What You Should Think About Hate

December 15, 2007

“Few people can be happy unless they hate some other person, nation, or creed.”

–Bertrand Russell

Like most active bloggers, it brightens my day to notice a surge in readership or some hint that lively discussion might unfold. Yet I knew from the beginning that my daily posting habit tapped reserves of proverbial steam that would not last indefinitely. Social activities, other creative efforts, etc. can draw attention away from a project like this. Yet there are other forces that may also work against its momentum.

My problem is peculiar in that I have just the opposite of ideal detraction. By that I mean I would much enjoy the challenge and stimulation of facing many thoughtful critics each able to level sound sensible arguments in support of some view I do not presently hold. Instead I find myself intermittently preoccupied by a single fool apparently unable to formulate coherent thoughts, never mind applying them in the form of sound sensible arguments.

A day or two after each new post hits the Web, I can expect a little hate sent in my direction. This should not be a problem for me. Save for a small number of people I know personally, I do not have any emotional investment in how others regard me. Of course it is nice to see one’s ideas well-received elsewhere, but even an enormous amount of hate would be a small price to pay for an enormous amount of insight into the reasoning that supports different perspectives on the world. Instead I find myself crestfallen with each new realization that the only challenge I have raised is really no challenge at all.

I am certain typical political conservatives, never mind intellectual leaders of the subculture, are neither as ill-mannered nor ignorant as the thorn in my side. I know plenty who are far superior on both counts to the one presently vexing me. On the other hand, even when I pour over the content of the American political right’s most credible publications, I find a wealth of appeals to misplaced or twisted idealism instead of fact-based analysis of the world as it exists.

It is not a fact that most Americans long to live in a cutthroat society where economic competition starves the weak and enables the strong to thrive. It is also not a fact that slashing taxes and social services promotes the kind of socioeconomic mobility in which such competition could theoretically focus on merit. Yet those non-facts (a.k.a. fictions) may be the most crucial beliefs at the heart of the political movement dragging this nation in the wrong direction.

Surrounding themselves with like-minded (or at least similarly visceral) individuals, anarcho-capitalists have something in common with white supremacists — both are lunatic fringes populated by people convinced that a majority of American citizens are being oppressed because institutions do not enact a particular lunatic fringe agenda. This is not to say that anarcho-capitalists are necessarily racist. It is to say that they compound ignorance and arrogance in distinctively despicable ways.

Yet hatred of human beings is a barrier to finding solutions to social and political problems. In theory it may have some use in the context of an actual military engagement. Yet whenever time for reflection exists, hatreds concentrated on specific individuals or generalized toward entire groups are emotions every bit as useless as they are dark. For example, a number of weak-minded Americans find that hating Islam is more comfortable than trying to understand Islam. Yet the pro-apocalypse crowd are not the only ones to be tainted by hate.

People with a good grip on the facts of recent world history may find it hard not to hate George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. An honest informed assessment reveals that they sent many brave soldiers to die carrying out ill-conceived plans in pursuit of nebulous goals. The extent of this tragic waste raises serious questions about their fitness to pursue the offices they now hold as well as the purity of their motives in governance. Add to that getting mediocre economic performance out of unprecedented deficit expansion, deliberately obstructing national efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, merrily accepting campaign victories achieved through profound acts of sleaze, etc. and they certainly stand out as two of the most contemptible figures in modern public life.

Yet personally, I do not go beyond contempt and into the realm of hatred when it comes to villains of that, or any other, variety. Contempt is an attitude that can coexist with reason. Hatred and rational thought are mutually exclusive. It could well be that the difference between an ascendant American political left acting as a refined tool or a blunt instrument is the difference between contempt for or hatred of outgoing executive officials.

If those who support successors to the Bush-Cheney team are driven by hostility, the tendency will be toward change for the sake of change. If they are instead driven by contempt, then the tendency will be toward change for the sake of progress. To those of us deeply desiring progress, that is a crucial difference. One approach could leave the nation bogged down in endless investigations and recriminations, dedicating years to dwelling on the past. The other might instead restore Constitutional checks and balances and implement new protocols to guard against future abuses of executive power. Clearly one has more potential to benefit the nation and the world.

As a particularly portentous Presidential election year approaches, it is vital that we minimize the extent to which we indulge personal animus. The outgoing President and Vice President have done some truly horrible things. They certainly do not deserve to be remembered as honorable public servants. However, they also do not deserve to be elevated in status to the point where they are considered the root of all evil. This nation is a big complex place with big complex problems. If we settle for “not Bush” as enough to demand of our future leaders, then we face a long haul before those standards rise back up to expectations held in the late 20th century.

To the degree people of differing opinions are willing and able to engage in a meaningful clash of ideas, the best results for all involved will follow from a high levels of vigor and fairness in those clashes. To the degree that willingness or ability is lacking, then the clash of ideas must give way to the clash of tactics and strategy in generating electoral turnout. Yet through it all we must remember that it only diminishes us, and the appeal of our beliefs, if we should rely on hate for motivation.

Like the figureheads of the modern political right, a substantial portion of social conservatism’s grass roots seethes with some witches’ brew of hatred and fear and avarice. Individuals unable to produce or receive any sort of insight may rightly be ignored, but even they are unworthy of strong emotional reactions. Should I step in fresh dung while out hiking, I do not become angry at the crap on the ground. Instead I seek a means to clean my shoe before continuing on my journey. Our reaction to an encounter with one, or even a swarm, of the Internet’s many right wing sock puppets should be much like my reaction to an errant footfall on an unclean trail.

