Wednesday, April 12, 2017

If Trump Was Serious About Putting America First, He Would Have Blocked Montenegro From Joining NATO

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump caused great consternation with his rhetoric regarding U.S. participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. With only four of the other 27 member states meeting the minimum threshold of spending two percent of their GDP on defense, Trump leveled sharp criticism against European cheap riding. Such criticisms were a cause for cautious optimism among Americans in favor of a more restrained foreign policy that prioritizes America’s interests. However, as is often the case when it comes to politics, rhetoric has failed to result in action, evidenced by Trump’s failure to prevent Montenegro’s accession into NATO. If Trump was serious about an agenda of “America First,” the Montenegrin membership treaty would have been the perfect opportunity to demonstrate it.

First, Montenegro is worthless to the United States as an ally and actually slightly increases the odds for confrontation with Russia. Montenegro’s armed forces of merely 2,000 personnel would play a negligible role in any conflict the U.S. could find itself in. In fact, the NYPD is over 17 times larger than the Montenegrin armed forces, and its budget is nearly half the GDP of the entire country. How the addition of such an insignificant military (to an alliance that is already too costly) advances American interests is certainly a mystery. Trump has said that he desires better relations with the Russians, yet admitting Montenegro into NATO will do nothing but antagonize them and lend support to their accusation that NATO is seeking to surround them and their ally Serbia.  

Moreover, Montenegro’s accession to NATO serves European interests, not those of the American people. While Montenegro is useless to American security, its membership in NATO has great meaning to the people on both sides of the Atlantic who value NATO as a method of spreading liberal Western institutions. To them, adding Montenegro would hopefully demonstrate that NATO is not obsolete, and that it still has an open door to countries like Georgia and Ukraine (much to the chagrin of the security-minded Russians).

Montenegro’s membership created perfect leverage to incentivize European members to increase their defense expenditures. As president, Trump could have withdrawn the treaty from the Senate (where it has been awaiting approval since last summer) and said he will not submit it again until more Europeans have met their defense spending obligations. Likewise, such a move could also be used as leverage domestically against more hawkish members of Congress such as John McCain, who recently declared that Rand Paul was “working for Vladimir Putin” when Paul temporarily blocked the treaty in the Senate.   

But instead of doing any of that, Trump did nothing and simply let the Senate approve the treaty. Letting Montenegro into NATO without so much as a peep from Trump will only weaken his negotiating position and communicate to the Europeans that despite Trump’s protestations, they can continue to expect a free lunch from the U.S. per usual.

Trump has claimed innumerable times that he is great at making deals. His handling of the situation with Montenegro seems to indicate otherwise. Rhetoric is no substitute for action, especially when such action is easy and has very little cost. Trump dropped the ball on an easy win, and this doesn’t bode well for future success in more difficult circumstances.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Neo-Machiavellianism and Rogue One

Several critics have noted Rogue One’s departure from the rather stark black and white conflict between good and evil in the main Star Wars storyline. While some viewers have praised this grayness, other critics have lambasted this turn away from the simple morality of the main series. In a review entitled “Why the New ‘Star Wars’ Movie Could Use Some moral Clarity,” Charles Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, condemns the film for “overturning previously black/white judgments about certain actions” and concludes that “‘Star Wars’ has a moral responsibility to live up to its longtime charge of teaching children that, while people often have various levels of ambiguity, the same cannot be said of certain gravely evil actions that should be always and everywhere condemned.” Similarly, although with less condemnation, Matthew Gault writes at Motherboard that “Even the Good Guys in ‘Rogue One’ Are Bad.”

By what might be considered the widely accepted moral framework of our time, such critics might be correct in their condemnation of the moral message portrayed in Rogue One, and, in fact, given some of the extremely subversive messages at play in the film, it is surprising that more critics have not spoken out against it. For, when it is all said and done, Rogue One is a film about a moral framework that places immense and, when one is honest, terrifying responsibilities of discernment upon the individual. And as the film so aptly shows, there are no easy answers, and sometimes, no matter how hard one tries, one still ends up choosing incorrectly.

