What We Don’t See

Of all the conceits common to humankind possibly the most insidious is that any of us are entirely rational. And often the most irrational people are those who brag about how rational they are.

Even if a person’s basic reasoning skills are sound, the outcome of his reasoning nearly always will be imperfect. That’s because nearly all of us “live” within limited conceptual frameworks that filter and sort information in artificial ways. The way we conceptually interface with reality is based partly on our own experience and partly on how we are culturally conditioned to understand things.  And most of us are blind to this, because if we and everyone we know is artificially filtering and sorting information in pretty much the same way, we assume our understanding of reality is the only possible one.

(I wrote quite a lot about this in my book, by the way, explaining the way our limited conceptual frameworks have impacted religion and have largely rendered it ridiculous, but it doesn’t have to be that way.)

Breaking out of the conceptual box we live in usually takes some extraordinary experience — and often a shocking one — to see that we’re living in an artificial world and that the “real” one outside the limits of our awareness is largely alien to us. And most of us amble through life without ever having that experience.

Even though few of us ever perceive that we’re living inside a conceptual box, if we run into people whose conceptual boxes are very different from ours we think those people just don’t understand the real world (meaning our “real world”). I could define maturity, even wisdom, as the ability to appreciate  and respect that other people’s “worlds” are just as valid as ours even if they are wildly different. I wrote a few years ago,

My view is that everything we think comes from a complex of psychological discriminations and impulses, little of which have anything to do with “logic.” The way we understand ourselves and the world begins to be shaped from the moment we’re born and continues to be shaped by the culture we grow up and live in. In other words, all of our understandings are biased. This is pervasive and inescapable. Often the difference between “logical” and “empathic” people is that an “empathic” person has at least a dim appreciation of his own biases, whereas a “logical” person is utterly oblivious to them. …

… Our conscious, cognitive understandings of things are based on internalized models of what we’ve been conditioned to believe is “normal.” We may be able to articulate our ideas and perceptions in a coolly logical way, but the process by which we arrive at our ideas and perception is “complex, unconscious and emotional.” This is always true, whether we want to admit it or not. …

… Generally being “fair” is not losing one’s biases, but perceiving one’s biases as biases. If you recognize your biases as biases, you are in a position to overrule them as the facts dictate. But if you are so unconscious of yourself that you don’t recognize your biases as biases, then your “thinking” generally amounts to casting around for support for your biases. Then you put the biases and the cobbled-together “support” together and call it “reason.”

And this takes me to what we don’t see. I’ve written before about the “default norm” syndrome, also called the invisible baseline fallacy, which in our culture means white maledom is the default norm, and perspectives and experiences that deviate from those common to white men are not respected as legitimate. If you are a woman or racial minority in this country you have bumped into this iron wall of assumption many times, but the iron wall is invisible to a lot of white men. Not all, thank goodness.

This is basically the same thing that people are calling “male privilege” or “white privilege,” although I don’t like those terms. The degree to which one’s assumptions, biases and experiences are “privileged” depends on a complex of factors that include health or physical condition, class, and wealth. A white male lower-income paraplegic is considerably less “privileged” than the Koch brothers, for example. As wealth inequality becomes more extreme a whole lot of white people are being left behind to a degree I believe is unprecedented in American history, and I assure you most of these people don’t feel all that “privileged.”

Money is privilege. People who have always been financially comfortable have no idea how much lack of money can be an obstacle to basic functionality in our society. The poor are taxed in myriad ways, from paying higher bank account fees on their meager balances — causing the very poor to not use banks at all, but then one must use check cashing services that also take a bite. Without a car you take public transportation, which eats a lot more time out of your day. And if you don’t have money for a bus you simply don’t go anywhere out of walking distance, which puts a huge limit on your job opportunities. Those left out of Medicaid expansion still have limited access to health care, and chronic, debilitating conditions often go untreated. Poor parents often are caught in the day care trap — they aren’t paid enough to afford reliable day care, but without that it’s hard to hold a job at all. So one is perpetually making seat-of-the-pants arrangements with people to watch the children, and then worrying if the kids are safe. Etc. etc. Many conveniences people with money take for granted are not available to the poor, and the inconveniences pile up and make day-to-day life an exhausting exercise in barely coping.

And then it is assumed the poor can’t get ahead because they are lazy. And it is just about impossible to explain the problem to someone who has been cocooned from it. It’s not part of his, or her, experience; therefore, it isn’t “real.”

As a woman I am sometimes surprised at how much even liberal men are oblivious to the extreme misogyny that still lingers in our culture. I wrote earlier this year,

Even those of us who have never experienced physical assault have experienced sexual intimidation, belittling and humiliation, aimed at us only because of our gender. And most of the time we put up with it, because what else can we do? Confronting some sexist bozo could turn an unpleasant situation into something genuinely dangerous. So how has the political Right responded to #YesAllWomen? Mostly with more belittling. Charles Cooke at NRO, for example, dismisses the social media phenomenon as “groupthink.” We women can’t possibly know our own experiences, apparently, and simply imagine misogyny because we’ve read about it.

