Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Book note: Crime and Punishment

June 24, 2022

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Feodor Dostoyevsky (1866) translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1992) with an introduction by W.J. Leatherbarrow (1993)

Dostoyevsky’s great novel is about how a young man with basically decent and humane feeling puts himself into a psychological state in which he commits a cold-blooded murder.

When we meet the young man, Raskolnikov, he is hungry, exhausted, and in ill health.  He is full of guilt for sponging off his needy mother and sister.  He is deeply in debt to a pawnbroker, a greedy old woman who has an abused half-sister.

We later learn that he wasn’t always like this.  A fairly short time before the action of the novel begins, when he was solvent and healthy, he was compassionate and responsible, keeping his own life in order and going out of this way to constructively help others.

But now he is in a state where his mind is on automatic pilot—acting on impulse rather than conscious decision.  Some of his impulses are generous and kind, some are bad, but none are the result of conscious decision.

This state has been well described by 20th century psychologists, starting with Sigmund Freud.  The conscious mind is not necessarily master in its own house.  It thinks it is the CEO of the human personality, but often it is just the PR department.  

Dostoyevsky understood through introspection and observation what Freud and others later figured out through scientific study and clinical experience.

Raskonnikov’s main source of self-esteem is an article he wrote about how the end justifies the means, and how a truly great person, such as Napoleon, pursues his goal by all means necessary, without concern for moral rules.

Napoleon knowingly caused the deaths of many thousands of innocent people, but he was regarded as a great man because he was a force for progress, Raskolnikov wrote; a Napoleon on the individual level, who acquired money through a crime, but used the money to do good, would also be great.  In fact, it could be your duty to overcome qualms of conscience to accomplish a great goal.

He begins to fantasize about killing the pawnbroker and using her money to help his mother and sister, canceling out the criminal act by the good deed.  But there is no point in the narrative at which he comes to a conscious decision to commit the murder.

One day he overhears a student arguing with a military officer about that very thing.  The student says that killing and robbing the pawnbroker would be justified if the money was used to accomplish a greater good, because the pawnbroker contributes nothing to society.  Ah, replies the officer, but would you really do it?  No, the student admits.

This is what the experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman called priming or anchoring—one of the subtle things that influence human action below the level of consciousness.

Raskolnikov goes ahead and commits the murder.  He kills the greedy pawnbroker and then her innocent half-sister.  All the while he acts more on impulse and instinct more than rational judgement.  It is as if he is a spectator to his own actions.

I myself have experienced being in such a mental state.  I have done things with my mind on automatic pilot, sometimes to my great regret, and then wonder why I did them.

Raskolnikov flees the murder scene and gets away with loot, but not as much as if he had been able to act calmly, rationally and decisively.  

Later he reproaches himself, not for committing the murder, but for not being Napoleon-like character he imagined himself to be.   But his sense of guilt is too great and he eventually confesses.  Even so, he is still tortured by the conflict between his conscience and his philosophy.

Raskolnikov’s inability to overcome his basic human decency is not, as he saw it, a fatal flaw, but a saving grace

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Why is it so hard to pay attention?

May 9, 2022

STOLEN FOCUS: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari (2022)

I find it much harder to concentrate on a task than I used to.  

Once I could dash off a book review like this in a couple of hours.  Now what took me a couple of hours takes me a couple of afternoons.  

It’s partly that the task itself takes me longer.  But it is also that I can’t resist the temptation break off the work and check my e-mail or browse my favorite blogs.

I’ve attributed this to a combination of old age and weakness of character.  

But although my age and laziness are real, a science writer named Johann Hari has convinced me that there’s more to it.  He says our whole civilization and lifestyle are conspiring to distract me from focusing on what I need to do.

Hari is the author of Chasing the Scream, a best-seller about addiction, which I haven’t read, and Lost Connections, a best-seller about depression, which I have read and liked a lot.  In both books, he showed how a dysfunctional society makes personal problems worse, and the same is true of Stolen Focus.

In his new book, Stolen Focus, tells of his search for knowledge from neurologists, psychologists and his personal back-and-forth struggle to regain his own fading sense of focus.

He shows that distraction and the inability to concentrate are on the increase, not just for individuals but for society as a whole.

A study of office workers in the U.S. showed that most of them never get an hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day.  Another study shows that if you get interrupted, it will take, on average, 23 minutes to regain your focus.  Studies of top topics on Google and Twitter shows that the life of a hot topic on these media is growing shorter and shorter.

Increasingly, studies show, Americans and Britons are more stressed, more tired and more distracted.  We don’t get the sleep we need.  We read less and are less able to concentrate on what we read.  More and more of us juggle multiple jobs, or are on call 24/7 in the jobs we have. 

 It’s no wonder we find it hard to concentrate on things at hand. 

But if we can’t focus of this, we can’t deal with with the big challenges ahead we face individually and as a society.

Lots of things contribute to this—the faster pace of society, lack of sleep, our artificial manner of life and, of course, social media.

Hari offers tips on how to cope:

  • If you can, find a pursuit or sport that gets you into a state of “Flow”—a state where you are totally engrossed in something worthwhile that challenges you.
  • Get a good night’s sleep in a completely darkened, completely silent room.
  • Take long walks in the fresh air and sunshine without a phone.
  • Read long novels or watch long TV mini-series.  Fiction is more immersive than non-fiction and also makes you more empathetic.
  • Avoid or cut down on stimulants and sedatives.
  • Use all the Aps on your devices that enable you to set limits on notifications and interruptions.

∞∞∞

But trying to change individual behavior isn’t enough, he wrote.  The problem is deeper.

