In recent times, there is a burgeoning industry in popular books on academic subjects aimed at the layperson or the educated person who is not an expert in the field discussed in a certain book. Most of these books, particularly in the fields of politics, economics, and sociology, are written by authors who have a leftist bias. This is to be expected, as academia has long been dominated by such people. But this bias seems to consistently impair such authors whenever they attempt to understand perspectives which are fundamentally different from their own. Three examples of this can be found in books that were reviewed here at Zeroth Position in the past fortmoon. The shortcomings therein are evidence of a much broader and more serious problem. We will consider extant theories which describe this problem. Next, we will posit some potential origins for this phenomenon, as well as some possible solutions. Finally, we will consider the potential negative consequences of leaving the problem unsolved.
Good Guys With Guns
This is a book about concealed firearms, the culture around them, and their effects on society by sociologist Angela Stroud, reviewed here on December 12, 2016. True to leftist thought, the roles of gender, race, and class in firearm ownership are major themes of the book. The series of interviews included in the book illuminate many interesting aspects of firearm ownership which are not adequately discussed elsewhere, and Stroud makes a genuine effort to understand people who disagree with her. But she commits a multitude of errors which are common among leftists and sociologists, and seems to be unable to keep herself from doing so. Her most egregious and oft-repeated fallacies include the broken window fallacy, confusing objective reality with subjective social constructs, false dilemmas, accusing people of contradicting themselves when they do not, and conflating society with the state. She also does a poor job of recognizing and assessing potential threats, ignores information which undermines her case, blames free-market capitalism and patriarchy when they were not in use, assumes that any inequality is the result of institutional oppression, and blames white people for problems caused by non-whites.
While there are many insightful points made in the book, Stroud commits far too many fallacies along the way for the book to be enjoyable or read smoothly. What could have been an excellent work on an important topic is instead bogged down by postmodern discourse, social justice rhetoric, and shoddy reasoning.
This is a book about the relationship between Islam and the modern nation-state, the role that Islam has played in the development of the Middle East, and the currently ongoing conflicts there by Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid, reviewed here on April 30, 2017. Hamid’s explorations of these subjects leads him to question the mainstream liberal narrative of Whig historiography, democratic supremacy, and progressive determinism, though he never quite manages to reject this narrative. He provides an informative history of Islam from the beginning, illuminating several points that frequently elude Westerners. But when Hamid interviews youths who wish to break the Westphalian order of nation-states and are willing to use violence to achieve political goals, he seems unable to truly understand them.
That being said, of the three authors discussed, Hamid is the most perceptive of the lot. He correctly recognized ISIS as a state at the time of writing because it had a monopoly on initiatory force within a geographical area while providing the common functions of a state. He knows that moderates tend to lose in civil wars and revolutions because they lack both the fervor and resolve to do what the extremists on all sides will do. He understands that there are no such things as universal values in practice. But the Western liberal democratic biases of the author are inescapable. Hamid is unable to process the possibility that democracy is inferior to the older pre-Westphalian order, especially for the Muslim world. This is especially irksome, given the amount of evidence that he himself finds for this possibility.
This is a book about the shortcomings of the eurozone currency project, the faulty policies pursued by European leaders thus far, and several potential alternatives by American economist Joseph Stiglitz, reviewed here on December 11, 2017. He is perhaps the worst of the three, in that while the others have difficulties in understanding right-wing thought, Stiglitz tends to either show no awareness of its existence, dismiss it out of hand, or mischaracterize it in ways which can only be deliberate for someone of his caliber. His Keynesian approach to economics is apparent from the beginning, as is his thoroughly statist worldview. He never mentions the Austrian School and ignores many practical possibilities for true economic and political liberty. The Chicago School earns nothing but contempt from him, as he recites the leftist caricature of Chile under Pinochet and derides monetarism. Meanwhile, he repeatedly blames markets for the 2008 crisis when they were only responding to the perverse incentives created by governments and central banks. He also blames austerity for Europe’s recent troubles when very little austerity has actually occurred.
Like Stroud, Stiglitz confuses collective action with state action. Stiglitz’s faith in democracy is even stronger than Hamid’s, as he never questions whether anything is wrong with democracy itself, even as he argues against incentive structures which are necessarily part of any democracy, advocates for a new monetary system which could offer states tyrannical control over their citizens, and denounces anti-immigrant groups in Europe which resist demographic replacement by a ruling class that they did not ask to replace them. Though Stiglitz does not appear to argue in bad faith, one could be forgiven for thinking that he does.
