Friday, September 29, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 13a

Oftentimes these ministers of darkness tell us truths in little things, to betray us into deeds of greatest consequence. - Charles Lamb  

There’s one group which can easily keep the enemy at a distance: the leaders. While soldiers tend to be ordinary people, their leaders are a different story. We seem to be societies of altruists led by sociopaths. In his autobiography I. Asimov: A Memoir, Isaac Asimov tells of his  decision to major in zoology in graduate school which he calls an '"incredible mistake'. He says that he had to dissect various creatures, an activity that he disliked intensely but grew used to. Once he had to kill a cat.

 Like a fool, I did it. After all, I was only following the orders of my superior, like any Nazi functionary in the death camps. But I never recovered. That killed cat lives with me, and to this day, over half a century later, when I think of it, I double up in misery. I dropped zoology at the completion of the year.

Leaders seem to be able to get rid of the killed cat from their memories much more easily than the rest of us can. Four percent of us are born sociopaths, though they are over-represented among criminals, bankers, lawyers and politicians. (I’m not joking.) ‘The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power,’ said Brutus in William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. The commanders of armies and of terrorist organisations who hand down orders don’t have to stifle feelings of empathy for their opponent. Many leaders have been manipulative and egocentric, rarely troubled by feelings of compassion or doubt. 

An example was seen during the Christmas truce during WWII Among the units which observed the cease-fire, not all men approved of the decision. An obscure corporal named Adolf Hitler, who, as a dispatch runner for regimental headquarters, rarely went as far as the forward trenches, sharply criticized the behaviour of men in his regiment who had opted to join the British in No Man’s Land. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” he is reported to have said. “Have you no German sense of honour?”

In the days following Christmas, violence returned to the Western Front after officers’ threats of court-martial. While the truce could not have succeeded without the endorsement of junior officers on both sides, British and German generals quickly took steps to prevent any further episodes of fraternization between their men. Still, there were no courts-martial or punishments linked to the events of the Christmas Truce; senior commanders likely recognized the disastrous effect that such a move would have on morale in the trenches. It never happened again, as even brief Christmas truces to retrieve the dead led to court-martials.

Even for normal people, power poses a challenge. Having power feels good but enjoying the delights of power too much lead to impulsive, unethical action and delusional thought. The power paradox is always close by. Machiavelli’s saying “It is better to be feared than loved” is the most widely known maxim about power, Lord Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a close second. Experiments have shown that first is largely untrue while second is very much operational. 

We have a deep cultural intuition that nice guys finish last, that one must step on others to rise in the ranks, and that acquiring power requires the cold-blooded removal of rivals and even allies. But nothing could be further from the truth. Social psychologists have studied who rises in power in different arenas like financial firms, hospitals, and manufacturing plants. The strongest predictor of those who acquired power were enthusiasm, kindness, focus, calmness, and openness. Then how come we have so many disagreeable leaders?

The problem seems to be that the experience of having power sows the seeds of destruction. Power makes us feel less dependent upon others thus making us shift our focus away from others to our own goals and desires. As our empathy wanes, so does our capacity for moral sentiments that depend on empathy — concern for others’ suffering (compassion), reverence for what others give (gratitude), and inspiration experienced in appreciating others’ goodness (elevation). This makes us distance ourselves from those  we believe to be below us and tell stories that divide and demean. 

There is a kind of brain trauma that goes by the name “acquired sociopathy” caused by damage to the frontal parts of the brain due to an accident. Such accidents can transform upstanding, kind people into sociopaths, prone to expressing self-serving impulses like shouting profanities at their kids, shoplift, go on spending sprees etc. (The most famous of such patients in neurological history was Phineas Gage.)

Experiences of power and privilege are like a form of brain damage, leading us to self-serving, impulsive behaviour. Experiments show that the powerful feel entitled to take more than their fair share, to endorse more impulsive, unethical behaviour, apparently neglecting the effects of their actions upon others.  People feeling powerful were more likely to say it’s okay to not pay taxes, and that there’s nothing wrong with over-reporting travel expenses or speeding on highways. 

