Story Animals: Do We Need to Refine Our Discourse?

Why do we believe what we believe? Do we believe our eyes, our ears, our nose? Our senses are limited by our meat puppet exteriors. Optical illusions fool our eyes. Scents deaden our olfactory senses. Ultra low and high frequencies go unheard but affect us nonetheless. This is how we interpret and experience our reality and it has limitations and subjectivity. What color is that dress in the photo? If we struggle to agree on the color of a dress, what hope is there for us to agree on larger ideological differences when we may be predisposed to disagreement?

 “Political disputes ruin family reunions, scuttle policy initiatives, and spur violence and even terrorism. We summarize recent research indicating that the source of political differences can be found in biologically instantiated and often subthreshold predispositions as reflected in physiological, cognitive, and neural patterns that incline some people toward innovation and others toward conservatism. These findings suggest the need to revise traditional views that maintain that political opinions are the product of rational, conscious, socialized thought.”

— Hibbing, JR, Smith, KB, Peterson, JC & Feher, B 2014, ‘The deeper sources of political conflict: evidence from the psychological, cognitive, and neuro-sciences.’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol 18, no. 3, pp. 111-113.

Trusting our senses has long been known to be fallible but now we need to question our “rational, conscious, and socialized thought?” Oh boy. Where to even begin. First off how does our “rational, conscious, and socialized thought” affect our beliefs? I’m simple, so let’s simplify. Michael Shermer condenses the topic of belief right down to the binary question: to believe or not to believe.

“…belief is the natural state of things it is the default option. Belief is natural. Disbelief, skepticism, science is not natural.”

— Michael Shermer, TED Talks, Feb. 2010

Shermer breaks down our most basic thought process into “patternicity” which he defines as: “The tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.” The process of patternicity includes Type I and Type II errors. Type I errors are false positives, “believing a pattern is real when it is not” and Type II errors are false negatives, “not believing a pattern is real when it is.” Through his thought experiment of the “Rustle in the Grass” Shermer explains this concept and concludes we are the offspring of the most successful of our pattern recognizing primate ancestors. Binary yes or no, quick “patternicity” decisions are intrinsic in our nature.

Here we are, hairless-primate meat puppets unable to believe what we hear and only half of what we see. I’d say that is likely a much larger fraction by now. Our rational, conscious, socialized thoughts are apparently not to be trusted and we are forged by the forces of Darwin into being knee-jerk binary reactors.

Seems the cards are stacked against us in our struggle to find common ground, common purpose, and how we get there.

If every decision along the road to some new glorious future is to be blazed by a confirmed majority, if every decision is driven by a base binary evolutionary reaction that we only have some tenuous amount of control over, that is going to be a long difficult road. This road goes through a quagmire of opinions, ideologies, bias, bigotry and ignorance. A dog’s breakfast of human conditioning.

I’m not aware of too many people who would argue we are starting from some stage of enlightenment, quite the opposite. You don’t have to go far to find someone predicting a dark age or even that the end itself is upon us. 

“If you hang out much with thinking people, conversation eventually turns to the serious political and cultural questions of our times. Such as: How can the Americans remain so consistently brain-fucked? Much of the world, including plenty of Americans, asks that question as they watch U.S. culture go down like a thrashing mastodon giving itself up to some Pleistocene tar pit.”

— Joe Bageant, America: Y Ur Peeps B so Dum?, Dec. 2010

The late American writer Joe Bageant had his finger on the Trumpian-pulse of America over a decade ago. He is proof some people are very good practitioners of patternicity, able to discern future patterns from the current crop. Joe had his own, simpler, binary explanation of why things are the way they are and why people think the way they do.

“(A) we don’t even know we are doing it, and (B) we cling to institutions dedicated to making sure we never find out.”

