Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Small Things

My eldest son’s Facebook jab at me on Sunday was along the lines of “It seems my Dad’s day has been spent on FB arguing with people he doesn’t know, defending someone he doesn’t like, as a matter of principle.  This is a small sample of what my childhood was like.”  I got one vote of support, but it was from someone who also does the same thing. 

The impression that people have is that this is a lot of energy to expend on small, unimportant things. It does look that way, and I certainly sympathise with people trapped in situations where others have lost all sense of proportion, as that’s what I experience at work a lot.  Yet to me, that is not the problem.  The problem is that by personality and style I am not at all persuasive in those situations.  Likely, people dig in even harder after.

They may in fact be small issues.  I may be merely engaging in an extended act of self-justification here – not the first time. But I don’t think these particular small things were trivial – I think they are disguised as small things so that people can be mean and not get called on it. There has been a lot of recent research to the effect that we make up our minds about things quickly, even sub-rationally, then go in search of intellectual justifications a moment later. The latter is also very swift, but in service to the first, which is the ruler.  Jonathan Haidt’s work is prominent here.  I have only read a few excerpts and summaries of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, but it seems he reviews much of the recent literature there.

Thus, when we are discussing political ideas and candidates, we think we are evaluating tax policies, reviewing foreign policy experience, and other activities of reason, but actually are not.  Even the brightest and most rational of us are actually acting out some knee-jerk “four-legs good, two legs bad” evaluation in the first moment, then inviting the rest of the brain to come over and bail us out by constructing a logical support. We resist this idea, wanting to believe we have control of our own thoughts and decisions.  I did an extended series on it a few years ago.  (Check it out if you want, but even I didn’t go look at it again.)

Let us say that at minimum, a whole lot of people do this, and make up their minds about what their politics are going to be on the basis of what their friends or the people they admire seem to believe, or what the smart people, or the empathetic people, or the hardworking people, or the born-again people, or the black people, or the educated people believe. They may say otherwise, but the evidence is against them.  When challenged, all they can do is be insulting, resort to further clichés, or otherwise dodge. Seldom does anyone take it back, saying “it’s a small thing, I was just trying to be cute, it really was kind of unfair.”  They double down. How dare you, you petty unfair person, call me out for making a petty unfair remark.

A quick recap of the data.  A young friend had linked to a post about Palin running in 2016, with his own brief comment that he didn’t like the idea. Entirely reasonable. A young woman commented that no one from Wasilla could see Russia from their house.  I jumped in to say that Palin had not said this, Tina Fey had said it while pretending to be her. The woman replied I was being too serious and sent a video of a mentally-ill person saying foolish things, encouraging me to laugh and have a beer. Okay, she had no way of knowing how deeply offensive that is to me, because she doesn’t know who I am and what I do for a living.  But it’s offensive anyway, even if I’m not present. So it does confirm to me that this is a person who just says stuff to be funny, doesn’t care if it’s true or fair, and thinks she’s entitled to do this with no pushback.  The deeper point is that this is exactly the sort of thing that rules her politics, and how she will make her decisions. Her vote springs from this place, and she is happy to influence others of like mind in a public forum. 

She, rather obviously, doesn’t think it’s small at all. 

Other comments went in directions I didn’t pay attention to.  A couple of guys seemed to be accusing the original poster of being a damn liberal and Hillary supporter (both untrue) and getting into some rants about Obama.  He was holding his own and they weren’t listening, so I didn’t jump in there.  Only by accident did I encounter another commenter in that part of the discussion, stating he is 71 and had seen many elections, and he had never seen anyone get attacked as Obama has been.  In the old days, people got upset during elections but once a president was elected we all got behind him.
That’s just insanely inaccurate.  If he had left it that Obama was being attacked unfairly and people sure do get angry quickly I would have shrugged – evidence for that claim was right above him in the thread, after all. But now, he has to add some mythology to it as well and I contradicted him.  Hard. With evidence.  Not because I thought I had any chance of persuading him, but for any others who might be reading.  This is where his vote springs from.  Obama’s critics are some new, divisive force in America’s politics. He didn’t think it was small either, and doubled down. A person who thought it was small would back off a bit, saying that yes, other presidents had received a lot of hateful criticism, he just thought it was worse with Obama. Which I might disagree with, but is at least a reasonable POV. 

Glenn Reynolds linked back to advice he had given a few years ago about how to influence popular culture.  I suppose he’s right, but even if I were one of those big donors I’m not sure I could do it.  It seems shoddy and unfair, with no respect for one’s audience.  Knowing that people with other politics are doing this and influencing elections should perhaps convince me, but it doesn’t move the dial.


Texan99 said...

Hmm. Does it really seem shoddy and unfair to make every 10th article in a soft magazine a factually unassailable treatment of a conservative issue in a favorable light? It goes without saying that it would have to be a topic of interest to the readers, or they simply wouldn't read it. Is the problem that Reynolds assumes the article would be aimed at people of average intelligence? It would be a great waste of your talents of communication, but I'd hesitate to say it would be a bad effort for someone else.

I'm glad you stood up, civilly, for what you believe in a Facebook forum. That's the backbone of civilization.

james said...

I have tried from time to time to interject a little common sense into some Facebook threads when there is a variety of people attending to it, but frequently the thread is populated solely by the usual suspects, and there's an injunction about where not to throw pearls. (and contradictory advice about whether to answer a fool according to his folly...)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

T99, the hard part for me ethically would be publishing the other 9 articles at all. If the magazine existed and I was the person writing the tenth article, I wouldn't think that was especially dishonorable. But starting a magazine that I knew was going to be 90% trash would be tough to swallow.

Texan99 said...

You would be raising the standard of the magazine, if that would be any comfort!

Anonymous said...

People have emotional reactions and then come up with a logic to back it up?

I've seen that a lot, and I'm not talking about Leftists either. It's old news by now to some people.

Anonymous said...

If you want to convince weak kneed fanatics and zealots to convert, you either must understand the mind of a fanatic enough to speak as one or you must collapse the central support column of a person's beliefs, in order to reprogram them.

If they could change themselves, there wouldn't need to be a social argument about it.

Stronger and more capable zealots, tend to only respect physical power, not verbal wording.