Facts and Their Political Concession Value

Tribal cognition is a funny thing. It often turns facts into values, and values into facts. When we try to wrap our head around “pressing social issues,” we often get mired in the same backwards reasoning that produces such confusion. That is because, very often, the analysis of facts concerning highly-fraught events is not value-neutral. Very often, the facts are treated as pawns in a battle where admission to a fact also requires concession by one side to the other.

The conflation of facts into values and vice versa results in highly motivated reasoning that leads both sides into supporting or stipulating very bizarre things. If one supposes a value requires one to support a particular factual occurrence, then one can see how that leads to people believing in occurrences that have little basis in facts. Likewise, if one supposes a fact requires one to support a particular policy conclusion, then one can see how that leads to people resisting very obvious facts. This bundling of facts and values into singular items that one is simultaneously for or against produces a lot of the phenomena we associate with tribal cognition.

When one draws out the fact-value bundles it becomes easier to recognize their absurdity, so that they might be addressed one by one rather than becoming the implicit value in question in certain disagreements over facts. What is odious about the fact-value bundling is that it seems both sides very often agree about the values in question, without ever directly admitting how the particular value relates to the factual disagreement. One can observe this in events such as the Michael Brown case, and it might be used to explain the split in conservative and liberal opinion. The implicit fact-value bundle might be described as this:

  1. Michael Brown, a young black man, assaulted a police officer

  2. Therefore, all police harassment of young black men is justified

Now, not all conservatives or liberals agree to this particular fact-value bundle. But there are many who see the two statements as inextricably linked. Many liberals seem to argue against the first proposition, that Michael Brown assaulted a police officer, because they seem to believe it would justify the second. And many conservatives defend the first proposition, because they believe the second. Both sides treat the facts of this one particular case as having policy concessions attached. If Michael Brown assaulted a police officer, it follows that current policy informing police treatment of young black men is justified. Likewise, if police harrassment of young black men is unfair, it follows that Michael Black did not assault the police officer. Both of these arguments are quite absurd, yet they also seem to linger in the background of the discussion surrounding Michael Brown’s actions.

It is entirely possible that Michael Brown assaulted a police officer and police harassment of young black men is unfair. The fact of Michael Brown assaulting a police officer – whether he did or not – does not necessarily determine whether or not police harassment of young black men is fair or unfair. It is also logically possible police harassment of young black men is fair, and Michael Brown did not assault a police officer. The two propositions, seemingly accepted by both sides as inextricably linked, are in fact logically separate.

More likely, the question of whether police harassment of young black men is justified might be better gleaned from examining thousands of cases of police interactions with young black men. That would give a more complete picture, which is undoubtedly complex and full of exceptions. A single case such as Michael Brown’s, especially given its media sensationalization, is probably insufficient to answer complex questions surrounding the relationship of police attitudes towards young black men ad law enforcement policy on the local and federal level. But at the same time, statistical data is unlikely to move tribal cognition.

We might just live in a tragic world. Both sides might be accurately capturing some aspect of reality, at the same time they ignore another aspect. Liberals might be right that police harassment of young black men is unfair, at the same time conservatives might be right that young black men are committing higher rates of (violent) crime. A solution to address these problems might require admitting both, but we are unlikely to get that solution as long as each side treats the other as completely wrong. I don’t know what the solution(s) entail, but ignoring a factual aspect of reality probably makes it harder to address the associated problems.

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The Dialectic of White Supremacism

A disclaimer: I neither approve of nor condone white supremacy. This essay is an analysis of the dialectic surrounding white supremacism, in both it’s pro-supremacist and anti-supremacist formulations. The analysis is important for what it demonstrates about the importance of the issue both sides grapple with but often fail to clearly diagnose, largely due to a paranoid and over-emotional corruption of the rhetoric. My treatment of the issue of race is overly simplified and intended to focus on the dialectic.

The argument supporting white supremacy (or any racial supremacy, for that matter) has two premises, which may be stated thus:

  1. There are biologically grounded differences between racial groups (empirical proposition)

  2. The average characteristics of racial groups can be ranked on a single dimension from worst to best (moral proposition)

What is curious is which of those premises people choose to deny. I observe many leftists tend to deny the first premise. I also observe that many leftists both never deny the second premise, they also tend to assume that anyone supporting the first premise must also support the second premise. As such, a great deal of rhetoric goes like this:

A: “There are observable differences between racial groups. While not all members of a racial group necessarily have those characteristics, there is nonetheless differences in the averages and distributions of those characteristics between racial groups. These differences seem to have a biological basis, among other factors.”

