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Blog Archive October 2015

Orwell’s Far Corner

by Christopher G. Moore*

01 

George Orwell in 1941 wrote an essay titled Wells, Hitler and the World State that deserves to be revisited in 2015. The re-examination is timely given the release of the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.

The Reporters Without Borders 2015 World Press Freedom Index report observes, “The worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014. Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.”

The reasons cited for the decline, include:

Stretching sacrilege prohibitions in order to protect a political system is an extremely effective way of censuring criticism of the government in countries where religion shapes the law. The criminalization of blasphemy endangers freedom of information in around half of the world’s countries. When ‘believers’ think the courts are not doing enough to ensure respect for God or the Prophet, they sometimes take it upon themselves to remind journalists and bloggers what they may or may not say. (2015 World Press Freedom Index)

Another freedom report for 2015 by Freedom House  also notes the trend of “discarding democracy” and a “return to the iron fist.”

02

Freedom on the Net 2015 finds “internet freedom around the world in decline for a fifth consecutive year as more governments censored information of public interest while also expanding surveillance and cracking down on privacy tools.”

George Orwell understood fully that the chain and ball of traditional belief systems hobbled minds through religious or ideological dogma and channeled our innate cognitive biases to filter for the inbox only that information and opinion reinforcing and tightening the chains and increasing the weight of the ball. Orwell wrote about beliefs and prejudices long before the Internet and social media promised a digital hacksaw to break the chain and ball. Why hasn’t that promise been delivered? Orwell has some answers worth considering. The promise of freedom of expression and access to a huge pool of information is a danger signal for the existing ruling classes. The prospect of unrestrained information and opinion has caused official anxiety as institutions, dogma, and authority run into an era of open challenges, criticism, and doubts. No dogma can sustain the assault of the scientific method without appearing shallow, defensive, narrow and vindictive.

The same was true in Orwell’s time. H.G. Wells thought we were at the crossroads of humanity where the scientific method would succeed and the ancient mindset based on beliefs and biases would be replaced. George Orwell’s view was people like H.G. Wells overplayed their scientific mindset hand. They hadn’t properly calculated the strength of their opponents’ traditional hand. In the digital age, social media is filled with the modern successors of H.G. Wells making the same claims and arguments from nearly a hundred years ago. The decline in freedom of expression is a wakeup call, one that should make us reassess what is at stake, and who are the stakeholders, and what weapons are being assembled to protect beliefs.

In this essay, Orwell shows the frailty of H.G. Wells’ worldview of power, authority and superstition. He asks what is the mindset that moves people to violence, war and barbarity. H.G. Wells was a writer whom Orwell greatly admired as a boy. As an adult, he found his hero wanting. Orwell revised his view of Wells in light of Hitler’s army laying waste to Europe and threatening Britain with invasion. It would be a mistake to consider the essay of only historical interest. Orwell had an uncanny way of unearthing the truth that transcended the immediate historical context in which it applied.

Several quotes from Orwell’s essay warn of the limitations and dangers of accepting Wells’ view of the scientific man and the scientific world. His reservations about whether the scientific method of thinking will over take and tame our emotionally filtered system of thinking remain as valid as they were seventy-four years ago. Despite all of our advances in science, psychology, and communication after seventy-four years, a case can be made that we are repeating the same mistakes about the nature, role and scope of human emotions.

In 1941, Orwell wrote:

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

*

The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his [Well’s] own works are based.

*

He was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity.Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.

The modern world deceived the progressive liberal intellectuals in 1941 and continues to deceive them in 2015. The idea that our great scientific achievements and vastly improved social media networks have changed the forces that drive the emotional reactions of people is as bogus now as it was for Orwell who clearly saw how Hitler combined grand pageantry, mythology, industrial achievement, and military capability into a powerful emotional package. Hitler had repackaged the Dark Ages and sent his army marching. He succeeded as his successors in the world succeed through nationalistic and racial, theocratic, and feudal patronage where merit, skill and talent are carefully controlled, isolated as a contaminating virus as deadly as Ebola.

“Science is fighting on the side of superstition,” seems a strange statement.We expected science to choose a better ally. But science never is in a position to decide its alliances. That is a political decision, and such decisions are underwritten in feelings such as anger, hate, jealousy, envy, resentment and fear. The great irony is that science, which expands our horizons has been feeble to break the hold of our emotions.

As in 1941, we struggle to accept that we largely remain ‘creatures out of the Dark Ages’ only far more lethal and deadly as the means of repression, terror and intimidation have vastly improved through use of modern technology. While our technology defines the modern age, our emotional range is haunted by the primitive ghosts of our ancient past.

We have great works such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and the fifty years of research that have gone into better understanding the nature of how beliefs and biases shape, filter, and distort our perceptions, comprehension, memories, and attitudes. In other words, even when science has examined in detail the nature of our emotional and cognitive limitations, there is a H.G. Wells temptation to believe that this knowledge sets us free. It does not. It cannot.

