Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Who You Know, Care, Respect, and Spontaneous Orders

"People are libertarian towards those they care about and respect. They are paternalistic toward those they care about but do not respect. They are authoritarian toward those they neither care about nor respect." -- unknown

"People are unbridled free marketers towards people they don't know (foreigners just need more money and skills!). They're crony capitalist/economic regionalist/nationalist towards those who live or work in their communities (inducements are fine if it means helping my group or the groups closest to me!) . And they're socialists towards their family, themselves, or other loved ones (please save us!)." -- Kyle Trowbridge, Facebook post

I think both of these statements are generally correct. What, then, do we make of the fact that they seem to contradict each other?

I would argue that the first set of statements is true for weak bonds, and the second set of statements is true for strong bonds.

Strong bonds are the kinds of social bonds we find in families, small organizations, and tribes. They are the social bonds with which we are most familiar and, for evolutionary reasons, most comfortable.

Weak bonds are the kinds of social bonds we have had to evolve as we started to live in larger groups, most notably and particularly, in cities. The Great Society is impossible without them. Spontaneous orders are pretty much constituted of weak bonds, even if they are populated by strong-bond groups. Cities, communities, counties, states, and nations are all weak-bond groups.

Note that Trowbridge's formula goes from weak bonds (people they don't know) to stronger bonds (communities) to the strongest bonds (family, et al). The weak bonds strongly suggest free markets. The first quote, though, applies to philanthropic feelings. You can apply each of them to each of Trowbridge's categories:

Care about + respect + don't know = free markets
Care about + do not respect + don't know = welfare state
Don't care about + don't respect + don't know = authoritarian state

Care about + respect + communitarian feelings = cronyism
Care about + do not respect + communitarian feelings = welfare state
Don't care about + don't respect + communitarian feelings = communism

Care about + respect + family = authoritative parenting
Care about + do not respect + family = authoritarian parenting
Don't care about + do not respect + family = abusive parenting

The latter triad leaves out "permissive parenting," which may suggest some missing element in each. I invite people to make suggestions.

Alienation and Contempt

I just finished a short book titled "The Hatred of Poetry" in which the author, Ben Lerner, a poet himself, makes the argument that people hate poetry because 1) they think that just because they are a language-using human, they ought to be poets themselves, and 2) actual poetry fails to live up to our ideal of Poetry.

While my gut reaction was that this was utter nonsense, I came to realize that there are a few other fields in which this is true as well, not the least being economics. Everyone thinks they ought to be able to make pronouncements about economist just because they are human beings, and actual economics fails to live up to our ideal of Economics. As a result, most people hate economics and economists.

I would add to this psychology, sociology, and political science.

At the same time, there are a number of areas where people don't make this same mistake: math, physics, chemistry, biology, and even many of the other arts, including sculpture and painting (though some of the postmodern works have people saying, "I could have done that" or "My three year old could have done that"), music and acting are typically things we don't think we can do without some degree of expertise.

Why is it that people who don't read poetry and don't like poetry feel a need to express an opinion about poetry when those same people wouldn't do the same thing about recent publications in mathematics? It seems that there are a set of things people do that others seem to hold in contempt because they fancy themselves able to do them and another set of things people seem to admire (or at least not hold in contempt) simply because they know they couldn't possibly do them.

The reason people don't like poetry may have something to do with the fact that everyone thinks they can do it, and that bumps up against what actual poets are doing. Much like economists--everyone thinks they understand the economy, and they get mad when an economist comes along and tells them they're wrong about how they think the economy works. There is a disconnect between what the person thinks they can do and what the experts in fact do. 

Why, then, do people who hate poetry love songs? After all, isn't a song really just a poem? Of course. But songs are more directly tied into music, and only rarely are songs constructed such that they are as complex as many poems often are. More, they are heard rather than read, and reading is a difficult cognitive process which we can only do because the brain itself reconstructs itself--certain parts of itself already designed for other things--in order to be able to read. Then what is read has to be passed through this section of the brain before it is sent to the language portions of the brain. The musical element poetry (when present) is suppressed relative to songs, so poems are neither really read nor sung while at the same time, both read and sung. 