Michael Lewis addressed Princeton students by describing an experiment conducted by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley. The researchers sent volunteer subjects into small rooms in same-sex groups of three and gave them a complex moral problem to resolve, such as what to do about an episode of cheating on an exam. Arbitrarily, they assigned one member of each group as its leader. Thirty minutes into each team’s deliberations, a researcher entered the room with a plate bearing four cookies for the three volunteers.

Who ate the extra cookie? In each case, it was the leader of the group, even though, as Lewis notes, “He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.' As Dacher Keltner writes in The Power Paradox: How We Ge Gain and Lose Influence:

Lord Acton’s thesis prevails. People who enjoy elevated power are more likely to eat impulsively and have sexual affairs, to violate the rules of the road, to lie and cheat, to shoplift, to take candy from children, and to communicate in rude, profane, and disrespectful ways. 

Absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely. The experience of power destroys the skills that gained us power in the first place.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 12b

'War doesn’t determine who is right, it decides who is left', said Bertrand Russell. But the process of overcoming human aversion to killing has gone on throughout human history. In combat, soldiers find it hard to kill at close range. Analysis of various battles showed that the majority of soldiers never fired their guns. There’s something that holds people back, making us incapable of pulling the trigger. Those who would not fire did not run or hide—in many cases, they were willing to risk greater danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages. Military historians have discovered that stabbing a fellow human being is even harder than shooting at close range. 

The observation of low firing rates till World War II resulted in the US army, and subsequently other armies, initiating certain changes in their training methods designed to enable killing in the modern soldier. It initiated an era of psychological warfare, conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops. The philosopher-psychologist Peter Marin says the lack of discussion about the topic is "a massive unconscious cover-up" in which society hides itself from the true nature of combat.

Training techniques of modern soldiers try to develop a reflexive "quick shoot" ability. If men reflect too deeply upon the enemy's common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with the task of killing the enemy. Instead of shooting at bull's-eye targets, the modern soldier spends many hours with full combat gear shooting at  man-shaped targets at varying ranges. The soldier must instantly aim and shoot at the target(s). Soldiers are highly rewarded and recognised for success in this skill of accurately "engaging" the targets — a standard euphemism for "kill." 

There is the development of boot-camp glorification of killing. It was almost unheard of in World War I, rare in World War II, increasingly present in Korea, and thoroughly institutionalized in Vietnam. For eg., Vietnam recruits were immersed in boot camps that exalted not only a sense of brotherhood, but also the most brutal violence, forcing the men to scream ‘KILL! KILL! KILL!’ until they were hoarse. The language used in training camps to describe the joys of killing people helps desensitize soldiers to the suffering of an enemy.

An article by an Army major (Pierson, 1999) in Military Review advised commanders to identify the less than 4% of troops who are psycho or sociopathic because they are the ones who can be counted on to willingly kill. (“[A] controlled psychopath is an asset on the killing fields”.) The resistance to killing can be psychologically modified. It’s easier to kill when you aren’t targeting an identified individual — so throwing a grenade into a group is easier than shooting at one person. The intensity of the trauma suffered by an individual who kills another is proportional to the distance between the two. 

Most of the time, wartime killing is something you do from far away so that you don't see the enemy. The development of the rifle greatly increased the distance and speed of killing. From the mid-nineteenth century on, technological innovations made it possible to kill ever-increasing numbers of non-combatants at greater distances with heavy cannon, far beyond the direct perception of the artillerists who manned them and who hardly noticed the suffering they inflicted. This long-distance killing peaked with the firebombings of Tokyo and the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Most people are killed by someone who pushed a button, dropped a bomb, or planted a mine. The mechanical distance provided by the unreality of killing through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight, or some other kind of mechanical buffer makes killing easier. You could even describe the whole evolution of military technology as a process in which the psychological distance between the combatants is progressively increased. A very modern way of increasing the ease of killing is what the US military does today using armed drones. You can also drug your soldiers to dull their natural empathy and antipathy towards violence. 