The best way to describe this framework would be as Neo-Machiavellian. Machiavelli, the renaissance politician, and political theorist, often gets a bad rap for supposedly being a “preacher of evil” or at least advocating amoralism when it comes to politics. This perception is due, in no small part, to Machiavelli’s own words, such as when he explicitly states that it is necessary “to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it as necessity dictates.” However, when one examines Machiavelli with more nuance, it is possible to expand upon his core points into what one might call a Neo-Machiavellian moral framework.

At its core, Neo-Machiavellianism would argue, in the words of political theorist Claes Ryn, that whether he recognized it or not, Machiavelli “is, in effect, not so much exempting politics from morality in tough situations as attempting to to redefine political morality.” Machiavelli speaks of effective truth, in contrast to imagined truth, because he is interested in the truth that “leads to action in the world,” as Machiavelli translator, Wayne Rebhorn, has noted. This real world action is what is at the core of a Neo-Machiavellian moral analysis. In The Prince Machiavelli notes that “in the actions of all men… where there is no appeal, one looks at the outcome." In other words, one must judge the morality of an action by the results that were brought about by the action, not by the intent behind it, or by its adherence to certain abstract principles that are considered to be good in a vacuum.  

Machiavelli urges his reader to acknowledge that humans live in the real world that is inhabited by less than perfect people. In The Prince, he writes that "the distance is so great between how we live and how we ought to live that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation; because a man who wants to make a profession of goodness in everything is bound to come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince, if he wants to preserve himself, to learn how not to be good, and use this knowledge and not use it as necessity dictates." This passage exemplifies the way in which Neo-Machiavellians view Machiavelli as redefining political morality, even though he still operates under the framework of conventional morality.

Whereas Machiavelli at least claimed that what he was urging the ruler to do was something bad, he argued that it was needed, in the end, for the greater good. However, the Neo-Machiavellian would instead argue that such actions are not actually evil at all, but since morality is determined by “looki[ng] at the outcome,” actually good and moral actions that should be carried out, despite their departure from conventional morality. Claes Ryn explains this difference as being that “the point is not that the end justifies the means and that evil means are permissible provided they are for a good end. A good end can only be achieved through good means. Our point is that lying, deceit, violence and other actions which are scorned by the conventional morality of civilized society can be substantively moral, i.e., good, in some circumstances.”

This definition of morality is much more demanding of the individual than the conventional morality based on ahistoric and abstract universal moral ideals that are applicable in all times and places. If one believes it is in all times and all places wrong to kill someone, then one must never wrestle with the decision of whether or not the decision to kill someone would be the correct choice in a specific circumstance. The conventional morality also frees its adherents from questioning the results of an action; one must simply follow the principle, regardless of the outcome. How much more difficult things are for the neo-Machiavellian who must strive to discern what the morally correct action is in each individual circumstance, knowing that since an action’s morality is judged not by the intent behind it, but by its results, it is all too easy to make mistakes and miscalculations.

Rogue One provides the perfect scenario in which to observe a Neo-Machiavellian moral framework in use, and likewise to observe the way in which such a framework requires a much higher level of moral responsibility and discernment than conventional morality.    

One of the most contentious moments of Rogue One is when Cassian Andor, the Rebel Intelligence agent, shoots one of his informants in the back in order to escape from the Imperials. In any conventional moral framework, such a dastardly deed would certainly be viewed as wrong. However, a Neo-Machiavellian, recalling The Prince, would instead look to the outcome of an action in order to evaluate its morality. Cassian clearly believes that it is necessary to kill his informant to avoid the Imperials realizing what a large intelligence leak has occurred. If he followed conventional morality, he risked the lives of trillions of beings across the galaxy.

