silent moving pictures
Beg, Steal or Borrow?
Today I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion of my friend Rob Miner’s new book Nietzsche and Montaigne.
Slow News Day?
I Got No Time for Hangin’ Around Them Kind of Things
Words Are Meaningless and Forgettable
I tweet too much; I know that not just because of the sheer number of these short messages I’ve sent, but also because I’ve noticed over the last few years that I form thoughts in 140-character bursts. I think in tweets.
Then, suddenly this week, everyone was granted 280 characters, and we were left with screens filled with huge blocks of text instead of a few sentences. Few users are happy about the change, and more than a handful warn that it could render the social media service unusable.
Learning how to write in 140-character bursts is therefore a job skill for many in journalism, and has almost certainly changed the way writers do their work.
Twitter has changed the way we think and has changed the way we express ourselves, and by expanding to 280 characters, I fear it will become a victim of its own success. Because for all of its benefits, Twitter has also helped shorten our attention spans—which makes us even less willing to read 280-character blocks of text.
It may be time to contemplate the political fallout in America if Donald Trump fails as president and the American people decide to expel him from the White House. The most likely result will be a pronounced lurch to the left. Get ready for an American version of socialism.
If he fails, the Democrats will ride to power under a likely banner of liberal populism and European-style socialism. Can they govern successfully under that banner? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take power under it. Thus, if Trump can’t get his act together and galvanize the independent vote through presidential performance, his greatest legacy could be the most pronounced leftward lurch in the country’s history.
Even as Venezuela falls deeper into crisis, and the former Soviet bloc nations groan under its legacy, socialism is coming back, and in a big way. Its key supporters are not grizzled pensioners yearning for Marxist security, but a whole new generation, most of whom have little memory of socialist failure.
On the surface, the analytics look good for a socialist revival, particularly in the wake of the almost certain failings of Trump’s ersatz populism. A large number of young people, in both Britain and America, have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. They never witnessed the failures of the past and they are reeling under present conditions. And given that many older people feel their children face a diminished future, building a majority for socialism is not inconceivable.
These economic positions could gain a majority…
…but not if the progressives maintain their polarizing embrace of the most radical aspects of social identity and environmental policy.
This in particular threatens to undermine working-class support, particularly in the interior states. The leftists’ thinly disguised distaste for how most Americans live small towns and suburbs does not help make their case.
Until the left decides to focus on the everyday issues that matter to people outside their bubble, the dream of the socialist revival will remain a fantasy.
There Was No War But the Culture War, I Was Ready to Set the World on Fire
What’s clear is that the people buying from you and working for you want to know if you’re on their side. Or not. They want to know if you’re doing something to make the world better. Or not. And they will reward — or ignore or perhaps even boycott — you accordingly.
This is our new marketing reality, and cultural values are marketing’s new table stakes. Few are the brands who court controversy as a matter of strategy. But in today’s landscape, avoiding taking sides and bringing your cultural values to life to avoid controversy is a fast track to irrelevance.
Yes, “doing well by doing good” is a decades-old truism. But showing the world what you stand for (and occasionally against) is now as important, efficient and effective an eyeball-grabbing platform as exists. To win today’s battles for attention — as in, relevance, engagement, resource allocation and return — you’d better let people know whose side you’re on.
Today, brands can be neither quiet, defensive nor isolated. They have to be proactive, and they have to stand for something — for both the world’s and their own good.
Walk Like a Man
A few years ago, politicians in Berlin made headlines for their attempts to bring gender equality to their city’s crosswalk signals. They wanted to create an “Ampelfrau,” or “traffic light woman,” a female counterpart to the iconic “Ampelmann” invented in East Germany in the 1960s. It became clear right off the bat that Ampelfrau would be laden with biases and complications that Ampelmann escapes. In her motion requesting Ampelfrau, Social Democrat District Leader Martina Matischok-Yesilcimen specified that the figure should represent a self-assured, modern-day woman, yet without any “sexist stereotypes” — meaning no ponytails or skirts, and definitely no high heels or mini skirts — according to the Local.
Sofie, Ampelfrau and other female-designed crosswalk symbols do challenge a male-centric worldview just by existing. They occupy a crucial space in our roadways, where we are required to look at them in their skirts and ponytails, reminding us that there are people besides men and perspectives besides men’s perspectives. However, they simultaneously highlight the difficulty of dismantling that worldview.
For Wade, creating female crosswalk icons — even if it requires us to use imperfect, clichéd markers of femininity — is inherently valuable because it challenges the male-centeredness of our public space.
“It would force men to see themselves in that ‘walking woman,’” she says. “That is actually a really profound thing, because it requires men to see female people as human beings, just like they are.”
