Recommended Reading: The Tyranny of Opinion

I recently read a book that would have been relevant before widespread Internet use and the advent of social media, but makes for even more urgent reading now.

TyrannyofOpinion

The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford discusses threats to freedom of speech beyond government censorship. Blackford focuses on coercion and conformity imposed by other powerful institutions and forces in society, including online mobs that foment outrage against offending individuals, often with abuse, slander, harassment, and serious threats, such as loss of employment.

I appreciate the book’s thoughtful discussion of free speech, including the question of what constitutes harmful expression, and how people have different ideas of what’s harmful. For example, most would agree that issuing death threats or inciting a mob to attack shouldn’t be counted as free speech. However, people may want to suppress speech that appears to undermine a set of beliefs they hold dear. Harm as a concept can get stretched from the threat of literal violence to feelings of upset, anger, or offense. How do we best determine the standards of harm for our society?

The book serves as a reminder of what free speech is meant to protect and why it’s important to uphold it as a general principle (and not limit it to a question of what the government permits). Are the following important to you?

  • The ability to engage in free inquiry, including questioning ideas and conducting investigations into different topics.
  • The ability to discuss various issues, including the pros and cons of public policies.
  • The ability to write, paint, and create other art. (Of course there have been controversies, including questions about whether a piece has artistic merit or is mere obscenity. But do you generally prefer to critique an artistic work, or do you lean more towards bans, threats, and harassment of authors and artists?)

There are challenges to upholding free speech, not least because people have a strong tendency to be tribal about it. (Even people who consider themselves free speech proponents are prone to tribalism; they’ll gladly defend one of their own, but not a political opponent.)

People are also prone to exercising coercion, imposing certain types of thought and speech on anyone who doesn’t conform. The book provides multiple examples of the way “offenders” are met not with well-reasoned critiques but with exaggeration, dishonesty, displays of moral outrage, and threats against livelihood, reputation, and physical safety. With social media, it’s easy to instantly whip up large numbers of people from all over to descend on an offending individual, and no facts or well-developed arguments are necessary.

Instead of reasoned arguments, people often rely on personal attacks and ascribe all kinds of evil intentions to someone who steps out of bounds. Discussing a 1994 article by Glenn Loury, Blackford writes:

Within a milieu of political conformity, anyone who speaks out on a particular topic in a particular manner will be judged personally. Meaning will be read into her manner of expression, and her arguments may never be examined on their merits. Questions about her data and her reasoning may well be set aside, and instead she will be assessed as someone who was willing to speak in that way, at that time, on that topic. This may reveal her as an apostate from her group, especially if its true believers are hiding whatever misgivings they have about the local orthodoxy. A likely consequence is that a group’s moderates and internal dissenters will be driven out of conversations, or at least be forced to keep silent about their moderate and dissenting opinions.

What happens when people are afraid to speak, express doubt, or question a group in any way? Along with festering resentment, stagnation sets in. Far fewer original thoughts, interesting proposals, or important questions get introduced. People’s capacity for critical thinking weakens, and they struggle more with how to construct a strong argument or evaluate evidence. (What need is there for critical thinking when you can engage in knee-jerk outrage?) There’s also more dishonesty, distortions, and misconceptions. For example, when non-conforming thoughts are severely curbed in a particular environment (such as a university), people might assume that the established, acceptable opinion on a certain topic is more widely held than it actually is, because no one is speaking out in disagreement or calling for greater nuance.

Towards the end of the book, Blackford offers suggestions for how to combat forced conformity and promote well-reasoned discussions and inquiry. Examples include recognizing propaganda techniques, resisting the knee-jerk impulse to join social media mobs, assessing other people’s words and intentions in as fair-minded a way as possible, pushing for changes in various organizations in terms of their speech codes or the reasons for which they fire someone, and facing down an outrage-fueled mob without caving in to irrational demands or abuse.

Another book I read recently, The Coddling of the American Mind, overlaps in some of its topics with The Tyranny of Opinion and also offers suggestions at the end for “wiser kids,” “wiser universities,” and “wiser societies,” including ways to protect physical safety and dignity while engaging in more robust discussions, self-reflection, and a principled stand against mobs.

