Posts Tagged ‘Rhetoric’

/rant on

MAD is a term I haven’t thought about for a good long while. No illusions here regarding that particularly nasty genie having been stuffed back into its lamp. Nope, it lingers out there in some weird liminal space, routinely displaced by more pressing concerns. However, MAD came back into my thoughts because of saber-rattling by U.S. leadership suggesting resumed above-ground nuclear testing might be just the ticket to remind our putative enemies around the world what complete assholes we are. Leave it to Americans to be the very last — in the midst of a global pandemic (that’s redundant, right?) — to recognize that geopolitical squabbles (alert: reckless minimization of severity using that word squabble) pale in comparison to other looming threats. Strike that: we never learn; we lack the reflective capacity. Still, we ought to reorient in favor of mutual aid and assistance instead of our MAD, insane death pact.

The authoritative body that normally springs to mind when MAD is invoked is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Ironically, it appears to be an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity, a media organization, not an actual collection of atomic scientists. (I’ll continue to italicize Bulletin as though it’s a publication like the New York Times even though it’s arguably something else.) I’ve blogged repeatedly about its iconic Doomsday Clock. In an otherwise astute post against sloppy appeals to authority using the increasingly meaningless term expert, Alan Jacobs takes to task the Bulletin for straying out of its lane to consider threats that are political in nature rather than scientific. Reminded me of when Pope Francis in his encyclical deigned to acknowledge climate change, recognizing that Mother Earth is our “common home” and maybe we shouldn’t be raping her. (OK, that coarse bit at the end is mine.) What? He’s not a climatologist! How dare he opine on something outside his official capacity? Go back to saving souls!

At the same time we desperately need expertise to accomplish things like building bridges that don’t fall down (yet still do) or performing an appendectomy without killing the patient, it’s inevitable that people form opinions about myriad subjects without the benefit of complete authority or expertise, if such a thing even exists. As students, citizens, and voters, we’re enjoined to inform ourselves, discuss, and learn rather than forfeit all opinion-making to, oh I dunno, the chattering classes. That’s intellectual sovereignty, unless one is unfortunate enough to live in a totalitarian regime practicing thought control. Oh, wait … So it’s a sly form of credentialing to fence off or police opinion expressed from inexpert quarters as some sort of thought crime. Regarding MAD, maybe the era has passed when actual atomic scientists assessed our threat level. Now it’s a Science and Security Board made up of people few have ever heard of, and the scope of their concern, like the Pope’s, is wide enough to include all existential threats, not just the one assigned to them by pointy-headed categorists. Are politicians better qualified on such matters? Puhleeze! (OK, maybe Al Gore, but he appears to be busy monetizing climate change.)

As a self-described armchair social critic, I, too, recognized more than a decade ago the existential threat (extinction level, too) of climate change and have blogged about it continuously. Am I properly credentialed to see and state the, um, obvious? Maybe not. That’s why I don’t argue the science and peer-reviewed studies. But the dynamics, outlines, and essentials of climate change are eminently understandable by laypersons. That was true as well for Michael Ruppert, who was impeached by documentarians for lacking supposed credentialed expertise yet still having the temerity to state the obvious and sound the alarm. Indeed, considering our failure to act meaningfully to ameliorate even the worst case scenario, we’ve now got a second instance of mutually assured destruction, a suicide pact, and this one doesn’t rely on game-theoretical inevitability. It’s already happening all around us as we live and breathe … and die.

/rant off

Here’s a rather strange interaction: destruction budgets and moral license. The former refers to a theoretical or proposed budget for allowable environmental destruction. The latter refers to how doing something good allows rationalization of doing something bad as though one offsets (recognize that word?) the other. A familiar example is a physical workout that justifies a later sugar binge.

So just maybe some (outside executive offices anyway) are coming round to the idea that ongoing destruction of nature ought to be curtailed or better regulated. That’s the thrust of an article in Nature that mentions emissions budgets, which I’ve renamed destruction budgets. The article provides a decent overview of the largest threats, or environmental tipping points, that lead to an uninhabitable Earth. Human activity isn’t only about greenhouse gas emissions, however. Because industrial civilization has essentially had an unlimited destruction budget in the past, we’ve depleted and toxified air, soil, and water at such an alarming rate that we now have a limited number of harvests left and already face fresh water shortages that are only expected to worsen.

