politics

What Fuels the Fighting: Disagreement over Facts or Values?

In a particularly eye-catching pull quote in the November issue of The Atlantic, journalist and scholar Robert Wright claims, “The world’s gravest conflicts are not over ethical principles or disputed values but over disputed facts.”[1]

The essay, called “Why We Fight – And Can We Stop?” in the print version and “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality” in the online version, reviews new research by psychologists Joshua Greene and Paul Bloom on the biological foundations of our moral impulses. Focusing mainly on Greene’s newest book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Wright details Greene’s proposed solution to the rampant group conflict we see both domestically and internationally. Suggesting that we are evolutionarily wired to cooperate or ‘get along’ with members of groups to which we belong, Greene identifies the key cause of fighting as different groups’ “incompatible visions of what a moral society should be.”[2] And his answer is to strive for a ‘metamorality’ – a universally shared moral perspective (he suggests utilitarianism) that would create a global in-group thus facilitating cooperation.

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US Congress shutsdown CDC, also other unimportant agencies

So the US government is likely being shutdown, which will suspend the work of many government agencies, including the Center for Disease Control (CDC). But, fair citizens, I reassure you – in its wisdom, the US Congress has decided that the military’s salaries will be excluded from the shutdown.

With all due respect to military personnel, this is ludicrous. The US military is by far the world’s largest, there is little likelihood of any major war (the last great power war was in 1953), and no sign of minor wars starting, either. Suspended salaries may be bad for morale and long term retention, but they aren’t going to compromise US military power.

Contrast with the CDC’s work. The world’s deadliest war was the second world war, with 60 million dead, over a period of years (other wars get nowhere close to this). The Spanish flu killed 50-100 million on its own, in a single year. Smallpox couldn’t match that yearly rate, but did polish off 300-500 million of us during the 20th century. Bog standard flu kills between a quarter and a half million every year, and if we wanted to go back further, the Black Death wiped out at least a third of the population of Europe. And let’s not forget HIV with its 30 million deaths to date.

No need to belabour the point… Actually there is: infectious diseases are the greatest killers in human history, bar none. If any point needs belabouring, that’s one. And a shutdown would have an immediate negative impact on public health: for instance, the CDC would halt its influenza monitoring program. Now, of course, this year’s flu may not turn out to be pandemic – we can but hope, because that’s all we can do now! And if we have another SARS starting somewhere in the United States, it will be a real disaster.

We’re closing our eyes and hoping that the greatest killer in human history will be considerate enough to not strike while we sort out our politics.

Two Cheers for Laughtivism

By Kei Hiruta 

Political activists are laughing everywhere. They mock the powerful and ridicule the corrupt, whether the target is a Middle Eastern dictator, a North American CEO, or a recently deceased British Prime Minister. On the streets we see the comical and the absurd in service of a demand for greater transparency and accountability. Online we see an endless flow of memes and Youtube videos to mount a further attack on the crumbling legitimacy of strongmen. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to dispose of arsenal to negotiate with power. Physical force still has a legitimate role to play, and it is unfortunately abused and misused in many parts of the world. But a large number of contemporary activists are giving up violent means. They certainly do not embrace their parents’ and grandparents’ weapons and tactics: Molotov cocktails, the barricades and Mao’s Little Red Book. They instead use toys, French baguettes, fake moustaches and other such items, assisted by Smartphones and MacBooks, twittering and facebooking news from the ground force.

How should we understand all this? A recent Foreign Policy article (and a TED Talk by one of the co-authors, Srdja Popovic) suggests an interesting answer. What we are witnessing, the article argues, is the rise of ‘laughtivism’: ‘a global shift in protest tactics away from anger, resentment, and rage towards a new, more incisive form of activism rooted in fun’. Of course, ‘[s]atire and jokes have been used for centuries to speak truth to power’, but their contemporary incarnations are different in that they ‘now serve as a central part of the activist arsenal’. Laughtivism, the article continues, is particularly effective in tyrannical societies where the stability of the regime depends on the culture of fear. Laughter creates cracks in the seamless whole of tyranny, and it is here that seeds for change are sown to bear fruits. Here, then, is the revised Foucauldian maxim for twenty first-century activism: where power is wedded to fear, laughter is the prime form of resistance.

