Ideas and Ideologies

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There’s one other thing to consider when it comes to maintaining your intellectual humility and not slipping into toxic argumentativeness, which is the question of whether it’s better to explore your ideas and opinions publicly or to do so privately. (This relates back to our earlier discussion of signaling behaviors – and we also touched on it briefly with Alexander’s guidelines for logical debates – but it’s worth focusing in on more explicitly here.)

It seems like all our worst tribal tendencies and absolutist patterns of behavior tend to become more pronounced in settings where the debate is taking place in front of an audience of some kind (e.g. social media, TV talk shows, opinion pages, etc.). If you’re just having a private one-on-one conversation with somebody, the tone is generally more civil and constructive; there’s more give-and-take between the two sides, there’s more of a genuine attempt to understand each other, and both sides typically feel freer to make concessions and change their views as needed. As soon as the debate enters the public eye, though – as soon as you bring a bunch of judgmental onlookers into the equation – the tone shifts. All of a sudden, there’s a kind of performative factor that’s introduced, and both sides instinctively start digging in and behaving in a way that’s more geared toward winning the argument and looking smarter than the other person. The signaling incentives start to outweigh the truth-seeking incentives.

Again, I think this is one of the main reasons why the popular discourse seems to have taken such a dramatic turn for the worse in recent years. With the rise of social media, YouTube, and the blogosphere, the majority of ideological debates are now (maybe for the first time ever) taking place in front of an audience – and accordingly, they’re more likely to produce overwrought grandstanding and finger-pointing than nuanced exchanges of ideas. Adam Kotsko shares his thoughts on the subject:

The internet [has become] a tool for judgment rather than dialogue.

[…]

Every status update and comment [on a social media platform like Facebook is] staged as a mini “hot or not” contest: Either you press “like” or pass over it in silence. [And] it turns out that making Facebook do anything but “hot or not” is hard. For instance, some people try to make it into a platform for sharing interesting links. But in practice, that effort devolves into the activity of passing judgment on those links – and more important, inviting others to pass that same judgment and thereby express approval of us. And in fact, this system of judgment is impossible to opt out of, because Facebook does not allow you to turn off comments or the numerical displays of “likes” and other emotional reactions. Facebook makes us all into the fictionalized [Mark] Zuckerberg [as depicted in the film The Social Network], awaiting a positive judgment from the chain of judgments we set off – or, more precisely, a positive assessment in the form of that chain. What is most “hot” turns out to be what is most viral. We measure our status by how far our internet-transmitted conditions have propagated themselves.

This leads to the much-discussed phenomenon of passing along links without reading them or checking their source. For Facebook users, the important thing isn’t typically to spread accurate information – after all, people in a given social circle often share the same links every day – but to elicit a reflection of our own correctness, whether it is expressed with smiley faces or frowny faces. We can tell we are correct by the fact that everyone approves of us, which is to say that everyone has caught the same virus. Self-expression and conformity strangely overlap as we compete to see who can be the most alike, meaning who can be the first to say “what we’re all thinking.”

Attempting to use Facebook as a discussion forum may seem to have better chances. Alongside the infrastructure of “liking,” we initially appear to have nothing but an empty box – a free-form discursive medium – that, when filled in, gives birth to a comment thread not unlike those found in nearly every internet discussion tool since Usenet. Here, too, however, the inertial pull of passing judgment is strong. Productive discussion requires at least a modicum of critical distance, a willingness to entertain unfamiliar or even opposed views for the sake of argument, but the Facebook interface throws up obstacles to this. Inscribed in the comment box itself is a little picture of you, making every comment personal – as much about you as about what is being said. Indeed, as you scroll down the page, you see your own picture over and over again, inviting you to propagate your image further and further. And when others appear in the comments to your status, the same dynamics apply as with shared links – they are an opportunity to pile on, either with praise or with abuse, reinforcing the mutual regard of the “hot.”

[…]

Whatever else the internet is, then, the hegemony of these forms of social media have turned it into an increasingly efficient machine for judgment – for passing judgment, for eliciting judgment, for soliciting judgment. And the more attention you attract, the more likely it becomes that you will face an overwhelming backlash of negative judgment. Andy Warhol famously asserted that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but he didn’t specify what form that fame might take. Were he still alive, he might now say that in the future, everyone will be hated by thousands of strangers for 15 minutes.