Turning to the viral pandemic, large segments of the population kept at home on lockdown triggered a different sort of destruction budget that didn’t exist before it suddenly did: economic destruction, joblessness, and financial ruin. For many Americans already stretched thin financially and psychologically, if the virus doesn’t get you first, then bankruptcy and despair will. Several rounds of bailouts (based on money that doesn’t exist) followed the economic slowdown and are freighted with moral hazard and moral license. Prior bailouts make clear where most of the money goes: deep corporate pockets, banks, and Wall Street. According to this unsophisticated poll, a clear majority do not want banks and financial institutions bailed out. There is even stronger public support for conditions on corporate bailouts, especially those conditions designed to protect employees.

Since we’re in wildly uncharted terrain from only 1.5 months of whatever this new paradigm is, it’s nearly impossible to predict what will occur by summertime or the fall. We’ve blown way past any reasonable destruction budget. In truth, such budgets probably never existed in the first place but were only used as metaphors to make plans no one expects to be binding, much like the toothless 2016 Paris Agreement. Every time we set a hypothetical self-imposed limit, we exceed it. That’s why, to me at least, 350.org is such a cruel joke: the target ceiling was breached decades before the organization was even founded in 2009 and hasn’t slowed its rate of increase since then. In effect, we’ve given ourselves license to disregard any imaginary budgets we might impose on ourselves. The pertinent question was raised by Thomas Massie (KY-Rep.) in the first new bailout bill when he openly challenged the number: “If getting us into $6 trillion more debt doesn’t matter, then why are we not getting $350 trillion more in debt so that we can give a check of $1 million to every person in the country?” How weird is it that both issues cite the number 350?

In educational philosophy, learning is often categorized in three domains: the cognitive, the affective, and the psychomotor (called Bloom’s Taxonomy). Although formal education admittedly concentrates primarily on the cognitive domain, a well-rounded person gives attention to all three. The psychomotor domain typically relates to tool use and manipulation, but if one considers the body itself a tool, then athletics and physical workouts are part of a balanced approach. The affective domain is addressed through a variety of mechanisms, not least of which is narrative, much of it entirely fictional. We learn how to process emotions through vicarious experience as a safe way to prepare for the real thing. Indeed, dream life is described as the unconscious mind’s mechanism for consolidating memory and experience as well as rehearsing prospective events (strategizing) in advance. Nightmares are, in effect, worst-case scenarios dreamt up for the purpose of avoiding the real thing (e.g., falling from a great height or venturing too far into the dark — a proxy for the unknown). Intellectual workouts address the cognitive domain. While some are happy to remain unbalanced, focusing on strengths found exclusively in a single domain (gym rats, eggheads, actors) and thus remaining physically, emotionally, or intellectually stunted or immature, most understand that workouts in all domains are worth seeking out as elements of healthy development.

One form of intellectual workout is debate, now offered by various media and educational institutions. Debate is quite old but has been embraced with renewed gusto in a quest to develop content (using new media) capable of drawing in viewers, which mixes educational objectives with commercial interests. The time-honored political debate used to be good for determining where to cast one’s vote but has become nearly useless in the last few decades as neither the sponsoring organizations, the moderators, nor the candidates seem to understand anymore how to run a debate or behave properly. Instead, candidates use the opportunity to attack each other, ignore questions and glaring issues at hand, and generally refuse to offer meaningful responses to the needs of voters. Indeed, this last was among the principal innovations of Bill Clinton: roll out some appealing bit of vacuous rhetoric yet offer little to no guidance what policies will actually be pursued once in office. Two presidential administrations later, Barack Obama did much the same, which I consider a most egregious betrayal or bait-and-switch. Opinions vary.

