Wall V – A Psychological Version of Ocular Malice

[The additional discussion of Germany and its “mental wall” will be saved for a subsequent blog.]

I begin by contrasting two world views in dealing with hatred. These two are not the only ones. However, the two agglomerations of ideas are critical in understanding the contending voices in our current zeitgeist. I contrast the two world views in terms of their contrasting interpretations of:

  1. The Driving Forces Behind Political Behaviour;
  2. The Character of Memory;
  3. Mass Psychology;
  4. The Norm of Political Correctness.

An elaboration of Jordan Petersen’s views offers a helpful start.

Underlying Peterson’s claim that his actions were propelled by the need to defend free speech against the tyranny of political correctness, one does not find a premise of liberty, but of biology rooted in Darwinian determinism. Gender was not socially but biologically determined. Further, there were only two possibilities, male or female, a thesis that ran contrary to the nominalist position that the use of language is a convention and scientific language is not naturally determined, but a product of practice and agreement.

The Darwinian premise also underpinned one of my reader’s extensive objections to my psychological thesis explaining that the nature of hatred directed at others. The reader held that, “fundamental human nature…is first and foremost self-interested, particularly when these interests of the self are perceived as being threatened – no matter whether the threat is real or imagined.”

Jordan Peterson claimed that we are doomed unless we reverse course and found values on natural law and Darwinian deterministic scientific law whereby all humans are perceived through the lens of survival of the fittest. As his former academic colleague, friend and supporter, Bernie Schiff, has written, for Jordan Peterson, “Gender, gender roles, dominance, hierarchies, parenthood [are] all firmly entrenched in our biological heritage.”

For my correspondent, the universal propensity to self-interested behaviour in the interests of survival is then coloured by social psychology determined by the dispositions built into citizens by their different national cultures. In America, the pioneer ideal fostered individualism. Germans by ethnicity are rooted in their village of birth which fosters a sense of communal welfarism and an insular resistance to outsiders. Then why are both Americans and Germans so divided?

Quite aside from the very questionable theory of the roots of national culture in Germany, the thesis ignores the fact that one-fifth of the German population was uprooted at the end of WWII and forced to resettle in other parts of Germany than their place of birth. One could try to rebut by arguing that this trauma simply reinforced the disposition to adopt communal values and conformity more deeply. However, then the “birthplace” thesis would still need to be modified, especially for the several generations that followed.

This deformation of German history also ignores the fact that 10% of the names in the Berlin telephone directory are Huguenot, descendants of the first group forced to move in modern times who were referred to as refugees, the Protestants in flight from intolerance in Catholic France.

My reader’s thesis is an example of collective history that I referred to as forgetting, as falling back on a simplistic and reified view of national identity captured by a nostalgic outlook. Many Germans did this. Many did not and have tried to remember, to recall what happened by empathetically re-enacting the thoughts, feelings and decisions of their German predecessors of all varieties.

Jordan Peterson also exhibited a propensity to engage in misrepresentation accompanied by a disposition to seek martyrdom when no persecution or prosecution was in sight. He holds a contrarian deterministic view to the current dominant view of biology and certainly a contrarian view to the currently dominant consensus on the rules of language use. However, in defense of his position, he also revealed within himself and in his behaviour the social psychology of authoritative figures that he had at one time studied as objective fact. That depiction has since been internalized and incorporated into his own rhetorical style.

There was first of all the rhetorical appeal to emotions based on the mass psychology of those who shared his basic way of thinking. Peterson both insisted that he was a rallying cry for freedom of speech while tapping into a zeitgeist that defined regulations of any kind to be restrictions on freedom  Further, he accused those engaged in identity politics as the real sources of discrimination, a similar position in this respect to that of Francis Fukuyama.

Peterson thereby tapped directly into the resentments of many male white young adults whose relative status had declined relative to other ethnic groups and in the face of female success.

Political correctness and its imposition were viewed as the root cause of the threat to freedom of speech, ignoring the degree that it might not just be a mode of repression, but could, in fact, also guide the use of language to emphasize civility and respect for the dignity of others. On the metaphysical plane, the attack on existing norms of language use was a critique of a conventionalist wedge in the use of language that would lead to chaos.

Political correctness could be a means of repression and a force for conformity. Nominalism could easily slip into postmodernist disrespect for any claim to objective truth. And one might identify with Peterson when these were his targets. For example, there is the very recent case of Phillip Adamo, a respected history and mediaeval studies professor at Augsburg University in Minnesota who earned the Carnegie Award in 2015 as the best university teacher in that state. He was suspended under pressure from students who “felt uncomfortable” and “did not feel safe in his class” when he discussed James Baldwin’s use of the term “nigger” in The Fire Next Time. The specific Baldwin sentence was: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.” Adamo was suspended by the university in October; until today, to the best of my knowledge, he has not been reinstated.

As Randy Kennedy noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “This is not a case of a professor calling someone ‘nigger.’ This is a case of a professor exploring the thinking and expression of a writer who voiced the word to challenge racism. This is not a case of a professor negligently throwing about a term that’s long been deployed to terrorize, shame, and denigrate African-Americans. This is a case of a professor who, attentive to the sensibilities of his students, sought to encourage reflection about their anxieties and beliefs.”