The pressure to perform in a way that will win the approval of others – and to avoid the loss of face that comes with failure to do so – doesn’t just influence people’s behavior on social media, either. The effect is so powerful that it can even drive them to physical violence in the real world. As Pinker notes:

Studies of American street violence […] have found that the presence of an audience doubles the likelihood that an argument between two men will escalate to violence.

And as Tim O’Brien reveals in his description of combat soldiers in Vietnam, this desire to avoid embarrassment and maintain a respectable self-image can override even the most fundamental human instincts, like self-preservation:

They were afraid of dying but even more afraid to show it. […] They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.

These are extreme examples, obviously. But the point is clear: The pressure of being judged by an audience can have an overwhelmingly distortionary effect on a person’s behavior. If your goal is to have dispassionate conversations, then, and to avoid situations that might cause either side to become emotionally invested in their arguments and act irrationally, it’s generally more productive to have those conversations in private – or if you can’t have them in private, to at least try to minimize the performative pressure as much as possible. You might not get as much social prestige from gently pulling someone aside and speaking with them privately as you would from publicly calling them out in a highly visible way, but you are more likely to actually change their views and/or learn something valuable yourself.

There’s another reason why I bring this up, though – a meta-reason, actually, concerning the writing on this site itself. After all, it’s kind of hard to apply the principles of private, pressure-free discussion to a platform like this one, which by definition is public and therefore subject to popular judgment. Still, I think there are ways to at least try to minimize the detrimental effects, so that’s what I want to try to do here. A lot of popular writing nowadays is geared toward embracing the public debate mentality and leaning into the pressures it creates; everybody is writing with the aim of pushing their views on their audiences and trying to make them agree with those views. I want to try a different approach, though; instead of trying to proselytize and convert readers to my worldview, I just want to lay out a basic description of what my worldview is and why I believe it, as if I were just dispassionately making a catalog of all my beliefs for reference purposes. Aside from this post you’re reading now, of course, which really is a prescriptive one where I’m trying to convince readers to agree with the ideas I’ve been describing (how to have better discussions, how to think more independently, etc.), I want to try and write about my more object-level beliefs (on religion, politics, etc.) in a way that’s more of just a straightforward summary – what I believe confidently, what I’m not so sure about, and so forth. (Of course, at some level I do want to convert people to my worldview, simply because I believe it’s true – it would be disingenuous to act like I didn’t want people to believe what was true – but that won’t be my sole reason for writing, at least.) I know that if I obsess too much over how my ideas will be received by some hypothetical audience, I’ll be tempted to pander or embellish too much in some areas while hedging or holding back too much in others – so instead I just want to write as if I’m writing for myself alone, in order to get my thoughts on paper and have an inventory of my beliefs that I can refer back to as needed. I’m sure I won’t be completely successful in the attempt (even in this post I already feel like I’ve been writing way too self-consciously), but to the best of my ability I want to see if I can treat this website simply as a platform for me to think out loud, so to speak, without any expectation that it should be anything more or less than that. By taking that approach – that I’m just describing my beliefs, not trying to convert anyone – my hope is that I’ll be able to write more easily and not be paralyzed by the fear of criticism or the pressure of trying to impress anyone. If I’m not entirely sure about a particular idea, I won’t have to feel like I’m committing myself to it just by bringing it up; I’ll be able to just throw it out there for discussion, mention my own ambivalence toward it, and see what everyone else thinks. As Film Crit Hulk puts it, I’ll be able to simply explore – “to share an idea and see where it goes. To discover more about the idea and see how it bounces off people and then learn even more after that.” And if I do get responses from people whose thoughts on the subject are different from my own, I won’t have to feel like I’ve planted my flag on a particular stance and am now compelled to defend it at all costs; I’ll be able to embrace the strongest of their critiques and incorporate them into my own position as a kind of ideological upgrade. Even better, if the person on the other side is taking a similar approach themselves, I’ll be able to work cooperatively with them – comparing ideas, learning from each other, and evaluating each other’s beliefs critically without having to worry about coming under attack for it. If neither of us is invested in trying to crush the other one or score cheap debate points, we’ll actually be able to put our heads together and help each other come to a better understanding of which of our ideas are well-founded and which are mistaken. And if the other person happens to be better-informed than I am, I’ll be able to use their knowledge to raise myself higher up that metaphorical mountain of understanding, rather than digging in my heels and resisting their insights to my own detriment.