We can look at this in another way, by comparing Shakespeare read and Shakespeare viewed/heard. The same people who find Shakespeare "boring" when they read him are excited watching a play (or film). The same things that bore them when they read Shakespeare move them to fear or laughter or tears when they watch the play performed and hear the words spoken. Why is it boring when read and not boring when viewed (ignoring those who still find it boring when viewed, since other issues may be at play there--I am only interested in the disconnect between the attitudes of reading vs. hearing/viewing). This would point to my suggestion that, in the case of poetry, part of the disconnect comes about from the fact that poems are read, which makes them, in many ways, more complicated. 

The fact that poems are read rather than heard also invites contemplation and analysis. One can look at the words and think about their varied meanings. This further complicates one's relationship with poems. The more you interact with a poem, the less likely it seems you are able to write one. Yet, you are still convinced that you ought to be able to write a poem. It's all just language, after all, and you are a language-using species. And if poetry is a "higher" form of language, and language makes us human, then poets are a "higher" form of human. And who doesn't want to be a higher form of human?

The same belief doesn't apply to painters. We may be impressed with the work of a painter, but we don't think the person a "higher" form of human. We consider them to just be an artist expressing themselves. The fact is that poets are the same. Poets are just artists expressing themselves. Language is their medium, but that fact doesn't necessarily make them a higher form of human in the least. 

Lerner suggests that these attitudes are a consequence of Plato's attitude toward poets. The Greeks considered poets to be inspired by the Muses, meaning they were conduits for the gods. They were chosen by the gods. Meaning they were special. We in the West still have that attitude toward poets, even if it has evolved in different ways.  But do other cultures hold this view? Are their attitudes toward poets more like our attitudes toward painters and mathematicians? 

I would argue, then, that people tend to express contempt toward those things which they think ought to be easy, but which "experts" in the field keep demonstrating to be complex. They have respect for difficult things they think are difficult, and they likely don't think much at all about those things that they think are easy that are in fact easy (for pretty much everyone), or at least easy to understand. You might not be able to play the guitar, but rock music seems easy to understand. Jazz, on the other hand, is more difficult to understand, and as a result many people don't seem to much care for it (part of this may also be simple familiarity--as we learn to hear something, we grow to like it). 

Overall, I don't think that having or lacking interest in any of these particular things is what's at play here. There are sets of knowledge/skills we seem to respect and others which we do not. A person may not be able to do math, and may not personally like doing math, but still hold a great mathematician in high esteem. They're not going to engage in the math nor make the mistake of having an opinion about the math being done that they cannot do. As a result, they simply respect the mathematicians who can do those things. But when you have a person who is not an economist and is generally ignorant of economics, that doesn't mean they won't have an opinion about economics. The same person who lacks interest in learning math and economics will refrain from having an opinion about math and give their opinion about economics. 

So it seems that interest isn't really what's at play. Again, I think it's precisely the disconnect between apparent simplicity and the real complexity that creates this contempt toward poetry, economics, sociology, and psychology, among other things. I know I don't know anything about how to repair a car, so I respect auto mechanics. For the longest time I thought I could write and understand poems when I really couldn't. Thus, I started out with a hatred of poetry and a degree of contempt for poets--which has changed as I have slowly learned to understand poems and how to write them. I suppose I lost my hatred of poetry because I never really bought into the idea that there was this unattainable ideal of Poetry which can never be realized by any real poem. 

The less disconnect, the less alienation one feels, the less hatred one feels. There's probably something to consider in regards to things well beyond poetry.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Nietzsche, Socrates, Interpretation, and Arrogance

There are two phenomena that I have discovered result in gross misunderstandings. Actually, I didn't discover them. Rather, they were discovered by Socrates and Nietzsche.

Nietzsche observed that nobody actually reads what is written but, rather, read what they bring to what is written. The reader thus projects their own ideology, own world view, own hangups, own ways of doing things, own self-loathings onto the writer. The writer in many ways cannot help the person's misinterpretations, and the writer can only anticipate them to a certain degree. In online discussions, where the discussions are in fact written, the same problems arise. Worse, it seems that you can clarify all you want, and the reader will continue to insist on their interpretation of things.

