Self-Sabotaging Social Systems

A bunch of interesting stuff I’ve read and heard over the past week has prompted me to discern an underlying theme—the capacity within a social system to sabotage itself even as its adherents strive to more fully implement its ideals in practice.


The first piece is an article by Yanis Varoufakis, a former academic thrust into the consequential role of finance minister for the new leftist Greek government. The article is sharply written, critiquing both Marxism and neoliberal capitalism in the context of the contemporaneous economic and political problems in the EU. What struck me most was this:

Every non-Marxist economic theory that treats human and non-human productive inputs as interchangeable assumes that the dehumanisation of human labour is complete. But if it could ever be completed, the result would be the end of capitalism as a system capable of creating and distributing value…

If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.

If you suppose, as I do, that there is indeed an “indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom” that underpins the creation of things—all objects and ideas, not just stuff that is amenable to economic valuation—then this Marxist critique of capitalism becomes extremely powerful.

I’ve always thought about the problems with capitalism in concrete terms—the way it can overturn communities, the environmental damage that is often overlooked, the seemingly inevitable growing inequality. These problems, in turn, create pressures that undermine the capitalist system. But perhaps there’s also a more fundamental problem that is inherent within capitalism itself—the more that people are dehumanised and commoditised in the name of ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’, the less capitalism is able to create and distribute (economic) value. That is a fascinating idea.


The second piece is an ABC Radio National feature produced by my friend Allison Chan titled God on Campus: theology and the secular in higher education. She explores the history of theology as a course that is taught in universities, the sometimes fraught role of government in funding such teaching, and more broadly the place of Christianity in the public sphere.

The thematic element I drew from this piece is not about faith (that’s my next point!), but rather a seemingly innocuous idea that came up during the interviews—that universities provided with public funding should be ‘accountable’ for the ‘results’ they produce. OK, calling this a social system is a bit of a stretch. Suffice it to say that it is an ideal to be striven towards.

Here is the problem that arose for me as I listened. Of course, it is bad for universities to be unaccountable for the funding they receive, wasted resources and all that. So, they should be accountable. But how do we determine it in practice? By what metrics?

Take theology, the subject of the piece. Should it be about improving critical thinking? Hm, that might be a bit hard to measure. What about the number of people that go on to serve in formal ministry? Or maybe the income generated through charity work? That would be more doable. But what happens when the numbers-based benchmarks are not being met? Does that mean funding should be cut, unless changes are made to get the ‘results’ we want?

In that case, universities teaching theology will have a subtle but unmistakable incentive to achieve those benchmarks—an incentive that is, I would argue, not aligned with the purpose of teaching theology in the first place. Of course this is also an issue more broadly in the teaching of humanities. What’s the point of resource-constrained governments spending money on universities if they are not preparing students for jobs in the ‘real world’? Good question, but we should also consider what we are losing by taking a strict ‘results’-driven approach to accountability.


The last piece is a short commentary by Elizabeth Bruenig on a recent poll that found 57 percent of Republicans agreed that Christianity should be established as America’s “national religion”, and why that would be terrible for Christianity. Essentially:

Were Christianity named our national religion, it would only be dubbed such to serve a particular national purpose, that is, to straighten out our morals or boost morale for our confrontation of terrorism abroad. But to do this would be to force Christianity into the servitude of particular national interests, which would only further the degree to which the Christian faith is already wrongly conflated with specific American political aims. But the goals of Christianity are in no sense specifically American, and understanding them as such only instills divisiveness between American and global Christianityand that’s ultimately contrary to the unity sought by the Christians of the world. In other words, establishing Christianity as a national faith would force Christianity into submission to American politics, morphing it into a servant rather than a guide of political thought.

While not many respondents would’ve thought through the full implications of what they were agreeing to, I can understand their sentiment. Specifically, Christianity may constitute their identity or worldview, and they would like to live in a country where this is officially ratified as good and right. More generally, Christianity may be associated with positive notions of service, charity and idealised notions of a ‘better’, Anglocentric past (these are Republicans after all)—therefore they would like the country to be more like this.

