When speech is violence

Jonathan Haidt has a great interview with WSJ on April 1, 2017. But, the matter was anything but a matter of ‘Fool’s Day’.’

Some extracts from his interview:

People older than 30 think that ‘violence’ generally involves some sort of physical threat or harm. But as students are using the word today, ‘violence’ is words that have a negative effect on members of the sacred victim groups. And so even silence can be violence.” It follows that if offensive speech is “violence,” then actual violence can be a form of self-defense.

What are the causes for this shift. He names political polarisation as one of the causes. Campuses in the United States have become overwhelmingly left-leaning. There is no room for Right/Conservative professors on campus except, perhaps in Economics?

The second cause, he mentions, is that justice means equal outcomes now. That is very dangerous. Many developing societies have made that mistake and are now trying, with great difficulty and little success, to move away from equal outcomes to equal opportunity. But, if America is now moving towards or has moved towards equal outcomes, then that is one irreversible downhill slippery road to mediocrity and oblivion, if unchecked.

Jonathan Haidt points to that in his own, understated way:

Mr. Haidt argues, what happens on campus affects the “health of our nation.” Ideological and political homogeneity endangers the quality of social science research, which informs public policy. “Understanding the impacts of immigration, understanding the causes of poverty—these are all absolutely vital,” he says. “If there’s an atmosphere of intimidation around politicized issues, it clearly influences the research.”

Then, there are other causes – not necessarily minor. He points to ‘hyper-parenting’ although he does not use that phrase. Second is the attitude of Universities and colleges that treat students as customers and that customers are always right, in that great language of commerce. I am not sure if centres of leaning and knowledge should treat students as customers or just as students – with a mixture of compassion, understanding, justice and, importantly, discipline.

That is a great finish to the interview:

“People are sick and tired of being called racist for innocent things they’ve said or done,” Mr. Haidt observes. “The response to being called a racist unfairly is never to say, ‘Gee, what did I do that led to me being called this? I should be more careful.’ The response is almost always, ‘[Expletive] you!’ ”

He offers this real world example: “I think that the ‘deplorables’ comment could well have changed the course of human history.”

Well, after the last one week of President Trump’s audacious, unprecedented and dramatic somersaults, we do not know if history is merely continuing or is changing. That is an aside.

Back to Haidt and his ‘Heterodox Academy’. How big his challenge and how long the road ahead is, is underscored by these two stories. In case you had not watched this video, please do so (ht Harikiran). It is downright scary. It is from Australia. The disease is prevalent in all affluent societies. Perhaps, this is how the wheels of societies turn.

In the final analysis, one has to wish Haidt well. He is performing a very important task here with his Heterodox Academy. It is impossible to exaggerate its necessity in these times.

Disclined to discuss and hence, disinvite

The media outlets that are relentlessly pursuing Donald Trump should pause and do a story on the data that the Heterodox Academy had presented. See here and here.

Second part is more interesting. The Left proposed more disinvitations and disrupted events more!

It shines another spotlight an aspect of the ‘Regressive Left’ behaviour that needs to be highlighted. This is not ‘Left-Liberal’ but ‘Left-intolerance’. Really, we should come up something far more accurate than ‘Left-Liberal’. There is really nothing ‘Liberal’ at all about this behaviour.

Refusing to discuss problems will not solve them or make them disappear but make positions harden and rigid. In fact, discussion of a problem is, in itself, a step towards the solution.

The media’s non-coverage of the problems faced by European nations with respect to immigrants (primarily Sweden, Belgium and Greece) is objectionable not because it is unfair, immoral but because it is so stupid. It does not even help them advance their goals, regardless of my agreement or disagreement with them. It is so counter-productive,
self-defeating and hence, so stupid.

Avoiding hard questions is neither progressivism nor enlightenment. It is escapism. Escapism has never solved problems nor made the world a better place.

Since when ostriches with heads buried deep in the sand produced problem-solving leadership?

