Friday, August 27, 2010

We have met the enemy and he is us

This is an interesting column discussing novelist Franny Burney's experience with an un-anesthetized mastectomy that I thought tied in nicely with the Love Fraud discussion:
Burney’s struggle reminds one that character is not only moral, it is also mental. Heroism exists not only on the battlefield or in public but also inside the head, in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts.
She lived at a time when people were more conscious of the fallen nature of men and women. People were held to be inherently sinful, and to be a decent person one had to struggle against one’s weakness.
In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful.
This emphasis on mental character lasted for a time, but it has abated. There’s less talk of sin and frailty these days. Capitalism has also undermined this ethos. In the media competition for eyeballs, everyone is rewarded for producing enjoyable and affirming content. Output is measured by ratings and page views, so much of the media, and even the academy, is more geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character-building regime.
In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.
But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness. Today’s culture is better in most ways, but in this way it is worse.
The ensuing mental flabbiness is most evident in politics. Many conservatives declare that Barack Obama is a Muslim because it feels so good to say so. Many liberals would never ask themselves why they were so wrong about the surge in Iraq while George Bush was so right. The question is too uncomfortable.
There’s a seller’s market in ideologies that gives people a chance to feel victimized. There’s a rigidity to political debate. Issues like tax cuts and the size of government, which should be shaped by circumstances (often it’s good to cut taxes; sometimes it’s necessary to raise them), are now treated as inflexible tests of tribal purity.
To use a fancy word, there’s a metacognition deficit. Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate. A few people I interview do this regularly (in fact, Larry Summers is one). But it is rare. The rigors of combat discourage it.
Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one.
I don't think sociopaths are inherently more self-aware than normal people, in fact it may be quite the opposite. I do think sociopaths are at least used to the idea of there being more than meets the eye. The smart ones, in my mind, realize that the phrase "more than meets the eye" doesn't just apply to their own petty shenanigans. In other words, the smart sociopaths realize that they can be just as vulnerable to willful blindness in certain areas as their victims are in others. The stupid ones suffer for that blindness, eventually.


  1. Agreed. I would even take it a step further. One should wage constant war against one's own perceptions, never allowing oneself to be satisfied with the self-evident. Acceptance leads to boredom, which breeds fantasy and stagnation. Fantasy is a waste and stagnation is death.

  2. Post, truer words might never have been spoken.

  3. Nonsense. The self-evident should be taken as self-evident until evidence to the contrary presents itself. Questioning your every perception is a waste of your time and energy, and as long as you don't create rationalizations to confirm your perceptions when they're proven wrong, you'll work out the falsehoods in short order, having made progress instead of sitting around questioning yourself.

    The best overall advice you can give anyone is this: don't be lazy. When something pops up that's contrary to your perceptions, consider it seriously, adjust, and move on.

    Waging war against one's own perceptions sounds like a lot of wasted time. The world normalizes for us if we're open to change.

  4. I'll just say that complacency is a killer.

  5. I lawled at you featuring Stephen Harper on your blog. An apt choice.

    That is all.

  6. I am inclined to agree with Peter.

    The search for "truth" is exhausting and is probably fruitless.

    Sometimes one will do it anyway... I'll do it every once in a while, until I get sick of it and realize that most of the time it's just running in circles.

    Good exercise, I guess, but ultimately you don't really get anywhere. Like a stationary bicycle. What's the point?


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