I want to be optimistic, and I do see more people sharing concerns about conformity and the suppression of free speech and inquiry in ways that don’t involve government censorship. But what are the incentives for greater numbers of people to more consistently resist suppression, conformity, and an overly broad definition of harm?

Outrage and tribalism are powerful and attractive. The self-righteous thrill, the malicious glee, or the power trip of fomenting or joining a mob appeals to many. Engaging in more critical thinking and self-reflection is difficult, and the rewards aren’t usually immediate. Evaluating evidence, waiting for more evidence, withholding a knee-jerk opinion, making the effort to truly understand someone with a different political point-of-view, and conveying another person’s point-of-view honestly – all of that takes mental effort and a commitment of character.

You can say that one of the rewards is a strengthening of your integrity and self-respect. But to what extent do people care enough or even associate those qualities with the ability to sustain a civil, honest discussion? It’s also much less risky to keep your head down, especially if you aren’t wealthy, well-connected, or powerful. A major pushback against mob mentality and excessive restrictions on speech will need to come from thoughtful, influential individuals and from large numbers of people who support them – people who don’t agree with each other on all topics or share all of the same beliefs.

Here’s another excerpt from the book. It can serve as a call to action, pushing for a return to traditionally liberal values, which are necessary to maintain a certain kind of society. (If this kind of society is sufficiently important to us, we’ll try to keep those values alive.)

… principles such as secular government, free inquiry and discussion, and the rule of law; values such as individuality, spontaneity, and original thinking – have wider cultural resonance if only we take the trouble to explain and advocate them. When we override these principles and values with supercharged anxieties about identity and offence, we throw away what made liberalism attractive in the first place.”

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Dickens Depicting Terrible Child Education

One of the best things about Dickens is his description of places. Even his better characterizations depict a person as a landscape of crags, folds, and crumpled postures.

I’m in the middle of one of his novels, Dombey and Son, and so far one of my favorite descriptions is of a school for boys run by the respectable Doctor Blimber. Blimber takes the young sons of wealthy families and forces on them a grueling study schedule that relentlessly stuffs knowledge into their brains until they risk becoming stupid or deeply depressed. (The head boy, a Mr. Toots, loses the ability to form coherent thoughts.)

Dombeyson serial cover

By Bradbury & Evans (Christies Auction House) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dickens compares Blimber’s little school to a “great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work” –

Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other.

The boys are also compared to sad birds making cheerless noises in the house:

… and sometimes a dull cooing of young gentlemen at their lessons, like the murmurings of an assemblage of melancholy pigeons.

The descriptions are funny, but at the same time, Dickens is depicting a depressing environment and its unwholesome effects on the children and teens who are trapped in it.

Even though every moment of their day is scheduled and, for the most part monitored, the boys are neglected. Their needs and their individual temperaments, talents, and inclinations don’t matter. (Dickens is setting himself against a blank slate type of attitude, where every child starts out more or less the same – and, if the teacher wishes it, can be squeezed into the same shape.) They lose their spirits. Learning isn’t learning; it’s a steady force-feeding with thick, flavorless food. Their parents don’t seem to mind, because attending Doctor Blimber’s school is the expected thing to do. It’s respectable.

Doctor Blimber knows how to prepare kids for life, so that they enter adulthood mentally and/or emotionally crushed and ready to discharge whatever tedious duties are laid before them. Only, he would never see it that way. He would see it as cultivating their minds on their path to a respectable adulthood.

Just to end this post on a modern note – a recent article from Fast Company talks how U.S. schools often fail to prepare kids for college. A major issue is how kids receive assignments that aren’t sufficiently challenging. The emphasis is more on funneling the kids through to the next grade than on teaching, particularly teaching them to think critically and creatively and to persist on challenges. (Of course, cramming knowledge into them Blimber-style isn’t the answer, not least because it doesn’t teach creativity or critical thinking.)

