The Politics of Inevitability and a Generation Without History

“By embracing the politics of inevitability, we raised a generation without history,” writes Timothy Snyder. The politics of inevitably is a confidence trap — a lulling sense of a security in fixed trajectory laid before us. It’s society on autopilot. To the extent that ‘progress’ becomes the assumed course, the necessity of teaching history diminishes, and in the decline of a historical consciousness comes the decline of progress itself.

In this complacency, history is forgotten. It is made to seem useless, irrelevant to ‘modern’ concerns. Indicators of Snyder’s “generation without history” are rampant. In a recent talk, The Swindle of the New, Terry Eagleton proposes: “The fact is surely that any society which only has its contemporary experience to live by is poor indeed. And that surely is becoming increasingly the case in our own time, where the past has been reduced to spectacle, packaged heritage, consumable commodity, or recyclable style.”

A critical mark of a “generation without history” is the prevalence and commercialization of authenticity. Adherents to the cult of authenticity, in Eagleton’s words, “hold the unconscious conviction that [they] are self-authoring, self-generated, sprung from [their] own head, and thus entirely entirely autonomous and self-determining.” Only in “generation without history” can one imagine themselves as capable of total self-definition, which is the cornerstone assumption of the authenticity value system and identity matrix. “The modern age is the only one I am aware of that regards authenticity as involving a clean break with the past.”

I’m definitely on a side, but its not ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’

Driving over the holidays, we listened to Conservative with age: Why your political stripes change over time and an IQ2 US debate on whether not Liberals Hold the Moral High Ground. Both are excellent investments of your time and come highly recommended.

While listening, I was repeatedly struck (once again) by the poverty of the ‘left vs. right’ dichotomy. It is such a limiting concept. But as humans, I fear that we are mostly incapable of creating sides without creating tribes. I wonder how — and if — we can transcend the politics of left versus right, blue versus red, and tribe versus tribe. Is it even reasonable to hope that our species can go beyond its lineage of in-group/out-group positioning?

The discussions mentioned above reminded me of a statement by Wael Haddara in a recent conversation:

I’ve come to a conclusion recently that there’s really only two types of people in the world: those that want to live with each other and those who don’t. And I think it falls to the people that privilege this idea of a shared existence despite differences to figure out a way of accommodating each other in order to actually have a reasonably functional, happy existence. If the group of people that actually privilege the experience of knowing other people that are different — if those people can’t get their act together and if we can’t create a polity that respects diversity, that is built on commonalities, and that works for enough people — then the people that don’t want to live with other people are going to govern or shape that polity.

Haddara’s conclusion is, once again, a dichotomy. But perhaps it is a necessary dichotomy? What if instead of aligning myself with a camp I pitch my tent alongside anyone and everyone who stands for the cause of peacefully and equitably living together as equals? After all, political poles shift. Parties morph. Corruption can happen anywhere. Nothing in partyland is permanent: allegiances and doctrines are penned only to be reneged later. Yes, Politics™ is unstable territory.

Therefore, I honestly don’t care one iota about your political branding. Are you advocating for peaceful and equitable coexistence? If so, as far as I’m concerned, we’re already fundamentally on the same side. In fact, I think it might be the only definition of a ‘side’ that counts for anything.

My in-group is the group that believes that everyone belongs here, and I don’t care what labels the people in my group use to describe themselves beyond that.

Lanier’s Social Media Ultimatum

Jaron Lanier argues that you have two choices: delete all your social media accounts or fully educate yourself on how your brain being getting hijacked.

People have to take responsibility to become literate in a new way if they are going to use the technology at all. So if you just can’t find it in yourselves to delete all your social media accounts, then you must take it upon yourself to really learn how it works. Learn how the addiction cycle works. Learn how the manipulation works. Become aware of it. If you can’t make one of those two choices you’re becoming a drone and you’re not really functioning as a citizen in the new world. I have to be very blunt about that. Those are the choices available to you. There are no others. (Listen at 21:16)

Digital illiteracy leaves people increasingly vulnerable to corporations like Facebook that have systematically fine-tuned their algorithms for stealing, trading, and selling attention. As in many cases of exploitation, the least educated are the first subsumed. Lanier’s stark ultimatum is good advice: learn everything you can about how these systems are taking advantage of you or get the hell out. (The third ‘default option’ isn’t a viable option at all: become a mindless, scrolling automaton, endlessly seeking the next ping, like a pigeon in a B.F. Skinner experiment.)