This gets to a question that was also raised in the Radio National feature: what is the place of Christianity in the public sphere? Broadly speaking I think Christians can take three positions on this:

  1. Withdrawal — Live within their own communities, no influence in the public sphere (this is also what some of the more aggressive secularists and atheists would like to see)
  2. Presence — Advocacy, service, dissemination of Christians ideas and values
  3. Authority — Christian values and practices have legal force.

My thought that social systems can undermine themselves is directed at the third position. It is understandable that Christians would like more power to influence society, to shape it in ways that they believe is right. But this is actually antithetical to the gospel message. Christians are taught to follow Jesus’ example and give up power for others, not to seek power over others. Christians live by biblical principles out of love and gratitude, not to enforce those principles on others through legal compulsion.

Public participation through authority is not only contradictory to what Christianity teaches, but it is also a kind of self-sabotage. Authority leads to imperfect people abusing their power. Also, as Bruenig noted, Christianity would become entangled with national interests and politics in a way that diminishes its standing and its universality.


Let me be clear: I am not against the systems that I’ve written about.

Capitalism has on balance improved the quality of life for billions of people today. Many of humanity’s major challenges (some of them self-inflicted)—social, economic, environmental—need to be addressed, to varying degrees, by the (appropriately regulated) free market. Of course I’m in favour of accountability in teaching and against universities wasting money. And I also think that Christian ideas and values have profoundly shaped modern Western societies for the better, even in light of historical wrongs (which are numerous and complex),

My point is that these social systems, when implemented in their purest form, are not only potentially detrimental to society but also to themselves.

That still leaves a bunch of questions. Are systems self-regulating to the extent that they will sabotage themselves if they go too far? Even so, should there be countervailing forces in society to prevent a system from doing so and causing harm as result? What do these forces look like for each social domain and how can we create and sustain them? Is there some ‘happy medium’ in each domain that we can or should adhere to?

If you ask me, philosophy is still a very worthwhile pursuit!

On Political Correctness

It’s been another busy month, but there has been no shortage of good stuff to link to.

One article that has been doing the rounds is Jonathan Chait’s piece on political correctness. Chait defines political correctness in the article as:

[A] style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate … Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach.

Chait provides examples of speech and conduct that have been suppressed, dismissed and/or aggressively dealt with because they offend or are otherwise at odds with certain beliefs and ideals held by the left.* These beliefs and ideals often revolve around identity, such as gender, race and sexual orientation.

Broadly speaking, an animating goal for the left is equal treatment and respect for all groups. In particular, this entails advocacy on behalf of certain groups who have historically been marginalised, oppressed and deprived of power—for example, women, non-whites and LGBTs.

Chait makes the point that in their strident efforts to attain this goal, there are those on the left that act in ways that are decidedly antithetical to liberalism. This is not merely an intellectual problem—it is also detrimental for the left if people sympathetic to the movement do not provide self-reflection or criticism for fear of backlash, and those the movement seeks to appeal to are driven away by the coercive and overbearing culture.

Even if you don’t agree with everything (or anything) that I just outlined, keep an open mind and go read the piece.

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I’d like to add two observations in response to the article.

Firstly, it was both remarkable yet unsurprising that many of the heated disagreements with Chait settled on ad hominem attacks on his own (‘privileged’) identity. Chait even pre-empted this in his original article:

I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind … If you consider this background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there’s not much point in reading any further. But this pointlessness is exactly the point: Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.

Rather than engaging with Chait’s examples and arguments, these critics basically proved his point by going straight for de-legitimisation based on his identity.

The broader observation to be made here is that, psychologically speaking, we all tend to see in and ascribe to others our own sensitivities and fears.

For certain people on the left who spend a significant amount of time and energy advocating for leftist issues, they tend to see the world in terms of oppression, grievance and identity. Criticism from an outsider is just another instance of illegitimate use of power. Any attempt at engagement by those in ‘privilege’ positions (white, male, hetero) can be dismissed as ‘whitesplaining’/‘mansplaining’/ ‘straightsplaining’.