Superstition will, for most of us, prevail over the rational intellect. Our beliefs and ideologies, which form the core of our identity, are resilient to challenge, facts, debate. “Traditionalism, stupidity, snobbishness, patriotism, superstition and love of war seemed to be all on the same side,” wrote Orwell. As for the opposite point of view, history has shown the test audience for that alternative is vanishingly small and narrow.

Orwell is too careful to dismiss that H.G. Well’s rational, calculated and deliberately run society will ultimately fall into the hands of leaders equipped with a scientific mindset once the vast majority of the population alter its mindset to a scientific setting. This may happen—“sooner or later,” to use Orwell’s phrase. He hedges the timing issue and that was a wise decision in retrospect. Only a romantic would predict that it is just around the corner. The 2015 Freedom Index suggests that the so-called ‘corner’ in 2015 is no closer to us than it was to Orwell. I suspect that the 2015 freedom reports wouldn’t have surprised him. Or that future World Freedom reports have a high likelihood of showing further erosion to freedom of expression. The scientific method and mindset shows no signs of advancing to replace the old dogmatic belief structure. That would take a major rewriting of our political, social and economic grid. Those with a vested interest would likely lose in that changeover. Besides, they are mainly true believers whose self is identified with their beliefs. And their beliefs provide the raw courage and emotional strength to hunker down in the bunker to the last man, woman and child.

Nor would George Orwell be surprised at the likelihood that machine intelligence will vanish around that corner, leaving our minds as they were in 1941 and leaving us behind to fight new wars pretty much like we fought old ones.

* Author of Crackdown and The Age of Dis-Consent.

Posted: 10/29/2015 9:45:36 PM 

 

The Price for Being Different

I have lived in Thailand the better part of 30 years and hardly a year has passed without an article, opinion piece, or letter to the editor about the dual-pricing practice. Entrance fees to national parks, temples, museums and the like have two prices. The non-Thai price can be as much as ten fold the price charged for Thais. I’ve heard all of the arguments against this practice.

01
By Stephff (used with permission)

The Usual attack on the dual-price system falls in several categories: (1) fairness; (2) discriminatory; (3) harmful and a public relations disaster; (4) inconsistency—foreigners pay the same auto tax and VAT for example; (5) arbitrary application or enforcement—at some venues, on some days, with some staff a Thai driver’s license or work permit is enough to allow the foreigner to receive the Thai price; (6) mutuality—Thais going to public venues in other countries are charged the same price as everyone else.

None of the above arguments have moved the authorities for all of these years to change the policy, and are met with a number of counter arguments to justify the different price structure: (1) Thais pay taxes, foreigners don’t; (2) Thais are poor and foreigners are rich; (3) Thais go to places to make merit, while foreigners go for other reasons; (4) most countries impose higher prices for a number of services on foreigners such as university fees.

The deeper question is why does the dual pricing system prevail given the amount of bad feeling and ill-will it generates, not to mention the negative publicity that circulates each time this practice finds its way into the press or on social media?

I have a couple of ideas to explore. Dual pricing is an effect. It emerges from a psychological attitude, a social construct of long-standing. One that is durable, immune from rational argument, and like Teflon, isn’t scratched no matter how many logical bullets you fire.

Dual practicing doesn’t exist in isolation. Foreigners in general are seen as an outside group. They work as slaves on fishing boats, on rubber plantations. History books in the schools demonize the Burmese and Khmer. You start to understand a pattern, which arises from a strong In-group Bias. This bias teaches that one should always prefer a certain racial, ethnic or social group; and that membership of the group defines identity. That identification leads to excluding others from the circle of being in the in-group.

In Thailand, the in-group bias is coiled inside the DNA of ‘Thainess’—definitions to which are a work in progress. Of course there are Thais who see the bias for what it is—an effective way to control a population by appealing to their identity as group based. The bias is hardwired in all of us. History is overflown with examples of xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism. Geography or ethnic background plays no difference. The precise expression draws from local traditions, customs, language, myths—the usual machinery to construct communal and individual identity. In times of crises, sizable populations in many countries retreat to this core myth of tribal identity by default. But we are no longer bands of a couple of dozen people. When millions of people chant their in-group truths like mantras, like a weather report of a major storm heading your way, you should notice the strength of how these emotions cascade.

For the Americans (and sadly Canadians, too) this irrationality caused the government to relocate ethnic Japanese to detention camps during World War II. These Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans lost their citizenship rights based solely on their ethnicity. Americans had no trouble slaughtering native Indians at genocide levels or enslaving blacks. South Africa used apartheid laws to separate blacks and whites into different communities with different rights and opportunities. In-group bias has cut a bloody and ignoble path throughout the history of most cultures. In recent times the ethnic cleansing based on ethnic, religious, or ideological in-groups left a trail of carnage from Bosnia to Cambodia to Rwanda. More recently across the border in Burma the Rohingyas have been persecuted for their religion and skin color. There is no end in sight.

