so strong, I would be willing to bet on it being at least to a substantial degree the explanation for why, mechanistically, so many people in our country are currently experiencing a lot of pain, making them willing to engage in violent thought and behavior towards others.

The belief that you, as a person, and what you think you could reasonably contribute to society and the world doesn’t matter–or at best only insofar as that you can do a job that needs to be done, no matter whether you like it or not–is a significant source of pain that many people who are “just doing their job” are carrying with them. And even if your profession does matter to you, ever increasing “competition” (money and income as a limited resource) due to market pressure increases the experience of economic insecurity. My contention is that the collective (primary or root) pain stemming from these experiences has dramatically increased in the past half century.

I would attribute the increase in primary pain to quite some degree to the following mechanistic chain of events: accelerated automation and shifting job profiles led to a loss of meaning for many professions, because machines are shown to be better than humans by now in many areas. And a squeeze of additional human resources into many other areas of work in turn led to suppression of incomes due to increased competition, specifically for all “jobs” that are conceivably trainable–by an education system that creates financial dependency on a high enough income to repay the debt that individuals incurred to get the training in the first place.

Eventually, people are doing jobs that they either don’t like, and that simply haven’t been replaced by machines yet, or, even if their jobs might inherently be satisfying, like working in academia, the hyper-competitive environment in which they occur drastically increases the economic insecurity, again making it painful. And like with every pain people experience, our human brains need, and if necessary construct or appropriate, an explanation for this pain, either as a reason for it (my pain means something), or as a culprit (someone is responsible and to blame for my pain).

In the current climate the culprits depend on one’s ideological and party affiliation: people on the right have chosen immigrants–that is xenophobic explanations for suffering–and others who do not believe as much in the power-for-good of markets (fear of leftist ideas) as the people to blame. People on the left have chosen lack of empathy and other character flaws, leading to a moral superiority over people on the right, as culprits. In both cases, it allows people to think violently about these “others” and ultimately to act in ways that create even more, secondary pain.

Not convinced? Let me try to unpack at least a bit…

How does competition lead to a reduction in meaning? Imagine that you really like an activity so much that you want to make it your profession. It’s a situation I would consider as having the experience that this work activity gives your life meaning, which could be doing scientific research just as much as baking, dancing, or healing or protecting people… And suddenly there comes someone who tells you that “you’re not good enough at the job” to do that, and that you have to find something else.

If that kind of image stirs in you a sense of “well, that’s socialism” it is certainly true that a socialist society in which some central intelligence attempts to decide how many people and who ought to work in what profession, because it is best for everyone, would absolutely have that effect! And you may now think, “So, what does that have to do with capitalism and the labor market?”

I will get back to that question in just a second. For now, take a moment and focus on the experience of realizing that for whatever reason–either a person or system or a market telling me that I’m not good enough at what I would like to do with my life–no-one else seems to care (enough) about what gives your life meaning. So there is something you would really want to do to contribute to society, something you believe you’re good at, and then for some other reason you’re being told, “no don’t do that, because…” either it was decided elsewhere (central-intelligence socialist model) or because it pays so little it’s not worth it (capitalist market model).

And I admit: it is true that in a society like the US, no one person is (or could be) “telling you” what to do (instead of your desired activity), but the labor market does signal for people to what extent the activity that gives their lives meaning is something they can afford doing, given the economic risk (lack of safety and certainty). On top of that, a market may not be a central intelligence, but it certainly is a way of making decisions through reward signals, and that means the produced biases towards choices are not in the hands of the individuals who are making the choices, but are instead determined by “the invisible hand.”

Unfortunately, humans are really bad at correctly judging the source of their emotional pain, and it takes a lot of consciousness and time and effort to understand that, for instance, in a situation in which the value of your work output is questioned a lot of unconscious processes are going on, likely leading to an experience of pain or threat. And it is then so easy to attribute your boss as being the source of that threat. But if you had a different boss whose job it was to evaluate your work (according to some impersonal criteria), the experience would be just the same. So, the source is a system in which my value is determined by rules that are more and more obscure. And at some point it becomes just much easier to say, “oh it’s the immigrants” or whatever else people might be telling themselves.

And this experience of a fight can then, in turn, give human lives meaning. So what can we do? We need an alternative source of meaning for people that does not depend on markets and pressures that, for the purpose of progress and technological advancement, are necessary. And as long as we cannot find positive, non-violent meaning in this world, we will always find ourselves in a bind that, ultimately, makes violence appealing.