Secondly, I think that this whole hubbub can be boiled down to one of priorities.

For the people Chait describes, the illiberal means justify the ends. The worthy goal of promoting an equalist agenda may entail the silencing of people opposed to that agenda. (For an example that I’ve written about, see the Brendan Reich episode).

Chait sees this as deeply problematic:

Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.

For Chait, his first priority is a commitment to a “free political marketplace” where an open exchange of ideas can take place. One can argue about the extent to which this is possible in practice given existing biases, power structures, etc., but I would side with Chait and consider that it is nevertheless a crucial goal to be striving for.

 

Finally, I want to point to an interesting response from Ross Douthat to Chait’s piece. Douthat argues that, contra Chait, political correctness is often not self-defeating and actually achieves the aims of its wielders. Indeed, “if your primary mission is to ensure that your definition of ‘expanded freedom’ triumphs, why wouldn’t you use the levers of coercion available to you?”

Douthat answers his own question by pointing to a deeper question—it is not just about who wins and who loses, but rather, even in victory, is the idea right or wrong? I think it’s a great analysis that is well worth quoting at length, with emphasis added:

The strongest answer, as I’ve tried to suggest before in debates about pluralism, has to rest in doubt as well as confidence: In a sense of humility about your own certainties, a knowledge that what looks like absolute progressive truth in one era does not always turn out to look that way in hindsight, and a willingness to extend a presumption of decency and good faith even to people whose ideas you think history will judge harshly. If you just say, “I believe in free debate because I’m certain than in free debate the good and right and true will eventually triumph, and I know that coercion will ultimately backfire,” you aren’t really giving the practical case for coercion its due. Better to say: “I believe in free debate because I know that my ideas about the good and right and true might actually be wrong (or at least be only partial truths that miss some bigger picture), and sometimes even reactionaries are proven right, and we have to leave the door open to that possibility.”

The problem with political correctness, in this sense, isn’t that it necessarily hurts the causes it claims to advance; sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it just helps them win. It’s that like most systems of speech policing (which of course held sway in traditional societies as well) it excludes the possibility that those causes might be getting big things wrong, and thus it hurts the larger cause of truth.

I don’t think Chait would disagree with this, but I think it’s a slightly harder argument for him to make than me, because even though he’s (per his critics) a white male neoliberal sellout he’s also still basically a political progressive, with a Whiggish view of history somewhere in his bones. And then it’s a still-harder argument for him to address persuasively to those, further to his left, for whom the possibility that capital-H History might not be with them on all fronts strikes at the very heart of their self-conception and worldview.

Hence the easier-to-pitch claim that P.C. just doesn’t work, that it alienates potential allies, that it poorly serves its own ideas. Which indeed it does, at times. But when it doesn’t, when it works, the deeper problem remains: Sometimes the ideas themselves are wrong.

* For other examples, see this piece by Freddie deBoer, who is not a Chait fan.

Farewell Phillip Hughes

2014 has been a wretched year, with bad news headline after bad news headline. But the latest tragic event has hit a lot closer to home for me. Phillip Hughes, an Australian cricketer 3 days shy of his 26th birthday, has died. His family decided to switch off life support two days after he was struck behind the ear by a cricket ball while batting in a domestic game.

Hughes’ death has brought about a huge outpouring of grief nationally and also in the international cricket community. I’m adding my contribution to remember him and explain why he was important to me.

Perhaps the biggest reason is that we were so close in age. I have a friend who played against him in club cricket back in the day. I was barely out of high school when news circulated of Hughes’ precocious talent and exciting potential, punctuated by making history as the youngest player to score a century in the Sheffield Shield final.

At age 20 all things seem possible, but it still feels remarkable when great things actually happen. To play for Australia must have been such a big thrill for him. For me it was inspiring to see that our generation was breaking barriers and going places. I still remember being hunched in my cubicle one evening at my casual call centre job, impatiently refreshing the 2G flip phone data connection to receive updates from the South African tour. I remember the feeling of exhilaration upon finding out that he had scored twin centuries in the Durban test, making history once again.

