Hillary Clinton Doesn't Understand Corruption

Hillary Clinton shaking hands with George Soros, a wealthy donor to her campaign
I have been following the US presidential election with keen interest. Usually I don't, and I didn't really care about the Obama elections. The difference this time around is that Bernie Sanders is making things interesting, and raising issues that I believe affect not only the US, but all of us.

The article "Clinton blasts Wall Street, but still draws millions in contributions" on The Washington Post, details Clinton's relationship with the financial industry, and quotes some of her responses to the accusation that she is being influenced by her financiers. First, it is a fact that she is receiving a lot of money from the financial industry, and that her increased criticism of them did not stem the tide of dollars flowing toward her campaign. Her response to the accusation?

“Anybody who knows me, who thinks they can influence me, name anything they’ve influenced me on. Just name one thing,”

I don't write about U.S. politics, but this quote, to me, reflects a deeper misunderstanding of the nature of corrupt politics. An excellent book that illuminated the topic to me was Bad Pharma, by Ben Goldacre. Goldacre writes about the pharmaceutical industry, and how they get their way around regulation. Far from surreptitious suitcases of money passing under tables, corruption is much more insidious. What campaign contributors are paying for is not to let a list of policies they wrote to be put into effect, or having veto on bills that could be negative to them, it's about friendship.

These donors are friends of Clinton, and friends do what friends do. They move in the same social circles. They go to the same dinner parties. They have the opportunity to sell their point of view to a political candidate in their circles. This very same audience is not afforded to those with other points of view, who aren't allowed a seat at the dinner table. Clinton may not realise this, but the friends she keeps shapes the way she looks at the world, and it is no surprise that what they want to shape in her worldview agrees with theirs. To their eyes, they are not corrupt either. They are merely supporting someone with whom they agree. Influence needn't be direct and conspicuous to work. 

These friendships usually have invisible strings attached. There is an unspoken agreement of what is acceptable and what is not. Without even seeing these strings, it is likely that Clinton will move according to where they tug. Sanders on the other hand, receives donations from common people, so by the same logic, the public is tugging at his strings. This is exactly what voters want in a candidate. Clinton may represent voters to a good degree, but will she have dinner with you, an ordinary voter? Will she have dinner with the CFO of the bank that is exploiting you? Are you comfortable with the answers to those questions?

You may believe you are not influenced by someone else, but if they shower you with compliments and boat loads of cash, it isn't hard to form a favourable opinion about them, and by extension to give more weight to what they have to say as opposed to those who disagree with them. If you have to be tough on them, won't you try to reason with them to find compromise? I can't say that I wouldn't. I don't have enough faith in the objectivity of the human animal to think that getting millions in contributions, or hundreds of thousands of dollars just for speaking, will not skew the opinion of any human being. So unless Clinton is a Vulcan, resigned completely to logical thought, I wouldn't bet money, and even less so a vote that she will not be influenced by her wealthy donors. I'll end this post with a quote from Bal Das, one of her wealthy donors, which I think speaks for itself:

She is not saying anything that someone deeply involved in the financial services sector would disagree with.

False Equivalence & Religion

It's very much in fashion, especially for newly minted atheists, to call everything they don't like a religion. Until you learn that dogma, orthodoxy, authoritarianism, schisms, cults of personality and all the other negative things we see in religion are not unique to supernatural beliefs.
I've even seen some religious believers engage atheists in this way. Apparently if they can convince an atheist that some belief they hold is a religion, the atheist must reject it out of hand simply because they don't believe in religion. The trouble is that this relies on a very skewed, vague and infinitely malleable definition of what religion is. To use words meaningfully we need to restrict them to be specific enough to make sense, and religion defined as a bad and wrong belief is not tenable because it isn't useful, and this is exactly the kind of thing that is happening here. 

The argument to me looks like this:

1. Dogs have ears, a tongue, two eyes and a nose
2. Humans have ears, a tongue, two eyes and a nose
3. By comparing things and finding similarities between them, we can declare them to be equivalent
4. Humans and dogs have similarities
5. Therefore humans and dogs are equivalent

That nasty little premise 3 is what drives the argument, and I see it in many atheist circles. 