Living in the crossfire of an ‘attention war’

Daniel Nesbit proposes a metaphor shift from ‘attention economy‘ to ‘attention war,’ in part because “viewing the landscape as one of war instills the right mindset for those caught in the crossfire.”

Invading forces want to not just have our share of attention, they want to own it. The war of attention is a battle over resources: who gets to dominate, where and when… We have to defend our territory (our attention) appropriately.

The wartime conflict metaphor conjures notice of the collateral damage, particularly the innocent civilian ‘causalities’ — all the co-opted time, all the defrayed mental resources, and all the cognitive and psychological externalities absorbing the actual cost of this rampage.

The ‘Hollow Patriarchy’ Hypothesis

The idea of the ‘hollow patriarchy’ comes from The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the 21st Century by Stephen Marche and Sarah Fulford.

The hollow patriarchy is the idea that if you look at the economic data and the sociological data, women are rising in the middle class very rapidly. They are 40 per cent of breadwinners in America. They have more university degrees than men. More female lawyers graduate than male lawyers. Men are losing this position of breadwinner in the middle-American society. But women are still being denied these positions of power. Women are 16 per cent of equity partners in law firms, which is really absurd. Only about three per cent of Hollywood directors in the major seven studios are women. This actually translates into virtually every industry. So the hollow patriarchy is that you have this masculinity as an icon of power, but it’s rotten at the centre. In the middle of it, men are becoming less and less the providers they once were and this tension creates all this kind of cultural and domestic turbulence. (Stephen Marche and Sarah Fulford dissect 21st-century gender politics, CBC Radio, April 24, 2017)

If the ‘hollow patriarchy’ hypothesis holds true, we have a cultural conundrum indeed. It is as if we still line up the causal gender dominoes in the same way: manhood equates to masculinity, masculinity equates to power, and power equates to sustaining the patriarchal order. To be a ‘man’ continues to mean to ‘being in charge,’ even in a world where the normativity of this assumption is obvious nonsense.

White nationalists and Islamist extremists desperately need each other

In a recent talk, Julia Ebner argues that white nationalist extremists and Islamist extremists share an abundance of similarities. What’s more, they need one another to feed their ideological aims.

The beliefs that “the West is at war with Islam” and that “Muslims are at war with the West” validate one another. But even more, each belief depends on people to hold (and act on) the opposing ideology.

Every time one side commits an act of violence, it justifies and solidifies the other side’s narrative of an irredeemable other. In this way, the far poles of extremism complement each other: they are like mutual allies in the rhetoric hate. Ebner calls it “reciprocal radicalization.” Each act of hate and terror justifies the totalizing narrative of the other, and subsequently, justifies acts of hate and terror in return.

It is a textbook case of a symbiotic relationship. And it is a vicious feedback loop. Once you are caught up in it (i.e., radicalized) you grow blind to the fact that your behaviour mirrors and replicates the enemy you so avowedly claim to despise. But furthermore, your behavior, in turn, justifies and confirms their beliefs concerning your hatred of them in the first place. Around and around it goes.

‘Trinet’: the web is a Facebook, Amazon, and Google oligopoly

The Web began dying in 2014, here’s how is a blog post by André Staltz, posted October 30, 2017. You should read the piece in its entirety. Here are some highlights.

Google and Facebook now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic.

Before 2014, approximately 35% of website visits originated from searches. Today, Facebook has surpassed search, accounting for approximately 45% of website traffic.

Any website aspiring for traffic depends on Google and Facebook, including the news media. The vast majority of content published to the web panders to the algorithms of Google and Facebook.

Staltz predicts the ‘internet’ will devolve into a ‘trinet’ — “network of three networks,” namely Facebook, Amazon, and Google.

In short, the web has become an oligopoly:

The Web and the internet have represented freedom: efficient and unsupervised exchange of information between people of all nations. In the Trinet, we will have even more vivid exchange of information between people, but we will sacrifice freedom. Many of us will wake up to the tragedy of this tradeoff only once it is reality.