In a recent Munk Debate, the proposition under consideration was whether humankind’s best days lie ahead or behind. Optimists won the debate by a narrow margin (determined by audience vote); however, debate on the issue is not binding truth, nor does debate really resolve the question satisfactorily. The humor and personalities of the debaters probably had more influence than their arguments. Admitting that I possess biases, I found myself inclined favorably toward the most entertaining character, though what I find entertaining is itself further bias not shared especially with many others. In addition, I suspect the audience did not include many working class folks or others who see their prospects for better lives diminishing rapidly, which skews the resulting vote. The age-old parental desire to leave one’s children a better future than their own is imperiled according to this poll (polls may vary considerably — do your own search). How one understands “better off” is highly variable, but the usual way that’s understood is in terms of material wellbeing.

Folks on my radar (names withheld) range widely in their enthusiasm or disdain for debate. The poles appears to be default refusal to accept invitations to debate (often couched as open challenges to professed opinions) as a complete waste of time to earnest desire to participate in, host, and/or moderate debates as a means of informing the public by providing the benefit of expert argumentation. As an intellectual workout, I appreciate the opportunity to hear debates (at least when I’m not exasperated by a speaker’s lack of discipline or end-around arguments), but readers can guess from the title of this post that I expect nothing to be resolved by debate. Were I ever to be offered an opportunity to participate, I can well imagine accepting the invitation and having some fun flexing my intellectual muscles, but I would enter into the event with utterly no expectation of being able to convince anyone of anything. Minds are already too well made up on most issues. If I were offered a spot on some bogus news-and-opinion show to be a talking head, shot from the shoulders up and forced to shout and interrupt to get a brief comment or soundbite in edgewise, that I would decline handily as a total waste of time.

That man is me. Thrice in the last month I’ve stumbled headlong into subjects where my ignorance left me grasping in the dark for a ledge or foothold lest I be swept into a maelstrom of confusion by someone’s claims. This sensation is not unfamiliar, but it’s usually easy to beat back. Whereas I possess multiple areas of expertise and as an autodidact am constantly absorbing information, I nonetheless recognize that even in areas where I consider myself qualified to act and/or opine confidently, others possess authority and expertise far greater than mine. Accordingly, I’ve always considered myself a generalist. (A jack of all trades is not quite the same thing IMO, but I decline to draw that distinction here.)

Decisions must inevitably be made on insufficient information. That’s true because more information can always be added on top, which leads to paralysis or infinite regress if one doesn’t simply draw an arbitrary line and stop dithering. This is also why I aver periodically that consciousness is based on sufficiency, meaning “good enough.” A paradox exists between a decision being good enough to proceed despite the obvious incompleteness of information that allows for full, balanced analysis, if fullness can even be achieved. Knowledge is thus sufficient and insufficient at the same time. Banal, everyday purchasing decisions at the grocery store are low risk. Accepting a job offer, moving to a new city, and proposing marriage carry significant risks but are still decisions made on insufficient information precisely because they’re prospective. No way of knowing with certainty how things will turn out. (more…)

I put aside Harari’s book from the previous blog post in favor of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). Mishra’s sharp cultural criticism is far more convincing than Harari’s Panglossian perspective. Perhaps some of that is due to an inescapable pessimism in my own character. Either way, I’ve found the first 35 pages dense with observations of interest to me as a blogger and armchair cultural critic. Some while back, I published a post attempting to delineate (not very well, probably) what’s missing in the modern world despite its obvious material abundance. Reinforcing my own contentions, Mishra’s thesis (as I understand it so far) is this: we today share with others post-Enlightenment an array of resentments and hatreds (Fr.: ressentiment) aimed incorrectly at scapegoats for political and social failure to deliver the promises of progressive modernity equitably. For instance, Mishra describes

… flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorified war, misogyny and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities. [pp. 10–11]

Contrast and/or compare his assessment of the recent past:

Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration … swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies … The culture of [frantic] individualism went universal … The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty … individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity … is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications … [S]hocks of modernity were once absorbed by inherited social structures of family and community, and the state’s welfare cushions [something mentioned here, too]. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all. [pp. 12–14]

These long quotes (the second one cut together from longer paragraphs) are here because Mishra is remarkably eloquent in his diagnosis of globalized culture. Although I’ve only read the prologue, I expect to find support for my long-held contention that disorienting disruptions of modernity (using Anthony Giddens’ sociological definition rather than the modish use of the term Postmodern to describe only the last few decades) create unique and formidable challenges to the formation of healthy self-image and personhood. Foremost among these challenges is an unexpectedly oppressive information environment: the world forced into full view and inciting comparison, jealousy, envy, and hatred stemming from routine and ubiquitous frustrations and humiliations as we each struggle in life getting our personal share of attention, renown, and reward.