Killing becomes easier when guilt is diffused. It allows the shooter to think that even if he hadn’t done it, it still would have happened. This idea is used in modern execution technology in the US. Lethal injection machines used in prison executions come with a dual control system — two syringes, each filled with a lethal dose, two separate delivery systems, two buttons pressed simultaneously by two different people. Then  a random binary generator would secretly determine which syringe was emptied into a bucket and which into a human. And then the record would be erased, allowing each person to think, “Hey, I may not even have given him any drug.” 

Aside from long-range weapons, armies also pursue means to increase psychological distance to the enemy. If you can dehumanise the other – say, by portraying them as vermin – it makes it easier to treat the other as if they are indeed inhuman. If depersonalization is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behaviour in war are easily swept aside. Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalization of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain.  

But increasing the 'kill-rate' comes with a cost. Many soldiers returned after the Vietnam war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This had been framed as a result of the sheer terror of being under attack, of someone trying to kill you and those around you. But psychologists eventually realized that this was a simplistic explanation. During World War II there were low rates of psychiatric breakdowns among sailors and medics — people who were just as endangered as infantrymen but killed either impersonally or not at all. Militaries train soldiers to override their inhibitions against killing, and something inside them had died, too.

Consider drone pilots — soldiers who sit in the United States, directing drones on the other side of the planet. They are not in danger. Yet their rates of PTSD are just as high as those of soldiers actually “in” war. Why? Drone pilots kill from thousands of miles away using imaging technology of extraordinary quality. A target is identified, and a drone operator might watch him for weeks. He would watch the target coming and going, eating dinner, taking a nap on his deck, playing with his kids. And then comes the command to fire. No personal danger, killing is a day job for them. Yet they suffer from PTSD.

The study of killing gives us good reason to feel optimistic about human nature, for it reveals that almost all of us are overwhelmingly reluctant to kill a member of our own species under just about any circumstance.  Armies have had to develop sophisticated methods for overcoming our innate aversion to killing, It challenges the popular myth that human beings are “natural-born killers.” Popular culture has done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing..

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 12a

The basic aim of a nation at war is establishing an image of the enemy in order to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder. — Glenn Gray 

Virtually every aspect of our normal speech uses hidden metaphors to communicate abstract ideas and concepts. The metaphors cultures use become so fixed in thought that people  forget they are metaphors and begin to believe them as fact. As George Lakoff puts it, 'Metaphorical concepts . . .  structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.” People in power get to impose their metaphors on us - political, business and religious leaders, media, advertisers, etc. War metaphors are in common use with everything conceived as a battle, as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. 

We talk of various things in terms of a war because we conceive of them that way, and we act according to how we conceive of things. And as George Lakoff wrote in his paper 'Metaphor and War , '...metaphors backed up by bombs can kill.' James Childress describes the use of war as a metaphor as a dilemma: "In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war." Their widespread use dulls the realisation that the brutality of war dehumanises us all. Childress observes, 'We are tempted by seedy realism, with its doctrine that might makes right, or we are tempted by an equally dangerous mentality of crusade or holy war, with its doctrine that right makes might of any kind acceptable.' 

When you remove all the fancy verbiage, you get the reality of war which would be considered serious crime in any other situation. The metaphor system promotes what psychologists call isolation: the dissociation of actions and feelings which allows actions to be pursued without being burdened by feelings. There is a dichotomy in the use of this metaphor system: it is used only to describe the enemy; when it comes to one's own side, the real horror is described. Lakof writes: 'Reality exists. So does the unconscious system of metaphors that we use without awareness to comprehend reality. What metaphor does is limit what we notice . . . '

This makes it important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and they could afflict hundreds of thousands of real human beings. War is violent crime: murder, assault, kidnapping, arson, rape, and theft. To hide this reality, a fairy tale with an asymmetry built into it is sold to the public. The hero (one's own country) is moral and courageous, while the villain (enemy) is amoral and vicious. 