Further, from Prof. Jonathan Haidt’ Twitter handle: The Student Assembly in Cornell U. votes down a resolution to increase ideological diversity. We should worry for America, but not for the reasons many think.

Notwithstanding Haidt

Jonathan Haidt might conclude that conservatives are on to something. He might urge dialogue. He might start the ‘Heterodox Academy’. He might feature videos and put up lists of heterodox universities. He might encourage a dialogue between two Professors, one of whom is a ‘conservative’ and the other is a ‘liberal’. I put the labels in quotes because they are misleading and/or useless, for the most part.

Yet, the so-called ‘Liberals’ come across as the most intolerant and dogmatic. Anyone who is full of certitude cannot be a Liberal.

The Democratic Party in the United States is playing with fire. As before the elections, the media is playing along. What they are doing is very dangerous and might cause the polarisation in the American society to be almost irretrievable.

When Trump said, during one of his Presidential debates, that he would not comment on accepting the election result right, he was taken to task for being anti-democratic and as confirmation of the worst fears of the media and his opponent about his inherently intolerant, authoritarian personality.

Now, the outgoing President/administration, the Democratic Party and the media are playing the same game. It is good to see some Wall Street Journal editorial writers calling them out on this. See here and here.

This paragraph is important:

This effort is all the more pernicious because it poisons with partisanship the serious issue of foreign intelligence hacking, not least by the Russians. Foreign cyber-attacks have proliferated during the Obama years, but the President has never held any national government accountable. Even when officials fingered the Russians this summer for the hacks on the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Obama did nothing but wag a finger. [Link]

This piece in WSJ correctly points out that the Democrats and their media cheerleaders are doing exactly what they accuse the Russians of wanting to do: poison the result:

But why wait? U.S. intelligence services already know most of what they’re likely to learn. Release the evidence now. Let’s see if the Kremlin really did steal RNC emails, and let’s also hear from those who don’t share CIA Director John Brennan’s “high confidence.” The last thing Americans need is for an outgoing Administration that is still sore over losing an election to assist Vladimir Putin in poisoning the result. [Link]

The Administration too has embarked on a witch-hunt for alternative media that they and the Democratic Party wrongly believe contributed to the loss of their preferred candidate. They call it fake news outlets. This is undemocratic and almost Orwellian. That is also anti-competitive and anti-market economics. One must applaud the Wall Street Journal editorial writer for calling them out on ‘fake news’ too here:

Then the press reports as major news the non-story that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has endorsed an intelligence probe that has long been underway. Talk about fake news. [Link]

To read more about this nonsensical and dangerous crusade against ‘fake news’, see here and here.

James Taranto who curates an utterly interesting and delightful (it is my loss that I discovered it only recently) daily ‘Best of the Web’ for Wall Street Journal calls out many media outlets by name for their inconsistency (read, ‘hypocrisy’) here.

A Republican Elector refuses to be swayed by false and toxic propaganda to vote according to her ‘conscience’. Her last paragraph is a classic:

I noticed another theme in the thousands of missives I’ve received. They don’t seek to understand or persuade—only to insist. Most of these people want it their way and they want it now. As a mother of two small children, I know how to handle that. [Link]

It is not happening not just in the United States but almost everywhere. Reuters also reports, citing Sunday Times, that some in Britain are trying to argue that the British government should invoke another article (Article 127 of the European Economic Area Agreement) to leave the European single market. This is hair splitting. If Britain left the EU, EU would automatically ensure that Britain left the single market.

It is clear that a verdict that had a clear lead in Britain (outside of London and Scotland) is being thwarted by elites who refuse to accept a proper democratic verdict.

Perhaps, their logic works differently. Modern liberals do not discriminate between themselves and the rest. If they went down, they would ensure that the country (and even the world) went down with them.

Jonathan Haidt took pains to show that liberals swear only by fairness and equality. Nothing else matters to them and that it was not the most appropriate thing. He argued correctly that equality was not the only dimension of fairness but that proportionality between effort and reward was also a dimension of fairness.