Watching Hughes was a treat. I only ever saw him on TV, but it was always captivating. I have a certain affinity for lefties — I loved Gilchrist’s explosiveness and Hussey’s smoothness. Hughes had an unorthodox style, but he was similar to them in that every time you watch him, you knew something exciting was going to happen. His penchant for slashing at balls got him into trouble more than I’d like, but it certainly made for compelling viewing.

Finally, I respect how Hughes conducted himself. He was dropped several times from the Test team, and each time he went about his business diligently, plundering runs in domestic competition to put himself back in contention. There was never any drama, on-field or off. Hughes was a humble man who loved the game, and by all accounts he was well-loved by those who knew him.

Thank you Phillip Hughes, for inspiring me as a fellow Gen-Yer, for bringing us joy through your craft, and for being a great example in life. You will be sorely missed.*

* I also give my deepest condolences to Sean Abbott, the young man who felled Hughes. He was simply trying his best for his team, and now this incident will haunt him forever. Mike Carlton put it best:

Young men are not meant to die as Phillip Hughes did. Nor to bear the burden now laid upon Sean Abbott.  How infinitely sad.

Generosity is More Than Action

Following on from my musings on why empathy is not enough, I wanted to spend some time addressing why generosity is not enough — at least in the common understanding of the word that refers to the act of giving stuff like money, goods, physical assistance, etc.

To be generous means showing a readiness to give more of something than is strictly necessary or expected. The something that I want to talk about is generosity of thought.

What is it?

To me there are (at least) two aspects of being generous with our thinking:

  1. Giving the benefit of the doubt to someone, even when we think they don’t deserve it.
  2. Giving the best interpretation of someone’s argument, even though to us it seems there are obvious flaws with it.

With respect to (1), the thing that pops into my mind is the fundamental attribution error. It is a term in social psychology that refers to our tendency to place greater weight on a person’s internal characteristics, rather than the external circumstances, to explain that person’s behaviour. We don’t apply this weighting to ourselves since we are more cognisant of our own situation.

For example, when someone doesn’t return our message, it’s easy to feel frustrated and conclude that they’re unreliable or trying to screw you over in some way. But maybe they’re having a busy day? Maybe they left their phone in their bag and didn’t hear the notification? There are many ways we can justify to ourselves and others why we did (or did not do) something that had nothing to do with our own incompetence or malice. I think we should extend that courtesy to others.

It doesn’t mean being naive or unduly trusting of others. It means making that courtesy the starting rebuttable proposition, rather than taking things personally or rushing to pass judgment/condemnation.

With respect to (2), I think the guiding principle for any debate — political, scientific, religious, personal taste, whatever — is how do we make it constructive. In an age of short attention spans, plentiful distractions and easy outlets for manufactured outrage, having a constructive debate is hard. Don’t contribute to the madness. Whether you agree or disagree with what you’re presented with, stop and think:

  • Where is this person coming from?
  • Why do they think this way?
  • What evidence have they put forth?
  • Is it convincing? Why or why not?
  • What assumptions are they operating under?
  • If I grant those assumptions and understand where they are coming from, does their argument now make more sense or less?

Get to know your logical fallacies. Consider the argument as a whole, rather than focusing on the person or nitpicking the individual elements. Again, this isn’t a call for being naive. It’s not a call for false balance. If we are fairly sure — after attempting to engage in honest and constructive debate — that someone is not arguing in good faith, then it is legitimate to stop taking them seriously and stop giving them attention.

Why is it hard?

The glib answer is that going with the flow is easy. Our natural tendency is to judge, to jump to conclusions and to dismiss people we don’t agree with.

At a higher level, I think generosity of thought is hard because of two fundamental human traits that complicate and undermine our interactions with one another: fear and pride.

Fear — We don’t want to face up to things that might disturb our identity and beliefs. We don’t want to get offside with our in-group by entertaining (or, heaven forbid, accepting) ideas and arguments that are proposed by an out-group.

Pride — We don’t want to appear weak, we don’t want to admit mistakes, we don’t want to get “tricked”. It feels good to think that we are on the right side, the better side. It feels good and empowering to kick others when they are down.