There is much to be said for this analysis, and I by no means wish to underrate the creative energy and transformative force of political laughter. Yet the Foreign Policy article, like many others (e.g. here and here), seems to overstate the case for laughtivism. First, it is not true that laughter is always or even normally on the side of the people. There is democratic laughter and there is dictatorial laughter. Satire and jokes can be used ‘to speak truth to power’, but they can also be used to conceal truth and reinforce cynicism. George Orwell encapsulates this in the unforgettable revised commandment in Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’ Dictators know how to smirk, though one may wish they only knew how to growl.

Second, there is the laughter of cruelty as well as humane laughter. Even the worst kind of authoritarianism does not consist solely of cold-blooded ideologues, capable of stabbing an enemy without showing any sign of emotion. It also hires state-sponsored sadists and criminal elements, who enjoy using their license to kill, rape and otherwise inflict pain on the powerless. But let us not demonise authoritarians to feel proud of ourselves. Remember Abu Ghraib; the laughter of cruelty is also heard in liberal democratic torture chambers. Freely elected governments too have issued permits for sadist entertainment. Laughter can serve inhumanity and no particular form of government has a monopoly of that wretched commodity.

These points should not be overlooked, but something else – something more urgent, perhaps – goes missing if we are too impressed by the power of laughtivism. It is that laughter alone cannot achieve what political activism, as distinct from mere vandalism, must ultimately aim at: a new, improved political order. Mockery, jokes and satire are powerful tools to destabilise the existing order, but they are ill-suited to the different tasks of ending chaos, filling a power vacuum and installing a new order. Laughter as a political weapon is like bullets and explosives in this respect; it must be put in storage when the task of re-building a broken community gets started. Once strongmen depart or make sufficient concessions, laughtivists must stop laughing and start deliberating and negotiating with their former enemies; they must turn their righteous anger into an enduring sense of justice; and they must realise that the destructive force of laughter could turn against itself to block the way forward.

Fortunately, fear and laughter do not exhaust our emotional options. Fear can end laughter, but so can a smile. Politics will liberate itself from both fear and laughter when laughtivists start smiling to get onto the mundane business of governance. Only then will the excitement of revolt give way to the happiness to live in a better society.

 

Photo credit: inju [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Don’t stay up and decide: sleep deprivation and the culture of late night summits

Would you trust a minister of finance explaining how he just fixed the latest euro-zone deal if he came out of the summit chambers tipsily waving a glass of wine? No? What about if he gave a press conference after an all-night session? Most likely nobody would even notice.

Yet 24 hours without sleep has (roughly) the same effect on decision-making as a 0.1% blood alcohol content (six glasses of wine in an hour). You would not be allowed to drive at this alcohol level, but you are apparently allowed to make major political decisions.

The example is from a blog essay (in Swedish) by Andreas Cervenka, where he asks the sensible question: can we trust sleep-deprived political leaders?

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What is the chance of an MP being wrong?

When MPs took a maths exam it showed that the members of parliament are pretty bad at elementary probability. When asked “if you spin a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads?” 47% of conservatives and 77% of the Labour MPs gave the wrong answer. About 75% of the MPs felt confident when dealing with numbers, although they generally though politicians did not use official statistics and figures correctly when talking policy.

How should a rational person react to this news?

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The Diversity that Dare Not Speak Its Name

 This is a guest post by Dave Frame. Many thanks to him for contributing!

 

Over the last few years, researchers have pointed out a dimension along which there is an extraordinary lack of diversity in the academic social sciences and humanities.[1] And the response from social scientists has been striking. Usually, statistics like these trigger strident calls to reflect diversity and address systematic bias; in this case – political bias – everyone just smiles and winks. But on what basis should political diversity not matter, given how highly academics prize diversity in regards to gender, ethnicity, religion dis/ability and so on?

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