The final blow is when you start to look for dissimilarities instead of similarities and they pile up to the point where you forgot why you thought the two things were similar in the first place. It takes only a tiny scratch beneath the surface of this type of argument to see how fallacious it is.  

In my opinion it's a lazy way to try and win an argument with an atheist, because all atheists accept that religion is false, so merely equating something to religion automatically wins the argument, because the atheist must reject all religion out of hand. It really is painful to read these types of arguments. I would call for an end to this argument, but it will probably fall on deaf ears. Gotcha arguments with little substance are too easy and too tempting. It has another rather nasty side effect. Some atheists place religious people in a category of unreasonable and dogmatic, and it can be dangerous to place people in that category regardless of whether they are actual believers or not, but spraying every belief you disagree with the colour of religion you can come to believe that the people that hold to that belief are also unreasonable and dogmatic.

Each idea deserves its own day in the court of reason, without desperate false equivalence coming into play. If we don't take the bait, and accept that there is a possibility that people hold different beliefs to us for what they perceive to be completely valid reasoning, maybe we can come to a better understanding of that belief system. By merely equating another person's belief with something you know to be false, you are just excusing yourself from the hard task of really thinking about it. 

A (no doubt incomplete) list of false claims to being "religions":
  • feminism
  • libertarianism 
  • statism 
  • capitalism 
  • patriotism
  • scientism
  • democracy
  • evolution
  • environmentalism
  • climate change
So either we are all irrational raging zealots, or perhaps the extension of religion to anything we disagree with is not a very good argument.

Does Ridicule Play a Role in Discourse?

This is a tough question that has been bothering me for quite some time. Is ridicule a valid way to disagree, or does it simply push others away from your positions?

I think that ridicule makes sense when we ridicule something and not someone. I don't think the difference is all that subtle. The image above was lifted from a religious blog, and it depicts something that seems instinctively wrong. Pointing and laughing at a person is something we perceive as being wrong, because we don't want people to do that to us. But it's perfectly reasonable to attack an idea or a thing.

That brings us to satire. Satire has a long relationship with humanity. It is meant to show something absurd about something we do or believe. It can be very effective when the thing it is making fun of is true. Satire takes that which is taboo or holy and slaughters it on the altar of reason. What we do when we ridicule ideas and institutions is that we remove their holiness. Their unassailable characteristics are the target of fun. Satire wears down outrage like the ocean wears down the pebbles into sand.

If everyone had drawn silly pictures of Muhammed every day, then there wouldn't be enough extremists to violently attack everyone. Christianity is so beaten down by jokesters and blasphemers that some christians have come to believe that god "surely has a sense of humour". Their predecessors however would have wanted to see heads roll if their god's name was taken in vain. This causes a shock arms race, with each new generation of funny person needing to push the envelope of insult. On a deeper level, we learn to detach ideas from our identities, because satire attacks ideas viciously, and in order to avoid the constant hurt and emotional upheavel from being offended, we emotionally distance ourselves from our ideas. From there we can take an outsider's perspective that we wouldn't have been able to take before.

But what about respect? I often talk about respect and how important it is, because it lays the foundation of a productive discussion on any topic. Ridicule can be respectful, given that it follows a few basic guidelines. Good ridicule is based on something that is factual. Even if it is exaggerated, the point bringing brought across needs to have its basis in fact. Making fun of someone or a group for what they are not is disrespectful, and therefore it breeds tension and mistrust instead of an environment that is healthy for disagreement. Good ridicule avoids low blows. Focussing solely on the superficial characteristics of those you disagree with is not only disrespectful, but the precursor to dehumanisation. Good ridicule needs to be defensible as an argument, when al l the exaggeration is stripped away. A thoughtful person who sees something they believe in being ridiculed should be able to think carefully and find some underlying argument thy can think about. Ridicule just for the sake of convincing ourselves that we are superior to others who are on our side is counter-productive. Finally, ridicule should not be the only way we communicate. If we ridicule a belief we should also be ready to refute it in an intellectual space.  Ridicule can be an easy route for people to feel that they are taking part in a debate, when in actual fact they are not.