In The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Raghavan Iyer writes about Mr. Rae, a schoolmaster at Harrow, who deplored the fact that even children have been so indoctrinated  by the idea of inevitable killing that they have no vision of a world, no desire for a world in which killing is as uncivilized as cannibalism. He mentions three dangerous myths - 1) that violence is not only justifiable but also laudable; 2) that war is fun, a great game; 3) that physical courage is the finest virtue and the moral courage shown by the conscientious objector is contemptible. He writes:

These myths were not, of course, created and spread by those who were doing the fighting; no one who has looked war in the face could describe it as a game. These myths were an essential part of the home front, offspring of official propaganda and human blindness.

Mr. Rae believes that wars are made possible not by megalomaniac dictators or religious fanatics or foolish politicians or blind patriots, but because the majority of people in the world have been brought up to accept war and violence as a normal part of life.

Fraternising between enemy soldiers is quite frequent in war (when they are enlisted men rather than officers.) This has been recorded in the Spanish Civil War, Crimean War, the American Civil War etc. One of most famous of such instances was the Christmas truce during WWII.

On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. Benedict’s hope was that a truce would allow the warring powers to negotiate a fair and lasting peace, but there was little interest from leaders on either side. This did not stop soldiers at the front from seizing the initiative, however, when outside events seemed to provide a path to the truce that their leaders had rejected. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but on Christmas the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce.

Many lower ranking German and British troops exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. Some Germans lit Christmas trees around their trenches, and there was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides laying a good-natured game of soccer. This policy came to be known as “live and let live,” and it would be adopted on an ad hoc basis throughout the war, particularly in less active sectors. It was never repeated — future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action.

Most psychologists used to believe that an army’s fighting power was determined by ideology, love of one’s country, or faith in one’s chosen party. The widely accepted view was that the soldiers who were most thoroughly convinced they stood on the right side of history and that theirs was the legitimate worldview would put up the best fight. During WWII, most experts agreed that this theory explained why the Germans had a desertion rate that approached zero, and why they fought harder than the Americans and the British. 

A psychologist interviewed one German captive after another and found that this explanation was wrong. The real reason why the German army was capable of putting forth an almost superhuman fight was friendship. All those German men who had resisted the Allied advance tooth and nail had taken up arms for one another. They weren’t fighting for a Thousand-Year Riech but because they didn’t want to let down their mates. ‘Nazism begins ten miles behind the front line,’ scoffed one German prisoner, whereas friendship was right there in every bunker and trench.

Later historians discovered that the military commanders were well aware of this thinking of the soldiers and used it to their advantage. Nazi generals went to great lengths to keep comrades together, even withdrawing whole divisions for as long as it took new recruits to form friendships, and only then sent everyone back into the fray. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 11b

William Golding’s widely read book, The Lord of the Flies, is supposed to be the unwitting inspiration behind a popular entertainment genre on television today: reality TV. The premise of so-called reality shows, is that human beings, when left to their own devices, behave like beasts. ‘I read and re-read Lord of the Flies,’ divulged the creator of hit series Survivor in an interview. ‘I read it first when I was about twelve, again when I was about twenty and again when I was thirty and since we did the programme as well.’

Apparently, reality shows help us to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. And 'getting  real' means to behave nastily towards each other. But behind the scenes of programmes like these, candidates are maipulated in subtle ways to bring out the worst in them. In the article, 5 Ways You Don't Realize Reality Shows Lie, one kid who paticipated in a reality show called 'Kid Nation' describes his experience.

The idea in the show was that these children would be left alone to run an abandoned town in the New Mexico desert, to hopefully disastrous results. Everyone who showed up fit into some archetype -- there were kids there who looked like they'd come from the inner city, kids with cowboy hats. 'Everybody had a broad, stereotypical role to play, and once the cameras rolled, the kids were all happy to go along with it. . . . even children know to self-censor and come up with their own bits to make themselves more interesting. We all want attention . . .'