Yet, as Cassian realizes, there is no way of knowing for sure if his decision was the correct one. Perhaps the Imperials would find out the information another way, or perhaps they already knew the extent of the intelligence breach.  If so, then Cassian’s killing was pointless. Cassian clearly stated that he and other members if Rebel Intelligence had done numerous unseemly things in service to the Rebellion. The morality of those actions hinged upon the outcome they brought about.

In an attempt to do what they believed was right (and all of their dark deeds being rendered meaningless), the members of call sign Rogue One took matters into their own hands and disobeyed direct orders and launched the operation on Scarif. This leads to the very clear moral theme of Rogue One: that moral responsibility and agency can never be transferred or given up.

Conventional morality has largely enshrined authority and authority figures, to such an extent that, as the Milgram experiments demonstrated, some regular people will follow orders to the point of killing someone else, even though they believe it is wrong. However, in Rogue One, we see numerous instances of people flouting authority in order to do what they believe is right. We see Cassian disobey direct orders to assassinate Galen Erso, and then commit mutiny when hatching the plan to infiltrate Scarif. We see Admiral Radus also completely disregard the Rebel chain of command’s instructions not to attack and bring an entire Rebel battle group along with him. When she learns of the infiltration, Mon Mothma encourages General Antoc Merrick to join the attack, effectively abandoning any pretense of holding onto the established rules of the Rebel Alliance. Similarly, we learn that Saw Gerrera had broken off from the main Rebel Alliance and had charted his own course when he came to believe that the Alliance leadership was in error.

Had the 
heroes of the story adhered to conventional morality the Death Star plans never would have been recovered and countless trillions more beings would have perished under the Imperial yoke. Yet, as the film so magnificently portrays, exercising one’s moral agency can come at an immense cost. The decision to infiltrate Scarif led to the loss of large amounts of vital Rebel ships and material, not to mention the thousands of lives that were lost on both the battle in space and on the planet’s surface. Had the mission not succeeded, the entire attempt would have been nothing but a complete waste, a meaningless gesture that did no harm of consequence to the Empire.

The convenient thing about following conventional morality is that for the most part, one’s choices are already made. While surrendering one’s moral agency to following the conventional, one can easily make one’s self believe that one bears no responsibility for the outcome. While this belief, a Neo-Machiavellian would argue, is not true, it is certainly easy to believe that is the case (although certainly not always, as the heroic defection of Bodhi Rook demonstrates). Contrast such a veneer of moral surety with the moral conflict and uncertainty that comes with courageously grappling with the implications of one’s moral agency, as so many characters in Rogue One do. Taking responsibility for one’s actions, as opposed to merely following order or convention, makes one fully appreciate the vast amount of unknowns one faces when making a choice. Such uncertainty can be terrifying and maddening. One needs only to look at Saw Gerrera to see what the cumulative effect of years upon years of making difficult decisions, some of them incorrect, can do to a person. When one is simply following orders or convention one can always pass off the blame for mistakes and failures, but when one has embraced one’s moral agency, one has no choice but to confront the unfiltered consequences of one’s actions in an uncertain world. Clearly, such pressure drove even a hardened fighter such as Saw Gerrera to the brink of madness.      

In summary, a Neo-Machiavellian moral framework is comprised of two main components. The first is the idea that morality should not be based on abstract ideals or universalized principles applied to all times and all places. Rather, this moral framework posits that morality must be measured by the results. Wrong actions lead to evil results, while good actions lead to good results. Conventional morality does not contain the flexibility needed for dealing with the non-ideal and non-uniform that one must confront in the real world. The second component is that one bears ultimate moral responsibility for one’s actions. The Neo-Machiavellian has the moral courage and fortitude in order to accept this responsibility, rather than merely abandoning it behind the excuse of orders and conventions.