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Vladimir Putin is not a madman

April 11, 2022

I never thought Vladimir Putin would order a full-scale invasion of Ukraine 

My reasoning was that it was not in Putin’s or Russia’s interest to take responsibility for a country that, by most accounts, was even poorer than Russia itself and almost as corrupt.  Nor did it make sense for Russia to risk getting bogged down in a long quagmire war as it did in Afghanistan.

The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, had elected as a peace candidate with more than 70 percent of the vote, so there seemed like a possibility of negotiating the status of the Donbas secessionists and other issues.  

I thought Putin would take some limited action that would demonstrate Ukraine’s vulnerability and NATO’s lack of unity.

As a result of the invasion, members of NATO are more united against Russia than ever.  Sweden and Finland have abandoned their neutrality and may formally join NATO.  Countries not willing to fight Russia with troops are waging economic warfare against Russia.

So why did he do it? Was he crazy?

One of my rules of thumb is that when someone who seems highly intelligent does something that makes no sense to me, that person may have reasons that I do not understand.

I believe Putin has made this high-stakes gamble because he believes the actual existence of Russia is at risk.  I believe he further believes that the danger is growing and he had to act before time runs out.   

He has been saying for years that the goal of the U.S.-led alliance is to put itself in a position to be able to successfully attack Russia.  He may be mistaken, but he has reason to think so.

Notice that the ultimatum he issued last year is not limited to Ukraine.  It contains for main demands (1) Ukraine neutrality, (2) autonomy of Donetz and Luhansk, (3) no missiles in Poland or Rumania and (4) NATO troops back to 1991 limits.

Notice also that Russia has not used its full military might in invading Ukraine.  That means Putin may be holding back troops to enforce the rest of his ultimatum.

∞∞∞

When Russia withdrew its troops from East Germany and other satellite countries in Eastern Europe in 1989, Secretary of State James Baker allegedly promised Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO troops would not move “one inch” to the east.  There’s argument as to what he really said.  But many people, myself included, hoped for a new era when the USA and Russia were at peace with each other.

In 1999, NATO expanded.  Putin protested and was ignored.  In 2004, NATO expanded again.  Putin protested and was ignored.

In 2008, NATO announced an intention to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.  Putin said that was a red line that Russia would not tolerate.  

I can understand why.  If you look at a map of Europe showing the peak of German conquests during World War Two, and compare it with a map of NATO with Ukraine and Georgia, you will see they are almost the same.

In 2014, a pro-American faction seized power in Ukraine. Since then, Ukraine has been a NATO member in all but name.

A missile defense system is being placed in Poland and Romania, which could be made capable of launching nuclear missiles. The U.S. meanwhile has exited the Anti-Ballistic Missile agreement and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement.

Soon the United States will have duplicated Russia’s hypersonic missile, which means that a nuclear warhead launched from Poland or Rumania could hit Moscow in a few minutes.

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Why is it so hard to see the obvious?

March 16, 2022

It is hard to make a man understand something, if his salary depends on his not understanding it.  [==Upton Sinclair]

To see what is under one’s nose needs a constant struggle.  [==George Orwell]

Have the courage to believe what you know.  [==French movie director Yann Arthus-Bertrand]

∞∞∞

Ian Welsh, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote a long list of obvious things that people in authority didn’t and do not seem to see. 

Obviously Iraq did not have WMD.  Obviously neither the Iraq nor Afghan occupations would succeed. 

Obviously letting Covid rip will cause a mass disabling event which will severely damage our societies.

Obviously China does not regard the US in specific as a friend, since for 12 years the US has publicly stated, over and over again, that China is enemy #1. 

Obviously Russia would not let Sevastapol be taken away from them. 

Obviously Russia would not let Ukraine join NATO.

Obviously offshoring our industrial base to China would make them stronger and us weaker. 

Obviously immiserating our working class would make them hate the liberal order and vote against it when possible (Brexit/Trump, etc…)

Obviously China has food and energy problems and obviously having Russia as a friend helps fix those problems. 

Obviously China cannot trust the West to supply it, since the West has sanctioned China.

Obviously the West hates China’s government and wants it replaced and obviously the Chinese government doesn’t like this and prefers Russia, which does not want to overthrow their government. 

Obviously Putin must win his war, or he will lose power and be killed.

Obviously bailing out the rich in 2008 led to a sclerotic economy which cannot fix problems because central banks made a rule that incompetent rich people will be allowed to stay incompetent.

And so on, and so forth, with 39 more items.  Read the whole thing and tell me whether there is any item you would dispute.

Why is it so hard to see the obvious?

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Therapy as a substitute for religion

December 6, 2021

THE TRIUMPH OF THE THERAPEUTIC: Uses of Faith After Freud by Philip Rieff (1966)

The world’s great civilizations, and all cultures that I know anything about, have been based on religions or philosophies that taught people to regard themselves as part of something greater than themselves.

The greater thing can be conceived as a supernatural order, as natural law or as a web of existence of which we are all a part.  Or it can be service to God or some transcendent force.  Or it can be a continuation of ancient ways of the ancestors.

The atheist sociologist Philip Rieff, like many before him, noticed how such ideas were fading in rich Western countries.  In these countries, people were, and are, increasingly focused on individual self-fulfillment.  For many, religion was and is either ignored or regarded as a stepping-stone to self-fulfillment.

Psychotherapy’s purpose is to make self-fulfillment possible.  In this book, Rieff looked at the potential for psychotherapy to become a substitute for religion, by examining the thought of Sigmund Freud and three of his critics, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich and D.H. Lawrence.

I have some basic knowledge about these four thinkers, but I am not a deep student of their thought.  What follows is my understanding of Rieff’s account.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was an atheist who was committed to scientific rationality.  He discovered that people were much more subject to irrational subconscious forces than they had thought.  