Another reason Mishra provides for our collective anger is a deep human yearning not for anarchism or radical freedom but rather for belonging and absorption within a meaningful social context. This reminds me of Erich Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom (1941), which I read long ago but can’t remember so well anymore. I do remember quite vividly how counter-intuitive was the suggestion that absolute freedom is actually burdensome as distinguished from the usual programming we get about breaking free of all restraints. (Freedom! Liberty!) Indeed, Mishra provides a snapshot of multiple cultural and intellectual movements from the past two centuries where abandoning oneself to a cause, any cause, was preferable to the boredom and nothingness of everyday life absent purpose other than mere existence. The modern substitute for larger purpose — commodity culture — is a mere shadow of better ways of spending one’s life. Maybe commodity culture is better than sacrificing one’s life fighting wars (a common fate) or destroying others, but that’s a much longer, more difficult argument.

More to follow as my reading progresses.

Everyone is familiar with the convention in entertainment media where characters speak without the use of recognizable language. (Not related really to the convention of talking animals.) The first instance I can recall (someone correct me if earlier examples are to be found) is the happy-go-lucky bird Woodstock from the old Peanuts cartoons (do kids still recognize that cast of characters?), whose dialog was shown graphically as a series of vertical lines:

When the cartoon made its way onto TV for holiday specials, its creator Charles Schultz used the same convention to depict adults, never shown onscreen but with dialogue voiced by a Harmon-muted trombone. Roughly a decade later, two characters from the Star Wars franchise “spoke” in languages only other Star Wars characters could understand, namely, Chebacca (Chewie) and R2D2. More recently, the character Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy (known to me only through the Marvel movie franchise, not through comic books) speaks only one line of dialogue, “I am Groot,” which is understood as full speech by others Guardians characters. When behemoths larger than a school bus (King Kong, Godzilla, Jurassic dinosaurs, Cloverfield, Kaiju, etc.) appear, the characters are typically denied the power of speech beyond the equivalent of a lion’s roar. (True villains talk little or not at all as they go about their machinations — no monologuing! unless it’s a James Bond film. An exception notable for its failure to charm audiences is Ultron, who wouldn’t STFU. You can decide for yourself which is the worse kind of villainy.)

This convention works well enough for storytelling and has the advantage of allowing the reader/viewer to project onto otherwise blank speech. However, when imported into the real world, especially in politics, the convention founders. There is no Babelfish universal translator inserted in the ear to transform nonsense into coherence. The obvious example of babblespeech is 45, whose speech when off the teleprompter is a series of rambling non sequiturs, free associations, slogans, and sales pitches. Transcripts of anyone’s extemporaneous speech reveal lots of restarts and blind alleys; we all interrupt ourselves to redirect. However, word salad that substitutes for meaningful content in 45’s case is tragicomic: alternately entirely frustrating or comically entertaining depending on one’s objective. Satirical news shows fall into the second category.

45 is certainly not the first. Sarah Palin in her time as a media darling (driver of ratings and butt of jokes — sound familiar?) had a knack for crazy speech combinations that were utter horseshit yet oddly effective for some credulous voters. She was even a hero to some (nearly a heartbeat away from being the very first PILF). We’ve also now been treated to a series of public interrogations where a candidate for a cabinet post or an accused criminal offers testimony before a congressional panel. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos famously evaded simple yes/no questions during her confirmation hearing, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh similarly refused to provide direct answers to direct questions. Unexpectedly, sacrificial lamb Michael Cohen does give direct answers to many questions, but his interlocutors then don’t quite know how to respond considering their experience and expectation that no one answers appropriately.

What all this demonstrates is that there is often a wide gulf between what is said and what is heard. In the absence of what might be understood as effective communication (honest, truthful, and forthright), audiences and voters fill in the blanks. Ironically, we also can’t handle hear too much truth when confronted by its awfulness. None of this is a problem in storytelling, but when found in politic narratives, it’s emblematic of how dysfunctional our communications have become, and with them, the clear thought and principled activity of governance.