Periodically the TV bosses would find that the kids were getting along too well, and they'd have to induce something for them to fight over. But things often did not pan out the way the makers of the show wanted despite all of the attempts at manipulation. Where most reality shows like to boil everything down to just the worst of the worst behavior, that wasn't true of the smallest children on the show who actually came off much better than the reality. Where they couldn't manufacture real conflict among the group, they would try fudge things so the 'What Happens and What Airs Are Very Different'.

You could say: What does it really matter? We all know it’s just entertainment. Stories are not something you watch and forget. When you keep watching such stories, you might forget their specifics but their basic premise of disageable humans seeps into your mind. Studies have shown that such television shows can make people more aggressive. In children, the correlation between seeing violent images and aggression in adulthood is stronger than the correlation between asbestos and cancer, or between calcium intake and bone mass.

There are two opposing forces inside us: one good and one evil. What plays a pivotal role in making us see greed and selfishness everywhere is the daily news, soaps and reality shows on TV which so many of us are addicted to. Cynical stories have a marked effect on the way we look at the world. In Britain, another study demonstrated that girls who watch more reality TV also more often say that being mean and telling lies are necessary to get ahead in life. As the journalist and documentary film maker Richard Curtis says:

‘If you make a film about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years – something that has happened probably once in history – it’s called searingly realistic analysis of society. 

If I make a film like Love Actually, which is about people falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it’s called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.

’At the heart of Lord of the Flies is a thought experiment: What are people like if you put them in a context in which civilization is stripped away, leaving them to behave in their natural state? Absent, in Golding’s terms, “the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law,” what do people do? For many, answers to such thought experiments reveal Machiavellian assumptions about human nature: that free of the structures and strictures of society, our base and violent tendencies spring forth. This is the view that T.V. programs promote. 

The real Lord of the Flies happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months on a deserted island near Tonga in 1965 with few resources and no adult supervision. It turned out very differently from William Golding’s bestseller, Lord of the Flies. It a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other. But the real-life story is forgotten while the fiction is widely read and hailed as an accurate depiction of reality.

George Orwell said, 'All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.' And where do they get their ideas from? In On killing : the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society, Dave Grossman also blames the media for perpetuating the myth of easy killing and have thereby become ‘part of society's unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war’. It gives very superficial insights concerning the nature of killing and war. 

Grossman points out that young people see on television or at the movies detailed, horrible suffering and killings. They are learning to associate this violence with their favorite soft drink, candy bar, and the close contact of their date. Firing ranges with pop-up targets and immediate feedback, just like those used to train soldiers, are found in interactive video games. Grossman argues that this is responsible in part for the rising rate of murder and violence, especially among the young. He writes:

We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.'

There is a Native American parable about a debate between two wolves that takes place inside everybody. One is evil, representing  annger, envy, greed, arrogance, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good,  representing love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth and compassion. Which wolf will win? The one you feed. The media - especially visual and social media - feed the evil wolf. By cutting off his food supply, you will use your energy and resources on thoughts, feelings, and emotions that serve you in healthy ways. 

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 11a

‘[He] who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behaviour.’ - Media scientist George Gerbner

Somebody once wrote on the idea of innate aggressiveness and war in humans, “you can’t kill a bad idea.” He was probably right. The common public perception of Darwinian evolution is as a process that is always “red in tooth and claw”. This view is often promoted by mass media hype which concentrates on our battles and the negativity. Occasional reports about our goodness and kindness usually comes at the end of news broadcasts. Watching the news regularly will give you the impression that humans were born to be destructive, violent, and antagonistic. 

Aggression and violence are emotions that easily attract attention and stay in the brain. Positive experiences and emotions rarely stick to the brain to the same extent nor do they receive the same attention in the popular media. We should remember, however, that cheating, corruption, and murder make the news because they are relatively rare. As the phrase “common decency,” suggests, prosocial behaviour is so common we tend not to notice it. We should not forget that Adam Smith argued that just as important as self-interest is the human passion of sympathy, what he called “fellow-feeling.”