He classified the human mind into the “ego,” the conscious rational mind, and the subconscious “id” and “superego.”  The id consists of all the feelings and desires the ego is unwilling to admit, and the “super-ego,” consists of all the rules and taboos imposed by parents that are subconsciously taken for granted.

Freud believe that, in order to live in society, especially modern industrial society, it is impossible to act out all your emotions and fulfill your desires.  Some control is necessary.  Complete happiness is impossible.

But people make themselves more miserable than necessary because they are unconscious of both their desires and the internal taboos that prevent them from attaining their desires.  Freud thought unconscious sexual taboos and desires were especially harmful.

He was not a libertine.  His goal was to make his patients more aware of their unconscious feelings and desires so that they would not be controlled by them.

Freud believed in moral neutrality.  If a patient behaved in a warm and compassionate way because of unconscious guilt feelings, and, freed of guilt feelings, became selfish and ruthless, that was no concern of the therapist.

Although Freud despised the USA and U.S. American culture, his ideas fit well with a certain kind of American individualism.

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The three-or-four-hours rule

August 22, 2021

Oliver Burkeman, a writer of self-help and time management books, says that most people are not capable of devoting more than three or four hours a day to intense mental or creative work.

The way to be more productive, he writes, is to fence off three or four hours a day for your high-priority work and deal with the routine work and busywork later.

If you’re a creative worker, you don’t become more productive by working longer hours.  You become more productive by finding a few hours each day to focus on your most important (not most urgent) work.

This is true of me, and I think it is true of a lot of people.  It explains people like the SF writer Gene Wolfe who had a time-consuming job as a trade-magazine editor, and did his writing only in bits and snatches of time, but still did outstanding work.

Of course not everybody has a work schedule or a life in which they can set aside even a few hours for creative work.  But for those who do, the following is good advice.

It pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to “maximize your time” or “optimize your day,” in some vague way, but specifically to ring-fence three or four hours of undisturbed focus (ideally when your energy levels are highest).

Stop assuming that the way to make progress on your most important projects is to work for longer. And drop the perfectionistic notion that emails, meetings, digital distractions and other interruptions ought ideally to be whittled away to practically nothing.

Just focus on protecting four hours – and don’t worry if the rest of the day is characterized by the usual scattered chaos. ​

The other, arguably more important lesson isn’t so much a time management tactic as an internal psychological move: to give up demanding more of yourself than three or four hours of daily high-quality mental work.

That’s an emphasis that gets missed, I think, in the current conversation about overwork and post-pandemic burnout.

Yes, it’s true we live in a system that demands too much of us, leaves no time for rest, and makes many feel as though their survival depends on working impossible hours.

But it’s also true that we’re increasingly the kind of people who don’t want to rest – who get antsy and anxious if we don’t feel we’re being productive.

The usual result is that we push ourselves beyond the sane limits of daily activity, when doing less would have been more productive in the long run.

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‘Wokeness’ and the backlash against liberalism

May 13, 2021

During most of the history of the Western world – that is, of nations with a Catholic or Protestant heritage – it was taken for granted that you cannot have a unified society unless you have unified morality supported by an official religion.

Much blood was shed in order to impose or maintain that unity.

Sometime around the end of the Wars of Religion in the 17th century, the idea of what we now call liberalism emerged.

That idea was that we agree to disagree, and unify around rules that enable people of different religions and different heritages to live together in peace. The central liberal virtues were freedom, reason and toleration.

The history of the Western world since then has been an expansion of tolerance to include more and more marginal groups.

This expansion has generated backlash – blood-and-soil nationalism, Bolshevism and fascism.

All these movements are based on narrow, but valid, ideals,such as social justice and patriotism.  All, to my mind, represented the failure of liberalism.  But as substitutes for religion, none of them provides the consolation of Christianity or any other universal religion.

“Wokeness,” too, is based on narrow, but valid, ideals – inclusiveness and alertness to social injustice.  In and of themselves, these are all good things.  The problem is that “wokeness” can be a fanatic, persecuting ideology.

Now you may think that it is a foolish exaggeration to compare “wokeness” in all its forms to totalitarian ideologies such as Bolshevism and fascism. 

You’re not in danger of being put in a concentration camp for misgendering someone; you’re not in danger of being stood up against a wall and shot for objecting to diversity training.

And many things that are done in the name of “wokeness” are good.  We can all benefit from examining ourselves for biases; we can all benefit from being more culturally sensitive.  The Black Lives Matter movement may actually succeed in bringing about reform of policing.

Also, as a practical matter, the “woke” movement is far from the worst threat to civil liberties.  “Wokeness” is not responsible for the USA Patriot Act, the torment of Julian Assange, policing for profit, support for foreign governments with death squads, and much more.

But the perpetrators of all these other abuses are hypocrites.  They pretend to be defenders of the U.S. Constitution and a “rules-based” international order.  They don’t reject freedom and democracy in principle.

What we’re seeing in the USA is a broad and deep mass movement — the biggest such movement in my adult lifetime, including the civil rights movement of the Sixties — that explicitly rejects the premises of liberalism.

I remember back in the Fifties people defended McCarthyism on the grounds that it wasn’t as bad as Stalinism.  Well, that was true, but it was possible to be against both. 

Loss of jobs and destruction of reputations for saying the wrong thing, or having the wrong attitude, are not the worst things in the world, but they’re no joke, either.  They signify the rejection of the liberal compact — the idea that you have your ideas, I have my ideas and that is our individual right.

Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of young people think of the rights to freedom of speech or to due process of law as obstacles to the achievement of a just society.  This is no small thing.

Many are full of rage, for understandable reasons.  They face a bleak future in an unforgiving economy.  But their rage is directed against almost random targets, not against the powers that be.  In fact, the powers that be can deploy “wokeness” to divert attention from themselves.

