Monday, August 27, 2018

Tribalism vs. Truth

Last Friday, August 24th, the editorial board opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle said some things that I would normally just ignore, because I know the editorial board is biased in a way that doesn’t align with my beliefs. But sometimes it’s worth taking a look at how the other side thinks—and try to figure out why they think that way.

Here’s a section of the piece; I’ve highlighted a portion I want to talk about:

Yes, President Obama lied when he continued to say you could keep your health plan. He was wrong, but he did it to help millions of Americans get heath insurance.
But Trumps lies are wrong, the piece goes on to say, because they are for his own purposes. I don’t know if the editorial writer recognizes it, but he/she just said, “Lying is OK if your purpose aligns with what we on our side want. Lying is not OK if your purpose doesn’t align with what we on our side want.”

I would like to note that, while Trump’s lies are supposedly so plentiful, the editorial doesn’t list a single one in the entire piece. I’m sure there are some, especially if you’re someone who reads his every stylistic superlative as a literal lie, and yet the only actual lie listed is Obama’s, for comparison. And the lies the editorial writer is telling. Such as this one:

The presidential candidate who chanted “lock her up!” about an opponent who stored sensitive email on a home server has now been implicated in an actual crime.
In actual truth, Hillary Clinton committed a felony when she purposely put classified material on her private, unsecure server. The basic facts tell us that.[i] Those who have held security clearances all know this. Intent is not required, even though that is what Comey used as the excuse for not indicting her. And even though intent in this case was very likely provable.

But there is no indictment, or pending indictment, of President Trump for campaign fraud. Even if his former lawyer ends up facing charges, the incident is much less egregious than the John Edwards case, which ended in a hung jury. Not everything that tangentially could affect public opinion is necessarily part of a campaign. Nor is there any evidence of colluding with Russia to commit voter fraud, which was supposedly the reason for the special counsel investigation in the first place.

I don’t want to be put in the position of defending a person who is covering up for sex with a porn star so his wife doesn’t find out. Even though she probably knows. And even though the “billionaire playboy” image was well known to voters before the election. That behavior is disgusting and anathema to civilized men. Almost as savage as diddling an intern in the oval office, one might say—although actually doing it while president still strikes me as more egregious.

Further, a campaign finance violation committed by an employee is probably part and parcel of every major political campaign—because the laws are convoluted and unevenly applied. But when they are applied, the usual remedy is a fine, probably taken out of campaign funds, not removal from office. Unlike the usual remedy for leaving classified materials in unsecured locations: “Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”[ii]

So there seems to be a disconnect regarding truth and facts.

The Wednesday, August 22nd, opinion page of the Houston Chronicle featured a piece by Paul Krugman, who is also worthy of being dismissed, based on his past commentary. But I’ll use this one as a sample today. His piece is titled, “The Orwellification of the GOP didn’t start with Trump.” He’s referring to George Orwell’s book 1984. He does give some examples of Trump lies:

Donald Trump operates on the principle that truth—whether it involves inauguration crowd sizes, immigrant crime or economic performance—is what he says It is. And that truth can change at a moment’s notice.
Again, I don’t want to be put in the position of apologetic for Trump. But I do somewhat understand language and language style. Trump is not the person to go to for details, or data, or exact facts. He uses words for effect, and for big picture messaging. So some translating needs to be done. Like, crowd size. What other president would the news media go to for crowd size measures? But they claimed erroneously that the crowd was very small, not because it was particularly small, but because saying so would denigrate the president. And then other people showed the crowd on social media, revealing that the media had used a particular angle to hide the crowd.

So Trump was responding to a media lie, and, as he does because it’s his personality to do so, he made sure we all knew the crowd was big. Really big. He might have even thrown in a number for effect.

Trump wasn’t lying about the crowd size; the media outlets who tried to denigrate the president by claiming the crowd was less than it was did the lying.