Some while back, Scott Adams (my general disdain for him noted but unexpanded, since I’m not in the habit of shitting on people), using his knowledge of hypnosis, began pushing the string selling the narrative that our Commander-in-Chief is cannily adept at the art of persuasion. I, for one, am persuaded by neither Adams nor 45 but must admit that many others are. Constant shilling for control of narratives by agents of all sorts could not be more transparent (for me at least), rendering the whole enterprise null. Similarly, when I see an advertisement (infrequently, I might add, since I use ad blockers and don’t watch broadcast TV or news programs), I’m rarely inclined to seek more information or make a purchase. Once in a long while, an ad creeps through my defenses and hits one of my interests, and even then, I rarely respond because, duh, it’s an ad.

In the embedded video below, Stuart Ewen describes how some learned to exploit a feature (not a bug) in human cognition, namely, appeals to emotion that overwhelm rational response. The most obvious, well-worn example is striking fear into people’s hearts and minds to convince them of an illusion of safety necessitating relinquishing civil liberties and/or fighting foreign wars.

The way Ewen uses the term consciousness differs from the way I use it. He refers specifically to opinion- and decision-making (the very things vulnerable to manipulation) rather than the more generalized and puzzling property of having an individual identity or mind and with it self-awareness. In fact, Ewen uses the terms consciousness industry and persuasion industry instead of public relations and marketing to name those who spin information and thus public discourse. At some level, absolutely everyone is guilty of seeking to persuade others, which again is a basic feature of communication. (Anyone negotiating the purchase of, say, a new or used car faces the persuasion of the sales agent with some skepticism.) What turns it into something maniacal is using lies and fabrication to advance agendas against the public interest, especially where public opinion is already clear.

Ewen also points to early 20th-century American history, where political leaders and marketers were successful in manipulating mass psychology in at least three ways: 1. drawing the pacifist U.S. public into two world wars of European origin, 2. transforming citizens into consumers, thereby saving capitalism from its inherently self-destructive endgame (creeping up on us yet again), and 3. suppressing emergent collectivism, namely, socialism. Of course, unionism as a collectivist institution still gained considerable strength but only within the larger context of capitalism, e.g., achieving the American Dream in purely financial terms.

So getting back to Scott Adams’ argument, the notion that the American public is under some form of mass hypnosis (persuasion) and that 45 is the master puppeteer is perhaps half true. Societies do sometimes go mad and fall under the spell of a mania or cult leader. But 45 is not the driver of the current episode, merely the embodiment. I wouldn’t say that 45 figured out anything because that awards too much credit to presumed understanding and planning. Rather, he worked out (accidentally and intuitively — really by default considering his job in 2016) that his peculiar self-as-brand could be applied to politics by treating it all as reality TV, which by now everyone knows is its own weird unreality the same way professional wrestling is fundamentally unreal. (The term political theater applies here.) He demonstrated a knack (at best) for keeping the focus firmly on himself and driving ratings (abetted by the mainstream media that had long regarded him as a clown or joke), but those objectives were never really in service of a larger political vision. In effect, the circus brought to town offers its own bizarre constructed narrative, but its principle characteristic is gawking, slack-jawed, made-you-look narcissism, not any sort of proper guidance or governance.

As I reread what I wrote 2.5 years ago in my first blog on this topic, I surmise that the only update needed to my initial assessment is a growing pile of events that demonstrate my thesis: our corrupted information environment is too taxing on human cognition, with the result that a small but growing segment of society gets radicalized (wound up like a spring) and relatively random individuals inevitably pop, typically in a self-annihilating gush of violence. News reports bear this out periodically, as one lone-wolf kook after another takes it upon himself (are there any examples of females doing this?) to shoot or blow up some target, typically chosen irrationally or randomly though for symbolic effect. More journalists and bloggers are taking note of this activity and evolving or resurrecting nomenclature to describe it.