B: “White supremacist! Nazi! Evil!”

In other words, it is presupposed that, as a matter of course, the only reason anyone believes there might be biologically grounded differences between racial groups is that one also somehow supports an agenda of racial supremacism. However, careful observers do notice that our hypothetical individual A has not declared support for the second premise highlighted above. They may or may not, but from what they have said we must at least be agnostic about whether they believe in the rationality of racial supremacy. I have also observed that, if one attempts to bring up the two premises and how they do not necessarily support each other, individuals represented by B tend to shut down and refuses to consider any alternative viewpoint.

The two premises are quite distinct from one another, and neither presupposes the other. The first premise, a statement about human biodiversity, is empirical. It might be studied by science. The theory of evolution predicts, given the varying commonality of ancestry among human groups and exposue to separate environments, the development of different traits we now observe as group racial differences. The second premise, a statement about superiority ranked along a single dimension, strikes me as moral. People who support the second premise tend to believe that “superior” races deserve preferential treatment economically, culturally, and politically. There are, I have observed, a continuum of conclusions stemming from the premise of superiority, from the need to preserve purity to extermination.

As pointed out by Hume, an ought cannot be derived from an is. One cannot derive the conclusion “We ought to massacre [insert preferred racial group here]” from “There are observed differences.” Neither does “There are observed differences” necessarily predispose one to “We ought to massacre [insert preferred racial group here].” As empirical and moral propositions, respectively, they must be proved or asserted separately. Yet, curiously, leftists so rarely question the moral premise. Why? Note, at least in my observation, conservatives more frequently rebut the moral claim, perhaps out of a sensitivity to the issue on account of historical assocations between the two premises. I think if we can explain the reason for the difference in attention given by leftists and rightists to the moral premise, we can explain much of the dialectic surrounding white supremacism, and perhaps by extension race more generally.

First, there is a tendency by leftists to treat white supremacist rhetoric as inherently threatening and dangerous. They often seem to believe people are inherently susceptible to the rhetoric. Whether they attribute it to the strength of white supremacist rhetoric or the idiocy of people isn’t always apparent. If the former, then they must be at least subconsciously assessing the case in order to determine its strength. If the latter, then they must believe it appeals to some kind of brutish self-interest. They often resort to strawmanning and caricatures, seemingly because they are themselves unaware of the beliefs stated by those they have in mind. By their own rhetoric, they would even themselves prefer it that way, e.g. if they’re ignorant of white supremacist rhetoric they can’t be susceptible to it. They do not seem to believe one can be fully cognizant of white supremacist rhetoric and reject it. If they believed that, they might otherwise give authentic representations of the beliefs of their opponents. Instead, they tend to conflate the first and second premise into one, thereby obscuring the empirical question on account of a supposed moral belief they assume their opponent to hold.

Second, the fact of a conflation between the two premises into one appears to inhibit rejecting the moral premise. In other words, for many leftists there are not two separate propositions: if you believe there might be biologically grounded racial group differences, supremacism necessarily follows. It hasn’t occurred to leftists there are two separate premises at play. Indeed, when I have asked leftists I know about it, they tend to revert to the same rhetoric about white supremacism, Nazis, etc. They do not treat it as a helpful analysis bringing clarity to the issue – indeed, I have even been called a white supremacist attempting what I thought was clarity. Leftists never get around to rejecting the moral premise as such because they believe they reject it in the empirical premise. Thus, rather than disclaiming supremacism as such, they disclaim propositions of empirical content on moral grounds.

This empirical-moral mismatch seems to drive a lot of leftist rhetoric on the issue, which thereby shapes the dialectic between them and actual proponents of white supremacism. In fact, there are at least three groups concerned: the first are leftists who reject both premises, the second are white supremacists who accept both premises, and the third are those who accept the empirical proposition while rejecting the moral premise. The third gets caught in the crossfire, leftists attributing their acceptance of the empirical proposition to a kind of “not-so-secret” agenda of white supremacism, often overlooking actual white supremacists (much rarer than the third group, in my observations).