How to Prevent the Destruction of the American Dream

Most of what I have read about the political issues that endanger the American Dream implies that one specific group–which could be the Left, the Right, the rich, the lobbyists, or some other group–or a specific ideological position or belief system–such as too much capitalism, too much intersectionality, too much atheism, too much moral decay, etc.–is to blame for our problems. However, it seems fairly difficult to believe that the American Dream, as I would define it, could be “unilaterally destroyed” by one side or one such aspect.

When thinking about this, I typically experience quite a bit of sadness, because almost 20 years ago I desired for the U.S. to become my “home of choice”, where I wanted to live going forward. And as a German citizen I had the good fortune that–despite the fact that I lacked some of the required credentials for skill-based immigration visa sponsorship–the U.S. offers a lottery for Green Cards. Tellingly enough, the organization that helped me file the paperwork calls itself “The American Dream.” And after about 10 years of submitting my name to be one of the lucky about 55,000 people around the world to be given a “Diversity Visa” Green Card each year, I indeed did get lucky. And just last month I became a naturalized U.S. Citizen, something I am immensely grateful for!

First, I would now like to briefly describe my own understanding of the American Dream. Next, I would like to point out where I see a collective mismatch between what I perceive is happening in the US at the moment (on all fronts, so to speak). And last, I want to make what in “Nonviolent Communication”–an approach to communicate in the language of life–is called a request, of each and every of my readers.

So, what is the American Dream for me? Well, in a nutshell it is the promise that the culture we share is one in which the individual’s rights for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not curtailed in any way more than is absolutely necessary. Importantly, this right or privilege is something bestowed to individuals, which recognizes that each and every American may make autonomous choices that, to the best of the individual’s ability, align with their beliefs for how to best pursue happiness. So the essence for me is that, founded in the U.S. Constitution, with the absence of concrete, prescriptive ways of how to pursue happiness, we already acknowledge that the exact nature by which individuals choose to achieve happiness differs between people.

The mismatch I now see, which is the source of my sadness, is that people “on all sides”–a phrase I am choosing deliberately, because, while President Trump’s use of it might have been unfortunate, it does capture the essence fairly well–have come to believe that their way of pursuing happiness is the right (and possibly the only viable) way. Let me give you a few examples:

People supporting and fighting for gun ownership seem to be desperate for expressing their needs for (self-) protection and safety (being able to own and use guns in situations that, in their mind, warrant gun use) as well as for autonomy (being able to prevent the government from becoming an all-controlling force). People strongly opposing and fighting against (massive) gun ownership probably have the same (strong) needs: protection and safety (by seeing guns as the source of violence, they wish to abolish them) as well as autonomy (by considering that, without the possibility of being faced with a gun, it will be much harder to coerce them into doing anything against their will).

People supporting and fighting for abortion seem to be saying to me they want women to have the option to express their need for autonomy (that is that their body is not merely a reproductive factory for another life, but remains firmly theirs to make choices about) and for future security (that by making the hard choice of terminating a pregnancy, these women will not be forced with economical hardship that will make life for the mother as well as the child very difficult). And people who want to abolish abortion as a practice in their minds morally bordering on murder have very strong needs of protecting life and of providing a form of autonomy for the prospective, future person that could evolve.

People supporting universal healthcare clearly indicate that for them being in reasonably good health is a more or less absolute requirement for the pursuit of happiness, and that without the provision of truly accessible healthcare, life will always be stressful and cannot be fulfilling. And people arguing against it seem to say that by taking away too much of the personal responsibility–that is requiring people to, in essence, pay for their health related choices in a way that becomes individually meaningful, by taking up monetary resources if bad choices are made–people not only lose autonomy individually but also, in giving up this personal responsibility, will collectively incur costs causes by others, another form of giving up autonomy over their income or resources–if health insurance premiums or taxes increase to cover everybody else’s healthcare related cost, clearly individuals who do take responsibility for their health personally are “punished” for other people’s poor choices, who instead should be “punished” for their own choices.

I chose this last example specifically because, in my mind at least, it demonstrates two crucial aspects that I believe are the cause for the erosion of the American Dream: the now shared belief that there is a singular way in which happiness is to be pursued–a form of morally justified imperative that needs to be prescribed over others’ wishes, even though people do not share what that way is–and the belief that bad choices deserve punishment, and not only punishment in the form of an individual experiencing the direct consequences of the choice, but often also a punishment imposed by those who know what’s right.

It is, from a far enough distance maybe, amazing that this is happening in the US of all places. Given that, in my mind at least, the founders clearly intended to enshrine every individual’s choice for over how to pursue happiness (as much as possible without interfering with others’ pursuit of the same), it now seems we have ended up in a place where (self-) righteousness takes hold “on all sides”, where people everywhere make prescriptive statements of “how to live”–and, if you don’t, you need punishment of sorts otherwise.