A Critique of Multiculturalism – Heenal Rajani’s Poetic Harvest

If you listened to Monday’s Curious Public discussion, A Critique of Multiculturalism, in its entirety, you discovered a surprise at the end: a poetic harvest recited by Heenal Rajani. The 3-minute poem reconstructs the hightlights, architecture, and flow of the hour-long conversation. So, if you haven’t listened to the whole conversation yet, Heenal’s poem might just provide the intrigue and provocation to hear the entire dialogue that inspired it.

Who Gets to Have Their Own Country?

This episode of The Inquiry, Who Gets to Have Their Own Country?, provides timely perspective to some of my recent pondering about nationhood and national identity.

Beginning with the upcoming independence referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, then looking back at the case studies of Kosovo and East Timor, and finally examining the current situation in Somaliland, The Inquiry strings together these stories and attempts at statehood to wrestle with a deceptively simple question: who has the legitimate right and ability to claim independence? When do assertions of national independence actually work? And what are the variables involved in their success?

A key insight of this program is that the principles of autonomy and self-determination, decolonization, uti possidetis juris, and the principle of territorial integrity find themselves in regular contradiction. In the end, there is no steadfast “rule” as who can be a nation. There is no rule book.

But one thing does seem clear: to be a state is to be recognized as a state by other states. As circular as this logic may be, it seems to be principle grounds of geopolitical equilibrium worldwide. Who gets to have their own country? Host James Fletcher concludes, “It’s all about who you know.” Nationhood is a self-perpetuating concept — a status that can only be endowed by other nations.

Is social media robbing us of our dearest hopes and dreams in life?

James Williams’ talk, Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?, is a must-listen. Riffing on the story of Diogenes and Alexander (with an interpretive lens drawn from Peter Sloterdijk) and Herbert Simon’s definition of an attention economy, Williams posits that there is a massive discrepancy between the design of digital technology and what we, the users, genuinely want for our lives.

What does technology want? It wants more clicks, more time on site, higher conversation rates, etc. It wants your attention — as much of it as it can take. And it wants to hold your attention for as long as it can. Your attention is the prize that Facebook wants to win. And keep.

What do we want? Well, presumably our dearest hopes and dreams for our lives go far beyond spending another 20 minutes on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. When you ask most of us what we want, we talk about more time with family, causes we care about, books we want to read (or write), traveling, adventures, experiences, personal achievements, and so on. We don’t tend to define another 20 minutes on social media as a step towards our ideal lives. But we check our phones again, anyway. Hence is the disconnect: technology is designed to hook us into behaviours and activities we don’t want. Williams suggests that it is time to consider the very real possibility that the “industrial-scale persuasion” complex baiting you into your newsfeed might not actually have your personal, human hopes and ambitions in mind.

What if every minute with your newsfeed takes a minute away from what you really want?

Williams says we need to think beyond the daily bait and switch that leads us to ‘accidentally’ getting sucked into Facebook for another 20 minutes. What is ultimately at stake here? Digital media distracts from our personal goals and pursuits in life. 20 minutes at a time, this industrial persuasion apparatus steals attention away from us — attention that might otherwise be invested in activities we feel truly matter. Ergo, the real crisis here is not that we just lost 20 minutes to some mindless activity: the issue that technology is intentionally usurping us from our own lives with “epistemological distractions” that divert us from the goals and activities that we sincerely do care deeply for.

So, should we blame the end user? Williams, a former Google employee himself, disagrees. Every day, millions of dollars and the brightest minds in the world are invested figuring out more effective ways to circumvent our will-power. Surely the answer to this dilemma is not, “Just have more will-power!” These infinitely scrolling newsfeeds are designed to drug us into submission — like “informational slot machines” whose sole purpose is sticking more ads in front of us along the way. Another 20 minutes. We are not only distracted from what we want in life by the promise of another dopamine hit, but we are also distracted from recognizing the opportunity cost of the addiction itself.

As far as Williams is concerned, we need to see “technology design as the ground of first political struggle” moving ahead. The present ‘solutions’ offered by digital technology are not working for us, but corporate interests have successfully usurped our imaginations when it comes to what can happen in 20 minutes of conscience existence on the planet.