The earliest example I’ve found offering nomenclature for this phenomenon is a blog with a single post from 2011 (oddly, no follow-up) describing so-called stochastic terrorism. Other terms include syntactic violence, semantic violence, and epistemic violence, but they all revolve around the same point. Whether on the sending or receiving end of communications, some individuals are particularly adept at or sensitive to dog whistles that over time activate and exacerbate tendencies toward radical ideology and violence. Wired has a brief article from a few days ago discussing stochastic terrorism as jargon, which is basically what I’m doing here. Admittedly, the last of these terms, epistemic violence (alternative: epistemological violence), ranges farther afield from the end effect I’m calling wind-up toys. For instance, this article discussing structural violence is much more academic in character than when I blogged on the same term (one of a handful of “greatest hits” for this blog that return search-engine hits with some regularity). Indeed, just about any of my themes and topics can be given a dry, academic treatment. That’s not my approach (I gather opinions differ on this account, but I insist that real academic work is fundamentally different from my armchair cultural criticism), but it’s entirely valid despite being a bit remote for most readers. One can easily get lost down the rabbit hole of analysis.

If indeed it’s mere words and rhetoric that transform otherwise normal people into criminals and mass murderers, then I suppose I can understand the distorted logic of the far Left that equates words and rhetoric themselves with violence, followed by the demand that they be provided with warnings and safe spaces lest they be triggered by what they hear, read, or learn. As I understand it, the fear is not so much that vulnerable, credulous folks will be magically turned into automatons wound up and set loose in public to enact violent agendas but instead that virulent ideas and knowledge (including many awful truths of history) might cause discomfort and psychological collapse akin to what happens to when targets of hate speech and death threats are reduced, say, to quivering agoraphobia. Desire for protection from harm is thus understandable. The problem with such logic, though, is that protections immediately run afoul of free speech, a hallowed but misunderstood American institution that preempts quite a few restrictions many would have placed on the public sphere. Protections also stall learning and truth-seeking straight out of the gate. And besides, preemption of preemption doesn’t work.

In information theory, the notion of a caustic idea taking hold of an unwilling person and having its wicked way with him or her is what’s called a mind virus or meme. The viral metaphor accounts for the infectious nature of ideas as they propagate through the culture. For instance, every once in a while, a charismatic cult emerges and inducts new members, a suicide cluster appears, or suburban housewives develop wildly disproportionate phobias about Muslims or immigrants (or worse, Muslim immigrants!) poised at their doorsteps with intentions of rape and murder. Inflaming these phobias, often done by pundits and politicians, is precisely the point of semantic violence. Everyone is targeted but only a few are affected to the extreme of acting out violently. Milder but still invalid responses include the usual bigotries: nationalism, racism, sexism, and all forms of tribalism, “othering,” or xenophobia that seek to insulate oneself safely among like folks.

Extending the viral metaphor, to protect oneself from infectious ideas requires exposure, not insulation. Think of it as a healthy immune system built up gradually, typically early in life, through slow, steady exposure to harm. The alternative is hiding oneself away from germs and disease, which has the ironic result of weakening the immune system. For instance, I learned recently that peanut allergies can be overcome by gradual exposure — a desensitization process — but are exacerbated by removal of peanuts from one’s environment and/or diet. This is what folks mean when they say the answer to hate speech is yet more (free) speech. The nasty stuff can’t be dealt with properly when it’s quarantined, hidden away, suppressed, or criminalized. Maybe there are exceptions. Science fiction entertains those dangers with some regularity, where minds are shunted aside to become hosts for invaders of some sort. That might be overstating the danger somewhat, but violent eruptions may provide some credence.

I caught the presentation embedded below with Thomas L. Friedman and Yuval Noah Harari, nominally hosted by the New York Times. It’s a very interesting discussion but not a debate. For this now standard format (two or more people sitting across from each other with a moderator and an audience), I’m pleased to observe that Friedman and Harari truly engaged each others’ ideas and behaved with admirable restraint when the other was speaking. Most of these talks are rude and combative, marred by constant interruptions and gotchas. Such bad behavior might succeed in debate club but makes for a frustratingly poor presentation. My further comments follow below.