Many think that an engaged citizen should follow the news closely. They think that keeping a close eye on diverse  news outlets and following the tweets and Facebook posts of many political figures is a sign of intelligence. I think it is the opposite. The news, according to many studies, is a mental health hazard. Too much of the news is filled with PR-inserted nonsense. Its obsession with the criminal and the deviant makes us less trusting people. People who follow the news regularly are more likely to agree with statements such as ‘Most people care only about themselves.’ Its obsession with the hurry of the day-to-day makes us less reflective thinkers. 

We overestimate our own capacity for truly independent thought. In most areas of life, we necessarily rely on others for the presentation of facts and ultimately choose between manufactured alternatives. The only communications truly without influence are those that one learns to ignore or never hears at all; this is why Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher,  argued that it is only the disconnected — rural dwellers or the urban poor — who are truly immune to propaganda, while intellectuals, who read everything, insist on having opinions, and think themselves immune to propaganda are, in fact, easy to manipulate. He wrote of the individual: 

If he is a propagandee, it is because he wants to be, for he is ready to buy a paper, go to the movies, pay for a radio or TV set. Of course, he does not buy these in order to be propagandized — his motivations are more complex. But in doing these things he must know that he opens the door to propaganda. 

There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. But, contrary to what we normally see in the movies, there’s never total mayhem when a disaster hits a city.  Whether it is cities being bombed or struck by natural disasters, people don’t go into shock, they stay calm and spring into action. There is often a marked fall in crime and other forms of antisocial behaviour. The picture we’re fed by the media is consistently the opposite of what happens when disaster strikes. Rutger Bregman writes in Humankind: A Hopeful History:

‘My own impression,’ writes Rebecca Solnit, whose book A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) gives a masterful account of Katrina’s aftermath, ‘is that elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image.’ Dictators and despots, governors and generals – they all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self-interest, just like them.

We tend to think that when people take decisions after discussing an issue in a group, an 'average' of the group view emerges. But this is not what happens. People take more extreme views when in a group rather than when they are alone, a phenomenon known as group polarization. Many studies from different parts of the world have shown the phenomenon of group polarization in action. For example, after a group discussion, people already supportive of a war become more supportive, people with an initial tendency towards racism become more racist. 

This phenomenon also occurs in online discussion. Algorithm driven programs popularize more extreme views. People with more extreme views are more likely to express their feelings through clicks, likes and postings than moderates. Over time, the algorithm figures out which box you fit into and tailors suitable results towards you. (It will be called 'enhancing user experience'.) Moderates will give a lot fewer data points for the algorithm to work with and so the targeting will be less precise.

The people behind Facebook, Twitter and Google know what shocks and horrifies you and that this is what makes you click. They know how to grab your attention and hold it so they can serve you the most lucrative helping of personalised ads. ‘Nice’ doesn’t sell ads. And so they keep offering us ever more sensational clickbait, knowing full well, as a Swiss novelist once quipped, that ‘News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.’ Umberto Eco criticised social networks, saying for example that 

"Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community ... but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It's the invasion of the idiots."

Google ranks pages according to the number of links they get and they proclaim that their search results show that ‘democracy on the web works’. But some have the resources to generate more links, perhaps by paying influential sites  to link to them. As Google learns more about our search histories, and customizes the search results through its estimation of our interests, we will increasingly find ourselves in a bubble. You will never encounter the unexpected, the different, the ‘Other’. You will only get information that fits your prior beliefs. So although information has been made available to everyone in theory, walls get built up in practice.

