Monday, March 13, 2017

Emotion (Fear) Trumps Logic

We know that emotional appeals work. Pathos trumps logos and ethos. That's reality. The ancient rhetoricians knew this. Behavioral economists know this. It's clear to pretty much everyone, especially after the 2016 elections, that emotional appeals to fear and anxiety win arguments.

Psychologists and decision scientists have studied how much more persuasive the "negative case" is when trying to persuade people to take actions. Statistics get twisted and contorted because a "100% increase" in risk from 0.5% to 1% can persuade people to stop eating a "dangerous" food.

Humans are lousy at understanding risk or rank. Tell people that the United States ranks low on longevity, and they grumble. But is the difference between 79.3 years in the U.S. to 80.6 in Denmark worth a lot of concern? Probably not, since we have a diverse culture and habits that probably cannot be compared to the homogenous Denmark. The Western nations are actually pretty closely grouped on most statistical measures, but we panic if we're not in the top five. Should we? Probably not.

The Trump campaign revealed that the real problem isn't how to read and interpret data. The problem is more severe: people don't believe what contradicts their biases. This is true on the left and right and in the middle. People are also far more likely to believe negative stories about the "other side" than true, but negative stories about people and causes they support.

We're not wired to default to logic. We default to emotion. Logic takes effort.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Capital of FIlm

Film is capital intensive, in the economic sense.

Yet, the film industry was and is often associated with "the left" because of its artistic qualities. Cinema is art, I believe, but it isn't like other arts. You need more than a pencil and paper or a used musical instrument. It takes thousands of dollars to make the least expensive hour-long work.

Governments of all manner have used film directly or attempted to guide the "free market" in ways favorable to their ideologies. This always consumes capital. Governments from across the political spectrum are united by a conviction that media can and should promote the "right" values through cinema and television.

Authoritarian governments have understood the power of film. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia… each understood film as an emotionally powerful form of art and communication. There's a reason Moscow invested heavily in film. You cannot study film without the Moscow filmmakers: they helped turn film into an academic discipline.

Producing content for cinema and television requires human (lots of it), social, natural, manufactured, and financial. In every system of production, regardless of ideology, it takes people, information (knowledge and skills), machines, natural resources (space, light, energy), and some sort of funding allocation to make a movie.

The capital dedicated to a film, or any primarily "entertainment" medium, is allocated from other places in the economy. In most of the world, including throughout Europe, film is among the (partially) publicly financed and supported arts. Yet even in an ideal world, someone would ask why a film receives support over and instead of better nutrition, education, housing, healthcare, and so on. Prioritizing film with public monies, people, spaces, or other resources means something else doesn't receive that capital.

When we study film, we might ask why it is the capital-intensive pursuit of many non-capitalists.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Your Meme Won't Change Me (or anyone else)

Facebook "memes" are among the least and most effective rhetorical devices in use. They are ineffective at changing ideas or winning arguments. They are extremely effective at ensuring your community perceives you as a loyal member, and they reinforce the dominant values and positions in the community.

The memes get more and more extreme as people seek to prove just how much they hate the opposing camp. The claims about the values and authenticity of the opposition also trend towards absolute dismissal and discounting of any genuine differences.

Republicans become thugs and fascists. Democrats become communists. Both sides argue the other represents "real" fascist and authoritarianism. The reality is, there aren't many radicals in the United States. Most voters are centrists.

Social media posts from left and right are demonstrating absolutist stupidity in many of these threads. Conservatives and libertarians are neither extreme anarchists nor fascists. (And don't agree on social issues, only some economic ideals.) Yes, there are anarchists among libertarians, but there are also Marxist libertarians. I tire of trying to explain that "libertarians" are too diverse to organize.

Progressives and liberals are seldom communists or true socialists. (And often disagree on issues, too.) Progressives believe that there is, as Marx argued, an almost "scientific" order to social progress. This is not liberalism, which has a set of "fixed" values. The two might agree, or might not. But these self-identified are seldom if ever Communists of the international sort.

Posts with lists of "socialist" goods are silly, but popular. The local fire department is not socialism - in fact, business taxes support many public services. Socialism is public ownership of the means of production. Fire departments are not in the business of production (I hope - that would be scary). The nuance of economic scholarship isn't part of policy debates, sadly. But to declare that "roads are socialism" is ignorant in the extreme. Likewise, to suggest most Democrats are opposed to all markets is rhetorical nonsense.