On the other hand, should you be so fortunate as to find someone who holds different views and can defend them with more reasoning than bluster, double the cause exists to transcend hostility. Not only may it cloud your own reasoning, but it may also obscure a clear view of real insights offered up by that prospective adversary. Recognize that there is a real human on the other side of those disputes. Recognize that if the truth is knowable, exchanging reasonable arguments provides you both with a unique way to grow closer to it. With such recognition comes the knowledge that there is value in worthy opposition.

Then, when all this recognition is achieved, send along some pertinent contact information — I can’t seem to shake my troglodyte’s fixation, so it would please me to be able to refer him to some sane civil sensible examples that he might one day know the joys of being somewhere much closer to effective in his own attempts at advocacy. I do not want to actually hate a living breathing human being. As a hedge against that dark emotion I hold out hope that his profoundly contemptible online persona is a hollow shell that could be redeemed if only it were filled with useful substance.

What You Should Think About This Blog

September 30, 2007

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

–Mahatma Gandhi

There are many reasons to write. Hypertext and the Internet only add to that tally while making readership a theoretical possibility for anyone. It is the essence of democracy to transfer power from the few to the many. Yet this raises a compelling question — why are some trends of increasing popular participation so at odds with realities of power’s ongoing consolidation?

Accurately recording information, expressing a creative vision, purging secret guilt, honing literary abilities — there are many reasons to write. One of those reasons is to promote a particular way of thinking. With millions of of active writers amongst billions of people, never before has this world seen so much language harnessed to promote personal viewpoints. Among other things, sheer quantity increases the degree to which acts of influence yield to empirical study.

Science creates power, sometimes literally. Consider atomic fission. It can be used to reduce a city to toxic rubble in a matter of seconds. Yet the same energy can be used to light the streets of a city for many years. For that matter, the sudden blast has potential to divert celestial hazards, while the controlled reaction could be used to electrify devices in a secret torture facility. Power is an amoral thing.

Once upon a time, an entire industry of professional journalists worked diligently while exercising their power to tell people what they should think. The journalists’ mission was simple — ferret out the facts, then offer a clear perspective on that reality. Insofar as they had any agenda at all, it was to oppose institutional secrecy and call public attention to abuses of power. Then came infotainment.

Information provided for its own sake, as a public service, was largely abandoned. Credibility ceased to matter beyond the extent that it might influence profitability. People turn away from ugly truths. Speaking truth to power is a great public service, but it is no way to draw the largest possible media audience in a given moment. Sensational speculation is in. Sound analysis is out. Celebrity scandals are in. Monitoring enormous institutions as they wield unprecedented concentrations of resources . . . that’s out too.

Yet there is still no shortage of people intent on telling other people what to think. Alternatives to journalism rise as hard news coverage slips into the margins. Abuse of power runs rampant in this niche. Never before has so much been understood about how to engineer and propagate narratives that drive public opinion. Millions write in earnest, yet how many passionately parrot stories to which they have never applied a moment’s critical thought?

Campaigns of deliberate misinformation are nothing new. What makes the modern phenomenon so insidious is the way advances in techniques of manipulation play out across a coherent subcultures driven by negative emotions. The great irony in all of it is those legions of wholehearted patriots unwittingly devoted to 21st century aristocrats at least as harmful as those on the losing side of the American Revolutionary war.

There is always wisdom in mustering some measure of skepticism when someone tells you what you should think. Perhaps even the previous sentence merits a little doubt. Thus, central to any question of what you should think is that you should think. Lies crafted in service to an agenda, even after extensive recirculation by unreasoning zealots, wither in the light of informed thoughtful analysis. This happens not out of desire or hostility, but even in the most dispassionate and detached musings.

When it comes to matters of national or global significance, the opinions you hold should follow from a coherent thought process. All too often what passes for “thought” is nothing more than the emotional impact of many heated moments or the social satisfaction of identifying with some sort of group. People who are perfectly happy to admit having no idea how DNA influences cellular growth or how the age of fossils is determined will nonetheless go to extremes in defense of their views on evolutionary biology. People who could not so much as explain the distinction between “climate” and “weather” nonetheless display unwavering devotion to a particular stance on global warming.

Clearly, people in those situations are driven by something other than thoughtful analysis. In the absence of knowledge, questions and silence are both perfectly sound approaches to a subject. Yet today lack of knowledge is no barrier at all to addressing a national audience with baseless speculation . . . or deliberately misleading commentary. Mob psychology on a truly massive scale, the stoking of human hatreds can drive up ratings/circulation even as it tears down the responsible civic discourse that should occur instead.

With that in mind, I will set out to address a number of issues with the intent of illuminating both the facts that inform my views and the thought processes that bring me to whatever conclusions I hold. I do this not because I champion any particular cause or begin this process on any particular payroll. I do this because it is part of my pathology to dwell on a range of complex matters and seek some authentic sense to be found beyond all the house organs and noise machines.

I know I alone will have little impact on cultural institutions and political processes so severely crippled as they are at present. Some informed honest individuals experience moments of national attention without selling out to any special interest. Yet the public will to turn from this increasingly dark path remains unfocused. I do not anticipate an end to my own obscurity. Yet, given the choice between doing little good and no good, do you think I should do differently with my voice?