So are Amersfoort, Valencia and others wasting (albeit minimal) resources on feminized crosswalk signals? Are these cities attempting to treat a symptom of sexism and hoping it will cure the disease?
So if there is a perfect feminist crossing signal design, we may have many more streets to cross before we find it.
We Care a Lot About You People ‘Cause We’re Out to Save the World
From Condorcet and Comte down to their latter-day disciples like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, rationalists have dreamed of turning ethics into a science. If only ethics could be turned into a quantifiable, data-driven exercise, then knowing the right thing to do in any given circumstance would be a simple matter of plugging objective numerical values into a mathematical formula, a technique that could be mastered and used by anyone, with none of this primitive, inefficient, peasant superstition about “wisdom” which can only be gradually acquired over time, through trial and error, and by listening to boring old elders and their interminable stories.
As it happens, though, ethics is more like an exclusive nightclub named Dunbar’s Number, guarded by glowering, musclebound bouncers. “The right thing to do” involves flesh-and-blood people in specific relationships based in particular contexts, not abstract people in an abstract world. There is no a priori answer to every moral dilemma, unless you’re a believer in predestination or absolute determinism.
Let’s stare in amazement as Adam Waytz attempts to square this circle:
In fact, there is a terrible irony in the assumption that we can ever transcend our parochial tendencies entirely. Social scientists have found that in-group love and out-group hate originate from the same neurobiological basis, are mutually reinforcing, and co-evolved—because loyalty to the in-group provided a survival advantage by helping our ancestors to combat a threatening out-group. That means that, in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love. Empathy is a zero-sum game.
Absolute universalism, in which we feel compassion for every individual on Earth, is psychologically impossible. Ignoring this fact carries a heavy cost: We become paralyzed by the unachievable demands we place on ourselves. We can see this in our public discourse today. Discussions of empathy fluctuate between worrying that people don’t empathize enough and fretting that they empathize too much with the wrong people. These criticisms both come from the sense that we have an infinite capacity to empathize, and that it is our fault if we fail to use it.
People do care, newspaper editorialists and social-media commenters granted. But they care inconsistently: grieving for victims of Brussels’ recent attacks and ignoring Yemen’s recent bombing victims; expressing outrage over ISIS rather than the much deadlier Boko Haram; mourning the death of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe while overlooking countless human murder victims. There are far worthier tragedies, they wrote, than the ones that attract the most public empathy. Almost any attempt to draw attention to some terrible event in the world elicits these complaints, as though misallocated empathy was more consequential than the terrible event itself. If we recognized that we have a limited quantity of empathy to begin with, it would help to cure some of the acrimony and self-flagellation of these discussions. The truth is that, just as even the most determined athlete cannot overcome the limits of the human body, so too we cannot escape the limits of our moral capabilities.
We must begin with a realistic assessment of what those limits are, and then construct a scientific way of choosing which values matter most to us.
That means we need to abandon an idealized cultural sensitivity that gives all moral values equal importance. We must instead focus our limited moral resources on a few values, and make tough choices about which ones are more important than others. Collectively, we must decide that these actions affect human happiness more than those actions, and therefore the first set must be deemed more moral than the second set.
Once we abandon the idea of universal empathy, it becomes clear that we need to build a quantitative moral calculus to help us choose when to extend our empathy. Empathy, by its very nature, seems unquantifiable, but behavioral scientists have developed techniques to turn people’s vague instincts into hard numbers.
Basing our moral criteria on maximizing happiness is not simply a philosophical choice, but rather a scientifically motivated one: Empirical data confirm that happiness improves physical health, enhancing immune function and reducing stress, both of which contribute to longevity. Shouldn’t our moral choice be the one that maximizes our collective well-being? These data sets can give us moral “prostheses,” letting us evaluate different values side-by-side—and helping us to discard those lesser values that obstruct more meaningful ones. These approaches can help us create a universal moral code—something that can serve as a moral guide in all cases, even if we are not able to actually apply it to all people all the time.
As Arthur said via email:
My take-away is that the solution to our moral problems is to be happy. The only way to solve moral problems in a realistic way is to apply a data-driven hedonistic calculus — which is what a lot of amoral people do, anyway. There is something of an antinomy between morality as an absolute — “It’s the right thing to do, come hell or high water” — and morality as relativistic, based on trade-offs between consequences of this or that course of action. The antinomy between these two concepts of morality is itself a moral one. But it is also a philosophical question, and the problem with so many social scientists is their technocratic hubris. They assume science has solved or soon will solve the problems that philosophy could only speculate about, given that Kant and Plato, e.g., were cluelessly embedded in a primitive stage in history, bereft of the only means of testing philosophical hypotheses: lab testing and data-gathering. But philosophical questions keep coming back to bite them in the ass.
