February 2021
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A Way Out

I was asked on Facebook how I would move people toward learning how to talk about politics. My answer grew too big for a Facebook comment, so I’m posting it here:

As for what can be done right this second, yes, participating in and encouraging civil and serious discussion is the way to go. One reason I recommend this is because serious discussions make us reflect: “Was my answer really good enough? Did I take everything into account? Maybe I am missing something? But what could it be?” And, especially if we share these struggles with each other, then we model that it’s okay not to know everything, and we encourage better thinking in ourselves and in our interlocutors.

Another reason is: Facebook is a medium that’s hostile to reason. It’s also tremendously important and influential. I think good discourse should crowd out the bad, if possible. And I’m not sure it’s not possible yet.

I’m actually very curious: if people just did more of this, would they discover on their own how inadequate their thinking has been? Would they consequently abandon the meme tossing, and hit the books? I’ve never seen it, so I can’t say. But I don’t discount the possibility.

Beyond this, I’m still working out for myself just how I can best move people toward learning how to talk about politics. I haven’t yet formed a detailed opinion on how people in general can effect positive changes here. The great difficulty is that merely understanding what people need to learn doesn’t get you all the way to helping them do it.

That said, whatever rhetorical strategy I might come up with would certainly take these factors into account:

First, the problem isn’t primarily about politics. It’s about method. People don’t know how to think, in general. Their difficulties with politics are direct extensions of their difficulties with epistemology. To get to clear thinking about politics, people must first learn how to get to clear thinking in general. How do they do that? Through the deliberate study of method.

Second, everyone already has a method for arriving at opinions, whether they recognize this about themselves or not, and whether they arrived at it formally or not. It’s tremendously helpful, I’ve found, to recognize that red teamers tend to share one epistemology, blue teamers another, and Aristotelians (such as myself) a third. Because of this, blue teamers probably need totally different kinds of improvements to their method than red teamers do. (Aristotelians, if they need to improve their method, need to do it in still another way.)

What are these characteristic methods? They can be categorized by their attitudes toward integration. Integration (roughly) is the mental process of taking MANY factors and arriving at ONE conclusion. In general, blue teamers are uncomfortable with integration. Red teamers are very comfortable with it, but want their conclusions to conform to a “higher reality” of some kind. Aristotelians are just as comfortable with integration as red teamers, but don’t believe in any higher reality, and therefore are more fastidious about which factors in regular reality should be included in an integration.

This is why blues emphasize statistics and expert opinion: they don’t think individuals can ever adequately take into account all the MANY factors that are relevant to complex issues. They don’t trust individuals to make decisions for themselves that could affect the community as a whole. Therefore, they step back and want to let the experts handle both the gathering of data and the design of policy based on that data. But they also don’t trust conclusions, so they want all conclusions to be provisional and subject to continual renegotiation, usually through the democratic process.

Reds tend to emphasize both individual judgment and eternal principles when coming to a decision about policy. This is because there’s ONE true answer to any question, and many of the important questions’ answers are given to us by God. The complexity of the world is not overwhelming, because integration works for individuals.Single individuals are more than capable of understanding everything they need to understand before making informed decisions, even if those decisions, in the aggregate, will have a massive effect on the community as a whole.

Aristotelians are so few in number, they have no recognized voice in public discourse.

This has all been a massive oversimplification, of course, but it gestures in the right direction. I’ll just point out, to avoid a possible later confusion, that Marxists are a pro-integration minority within the blue team, and, with respect to method, they have much more in common with red-team Christians than with Aristotelians or with other blue teamers.

These characteristic methods should be taken into account when trying to reach out to someone and help them to improve their method.

The third factor that a good general rhetorical strategy would take into account, I think is that not everyone is equally ready to begin working on their method. If someone’s interested in methodological questions, they’re a good candidate for learning and growth. If they scoff at the necessity of improving their method, they’re probably not a good investment. Focus on people on all teams who are especially intellectually curious.

The last factor I want to mention is the magnitude of the problem. I think it’s huge. A typical college-educated person is years of study away from holding a single competent political opinion.

To sum all this up: a good general strategy for helping people to improve their thinking on politics would be to guide them toward a focus on improving their general method of thinking. It would take into account that they already have methodological habits, and it would be tailored to address them. It would take a long-range approach, and not expect easy victories, but rather slow and difficult progress.

Huge caveat: once a person passes a certain threshold of intellectual curiosity, all this rhetorical daintiness can be tossed out the window. If someone really wants to understand politics, and they’re willing to seriously consider the possibility that a rigorous study of method (epistemology) is an essential means to that end, then they don’t need to be guided through the normal convalescent process. Instead, they can just read a few books. I’m hesitant even to mention them, however, because I realize that there’s something I haven’t mentioned yet:

I spent a good portion of my intellectually formative years puzzling over a single question: Why don’t people seem to care whether their opinions are actually true? And I became progressively more convinced that this was because, either at a very early age, or perhaps even at conception, mankind gets divided in two: those who care about the truth, and those who just want to get along. And this was a bit depressing.