The use of "Fascism" should offend every American, unless some group wants to be called fascists. Learn some history about Mussolini. He was active in the Communist Party before they (rightly) expelled him for being dangerous person. He loathed capitalism, right up until the end. He saw fascism as government control of all businesses, even those privately owned. "All for the state," is the slogan of Fascism.

Is "America first" the same as "All for the state?" Probably not. Protectionism is not fascism (thankfully). But, if the government tries to start telling businesses how much money they can charge for goods, how much they can or cannot make in profit, and how much they need to prove loyalty to the state, then we should worry. Fascism is not capitalism with a little government. It's a lot of government with a bit of corporatism tolerated.

We debate the balance of government vs private, at least in the West. No one suggests ending either government or enterprise. Some of us seem to have more faith in one or the other, but most distrust the powerful in government AND business.

Memes make our differences seem extreme. Most voters are not extremists. Most people don't even bother to vote, in part because the differences are minor and lead to incremental changes back and forth. Maybe it is ironic, but we are not a nation of radicals. The "radicals" that founded the United States created a system that's designed to resist radical change.

Memes simply purify our social circles; they are partisanship intensifiers.

It is a shame, but this is how humans create their communities. The internet allows us to intensify the natural tendency towards homogeneous groupings. That should sadden us.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Religion and Political Rhetoric

Political leaders in the United States in both major political parties are once again using "Judeo-Christian values" or "Abrahamic values" to argue about social welfare programs and budget priorities. Sadly, there is also a tendency within the Republican party to use faith as the basis for foreign policy.

Donald Trump using "faith" to make any argument strikes me as absurd. At the same time, I am troubled by the rise of theocratic Islam internationally. Israel, possibly the most "secular" of Middle East nations, also allows its religious fundamentalists too much influence over public policy.

It is valuable to know religious texts. Many people believe them and the stories shaped centuries of Western culture. It might also help to know when to ignore politicians.

The trio of major monotheistic religions — Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam — really do not belong in contemporary politics if we want to move beyond myths, legends, and ancient cultural biases. The historical texts associated with these faiths can be easily cherry-picked to make arguments from almost any perspective, something I've attempted to illustrate in the past.

Texts from the ancient past are violent, misogynistic, xenophobic, racist, tribal, and probably a dozen other undesirable things. Do we really want to look to books that endorse polygamy, rape, murder, capital punishment for social offenses, and other ancient cultural norms for contemporary guidance?

Consider the Christian Bible, with its Judaic origins. You can easily prove how misunderstood the "Historical Jesus" is based on knowledge of Roman and Middle Eastern norms of the time. You can use the text to argue for "conservative" (Puritanic, Protestant) social ethics using the older chapters, or you could argue for a "progressive" set of ethics associated with social gospel movements.

I've posted examples of these maneuvers in the past. It's unpopular to demonstrate that religion isn't the best resource for political clarity and consistency.

I wish we could simply hit a "mute button" when any politician uses religious rhetoric to make an argument. Yes, I understand faith has helped many people and guided good changes in this nation and elsewhere, but generally faith today is not the driving force behind social progress.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Social Media Feedback Loops

I'm stuck in bed, or sitting for a few minutes at a time. This has led to way too much social media and news input. If I could be outside tending to my fall pruning and clearing duties, that's what I would rather be doing.

Social media lead you to read one post, read the replies, and read more. That's how it survives: we get hooked during our moment of inactivity. It feeds our fears, our anxieties, our nightmare scenarios. It reinforces our beliefs and then we read more reinforcement.

Social media can be and are often a force for change. But right now, some of my close friends are in downward emotional spirals because they cannot stop and step away. They believe every horrific post. They seek out more horrific posts to prove how bad things are to themselves and their other friends. The echoes are getting overwhelming.

People say I don't understand how scary this is. LA Riots were pretty bad. I've been beaten and stabbed. I've received death threats. Once someone wants to kill you, it is sort of hard to imagine anything worse.

Step away from the newsfeed. Think. Plan. But resist going down rabbit holes. Satan has not won the election. Neither did Hitler.

An entertainer with no real plan won. A charlatan. Beyond that, we have to wait and see what happens. You have to have no faith in our entire system if you believe one man can or will manage the sorts of things I'm seeing predicted on social media.

Panic is the worst state of mind for planning a resistance. Clear your mind and think about what to do next. Social media rarely helps clear the mind.