However, as the saying goes, nothing easy is ever worth doing. I’m writing this for myself as much as for you. Let’s not coast through life. We can make the world a better place in more ways than simply giving our resources and time.

How do we get it?

1. Generosity of thought requires humility and self-awareness to acknowledge that you are not as good as you think, and other people are not as bad as you think. You are not proud or pompous.

2. It requires being comfortable with admitting that. You are not fearful or insecure.

3. It requires empathy — the ability and willingness to step into another person’s shoes.

4. It requires an understanding that we are more alike than we are different. We all have similar dreams, hopes and fears. We have the same cognitive biases. We have the same need for belonging and approval.

Know that you are swimming against the tide. Our modern society doesn’t reward humility. It creates insecurities and then offers shallow solutions for them. It venerates competition and self-interest. It doesn’t want you to think too hard. Just go with the flow.

But let’s not do that. Let’s be generous with our thoughts. It is not strictly necessary or expected, but that’s kinda the point.

Manned Obsolesence

Busy month, so unfortunately no time for a fully fleshed out post. Here is a very thought provoking video on automation and unemployment which is the subject of my bad, punny title.

Is our faith in the ability of technology to continuously improve our lives misplaced or misguided? What will happen if and when large numbers of the population cannot contribute in any meaningful way to work? Will we be able to find new things for people to do?

Empathy Is Not Enough

At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas this weekend I listened to an interesting talk on the Narcissism Epidemic by writer and social commentator Anne Manne. The idea of narcissism traces back at least to Greek mythology. Today, the term refers to a spectrum of personality characteristics that can be summarised as an imbalance between self and others. Narcissism is characterised by, among other things:

  • Grandiosity
  • Entitlement
  • Willingness to use others, and above all,
  • Lack of empathy.

There has been a sharp rise in measures of narcissism in college students over the past 30 years. While social media has increased the prominence of self-centered, attention-seeking and trollish behaviour, I agree with Manne in that technology is more of an enabler of narcissism, rather than an underlying cause.

The more plausible explanation for the “narcissism epidemic” is that it is a natural product our time, namely, a social-political-economic system that is individualistic, materialistic and achievement-oriented. Psychologists nailed it with the term self-actualisation. Be the best person that you can be. Who can argue with that?

Self-sufficiency. Self-efficacy. Self-determination. Self-improvement. Self-worth. Self-dignity. Self-respect. Self-love. Self-worth. Self-esteem. Self-understanding. Self-concept. It’s all positively self-evident.

The exaltation of self occurs across the political spectrum. Manne brought up the ideology of Ayn Rand (who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness), which has been taken up enthusiastically by the political right in the United States. We can also see this with the current Australian government, most notably in its disturbingly inequitable budget and its rhetoric of “lifters not leaners”.*

Is the political left any better? I find that it is a mixed bag. The inherent dignity of human beings is a worthy cause to rally around. It has done so much in the past century to make society a more inclusive place. And yet I wonder how many have critically examined the notion of “I should be able to do whatever I want, and if it doesn’t affect you, then butt out” — as if we live in neat little bubbles and always know what’s best for ourselves. There is also an increasing self-righteousness that goes against the spirit of tolerance and respect that is needed for a civil, pluralistic society.

Several people asked at the end of the talk how do we address the narcissism epidemic. Manne said that the antidote to narcissism is empathy. We need to foster it — in the home, in schools, in workplaces, in the public arena. To me the answer is nice but so woefully insufficient, in the face of our self-actualisation-driven society. “Emotional literacy” is all well and good, but where does the motivation come from to empathise — not just in isolated spurts, but in a sustained manner?

This is one of the reasons I am attracted to the Christian gospel. Its message of grace means that we no longer have to live for ourselves. We are free to practice self-forgetfulness.

 

* I noticed that the audience gave enthusiastic rounds of applause when Manne repudiated the rhetoric of “lifters not leaners”, and murmured approvingly about the need for political leadership. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of these well-off, middle-to-upper class people voted for the LNP. At the end of the day, we get the government we deserve.