My friend Julia and the rationalistically relativist crowd

[Note: all excerpts from Julia’s Facebook page are reprinted here with permission from my friend. I invited Julia to comment on this essay, if she so wishes.]

As I have mentioned lately, I’m a bit concerned about certain people and attitudes within the broader skeptic movement, a concern that led to a fruitful recent exchange with my friend Steve Novella. Before that, I had expressed a worry about some over-interpreting of results from neuroscience and social psychology, seemingly suggesting that we are not as much Aristotle’s “rational animal,” as a rationalizing one, always busy confabulating in order to justify our own points of view no matter what. The two worries came together in the immediate aftermath of the US Presidential election, when I read with utmost interest a series of exchanges between my friend Julia Galef (with whom I used to co-host the Rationally Speaking podcast) and some of her followers on Facebook. The evidence is, of course, anecdotal, but it fits with the above worries I’ve been harboring for some time, based on my broader experience with self-professed skeptics.

Here is Julia’s first round:

“I’m seeing some well-intentioned posts insisting ‘See, this is proof we need to be listening to and empathizing with Trump supporters, not just calling them stupid.’ Generally I’m a fan of that kind of thing, but now… [expletive] we TRIED that. Did you not see how many journalists went to small towns and respectfully listened to people say stupid shit like ‘I can’t vote for Hillary because she’s the antichrist,’ and then tried to figure out how that stupid shit was actually, maybe a reasonable argument about trade policy?

Sometimes the answer is not ‘People are astutely seeing things that I, inside my bubble, have missed.’ Sometimes the answer is just ‘People are fucking morons whose brains are not built to see through bullshit.’

(To be clear, I think this applies to people in general, including Hillary voters. We just happen to have been a bit less moronic in this particular context.)

And fine, if you want to argue that it’s strategically *wise* for us to understand what makes Trump fans tick, so that we can prevent this from happening again — assuming we get the chance — then fine.

But if you keep insisting that we ‘just don’t understand’ that Trump voters aren’t stupid, then I’m going to take a break from the blank look of horror I’ll be wearing all day, and flash you a look of withering incredulity. Maybe Trump voters aren’t stupid in other contexts, but this sure was a fucking stupid, destructive thing they did.

EDIT: Predictably, some people are interpreting my point as: Trump supporters are stupid and/or evil, Clinton supporters are not. That’s not my point. My point is that humans IN GENERAL are bad at reasoning and seeing through bullshit, which caused particularly bad consequences this time via Trump fans, who made a choice that (if the human brain were better at reasoning) they would have realized was net bad for their overall goals, which presumably include avoiding nuclear war.”

Now, this was pretty refreshing. I appreciated Julia’s honesty here, though I actually disagree that “Trump voters” in general are stupid (more on this in a moment). Yes, one can’t say much to excuse the level of discourse of people who talk about Clinton-the-Antichrist, but most Trump voters are not like that. They are simply fed up people with little prospect in their lives, who needed to vent and cast a strong anti-establishment (including anti-Republican, really) vote.

But what I found interesting here was that Julia was being subjected to some of her own memes — so to speak — being thrown back at her. She is the President and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, an organization devoted to taking seriously, and applying, the new findings from neuro- and social science mentioned above. This includes the ideas that we are all biased, not as rational as we think, etc.. Which is, of course, true, but as we have just seen is not all the truth (some people are more biased and less rational than others), but it can be used as a powerful rhetorical weapon for what in Italy we call “qualunquismo” (there is no English translation for the term, but the Garzanti Dictionary of the Italian Language defines it as: “A general attitude of indifference or lack of trust toward politics, manifesting itself in the adoption of simplistic positions,” positions such as “well, we are all biased and irrational, so…”).

But there is more. About six hours after her first post, Julia wrote:

“One of the more aggravating things today (although obviously not the biggest deal in the grand scheme of things) is my FB friends who not only don’t seem fazed by Trump winning, but are scoffing at the rest of us for overreacting. Especially people saying that our grief and anger are simply us ‘signaling’ for ‘ingroup status points.’ Even if this outcome was merely normal-bad, in the sense of ‘the candidate I disprefer won,’ that would still be a shitty thing to say to people who are upset about it. And this is not a normal-bad outcome.”