BTW, does any of the above strike you as being fair? If so, you are a true Liberal!

Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’- a review

When I met my friend Nitin Pai in July in his office at Takshashila Institution on a Sunday evening, at the end of the conversation, he recommended the book, ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt who teaches at the New York University (NYU). I read some reviews. Ordered it on Kindle then and finished it recently. I am glad I read it. I am thankful to Nitin for recommending it. He has done a very good job. I wrote an article based on the book for MINT last Tuesday. You can find it here. This blog post is largely based on that.

Why are the Indians still supportive of the decision of the Indian government’s decision to demonetize currency notes without replacement as Prof. Indira Rajaraman had called it, despite their inconvenience and hardship?

Why is it likely that Ms. Merkel’s decision to contest for an unprecedented fourth term after her liberal decision on refugees could turn out to be a crowning failure on her illustrious career?

Why is ‘unity in diversity’ not a slogan that has only one conventional interpretation that diversity is to be celebrated, unquestioningly? Put differently, why the case for federalism and devolution in a country as large and diverse as India from a governance perspective has its limits too?

If you want answers to these questions and more, the best place to start would be Jonathan Haidt’ book, ‘The Righteous Mind’.  The book is an important read for many, especially those who believe that they are liberals and are open-minded. But, that is an oxymoron.

That is what the author, a self-confessed lifelong liberal, atheist and scientist, establishes. He had equated conservatism with orthodoxy, religion, faith and rejection of science. But, he sees things somewhat differently now. His open mind and the spirit of inquiry disqualifies him from being admitted to the ranks of modern-day ‘Liberal’.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part shows that reason is not the one that drives intuition but it is the other way around. That portion must sound familiar to those who have read the works of behavioural science researchers such as Professor Daniel Kahneman, for example. Without the heart, the head drops dead. Jonathan Haidt writes:

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. Reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth. As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion.

The belief in the infallibility and the primacy of reason – in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, Kant and Kohlberg – leads to the primacy of the individual over groups. All human beings are capable of reason and hence all are equal. Anything that harms the individual or is unfair to the individual is not acceptable; is immoral. There is no morality beyond harm or inequality. Social norms and groups do not matter.

The second part of the book prepares the ground for the third part that exposes the limitations and the societal consequences of the mindless application of the above ‘liberal’ principles or concerns. There is more to fairness than equality. The theory of karma is about fairness as proportionality, rewards and consequences consistent with efforts and actions or the lack thereof. Emphasis on equality encourages free riders and severs the link between effort and reward. Sustained over time, it causes societies and economies to weaken and eventually collapse. Thus, what is happening in Indian school education systems across States has dangerous portents. The link between effort and reward must be restored.

Similarly, there is more to morality than merely not causing harm. With the demonetisation move, clearly some people have been caused hardship or harmed. That has raised many a liberal’s hackle. But, even those who are affected are still supportive because they place the immorality of black money above the harm and hardship caused to them. Of course, there are thresholds and trade-offs beyond which the prioritisation can shift. For now, it is possible to explain this dichotomy using Haidt’s framework.

Groups that are cohesive easily defeat those that are not and are fragmented. Group rituals that are dismissed as irrational and inefficient bind members of the group. Think of the Sabarimala pilgrimage. It demands a 45-day preparation from the devotees. It demands abstinence from meat, alcohol and other physical comforts. The more sacrifices that a group demands of its members, the longer the group lasts and better it coheres. That is why externally imposed interference in group norms and rituals are guaranteed to destroy group coherence and identity.

Haidt channels Emile Durkheim to warn that “societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades.”

Recognising and respecting differences is, in general, the right thing to do. But, it is a fine line. In principle, federalism is desirable and is effective. But, there are lines in the sand that cannot be crossed and nor should the principle of federalism be invoked to promote differences in all and sundry aspects. Then, unity would slowly unravel. “The process of converting Pluribus (diverse people) into Unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.”

