Monday, October 15, 2012

Greed is Good...Unless a Liberal Does It

I've got a new conservative friend on Facebook.  Decent guy so far, seems intelligent enough...for a conservative.  Hoping this might be the debate foe I've been looking for, as it's tiring to debate liberals and/or atheists over relatively minor points of conflict, but most conservatives are too unglued from reality to be of any use in a debate; so I rarely get to debate the big ideas.  Maybe it'll be different this time.

And we got off to a nice start tonight, when he posted a quote from a Thomas Sowell book, which Sowell recently tweeted:
And conservatives love that line because it turns the tables on those pesky liberals and supposedly hoists them by their own petards.  After all, either no one is greedy or they too are greedy, as defined by Sowell.  And that sort of thing ranks right up there with accusing liberals of being racist, in that it uses a "vicious" liberal attack against the dirty buggers themselves; thus defanging the attackers.  Left out is the possibility that the "attack" is a fair description of anyone on their side.

And yes, this is basically an extension of the "I'm Rubber You're Glue" method of debate found on playgrounds across this fair land.  But when you're dealing with people whose way to "stand up for our country" is to use anti-Obama window displays showing Obama as a witch doctor...I guess the old rubber-glue strategy is a breath of fresh air.  (Because yeah, I remember all those images of Clinton as a witch doctor back when he tried reforming healthcare, so I'm sure there's no racial link here at all [/snark].)

Defining Greed

But more to the Sowell's line correct?  Are liberals perhaps the greedy ones for wanting to take money from people who don't need it to give to people who do need it?  Definitely not.  And the problem is with his initial definition of "greed," as if it just refers to people who want to keep their money.

Because if greed is just about keeping money, then sure, he's got a point.  Either one person is keeping it or the other is keeping it, so how can you claim that only one of the two sides is greedy if they're both doing it?  And yet...when people call someone "greedy," is it merely because they want to keep their money?  No.  That's stupid.  And this isn't even a semantics game.  There is simply no definition of "greed" that refers to people merely wanting to keep their money, as that applies to just about everyone.

Here are a few definitions of greed, and please note the similarity:
"An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves..."
"excessive desire, as for wealth or power"
 "excessive desire to acquire or possess more (especially more material wealth) than one needs or deserves"
"a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed"
"excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions."

And what's the connection with all these definitions?   Excessiveness.  It's not merely the desire to keep your money.  Greed is an "excessive desire" to keep more than is needed.  That's what it means.  And sure, it's a debatable point whether people should be required to share their wealth, or how to define "excessive" or "need."  But what's not debatable is the basic meaning of the word.

And in no case is Sowell's definition in any way accurate, but instead, was chosen because it helps setup the clever trap he was springing on liberals.  He didn't take the word "greed" and show how it applies to liberals.  He wanted it to apply to liberals, and formed a definition that would do that; even if it's not correct.  After all, who amongst us doesn't want to keep our money?  By that definition, we're not just "greedy" for wanting to tax the rich, but we're greedy in the first part, for wanting to keep our money.  And that's absurd and denies any meaning to the word at all.

Rewriting Sowell

And so to rewrite Sowell's quote with a proper usage of the word, we'd get:
"I have never understood why it is "greed" to desire an excessive amount of money, but not greed to want to take money from someone with an excessive amount and give it to someone who doesn't have enough money."
And written that way, it shows what a complete joke his quote was.  He wasn't hoisting liberals with their own argument.  He was playing a word game that falls apart if we use the word properly.  And if Sowell doesn't understand the difference between someone with an excessive desire to acquire money and someone wanting to help those who don't have enough...then he's an idiot.  But I don't think Sowell's an idiot.  I just think he was trying to be clever and failed.

But that's so often the case with conservatives.  They mean well.  They really do.  It's just that they're on the wrong side of the debate, but can't figure out why.  So they have to keep changing the rules in order to invent ways that they're right and we're wrong.  And their favorite technique is as I mentioned above: Simply accusing us of doing what we accuse them of doing, and thus negating our arguments...or so they imagine.

And so we end up with an up-is-down universe, in which it's racist for a white person to want to help a black person buy groceries and it's greedy to want to tax the rich a little more to help a poor person pay their rent.  Sure, none of this makes a lick of sense, but by the time you've explained it all, they've already had their laugh and moved on to the next point.  And that's all this is about anyway: Not winning debates, but making their side feel better about itself while simultaneously making the brains on our side explode.