Williams, therefore, declares that it is time for collective action to “assert and defend our freedom of attention.”

In an attention economy, your freedom of attention is your freedom. If you do not have the freedom to focus your mind on the things you truly care about, do you really have any freedom at all?

(Interested in getting together with some real live human beings — in an actual room — to critically analyze the prevalence, ubiquity, and power of social media in our lives? Come to Should We Quit Social Media? on Monday, October 16, 2017, 7pm at Central Library, to join the conversation.)

Mistaken Identities

Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s 2016 Reith Lectures series, entitled Mistaken Identities, is a must-listen. Over four lectures, Appiah analyzes four constructs of identity (alliterated as creed, culture, colour, and country) and questions the common narratives that underpin them.

For example, Appiah argues (transcript) that we over estimate the role of scripture in defining the religious identities of ourselves and others. From a historical lens, he posits that religions must continuously evolve, and that religious identity is itself highly fluid. There are all kinds of interesting implications that can be taken up here. (For instance, when detractors of Islam or Christianity quote scriptural references back to the faithful, what are the blind assumptions made about function of text in a contemporary community of religious practice?)

The second lecture tackles the idea of culture as identity. For instance, what exactly does “western culture” mean and who gets to write the definition? Appiah takes a pragmatic approach to suggest (transcript) that the concept of a western culture itself is unhelpful and nonsensical at best, and perhaps highly destructive at worst. This is challenging on many levels: once you have deconstructed and “dessentialized” the idea of “western civilization”, you are left with the problem of justifying how to define anyone by their civilization. But this is precisely Appiah’s point.

Appiah applies the same logic to race by proposing (transcript) that an unfortunate byproduct or residue of the Enlightenment is the concept of a “racial essence” that divides human groups from one another predominately on the basis of skin colour. Science has long since laid this notion to rest, and this leaves us with race as a construct of our own making: “race is something we make; not something that makes us.” This, too, obviously runs into difficult questions: if people are racialized by others, then does adopting a racialized identity or politics inadvertently conform to the racism (or agenda) of the people who are doing the racializing in the first place? But if race is used to oppress, how can race not then be used to gather solidarity for resistance? Appiah’s reflections on the BlackLivesMatter movement (in the Colour lecture) are thought-provoking:

Identities are going to have pluses and minuses. When an identity is used as a source of solidarity in order to help people resist oppression, for example, it also create boundaries with people outside who might want to be friendly with you because they’re not in favour of your oppression. And so you have to think as time goes on about how modulate the different roles that identity plays in our lives. (37:47)

Similarly, the question, “What is a national identity?” leads Appiah to a parallel position (transcript): nationalism is mythology. Appiah makes an increasingly popular distinction between nationalism and patriotism. In the end, the only so-called “national identities” that matters are common, collective commitments to shared beliefs. These commitments can be something worth defending, whereas defining a nation as a transcendent linkage to some geographically-based ancestral heritage is problematic. Therefore, you can be highly patriotic inasmuch as you share common values with others (like equality, for instance), while not necessarily being nationalistic (that is, believing that your country is inherently or manifestly superior to others countries).

I have been thinking about the intersection of identity and politics quite a bit recently, and this lecture series is a thoughtful, critical, and nuanced analysis. I think Appiah carves out a place for a constructive critique of identity without necessarily marginalizing the impacts of intersectionality in the real world. This seems important. Oppression, colonization, and racialization often seem to be systematically/structurally executed by groups who often justify their actions from a very clear sense of identity — such as ethnocentrism, nationalism, or some brand of economic idealism. Therefore, far from delegitimizing the role of identity in politics, a critical analysis of identity shows the ubiquity of identity.

Insofar as I can tell historically, wars have been largely waged over country, creed, culture, and colour — and that alone seems reason enough to warrant a critical investigation into the way we orientate ourselves towards the idea of “us” as a concept.

Check your hidden bias about your hidden bias

In a recent episode of Analysis, David Edmonds digs into some of the conflicting evidence and critiques of implicit bias research. Does the Implicit Association Test stand up to rigorous statistical scrutiny? Do survey tools that measure implicit bias actually predict bigoted, prejudiced, or discriminatory behaviour in the real world? How explanatory is the data we use to describe implicit bias? Do workshops that teach people about implicit bias give participants effective tools to constructively change their unconscious thinking… or do they inadvertently foster an atmosphere of distrust between majority and minority groups?