What the prevalence of “wokeness” shows is the failure of liberalism to inspire loyalty.  Maybe this was an inherent weakness all along.  Maybe what’s doing on today is an unfolding of weaknesses that were there all along.  If so, wishing for a revival of liberalism will not revive it. 

LINKS

Excesses of Wokeness

A Witch Hunt on Instagram by Katherine Jebsen Moore for Quillette.

Jordan Peterson at McMaster University: ‘Don’t let them provoke you’ on YouTube.

Stop Firing the Innocent by Yascha Mounk for The Atlantic.

We All Live on Campus Now by Andrew Sullivan for New York magazine.

Analyses of Wokeness

The Elect: the Threat to a Progressive America from Anti-Black Antiracism by John McWhorter on his It Bears Mentioning Substack blog..

Postmodernism and the Faith of Social Justice by James Lindsay and Mike Nayna for New Discourses.

The Successor Ideology by Ross Douthat, Coleman Hughes, Wesley Yang and Reihan Salam for the Manhattan Institute.

The Enduring Relevance of Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘The Captive Mind’ by Robin Ashenden for Quillette.

Illusion, reality and perception

April 24, 2021

Good Samaritan bunny helps a kitten

March 10, 2021

I don’t know whether the rabbit and the kitten were friends, or whether the rabbit is an altruist.

True believers in the USA of 2021

January 22, 2021

I recently finished Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER, a 1951 book about fanatical mass movements.  I think most Americans see that the USA of 2021 is ripe for such movements.

Fanatics invaded municipal buildings and burned police stations in some U.S. cities during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.  Fanatics invaded the Capitol a couple of weeks ago.

Some self-described conservatives see Donald Trump as a messianic figure sent by guide.  Some self-described progressives embrace an “anti-racism” ideology that considers “all lives matter” a racist statement.  People can become pariahs or lose their for a thoughtless comment on social media.

If you are an American, you probably think some of the things I mentioned are serious problems while others are blown out of proportion.  Whatever the case, something is going on.  What is it?

Eric Hoffer said fanatical mass movements arise when there are large numbers of people who are frustrated and lonely.

People don’t become fanatics when they are embedded in family, community and religion that give them security and meaning.  Neither do they become fanatics when they enjoy the satisfactions of creativity and achievement.

But in times when fewer and fewer are able to enjoy the security of a stable family, community and religious life, while the opportunities for individual achievement and self-determination narrow—that’s when you have to watch out.

That’s how things are in the USA today.  We live in a very unforgiving society, compared to the one I grew up in.

Economic inequality is increasing, but I think that what really worries people is the growth of economic insecurity. 

More and more workers are being pushed out of full-time work and into the gig economy, where they don’t know from week-to-week how many hours they’ll work or what they’ll earn.  Millions lack the resources to meet even a small emergency.

All this is in the name of a philosophy I and others call neoliberalism, which exalts economic efficiency above all else.  Neoliberals run the economy without any slack in the system, with all the risk off-loaded onto wage-earners, sub-contractors and the public. 

It’s not just wage workers who suffer.  Small-business owners with six-figure incomes worry about being able to compete with giant mega-corporation.  A number of billionaires are planning ahead for economic collapse, so they can retreat to secret strongholds in New Zealand or other remote place.

Unfortunately the USA is exporting instability through its economic and war policies, and through its cultural influence as well.

President Donald Trump made things worse.  He had a genius for keeping affairs in a constant state of turmoil.  Just having Trump in the news day after day was a strain.  I think some people voted for Joe Biden just because they were sick of seeing Trump on TV.

The partisan news companies keep Americans on edge.  Fox News was a pioneer in making money out of peddling fear to elderly white people.  Now, as Matt Taibbi has shown, the self-described progressives have adopted the same model.

Then there are Facebook and the other social media companies.  They have algorithms designed to feed people links to material designed to hold attention by appealing to fear and indignation. 

COVID-related lockdowns have destabilized society.  It is not just the economic impact on workers’ wages and small-business profits.  It is that people have been cut off from religious services and family gatherings, two of the main sources of consolation in times of uncertainty.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is real and deadly, and doesn’t care about anybody’s spiritual or psychological needs.  I’m an introvert who lives alone, and can afford to have groceries delivered, so I can tolerate the lockdowns better than most. 

But I can see how someone might be devastated by separation from loved ones and normal life and be willing to risk their lives rather than endure the separation.  A good many of the protests, including the invasion of the Michigan state capitol, were in opposition to the lockdown.

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Recalling Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer

January 21, 2021

I first read Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements shortly after it was published in 1951.

It was a big influence on me as a teenager.  Later on I thought it explained a lot about the 9/11 attacks.  I think it is very relevant today.

A number of writers in the early Cold War era tried to understand the psychology of totalitarianism—what it was that made Nazis and Communists willing to commit mass slaughter and also sacrifice their own lives.

Eric Hoffer went further than most.  He described the similarities not only between fanatic Bolshevism and fascism, but also fanatic Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Jacobinism and nationalisms of all kinds, including Zionism.

His book is highly readable, full of quotable aphorisms.  A lot of his statements are overly sweeping and forceful, but he said his intention was to provide food for thought, not to be the last word on anything.

Eric Hoffer

Hoffer himself was an interesting character.  The son of Alsatian immigrants to the United States, he was born in New York City in 1902.  Orphaned at the age of five, he went blind at seven.  Mysteriously, his sight was restored at the age of 15, and he became a lifelong voracious reader.

He traveled across the country working at odd jobs, and spent 25 years as a longshoreman on the San Francisco waterfront, retiring at age 65.  He was completely self-taught.  He died in 1983.

He did not regard mass movements as necessarily bad.  Sometimes, he thought, they were the only means of bringing about necessary change.

Nor did he think that religious believers, patriots and political activists are necessarily fanatics.  But he did think a fanatic minority is a more powerful driving force than a reasonable, moderate majority.