Leftists lumping the third group with white supremacists does not seem driven by a rational, or strategic, decision. Rather, it seems overtly a matter of pattern-matching: the Nazis promoted race science, therefore race science is evil. Anything that suggests biological influence of observed group differences is race science, therefore it must be opposed at all costs. As a result, because of their inelegant equivocation between the third group and white supremacists, the third group tends to come to the conclusion that leftists are idiots. And not without some justification, considering their obstinate conflation of the empirical proposition and moral premise. Especially when those in the third group with otherwise progressive views about helping minorities get called Nazis. In practical terms, this leads to the third group forming more of a tribal alliance with conservatives, even in some cases inclining them more to supremacism than they might be otherwise.

If the true target of leftists was the elimination of white supremacists, it seemed they would accept the third group and, like them, reject the moral premise. But this never occurs to them. There seems to be a blind spot in their way of thinking about the issue. Even accepting the premise of human biodiversity is too near supremacism for them. I’m not sure why this is, as it seems to be the kind of thing where you would only make a person aware of their mistake, and they would correct it. But many leftists are obstinate to the idea the moral and empirical can be separated. If so, perhaps they have a very ground-level belief that the moral and empirical are inextricable from each other, so much so that even hypothesizing biodiversity as a cause necessarily requires one is also a white supremacist. In their minds, holding to the first premise but not the second is illogical.

That is not an enviable position. It probably also explains the largely emotional histrionics associated with the left’s treatment of the matter. If they believed the first and second could be neatly separated, they would not default to treating anyone considering the empirical proposition as a white supremacist. What is curious is that their association of the first and second premises as necessarily connected is almost identical to white supremacist rhetoric. In their minds, if they accepted the empirical proposition, then because they do not reject the moral proposition, they must logically be white supremacists. This also seems to drive a lot of their behavior. It is almost as much – if not more – about persuading themselves they can entirely reject the empirical proposition without needing to verify it scientifically. As such, they consider even science on human biodiversity – even when it performed by non-whites – to still suggest white supremacism.

One might even make the claim many leftists are unconscious white supremacists. Certainly, if they do not reject the moral premise – and the moral premise appears the substance of justifying white supremacism – then it follows they implicitly accept the moral premise, and with it, white supremacism. This trap is actually very easy to escape: simply accept the separation of propositions I have shown, in which case it is very easy to avoid white supremacism. Of course, if they accept the separation of premises, then they must also accept many they label as white supremacists, or Nazis, or similarly, are not. Their apology for labeling many people so libelously would be greatly appreciated, and it would heal a rift in the American public that doesn’t need to exist.

The Tragedy of Horizontal Oppression

Popular media typically depicts oppression as something occurring in a top-down manner, by people in established positions of power against those existing on the margins, but the truth is otherwise. In truth, the people accomplish most of the work of oppression by themselves against each other. The elites as such rarely need to step in. In fact, “vertical oppression,” defined as those cases in which established powers oppress those without, is the exception. The overwhelming majority of oppression is horizontal, accomplished by people with only a marginal amount greater power over others in very limited circumstances.

Power is a noxious and addictive substance. When we possess even a little bit more of it than another, it is difficult to prevent ourselves using it to assert our position of advantage. And why not? In other circumstances, per the prisoner’s dilemma, the other person would probably use their power against us – if they possessed it. Likewise, the use of power over others is directly aligned with our evolutionary imperative to survive and reproduce. If we have more power, we have more power to both survive and reproduce – even if we aren’t directly trying to obtain those things, our brains have been finessed by millions of years of evolution to obtain that position in our environment.

Power is also multidimensional, and subject to varying between people in different circumstances. Where people exist in horizontal relations – without codified hierarchical relations, e.g. as those that exist between a manager and their subordinates – their respective interactions can still impact their relative status. Respective interactions can occur either between individuals who belong to the same group or different groups, in which case the impact they have on the other differs. Between people of the same group, the impact on status can be much greater in the case of rhetorical defenestration – but that impact will be otherwise marginal if it comes from the outgroup. In which case, attacks by the outgroup might actually bolster someone’s relative position in the ingroup, especially if it gives cause for belligerence by the ingroup.