In essence, ridicule is a tool like any other tool of discussion. It can be used for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. I think a sincere approach to ridicule is warranted. We should think of it as a way to get peoples' attention, to get them thinking about our arguments, and to wear down their knee-jerk reactions to the criticism of ideas that are considered holy. Singling people out to harm them with ridicule is usually a bad idea, but ridiculing ideas in general is good when used correctly. What you will learn if you try to avoid ridicule is that nobody listens to you. Sometimes you need a megaphone to be heard, and emotionally speaking ridicule is just that.  

Techno Utopianism

Techno Utopia. It is the place where technology has progressed so far that it has solved all our problems. There is no more hunger, thirst, cancer or want. Our lives are vastly better, stress free, marked by copious amounts of leisure. We've overcome the the daily grind. Isn't it great? Ahhhh sit back. Relax. 

It's a lovely vision, and every generation has that vision for the next. If machines do the work man won't have to, and we can have more leisure time. Every generation machines do more of the work, yet here we are still working a little less than before, but not a lot. So there is an obvious mismatch. It seems obvious to the current generation that if we make more efficient technology we will need to work less to produce the same amount of goods, but with each generation the drive to produce more is stronger than the drive to have more leisure time. Clearly technology doesn't track leisure. If you want to tell me it does because I get to watch DVDs on my home entertainment system, well my grandparents used their leisure time to go for walks under a starlit night sky. Are we really better off?

Techno Utopianism seems to be premised on the idea that technology will be used for good. Uber is the disruptive technology that will save us from the nasty taxi operators, or even render personal car ownership obsolete? But does it benefit the drivers? How does it vet drivers to ensure they are qualified to safely transport passengers? Is Uber the benevolent dictator of transport we need? Bitcoin, a deflationary currency that is uncontrolled, and biases early adopters to become wealthy. Really that good? Anonymous online currency? Good for drug and weapon traffickers, but optimists who promote the technology only see positive things coming out of it. People have a wealth of information at their fingertips, but search engines mercilessly deliver them to places that coddle their own beliefs and ideology. It's as if we revolutionized everything except ourselves.

Enough with the examples already! Are we doomed to invent new ways to make ourselves miserable? How do we measure the outcome of a new technology. It seems to me that many new technologies have a golden window. That is the time in which the new technology is praised and acts in a positive way. It is the time before someone finds a way to exploit it. It's like software. Each new release works securely until someone finds a way to exploit its flaws. The mistake that we shouldn't make is to look at this initial period of techno-benevolence and draw conclusions purely from that. 

But that is probably not even the most important issue, which is that beyond basic needs, technology has almost no effect. To people of the early 20th century, it gave them a better way to murder each other in masses. The techno utopia was more like a dystopian nightmare, culminating in the most vicious and unforgiving weapon ever deployed: the nuclear bomb. 

You can't blame technology however. The same people that praise technology for solving our social problems, are the kinds of people that place blame on technology for creating social problems. The truth as I see it is vastly simpler. Technology doesn't create the problem, and it won't solve it. If society was ready for more leisure time, we could have had it by now. If society was more interested in curing cancer than smart bombs we would have probably been some distance further in combating the disease.  Still, I see many people posting about technology as if it is a panacea. If only we moved a little further into the future, our social problems will be solved! Technology doesn't do that, social movement and activism does. Spanish inquisitors would have used the internet as a tool of oppression, so the vision of the internet as a great tool of social revolutions is misguided. 

Is Political Correctness a Thing?

This controversial term is one I don't like using, because I don't think I ever feel the need for it. When things are cliched it's always good to try and avoid those terms. It forces you to think through a concept instead of just repeating it. Politically correct is one of those concepts.

A midget walks into a bar.

Your reaction to that sentence might give us a starting point. The way I see it political correctness is an attempt to avoid or censor things that others may find offensive. Neil Gaiman thinks it is "treating people with respect", but I disagree. His mistake is to think that avoiding offense is necessarily respect. Sometimes offending someone is a deep sign of respect. 

That doesn't mean we should fool ourselves. Most people employing the term are assholes. They use the term to try and justify being assholes. In their eyes they are fearless truth talkers that are being attacked by the PC brigade. For the most part, I can't blame people for wanting to vilify someone who is being an asshole. What I am concerned about is that we should be drawing a line. Please watch this video if you haven't and join me after the break.