And then I became a teacher. As a result of my experiences there, I started to take very seriously an alternative hypothesis: that our natural interest in the truth is systematically suppressed. I now consider this more plausible than the some-of-us-are-just-less-human-than-others hypothesis.

And this is finally what we are up against in politics, I think: Very clever people have designed important institutions, notably education and mass media, to exploit certain inherent human vulnerabilities. This is rather vague sounding, so let me give a specific example. Bill Gates, in his support for the Common Core, is trying to improve education. I believe this effort of his is genuine and benevolent. I also believe, unbeknownst to himself, that he supports this kind of education because, if it worked out, public schools would churn out more workers suited for the kind of work that gets done at Microsoft. He doesn’t perceive, I don’t think, this conflict of interest: the kinds of workers ideally suited to working for Microsoft are just the kinds of workers ill-suited to start their own firms.

School promotes institutional thinking. Institutional thinking is deep in a niche and shallow everywhere else. It keeps the big picture obscure. It promotes citizens that understand, say, the dangers of climate change very well, but are helpless to put those dangers in any larger context. Because the kind of thinker who makes a good project manager at Microsoft, but who would never conceive of a new, user-friendly OS, is the same kind of thinker who sees the dangers of ocean acidification, but cannot conceive of the dangers of political remedies to this problem.

Every aspect of public intellectual life is a hall of mirrors. Anyone who wants to see the big picture has to smash the mirrors and get outside. And Gates and Zuckerberg and their ilk don’t want us outside. So a sincere desire to improve one’s thinking is not, I’d guess, enough. It has to be a desire strong enough to overcome a whole world that’s telling you to put the books down and get with the program, already.

That said, these are the books I’d tell myself to read in order to get out:

  1. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand. Optional, but highly recommended. Pay special attention to how popular opinion is managed by the story’s villain, but the main reason (in the present context) to read this book is to get a sense for what an Aristotelian ethos feels like.
  2. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand. Introduces an original, but Aristotelian way of understanding the big picture. Pros: a page-turner. Cons: highly stylized writing, often mistaken for a clumsy attempt at more conventional prose. There’s a big speech near the end that must not be skipped or skimmed, although most readers seem to. Many adult readers will struggle to take this book seriously, unless a concerted effort is made. It’s worth that effort, and then some.
  3. For the New Intellectual, Ayn Rand. Read the title essay only. It’s not going to make a whole lot of sense, but read it anyway. As with all of her nonfiction, take copious notes.
  4. The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand, et al. This presents Rand’s ethics. Understanding these ethics is prerequisite to understanding her politics.
  5. Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, Ayn Rand, et al. Presents Rand’s politics.
  6. Philosophy: Who Needs It, Ayn Rand. Probably the single most useful book for understanding contemporary politics, or contemporary intellectual life in general. Nearly incomprehensible without a firm grounding in her philosophy.
  7. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ayn Rand. Very technical, although not a hard read. Totally necessary. Do not skip under any circumstances.
  8. The Ominous Parallels, Leonard Peikoff. Explains why Hitler happened, and why the U.S. is headed the way of the Weimar Republic. Essential first step in learning to apply a broad philosophical framework to cultural analysis.
  9. The DIM Hypothesis, Leonard Peikoff. Like a cheat sheet for understanding how everyone around you thinks. Totally incomprehensible without having read and thoroughly digested most of the above.
  10. Understanding Objectivism, Leonard Peikoff. Clears up a number of common misunderstandings. Highly, highly recommended, although optional.
  11. Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff. A summary of Rand’s philosophy. Optional, but it’s the only way to get the whole thing in one piece. This book is not useful as an introduction to Rand’s thought, so do not, under any circumstances, start here.

At this point, you have a number of options. You can delve into criticism of Rand’s work, or you can try to build a foundation in red-team and blue-team fundamentals that matches the Aristotelian-team fundamentals outlined in the books above. If you decide to delve into Rand criticism, be aware that almost all of it written before 2010 is garbage. I can recommend only three works of criticism:

  • Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge, Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox eds.
  • Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue: Studies in Ayn Rand’s Normative Theory, Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox eds.
  • Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand, Roderick T. Long.

And that’s about it. Your question really merits and requires a book-length answer, and this certainly isn’t it. But it’s, as I said above, a gesture in the right direction. If it seems I’ve suggested resources for becoming expert in one particular philosophy, rather than for improving thinking in general, it isn’t so. Not only does one have to start somewhere, but, the Objectivist / Aristotelian framework has the advantage of being very tightly integrated. It’s a model, whether one ultimately accepts its conclusions or not, of coming to see the one in the many.

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