The fanatic John Brown did more to end U.S. slavery than all the moderates who drew up reasonable plans for compensated gradual emancipation.

People do not join mass movements because they are poor and oppressed, but because they are frustrated, Hoffer wrote.  Joining a movement satisfies what Abraham Maslow was to call higher-level needs—the need for self-esteem, the need for inclusion, the need for hope and the need for meaning.

If you have no pride in yourself, you can take pride being part of a holy cause.  If you are lonely, you can lose your sense of separateness by uniting with others in a mass movement.

If your future seems hopeless, you can accept the promise of a golden future, either in this lie or the next.  If your life seems boring and meaningless, you can become part of a dramatic struggle for righteousness.

One category of people who never become fanatics are those who are completely embodied in a traditional way of life, Hoffer wrote.  Thinking of themselves are part of family, a community and an unquestioned way of life, they see no need for change. 

Fanatic religious zealots either want something they don’t have, or want to regain something they think they have lost.

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“Kids these days”: can things really be this bad?

January 10, 2021

I’m 84 years old.  I have few friends younger than 45.  I have virtually no contact with the current younger generation.  Can things really be as bad as these authors say?

No Families, No Kids, No Future by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

The Kids Are Not Alright: A Response to Rod Dreher’s Article Concerning Generation Z Sexuality by a blogger called The Flaming Eyeball.  (Hat tip to “Nikolai Vladivostok“)

A coronavirus near-death experience

August 30, 2020

A 29-Year-Old’s Strange, Unforgettable Trip Into a Covid Coma and Back by Luke Mullins for The Washingtonian.

The arts of argument and persuasion

July 6, 2020

This episode of William F. Buckley Jr.’s The Firing Line was broadcast on Sept. 10, 1981

In American political speech nowadays, we need more argument and persuasion and less denunciation.  I am reminded of William F. Buckley Jr., who was a master of both.

I considered Buckley’s political views were not only wrong, but reprehensible.  Yet I was a regular viewer of his PBS program, “The Firing Line.”

Buckley took the trouble to understand his opponents’ arguments.  He read their books.  When he invited them onto his program, although he was not above taking cheap shots, he tried to refute what they actually said.

He played fair.  He gave his opponent a chance to give their views.  That is why he probably changed more minds than Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity ever did.  I think there is much to be learned from his methods, whatever you think of his views.

I remember a program in which his guest was Ralph Schoenman, appearing on the show as the representative of the International War Crimes Tribunal, also known as the Russell Tribunal, and the issue was American atrocities in Vietnam.  Buckley’s claim was that Bertrand Russell, John-Paul Sartre and the other tribunal members were Communist sympathizers and should not be believed.

Schoenman expressed himself in a robotic, staccato manner that fit the stereotype of the dogmatic Communist.  Buckley, aware of this, let him go on at length, knowing his audience would be influenced more by his manner than by his actual argument.

A member of the audience argued that what mattered was the quality of the Tribunal’s evidence, not the views of its members.  Buckley listened respectfully, restated the argument and then asked what the questioner would think of anti-corruption investigators who were all Republicans and whose investigations were all of Democrats.  A bogus argument, but convincing.

I think it is possible to persuade people who strongly disagree with you politically.  Sometimes not, but people can be more open-minded than you might think.

It is important to distinguish winning an argument from successful persuasion.  I have lost many arguments, but I don’t recall ever changing my mind as a result.  My losing an argument only makes me rack my brains for what I should have said, but failed to think of on the spot.

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Bacteria, viruses and the human mind

May 29, 2020

The following is a quote that I read in the June issue of Harper’s magazine.  It is from the forthcoming book, The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gilbert.

Viruses and bacteria hijack our minds and make us act weirdly.

For example, Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in cat feces, makes mice less afraid of cats; this is an evolutionary strategy, making it easier for the parasite to get from the mouse to the cat.

When it spreads to humans, it may increase their risk-taking.  One study found that people with toxoplasmosis, the infection caused by the parasite, “are more likely to major in business.”  An NBC News story suggested optimistically that the parasite “may give people the courage they need to become entrepreneurs.”

That would be an extreme case of a microscopic parasite altering the course of our lives.  But viruses and bacteria influence our everyday behavior as well.

A 2010 study, for example, found that people become more sociable in the forty-eight hours after exposure to the flu virus, a period in which one is contagious but asymptomatic.  The infected hosts, researchers found, were significantly more likely to head out to bars and parties.

I know of no evidence that coronavirus infection influences human behavior.  None whatsoever.  I am not hinting or implying that it does.

But, as a thought experiment, suppose it did.  How would the virus influence its hosts’ feelings, thoughts and behavior?  What changes would it induce to help itself survive, reproduce and spread?

The worst of all possible health care systems

April 29, 2020

Employer Provided Health Insurance Delenda Est by Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist who practices on the West Coast, for his blog, Slate Star Codex

How harmful is ubiquitous pornograpy?

December 26, 2019

Pornography is as old, or almost as old, as human civilization.  But, thanks to the Internet, it is readily available to anyone in the USA and many other countries who has access to the Internet.

This is something new in the world.  Never before has pornography been so ubiquitous.  By pornography, I mean depiction of sex in a cruel or degrading light.

Scientific studies indicate that prolonged exposure to pornography re-wires certain centers of the brain, much as taking addictive drugs does.

I don’t find this hard to believe.  We know that the human brain changes depending on how it is used.  A famous study of London taxi drivers showed that that process of memorizing the city street grid in order to pass a licensing test resulted in the growth of extra neurons in the memory centers of their brains.

Pornography addiction, which is a something I never heard of until five or so years ago, is so widespread a concern that there are 12-step groups to help fight it.

Some experts say that many adolescent boys and girls are growing up with a distorted view of sex through exposure to pornography.