So what is my request (that does at the same time not prescribe anything specifically)? My request is for each and every one of us to consider the following two questions when dealing with people we disagree with on any issue: what needs is this person trying to meet? And why is this person choosing this particular way of trying to meet them?

If you give yourself a few moments to contemplate this request (that is to consider thinking about those two questions in times of conflict), and going forward you are indeed considering it, then this will, most important of all, require a stance of curiosity–why is it that I am experiencing a conflict? what is at the root of the other person’s behavior?–a stance of empathy–what might the other person be feeling and thinking? is it not worth finding that out?–and a suspension of moral superiority–is it possible that my way of attempting to fulfill my needs may, inadvertently, make it seem difficult if not impossible for someone else to fulfill their needs? is there a way of getting everybody’s needs met, including the needs the other person is expressing, no matter how poorly?

I firmly believe that if we allow ourselves the necessary temporary distance from our own moral beliefs–which are certainly for each individual founded on the desire to increase the well-being for everyone–then we can take steps towards a state of the nation that, once again, deserves to be call the Home for the American Dream: the idea that individuals have the capacity to choose what is best for them, and that by allowing them to make that choice, a truly important aspect of humanity–our collectively shared need for autonomy–is realized in a way that no other country on this planet emphasizes just as much.

Putting things into perspective…

Today I want to share a guest blog, from a friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous. I will just call him Jeremy, and he is from Ohio. I corrected a spelling mistake here or there, but that’s pretty much it…

Hey Jochen. I like your blog, I really do. But I still think you don’t really get it man… There IS a silent majority, but it’s not as racist as they keep telling you guys. And it’s not as poor either, as we’re often told on cable TV. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There are a couple folks like that here, but that’s not the point! We just are the hard working majority who is tired of having people who have never once in their lives worked an honest job tell us how to live our lives. We’re the opposite of people who have only seen classrooms and libraries and shiny offices, and still think they know how the world works and looks like.

I mean, you guys in the big cities, like at your university in New York, you are so proud of all the stuff you can do: theaters and ballet and museums and so on. But how often do you actually think about the people who are necessary for you to eat something? Or the people who build the cars and trains and planes you drive and fly around in? Or the people who take all of your trash out of the city, and I bet that’s a lot!

And I mean, I went to college. And I’m proud of my BA! But I work at the local Walmart and I see what’s going on around here. Quite a few jobs just vanished over the years. I’m not even saying the Chinese took them, but two big plants where a lot of people worked are closed down now. And then they start telling us that to get better jobs you need to go to college. Didn’t sound so bad in the beginning either.

So, yeah, I got my degree, and took out a loan for that too. And now I make just about the same kind of money my dad used to make when he was working, without a degree. I mean, that’s just bullshit, man. And you sit in your office, and I don’t say you’re not busy doing something smart or something, but whatever it is you do, it doesn’t provide food or clothes or anything for anyone…

Anyway, just wanted you to know that we’ve just had about enough of people who seem to go to school for the sake of staying in school or working some kind of paper job. Of people who know nothing of how hard it is out here, but who keep telling us how it really is, when it’s not. You think life is about getting smart and learning, right? Well, guess what, it’s not. It’s about doing your job, and better doing it well, because you’ll be fired otherwise. I guess you’re just lucky that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you still have your job in a couple months or so!

The reason why we vote for Trump and why we don’t care about what all the media keep pushing: finally there is someone who doesn’t pretend you have to be smart to make it! I mean, be honest: you’re just angry because he doesn’t behave and talk like someone from the city… He says a lot of stupid things, ok… but he never says things in a way that shows off his education. Nothing he says is like, I will only talk to you if you can talk like you’re some kind of dictionary. So leave me alone with your New York Times or whatever news you read!

So yeah, we finally want to get something back from you guys. The way I see it, someone needs to show you that for too long you have lived your cozy city lives thinking that you don’t have to care about anyone but yourselves. We want to get some respect man! And each and every time I read about how you laugh about Trump and his family and his campaign people, I know people around here are getting angrier. And then we laugh because he scares the shit out of you guys. I mean suddenly all of your education doesn’t matter, because it’s a democracy. And the majority wins, remember?

So, yeah, just wanted to say you really don’t get it.