James Hollis on Lethargy and Fear

In Living an Examined Life, James Hollis writes the following:

“Life’s two biggest threats we carry within: fear and lethargy… Those perverse twins munch on our souls every day. No matter what we do today, they will turn up again tomorrow. Over time, they usurp more days of our lives than those to which we may lay fair claim.”

Those words (from Chapter 2: It’s Time to Grow Up) struck me forcefully. I recognize this struggle in myself, and it’s also in the forefront of my mind now because I recently observed Yom Kippur – a day of fasting and atonement, and also reflection on my actions and what I’d like to change (and how I’d like to make those changes).

The effects of fear and lethargy often emerge in different kinds of avoidance. Avoiding specific efforts, backing down in various ways, complying without true conviction, disengaging from meaningful activities and turning to repetitive, numbing behaviors, or seeking what Hollis describes as “fundamentalist forms of thinking that finesse subtlety, fuzz opposites, seek simplistic solutions to complex issues, and still our spirit’s distress with the palliative balm of certainty.”

I also think lethargy can be born of fear. What looks superficially like laziness (like the choice to watch hours of TV) is sometimes a way of procrastinating because you’re afraid of what will happen if you act. It’s a way of hiding, remaining unnoticeable and as such more impervious to attack and less likely to suffer the disappointment of failure. (Though you may later suffer the regret that you didn’t act.)

Obviously some fears are warranted and need to be managed reasonably. And it’s ok to relax too. If you’ve worked hard, made various efforts during the day, you can take a break. The danger is when fear and lethargy begin to dominate you. I need to watch out for this myself – to pay attention to behaviors that are mere distractions from what’s important or avoidance techniques in response to things I need to face.

The tiring “sparkle and crackle” (a post inspired by North and South)

I ruminate. I like the connection of that word to “chewing the cud,” because it’s a slow process, and it doesn’t look like much from the outside. (Sometimes it doesn’t yield much either.)

I have moments of sparkle and wit, especially when I’m feeling comfortable in a conversation. But I shy away from arguments that are mostly about showing off, where there’s a demand for rapid responses and the collapsing of complex issues into seemingly clever soundbytes.

I don’t like competition in discussion. I don’t like the vocabulary of ‘owning’ or ‘slaying’ or ‘destroying’ someone in an argument. I’m not a fan of conversational theatrics. I see discussions as a slow, cooperative process. Partnering up with someone for rumination, with space for silence and taking a breath.

What does any of this have to do with North and South, the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell?

I just posted about North and South on this blog, and how I appreciate the way the author portrays personal and societal upheavals.

There’s also a passage in the book that struck me with how well it captured conversation that’s mostly about showing off. Margaret Hale, the novel’s main character, is at a dinner party in London observing some of the guests:

Every talent, every feeling, every acquirement; nay, even every tendency towards virtue, was used up as materials for fireworks; the hidden, sacred fire, exhausted itself in sparkle and crackle. They talked about art in a merely sensuous way, dwelling on outside effects, instead of allowing themselves to learn what it has to teach. They lashed themselves up into an enthusiasm about high subjects in company, and never thought about them when they were alone; they squandered their capabilities of appreciation into a mere flow of appropriate words.

Gaskell wasn’t writing specifically about arguments here. But I recognize the style of conversation she was describing in this 19th-century novel. Too much energy dissipated in flashiness: retorts, quips, showing off. Then the fireworks show ends, and the night sky seems empty, and people turn their eyes away from it.

I used to like the sparkle more when I was younger. As I get older, what I like best is straightforwardness, uncomplicated pauses that are comfortable (and not a sign that you’re “being owned”), and the ability to hold up an issue and ask questions and examine it from different angles without needing to deal with snide remarks or being immediately labeled for not coming up with the correct words or opinions.

RIP Marion Woodman

I first learned about her through this interview, where her thoughts on addiction and perfectionism struck me:

“They are never where they are; they are always running, or dreaming about the wonderful past, or the wonderful future. So they are never in the body. The body lives in the present. The body exists right now. But an addict is not in the body, so the body suffers. Uninhabited. And there’s where that terrible sense of starvation comes from.”