The moral themes portrayed by the characters in Rogue One overwhelmingly exhibit these traits. Whether it is carrying out assassinations, committing mutiny, or completely disregard the institutional framework governing the Rebel Alliance, the characters in Rogue One abandoned conventional morality in order to do what they believed was morally necessary. Likewise, they accepted the responsibility for their decisions and actions, even to the point of death.The heroes of the story had the moral courage and conviction to abandon the comfort of convention in order to do what they believed was right.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Rogue One and the Politics of Star Wars: A Response

Image result for rogue one rebel council

Recently, law professor Ilya Somin opined on the portrayal of political issues in the recent film, Rogue One at the Learn Liberty blog. In particular, Professor Somin criticizes the film for its failure to explain what the rebels are actually fighting to bring about, and for its harsh criticism of democracy that results in an alleged message of the superiority of heroes or “great men” to solve problems over good institutions of governance. Unfortunately, these critiques seem to largely be motivated as an attempt to criticize the election of Donald Trump, as the many analytical simplifications and factual errors indicate.

Somin recognizes the brutal nature of the Empire gives plenty of beings cause enough to fight against it, but claims that “we have almost no sense what they are fighting for. What kind of regime does the Rebel Alliance intend to establish if it wins?” He goes on to claim that “it is almost as if the rebels simply assume that, if the Empire is bad, virtually any alternative government is likely to be better.” This is a very weak assumption to make. As we already know from the previously released The Force Awakens, as well as the various canonical extra-film sources about the Star Wars Universe, the Rebel Alliance seeks to restore the Galactic Republic, that at least in the Star Wars Legends canon, had existed for nearly 25,000 years. This effort has unequivocally come to fruition in both the Legends version of the canon and the new Disney timeline.

What’s more, later in his analysis, Somin acknowledges that the Rebel Alliance has a governance structure. In the film itself, we see this shadow government’s Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Minister of Education, Shadow Minister of Industry, and Shadow Minister of Finance.    If one bothers to do a little digging into the expanded universe, one can easily find the official Declaration of Rebellion, clearly modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, that lays out exactly what the Rebel Alliance objects to and what their stated aims are. However, even without this explicit declaration, it is no mystery what the Rebellion is fighting for, to anyone with some familiarity of the Star Wars universe.

Somin compares the Rebel Alliance to the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions as being instances in which people opted for change because they mistakenly believed that nothing could be worse than the status quo. However, such comparisons seem to verge on the absurd. The denizens of the Star Wars Galaxy aren’t living in a place with nothing but centuries of despotic tzarist rule like Imperial Russia or Imperial China. 20 years prior to the events depicted in Rogue One, the Empire didn’t even exist. It would seem ludicrous if the inhabitants of the Star Wars Galaxy didn’t think this new tyrannical status quo could be replaced with something much better, i.e. a return to more or less the former status quo.             
Speaking of the rise of the Empire, this leads to Somin’s argument that Rogue One and the Star Wars universe as a whole, is too critical of democracy and instead elevates heroes and “great men” as being the answer to problems, as opposed to democratic institutions. This is a much more reasonable critique, although, in the context of the situation still seems to be off base.

Somin acknowledges that democracy has numerous flaws, (noting that he has written a book on voter ignorance) but posits that “history shows that institutional flaws are usually best addressed through institutional solutions, not by trusting in a few heroes or great leaders.” He goes on to say that “Star Wars would never have become a cultural icon if the Emperor were vanquished by the separation of powers or judicial review, instead of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia.”

Such a critique might make sense in different circumstances, but given the situation in Rogue One, it hardly seems fitting. Institutions are undoubtedly an essential part of preserving liberty, but sometimes they can clearly fail, as is the case in the Star Wars galaxy. Nearly all governing institutions have been swept aside or been rendered toothless by the Emperor, who was able to rise to power in the first place due to the decades-long decay and rot of the very institutions that Somin expects to somehow be able to reform themselves in the face of an authoritarian autocracy.   
This entire situation brings to mind the work of Machiavelli. In The Prince, Machiavelli encourages acting with flexibility according to “the times.” Different circumstances call for different measures. Machiavelli notes that if one acts in a similar manner all the time one will fail when circumstances change. Institutional reform may be called for when such a project would be feasible, but when institutions have collapsed other action is called for.