Erectile disfunction (ED) is an increasing problem among men.  Involuntary celibates, or “incels,” have always existed, but now they constitute an identity group.

There is no proof that Internet pornography, in and of itself, is a cause of either erectile disfunction or involuntary celibacy.  But there are reports of men find who find more pornography more arousing than flesh-and-blood women, and also less trouble than dealing with an actual person.

∞∞∞

Life is harder for young men today than it was when I came of age.  (I’m 83).  It is perfectly understandable that some of them should turn to pornography, drugs or alcohol for solace, even these are false solutions that make their problems worse.

For one thing, young men today face a more uncertain and unforgiving economy than I did.  There is a widespread attitude that lack of success in economic competition defines you as a contemptible loser.

There also is a widespread attitude that postponing sex and marriage, rather than being a rational response to circumstances, also defines you as a loser in the arena of sexual competition.

Young men also are up against a certain hostility to men and masculinity in our culture.  Even qualities such as stoicism and risk-taking that once were honored are considered “toxic masculinity.”

Then there is the sexual revolution, which holds out the promise of unlimited sexual gratification, and the feminist revolution, which requires men to be careful of what they do and say around women.  As a society, we haven’t yet figured out how to strike a balance between the two.

Not all young men experience loneliness, frustration and rejection, not all who do turn to drugs, alcohol or pornography as a response, and not everybody who finds solace in drugs, alcohol or pornography becomes an addict.  I don’t want to make overly sweeping generalizations.

I do think a stagnant economy, current cultural expectations and ubiquitous availability of pornography are bad ingredients that produce a poisonous mix, and there is nothing to stop it from getting worse.

I give Jordan Peterson a lot of credit for helping young men.  I don’t agree with him about everything, but he presents an an ideal of a healthy and even heroic masculinity in opposition to so much of what young men hear today.    His 12 Steps for Life is excellent advice

Of course women also experience loneliness, frustration and rejection, but the topic of this post is Internet pornography, and I don’t think that pornography is a big issue for women, except for its impact on the men in their lives.

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Pornography addiction is a kind of drug addiction

December 19, 2019

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that Internet pornography is a true addiction, like heroin, alcohol or tobacco addiction.

It literally rewires the human brain.  The male human brain is hard-wired to respond to sexual novelty.  It processes Internet pornography as a constant access to new sexual partners engaging in new kinds of sexual activity.

Brutal and kinky is a more powerful stimulus that erotic and gentle, so that would be the bias of any Internet side that wants viewers to keep coming back.

My inclination is to err, if I must, on the side of protection of free speech.  I am suspicious of any form of censorship.  But I have to reconsider after reading an eye-opening article yesterday by a writer named Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry who surveyed the scientific literature on pornography addiction.

Porn is a sexual stimulus, but it is not sex.  Notoriously, heroin addicts eventually lose interest in sex: this is because their brains are rewired so that their sex reward system is reprogrammed to seek out heroin rather than sex.  

In the same way, as we consume more and more porn, which we must since it is addictive and we need more to get the same kick, our brain is rewired so that what triggers the reward system that is supposed to be linked to sex is no longer linked to sex—to a human in the flesh, to touching, to kissing, to caressing—but to porn.

Which is why we are witnessing a phenomenon which, as best as anyone can tell, is totally unprecedented in all of human history: an epidemic of chronic erectile dysfunction (ED) among men under 40.

Pornography, including sado-masochistic pornography, has always been with us.  It is as old as civilization.  But never before has pornography been so universally available.  A 12-year-old boy with a Smartphone has more access to sexual stimulation than the most decadent Roman emperor, Turkish sultan or 1970s rock star.  I’m glad I’m not a parent today.

As Gobry admits, we don’t have conclusive evidence of the effects on society of universal availability of hard-core pornography.

… What we do know is that large numbers of our civilization are hooked on a drug that has profound effects on the brain, which we mostly don’t understand, except that everything we understand is negative and alarming.

And we are just ten years into the process.  If we don’t act, pretty soon the next generation will be a generation that largely got hooked on this brain-eating drug as children, whose brains are uniquely vulnerable. It seems perfectly reasonable and consistent with the evidence as we have it to be deeply alarmed.

Indeed, what seems supremely irrational is our bizarre complacency about something which, at some level, we all know to be happening.

I am in favor of sexual freedom.  Do whatever you like with whatever consenting adult you like in your own space.  This is more than a question of individual behavior.  It is a question of what kind of society we want to make.

LINK

A Science-Based Case for Ending the Porn Epidemic by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry for American Greatness.  Print-Friendly Version.

Gabor Mate on anti-Semitism and Zionism

November 11, 2019

Dr. Gabor Maté is a physician who lives in Vancouver and writes about addiction and childhood trauma.

Born in Hungary, he is a Holocaust survivor and a disillusioned Zionist.  He is shown in the video above being interviewed by his journalist son, Aaron Mate, about anti-Semitism, Zionism and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

He said he has gone through three disillusionments in his lifetime—with Hungarian Communism, with American exceptionalism and with Zionism. Disillusionment is painful, he said, but it is better to be free of illusion than a slave to it.

The interview is well worth watching, as is an earlier interview about Russiagate.

LINKS

Gabor Mate on the misuse of anti-Semitism and why fewer Jews identify with Israel, an interview for The Gray Zone.

America in denial: Gabor Mate on the psychology of Russiagate, an interview for The Gray Zone.  With transcript.

‘Woke-ness’ vs. Americanism: a religious conflict

August 30, 2019

As I think about what’s called ‘woke-ness’ as a quasi-religion, I better understand the attacks on the symbols of American patriotism.