Indeed. Social psychologists’ insistence that most (if not all) we do when we pretend to advance reasons and arguments is “signaling” to gather “ingroup status points” are the source of Julia’s friends somewhat relativist attitude, just like sociologists of science triggered the infamous “science wars” of the ’90s but pushing the idea that science is a “social construction” (technically true, if social construction is defined narrowly) to the point of absurdity, whereby evolutionary biology and creationism are just different “life forms” that cannot be weighed one against the other for lack of suitable external standards.

But of course Julia was right again: first off, sometimes “signaling” is something that is psychologically needed and ought to be respected intrinsically. More importantly, the election of Donal J. Trump to President of the most powerful nation in the world is indeed an hominous development for socially progressive forces, and an unprecedented one at that. So it is hard to “overreact.”

The take-home here is this: it is important to take onboard pertinent empirical evidence on how human beings mis-reason, and it is charitable not to dismiss others as mumbling idiots just because they disagree with us. But sometimes people really aren’t thinking straight, and not everyone mis-reasons all the times, or to the same degree. If we don’t keep these distinctions in mind we risk sliding all the way down the slippery slope of anti-reason relativism and political qualunquismo.

This may be a good moment to mention philosopher’s Julian Baggini’s latest book, The Edge of Reason: a Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. The premise of the work is that the Aristotelian conception of reason is under attack, and that reason itself is being dismissed, ironically by both conservatives and progressives (I’m pretty sure most of Julia’s readers fall into the latter category). Julian argues that we need to resist such easy dismissal, suggesting a third way: we need to reassess reason’s “proper place, neither too highly exalted nor completely maligned.”

Finally, let me make a comment to help bridge the gap between Julia and her followers/critics. As I said above, unlike her, I don’t think (the majority of) Trump voters are morons. But unlike her critics, I also don’t think that pointing out the irrationality of a pro-Trump vote is just signaling to one’s own tribe. What is really going on, I think, is that a lot of people in the US seem to be affected by amathia, an ancient Greek word best translated as “un-wisdom.” I wrote about it over at my other blog, but let me summarize what amathia is by reporting a famous snippet of dialogue between Socrates and his friend, former student, and possibly lover, the Athenian politician and general Alcibiades (from the Platonic dialogue entitled the Alcibiades Major):

Socrates: “But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before that you are not only ignorant of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?”

Alcibiades: “I am afraid so.”

Socrates: “Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.”

The word translated as “stupidity” above is actually amathia, which as I said is actually best rendered as lack of wisdom. Alcibiades was anything but stupid: he was one of the most educated, intelligent and accomplished men in Athens. But Socrates was right at being worried, as Alcibiades eventually ended his life in disgrace, after having done quite a bit of damage to his city during the Peloponnesyan War that was eventually won by Sparta.

In my essay over at How to Be a Stoic, I connect amathia to the modern concept of “the banality of evil,” introduced by philosopher Hannah Arendt during her coverage of the famous trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Her point was that perfectly normal, even decent (under different circumstances) people are capable of doing really bad shit as a result of the same sort of defect that Socrates was imputing to Alcibiades.

There has been much talk of Nazism in connection with Trump. As far as I can tell at the moment, that’s more than a bit overblown, but here is what scholar Glenn Hughes says about the Nazi, in an essay entitled “Voegelin’s Use of Musil’s Concept of Intelligent Stupidity in Hitler and the Germans:

“The higher, pretentious form of stupidity stands only too often in crass opposition to [its] honorable form. It is not so much lack of intelligence as failure of intelligence, for the reason that it presumes to accomplishments to which it has no right …  The stupidity this addresses is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself. … [S]ince the ‘higher stupidity’ consists not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings … We may say that the reversal of a spiritual sickness must entail a spiritual cure.”

What sort of “spiritual cure” is there for the form of “higher stupidity” that is amathia? Socrates thought he had an answer: you talk to people, engaging them in dialogue, acting as a midwife to develop their wisdom, to help them arrive at better conclusions by themselves. Because wisdom has to come from within, it can be helped out, but not imposed. Just like democracy.

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185 thoughts on “My friend Julia and the rationalistically relativist crowd

  1. Hi Massimo Malagoli, while protesting and criticizing Trump is fine, the way it is done is sort of important. After complaining about the expected Trump voter protests and the nature of past anti-Obama criticism/protests, to do exactly what one criticized is hypocritical. Also, I’m not sure what protesting and criticizing Trump’s election in general while he sets up is supposed to serve.