The more abstract the thinking, the more this is a problem. This is in no small part because abstractions can have wildly different forms in the minds of different people. Plato's Socrates discovers this over and over and over again when he tries to learn what abstract ideas like "justice" or "piety" mean, for examples. Each person doesn't even really know what those terms mean within their own heads, and discussion tends to go around in circles. More, it's not uncommon to use metaphors to try to explain things. And that opens up an entirely new can of worms.

I cannot tell you how many times I have used a metaphor and been accused of "changing the subject." This either suggests that a great many people don't understand metaphors or the nature of metaphors, or it suggests that derailing conversations through purposeful obtuseness is a common tactic. I Oftentimes wonder if the latter isn't the case when not just this phenomenon, but ignoring clarifications over and over and over occur. But perhaps all of these things are simply variations on the phenomenon of reading what you can only see.

The other phenomenon is what ultimately got Socrates killed, and that is the phenomenon of people accusing you of arrogance when you are insisting that something cannot be known to the degree people seem to think it can be known. Socrates was going around proving judges don't understand the nature of justice, while I keep running into this phenomenon when it comes to government regulations and central planning. Somehow saying that we could not possibly know enough to engage in central planning, or even to create regulations with known outcomes, make you arrogant and not the person who claims such knowledge to be possible (and which presumably they have).

This accusation of arrogance can come about either from those who don't like that you are saying they cannot possibly know what they claim to know, or it can come about from those who project their own issues onto what you are saying. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the accusation of arrogance when I have argued that it's okay that the vast majority of people aren't interested in things like higher education, philosophy, poetry, reading, etc. Somehow acknowledging that there are esoteric areas which interest but a few is arrogant, no matter what your attitude toward those who aren't interested in such things.

And let's face it, interest in things like, say, philosophy, tends to strongly correlate with both high IQ and a strong desire to learn (whether that desire to learn is realized through formal education or not). Also, things like philosophy or poetry tend to be interests you have to develop over time, through education. I hated poetry for many more years than I have enjoyed it. And it took probably a decade of actually writing poems before I started to like poems. (That sounds weird, but based on Ben Lerner's book "The Hatred of Poetry," it's not as uncommon as one might think.) Let's admit that it takes a pretty strange person to purposefully choose to do something they don't like over and over until they like it. Most people aren't that strange.

Why should I be accused of arrogance because I like poetry? Or because I make the factual observation that poetry is complex and difficult, and that most people don't want to engage in cognitively difficult things, and that that might contribute to understanding the lack of interest in poetry? Yes, varying interests matter. Yes, there are other cognitively difficult things some people are willing to engage in who would not be willing to engage in poetry. Tastes differ. There's nothing wrong with that in the least. But the fact of the matter is that when it comes to cognitively difficult things, IQ matters a great deal, and the overwhelming majority of people simply do not have the IQ required to engage in cognitively difficult activities. That these same people seem perfectly happy in their lives, going to work and socializing and watching T.V. doesn't bother me in the least. I don't understand why it bothers so many people that it doesn't bother me. And I don't know why the people it bothers in turn accuse me of arrogance for thinking everyone is okay in having different interests.

Which is more elitist? To say that college isn't and shouldn't be for everyone, or to insist that your life and work have no value unless you to go college? Somehow, those who think the latter are the ones accusing the former of arrogance and elitism. But it is the latter who think that their life choices are the only ones of value. And it is they, then, who are the truly arrogant.

To some degree, we may have discovered that Nietzsche's and Socrates' observations/experiences are not really all that dissimilar. Whether it's literal reading, or the more metaphorical reading of a situation, we all tend to bring ourselves into the reading. And when someone disagrees with us, we tend not to change our minds, but rather to accuse the other of arrogance. Perhaps I am doing it too, but surely the term "arrogance" has some sort of meaning. Surely the arrogant are those who think only their lifestyle and life choices are worthy of living. And further, if it means the defense of pluralism in cognition, education, and interests and the observation that there are things that we cannot ever know with such certainty as to be able to make accurate predictions, or even accurate pattern predictions is arrogance, then the word is truly devoid of meaning.