With a topic as open-ended as The Future of Humanity, arguments and support are extremely conjectural and wildly divergent depending on the speaker’s perspective. Both speakers here admit their unique perspectives are informed by their professions, which boils down to biases borne out of methodology, and to a lesser degree perhaps, personality. Fair enough. In my estimation, Harari does a much better job adopting a pose of objectivity. Friedman comes across as both salesman and a cheerleader for human potential.

Both speakers cite a trio of threats to human civilization and wellbeing going forward. For Harari, they’re nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. For Friedman, they’re the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change alongside population growth and loss of diversity), and Moore’s Law. Friedman argues that all three are accelerating beyond control but speaks of each metaphorically, such as when refers to changes in market conditions (e.g., from independent to interdependent) as “climate change.” The biggest issue from my perspective — climate change — was largely passed over in favor of more tractable problems.

Climate change has been in the public sphere as the subject of considerable debate and confusion for at least a couple decades now. I daresay it’s virtually impossible not to be aware of the horrific scenarios surrounding what is shaping up to be the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). Yet as a global civilization, we’ve barely reacted except with rhetoric flowing in all directions and some greenwashing. Difficult to assess, but perhaps the appearance of more articles about surviving climate change (such as this one in Bloomberg Businessweek) demonstrates that more folks recognize we can no longer stem or stop climate change from rocking the world. This blog has had lots to say about the collapse of industrial civilization being part of a mass extinction event (not aimed at but triggered by and including humans), so for these two speakers to cite but then minimize the peril we face is, well, façile at the least.

Toward the end, the moderator finally spoke up and directed the conversation towards uplift (a/k/a the happy chapter), which almost immediately resulted in posturing on the optimism/pessimism continuum with Friedman staking his position on the positive side. Curiously, Harari invalidated the question and refused to be pigeonholed on the negative side. Attempts to shoehorn discussions into familiar if inapplicable narratives or false dichotomies are commonplace. I was glad to see Harari calling bullshit on it, though others (e.g., YouTube commenters) were easily led astray.

The entire discussion is dense with ideas, most of them already quite familiar to me. I agree wholeheartedly with one of Friedman’s remarks: if something can be done, it will be done. Here, he refers to technological innovation and development. Plenty of prohibitions throughout history not to make available disruptive technologies have gone unheeded. The atomic era is the handy example (among many others) as both weaponry and power plants stemming from cracking the atom come with huge existential risks and collateral psychological effects. Yet we prance forward headlong and hurriedly, hoping to exploit profitable opportunities without concern for collateral costs. Harari’s response was to recommend caution until true cause-effect relationships can be teased out. Without saying it manifestly, Harari is citing the precautionary principle. Harari also observed that some of those effects can be displaced hundreds and thousands of years.

Displacements resulting from the Agrarian Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution in particular (all significant historical “turnings” in human development) are converging on the early 21st century (the part we can see at least somewhat clearly so far). Neither speaker would come straight out and condemn humanity to the dustbin of history, but at least Harari noted that Mother Nature is quite keen on extinction (which elicited a nervous? uncomfortable? ironic? laugh from the audience) and wouldn’t care if humans were left behind. For his part, Friedman admits our destructive capacity but holds fast to our cleverness and adaptability winning out in the end. And although Harari notes that the future could bring highly divergent experiences for subsets of humanity, including the creation of enhanced humans to and reckless dabbling with genetic engineering, I believe cumulative and aggregate consequences of our behavior will deposit all of us into a grim future no sane person should wish to survive.

One of the very best lessons I took from higher education was recognizing and avoiding the intentional fallacy — in my own thinking no less than in that of others. Although the term arguably has more to do with critical theory dealing specifically with texts, I learned about it in relation to abstract fine arts, namely, painting and music. For example, the enigmatic expression of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci continues to spark inquiry and debate. What exactly does that smile mean? Even when words or programs are included in musical works, it’s seductively easy to conclude that the composer intends this or the work itself means that. Any given work purportedly allows audiences to peer into the mind of its creator(s) to interrogate intent. Conclusions thus drawn, however, are notoriously unreliable though commonplace.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, to read intent into artistic expression, especially when purpose feels so obvious or inevitable. Similar excavations of meaning and purpose are undertaken within other domains of activity, resulting in no end of interpretation as to surface and deep strategies. Original intent (also originalism) is a whole field of endeavor with respect to interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and imagining the framers’ intent. Geopolitics is another domain where hindsight analysis results in some wildly creative but ultimately conjectural interpretations of events. Even where authorial (and political) intent is explicitly recorded, such as with private diaries or journals, the possibility of deceptive intent by authors keeps everyone wondering. Indeed, although “fake news” is modern coin, a long history of deceptive publishing practice well beyond the adoption of a nom de plume attests to hidden or unknowable intent making “true intent” a meta property.