Some people discount The Prince as being merely satire, since Machiavelli was a republican and expressed such sentiments in his Discourses on Livy, yet, if one interprets The Prince literally, then Machiavelli is simply advocating what should be done in a time of crisis, which he clearly considers Italy to be in, given that the last chapter is entitled “An Exhortation to Seize Italy and Liberate Her From the Barbarians.”

Thus, if one were to adopt a Machiavellian framework, prior to the complete domination of the Empire would be the time to advocate for institutional reform in order to prop up and repair the collapse and rot all around, however, seeing how the collapse has already occurred, there is nothing is left to do but to adapt and strive to act according to “the times.” Machiavelli predicts and observes that men who fail to adapt their course of action to the nature of the times shall fail while those who correctly adapt to the nature of the times shall prosper.

It seems that, again unduly influenced by the Trump phenomena,  Professor Somin has confused individuals abandoning failing institutions and incorrect courses of action in order to act with what they believe to be the nature of the times, to be promoting the idea that we must trust “in a few heroes or great leaders” to save the day. In fact, I find that Rogue One promotes the exact opposite message!

In the film, we see the utter failure of leadership to save the day. What saves the day is individuals of low rank and status throwing off the idea that they are powerless and that one can simply surrender moral agency to collective institutions and organizations, even if one believes they will end in disaster. If the leadership of the Rebellion had their way, the Death Star would be simply unstoppable as planet after planet is obliterated across the galaxy. It was not the “great men” of the rebellion who saved the day, it was the small regular people who saw what must be done and did it, despite what the leaders said.

Rather than the message being that one must wait to be saved by heroes and great men, the message of Rogue One seems to be quite clear: everyone has the power to change the world by accepting responsibility for one’s actions and striving to do what one thinks is right.  

Machiavelli argues that Fortune controls half of our actions, but that we exert control over the other half. The more active in seeking to control our situation the more control we will have. He likens Fortune to the force of water, saying “she shows her power where there is no force (virtu’) organized to resist her and direct her onslaught there, where she knows that no embankments and dikes have been made to hold her.”

If and when the time comes where you are faced with a moral conundrum and will you abandon your moral agency to the excuse of institutions and collectives? Will you let Fortune run hither and thither unopposed? Or will you take responsibility for your actions and do what is necessary? Will you prepare dikes and levies for the future in order to resist Fortune and subdue her to your will?

In these uncertain times, this core message of individual moral responsibility and action in Rogue One is in great need. We should not let the Trump phenomena cloud the interpretation of what is one of the best Star Wars films and its positive and instructive lesson.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Technical Summary of Cognitive Dissonance

Given the continued political craziness that seems to be never ending, I thought that people might be interested in reading a technical summary of cognitive dissonance theory. This is a section of a paper I wrote (that I'm going to send to a journal someday, I swear) entitled "Cognitive Dissonance, Envy, and the Psychological Roots of Anti-Liberalism." A few of the professors who have been kind enough to read drafts of my paper have given me feedback that this section is very solid, hence, I am not reticent to put it out there. Hopefully it gives some people some food for thought and self-reflection, and as always I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

The citations refer to:

Festinger, Leon. 
A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1962. Print.
Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson. 
Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2007. Epub.