After reading this for a few times, I must admit that I indeed have never worked in a capacity of providing food or any other kind of tangible resource to anyone. The only instance I could remember was when I was a child and helped some relatives of mine to collect their potato harvest, but I guess that doesn’t count–I wasn’t doing it for people I didn’t know or for money. And it is true that during almost all of my adult life I have worked in an office of sorts, programming or writing. Does what I do make anyone’s life better? Only insofar as my colleagues’ own work in academia isn’t as difficult, I guess. But what I produce doesn’t feed anybody, or keep anybody warm or comfortable, or doesn’t get people from A to B, or helps in producing any everyday merchandise

What I want you to know, Jeremy are a few things: I actually am grateful, extremely grateful about my position in life. I don’t have to worry, really, about my job or about the next paycheck, or the one after that. And I admit I don’t think often enough about those who truly provide for most of what I eat, or how nothing I have and use depends on a small army of workers, who produce and distribute everything I own and use. And I don’t think about the conditions under which they do their jobs. I am sorry for not recognizing that, but…

If Trump really wanted to represent a silent majority, one we don’t hear and think about enough, why did and does he have to use so much offensive language? You know that I’m gay, and I am super sensitive when I hear someone talk who doesn’t seem to understand the kinds of struggles that come with being in the minority, and a minority that is being treated poorly at that. I think Trump really could have had a majority if he didn’t use so much defamatory and derogatory language against women–another silent majority, by the way–or against immigrants. The fact that he doesn’t seem to care about those who he thinks are expendable is terrifying to me, because I keep thinking who’s next?

I understand that you want to win. Who doesn’t…? But from the little I understand about politics, while you’re in politics to win–for your point of view and your values–you don’t do so by completely disregarding the other side’s perspective. And I believe I do get it (a little better now, at least): there has been a growing other side that has been completely underrepresented in politics for far too long–people for whom higher education isn’t so much something they think is cool or makes them better people, but rather for whom education is something to get a better job, and that’s something they have been told repeatedly by everyone in politics… And the elites in both parties really haven’t listened enough what really matters to you…

Quite honestly, though, I would rather wish you wrote in Bernie Sanders’ name… while he may seem to come across like being elitist and far too much on the left, I don’t think he actually is… And with that I now need to disclose that Jeremy isn’t a friend, but someone I thought of this morning as an “alter ego”, someone who better remind me that each and every voter rooting for Trump has the right to do so, and has his or her reasons. I may not agree with their way of weighing the evidence, and I may be frightened, but as soon as I ridicule their reasons or pretend that what those 40 percent of voters think doesn’t matter, I absolutely deserve their anger and their ridicule in return…

Past the point of no return: Donald Trump being absolutely non-PC

Ever since Donald Trump started running for president, one major talking point—and certainly the one related to most if not all of his gaffes and to what extent he ever went “too far”—is the idea that Political Correctness (PC, i.e. that certain things should not be said out of respect for the consequences of thinking and talking that way) has gone out of control.

First, for me as someone not from the U.S., this term refers to a situation where a thought occurs to an individual, with the thought being based on a class/group-based stereotype, and this thought has been found to be detrimental to this class or group’s overall (e)quality of life, then this thought should not be voiced (to avoid reinforcement) in public—with maybe the exception of situations in which it clearly is used in a comedic way, for instance as part of a stand-up routine, suggesting the audience is supposed to be aware of the not-being-serious context.

As an example, the stereotype that women are weaker than men could find its expression in the thought that “women can’t handle it when it really gets tough,” a bit like Donald Trump’s stamina argument about Secretary Clinton. Using this language as part of a (political) debate would, as far as my understanding goes at least, be an opening for the debating opponent to draw the “PC card”; in fact, if he or she didn’t, it might even lead to questions after as to why the PC card wasn’t drawn, as people are supposed to notice this kind of thing and make it a point to raise concerns.

So, coming back to the original point: Conservatives, including several other Republican primary contenders, have from the moment that Donald Trump began to run for president made the very strong argument that “PC has gotten out of control.” In other words, the claim is that our mental lives have been put under a kind of “tyranny of the thought police,” (other) people who won’t allow us to voice our opinions in the way we want to.

While it may seem tempting to approach the over-arching question (should some thoughts be policed) from a First Amendment (i.e. the right to free speech) perspective, I want to avoid that. The main reason is that I have little doubt that both Conservatives and Liberals agree on the idea that some thoughts need to be controlled (for instance thoughts that are in themselves “unconstitutional”), but that generally the best form of control is self-control, and not externalized control. And the First Amendment says nothing about people’s need to police their own thought, but merely that the government is not supposed to take that job.

That being said, the question then remains: to what extent should individuals (be asked to) control their own thoughts and language, and in favor of what outcome (i.e. some greater good)? It is important to point out that in other areas of political disagreement—for example drug use—the roles between Conservatives and Liberals are pretty much reversed. In those cases, Conservatives consider the values of public morale, conforming to Calvinist work ethic, and also (biological) life itself to be of such importance that behaviors threatening these values, such as drug use or certain sexual behaviors, ought to be prohibited (by law).