Horizontal oppression as it occurs within the ingroup is usually between relative outgroups; in other words, other outgroups might group them together as part of the same group, so in many ways it looks like people “on the same team” fighting each other. Which, for all respective purposes, it is. Individuals, jealous of their own power, are apt to abuse those nearer them they perceive as threats to their own position, and often prefer their position of relative power over the success of their ingroup. And likewise, that same individual of the relative ingroup they abuse might be apt to abuse them in turn, if they had the power to do so. Ingroups are as apt to defecting in the prisoner’s dilemma as they are against other groups.

Horizontal oppression between outgroups looks different, but still has a similar effect. Only it tends to be marked by a character of group effort. One group uses energy to abuse and lower the status of another group, at least in the eyes of their own group. The result is power competition when those groups are needed to reach agreements effecting everyone as a whole. The group in a majority is apt to impose standards that benefit themselves at the expense of the minority. The problem with this mindset is, when that majority loses its majority status, the next immediately imposes the same expense on them. There was no progress, only a turn of the wheel of fortune.

The elites do engage in activities to keep the groups they respectively rule over divided, as that is necessary for maintaining their own elite status. A typical example is when elites use their resources to bait individuals of one group into attacking another. On the one hand, the energies exerted by the respective groups against each other is energy that won’t be exerted against them, and when the elites intervene to settle and impose standards they can also more easily impose standards that benefit them most of all. The world is very unfair, in that the most aggrieved groups have the least energy left over to address this problem and are often stuck in survival mode.

Present circumstances are the result of an admixture of horizontal and vertical oppressions. Most vertical oppressions are aimed at maintaining and exacerbating horizontal oppressions. Humanity is in some respects naturally unified, but on the other hand we are also naturally divided; the unity of members of a group requires some costly effort. Even if the benefits of that effort are so naturally tied to each other people rarely notice that’s why they engage in the effort, that doesn’t mean the effort is nil. All present unities are also the result of overcoming division at some point. However, what generates one kind of unity is also apt to generate an over-abundance of energies that are not already incorporated into the whole, and thus becomes a point of natural division.

Overcoming divisions is an eternal work, but it is also the source of all rising living standards. For example, feminism and the rising status of women is afforded by solving other problems of social division afflicting humanity. People who fail to see that work on one kind of unity can only occur following another are apt to misunderstand how to approach the problems of division they presently address. For example, probably the most successful way to address a problem like racism is to raise everyone’s socioeconomic status. When people feel they aren’t fighting for mere survival, they are less apt to abuse each other in a zero sum fight for status.

In other words, horizontal oppression is both natural and artificial. If we respect one aspect of horizontal oppression but fail to respect the other, we are apt to misunderstand and misdiagnose present problems (and solutions). For example, if one believes all present divisions are the result of artificial manipulation of elites, they will be powerless to explain those cases of division occurring naturally, such as that of sex. But likewise, if one believes all present divisions are purely natural, they will be easy for elites to corral into dishing out their oppression for them.

Understanding both perspectives is of benefit to both sides. They are coming from a place where, in their limited understanding, their solutions are the best to solve the problems as they understand them. They are simply limited and incomplete. Both aspects of the source of horizontal oppression – that some of arises of human nature, and some of it from manipulations by elites – must be understood if the masses are to create unity. That means, in even addressing those divisions, not becoming another source of division.

Elites prefer for people to assume that the other group, in suggesting a solution different from their own, must be doing so out of malice or neglect. But it is also natural for ideologies to form themselves in such a way, such that all outgroup ideas are evil and must be resisted. Often it seems two divided groups grasp some essential part of a problem afflicting both of them, but because of their division as groups they cannot complete the answer they both seek. This is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy seemingly innate to human nature. If people allowed themselves to work with the outgroup, we would all be richer for it – materially, intellectually, and spiritually.

The Externalization of Social Capital

“For this invention will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” -Socrates

In the same way the record of human events and ideas was externalized to the written word, similarly are we undergoing a transition in social capital. Social capital “in the old days” when humans lived in villages and towns was based on personal judgment and witness. “Knowing someone” was esssential largely because otherwise you were a nobody unless someone would speak for you, and they would speak for you out of their personal memory of who you are and what you’ve done. In the village this was easy, as virtually everyone would know you (or about you) from birth, and your character would be known even as you grew and matured.