Especially to conservatives, problems that middle- and upper-income white men rarely if ever encounter are not “real” issues worthy of being addressed by society or government, but are exceptions that the individuals affected must take care of on their own. The fact that these issues may impact all of us, directly or indirectly, and that the cause may be widespread cultural and institutional bias that upper-income whites feed on a daily basis, is invisible to them.  And you can’t explain it to them. No amount of real-world data or well-constructed logic makes dent in the iron wall. If it doesn’t conform to the conceptual box they live in, it can’t be true.

This is why it is good to have diversity of experience represented in decision-making bodies such as governments, for example. White men like to tell themselves they can make decisions that affect everybody else just fine because they will apply reason. But their reason is based on biased perspectives that fail to take many things into account. Publius provides a good example here — many rape laws used to require a woman to show she had resisted an assault to prove she had not consented. But this is a male-centric view. A woman understands that if she is being assaulted by a violent man much stronger than she is, her only hope of surviving may be in not resisting. (I remember a bitter joke from many years ago that the only woman almost certain to win a rape case is a dead nun.)

And don’t get me started on reproductive issues. Just a few days ago I was told I was too emotional because I passionately disagreed that abortion must be criminalized. Naturally it was a man, who will never be pregnant, who said this. Yes it’s easier to be emotionally detached from a issue when it’s not personal, and when the real-world experiences and consequences of that issue are merely hypothetical. It’s easier to be emotionally detached when you’re behind the iron wall.

Michael Brown is being buried today. If his killing, and what we’ve learned about Ferguson, hasn’t given us a clear picture of the evils and pervasiveness of institutional racism I don’t know what else will. Yet just last week I encountered a forum populated largely by white men who couldn’t understand why people are always going on about race. Why is race such a big deal? Isn’t it  all about making white men feel guilty?

But I certainly don’t give a rodent’s posterior whether anybody feels guilty. Guilt doesn’t so much as butter toast. Our country is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, in part because our institutions, especially government, increasingly reflect the views of only the most sheltered and privileged among us. And it is increasingly unresponsive to everyone else. And, weirdly, a big chunk of the population being left behind still clings to the cognitive biases that support policies that are hurting them.  Their collective conceptual frameworks are not adjusting; they still can’t see past the iron wall.

See also: Andrew O’Hehir, “White Privilege: An Insidious Virus That’s Eating America from Within.”

It’s a Printed Book, I Think!

I spent all day yesterday giving my files formatted for printing The Book one more read-through, and I uploaded files last night, and this morning I went through the final approval process for making the book available to order.

This is a print-on-demand book, meaning that Create Space/Amazon prints and ships copies as they are ordered. If somebody orders one book, they print and bind one copy and ship it. I know they’re using new technologies to do this, because this couldn’t have been done cost effectively back when I was doing book production management.

I understand it will take two or three days before the book shows up on Amazon, but it’s my understanding that you can order from Create Space now, through this page. Or not. I expected to get a “congratulations your book is for sale” message and haven’t seen it.

Update on The Book

I have uploaded a trial file to Kindle and am checking the format, and things seem to be going smoothly. Sometime this week The Book will be available for sale on Kindle. I have a lot of formatting work to do to get it ready to be printed, but it’s safe to say the paperback version will be available in June, if not by the end of May.

The final title is Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World and the ISBN is 978-0-692-21946-1.

Weenies of Wonder, Part Trois

First, I want to say — Anthony Weiner, will you please go now? I sincerely hope he is not elected Mayor. I cringe at the thought of four years of weiner jokes.

Second, I second the opinion expressed by Katy Waldman, that most of us ladies are not enticed by depictions of the mighty member in isolation. There are studies that support this, in fact. Maybe guys misunderstand this because they’re wired differently, but trust me when I say we ladies would be more enticed by a picture of your face. Or your dog’s face. Maybe even your bowling trophies.

Try to Be of Reasonably Good Cheer

On this day of bad news, I don’t suppose it helps to remind everyone that 150 years ago today, New York City was in the grips of the largest riot of American history. In four days of violence, white mobs killed at least 100 African Americans. I had always thought most of the rioters were Irish immigrants, but it turns out that wasn’t entirely true. They mostly just got blamed for it.

That said, Irish music doesn’t seem at all appropriate, but it always cheers me up. So let the dickheads and white supremacists celebrate; justice will have its day. Someday.

Politics and Class

The impact of class divisions on politics and just about everything else in America is something like the elephant in the living room that everyone ignores. Well, except when Republicans accuse Democrats of fomenting class warfare. Can’t have those unwashed peasants getting too riled up, can we?