And in that regard, well played, Sowell.  Well played.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance: How to Piss Off Friends and Alienate People

I am not a pedant.  But people often mistake me for one, because I point out mistakes that they make which they consider to be minor errors that miss the point.  But as is usually the case (and by usually, I mean always), these "minor" errors aren't minor at all.  In fact, they undermine the whole point the person was making.  And the reason they think I'm being a jerk is because they just don't know what they're talking about, to the point that they have no idea the size of the mistake they're making.

And the problem is that the vast majority of people start from the position that they're right and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong.  And while they realize how stupid that is and refuse to admit that's what they're doing...that's obviously what they're doing.  And so when you point out a mistake they've made, they still like to imagine that their greater point was correct, because that was their baseline.  They know they're well intentioned.  They know they're smart.  And they're sure they've got a firm grasp of the basics, even if maybe they used a sloppy word here and there that a pedant like myself tries to nail them for.

And well, those are incredibly stupid assumptions to make.  Because there *is* no baseline assumption for being right, now matter how well intentioned you see yourself.  All that matters is what you're actually doing.  And so you might see yourself as a freedom fighter taking the good fight to bullies, but if your actions involve you bullying religious people with a blanket condemnation of them for their beliefs, well...maybe you're not as well intentioned as you imagine, no matter how many caveats you include involving the "decent" ones.

Seriously, if adjusting your target from "Muslims" to "blacks" makes you sound like a Klansman...maybe you need to rethink your position.

Pedantic Dissonance

And what these people are doing is experiencing cognitive dissonance.  They "know" that they're right, but don't see any mistakes in what I wrote, so it must be that I'm being pedantic by pointing out a minor error that doesn't conflict with their true position.  After all, how could they be wrong?  They paid lip service to the idea that they might be wrong, so that should cover all the bases, right?

And this all gets me to my original point: A friend on Facebook posted a meme titled Cognitive Dissonance, which gave a flawed explanation of what it is, and then gave numerous examples of it which didn't even fit the flawed explanation.  It describes Cognitive Dissonance as "the state of holding two or more conflicting beliefs simultaneously."  It then gave examples of Republican beliefs, some of which weren't conflicting at all.

Like people who oppose birth control and abortion.  Those aren't conflicting beliefs.  They're a bad idea, but they're not in conflict; not unless they also want people to have sex but not have babies.  But it's their position that sex should lead to babies, period; and that means they should oppose both birth control and abortion.  No conflict.

And the conflict arises when they try to explain their beliefs, as they'll say some gibberish about needing to punish people for bad behavior.  But first off, they oppose birth control and abortion for married couples too.  Is it sinful for married couples to have sex?  No? Then why do they need to be punished?  And the bigger issue is: Babies are a punishment?  What??

And anyone who's had this discussion knows where this goes: The person gets upset.  And maybe they'll refuse to admit that their policies involve married people, or they'll deny that they called babies a punishment, or maybe they'll just get angry and end the discussion; insisting that you're the one who doesn't get it.  And if you keep up this discussion long enough, you'll get all these reactions and more.  And don't be surprised when you're told you're going to Hell, because you had that one coming to you.

This, my friend, is cognitive dissonance.  It's not just that they hold conflicting beliefs.  It's what their brain does in order to handle the conflicts when they're forced to do so.  Holding the beliefs is easy.  Trying to deal with them is another story.

Defining Dissonance

At this point, I'll just repost what I wrote to him, to which I was ignored and can only assume the guy thought I was being pedantic yet again.  But this isn't a minor correction.  It's important for us to understand this concept, as it points us in the right direction on how to deal with such people.

Cognitive dissonance isn't just that someone holds conflicting beliefs. It's what they do in order to mesh these conflicting beliefs.

Often times, they simply compartmentalize their beliefs and will focus on just one of the beliefs at a time and simply refuse to mesh them together; and no matter how many times you try to explain to them that these ideas are conflicting, they'll still only talk about one at a time. And when they're forced to mesh them together, they get angry and lash out, because their brains can't make sense of the conflicting beliefs. Or they'll believe completely illogical things, inventing rationalizations in order to make sense of the ideas.