Cognitive Dissonance
            Cognitive dissonance is defined as “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.”[1] There are numerous ways this phenomenon manifests itself throughout one’s daily life, in the beliefs they hold and the actions they take. However, a state of dissonance creates psychological discomfort and a person experiencing it must attempt to deal with it in some way. Leon Festinger, who wrote A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, one of the earliest works on cognitive dissonance described two basic human reactions to cognitive dissonance. “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance” and secondly that “when dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will likely avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance.” The need to alleviate cognitive dissonance is no different than the need to alleviate hunger or any other such motivating factor. Therefore, “dissonance, that is the existence of non-fitting relations among cognitions, is a motivating factor in its own right” and cognition is “any knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, about oneself, or about one’s behavior.”[2] Simply put cognitive dissonance is therefore the motivation to reduce dissonance or in other words it “is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful.”[3]
            Festinger lists three ways in which it is possible for someone to reduce dissonance. These are to change one’s behavior, to change one’s environment, or to add new cognitive elements. Changing one’s behavior is among the simplest ways to reduce dissonance and entails reacting to new information about reality as it is perceived. Festinger’s usual example was smoking. If someone smoked and valued their health, they would experience dissonance upon learning that smoking was detrimental to one’s health. If the person chose to reduce dissonance by changing one’s behavior, they would simply cease to smoke therefore eliminating the dissonance caused by the contradiction between smoking and wanting to be healthy.[4]
            Changing one’s environment can be more difficult but is often a viable solution. Festinger notes that it is often easier to change one’s social environment than one’s physical environment. Whereas changing one’s behavior in response to dissonance caused by new information means acting upon the new cognition, changing one’s environment on the other hand, means modifying one’s surrounding circumstances so that one’s cognition is changed. The example of this response that Festinger uses is a person who is often hostile to people surrounding himself with people who often elicit hostile responses. This then means that his responses are not unwarranted and therefore he does not experience dissonance. It is important to note, however, that the ability for someone to change his or her environment, either social or physical, is often limited. Therefore, “some means of ignoring or counteracting the real situation must be used” in order to change one’s cognitive element without first changing reality. Festinger notes that at times this is impossible, using the example of someone standing in the rain being unable to alter the cognition that it is raining no matter “how strong the psychological pressures are to eliminate that cognition” and but that other times it can be easily achieved especially if a social pressure is present.[5]
            Finally, a person can introduce new cognitive elements that help to reduce the existing dissonance without eliminating it completely. This introduction can be done in several ways, one of which is by reducing the importance of existing dissonance. Festinger uses the example of a smoker reading literature that argues that smoking is not harmful or at least is not as harmful as other literature claims. Or he may compare the risks of smoking to one’s health to the risk of injury when traveling in a car and conclude that smoking is safer than driving in a car. Alternatively, it may be possible to reconcile two dissonance-causing cognitions. Festinger cites the example of the belief system of the Ifaluk society. It is a society-wide belief that people are good, yet children will exhibit violent tendencies. The Ifaluk reconcile this contradiction by introducing a new cognitive element, namely a claim that the children become possessed by “malevolent ghosts” that make the children to act violently.[6]
            Instead of eliminating or reducing dissonance it is also possible to avoid dissonance, or attempt to avoid dissonance, when attempting to form new cognitions. When seeking new information a person would tend to utilize only those sources of information, whether they be other people, books, or some other source, that would support the cognition in question and add to the person’s consonance.[7]
            When examining cognitive dissonance and its relevance to psychological causes for opposition to liberalism there are two factors as discussed by Festinger that must be discussed. These are the voluntary and involuntary exposure to data and the role of social support in changing one’s cognitions. Willingness to expose oneself to new information depends on whether or not the information is anticipated to create, or lessen dissonance and to what extent the magnitude of the dissonance has amassed. When there is very little or no dissonance, then factors other than whether or not the new information will cause dissonance will likely be the primary motivators. However, when dissonance is at moderate levels the person would likely take into consideration whether the new information will likely increase or decrease dissonance before deciding to expose themselves to it in order to strengthen consonance and reduce dissonance as much as possible. It is only when the magnitude of dissonance has built up enough to be close to surpassing the level of resistance to change that a person will likely expose themselves to dissonance increasing information. Once the level of dissonance has surpassed the level of resistance to change, then the person “will change the cognitive elements involved, thus markedly reducing or perhaps even wholly eliminating the dissonance which is now so great.”[8]