Quite aside from the obvious abuse of the principle of academic freedom and the failure to follow any due process procedures in suspending the professor, the university’s defence of its actions made everything even worse. According to Augsburg’s chief academic officer, instead of his academic colleagues, a team of students and multicultural student services staff, which also included faculty representatives, have been assigned to review, not whether the suspension was inappropriate, but “the program areas about which concerns had been raised.” “We know that the work of fostering an inclusive learning environment is ongoing, and we are fully committed to it,” said President Paul C. Pribbenow. “We are grateful to the students, faculty and staff who have spoken courageously to raise campus awareness, who have engaged in actively listening to the issues being expressed, and who have called for changes that advance our equity work.” This seems, at least on the surface, to be an open-and-shut case of political correctness gone awry.

Perhaps even more interesting, the Administration’s defence of its actions offered the mirror image of Peterson failing to recognize that the legislation he objected to was about discrimination and not threatening a professor’s rights to use language. Except Peterson, instead of engaging in discussion governed by rules of civility and respect, shot arrows at postmodernists, suggesting that their classes be boycotted and that parents involve themselves in such protests and demands. Nor were his efforts to ask governments to cut university funding for courses that allegedly contributed to chaos not perceived as at odds with his insistence on protecting his free speech rights as a so-called champion objector to “political correctness.”

In contrast to Adamo, Peterson’s free speech rights were never challenged. At the same time, he challenged the rights of postmodernists to spread their convictions on the grounds that their beliefs would result in chaos. He claimed martyrdom on another front – his application for a research grant had been rejected, he claimed, based on the public position he took, while providing not a whit of evidence to support such a charge. Finally, he did not simply argue with his critics, but was angry and abusive towards them.

Before I clarify and elaborate on my own thesis, let me offer several others that attempt to explain this hatred as a form of group-think leading to attacks on and even endangering the well-being of others. In one thesis, what begins simply as a propensity to conformity morphs into protecting a collectivity and tribal rivalry. Hate is a symptom of fear. Fear is a symptom of insecurity, that the expression of your self-interest is not being and cannot be achieved. The frustration leads to the proposition that you are a victim of external forces, external negative forces that have their source in alien others out to get you. This is the displacement thesis.

As one writer put it, “The politics of national populism are not, as critics claim, simply and only cloaks for fascistic voters and governments’ pursuing policies of racial discrimination—though some obviously are. But other iterations of this are instead natural (my italics) expressions of community—a perfectly uncontroversial idea that was once conventional wisdom. Those of us interested in moving beyond flame-throwing—and into a useful conversation about how to create meaningful and effective public policy that benefits the most people—would do well to return to it.”

This natural expression of community is somehow, and I would argue, contradictory to the definition of “effective public policy” as “policy that benefits most people,” a utilitarian consequentialist stance that is at odds with the conservative value of preserving nationalism and a particular way of life.

The latter is a disposition and a choice and not natural in the sense of a universal given. In the next blog, I will elaborate on the character of this latter form of conservativism, which I value even though it is not my primary disposition or preference. It is a conservatism that is compatible with some ideas on the left and other ideas on the right, but is not compatible with the proto-fascism that I have been describing. The latter is prone to defend its positions on the basis of natural laws, on laws and propensities given in nature rather than in terms of a disposition chosen and reinforced or modified or even rejected by an individual who possesses that disposition.

On 13 September 2016, Psychology Today published an article to explain how, “Research explains why Donald Trump maintains support despite shocking behaviour.”  However, that is not the actual reference group, for the article refers only to the adamant supporters for whom Trump can do no wrong. Facts and conclusions of research have no persuasive power. Their behaviour was explained in terms of “natural laws.” The first was the Dunning-Kruger (D-K) effect.

David Dunning in Politico, wrote, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.” However, it is not because they are dumb; it is because they are not self-critical. They can only regurgitate what they believe; they cannot actively re-think. But this is simply the character of dogmatists. And there are plenty of dogmatists just as assuredly opposed to Trump. This so-called effect explains nothing except to assert that most of Trump’s diehard supporters are dogmatists evidently incapable of or unwilling to reflect on their position.

A second explanation is that the individuals in the group have a hypersensitivity to threat. Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A 2008 study in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals. A brain-imaging published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety.

In other words, we are anatomically and physiologically automatically predisposed to being conservatives. Branding migrants as threats stimulate a fear response especially strong in certain individuals.

A third explanation rooted in science derives from Terror Management Theory. Humans “have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitability of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.”

“Terror Management Theory predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identify, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not… Not only do death reminders increase nationalism, they influence actual voting habits in favor of more conservative presidential candidates.”

The fourth scientific explanation offered is “High Attentional Engagement.” DT could keep the brain engaged. Hilary Clinton could not. “Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session” using showmanship and simple messages. He was the better entertainer.

Summed up, Trump supporters lack self-critical skills, have a hypersensitivity to purported threats, especially those put forth as threatening their lives, and prefer entertainment to news. These are not scientific laws; they are simply correlations.

The issue is why? Explanations which commit “natural fallacies” (which I will explain in Sunday’s blog) are circular and explain nothing but merely insist there are a number of biological propensities that dictate support for DT. The implication: we can do little to dissuade Trump supporters from their support. They have a wall against contrary information which, unlike the Mexican border, is impenetrable.

Sunday: The Naturalistic Fallacy; Conservativism that is not a Wall but an Opening

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