Recently I started reading one of her books, The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation, and it’s a summons to fight stagnation:

“People splayed in a perpetual chrysalis… are in trouble. Stuck in a state of stasis, they clutch their childhood toys, divorce themselves from the reality of their present circumstances, and sit hoping for some magic that will release them from their pain into a world that is ‘just and good,’ a make-believe world of childhood innocence. Fearful of getting out of relationships that are stultifying their growth, fearful of confronting parents, partners or children who are maintaining infantile attitudes, they sink into chronic illness and/or psychic death. Life becomes a network of illusions and lies. Rather than take responsibility for what is happening, rather than accept the challenge of growth, they cling to the rigid framework that they have constructed or that has been assigned to them from birth. They attempt to stay ‘fixed.’ Such an attitude is against life, for change is a law of life.”

I wanted to share this passage in part because that last line is a necessary reminder to not resist the inevitable changes and to not avoid the changes that could help me grow.

On Becoming a Person, Chapter 3 – Thriving in a Healthy Helping Relationship

In the third chapter of his book, On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers talks about some of the qualities of a healthy helping relationship. Although his focus is on therapists and patients, he also notes how these qualities could apply to other relationships, such as parent-child or teacher-student. Here are some:

1) A sincere desire to understand the other person. This doesn’t mean saying “I understand what’s wrong with you and now I’ll fix you” or “I understand what’s wrong with you because I had a similar experience and this is how I felt about it” or “I understand all right, but your concerns aren’t serious.” It’s important to try to see an issue as the other person sees it, not how you see it. Even if you don’t always succeed in understanding, people at least pick up on the sincere effort.

2) Genuineness. This isn’t license to be rude and insulting (for instance, there are ways of expressing anger that don’t involve humiliating another person; and I’m making this point from the start because I know people who are brutally hurtful, then claim it’s ok because they’re just being themselves).

With genuineness, you aren’t constantly giving off conflicting messages – ‘nicey nice’ words with anger in your eyes, a compliment spoken in indifference, contempt or resentment – as these generate mistrust. You’re aware of your thoughts and feelings, and aren’t always compelled to put on a show in front of everyone. To be more genuine requires self-acceptance; you’re willing to take the risk of being more exposed. You do not need to appear ‘perfect’ and express the ‘perfect’ sentiment at all times. Self-acceptance also means that you have less fear of others and what kinds of reactions they might provoke in you; you’re more accepting of their presence as well, and less defensive about what they say or do.

3) Allowing yourself to feel warmth and caring. You can care about the other person, while knowing full well that there’s always the possibility that they’ll flake out on you, try to take advantage of your good will, make terrible mistakes, stab you in the back, or disappoint you. The alternative is to remain cold or completely impersonal, which usually closes off communication in these kinds of relationships (though it does give you the sense that you’re protecting yourself).

4) Reminding yourself that you’re distinct from the other person. Do you fear losing yourself in their emotions? On the flip side, are you trying to control them, needing them to slavishly follow what you say or be dependent on you? You really have to respect that the other person is distinct and separate from you, and you from them.

5) Unconditional acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you’re automatically condoning everything the other person does. It means that you keep regarding them as they are, instead of completely spurning them or twisting their words and behaviors to be more palatable to you. Or can you really only see the other person when they show you the kinds of things that are easiest and least disturbing for you to see?

6) The ability to create an unthreatening environment. Are you subjecting the other person to the threat of constant evaluation and judgment? Do they always feel as if they’re trying to prove themselves and are falling short? Or are you helping them establish their own standards of behavior, their own sense of what’s acceptable or not, and helping them take responsibility for themselves without the constant need of a punishment or harsh judgment hanging over their heads?

7) Perceiving the other person as constantly developing. Instead of seeing them purely bound to their past and what they’ve always been to you (often in unforgiving terms: an ignorant student, an immature child, a neurotic mess, etc.) you see them in the process of becoming, of daily changes and development.

