Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Abstraction and Embodiment

Here’s an abstracted problem for you.

There is a group of widgets that always point west.  The reason they always point west is because they take a vote every so often and 51% of them agree that west is the right way to point. Over time, some number of new widgets are introduced.  Some of the new widgets agree that west is best. But some amount of them feel like east is better. At some point enough east-pointers have arrived and that it tips the balance of the vote enough that now west-pointers are in the minority, and so in the next vote every widget points east. Also, pointing east means no more democratic elections.  From now on, all widgets will point east, or else...  

If I was more clever I’d have an abstraction that didn’t involve voting so the imagery would be more abstract.  But this blog isn’t about me being clever; it’s about me trotting my inner workings into the light of day for interrogation and cross-examination.

I have a problem right now. My inclination when it comes to social issues is to abstract the problems into mental models that strip them of their humanity.  I disembody them, because my gut (ie: a lifetime of a specific cultural has influenced me) tells me that stripping the emotional ties that come with embodiment will allow a clearer view that enables better solutions for everyone.  But I want to be clear that this impulse is in no way cut and dried.  It’s not a binary.  Being human means that no matter how rational and dispassionate I think I am, my thoughts are still a chunky stew of emotion-based value propositions, anecdotes that inform my analysis, and other artifacts of meat-consciousness.  I also recognise the the entire endeavor of living as a social species means that any given social policy is predicated on an aggregate of human experience and anecdotes.  Those experiences and anecdotes feed into theories that become ossified as political philosophies.  There’s no “clean” way to step back and form a purely rational approach to social policy.  (By social policy I mean everything from institutions such as marriage and government, to cultural norms and moral concerns.)  

Now let’s go back to my un-clever widget example.  This is a thinly veiled attempt to grapple with a social-political issue of our times that I think is incredibly important and equally difficult to find a satisfactory solution to.  It’s about the immigration of large amounts of people who hold undemocratic ideals into democratic societies.  My understanding of math (which, admittedly, is poor) leads me to believe that there is a tipping-point at which democracy will be voted away.  And while I don’t think that democracy will be the final pinnacle of social organization, I do think it’s the best system we’ve cobbled together so far, and it’s also very closely tied to things that I’m much more passionate about.  Things that are very unnatural ideas, like equality for all people, protection of the weak from exploitation and compulsion, free expression, etc.  While democracy has not given us the solution to creating a utopia where all these things exist in perfection, it’s done a hell of a lot better job than undemocratic systems have historically.  And more importantly, it seems that democracy has created a platform from which social policy can be experimented with, which is necessary for the advancement of those values.

I have several friends who are anarchists or communists, but excluding them, I feel like everything I’ve said so far would be agreed upon by the vast majority of both my right and left leaning friends. And that’s where taking the issue from the mostly abstract (widgets) to the clearer (large scale political) down to the specific (Western nations dealing with middle-eastern immigration) things start falling apart.  This is the level at which emotionally charged specific political and cultural loyalties begin to emerge and opinions diverge.  I think the left and the right both have problems when it comes to dealing with this level of specificity.  On the right, there is some percent (I don’t think there’s any accurate way to ascertain what that number would be) of them who are literally racist and simply want a purely white nation.  There’s a larger percent who are less concerned with race, and more with culture.  They don’t care what part of the world you’re from, but they want to be neighbors with people who value democracy, freedom of expression, and all those other western liberal values. Sadly, the left sees these two blocks of conservatives as the same thing.  And that leads to the problem on the left.

The left is trying to figure out how to navigate two contradicting impulses.  They’ve convinced themselves that any criticism of any culture other than western culture is overtly racist (and can only be motivated BY racism).  Therefore they are compelled to run their immigration policy with as little concern for cultural differences as possible.  Which puts them in the very odd position of defending many people who would be happy to vote for the demise of liberals and liberal values.

Ok.  No matter what I say on this subject I know that many people will think I’m a racist.  But for the sake of clarity, and to assist any of my liberal friends who want some way out of the need to label me thus, here’s a landslide of caveats: The number of individual middle eastern immigrants who are Muslim is not 100%  The number of Muslim immigrants who are seriously religious is not 100%.  The number of seriously religious Muslim immigrants who are conservative is not 100%.  The number of seriously religious Muslim immigrants who are conservative and want to impose their brand of conservatism on the western nations they inhabit is not 100%.  All humans, no matter what they believe, should be treated with dignity and have basic rights.  No race is superior to another.  Racism is real and exists and influences institutions and cultures on all levels and should be resisted.

Now.  Where does that leave us?  It leaves us with some amount of Muslim immigrants who want to perform cliterectomies on their daughters, want to replace their local western democracy with sharia law (I will take further pains to point out that sharia is not a monolithic thing) and would be happy to push every homosexual off a building.  This is where my liberal instincts (and presumably most of my liberal friends) will object: that even saying these things is tantamount to racism, and will lead to more hatred and bigotry in the world.  The argument goes that such statements (whether factual or not) stoke the flames of racism in the conservatives of western nations, and cause them to make evil decisions that damage the social progress liberalism has made over the past couple hundred years.