Trump also hasn’t been lying about illegal immigrant crime; but leftist media have made erroneous and now refuted claims that illegals are more law-abiding than other immigrants or other Americans—and they’ve repeated that lie in the very moments following the revelation that Mollie Tibbetts was murdered by an illegal alien.

And the economy? Let’s just say, if you’re an American who lived through the Great Recession that lasted, coincidentally, all eight years of the Obama presidency, and you’re a young person, or a black person, or one of the other demographics now facing the lowest unemployment rates in decades, maybe you know the one not in touch with facts might be so-called economist Paul Krugman.

Krugman asks,

Why did the party’s belief in objective reality collapse so suddenly and completely?
Let me do some more language and style translation: he means, “No one in their right mind could possibly disagree with me, so the whole Republican party is demented.” And there’s no self-reflection, no inkling of recognition that he’s unaware of actual objective reality.

Since I’m a truth seeker, I’m also the kind of person who frequently asks, “Could I be wrong?” So I do the exploration for facts, which is why I can fairly clearly see both good things and bad things Trump has done. (I’m not the only one. Ben Shapiro often has a segment on his show called “Good Trump/Bad Trump,” where he shows evidence in both directions.)

But this particular president seems to bring out irrational hatred toward both Trump and anyone who disagrees with them—along with an absolute certainty of rightness. As Mark Twain put it, “It’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Jane Clark Scharl, in a piece for Intercollegiate Review, asks the question “How Dangerous Is Jordan Peterson?” She concludes that he and his ideas are indeed dangerous, but not at all in the way his detractors believe. He’s dangerous because he’s revealing the lies being inculcated by various interrelated political tribes. As Scharl puts it:

In universities, high schools, and increasingly as early as elementary and preschools, children and young people are being taught not to think critically about topics like gender, sex, race, privilege, culture, liberty, wealth and success, and religion; instead, they are being presented with a series of platitudes and told to accept them or be punished.
Having someone who can get people to question the platitudes is dangerous to the tribes.

Jordan Peterson
image from here
I think there’s at least a partial explanation for the sense of danger Jordan Peterson stirs up, in the introduction to his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. He spent many years looking into the atrocities of the past century, and asking how people could believe what they believed to such an extent:

I couldn’t understand how belief systems could be so important to people that they were willing to risk the destruction of the world to protect them. I came to realize that shared belief systems made people intelligible to one another—and that the systems weren’t just about belief.
People who live by the same code are rendered mutually predictable to one another. They act in keeping with each other’s expectations and desires. They can cooperate. They can even compete peacefully, because everyone knows what to expect from everyone else. A shared belief system, partly psychological, partly acted out, simplifies everyone—in their own eyes, and in the eyes of others. Shared beliefs simplify the world, as well, because people who know what to expect from one another can act together to tame the world. There is perhaps nothing more important than the maintenance of this organization—the simplification. If it’s threatened, the great ship of state rocks.
It isn’t precisely that people will fight for what they believe. They will fight, instead, to maintain the match between what they believe, what they expect, and what they desire. They will fight to maintain the match between what they expect and how everyone is acting. It is precisely the maintenance of that match that enables everyone to live together peacefully, predictably and productively. It reduces uncertainty and the chaotic mix of intolerable emotions that uncertainty inevitably produces [p. xxx].
So, people tribalize to fend off chaos. They have a vested interest in maintaining the tribe—along with its beliefs, values, and traditions—regardless of whether the beliefs are accurate or not. But disagreeing tribes clash.

That’s a problem. How do I know I’m the one who’s got the truth, when Krugman and the Chronicle editorial writer are so sure they’re the ones with the facts?

I have a number of clues. One is data from trusted sources, and probably multiple trusted sources. I would say the objective measures provided by nonpartisan government sources, at least for economic data, are probably accurate. And there are a few other sources I think have held up reliably well. Then it’s a matter of interpreting the data, to make sure you draw accurate conclusions. You need some tried and true principles for that.