The multi-ring circus that the modern information environment has become, especially in the wake of electronic media (e.g., YouTube channels) produced by anyone with a camera and an Internet connection, is fertile ground for those easily ensnared by the intentional fallacy. Several categories of intent projected onto content creators come up repeatedly: profit motive, control of the narrative (no small advantage if one believes this blog post), setting the record straight, correcting error, grandstanding, and trolling for negative attention. These categories are not mutually exclusive. Long ago, I pointed to the phenomenon of arguing on-line and how it typically accomplishes very little, especially as comment threads lengthen and civility breaks down. These days, comments are an Internet legacy and/or anachronism that many content creators persist in offering to give the illusion of a wider discussion but in fact roundly ignore. Most blogs and channels are actually closed conversations. Maybe a Q&A follows the main presentation when held before an audience, but video channels are more often one-way broadcasts addressing an audience but not really listening. Public square discussion is pretty rare.

Some celebrate this new era of broadcasting, noting with relish how the mainstream media is losing its former stranglehold on attention. Such enthusiasm may be transparently self-serving but nonetheless rings true. A while back, I pointed to New Media Rockstars, which traffics in nerd culture entertainment media, but the term could easily be expanded to include satirical news, comedy, and conversational webcasts (also podcasts). Although some folks are rather surprised to learn that an appetite for substantive discussion and analysis exists among the public, I surmise that the shifting media landscape and disintegrated cultural narrative have bewildered a large segment of the public. The young in particular are struggling to make sense of the world, figure out what to be in life and how to function, and working out an applied philosophy that eschews more purely academic philosophy.

By way of example of new media, let me point to a trio of YouTube channels I only recently discovered. Some More News parodies traditional news broadcasts by sardonically (not quite the same as satirically) calling bullshit on how news is presented. Frequent musical cues between segments make me laugh. Unlike the mainstream media, which are difficult not to regard as propaganda arms of the government, Some More News is unapologetically liberal and indulges in black humor, which doesn’t make me laugh. Its raw anger and exasperation are actually a little terrifying. The second YouTube channel is Three Arrows, a sober, thorough debunking of news and argumentation found elsewhere in the public sphere. The speaker, who doesn’t appear onscreen, springs into action especially when accusations of current-day Nazism come up. (The current level of debate has devolved to recklessly calling nearly everyone a Nazi at some stage. Zero points scored.) Historical research often puts things into proper context, such as the magnitude of the actual Holocaust compared to some garden-variety racist running his or her mouth comparatively harmlessly. The third YouTube channel is ContraPoints, which is rather fanciful and profane but remarkably erudite considering the overall tone. Labels and categories are explained for those who may not have working definitions at the ready for every phrase or ideology. Accordingly, there is plenty of jargon. The creator also appears as a variety of different characters to embody various archetypes and play devil’s advocate.

While these channels may provide abundant information, correcting error and contextualizing better than most traditional media, it would be difficult to conclude they’re really moving the conversation forward. Indeed, one might wonder why bother preparing these videos considering how time consuming it has to be to do research, write scripts, assemble pictorial elements, etc. I won’t succumb to the intentional fallacy and suggest I know why they bother holding these nondebates. Further, unless straight-up comedy, I wouldn’t say they’re entertaining exactly, either. Highly informative, perhaps, if one pays close attention to frenetic online pace and/or mines for content (e.g., studying transcripts or following links). Interestingly, within a fairly short period of time, these channels are establishing their own rhetoric, sometimes useful, other times too loose to make strong impressions. It’s not unlike the development of new stylistic gestures in music or painting. What if anything worthwhile will emerge from the scrum will be interesting.