I think that concern is valid, but I think it’s valid only for that very small portion of conservatives who are blatant racists.  Again, I believe a mistake enters the calculus from a misreading of the conservative motivation as being intrinsically racist.  The political capital this idea (conservatives are all motivated by secret racism) buys the left is so valuable that I don’t think they are capable of dropping it.  It’s such an effect tool for othering and creating faceless monsters that must be opposed at all costs.  But having come from a conservative background I think I have a better read of the nuances and differences between the various conservative strains and impulses.  While I have become convinced that latent and unconscious racism is an endemic property of human individuals and institutions, I’m also convinced that when it comes to embodied individuals, the percentage of conservatives who literally feel racist feelings is much lower than liberals think.  

So while I agree that it’s valid to express concern over articulating potentially incendiary truths, I can’t get behind the idea of demonizing those who do.  Of assuming that they have the worst possible motives.  (Despite the fact that some, indeed, DO have the worst possible motives.)

But this particular battleground of left vs right isn’t really what I wanted the point of this post to be.  Because I could be wrong about the reality of the potential danger to freedom from the immigration of people who don’t value freedom.  But my experience is that once this specific topic is brought up, it subsumes all others.  That’s Ok.  I don’t have a large enough readership for that to be a big problem.  So I’m going to blithely return to my point.  

What I’m pondering is both the practical and moral implications of abstracting an issue such as this.  Abstracting societies, politics and individual humans into numbers or widgets is necessarily dehumanizing.  It makes me think of the generals hovering over a battle map moving the little tokens around with their pushy-Mc Dealies, presumably not considering the lives of the individual troops that those movements will impact dramatically.  Depending on how you look at it, those generals can be seen as monsters or gods.  Or both, I suppose. Either way, my understanding is that in order to make the best decisions possible, they HAVE to divorce the empathy that would come from imagining the ramifications of their high-level strategy on individual lives.  

The same procedure probably happens in every policy decision that affects groups of individuals.  Taxes, speed limit laws, homeless camp relocations, and every other limitation we place on each other will have negative impacts on some people.  And some will literally be life and death impacts.  But it would be impossible to make ANY decision on any policy issue if we invited every negative ramification of it into our mind.  We’d be paralyzed into inaction because no matter what you do, some people will suffer.  To overcome this, there are a a couple maneuvers people employ.  One is to use some kind of utilitarian ethic to attempt to find policy that does the best for the most.  But these models all break down under intense scrutiny.  (Just google “problems with utilitarianism” if you’re curious about that.) Another move is to evoke some principle that is often seen as “higher”, usually embedded in a religious or cultural historical context.  But no matter what method is used, you’re forced to abstract the problem to some degree, to determine that someone’s suffering is worth the cost of the policy.  I think conservatives are more cognizant of this reality and ok with it.  I think liberals tend to be repulsed by it and attempt to deny it.  I’d love to hear from my liberal friends to see if I’m right about that.

I’d also love to hear if the whole framework of my thinking is wrong, bad or broken.  For example, I don’t know if there’s a way to conceptually approach policy decisions in a way that maintains the nitty gritty of the human dimension of personal experiences, while simultaneously making decisions that affect whole groups or societies.  I think a human brain can only do one or the other at a time.  The nitty gritty personal experiences absolutely SHOULD inform the abstractions we need to make in order to determine policy.  And anyone contemplating policy should make a practice of zooming in and out of the different levels of abstraction and embodiment.  But a brain can’t imagine the lives of every single individual that will be affected by any given policy at the same time.  Thus the abstraction.  So If I’m wrong about this I’d like to hear the alternative.

I feel like this whole notion of separate spheres of mental activity is a prime candidate for being the artifact of very specific cultural proclivities.  And I’m definitely currently trapped in the mode of thinking those specific cultural proclivities has brought about. If it’s the case that this spectrum I’ve proposed from abstracted-to-embodied is a western construct that fails to to bring about the best policies, then that might bring some insight into the lib/con divide.  Perhaps my intuition that conservatives are “better at” moving into the abstract sphere of policy decision making, and liberals are “better at” informing their policy by embodied experiences, then that might point to a different framework for policy decision making that liberals have tapped into.  Conservatives, speaking from the believe that abstracted policy making is superior, would say that the liberal tendency to focus on individual stories is muddying the water.  Because one can cherry pick an individual or two and hammer on the heart-strings in such a way that can generate policy that makes some individuals happy, but ends up hurting many more people.  A reliance on embodied testimony can’t give you a big-enough-picture view.  A liberal will say that the conservative impulse to abstract is heartless and potentially fascistic, evoking the generals blithely moving pawns across a table while people with children and mothers are being blown up as a result.  

As always, my impulse is to try to find the sweet spot in the middle that honors both sides as important and necessary.  But what I want to avoid is creating that binary in the first place.  I want to be open to the idea that my constructed binary conception is based on faulty premises, and there’s a better way to conceptualize and implement policy.