The question is whether Germany has abruptly halted that miracle with its policy on refugees, not to mention the veritable mess that it has created in international politics too. “In a paper revealingly titled “E Pluribus Unum,” Putnam examined the level of social capital in hundreds of American communities and discovered that high levels of immigration and ethnic diversity seem to cause a reduction in social capital. We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital.” Vielen dank, Frau Merkel.

Jonathan Haidt is walking the talk. With likeminded professors, he has now set up the Heterodox Academy with the goal of promoting viewpoint diversity in the academy, primarily in the United States. He is clearly striving to be open minded. Something that most liberals lack. Indeed, certitude is the hallmark of self-styled ‘liberals’. In my view, there is something inherently contradictory about a liberal’s certitudes.

Some important quotes from the book:

The process of converting pluribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.

When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated those expectations, the first moral matrix was born. 57 (Remember that a matrix is a consensual hallucination.) That, I believe, was our Rubicon crossing.

Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective.

Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that increase it.

It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

John Lennon captured a common liberal dream in his haunting song “Imagine.” Imagine if there were no countries, and no religion too. If we could just erase the borders and boundaries that divide us, then the world would “be as one.” It’s a vision of heaven for liberals, but conservatives believe it would quickly descend into hell. I think conservatives are on to something.

Merkel, Liberals and Liberalism

When I saw the story that Ms. Merkel would seek a fourth term as German Chancellor my mind went back to a comment that Professor-Philosopher John Gray made about her in a brilliant article after the Brexit vote:

A country whose pre-eminent leader condones the prosecution of a comedian accused of insulting a foreign head of state – as Angela Merkel did earlier this year – cannot be relied on to protect freedom of expression.

It appears that she is so out of touch with the reality in Germany that she thinks she can win. This letter in FT poses the right question about her seeking a fourth term.

This is what Wolfgang Streeck, political economist and Leftist wrote about her decision to let refugees in:

Once again, a decision ‘that will change our country’, as Merkel herself put it, was made without regard for democratic process or, for that matter, constitutional formalities. When Merkel declared the German borders open, there had been no cabinet decision to this effect and no official statement in the Bundestag. Since the opposition didn’t ask, as Merkel knew they wouldn’t, nobody knows to this day what sort of order, legal or not, by whom and when, was given to the police. The Interior Ministry is still refusing requests from leading figures (including the former president of the constitutional court, who was preparing a legal opinion on the matter for the Bavarian government) for access to the ministerial decree that should have been issued to the border authorities. [Link]

Incidentally and interestingly, Wolfgang Streeck wrote this as part of his review of a book by Martin Sandbu (of FT) on Europe. See below as to why I am tickled by this.

She is the icon of the Liberals. So much for liberalism – one of the biggest frauds on earth. It is the same as perfect competition in economics. It exists in textbooks. There is no capitalism without competition, as a friend said – capitalism means free entry and exit and no barriers/resistance to both. What we have today is a parody of capitalism. That is how it has become progressively (pun intended) in the last thirty plus years. Similarly, what we have today is a parody of liberalism. There are no liberals though many proudly call themselves such. To understand what I mean here, read Michael Skapinker’s article today on why (so-called) moral companies do immoral things.

For some genuine liberal stuff, watch this six-minute rant by Jonathan Pie. I stumbled upon it when I checked out the Twitter handle of Jonathan Haidt. Read Mark Lilla’s ‘End of Identity Liberalism’ and read Jonathan Haidt and Ravi Iyer’s joint piece in Wall Street Journal on Nov. 10 as to transcend tribal politics (or,instincts?). I am almost done reading Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous mind’ (recommended by Nitin Pai of Takshashila Institution).

When I read Mark Lilla write the following:

The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.

I was reminded of the horrible piece that Martin Sandbu wrote soon after the elections were over, expressing a similar sentiment identified and highlighted above. I had blogged on it here. You can find his piece here.

Although not general, Frank Bruni has a specific message for Democrats which goes along similar lines as the earlier links.

Given how FT has covered Merkel’s announcement, it is very unlikely that FT gets it at all or ever will.