Utilitarian ethics are ruthlessly fixated on practical results — whatever is best for the greatest number of people. The problem with this position that it is not in itself necessarily moral: it is based on an unexamined assumption that everyone is a reasonable modern Liberal. and that what will make the greatest number of people happy could never be, for example, exterminating the Jews. Utilitarian and Marxist thinking converge here in consensus group-think, collectivist notions of happiness, and disregard or contempt for individual deviations from “the general good.” Both make claims to being scientific. Both are programmatically devoted to humane values such as social justice. And while it is Marxist “dialectical science” (along with Nazi “racial science”) that has produced totalitarian nightmares, there’s potential for a more laid-back dystopia in utilitarian thinking. Or perhaps we are going to end up with a dystopia that combines the best of 1984 with the best of Brave New World.
But who’s to say you can’t engineer efficient empathy-extension? And I’ll be interested to hear how that FBI-vs.-Apple dilemma is solved by neuroscientists and social psychologists. First, of course, they’ll need to poll the People using improved self-reporting techniques; image their brains to measure their anxiety-vs.-emotional security ratios; and use a software algorithm to produce a rigorous break-even analysis. The result will be a democratic (or at least demographic) moral decision, overseen by guess who? An elite cadre of scientists and social engineers. It’s not as if these disinterested people are motivated by any WILL TO POWER.
Where is Nietzsche when we need him?
Love alone is untouchable, one of the last frontiers where the ability to manipulate or shun an experience seems to be asking for too much – but why? Love is in many ways a chemical reaction, and when love causes intense suffering or conflicts deeply with other values, people who want a chemical solution should, providing they give informed consent, have one. Access to anti-love drugs could bring some of us closer to one of the core values of Western society: personal autonomy, and a future where we control our lives and become the people we most want to be.
By insisting that no one can opt-out of the love experience, suffering and all, we often ignore the very real damage that love can cause simply because the source of the damage is seen as so necessary.
A second effect of social mixing would be to generate a strong interest in the health and wellbeing of expectant mothers, which would ultimately translate into an interest in the social and biological welfare of everyone. Since any child might end up our own, we would provide the social and educational environments that would best enhance their development. Ghettos and slums would be an eyesore for us all. Poverty, drug, and alcohol addiction are already everyone’s problem, but this fact would be more meaningful than it is now. The child of that addict might be our biological child. Every victim of a drive-by shooting might be a member of our genetic family. Each of us would see the link between our fate and the fate of others.
Third, the superficial connection between colour and culture would be severed. Racism would be wiped out. Racial ghettos would disappear; children of all races would live in all neighbourhoods. Any white child could have black parents and any black child could have white parents. Imagine the US president flanked by his or her black, white, Asian and Hispanic children. Imagine if social mixing had been in effect 100 years ago in Germany, Bosnia, Palestine or the Congo. Racial, religious, and social genocide would not have happened.
Fourth, the plan accords with John Rawls’s concept of justice, introducing a welcome element of randomness into the advantages that each child can expect. At the present time, if you are a child of Bill Gates, you will have not only a genetic advantage but also a material one. Under a regime of social mixing, any baby could find herself the child of Bill Gates and enjoy the opportunity of optimally exercising whatever her genetic gifts might be. As for Bill Gates’s biological child, he might find himself the son of a barber, but with his natural genetic gifts he might make the most of a less than optimal educational environment.
You might claim that this bias itself is ‘natural’. It is so common as to seem part of our biological makeup. But subjugation of women was also common in primitive human cultures and remains so in many cultures today. Unnatural as it sounds, social mixing promises many advantages. If we are not willing to adopt it, we should consider carefully why. And if naturalness is the key, we should ask ourselves why on this matter, ungoverned nature should trump social cohesion.
With all that, can we raise children better? Yes. Rather than leave childrearing solely in the hands of one or two people, it would help everyone if we approached it more along the lines of the old African proverb: ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We should take alloparenting to the next level: quality and trained caregiving that is shared, continuous and, most important, mandatory.
Which is why Gheaus suggests that some non-parental care should be mandatory. If childrearing became more of a communal obligation, all children, whether subject to disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds or just bad parenting, would benefit. More people would be invested in their lives, and the children would be exposed to a variety of opinions and lifestyles that would enhance their budding autonomy. Having numerous caregivers would expose bad parenting earlier, too, and help to mitigate it. And as they grew into adulthood, children would be more likely to be compassionate – or at least open-minded – toward people whose beliefs and values differed from their parents’.
Aeon used to publish a higher percentage of interesting stuff. Lately, their target demographic seems to be the kind of people who think that the only problem with the utopian social engineering of Condorcet and Comte was the lack of modern technology and pharmaceuticals.