Before attempting to analyze the above examples, it is necessary to lay some groundwork concerning meta-politics. In political discourse, there is a range of opinions which are considered to be socially acceptable to varying degrees, with extremes on one or both sides of each issue regarded as anywhere from unfashionable at best to worthy of violent response at worst. This concept has been given various names; Hallin’s second sphere, the Overton Window, and the index card of allowable opinion, to name a few. Hallin’s analysis divides the world of political discourse into three spheres according to how the media covers various subjects. The first sphere is the sphere of consensus. This contains topics on which agreement is assumed. Hallin writes that for such topics, “Journalists feel free to invoke a generalized ‘we’ and to take for granted shared values and shared assumptions. …Journalists do not feel compelled to present an opposing viewpoint or to remain disinterested observers.” The second sphere is the sphere of legitimate controversy. This sphere consists of matters on which rational, informed people have disagreements. Journalists are expected to be disinterested observers and reporters for topics in this sphere, not overtly supporting one position over another. The third sphere is the sphere of deviance. This contains topics which are believed to be outside the bounds of legitimate discussion. Hallin writes that in this sphere, “Journalists depart from standard norms of objective reporting and feel authorized to treat as marginal, laughable, dangerous, or ridiculous individuals and groups who fall far outside a range of variation taken as legitimate.” Those who dispute the content of the sphere of consensus tend to find themselves here, as do those who lack sufficient influence to merit news coverage or are known for making baseless and outlandish claims. The boundaries of the spheres shift with changes in public opinion, journalistic standards, and media ownership, as well as advances in reason, science, and technology.
Joseph Overton’s conception of political discourse posits a range of ideas which are tolerated in public discourse. Whereas Hallin’s spheres describe media coverage, the Overton window describes voter sentiment and politician stances. Overton contends that the political viability of an idea depends on whether the idea is within the window or outside of it. Politicians who recommend too many policies which are outside of the window will be considered too extreme to be elected or re-elected. Most of the theory about the Overton Window is concerned with how to move it or keep it from moving, depending on whether the goal is to advance policies which are currently outside or inside of the window, respectively. Application of the door-in-the-face technique to Overton’s theory results in the deliberate promotion of ideas that are far outside of the window in order to shift the window toward ideas which are slightly outside of it. (This makes as much sense in ideological space as it does in physical space; one cannot push an object while one is standing on it, as such a force is both self-defeating and lacking in leverage.)
Tom Woods refers to this phenomenon as the index card of allowable opinion. Woods’ description combines the insights of Hallin and Overton, as the establishment media uses Hallin’s spheres while playing a large role in deciding where the frame of the Overton Window lies. Woods writes,
“On the left, sites like ThinkProgress and Media Matters smear and attack those uppity peons who stray from the ideological plantation that the Washington Post and the New York Times oversee. On the right, it’s neoconservative sites like the Free Beacon, who have built a nice little cabin on that plantation, and who rat out anyone who tries to run away.”
One could easily add National Review and several others to the list of sites on the right (such as it is in modern America), as well as note such a presence in libertarian circles, denounced here as cuckertarians. The purpose of maintaining this range of allowable opinion is to prevent people from realizing the need for a radical change from the status quo by saturating them with ideas which never stray too far from the establishment narrative and presenting them with the illusion that they have meaningful choices in the current system. As Noam Chomsky writes,
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
The behavioral pattern that Woods notes later is the subject of the next section. He continues:
“The respectables of left and right do not deign to show where we’re wrong, of course. The very fact that we’ve strayed from the approved spectrum is refutation enough. …Once in a while they do try to show where we’re wrong, but they can almost never manage even to state our position correctly, much less muster an effective argument against it. [The] purpose of these alleged replies is not to shed light, but to demonize libertarians in the public mind.”
Mechanisms and Remedies
The range of allowable opinion has the effect of a feedback loop on academia. The range of allowable opinion agreed upon by one generation of academics influences the next generation, limiting the range of ideas to which they are exposed in sufficient depth to truly understand them. Whereas true rightist thought is rigid, rationalist, and timeless while leftist thought is flexible, empiricist, and novel, it is no surprise that this process gradually pulls the Overton window leftward. There are several mechanisms by which this occurs, and if the problem is to be resolved, each requires its own remedy.