            According to Festinger, when a person is involuntarily exposed to dissonance causing information he can respond in three different ways. He may have an “initial understanding of the propaganda message followed by a circuitous line of reasoning which ends in misunderstanding.” This response means that a person experiencing dissonance from some new information would then attempt to separate his particular circumstance from the dissonance causing information and in the process come to understand the information in a way that does not cause dissonance. If the new information has been stated too clearly to permit misunderstanding then the person may simply dismiss the information, usually on a personal level, even while acknowledging its accuracy on a superficial level. Alternatively, a person may instead simply transform any new information so as to be compatible with his views and therefore not cause any more dissonance or in other words “issues presented in a frame of reference different from his own are transformed so as to become compatible with his own views.” Festinger speculates that people who have this reaction are likely to have already developed dissonance about whatever subject the new information is about and thus they would be more likely to have this instantaneous reaction as opposed to people who have the first two reactions who likely have not yet developed any significant dissonance about the subject of the new information.[9]
            As mentioned previously, positive social pressure can help to change or at least ignore certain cognitions and as it were help someone ignore reality. “The social group is at once a major source of cognitive dissonance for the individual and a major vehicle for eliminating and reducing the dissonance which may exist in him.”[10] In this context, however, the magnitude of the dissonance that arises when there is disagreement with others depends on two variables. The first is “the extent that objective, nonsocial, cognitive elements exist which are consonant with a given opinion, belief, or knowledge, the expression of disagreement will produce a lesser magnitude of dissonance.” So for instance if a person were to exclaim that it is a beautiful cloudless day and someone were to disagree and claim that it is grey and overcast, not very much dissonance if any at all would be created for the first person who is accurately ascertaining the reality of the weather. In contrast, it is noted that in situations where it is harder to ascertain the truth objectively (for instance the validity of a religion) then contrary views and opinions will lead to relatively more dissonance. The second variable is the number of people with whom one shares a belief or opinion. The more people who hold a belief in common with you, the greater the amount of consonance that is built up and the less dissonance that is encountered when there is a disagreement.[11]
            With these in mind Festinger lists three ways of reducing dissonance “stemming from social disagreement.” The first is to alter one’s own cognitions so that they are in alignment with the majority of other members of a social group. Festinger notes, however, that this only works if there is a clear majority and many people who hold the original cognition. The second way is by changing one’s social environment i.e., working to persuade other members of a social group to change their cognitions so they align with one’s own and thus removing the dissonance causing disagreement. Finally, dissonance can be reduced in a social setting if one is able to differentiate another person as not being “comparable to oneself.” The example Festinger uses is a person claiming the grass is green not experiencing dissonance when another person claims the grass is brown, because the first person is aware that the second person is colorblind.[12]
            Festinger notes a very important way in which the first way of reducing dissonance in a social setting can lead to a denial of reality. He uses an example of two people walking along when it starts to rain. Rather than acknowledging the rain, one of the people claims that it is not raining, but merely water blowing off the leaves of trees from a previous rain storm due to, for whatever reason, a strong dissonance with the cognition of it raining. If the other person was in tune with reality, they would likely reject this idea, however, if they were also experiencing strong dissonance then he would want to agree and deny that it is raining, and by doing so both people are able to reduce the dissonance created by denying that it is in fact raining. The more people who have a certain dissonance (in this case with rain) then the more people who will have an interest in denying reality in favor of the belief that water is blowing off of leaves and as a result will result in an easier process of denying that it is raining due to social reinforcement and the resulting decrease in dissonance. “If everyone believes it, it most certainly must be true.”[13]
            This phenomenon also leads to another observation of the importance of mass proselytizing. The more people who agree with one’s cognition, the easier it is to reduce any associated dissonance with said cognition. This phenomenon is especially applicable in cases where the dissonance causing information is particularly strong and cannot be modified and the only way to reduce the dissonance caused by the additional information is to introduce new cognitive elements that reduce dissonance as discussed above. One of the ways to do this is to strengthen consonance by surrounding oneself with other people equally interested in reducing dissonance. As a result mass proselytizing is incentivized in order to reinforce consonance and reduce dissonance. The more people who come to hold some belief, the greater the reduction of dissonance will be (although in cases involving the denial of reality it cannot be reduced completely).[14] 