The crucial difference to me seemingly is to what extent people from the two sides of the political spectrum hold beliefs about (1) how and when they need to and still can exert self-control and (2) whether the consequences of failed self-control are dire enough to warrant a prescriptive-rule model. With free speech, I think the main issue is that if self-control is not prescribed in any way—thoughts do not need to be controlled in favor or any values—an intelligent observer would simply then expect that other values, such as fairness and treating other people with the same dignity, are “second best”.

In principle, I am all in favor of having no prescriptions on when and how to apply self-control in all areas of life, but equally as Conservatives wish to curtail abortion to preserve life, in fear that without any regulations people will turn to abortion for even the most whimsical of reasons, I hope they can now observe in Donald Trump the problem with not curtailing thoughts and speech at all.

But just as Conservatives, by and large, seem to fail to understand that by not regulating firearms this inevitably leads to “individual, bad apples” failing to possess the necessary self-control in the presence of too many guns, they now seem baffled at how someone who has made a kind of personal war against PC his signature move clearly fails to exert the necessary amount of self-control when it comes to what he says. Donald Trump clearly has reached the point of no return, and maybe we could use this as a highly visible example to explain that, maybe, just maybe, there are reasons to demand at least a modicum of (public) self-control when it comes to what people say

The slow pendulum of public rationality and emotionality

Looking back into human history–for instance at the amount of time it takes for conflicts on the scale of nations to resolve–I am more and more forced to the following conclusion:

The more people are involved in a complex decision making process, the slower their decision making style oscillates between being rational vs. emotional.

To unpack this a bit, think about the following simple example… You’re driving along the highway, and in the rear mirror you observe two drivers who seem to be locked in a kind of dangerous race. They come ever closer and your level of anxiety rises, as you might get caught up in an accident. They then fall “in line,” and both cars pass and disappear. Your anxiety level comes back down, and you can resume your normal driving.

For a single individual, the perception of a threat may naturally also be on a much larger time scale–say you know several months in advance about the day on which you have to take the bar exam or some other very difficult test–but by and large, as much as anxiety levels will increase as time progresses, healthy people do not remain in a constant state of anxiety for long periods of time.

On the other hand, if you imagine a larger collective of people, say an entire nation, is facing some kind of “cliff”, it truly seems that the collective minds of people shift away from more rational perception, judgment, and decision making towards an ever more emotional nature of cognition, one that is based on intuition, prejudice, and heel-digging to affix one’s position as securely as possible, probably in anticipation of some kind of storm that surely needs to be weathered.

While it is entirely possible that looking back at 2016 from a more distant future may prove me absolutely wrong, I cannot help looking at a whole set of events and occurrences, globally distributed, in which public opinion and decision making seems much more emotionally driven than, say, 10 or 20 years ago:

Naturally, the election cycle in the United States is the most accessible in my mind. Over the past few days, I’ve made it a point to post many individual items depicting the stark contrast between candidates Clinton and Trump. The former Secretary of State is, if anything, known as a “cool thinker”, someone who almost lacks emotion to the point of being bland, whereas Trump’s appeal seems to be explainable almost exclusively by his emotionality, the kind of “truthiness” associated with showing one’s own thought process in an “honest way”–interestingly, the fact that much of what Trump says cannot be backed up by fact doesn’t deter his supporters, so long as he says these things with vigor and a seemingly honest conviction, that is it seems as though he believes what he is saying at the time, and that turns out to be more important that actually getting it right.

Other examples include recent remarks by Philippine President Duterte, who invoked a comparison with Hitler in that he is willing to take as many as 3 million drug addicts’ lives in his war against drugs; and many people in the Philippines seem to applaud this (hard) line of thinking. Similarly increasingly hardline stances can be observed in the executive branches of government in Turkey, Russia, and even the United Kingdom, where Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, answered affirmative during a debate that she would use a nuclear bomb (something that, until then, had only been implied but not expressly stated).

So, overall, I would argue that people around the world seem to be experiencing an ever increasing threat scenario–what exactly the threat may be is difficult to ascertain, given that the day-to-day life of most people probably hasn’t changed much for the worse over the past years, or at least if those changes occurred they have not been satisfactorily linked to the swing in public “mood”.

It remains to be seen whether the trends I describe above are actually present (real), and where exactly they will lead. But just a bit like in Germany in the early 1930s, it seems that if a large enough proportion of people find that the current state of affairs (politically, economically, or in any other major way that is organized among a large group of people) contains a significant threat, those people will turn to extreme measures, based on fear and aggression, willing to take thousands if not millions of lives to protect what they feel is the foundation of their livelihood.