Those of us on the conservative side—or, as we would put it in Spherical Model language, those of us in the northern hemisphere, where we find freedom, prosperity, and civilization—have an advantage over those in the southern hemisphere, who seize or cling to statist tyranny in order to fend off the tyranny of chaos. Up here, we encounter opposing viewpoints every day, from nearly any mainstream news source. So we question everything. If it doesn’t coincide with our experience and those around us, maybe there’s more to the story, so we start seeking it.

Those in a southern hemisphere bubble, those who admit to never encountering an actual conservative in their day-to-day lives, might not have a very clear or complete picture.

The Daily Wire did an interview with Brandon Straka, the guy who started the #WalkAway movement a few months ago. He talked about the bubble he used to be in. He would hang out with Ivy League educated smart people, who all saw things the same way. At first, when he thought what they said didn't make sense, he assumed he must be wrong, because they were so smart.

Brandon Straka
image from The Daily Wire
But then, when he started speaking up and voicing his questions, friends either abandoned or persecuted him for not staying on script. When he left that side, because they were, in his words, "intolerant, inflexible, illogical, hateful, misguided, ill-informed, un-American, hypocritical, menacing, callous, narrow-minded, and even blatantly fascistic," he still didn’t consider becoming a Republican. He told himself, "Well, I’m not a liberal, but I’m sure as hell not going to become a Republican because those people are crazy and racist, etc." Because that’s what he’d always been told to believe.

At first he didn’t really listen to the other side—our side. But after being abandoned by so many now hostile friends, he started really listening to Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, Ann Coulter, and Michelle Malkin. Now he gladly calls himself a conservative and is a registered Republican.

There’s this interesting part of the interview:

DW: Do you see any of the behavior that you witnessed on the Left mirrored in the Republican Party? For example—the identity politics, the pitting of groups against one another, the tribalism, the cruel rhetoric or violence.
STRAKA: No, I’m not seeing or experiencing anything like that, which is why I think I’ve come to embrace the conservative philosophy as much as I have. It’s all about the individual, personal empowerment, encouraging people to try hard, and work hard. You can have the life you want if you’re willing to work for it, be a decent person, and contribute to society.
One thing that opened him up to new information was a personal change, from alcoholic drug addict. As he says,

My life was all about self-pity and what the world owed me. After I got sober, I really started to learn about accountability, taking responsibility for your actions, and making amends to people when you've made mistakes. I started seeing the rewards of that.
So what he saw as true, when he was in that downward spiral, wasn’t true at all. Once he got free of the brain fog of addiction, he also got free of some untrue beliefs and found some better-serving true beliefs.

There’s an interview with Jordan Peterson—and I’ve heard him say this in several interviews—about learning to tell the truth. It relates to Rule 10 in his book: “Be precise in your speech.” He tries to never say anything that makes him feel weak. The interviewer thought that was an odd thing to base something on, just whether he personally felt more powerful or not. But he didn’t say more powerful over others; he said less weak personally. It’s a signal. You can pay attention and feel it, and that’s a way to find truth.

I would word it differently, based on my religious understanding. But there is a feeling you can have associated with finding truth. It’s a still, small voice, but if you practice and pay attention, you can use it as a built-in truth detector.

I tend to be overly trusting, and assume others tell the truth, because I do. And sometimes that ends up kicking me where it hurts. But many times, an uneasiness, something confusing or unsettling, or physically weakening is what I feel around untruth. I don’t like that feeling. I feel a wholeness, and a wholesomeness, around truth, even unpleasant truth when it needs to be faced.

If you want truth, you have to ask for it. Question tribalism. Question pitting one group of people against another. Question your prejudices. And learn what truth looks like and feels like. Civilization depends upon each of us doing just that.

[i] 18 U.S. Code § 798 - Disclosure of classified information, . And 46 CFR 503.59 - Safeguarding classified information,
[ii] 18 U.S. Code § 798 - Disclosure of classified information (see link above).

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