This program provides a good reminder to maintain a healthy, indifferent skepticism about using indirect measures to infer or quantify the way that other human beings think about one another. At the risk of falling into an infinite rabbit hole of meta analysis, the key takeaway here is to remember that its quite possible to be bias about one’s understanding of bias.

Inclusion as Colonization?

Following up on a post from last September — When Inclusivity is Exclusionary — I wanted to make note of some other articles and quotes related to this analysis that I have come across in the interim.

…the rich diversity of peoples have been denied inclusion while only a privileged group have defined themselves as inclusive… (Tatah Mentan)

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination… What we don’t need is to relegate ourselves to the position of depending on someone else to offer us inclusion… (Kẏra)

In order to commodify struggle it must first be objectified. This is exhibited in how “issues” are “framed” & “branded.” Where struggle is commodity, allyship is currency. (Indigenous Action Media)

The metaphorization of decolonization makes possible a set of evasions, or “settler moves to innocence”, that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity…There is a long and bumbled history of non-Indigenous peoples making moves to alleviate the impacts of colonization. The too-easy adoption of decolonizing discourse (making decolonization a metaphor) is just one part of that history and it taps into pre-existing tropes that get in the way of more meaningful potential alliances. (Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang)

Beyond simply calling for cosmetic diversity…to merely include people of color in untransformed institutions… [recent movements] call for a comprehensive unsettling of colonial logics and institutions. (Jonathan Rosa, Yarimar Bonilla)

Cognitive Bias Codex

There is no shortage of infographics in the world today. But I keep returning to this one. I find myself referencing it one conversation after another. Regardless of the topic or the argument, it is perennially relevant.

The graphic is quite simple, based on Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases. The image groups the known cognitive biases in to four categories: too much information, not enough meaning, the need to act quickly, and the limits of memory. The stroke of genius are 20 subsection descriptors, such as “To avoid mistakes we aim to preserve autonomy and group status”, “We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories”, and “We are drawn to details that confirm our existing beliefs”. The cognitive biases themselves then form the data core of the illustration. Scientifically speaking, these categories and subsections are arbitrary, but artistically and aesthetically they are quite interesting.

If you are thinking that this image would be a great reminder to adorn the walls of your office or classroom, that’s an option: 188 different cognitive biases, unified into one conceptual model and condensed into a single piece of educational art.

Scientific consensus and social values are distinct

This lecture by Sir Peter Gluckman is thought-provoking.

For a moment, consider genetically modified foods. Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, that the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community points to the conclusion that GMOs are categorically safe for human consumption. Now, the question Gluckman presents: should science also make a decision about the prevalence of GMO in our food supply?

He concludes, no.

We need to differentiate between scientific knowledge and social values. Just because science might reach the consensus that GMOs are safe, this does not somehow require society to rejig its policies to embrace genetically modified foods. What we do with GMOs is not only a scientific debate, but a debate about what we collectively value as a society. In other words: even if GMOs are safe, there may be other reasons why a society would choose not to use them.

We’ve seen many values debates obscured by inappropriate co-option of science to avoid the values debate… I think this issue of science being misused as a proxy for societal values-based debate is very bad. I think it short-changes democracy.

Gluckman says that if we want science to remain relevant in society, scientists must act as knowledge brokers, not social policy advocates. When science becomes advocacy, it simply becomes another voice in the values debate, thereby surrendering its deference to objectivity: “scientific knowledge is imperative for consideration at every level of government, but all science is conducted by humans, and human interactions and negotiations survive only on trust.”

It boils down to a simple social hypothesis: if you want people to respect your opinion when you claim to present material facts, don’t follow up your data with your social, political, or ideological agenda.

When science purports to be the decision-makers, they set themselves up to the charges of elitism that are prevalent today.

In the GMO example, then, the role of scientists to learn and inform, not make value judgments about society’s use of GMOs one way or another. In the end, what we do collectively is a decision that is related but ultimately conceptually distinct from the scientific analysis of the issue.

Listen to the whole lecture for Gluckman’s full argument.