The role of a responsible media should then probably be to (a) determine whether or not people have reasonable cause to feel threatened, and then (b) if not, convince the people that they have been over-reacting or (c) help find the necessary changes to avert the actual threat with the least amount of damage possible.

Unfortunately, the commodification and corporatization of large media outlets, including social media (!), has made it ever harder to not be caught up in the financial incentive structure: with advertising revenue being the main driver behind decision making, it seems far more important to keep people on tenterhooks than to investigate to what extent this feeling of fear and dread on a massive scale is justified, and what actually should be done to improve the situation.

The issue with “trickle-down” economics and why people need to stand up

First, I need to admit that proponents of economic policies that favor strengthening the supply side–by leaving more of corporate profits in the hands of the owners of production means–never use the term “trickle-down” (theory or economics) themselves. So, yes, you caught me in using a form of newspeak already. On the other hand, even trickle-down seems to be a euphemism at best, given that, over the past 40 or so years, virtually nothing of the gains in incomes–supposedly of those who own much if not most of the production means in the US–has reached ordinary “working people,” those who hold wage-earning jobs and typically do not share in corporate profits directly via held shares.

The problem that I see with the idea of supply side policies is the following hypothetical: imagine that you own a factory producing a good, and that the market is relatively saturated; that is to say, demand is at relatively high but more or less constant levels. Would you be motivated by any additional income to invest into your factories (or to build a new one)? Unless you thought that demand were to increase–which it seems would likely require additional income on the side of the workers to afford additional amounts of your good–my prediction is a clear no. And I have never fully comprehended the argument in the first place.

On the other hand, if you own a factory that produces a good for which the market suggests a growth potential–say, an additional production increase of 20 per cent would not see a large drop in price, meaning that an investment would probably increase profits–then you do not even need additional income. Instead, you are willing to take out a loan (and let’s add to that the fact that we are in a super-low-interest period in history, so you literally get the loan “for free”), make the investment, and pay off the loan from the additional profits.

Unfortunately, much of the corporate media–for understandable reasons–seems unwilling to even ask critical questions these days (which would be worth its own, unrelated blog post…). Instead, we are constantly reminded that to grow the economy–that is to create jobs–the best way would be to lower taxes, such that corporate profits are retained leading to… what exactly? The least problematic outcome, in my opinion at least, would be “luxury spending”: owners (and share holders alike) would use their additional income to stimulate the production of goods that, while not foremost used to improve the lives of the many, certainly could in the long run raise the bar. The reality looks, the way I see it at least, much more bleakly…

Instead of actual investment, that is putting the money to “use” by growing economic output, much of this additional liquidity is going where it has been going for the past decades: fueling bubbles–whether housing, internet, precious metals, futures and derivatives, or what-have-you-not. If you were indeed a factory owner who has already satisfied (almost) all immediate needs in life, what would you do with another billion dollars if not trying to look for “lucrative investment opportunities?”

Coming to the second part of the blog post title… Last night, I went to one of the Our Revolution launch live-stream parties–of which, by the way, I haven’t read a peep in any of the mainstream media I looked at this morning, despite the fact that many seemingly less important items were covered in quite some detail. The main message that Bernie had for those willing to keep up the fight is simple:

The system (not necessarily the individual lobbyists, politicians, and billionaires) will not reform itself from the top-down. The incentives are simply not set up that way. People at the top have no motivation to improve the quality of life for those at the bottom. And that being said, We, the People need to rise up and demand that any such ridiculous policies that have favored growth “at the top”–by giving whimsical, borderline frivolous arguments for those policies benefitting the average income earner; and mostly at the expense of low-income earner due to increased competition from extreme-low-income earners abroad–need to be reversed.

And Bernie also shared a reminder with people: the only true obstacle in the way of progress is the belief that it cannot be achieved in the first place. This is something the media has been adamant about: the system cannot be “reformed” in ways as progressive as Bernie’s platform during the Democratic primary season–and that despite the fact that now many candidates (including some in the GOP) have started to run on proposals that initially came from the progressive movement.

So, yes, if we want “our country back”, we need to get our asses out of our (still too) comfy chairs, forget about how supposedly nothing can be changed, and simply go out and demand change. The main areas of importance remain the same as before Hillary got the nomination: preventing further erosion of national control over trade and financial regulations and liabilities (if you haven’t heard about the investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS for short, system, please read up on it!), reducing the debt burden, particularly of those who are supposed to build the wealth of the next generation (i.e. student loan forgiveness), and ensuring that after a long “trickle-up” wealth distribution, the balance tips the other way again.

The alternative is to accept a state in which ordinary people have lost and will keep losing perpetually. No-one at the top will stand up for “us”, we have to do it ourselves, and it’s about time, too!