— Joe Bageant, America: Y Ur Peeps B so Dum?, Dec. 2010

Joe further simplifies Shermer’s patternicity with “A” and adds an important aspect to realize with “B.” Our institutions are not trying to solve the problem. Our journalism, universities, religious and general societal discourse is divisive. The extremes in society are the big chunks of ideological meat our institutions sink their hooks into and pull apart. The main goal is division and obfuscation.

 “…the real function of American social institutions is to justify, rationalize and hide the true purpose of cultural behavior from the lumpenproletariat, and to shape that behavior to the benefit of the institution’s members.”

— Joe Bageant, America: Y Ur Peeps B so Dum?, Dec. 2010

How did they accomplish this? Certainly, examining how we have become ensnared in a mental prison can provide some insight on how to escape. Did most of us arrive at our current state of nurtured programming through an appeal to science? Not when 80% of the global population still identifies with some form of religion, no way. So, will mainly appealing to scientific method free us from these mental prisons?

Do not get me wrong. I am a believer and supporter of the scientific method. The current postmodernist movement is as regressive as “knowledge” can get. But I am unlikely to win over a bunch of meth addicts with a handful of ludes.

I’m not saying we should resort to the nonsensical or unsupported. I don’t want Sam Harris to start talking about how he “Just feels we all need to change” and everyone should respect that or he is going to retreat to his safe space. Hell no. I think Harris does a good job with his use of analogies of getting to the heart of how this fight needs to be fought.

But we need to bridge the gap between the factual and the anecdotal. Anecdotal can be the delivery mechanism of the factual. This is what Sam Harris achieves with his analogies. Joe Bageant used the word “algorithmic” to explain the average American’s distrust of science within a broader context. Our dependence on technology, “algorithms” and science has left people separated from their lived experiences and their trust of this algorithmic way of things is not implicit. To paraphrase Shermer in a nod to Joe, that shit ain’t natural.

 “Life is lived anecdotally, not algorithmically. And anecdotal evidence is not allowed… As one poster… put it, ‘Anecdotal now has this enforced meaning such that no one is supposed to believe what they experience, what they see, hear, taste, smell, etc. The Powers That Be have basically extinguished the notion of inductive reasoning. Everything has to be replicated in a laboratory and since 90% of all the labs in this nation are operated by Corporate Sponsored monies, not much truth comes out of them.’”

— Joe Bageant, Algorithms and Red Wine, Oct. 2010

In our fake news, anti-science, descendants of binary decision-making primates world, how do we fight the din of ignorance, disbelief, unfounded belief and just fucking stupidity? We aren’t post-truth, we are post-post-truth. The people have figured out they have been lied to for a while now. Claiming truth just ended in November 2016 is criminally delusional. I question the mental capacity or maybe even the wicked intentions of anyone so seemingly dunce.

We need to find the frequency that cuts through the din. Sit in our pirate radio workshops and mess with the dials until it comes into tune, reverberates through and shakes the bones of those it touches, changes them and their minds. People can do this to one another. It is why we love Leonard Cohen and Pablo Neruda. It is why we fear the likes of Hitler.

There needs to be a story to carry the facts and ideas that will change minds, it needs to be broadcast through the noise and find minds open enough that they are looking to tune it in, antennae up. If we can do this, we can get those invisible airwaves of thought crackling with life again.

“Invisible airwaves

Crackle with life

Bright antennae bristle

With the energy

Emotional feedback

On a timeless wavelength

Bearing a gift beyond price

Almost free”

— Rush, Spirit of Radio

Christopher Kiely

Christopher Kiely is an independent writer, musician and newly minted “classical liberal.” After many years of watching the increased authoritarianism of both political extremes he is looking for allies ready to take on the influx of illiberal and post-modernist thinking invading our public discourse.

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Christopher Kiely

Christopher Kiely is an independent writer, musician and newly minted “classical liberal.” After many years of watching the increased authoritarianism of both political extremes he is looking for allies ready to take on the influx of illiberal and post-modernist thinking invading our public discourse.

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