Whig historiography views the past as an inevitable march of progress toward greater knowledge and freedom, culminating in liberal democracy and constitutionally limited monarchy. The name comes from the British Whigs, who supported the power of Parliament over the power of the monarch, thus opposing the Tories, who did the opposite. The term has acquired a pejorative use for good reason. Whiggism bears resemblance to Marxism, which follows the same narrative to a different end, namely that of a classless, egalitarian, communist utopia. It assumes without evidence that there will be no further progress past liberal democracy and limited monarchy toward greater knowledge and freedom. This explains why its adherents attack libertarians, as they propose further advances in freedom, which are disallowed by the Whig narrative. Indeed, Whiggism errs in assuming that history is necessarily goal-oriented at all, as this would require some collective unconscious and/or divine plan that is not proven to exist.
The present-mindedness of the Whig approach leads its adherents to believe that current ideals were held in the past, which ends up producing a great amount of ignorant eisegesis when historical figures are examined in a context that they would find to be alien. It keeps one from investigating the real causes of historical change by providing the false answer that the cause was the march toward progress. Whiggism also motivates the sanctification of past leaders who advanced this progress and the vilification of those who worked against it that is omnipresent in contemporary politics, for if an inevitable march toward progress is assumed, it follows that conservatives and reactionaries are engaged in a revolt against nature. As Allan Greer writes,
“They lost because they had to lose; they were not simply overwhelmed by superior force, they were justly chastised by the God of History.”
The ongoing influence of Whiggism partly explains why leftist academics seem unable to grasp rightist thought. An inevitable march toward progress combined with the generally leftist nature of progress means that they view a rigorous understanding of and debate with rightist thought as unnecessary; we have progressed past it, never to return. Among the less academically inclined, this explains the “Its the current year!” response that is widely mocked among rightists.
The most potent antidote to Whig history is to relentlessly attack its fallacies while advocating alternatives such as cyclical history (a repeating cycle of ascent and decline) and agnostic history (the view that no such grand narrative can be known). Butterfield proposed a methodological remedy “to evoke a certain sensibility towards the past, the sensibility which studies the past ‘for the sake of the past’, which delights in the concrete and the complex, which ‘goes out to meet the past’, which searches for ‘unlikenesses between past and present.’”
Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and the Mirror-Image Fallacy
While Whig historiography can lead leftist academics to dismiss rightist thought as an unworthy opponent best left unengaged, other phenomena can leave them unaware of its existence. A filter bubble is a form of intellectual isolation that can occur when websites use algorithms to guess what a user wants to see based on the user’s history and other personal information. This keeps people from finding information that is presented from different viewpoints, thus trapping them in a cultural or ideological bubble. This leaves them ill-equipped to deal with those who are unlike themselves. The term was coined by Internet activist Eli Pariser and discussed in his 2011 book of the same name. Pariser formally defined the concept of a filter bubble as “that personal ecosystem of information that’s been catered by these algorithms.” The filter bubble is the technological manifestation of the echo chamber, a term describing the tendency of legacy media as well as one’s social and professional circles to create similar limitations in thinking and perception. Pariser notes that filter bubbles can harm a society by undermining civic discourse, creating confirmation bias, and increasing vulnerability to propaganda and other manipulations of public opinion.
Although the extent of the effect of filter bubbles remains in contention, and some of the effect comes from user choice that emanates from and reinforces echo chambers in the physical world, the influence of exposure to only one’s own side of political issues is guaranteed to distort one’s perception of reality. In the worst cases, this can lead people to believe that everyone thinks and views the world as they do, a condition which Charles Krauthammer describes as the mirror-image fallacy. He writes:
“The mirror-image fantasy is not as crazy as it seems. Fundamentally, it is a radical denial of the otherness of others. Or to put it another way, a blinding belief in ‘common humanity,’ in the triumph of human commonality over human differences. …Its central axiom is that if one burrows deep enough beneath the Mao jacket, the shapka, or the chador, one discovers that people everywhere are essentially the same.”
This predictably causes serious problems. Krauthammer continues:
“If the whole world is like me, then certain conflicts become incomprehensible; the very notion of intractability becomes paradoxical. …The more alien the sentiment, the less seriously it is taken. Diplomatic fiascoes follow… To gloss over contradictory interests, incompatible ideologies, and opposing cultures is more than anti-political. It is dangerous.”
A more realistic approach is thus required, as Krauthammer describes:
“Ultimately to say that people all share the same hopes and fears, are all born and love and suffer and die alike, is to say very little. For it is after commonalities are accounted for that politics becomes necessary. It is only when values, ideologies, cultures, and interests clash that politics even begins. At only the most trivial level can it be said that people want the same things. Take peace. The North Vietnamese wanted it, but apparently they wanted to conquer all of Indochina first. The Salvadoran right and left both want it, but only after making a desert of the other. The Reagan administration wants it, but not if it has to pay for it with pieces of Central America.