Emotion regulation–and the lack thereof–explained using physics

Given my understanding of classical mechanics, I think of causation (from an observer’s perspective) often using this two-object scenario: one object is moving (i.e. has observable velocity), and the other object is at rest. When the two meet–the trajectory of the first making it inevitable that there is a moment in time when they get close enough to touch–some or all of the momentum of the first object is transferred to the second object, and then I conclude: the first object caused the second object to change trajectory.

The one great insight that Albert Einstein brought to physics is that of relativity: the understanding that there is no absolute frame of reference. In other words, there is a valid way of looking at the two objects in the above example, in which the roles are completely reversed. And that is, naturally, the frame of reference in which the first object is “at rest” and the second object is moving towards it. Einstein understood that both perspectives must be and are equally valid objective descriptions, thus undermining our gut intuition of causality (which came first? which object was moving before the collision?).

In our daily lives, we often face the same conundrum when it comes to how we perceive causation in the social (inter-personally mental) domain: we may see ourselves, each in turn, to be more or less mentally stable (at rest)—that is to say, in the absence of an external event, of something interacting with us, our mental state would remain what it is. And we further perceive other minds as transferring mental momentum to us, say, by saying something which makes us angry or laugh.

Unfortunately, that kind of perspective, the strict notion that we are victims of external events, that we have no agency over what happens to us (mentally), creates a huge problem: we lose the ability to control how we feel! We no longer have any means to escape a collision event. We may hope or pray that we will not meet someone who criticizes us—because we know that once that happens, we will feel lousy and down, but if it happens, we no longer have any control over the change of state which will, inevitably it seems, happen to our minds.

There is, however, one very, very important difference between the classical mechanics objects example and the situation where two minds meet: even a single mind, on its own, can change its state. Imagine you are sitting at your desk, your mind is wandering around, thinking about the past or future, and suddenly you think of a wonderful day you spend as a child on vacation with your family. How do you feel? Do you still feel the same way as you did mere seconds ago? What caused you to think of this day?

The first important aspect I want to highlight is that, other than a single object that cannot change its own momentum, a mind can change its state on its own. It is almost as though, if the second object in the example wanted to avoid or alter the course of the collision, it could decide to do so, and take steps in that direction. And that is what, at least when it comes to the affective state of one’s mind, emotion regulation provides:

As a quick detour, I want to explain about James Gross’s first attempt of modeling the different approaches to emotion regulation and their outcomes. His model contains two broad kinds of strategies, situation selection—in terms of the two-object example above, the second object could simply avoid the collision altogether—or some form of action the second object takes to alter the way in which either the collision takes place (situation modification) or its consequences unfold (attentional deployment, cognitive change, or response modulation).

To be clear, each and every of these five strategies requires that the second “mental object” (a person correctly anticipating an impact of a mental event that would typically lead to an altered emotional state) accepts its agency over the outcome: the anticipated change is not inevitable! Once this is accepted, a strategy can be chosen:

  • the incoming object can be avoided in the first place (for instance by deciding to avoid seeing the person, something I think would change my emotional state)
  • the incoming object could move into a slightly different position, thus changing the resulting outcome trajectories of both objects
  • the incoming object could, theoretically at least, alter one of its properties–imagine the object becoming more massive, allowing it to simply absorb the momentum
  • for cognitive change I find it relatively more difficult to find an adequate analogue, but the idea is that, after the collision occurred, the second object would alter some of its inner workings which would, in turn, alter its trajectory change
  • finally, the second object could simply change its trajectory after the collision had occurred

As a practical example, I would just want to point out that in an emotionally heated exchange between two people, it is fairly common for both sides to claim to be provoked into more and more ferocious responses (and between nations, this goes as far as going to an outright state of war). Each party in this repeated exchange could describe the situation as him or herself being forced to react in a certain way, and each party will also fail to consider that one’s own actions are potentially causative for an equally strong (or stronger) re-action from the other side…

Which brings me to the second important aspect: as long as people think of themselves as mental objects at rest they may fail to consider that, all along, they are probably perceived to be moving (as causative agents) by others. The failure to appreciate the impact our mental actions (in particular what we say or do casually) have on other minds very easily leads to situations in which someone else is impacted by us, may show a reaction, and we mistakenly assume we had nothing to do with it.

The most egregious example I can think of off the top of my head is the (seeming) failure of Donald Trump to appreciate, understand, or correctly represent the affective consequences of his actions in others. Whenever asked about one of his past actions–which, understandably for the majority of outside observers, led to some kind of grudge in someone else–Donald Trump exhibits an almost complete lack of understanding for how his actions could be considered responsible.