In modern society the problem we face with social capital is that we often must work with and rely upon people we – and no one else we know – has known for any appreciable amount of time. We are constantly interacting with and relying on strangers. For example, we rely on strangers for medical care, we rely on strangers to practice politics, we rely on strangers for virtually every aspect of our lives. It is actually a miracle modern society works at all, given how little we can depend on people we know for anything – from among the group of “people we know,” very few are apt to possess the specializations required for all our needs.

Social capital, represented in people’s personal knowledge and willingness to testify as to character in the court of public opinion, is at an all time low in human history. The trend has only been increasing isolation. Outside of family, very few people ever know someone across their whole lifetime – and fewer of us are even forming or maintaining families. Likewise, as a result of the decoupling of vertical (parent/community-to-child) and horizontal (peer-to-peer) transmission of memes, an increasing number are actively alienated from their parents. We have on our hands something like a slow-motion crisis. At some point, a dearth of social capital contributes to conditions predisposing people to anti-social behavior.

Reputation is an informal mechanism of recognizing someone’s social contributions, whether positive or ill. Behaviors that would get one a reputation in a small town are unlikely to be tractable in a city. In a small town, one’s outrageous behavior is apt to be reported between peers, which gives more of an incentive to pro-social behavior. In a large city, there is less of a negative incentive against anti-social behavior. If you burn one person (or social group), you can simply move on and find another. The more of our interactions in society are dominated by anonymization, the less an incentive there is for developing pro-social behavior along any dimension.

Yet, it is also a fact that one is likely to get the best healthcare in the city. The best food, the best services, and so on are all available in cities. Modern society has developed mechanisms that act to approximate what reputation used to accomplish in villages and towns. For example, there are college degrees, which act as a proxy for someone’s expertise in a domain. We have journalism which acts a public record – if an institution were to go against expectations, they would be called out for it in the news and they would lose customers and supporters. These are external mechanisms that accomplish what used to be purely internal.

However, even these external mechanisms are subject to entropy. College degrees are not a perfect proxy for reputation. Many people are not suited to college but who otherwise deserve the reputation that we normally accord to one who possesses it. They would acquire such a reputation in a village or town where other people get to know them for their character, but in modern society the same lack of social coordination that prevents anti-social behavior being widely reported also prevents pro-social behavior being widely reported. In other words, unless one happens to be suited to the mechanisms and institutions recording external representations of social capital, one “falls through the cracks.” But they are not really “cracks” as such – from the perspective that modernity represents a transition from internalized social capital in the form of people knowing about you to externalized social capital in the form of degrees and public record, they are better understood as gaps that haven’t been closed yet.

Modern society is currently failing vast swathes of the public by having no better mechanisms of external social capital. It isn’t a solution to put more people through college, as that reduces the meaningfulness of the signal – but it isn’t a solution to provide nothing for everyone else who isn’t suited to college, either. College is expensive, costs a great deal of time, and only works as a measurement of certain aspects of personality, e.g. the willingness to spend a lot of time going to class and study for tests, which only represents a small part of an individual’s social capital. A lot of individual social capital is going unrecognized and unrecorded – not because it doesn’t exist, but because we don’t have institutions or mechanisms apt to measure and record them.

The solution is to develop mechanisms and institutions capable of accounting for the better part of character and personality. We are approaching something like a public record of personality people can search in mechanisms like social media, but these are very approximate and spotty in terms of signal. However, the public front people express on social media is not necessarily going to represent everything we might like to know about a person. There might be measurements of personality and character requiring long term analysis individuals cannot trust themselves to perform, e.g. due to their own personal limitations and bias. Likewise, social media accounts can be easily deleted, and some people might never begin one in the first place.

The long term trend of the externalization of social capital ends in panopticon. Cameras everywhere, surveillance drones, centralized collection of all data, AI’s sifting through all that data to detect characteristics directly from video, purchasing, music listening history, etc. AI’s that can tell you about people’s personality strengths and defects. China is taking a step toward this kind of world with their social credit score, and we will inevitably develop our own social credit scores as well. It will eventually be necessary to account for social capital. And if we do it right, we might make up for the deficits of our current system of external accounting of social capital. If we do it right.