Here are a couple of article that are interesting to read together — Richard Florida, “Class Decides Everything“; and Thomas Edsall, “White Working Chaos.” It appears our class distinctions are both growing sharper and also are driving not just politics but our quality of life in the U.S.

OWS and Democracy

Let’s talk for a bit about democracy. Democracy is defined in the dictionary as “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”

The history books tell us that a long time ago, places like ancient Athens attempted democracy without elected representatives, so that every citizen who showed up could have a say in how laws were made. But Athens was a relatively small place, and only a minority of residents qualified as citizens.

More recently, democracies have gone the elected representative route. This system works pretty well under the right conditions. The right conditions include an informed citizenry that gives enough of a damn to show up and vote in elections. It also assumes that factual and honest information about what’s going on is available to citizens, and that elections are mostly honest.

Of course, democracies can be corrupted all kinds of ways, but so can any other human institution. There may be incorruptible individuals, but no collection of people ever born could not be corrupted or co-opted, in whole or in part, sooner or later.

When democracies function well, they do a pretty good job of enabling people to direct their government to serve the public good. People often disagree, and sometimes mistakes are make. But on the whole, if not overwhelmed by corruption, democracies do have a proven track record of being able to hold nations together in a reasonably stable way, so that the people living in those nations can make the best of their lives. I think most of us would say we much prefer to live in a democracy than in a monarchy or a dictatorship.

Put another way, when working properly democracy provides a stable framework within which people and communities can live and grow and innovate, with optimum personal freedom.

There are some kind of human endeavors that don’t lend themselves to a democratic model. I am thinking of the community chorus I sing with. To be in a chorus means that you agree to sing the way the director tells you to sing. The chorus does not vote on whether a passage should be sung allegro or adagio, and it’s certainly not left up to individuals to follow their own bliss.

You can say the same thing about the military, although letting the troops vote on whether they will attack the enemy or just go home might (or might not) have shortened a lot of wars. The same thing goes for workplaces. Even employee-owned businesses have leadership hierarchies.

My point is that when a group of individuals are directed to complete some kind of task or otherwise work to a particular purpose, the democracy model probably won’t work. And that’s OK, because democracy is a principle of government, and a group working together to complete a task is a very different thing from a group of people living within a government.

From its beginning, I’ve been impatient with Occupy Wall Street’s fixation on “horizontal democracy” and “radically decentralized structure.” I remember feeling dismay when I read this interview in which a woman goes on and on about building horizontalism and working groups and such.

The way in which we’re organizing is part of our politics. If you’re placing demands on an institution or the state, you’re creating a kind of dialogue, rather than creating an open space for democratic discussion within the plaza.

One, we’ve already been creating a new kind of dialogue here in the blogosphere for the past ten years or so, and it’s a hell of a lot more effective, and open to participation, than OWS could ever be. Further, in U.S. history there have been all kinds of social and communal movements that experimented with new kinds of societies and organizational structures. If you want to do likewise, throw your money into a pot and buy some land in Nebraska, and then go there and form working groups on the prairie to your hearts’ content.

But if you want to be a movement that actually accomplishes something, you have to be willing to submit to a less than democratic organizational structure. There’s no getting around that. Deal with it.

The Nation has an article on “The Fracturing of Occupy Wall Street” that describes the original Manhattan crew as divided between “activists” and “occupiers.” The activists have found office space on Broadway and are planning actions such as Occupy Our Homes. The occupiers are at loose ends:

In the month since the New York Police Department violently forced the occupiers out of Zuccotti, the people whose residence was Liberty Plaza Park have nowhere to go. Some of them had previously been homeless. Others left their homes to join the movement. But deprived of the food station, the medical tent, the things that once fulfilled their needs for basic survival, they have rapidly lost faith in Occupy Wall Street’s much-vaunted democratic process to provide the supportive community that once existed here.

The activists have found shelter for some of the occupiers, but some among the occupiers seem determined to disrupt any attempt to re-organize.

… every meeting I’ve recently attended—and from what I gather, every recent meeting I have not—has been brought to a grinding halt, the basic ability to debate and consent to proposals crippled by a determined few who will not to let things proceed until their issues are addressed. This is the reason for the backed-up business. The people shouting about their needs over the debate.

A small number have taken to obstructing everything for reasons that are not entirely clear. But my impression is that the occupiers just plain need help. For a little while they felt they had a purpose, and something important to do, and that got yanked away from them, and they are angry about that. And the occupiers with resources and education and organizational skills now are in the Broadway office with the activists, leaving the rest to mostly fend for themselves.

So you’ve got some who want to challenge the capitalist establishment; and some who seem to want another go at the old Oneida Movement; and some who want food, shelter, and purpose. Those are all valid things, but this is the work of three different organizations. And at least two of those three are not going to be functional as a “horizontal democracy.”