And even if one admits universal ends, one still has said nothing about means, about what people will risk, will permit, will commit in order to banish their (common) fears and pursue their (common) hopes. One would think that after the experience of this [20th] century the belief that a harmony must prevail between peoples who share a love of children and small dogs would be considered evidence of a most grotesque historical amnesia.”
The problem of echo chambers and filter bubbles is more difficult to solve than that of Whig historiography. This is not to say that solutions do not exist; one can make a conscious effort to look for these conditions and actively seek alternative viewpoints. Several websites have been created to aid people in that purpose, as have several browser plugins and smartphone applications. In meatspace, this process is not as simple as installing a few programs, but there are a multitude of social clubs that one can join to meet new people with different perspectives. The difficulty lies in actually implementing the solutions. Just as the incompetent can lack the expertise to recognize their own incompetence, so too can those within an echo chamber fail to realize that they have a problem. In many cases, it will be necessary for people who are outside of such echo chambers to make an active effort to reach in.
Whig historiography and echo chambers, while important factors, are only proximate causes of the intellectual limitations of leftists. A more fundamental source comes from the dynamics of social coordination and is known as virtue signalling. Virtue signalling is a conspicuous and/or invidious expression of one’s opinion on a moral issue done primarily to maintain or enhance one’s social status. The term originates from signalling theory, a body of work in evolutionary biology that examines communication between organisms. For example, a large mane on a male lion is a status signal that declares his fitness, as a less fit lion would lose contests with other males and have his hair torn out. The term later found use in economics, as an impressive building for a firm or a resume full of extraneous qualifications for a job-seeker declare financial and intellectual fitness, respectively. Less successful firms and less competent people would be unable to achieve such results. Religious traditions frequently include rituals that serve a similar function for the purpose of aiding in-group cohesion.
Beginning in the late 2000s, ‘virtue signalling’ came to be defined differently in various Internet forums. The newer meaning refers to superficial support for political views with the primary purpose of maintaining an appearance of respectability, as well as a focus on appearing to act rather than actually taking action. As James Bartholomew writes,
“When David Cameron defends maintaining spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid, he is telling us that the Tory party, or at least he himself — as a rather wonderful, non-toxic part of it — cares about the poor in the developing world. The actual effectiveness or otherwise of foreign aid in achieving this aim is irrelevant.”
Notably, virtue signalling tends to involve expressions of hatred of the other, of the out-group. Bartholomew continues:
“It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious… Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.
One of the occasions when expressions of hate are not used is when people say they are passionate believers in the NHS. Note the use of the word ‘belief’. This is to shift the issue away from evidence about which healthcare system results in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. The speaker does not want to get into facts or evidence. He or she wishes to demonstrate kindness — the desire that all people, notably the poor, should have access to ‘the best’ healthcare. The virtue lies in the wish. But hatred waits in reserve even with the NHS. ‘The Tories want to privatise the NHS!’ you assert angrily. Gosh, you must be virtuous to be so cross!”
This ends up being counterproductive, in that it can harm the very people that those who are truly virtuous and not just signalling would desire to help. Bartholomew writes,
“No one actually has to do anything. …There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents instead of dumping them in a home; staying in a not-wholly-perfect marriage for the sake of the children. These things involve effort and self-sacrifice. That sounds hard! Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing hatred of those who think the health service could be improved by introducing competition. …Virtue-signalling battles can soon take leave of any genuine concern for the low-paid or suffering. Indeed they can become highly damaging. The low-skilled whose abilities simply cannot command an absurdly high minimum wage become unemployable.”
Virtue signalling is also responsible for the problem of Error Push, in which a factually incorrect position is advanced because a hated enemy is factually correct about a certain issue, and virtue signalling becomes more important to people than correct knowledge or telling the truth.
Fortunately, there are two powerful remedies against this sort of behavior. First, one may engage in the opposite behavior, known as counter-signalling or vice signalling. This should be followed by mercilessly criticizing the virtue signallers for their fallacious discourse when they resort to ad hominems instead of making appropriate counter-arguments. The purpose of this tactic is to show their support to be superficial and insincere, as a person with deeply-held, sincere beliefs should be able to defend them in rational discourse. Resorting to angry name-calling against a calm opponent who makes reasoned arguments is also damaging to the appearance of respectability that the virtue signaller so desires.