    At least criticize specific decisions, and try to help shape actual policy. “Trump sux” is weak, and as is already seen not something that effects him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it might well be worthwhile to consider the inherent differences between liberalism and conservatism and recognize they both have their strengths and weaknesses.
    Consider liberalism is all about social growth and opportunity, expanding knowledge, helping minorities etc.
    Conservatism is about civil and cultural order, nationalism, institutions, rules, etc.
    Now obviously they get turned around somewhat, but just ask yourself, do liberals ever do civil order right? It goes against their very nature, because it is about making decisions that will advantage the stronger aspects of society, because they are the stronger aspects of society and that is what order is all about; stability, strength, order, structure, continuity, etc.
    The problem for conservatism is when things do get too structured and the core of society does get too complacent, or overbearing and the bottom up social energy starts pushing back harder and rebelling.
    Now if those liberals ever do got in charge, it never works out as planned, because either the fight was too brutal and that was all they learn and so become totalitarians. Or they can never accept that governing requires order and structure, which for society means some form of hierarchy and so the infighting breaks them apart.

    We will never beat nature, so eventually we will have to take what she gives.

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  3. Hi Dan, I’m still not sure identity politics itself was that big a problem. It’s not like it drove Reps to the polls, and in fact some mainstream Reps openly voted for Hillary despite her engaging in identity politics.

    I totally agree that dismissing common cause issues and people who aren’t minorities is a huge mistake for politicians and a growing problem in self-isolating liberal communities (creating group-think).

    But that is different than the question of having identity-politics at all as part of one’s campaign or policies. I don’t think engaging in that (to some degree) prevents one from addressing more common cause issues and having traction with mainstream populations.

    The fact is Hillary did not bring people out. Maybe part of the problem was running an identity-politics campaign with someone who has very little credibility with the identities she was supposed to be campaigning for. LGBT rights? Since when? Civil rights for racial minorities? She was being protested by people for her “superpredator” line and policies which devastated black communities.

    Well how about the poor? She said we should trust her ability to improve the economy, based on what her husband did. Well, he gutted the social welfare net that had been in place for decades.

    Plain and simple there were people on the left, including the very groups she was supposed to be catering to that did not trust and/or like her. And the best response the DNC had for them was “Trump! Boo!”

    We don’t need to look back to Bill Clinton as having done anything right that we can learn from now. As it is he was helped by a massive drain on Rep votes from third parties, complicating any narrative that suggests he did something smart, as opposed to being lucky by disruptions on the right.

    Arguably all we need look at is the vast myopia the DNC had in running such a poor candidate for this particular race, given all her baggage plus the clear anti-establishment desires of the national electorate. That the DNC had to engage in cheating to shut out the viable (by all polls) anti-establishment candidate should say a lot about what they should not to do again.

    Again, yes they should get in better contact with more mainstream (I think you called them “heartland”) communities. Sure. But Sanders had such connections. Arguably so did Biden. The DNC only had to reach out to people like them. They exist now. And with less baggage and more clout than Hillary.

    The funny thing is if Bill Clinton really had such magic, why didn’t he advise Hillary on what to do with her campaign? Especially in the end months? Did Hillary or the DNC reject his ideas?

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  4. Dwayne: Well, we’ll just have to disagree on this. As you know, I think the Dems full-on embrace of identity politics had a lot to do with the loss, so I largely agree with the NYT piece that I cited.

    Want a sure-fire way to lose labor? Ignore the concerns of non-college educated voters and keep talking about transgendered bathrooms, which was pretty much the Dem playbook this election and in the years leading up to it.

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  5. Dwayne: A few more things. My estimation of Bill Clinton is at it is, because he really was the only successful Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson — and even Johnson’s legacy was partially destroyed by Vietnam. Obama might have been another, except that his entire presidency is about to be erased by Trump. Carter, obviously, was an unmitigated disaster.

    It’s worth inquiring then, as to why Bill Clinton was the only successful one. And the reason is that he understood both the cosmopolitan culture of NY/LA and the culture of America’s working and rural folk. He knew that you could only push cosmopolitan values so far, so fast, without inviting a backlash — like the one we just got — and he knew that in the US, economic concerns always trump cultural ones.

    As to why Hillary didn’t listen to Bill? Maybe she did and simply refused to do what he said. Maybe she wasn’t capable of doing what he did. Who knows? But Bill Clinton would have crushed Donald Trump, and Hillary lost to him. That’s the one thing we do know.

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