I don't like this video. I think it's insulting and mean. I think that the person who made this is an asshole. What I don't think is that people should be losing their jobs because they are assholes, which is exactly what happened to this the person who made this video. Beyond vilification, if we create stronger measures against people who offend us, we encourage a society that self censors. In that environment, it becomes hard for people to say what they want because they fear losing their jobs or maybe even worse. 

Two things are vitally important here. First, we should aim for a society where it's okay to be wrong about things. I have been wrong about many things, and it took me years to get to where I am now. Some of those things were very offensive. I was definitely homophobic for a long time. If I had felt a risk of expressing myself and losing my job, I would have never found out I was wrong, because if you self censor you never get to argue your incorrect positions and lose. You are always just living under what feels like an oppressive environment where you can't speak your mind. 

Secondly, sometimes everyone else is wrong and the lone nut or asshole is right. Of course we can be pretty sure they are not and if you are that person you should really reflect on your position to see if you are actually right, but if we use this mechanism and accidentally censor someone who is right, we run the risk of being wrong and unable to realise it, because those who know what is right are afraid to speak up. If the video above was criticizing Kim Jong Un in an alternate reality where the North Korea ruled the world and the woman in the video lost her job, how would it be different to what we are doing now? What is freedom of expression really worth when it carries a significant risk with it?

Maybe if someone says something stupid, hateful or offensive we shouldn't be calling for their jobs to be taken away from them, we should be talking to them and convincing them otherwise. After all, people are often assholes because they have some skewed perspective of something. When someone acts out, wouldn't it be better to take the opportunity to engage with them and change their minds than to call for their metaphorical heads?

The question that remains is whether it is a good principle to attempt not to offend people. I think the answer to that is a little more complicated. I think we should offend people. We should offend people for the right reasons in the right situations. I think we should balance our offensiveness with understanding, compassion and level headed dialogue. I think this is the best way to get there to be less assholes in the world. Having people fired or removed from a medium is the wrong way, because it disincentivizes openness. Maybe we should be willing to get hurt sometimes to hear the truth, and maybe we should be willing to get hurt sometimes so we can help those that have hurt us or others to not do it again. I just don't think that people deserve to lose everything just because they are wrong about something.

Ego & Humility: Setting Aside The Ego

When I came across the problem of my ego attaching itself to ideas, I was worried. I knew it was happening. I could feel the anger welling up inside me when an idea contradicted one of my beliefs, and I was disappointed at myself. It seems like a strange sort of inner struggle, and it was. It was the beginning of the way I used to solve the problem. It's what I like to call ego detachment.

I hope it doesn't sound like a bunch of woo woo to you, but I can understand if it does. It makes perfect sense to me, which is perhaps not enough, but I will try to explain.

The first idea that came to my mind was that in order to be more objective and less reactionary to other ideas, I need to detach ideas from my ego. This meant that any particular belief I had needed to be separated from my ego. I am going to suggest a toy example for illustration. Please keep in mind that it doesn't reflect my positions of beliefs and never has. With that disclaimer in mind, consider a belief in free schooling.

I believe that free schooling is a social good and should be implemented. Subtly, my mind creates a connection between me being good and a belief in free schooling. If someone shows me facts that are contrary to free schools being good, let's say a study demonstrates that low fee schools fare objectively better, I don't immediately respond to the facts, but rather to a challenge to the internal proposition of my ego narrative that "my belief in free schooling means that I am a good person". The challenge to the idea suggests that I am not a good person, because kids will be worse off if my idea was implemented. Oddly, my noble goal of making children's lives better now becomes secondary to protecting my belief, which forms part of my ego. Exhausting isn't it?

It turns our there is a simple solution, and it involves reattaching your ego to the thing that actually matters. If your ego narrative does not involve a proposition such as "my belief in free schooling means I am a good person "but rather one such as "I am a good person because I care about better lives for children" there will be no cognitive dissonance when the challenge arrives. But this needs to be done consciously, because if you are like me, and I'd hazard a guess that you are, your mind crafts many ego narratives implicitly and without your knowledge.