Now, I realize that the prospect of putting your thoughts out there into the public eye for everyone to judge can be a tricky one. As Gary Klein notes, even just the expectation of having to share your thoughts can constrict your thinking at a subconscious level:

[Obsessively high standards for error avoidance] make us reluctant to speculate. The pressure to avoid errors can make us distrust any intuitions or insights we cannot validate.

In such a self-conscious mode of thinking, we’re less likely to come up with new insights or discoveries, because we don’t allow ourselves to take a more playful, freewheeling approach with our ideas. Instead of freely exploring all the most interesting possibilities, we just try to stay within the range of consensus opinion and only volunteer our “safest” ideas for judgment. And sure, this is a good way to avoid getting too much backlash for your ideas; but it also means that if there are any good ideas that happen to fall outside the consensus opinion, you’ll never be able to find them.

One solution, of course, is just to refrain from ever sharing your views in public altogether. Holiday describes one historical instance of this:

General George C. Marshall […] refused to keep a diary during World War II despite the requests of historians and friends. He worried that it would turn his quiet, reflective time into a sort of performance and self-deception. That he might second-guess difficult decisions out of concern for his reputation and future readers and warp his thinking based on how they would look.

Marshall’s self-awareness was admirable, given the situation he was in. Like Odysseus tying himself to the mast of his ship so he wouldn’t be able to act irrationally, Marshall’s decision to restrain himself from sharing his thoughts turned out to be the right one. Even so, his situation was pretty unique; he was in a position of power that allowed him to make the most of his ideas while still keeping them classified. For most of us, the situation is the exact opposite – the only way of making a difference with our ideas is by sharing them with others. Deciding to do that, then – putting all your cards on the table and letting them be subjected to public scrutiny – means you have to just bite the bullet and embrace that scrutiny. If you have a weird idea that falls outside the range of standard public opinion, you can’t be so afraid of its heterodoxy that you hesitate to even bring it up. You should put it forward fearlessly – and if you turn out to be wrong, then you should celebrate the fact that you were able to find that out quickly and correct course rather than continuing to walk around with a flawed idea inside your head. As Tetlock says:

I think humility is an integral part of being a superforecaster, but that doesn’t mean superforecasters are chickens who hang around the “maybe” zone and never say anything more than minor shades of maybe. You don’t win a forecasting tournament by saying maybe all the time. You win a forecasting tournament by taking well-considered bets.

So although I referred earlier to Manson’s advice to “hold weaker opinions,” a better phrasing might be Paul Saffo’s formulation: “strong opinions, weakly held.”

I have found that the fastest way to an effective forecast is often through a sequence of lousy forecasts. Instead of withholding judgment until an exhaustive search for data is complete, I will force myself to make a tentative forecast based on the information available, and then systematically tear it apart, using the insights gained to guide my search for further indicators and information. Iterate the process a few times, and it is surprising how quickly one can get to a useful forecast.

Since the mid-1980s, my mantra for this process is “strong opinions, weakly held.” Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect – this is the “strong opinion” part. Then – and this is the “weakly held” part – prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.

I have to admit, it’s hard to write something for public viewing and not feel at least a little bit self-conscious about it. Aside from the awareness that I might be embarrassed by certain ideas that turn out to be wrong, it also just feels weirdly presumptuous to think that anyone should be interested in what I have to say – or worse still, that “the world needs to hear what I have to say!” It feels like an act of vanity or something.

Still, there’s always the possibility that some of the ideas on this site might actually turn out to be good ones, and that they might even help in some way. If nothing else, getting some feedback on some of these ideas might be helpful to me personally, just to clarify my beliefs and help correct the ones that are mistaken. I don’t know how likely it is that I’ll actually get that kind of feedback, of course – in fact, if all my other posts turn out to be as long as this one, I doubt that more than a handful of people will ever even read them at all – but at this point, I’ve gotten curious enough about it to at least be willing to throw a few ideas out there and see if anything sticks.

Continued on next page →