In other words, Donald Trump is the prime example of someone who considers himself to be perfectly at rest (someone with the best temperament). He only happens to reacts to outside events (as necessary) and fails to grasp a) that he actually has a choice for how to react (going on twitter tirade after twitter tirade) and b) that what he says about others may well cause emotional pain in those people in the first place.

How we deal with “otherness” and “being right”.

The primary campaign season of the U.S. Presidential elections is coming to close, and I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on where I, in the past year, have ridiculed and disrespected others’ opinions. Why? Because I believe that the idea that my beliefs, my ideas, my thoughts, and my knowledge is superior–something I intuit many people experience while being exposed to others’ beliefs, ideas, and thoughts–is at the heart of much of the conflicts we experience in our day-to-day lives as well as through mass and social media.

The number one prime example for me are my thoughts about supporters of Donald Trump, at least at the beginning of his campaign. It seemed so obvious (from my perspective) that to follow a man willing to call an entire people rapists or make allegations against all followers of a specific region must come with a certain kind of mental defect. And only over time did my perception change. It still seems a much more readily available thought, even now, but it no longer is the dominant one. Instead, now I believe that the lives of many have been developing so far away from what we have come to see as “the norm” that their anger at politicians not even acknowledging this state of affairs has led them to a sort of “anyone but them” position. And no matter what else I may think about Donald Trump, he certainly is not the “average politician” in any regard.

More generally speaking, my experience is that when it comes to comparing “what I know” with what other people’s behavior reveals about their mental life is that, most of the time, I consider myself on the “right side” of things. I believe, for instance, that my approach to engaging with strangers–such as on my daily commute to and from work–is somewhat superior to other people’s approach. Naturally, given my longterm goals, my approach probably has some advantages, but upon reflection, I could never conclude that it is free of problems either. And clearly, whenever I compare approaches, it is difficult to do so conditional on my goals, because then I would have to compare two sets of things all at once (my approach and my goals to those of others). After all, human brains seem to have a lot to do already comparing two things…

And with that limiting factor in mind, I slowly begin to understand that most judgments of “inferiority” do not stem from differences in believes per se, but rather from my inability to consider someone else’s mental structure as a whole, his or her overall background and backdrop in front of which all cognitive decisions take place.

To give a (hopefully) much less controversial example far away from politics, religion, or social mores, I recently imagined meeting someone from the 17th century unfamiliar with developments in physics since his or her time. This person would most likely consider me to be a crazy person if I told him that, on the most fundamental level, all material things are made from the same “stuff”: small charged particles (something a person from the future may also consider me crazy for, by the way) that are bound together by a force so strong that “chemical reactions” are unable to overcome it, and thus form stable “elements”. Instead, this person would insist that wood, metal, and glass for instance are so obviously different in their properties, that is it preposterous to assume they could ever be made of the same stuff!

By analogy, the same applies to humans. When we encounter one another, one of the most fundamental cognitive processes that happens is a part of “social cognition”: we categorize others effortlessly in classes of gender, race, age group, social status (for instance by virtue of observing their clothing or speech patterns) and others. And while most of these classes may seem relatively benign and harmless, they each carry with them expectations, prejudices, and valuations. In a situation of an emergency, for instance, we tend to profess greater concern for children and women, whereas in the context of politics most people still seem to have strong objections and react with scoldings for women who, like Hillary Clinton, act closer to what their male counterparts might do: seeking power.

On the whole, labeling others in this way often allows us to no longer “care” (in a positive way at least) about people, by creating a kind of mental representation of this person no longer deserving our support and shared resources. As a society, we have been observers of tremendous amounts of harm, pain, and suffering in our very midst, and yet we have not done much to alleviate any of it. Why? One typical thought might be the doctrine of capitalism, which tells us that each and every person is foremost responsible for their own situation and place in life. As such, a homeless person doesn’t deserve our support.

But this extends far beyond the economic sphere. Just this weekend, two major stories that have dominated the headlines are the case of Brock Turner, a young man who in a moment of opportunity didn’t have enough respect and civility in him to not do what he did, but instead raped an unconscious women. What lack of valuation for another human being’s life must be at play, I ask myself? And the same is true for the man who went to a gay night club in Orlando, possibly to send a message of religious zealotry, that our society should not tolerate and accept homosexuality, but at the same time treating the humanity of his victims as nonexistent.

Overall, I believe that to the extent that we believe to be “right”, we are unable to empathize (why would we need to anyway?), as we lack the motivation to understand the “other” (or otherness). And only when we take the mental liberty of exploring what lies behind someone’s behavior, actions and words alike, can we begin to have an open conversation about how life can be valuable and better for all, and not dominated by those with the most firepower.