That's how they can talk about Chinese and Egyptian history going back 10,000 years, while also believing the earth is only 6,000 years old, because it's compartmentalized. And if you confront them with this in a way that forbids them from having a back door, they'll likely get mad at you. Not because they're necessarily angry people, but because they're experiencing cognitive dissonance and simply can't deal with these conflicting ideas. That's also how they can make sense of the Noah story, by dreaming up a giant boat that really *could* hold all those animals; not because it makes sense, but because their brain is forcing them to do something that can't be done.

And this all explains how Republicans act. Like their refusal to believe that Obama won in 2008 because they were confident he'd lose, so it *must* be that he's not a citizen, ACORN stole the election, and liberals felt guilty for blackness. They invent all these rationalizations, because the truth of what really happened hurts too much. Similarly, they *must* believe that the media has a liberal bias every time it conflicts with Fox News, that poll numbers are biased, and even the unemployment rate is fixed. Not because they have any proof, but because they can't deal with anything that conflicts with their beliefs, and this is how their brain deals with it.  Cognitive dissonance.

And that's why directly confronting these people is a fool's errand. As is insulting them or trying to rub their faces in their mistakes. Do that, and you'll *NEVER* get through to them. Their brains simply won't allow it. And it's not just something they suffer from. We *all* are guilty of this at one time or another. It's just human behavior. And the only solution for ourselves is to do our best to not make assumptions or believe in things that might conflict with reality.

Otherwise, we'll end up getting pissed off or inventing rationalizations to explain why our beliefs are correct, in spite of reality. Happens to everyone.

Don't Believe in Yourself

And that end part really needs to be taken to heart.  We *all* do this.  We've *all* felt that moment when our brains tell us that what we're saying doesn't mesh with reality, and we feel like jackasses for doing what we did.

But instead of blaming ourselves, explaining our errors, and admitting defeat; we either try to slink out of the discussion with as much of our dignity in tact as we can muster, or we lash out at our opponent and find some way that we hadn't made the mistake that our brain knows we made.  That's just how brains work.  Just like an optical illusion involves our brain trying to make sense of an image that is too tricky for our eyes, it also goes a little crazy in making sense of thoughts that really don't make sense.

This isn't just something Republicans suffer from.  This isn't about people who hold two beliefs, both of which we consider to be wrong.  This is what happens when we realize we made a mistake but are too arrogant to admit it.  And the more we try to stay inside our comfort zone and refuse to consider whether the "pedant" correcting us is right or wrong, the more we're suffering from the thing that we usually only see in the other guy.

And this all just goes back to what I was saying at the beginning: Don't assume that you know what you're talking about.  Doubt yourself.  Acknowledge your intellectual failings, not with a lip service excuse of "nobody's perfect" or "I'm not saying I'm 100% sure about this" or any of that nonsense.  You've got to acknowledge that you might be totally full of shit, particularly if you find it difficult to even explain your basic beliefs with any depth at all.

I mean, if the best you can do is to repeat your initial assertions...then you probably are full of shit and need to start over.  Admitting you've got a problem is the first step in solving it.  Just don't act like it's the only step, or you'll still have the problem.

Letting Them Save Face

But my point here isn't to pick on anyone, but to say the opposite: We've all been there.  We've all made mistakes.  And we know how much it hurts and how little contrition we are to show to those who slay us; particularly if they've been jerks about it the whole time.  And the more someone tries to rub our faces in our mistakes, the less likely we are to admit we made any mistakes.

And well...that's what everyone does.  And that's why insults, taunts, and face rubbings are the last thing you should do; at least if you want to get someone to see the light.  If all you're interested in is scoring points and feeling like a big man, go for it.  But if you're actually interested in convincing someone to agree with you, pinning them down and refusing them any back door to escape the debate with dignity is the last thing you should do.

And why?  Cognitive dissonance.  People like to think they're right, and therefore freak out when they suspect they're wrong.  And they either have to stop thinking they're right or refuse to admit they're wrong.  And if you're trying to convince them they're wrong, then you need to give them every opportunity in the world to correct their position.  Sure, it might not make you feel like a big man if you don't get that "check mate" at the end of the debate; but if that's what you're looking for, you've got issues of your own to deal with.

I've gotten a few people in my time to agree with my position, but *never* during the actual debate.  And afterwards when I see them repeating the things I had said, I don't bring it up at all; but smile to myself, knowing I had done a good job.  If that's not good enough for you, then you're in the wrong business.