Most of the time what blocks us from developing these qualities to any extent is fear – of being hurt and exposed, of being wrong. Another pitfall is all-or-nothing thinking: “I fail to be genuine all of the time, so I won’t bother.” Then there’s mental laziness, which can lead us to taking shortcuts in understanding and helping another person. The take home point is that to be in a position to consistently help others, you need to work on your own psychological maturity – so as not to use other people and their problems for your own purposes, and obscure them in a dense cloud of your own thoughts and feelings.

Review of “Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become”

In her book Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, Susan Engel raises three main points:

1) Parents can’t redesign their children’s basic personality and intelligence.

2) A number of behaviors that parents are quick to label as ‘red flags’ in young kids are usually normal; instead of ‘red flags’ they’re ‘red herrings,’ leading parents to make incorrect predictions about their child’s future or worry about minor or nonexistent problems.

3) The means to distinguish between red flags and red herrings can be derived from research. We’ve accumulated a body of research to-date that can help us distinguish between normal or less damaging circumstances and patterns of behavior, and those that are actually worrisome.

Regarding points 1 and 2, Engel presents some convincing arguments throughout the book. For instance, intelligence is a fairly stable trait; a child of average intelligence isn’t going to become a genius. However, this doesn’t mean that environmental influence doesn’t have an impact. A child’s intelligence can be enhanced or dampened. For instance, parents who give their children opportunities to learn, give them books, talk to them, help them discover things they love doing, and show their kids the importance of perseverance increase the chances of the kid succeeding later in life, more than if they fuss over IQ numbers and whether their kid is the most gifted one in the class. They give their kids the opportunity to behave intelligently, expand their knowledge and skills, and live to their fullest potential. This is in contrast to kids who, regardless of what their intellectual potential is, don’t get very many opportunities to grow and may start to behave unintelligently, suppressing their natural potential.

In regards to the third point, the books is less convincing. Engel covers a lot of research, much of it interesting, showing how what we consider ‘red flags’ may not necessarily hobble a child for life; for instance, children who grow up in unstable homes but have certain protective factors in their life may still become well-functioning adults. The tricky part comes in when Engel tries to show how you can make predictions about an individual child’s life based on the research. What are the problems with how she lays out her approach?

a. There are individual differences, and noise in the data, when it comes to any study, especially when you’re looking at complex traits such as shyness and intelligence, or studying various factors that influence development. Granted, I don’t think Engel ever says that you can predict 100% how your child will turn out, but I think the case is overstated in the book.

b. She doesn’t devote enough time to discuss the research methodology or study limitations, including possible flaws in study design. In a couple of places she does point out the issue of individual differences, but I think that for a book that is so heavily based on research, she should have spent more time discussing and explaining the research. Readers who don’t have familiarity with research methodology in this area are particularly in need of understanding the limitations of the work to help them make sense of the data and understand what it can and can’t tell us.

c. In each chapter, Engel mixes research results with individual ‘case studies’ of kids who seemed to have red flags but turned out ok (or children whose red flags went undetected). Though she talks a lot about how you can use the existing research to help you decipher the clues in your child’s life, her case studies rely on hindsight; she knows how the kid turns out, so it’s simpler for her to trace the course of his or her life to see what might have gone right or wrong, and what were possible influences. Even then, with the benefit of hindsight, she doesn’t always make the developmental trajectory clear; I didn’t always understand why it was a given that a particular child would turn out ok, while another child wouldn’t. For people who don’t have the benefit of hindsight, it’s not easy to “decipher the clues,” given that a kid’s developmental trajectory is influenced by a complex combination of factors; I don’t know how you can always tell, in the present moment, whether something is a red flag or a red herring.

The bottom line is, I wish she’d gone more into explaining the research, which is interesting, and developing her discussions of it; her chapters were sometimes a hodgepodge of research examples and personal examples that didn’t mesh well or develop into a clear argument (the chapter on adult romantic relationships comes to mind).

But ultimately, the message that parents can’t completely remake their kids’ personalities, but instead can help enhance strengths and give their kids tools to cope with potential weaknesses, is a reasonable one, as it encourages parents to see their kids as they are, and not constantly measure them against other kids or against some parental ideal that may be narcissistic at heart.