[1] Tavris and Elliot, 21
[2] Festinger, 3
[3] Tavris and Elliot, 22
[4] Festinger, 19
[5] Ibid., 21 
[6] Ibid., 21-23 
[7] Ibid., 29-30
[8] Ibid., 126-130
[9] Ibid., 134-136
[10] Ibid., 177
[11] Ibid., 178-179
[12] Ibid., 181-182
[13] Ibid., 198-200
[14] Ibid., 200-202

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sodom, Gomorrah, and the 50 Righteous Men: Thoughts on DC Part 1

Washington DC, uh... I mean Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by God's wrath. 

Having finally made god my escape from the imperial city,  I can't help but reflect on the lessons I have learned from my time there. My main takeaway is on the people who live there. In the simplest form, there are people in DC working to promote liberty, and those working to promote the growth of government. There is no doubt that those in favor of expanding the power of government far outnumber those who desire to shrink it. DC is a festering sewer that serves as a heart of imperial darkness who's shadow stretches not just across the North American continent, but literally around the world, as the bureaucrats blinded by power dispatch their swarms of drones and missiles to lay waste to innocent villagers in the middle of nowhere. On the domestic front, nothing is beyond the reach of these tortured and mutated souls who are compelled to let no behavior or action escape their grip.

As the country drowns in debt and approaches bankruptcy, seven million working age men languish without jobs or purpose in life, foreign wars drag on without end, and the country continues to be divided and on a pathway to dissolution,  the party never stops in the imperial capital. As many people in the country struggle to get by, the ruling class and its army of servile minions live in 10 of the richest 15 counties in the country. What's even more outrageous, is that most of these people don't even do much of substance at all. The Federal Government is worse than useless, of course, but even many non-profit institutions in DC exist solely to collect money from people out in the provinces of the empire, telling them it will be put to good use fighting "the good fight" of course, which then will largely be used to fund salaries and travel that at the end of the day accomplish next to nothing other than paying for the widespread functional alcoholism that plagues the city so its pitiable inhabitants can find momentary reprieve from the dreary lives they hate living.

Don't just take my word on it, check out this excellent expose by a DC insider on how the conservative movement has been plagued by supposed activist groups that do little more than scam people out of their money when they trying to make a difference. Above, I said that my main takeaway was about the people in DC. However, in fuller context, I learned a great deal about the system that such people make up and am much savvier for the experience. It is hard to view much of the non-profit "work" in DC as anything other than a glorified welfare program for alcoholic nerds that is funded by goodhearted gullible people far away.

A city infested by so many wicked people brings to mind the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, not the part of the story that you might think. Genesis 18 tells us that God considered the inhabitants of the cities to be so wicked that they must be destroyed. At this moment, Abraham intercedes with God and asks if he will sweep away the righteous with the wicked and that if there were but fifty righteous people in Sodom would God destroy the city? God responds that he would not destroy the city for the sake of 50 righteous people. Abraham then asks if God would still destroy the city if only 45 righteous people dwelt there. God responded that he would not. Abraham repeats this several more times, asking if only 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 righteous people dwelt in the city, would God destroy it. God responded that he would not. In the end there aren't even that many righteous men and the city is destroyed. (Fun fact, the English word sodomy comes from this Biblical story because when God's messengers were staying with Lot, Abraham's nephew, the men of the city threatened to break into Lot's house so they could rape his guests.)

Now, how does this relate to DC? Surprisingly, because if DC was in the same place as Sodom and Gomorrah I don't think that one would need to argue God all the way down to ten people. There are a lot of good people in the city who are there for largely the right reasons and who are fighting the good fight.  How effective people are at advancing that fight is another question, but there are many good people there. I know many of them and am proud to call them my friends. I think that these people are, for the most part, resistant to participating in the scam because they are true believers who are motivated to advance their worldview and if it was up to me to argue with God to prevent him from obliterating the city, I would happily do so for their sake.

However, from my perspective, the DC liberty movement also has numerous problems that I think will have long term negative consequences and I will discuss that in my next post.