We need to be extremely vigilant about the influence of the media,  Most of us have very little idea how easily the words and images of television, film, and popular music drop into the depths of the mind. We have grown so accustomed to the illusions of film and television that we forget just how powerful they are. They hold us spellbound in a kind of willing suspension of the world in which we really live.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 10b

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis says that by denying that values are real or that sentiments can be reasonable, modern education saps moral motivation and robs people of the ability to respond emotionally to experiences of real goodness. He holds that  the true purpose of education is higher than work or skill: it is wisdom. He believed that unless students were shown how to understand the proper way to feel toward virtue and vice, we risk committing cultural and societal suicide.

If we prevent children from ever feeling shame over wrongdoing, we encourage shamelessness. Indeed, the logical end of a world in which negative emotions are not allowed to signal error is a world in which error is excused, permitted, and expansive — in other words: chaos. 

Rather than education seeking to improve young people by both increasing their stock of facts and improving the sensitivity of their sentiments, students began to be tutored in facts alone. This shift was thought to benefit youth, protecting them from the emotional sway of propaganda. But Lewis argues that not only did dropping an education in and emphasis on sentiment fail to provide this protective effect (and in fact made students more susceptible to hype and disinformation), it deadened their capacity for virtue and human excellence.

The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. . . a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

What Lewis is saying is that young people have a tendency to be apathetic or cynical or complacent anyway. You only magnify this cynicism by telling them that all value and emotion is subjective and that absolute truths do not exist. Being subjected to the endless rubbishing of ideals imparts to young people a smug “pleasure in their own knowingness”. By doing this, you create a vacuum that is actually more vulnerable to being filled by advertising and propaganda. A man with a well developed sentiment for an ideal, a real love for something, does not fall prey to the enticements of advertising. 

Emotional sentiment not only functions as a defence against negative propaganda, but acts as a catalyst for “offensive” activity. As Lewis argues, dry rationality alone can never be a sufficient spur to positive action. It is not recognized that pursuing the simple virtues may not be welcomed by authority and power. Mainstream schooling is designed to make us all conformists and harmless  citizens.  Courage doesn’t have to look dramatic or fearless. Sometimes it looks more like quiet perseverance.

Gandhi said that education had made a 'fetish' of the knowledge of letters and ignored completely the ethical dimension, cultivating instead 'the pretension of learning many sciences'. One recent article, for example, proclaimed in true MBA style,  “Whether we like it or not, colleges and universities are a business. They sell education to customers….While the typical for-profit firm tries to maximize its profit, non-profit universities generally try to maximize their endowments or operating revenue…”.

In Small is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher writes about the terms 'divergent' and 'convergent' to distinguish between problems which cannot be solved by logical reasoning from those that can. Life consists of solving divergent problems which have to be 'lived'. The true problems of living - in politics, economics, education, marriage, etc. - are always problems of overcoming or reconciling opposites. They are divergent problems and have no solution in the ordinary sense of the word. 

They force people to bring love, beauty,  goodness, and truth into their lives. It is only with the help of these higher forces that the opposites,  that are an inevitable part of divergent problems,  can be reconciled in real life situations. These are problems that cannot be soled by employing reason alone. To have to grapple with divergent problems tends to be exhausting, worrying, and wearisome. Hence people try to avoid them and to run away from them. 

Convergent problems on the other hand do not exist in reality but are created by a process of abstraction. The solution can be written down and passed on to others, who can apply them without needing to reproduce the mental effort necessary to find them. Convergent problems may even require difficult brainwork, but they do not call for straining to a higher level which is the specific challenge of a divergent problem.  Modern education deals mostly with convergent solutions which comes with a big price - the loss of all higher forces to ennoble human Life.

Allen Shawn said, ‘Indeed the presence of outstanding strengths presupposes that energy needed in other areas has been channeled away from them.' Conversion of divergent problems into convergent problems results in the degradation not only of the emotional part of our nature, but also of our intellect and moral character. Schumacher shows this tendency with an extract from Darwin's Autobiography:

'Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it', wrote Charles Darwin in his autobiography, 'poetry of many kinds ... gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. 

But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost almost any taste for pictures or music.... My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. ... 