This solution involves self reflection, and that's hard. You need to reflect on why what someone says might make you angry. Your mind will give you quick solutions like "that person just hates me" or "that person is just a contrarian for the sake of it" or "that person wants children to suffer". These are all easy answers your mind will offer to , but that you must reject. You need to fight against the stability and coherence that your mind automatically seeks. This is emotionally painful, especially when you are not used to thinking about it. It actually helped me to comfort myself. To tell myself that even if I was wrong, this didn't make me bad, and that changing my mind when I am wrong would be more rewarding in the long term.

Ego attachment makes it harder to lose an argument and easier to win one, because in order to win an argument you really only need to convince yourself that your self narrative, which you already believe, is right. To lose an argument you have to take yourself apart in a horrific act of psychological self surgery. This is the pain we avoid when we "win" arguments online, but look like a total doofus to other people observing our crushing defeat. Even though I am consciously aware that losing to someone who is right means I have a better new perspective on the world, sometimes I still feel the pangs of my ego narrative being damaged, and I hold feelings of anger toward that person.

Our minds even construct preemptive strikes to defend our egos. We believe that people that hold a certain kind of position are opposed to good. They are evil. This makes us use the best defense for our egos: attack! The notion of detaching beliefs from your ego is not an easy one. It means that we need another way to define ourselves, because we can no longer use beliefs to craft a healthy self image, due to the inherent vulnerability of beliefs to contrary evidence. I hope to address that in a later post, but for now I want to bring accross the idea of evaluating ideas as part of your identity, and finding ways to detach those ideas from your identity, so that your thoughts will no longer sabotage truth in order to protect your beliefs about yourself.

Analyze This!

There is a rather annoying, unproductive and insulting behaviour that is very natural to human beings who disagree. At some point one party in an exchange may give up trying to convince the other with arguments and instead attack the motives of the other party. Because it is the 21st century,  you will be treated with a nice little psychoanalysis from the person who disagrees with you. According to them, your disagreement stems not from a genuine difference in knowledge or understanding, but a deep seated psychological malfunction on your part. 

Recently, I was pushed onto the couch and analysed by a fellow netizen. Here is the diagnosis they gave me:
"I see now that I have perhaps tread a little too closely to some of your own deeply held beliefs about the world - a set of beliefs that I cannot be sure of but which I suspect are largely a part of the progressive faith. As I see it, you are engaging in motivated reasoning to support your continued adherence to these beliefs that form a central part of your identity." 
Why is this behaviour wrong? Well if you want to convince someone, telling them that the reason your arguments aren't convincing to them is that they have a psychological problem is in itself not very convincing. On a very basic human level, it is also deeply insulting, but there is a much bigger problem with psychoanalysing people on the internet. 

You don't know them very well. We interact with people online through small little stamp sized images and messages here and there. To propose that something as complex as a human being can be known this way is quite foolish. Usually this kind of thing doesn't get under my skin because I know that the person on the other end doesn't know me. Their analysis is based on a very small set of information that doesn't come close to representing me as the complex person I am. 

And every single human being is like this. Every creationist, every anti-vaccer, every atheist, vegan, liberal or anarcho syndicalist is a complex person that can't be psychoanalysed by amateurs on the internet. In fact people who go to intense therapy with psychoanalysts are sometimes misdiagnosed. How then can a random person on the internet have any semblance of accuracy when analysing someone through the interwebs?

Maybe you are screaming in your head that this is a type of ad hominem fallacy, and that is true. The discussion ceases to be about the topic and starts to be about the person: you. It becomes personal.  The merits of the actual arguments fall by the way-side. But this sort of misses the point. It's easy to convince ourselves that the reason our arguments are not convincing is because there is something wrong with the other person. It is the salve we use when we realise that the arguments we expected to succeed didn't work.

The deeper lesson is that we need to look at our own behaviours and arguments first, and at best we can say that our arguments were not convincing to someone else. I made some mistakes in the discussion where I got the free therapy quoted above. I could have done things better. Other people might have different views of reality based on their immediate environment. They might have a psychological need for their beliefs, but really it isn't for us to conclude that about others on internet discussions. Besides, it makes you look like a giant jerk. So before you think of telling someone why you think they haven't changed their minds, consider how little you know about them and how justified you truly are in making such conclusions. This goes doubly for me, since I'm pretty sure I've also done it.