I’m thinking of the removal of the Betsy Ross flag from Nike sneakers, demands for removal of statues of Thomas Jefferson and the recent New York Times magazine edition that said the true founding of the United States was not in 1776, but in 1619 with the arrival of the first slave ship.

Americanism is also a quasi religion.  What’s going on is the attempt to substitute a new religion for an old one.  The attacks on symbols of American patriotism are like the early Christians’ attacks on statues of the pagan gods or the early Protestants’ attacks on images of Catholic saints.

‘Americanism’ is an odd word.  Nobody I know of speaks of Canadianism or Mexicanism.  It reflects the fact that being a patriotic American has always implied adherence to a creed—although we Americans have always fought over the definition of that creed.

Debates in American history have generally taken the form: “I am a true American and you are not.”  Both sides in our Civil War believed they were the champions of liberty and self-government as defined by our nation’s Founders (with a capital “F”).

We Americans historically have regarded the Declaration and the Constitution as like Holy Writ, equivalent to the Bible, and criticism of these sacred documents as equivalent to blasphemy.   We settle arguments by citing these documents.

The Pledge of Allegiance is a sacred ceremony.   The American flag is a sacred object.  Criticize them at your peril.

Americanism provides a sense of community.  Trying to be a good American can give life a sense of meaning.  Americanism can also provide a rationale for persecution.

The advantage of Americanism is that, in principle, it is open to any believer, regardless of race, creed or national origin.  No matter where you were born, you are in principle eligible to become an American. [1]   This isn’t true of China or most other countries.

I have always thought of myself as a patriotic American and an adherent of the best ideals of American history and culture.[2]

The triumph of “woke-ness” as a quasi-religion requires the displacement of Americanism as a quasi-religion.  Reverence for the old is an obstacle to creating reverence for the new.

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Social justice as a substitute for religion

August 30, 2019

Critics of the new social justice movement—the movement that’s variously called “anti-oppression,” “political correctness” or “woke-ness,” among other things—say it is like a religion.

It has dogmas and blasphemies.  You can be fired for saying the “n-word.”  It enacts a drama of sin and repentance.  It gives believers the sense of righteousness, sense of community and sense of meaning that earlier generations might have got from religion.

This argument is often made mockingly, but below are links to two article that make it in all seriousness.

Of course the fact that something is religion-like doesn’t mean that it’s bad.  Almost all people need something to provide community and meaning, and they’re lost if they don’t get it somewhere.

LINKS

Gay Rites Are Civil Rites by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codex.

Postmodern Religion and the Faith of Social Justice by James A. Lindsay and Mike Nayna for Aero Magazine.

Attending to reality is a moral imperative

August 23, 2019

I read Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction .when it first came out in 2015 and reviewed it favorably.  I read it again recently as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek and found it well worth re-reading.

Crawford’s basic idea is that we are what we pay attention to, so we should be careful what we pay attention to.  He wrote that there is a moral imperative to attend to the real world and not retreat to a world inside your head.

But attention is a limited resource.  You can’t focus on everything all at once, and your ability to focus is depleted over the course of a day.

The book has two themes.  One is the challenge of engaging with reality—the realities of tangible things, of other people and also of tradition—because reality can be frustrating.  It is what it is, regardless of your wishes..  The temptation is to buffer yourself by use of technology

The other theme is the danger of letting your attention be hijacked by people and organizations that want to manipulate you for their own purpose.  Attention comes in two kinds, purpose-driven and stimulus-driven.   The more you are forced to respond to stimuli, the less you are able to focus on your own purposes.

In the contemporary USA, there are billion-dollar industries devoted to capturing your attention and manipulating your perceptions.  It’s almost impossible to get away from this, as Crawford noted.  Silence has become a luxury good.

All this may seem abstract, but The World Beyond Your Head isn’t an abstract book.  Crawford filled the book with reports of skilled practitioners, including carpenters, short-order cooks, ice hockey players, martial arts fighters and motorcycle racers, and how they train themselves to focus their minds and hone their skills.

Crawford himself, at the time he wrote this book, had a job making components for custom-made motorcycles.  There is no postmodern way of making motorcycle parts.  The component is real.  It either functions or it doesn’t.

He said he felt validated every time he presented his bill to a satisfied customer.  But he added that the public are not the best judges of craft work.  The only true judge of a skilled carpenter is another skilled carpenter.

Skilled manual work is devalued.  A good auto mechanic is just as intelligent as, say, a good pharmacist or librarian, but the mechanic is not respected because he gets his hands dirty.

Factory workers are deskilled by design.  Customers also are deskilled by design.  An example of this is the battle over the right of farmers to repair farm machinery, rather than sending it back to the manufacturer for a replacement.

Technology buffers us from the physical world.  It also buffers us from other people.  It’s much less risky to relate to people on social media than it is face-to-face.   There are many anecdotes about college students today demanding to be protected from the discomfort and even fear that they feel when someone expresses a hostile opinion.

Big institutions have rules for how their employees are supposed to behave, all of which involve not expressing personal feelings and opinions and not exercising individual judgment, no matter what the situation, so that they never give offense.  Instead they’re supposed to face the world with a bland, smiling neutrality.

The last chapter of the book is a report on a firm of pipe organ builders.  They’re the inheritors of a centuries-old tradition of organ building.  They’re the masters of an age-old craft.  But they are more than that.  They can’t just be historic preservationists.  The organs they build have to be fit for use not just now but for a long time to come.  They express their individuality not be rebelling against a tradition, but by enriching and adding to it.

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Why so many suicidal mass gun killings?

August 11, 2019

Vigil for mass shooting victims in Las Vegas in 2017. Source: VOA.

The mass shootings that regularly occur in the United States are mostly also suicides.

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They are the ultimate “deaths of despair.”

The killers do their shooting in public places and are almost guaranteed to be gunned down in their turn, if they don’t kill themselves first.

