The quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, from a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, is:
“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
This is wrong. Other things are certain too. Take, for instance, the Borg-like capacity of the Culture War to take over and assimilate everything. The optimists among us may say it’s all because there’s an election coming, but there’s always an election coming…
On Friday last week, Katherine Mangu-Ward finished her stint guestblogging for Megan McArdle by plugging this month’s Reason cover story, about a tired and self-indulgent, massive neurosomething venture currently going on at a university near you. Nevertheless, of all the mainstream media takes on Jonathan Haidt’s research, Mangu-Ward’s has been the best. The worst has belonged to Nicholas Kristof, who, ringmaster that he is, actually titled his piece in our nation’s most-esteemed paper of record, “Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal“.
It just so happens that I’ve participated in several psychological tests on yourmorals.org. Here’s what I thought back then:
When registering for the site, one must assign himself a political-ideological label, which violates almost every standard of experiment. Political labels are obviously arbitrary: notice that the word “liberal” in the United States and the United Kingdom have almost exact opposite meanings. Essentially, the work of the database amounts to correlating arbitrary labels with arbitrary labels and reporting obvious tautologies, such as “conservatives are less likely to embrace change” as scientific results to be published in the New York Times alongside the latest Human Genome Project developments.
The yourmorals.org experiments – which range from watching a 6-year-old girl sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on Britain’s Got Talent and then rating how “happy”, “fearful”, “jealous”, etc. one feels afterwards to matching appropriate shades of gray from a spectrum to arbitrarily assigned “good”, “bad”, and “neutral” words rendered in shades of gray – are followed by explanations of exactly what the researchers hope to acheive by them and remind me of the scene in Donny Darko where Donny calls Patrick Swayze’s character Jim Cunningham the Antichrist.
Further complicating matters is the fact that there are virtually limitless and unaccounted-for mitigating factors in each experiment: in the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” clip, Simon Cowell’s scowling face is shown throughout: I kept thinking that Cowell was going to trash the cute, little six-year old girl, so afterwards, I had to rate “fearful”, and “concerned” pretty high or else I’d be misreporting my own results. Are my results interpreted as “Libertarians are aware of Simon Cowell’s personality and history of candid abuse directed towards any and all contestants,” or “Libertarians hate and fear little girls.”? Another test subject might be disgusted that Britain’s Got Talent is exploiting six-year-olds.
With the shades of gray experiment, I figured (correctly) that the testers would expect respondents to describe “negative” words like “erase” as darker than they actually appeared (even though white is supposedly the color of death, right psychologists?); I accordingly overcompensated, and my test results were that I consistently described negative words as lighter than they actually were.
As news stories are usually reported, they’re necessarily molded into the familiar shape of the Culture War, making them – despite their pretensions to truth – no more than modern forms of haruspicy (the conventions of which process we are all now intimately familiar with). In the case of the research being reported here, this forcing of disparate aspects of reality into prefabricated political molds has already been done for the media, making yourmorals.org remarkably easy to cover and just irresistible despite its absurdity. In other words, the forcing of news stories into two arbitrary camps drives the forcing of reality into two arbitrary camps, and there is a constant positive feedback mechanism that has been in place since Madison warned against factions. So what is there to be done? To me, it just seems like people will always find reasons to justify innate, subconscious dislike or distrust of others while unobtrusively gathering allies: we’re just not programmed for universal peace. And until we as a species realize this and adjust structures accordingly we can’t have nice things.
To wit, another certainty is that we are incapable of learning from history. The oldest and most widely-read books of Western Civilization – the very wisdom of the ancients committed to the written word – are centrally and explicitly concerned with the capacity of war to destroy all aspects of society, and yet we continue our useless interventions in various bombed-out global slums while underplanning for more. And we’ll go on prodding and insulting each other, otherizing each other, and creating simple caricatures of people and groups we dislike until we have new Devils before finally striking out at them with violence. With the violence, we’ll create new and exciting unanticipated problems for ourselves, which we’ll unleash upon the world before just getting used to it and doing the same thing all over again.