The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.'

Schumacher gives an example of this phenomenon which has had negative consequences in the modern world. Keynes said, 'For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still.' When great and brilliant men talk like this we cannot be surprised if people are losing the ability to distinguish between fair and foul. Schumacher writes:

That avarice, usury, and precaution (i.e. economic security) should be our gods was merely a bright idea for Keynes: he surely had nobler gods. But ideas are the most powerful things on earth, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that by now the gods he recommended have been enthroned.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 10a

‘School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.’ - Ivan Illich 

Much reliance is today being placed in the power of education to enable ordinary people to cope with the problems thrown up by scientific and technological progress. The modern way of life is becoming ever more complex: this means that everybody must become more highly educated.  But subjects like science and engineering produce only 'know-how'; 'know-how' is nothing by itself; it is a means without an end.  Education should mean something more than mere training, something more than mere knowledge of facts. As Daniel Kahneman says in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore the extent of our ignorance. 

Many people believe that education makes people more enlightened, accepting and more humane. It’s almost like they believe that education is the saviour of the human race. If only we could learn this or that, or teach this or that, THEN all will be well in the world.  This is a fallacy. Modern education only enables wicked people to be more cunning in their wickedness. But the idea that education is what wicked people need to make them better is surprisingly common.

Educated people have caused untold miseries to large numbers of people through their fancy ideas like social Darwinism or medical procedures like frontal lobotomy. Many of the vicious, misogynist, jingoistic comments by trolls on Twitter are by college-going students. More than 95% of the causalities in riots in India have been in cities, where the majority of the educated live, and not in the villages, where the majority of the population lives. These riots are orchestrated and  directed by the educated. 

A Lancet study pointed out the disturbing possibility that recent increases in literacy and Indian per-person income might have contributed to increased selective abortion of girls. I heard in a talk by the Dalai Lama that over 200 million people were killed by violence in the last century and most of these were at the hands of educated people. Educated people seem to be more likely to drool over terrible weapons that cause immense destruction somewhere far away and over the costly ceremonials of state power. 

Many of the vicious Nazis were Germany's educated upper class, and their education did not make them more moral. In fact it was the uneducated soldiers who more often objected to the horrific orders handed down to them. Being more educated and advanced enabled us to split the atom, which was great, but it also illustrates the fact that education gives people power to magnify what they would otherwise have done: hurt (e.g. nuclear warfare) or help (e.g. nuclear energy and medical application). In The Educationist as Painkiller (pdf) ,  Neil Postman writes: 

The teaching profession, it grieves me to say, has generated dozens of . . . superstitions — for example, the belief that people with college degrees are educated, . . . For me, the most  perilous of all these superstitions is the belief, expressed in a variety of ways, that the study of literature and other humanistic subjects will result in one’s becoming a more decent, liberal, tolerant, and civilized human being. 

Whenever someone alludes to this balderdash in my presence, I try to remind myself that during the last two decades men with Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences, many of them working for the Pentagon, have been responsible for killing more people in any given week than the Mafia has managed since its inception.

On average, the educated and uneducated don't seem to be very different when it comes to basic human values. Knowing more about protons or perfect markets doesn't seem to help in this regard. Education merely enables people to be more resourceful in doing whatever they wanted to do anyway. People with a genuine desire to do the things that we think are  good, caring and helpful are able to do so all the more thanks to a good education. C S Lewis says in  The Abolition of Man, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” 

The first task of education should be the transmission of ideas of values. It is foolish to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them. Our mind is already filled with all sorts of ideas and this makes us  think that we know what to do with the immense power that science gives us. Thinking is generally the application of pre-existing ideas to a given situation. In modern times no importance  has been given to the study of the ideas which are used to interpret facts. In Small is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher writes: 

Economics is being taught without any awareness of the view of human nature that underlies present-day economic theory. In fact, many economists are themselves unaware of the fact that such a view is implicit in their teaching and that nearly all their theories would have to change if that view changed.