Second, one may take meaningful action concerning the subjects of the virtue signals. A person who supports minimum wage hikes and social programs for the poor may appear virtuous to the economically illiterate, but a person who directly helps the poor to become upwardly mobile is actually virtuous. A person who supports tougher environmental regulations against polluters may appear virtuous to those who do not understand regulatory capture, but a person who invents new technologies or uses capitalist principles to reduce pollution is actually virtuous. With “effort and self-sacrifice,” one can take the wind out of the sails of virtue signallers by acting while they talk. In the long run, the golden will defeat the merely gilded.
The Overton Bubble and Civil War
So far, we have considered examples of leftist failures to understand rightist thought, potential causes for this phenomenon, and possible remedies for each. Now, we will explore what may happen if this problem is not remedied. When the Overton window is combined with an ideological echo chamber and reinforced by copious amounts of virtue signalling, it can become thick and opaque, hardening into an ideological pocket universe which can only be entered or re-entered with great difficulty. This Overton Bubble, as neoreactionaries call it, can form when the establishment effectively controls the Overton window and uses this control to maintain political power. When the range of respectable opinion is policed with sufficient rigor, having an accurate understanding of opinions outside of that range is enough to make oneself the target of a political witch hunt.
When combined with the phenomenon of error push described in the previous section, an Overton bubble can leave a society in general and its elites in particular incapable of solving problems. As Neal Devers writes,
“If some thoughts are unthinkable and unspeakable, and the truth happens in some case to fall outside of polite consensus, then [the] ruling elite and their society will run into situations [that] they simply [cannot] handle.”
It follows that wise elites would be exceedingly careful about allowing such a ‘polite consensus’ to form; in fact, they would take active steps to suppress the formation of such holiness spirals. Unfortunately, the perverse incentives inherent in political democracy ensure that the elite almost universally will be both unwise and insecure, thus perpetually goading them into destructive behaviors such as blowing Overton bubbles.
The problems that such an elite simply cannot handle may be domestic or foreign in origin. If foreign, then the typical result is conquest and subjugation under a power that would have no capability to assume control had a healthy system of governance and defense been in place. The particular dynamics of such events are outside the scope of this essay. Here, we are primarily concerned with political disputes within one society.
For centuries, the establishment exercised tight control over public discourse, burning heresies along with their authors. After such brutality fell out of favor in the West, the elites still managed to expel from official positions those who did not kowtow to the official narrative. Such exiles lacked the means to mount an effective counter-movement, so ‘point deer make horse’ was a favorite tactic of political control. Modern technology fundamentally alters this dynamic; being forced out of the Overton bubble is no longer fatal to one’s influence or career prospects, and as time marches on, existing inside the bubble will become a less and less attractive option for those starting out in life. But those who have established academic, media, and/or political careers inside the bubble will fail to understand the social dynamics in play, for gaining such an understanding would result in them being purged.
The trouble that lies ahead is thus clear. A leftist establishment that cannot peacefully engage with anything non-leftist and a non-leftist opposition that finally has the strength to organize an effective challenge existing in the same physical space is a recipe for violent conflict. Foreshocks of this political earthquake have already occurred in Chicago, Berkeley, and Charlottesville, to name a few. It is quickly becoming technologically impossible for the establishment to put the genie of opinion-making back into their bottle. Abolishing democracy, breaking up the institutions inside the Overton bubble, and secession into smaller, more politically uniform territories are considered unthinkable both by those inside the bubble and many of the people outside of it.
The immediate options will thus eventually reduce to the two options that all of us have in our personal lives: reason or force, words or weapons, truth or consequences, peace or utter destruction. Whereas it is not certain that the former set will be chosen over the latter set, and a civil war is always the most disastrous kind, it is necessary to de-escalate the situation before it reaches that point using the methods described in the previous sections. Only then can saner ideas be brought back into the realm of public discourse with a goal of either reaching a governing consensus or achieving an amicable geographic separation along political lines.
It may seem that we have traveled a long way from discussing three books to discussing civil war and its prevention. But the books were only meant to serve as small examples of a much larger problem. The formation of Overton bubbles is controlled by several key factors: a range of respectable opinion, the lingering influence of Whig historiography, filter bubbles in digital space, echo chambers in physical space, the plural solipsism caused by the previous two factors, virtue signalling, and the destructive incentives inherent in democracy. The civilization-destroying potential of our present bubble can still be thwarted if enough of these contributing factors are dismantled, but time is short and growing shorter.
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