The Entropy of Humanity

Entropy is the defining force of the universe. All order tends to disorder; but if the order of the universe has been perpetually disordering, how can we claim that any progressive point of human history has constituted a period of greater order, rather than greater disorder? The answer is subjectivity; what appears as order depends on the point of view of those individuals formed within and by their environment. We are at a point of history, from the perspective of the beginning of the universe, that is disordered beyond comprehension; and eventually the universe will contort itself to a disorder beyond our comprehension. But not yet, and for a while the universe will appear to us an ordered spectacle, respecting the order we are composed by and that has been formed in conjunction with a long history of disordering. In other words, we are something else’s disorder, and our order will eventually extinguish itself.

Human history, from this perspective, has been the gradual unraveling of those forces that originally formed the species. We are now, from the perspective of someone living in the 19th century, less human; but only to a degree respecting the progression of that force we call civilization, that symbiosis of man and technology which, it turns out, has been undoing man since our beginning. Even calling it “our” beginning is tentative – would our far fledged ancestors of 100,000 years ago recognize our humanity? Perhaps they, and not us, have a greater claim to call themselves human, and we have only been gradually losing the vital essence of what makes humanity, human. And from our perspective, the humans of the 22nd century will be even less human, until at some point our human descendants literally will not be able to breed with modern day humans. But then again, neither could modern day humans successfully breed with our evolutionary ancestors – and we would characterize that as a good thing.

If all of history has only been a continual process of disordering, each present sense of order dependent on being formed by that already disordered system, then the reactionary is quite right to rail against modernity, but only from the perspective we are becoming less human. But at the same time, the progressive is right to look to the future as the endpoint of humanity. Both commonly identify a telos inherent to humanity, a telos only particularly embodied as the universal trend of entropy, but they identify that telos while standing on opposite sides of the trend of entropy, each neither fully right nor fully wrong. We are less human than we used to be, and that is a good thing.

The Idea of Progress

What is progress? How is it measured? Sometimes the world presents definite quantitative measurements we can use to measure progress. For example, a factory might measure its progress by the number of widgets produced in an hour, or the average profit per widget produced. An increase of these measurements demarcates progress, but only of a narrow kind. Does the widget as such improve human well-being? Human well-being is either impossible or very difficult to measure quantitatively, so whether the widget increases human well-being depends mostly on subjective factors.

Is the widget guns and bullets? An increase in the number of bodies destroyed by systematic means is progress of a narrow kind, but it might represent a regress along other dimensions. A systematic decrease in human well-being might be the result of narrowly defined kinds of progress: certainly World War I represents the culmination of industrial progress, a massive machine of slaughter piling up human bodies by the millions in the span of only several years, an accomplishment only equaled by nature with disease. On the other hand, out of this slaughter was born other kinds of progress such as antibiotics, and not only antibiotics but antibiotic production on an industrial scale. Was World War I necessary to this other kind of progress? As the Daoists say, fortune hides misfortune, and misfortune bears fortune. All the while, an increase in the scope of human production along narrow lines, that of industrial scale material production, progressed. It would seem progress goes back and forth, equally increasing the scope of life and death. Maybe there is something lifegiving to death cults, and deathly about fertility. After all, there is no death without life, no life without death.

If we attempt to ascertain progress in its historical form, we arrive at a form representing dialectic. Life and death, profit and loss, liberation and enslavement, each seems to beget the other necessarily. All the while, each partakes of its own kind of narrow progress, the collective form representing that capital-P motion of history we call Progress. Can Progress go beyond the dualistic dialectic, a force that giveth with one hand and taketh with another? It seems that, if we are being honest, both creation and destruction is inherent to Progress. The same force that creates and sustains the universe might also create its own apocalypse; a vast store of fortune and riches begging to be robbed by nihil.

The collective of humanity composes a historical motion we can call Progress, provided we accept its light and dark sides. Progress, if we consider a force guaranteed by divine providence, is equally illuminated by health and pestilence, peace and war, pleasure and pain. We do not need to consider ourselves “progressivists” of any sort, the force of Progress securing its own motion inevitably in human historical motion for the same reason a rock falls down a hill – it is only its nature to do so.