They are comparable to the suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere, except that the jihadist killers are sometimes trying to achieve a specific military objective, like the Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War Two.

Among all the rich Western nations, the United States is the only one in which mass shootings occur on a regular basis.

That is not to say that ordinary Americans, and visitors to the United States, are in grave danger.  As a risk factor, mass shootings rank far below traffic accidents.

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But the fact that they occur says something about our society.  For every man (the shooters are almost all men) who kills others and then himself out of rage and despair, there must be a hundred others who feel the same rage and despair and don’t act it out.

Some people blame availability of guns, and I agree it would be better if the government restricted sales of rapid-firing firearms with large ammunition clips and magazines.  Casualties from mass killings were fewer during the assault weapons ban, but they still occurred.

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Some people blame ideologies based on hatred of black people or hatred of immigrants or hatred of women.  But the mass shooters can be of any race, and the percentage of white mass shooters is slightly less than the percentage of whites in the general population.

The killers profess all kinds of professed political and social motives and some profess no motives at all.  The only common denominator is that the killers are almost all suicidal men.

Hatred and bigotry have long been motives for killing.  The new thing is that the killers are suicidal.

There are ways to commit murder without sacrificing your life in the process.  (The methods are obvious, but if you can’t think of them, I see no benefit to society in helping you out.)

I think the root cause of mass killings are feelings of powerlessness and feelings of meaninglessness.  Your life is meaningless, so you give it up.  But you take others with you, so you do have some power after all.

I don’t have a good answer for this.  Calling for a greater sense of community or a stronger sense of values isn’t going to bring these things about.  Greater availability of mental health counseling probably would help some, but it won’t in itself empower people or make their lives meaningful.

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A ranking of countries by civic honesty

June 28, 2019

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To gauge the honesty of people in different nations, social scientists turned in 17,003 “lost” wallets to people in charge in various public businesses and institutions in 355 cities in 40 countries around the globe, and recorded how many of the wallets were actually returned.

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One surprising result was that there was a higher rate of return with wallets containing a small amount of  money ($13.46) than of empty wallets, except in Mexico and Peru.

In three countries, the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland, they also left wallets with a larger sum ($94.15),  There was an even higher rate of return for wallets with big money than just a little money.

This is contrary to what both experts and non-experts predicted.

Researchers thought that people made an extra effort when money was involved in order to avoid thinking of themselves as thieves.

Switzerland had the highest rate of return for empty wallets and Denmark for wallets with money in them.  European countries overall, including Russia, got high marks for honesty.

China had the lowest rate of return for empty wallets and Peru for wallets with money.  I am disappointed that the United States is so far down on the list.

LINKS

Humans are surprisingly honest when it comes to returning lost wallets by Katherine J. Wu for PSB NOVA.

Civic honesty around the globe by Alain Cohn, Michel Andre Marechal, David Tannenbaum and Christian Lukas Zond for Science.

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Gender, race and the 2016 psychodrama

June 26, 2019

I recently read a collection of essays entitled NASTY WOMEN AND BAD HOMBRES: Gender and Race in the 2016 US Presidential Election edited by Christine A. Kray, Tamar W. Carroll and Hinda Mendell (2018).

The question the book seeks to answer is how such an ignorant and misogynistic man such as Donald Trump could have defeated such an intelligent and well-qualified woman as Hillary Clinton.

The answers are sought in rhetoric, psychology and popular culture, not public policy. Clinton and Trump are treated as symbols, not as individuals with public records.  The election is treated as a psychodrama, not as a struggle for power.

The common theme was the need to overcome prevailing male attitudes toward women (“the patriarchy”) and prevailing white attitudes toward people of color (“white supremacy”).

I have reservations about this approach, which I’ll get to in due course..  But I first want to acknowledge the book’s merits.

One chapter discussed the obscene and vicious abuse directed at Hillary Clinton based on her gender, in the form of postcards, posters and Internet memes.  She was caricatured as a witch, a Medusa, a hag, a lesbian and a transgender man.  Unlike with Trump and Bernie Sanders, her age was held against her; she was depicted as a hag.  No human being should be subjected to this.

This unfortunately is not unusual nowadays for women who successfully compete with men.  They are subject to harassment via the Internet, up to and including threats of rape and death..

Donald Trump got his share of abuse, too—for example the widespread meme, including a video distributed by the New York Times, showing Trump and Vladimir Putin as gay lovers—the unstated assumption being that gays are weak and disgusting.

But I don’t think Trump, Sanders or any other male candidate was subjected to anything comparable to what Clinton had to endure because of her sex, and that Barack Obama had to endure because of his race.

I’d be interested about the experience of conservative woman in politics, such as Sarah Palin and Nikki Haley,  Do they get the same level of vicious and obscene abuse as white women?  My guess is, probably not, but I don’t know.

Another of the essays was about images of the women’s suffrage movement of a century ago.  The suffragists were mocked for presuming to assume male roles.  The mockery was extremely condescending, but it wasn’t threatening or obscene.

Is the viciousness of attacks on women nowadays due to a lowering of standards of public discourse?  Or do anti-feminist men today feel more threatened than than anti-suffragist men did back then?

But then there also are women, quoted in another chapter, who think that Hillary Clinton does not behave as a woman should.  Many of these same women excused Donald Trump’s bad behavior.

Indeed, the 2016 Presidential campaign illustrated the double standard for personal morality for men and women.  It is not just that Hillary Clinton could not have gotten away with trash-talking like Donald Trump.  Neither she or any of the current crop of female Presidential candidates could have been forgiven for infidelity in their marriages, as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump have been.

Various writers highlighted this double standard and speculated as to the cultural and psychological reasons why it exists.  Others dealt with a range of topics, from the myth of immigrant crime to religious freedom for Muslims.

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