What makes the in-group bias invidious is how it operates without outward expressions of intention or an awareness that the person is acting automatically. It would be the rare person who stops and considers that what he or she is thinking is an act of irrational prejudice. I suspect most Thais would be highly offended if they felt a foreigner considered the dual pricing system based on racial prejudice. But racial prejudice is part of the manifestation. If you happen to be an ethnic Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, Japanese and can speak good Thai the chances are good that you can slip through the Thai line and pay the ‘Thai’ price. As I said at the start, dual pricing is only a minor irritant. The danger of in-group bias is the way officials can use it to manipulate the emotions required to ramp up xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism.

Group Think is the second feature that accompanies and sustains in-group basis. When a foreigner questions discriminatory pricing he or she is criticizing not a bug but a feature of group identity enterprise. That places him on dangerous grounds. The arguments are irrelevant. The emotions are stirred by and outsider’ who is perceived to have attacked a basis of communal membership. There are plenty of Thais who are uncomfortable with and seek to overcome this bias. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Agreement and consensus forms the basis of esprit de corps.

Groups which value consensus discourage its members from questioning its official doctrines, assumptions, and myths. Those in the group are taught that conformity is highly prized and those who seek out contradictory evidence to show flaws or ways of improving an idea or process are possible troublemakers to be discouraged. Facts or evidence are monitored for inconsistency or contrary positions, and those who transmit them punished. Disagreement and evidence of inconsistency or hypocrisy are ignored. The challenge is to ensure all communications go through a single pipeline in order to allow access for monitoring, evaluation and disposition. It’s not just people who are marginalized, it is their access to information that may adversely influence the official consensus.

Philip E. Tetlock author of Superforcasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, wrote:

“Groupthink is a danger. Be cooperative but not deferential. Consensus is not always good; disagreement not always bad. If you do happen to agree, don’t take that agreement—in itself—as proof that you are right. Never stop doubting.”

A high value is given to consensus in Thailand. Consensus, harmony and happiness are actively promoted. Those who disagree are viewed with suspicion if not hostility. Questioning the wisdom of the group is a kind of betrayal or disloyalty. When groupthink weds in-group bias the children of ideas coming out of that union will likely be inward thinking and emotionally attuned to the need to quell the noise of outsiders. One way to accomplish such a goal is the creation of a single-gateway for all Internet traffic into the country. As a way to protect groupthink and patrol the boundaries separating in-group and out-group, such a system becomes attractive much like the idea of building the Great Wall of China.

Dual pricing is the tip of the cognitive iceberg shimmering in the tropical monsoon season. Isolate it at your peril. It is a symptom of something far more important to understand about a culture and political system inside that culture. When a culture sanctions in-group bias and groupthink, and makes policies with strengthening these cognitive defects, it is not cost free. A price is paid. How do we measure that price? This is for the experts to examine. I would wager that the cost on the ‘whom’ is much higher than the cost on the ‘who’ and below you will see there is an important divide between the two.

The cost is not so much the much higher amount that a foreigner pays to gain entrance to a national park. Price based on ethnicity is a crude (and emotionally damaging) way to express the difference between in-group and outsiders. The political price is another matter. Setting a higher admission price because the person doesn’t look like us is repugnant to many people. It is in the same category as a price of admission based on height, weight, shoe size or color of eyes. There is a feeling such features should be sanctioned by government as a basis for price discrimination. We don’t accept the argument that making tall people pay more than short people and justifying it on the basis that tall people have a better view. By opening the group to other ideas and encouraging an exchange of conflicting ideas, and learning to question not just the other person’s idea but the strength and weakness of your own, ideas can be improved, repaired where flawed, discarded as no longer workable, or merged with other ideas gives such a group an edge. The goals is to search for truths that have a broad general consensus and not to be distracted by the myths to spin a spider web of comfortable illusions to sustain in-group bias.

A problem yet to be resolved in Thai culture is the fear of disagreement. In the Thai way of thinking it is often assumed that disagreeing is a form of violence, the sign of a troublemaker, rather than a healthy curiosity. Most of life is a puzzle and the pieces never fit and new pieces crop up. Life is confusing given the amount of noise we are subjected to. The main lesson is that the search for perfection, certainty and predictability is a search for a unicorn. The incompleteness of evidence is normal. Cognitive biases teach us that our thinking process must be nudged to discover errors and mistakes in our theories, ideologies and ideas. The heart and soul of modern science is the recognition our most cherished theories never rise above the beta level.Inevitably the theories will change. The aversion to change is creates a strong negative feeling. Add groupthink and in-group bias and you ask whether a cage constructed from such constructs are the highest and best way to preserve cultural identity.

Tetlock has a catchy definition of politics: “Who does what to whom?” Our definition of the ‘who’ and the ‘whom’ is never settled. Factions of the ‘whom’ will be unhappy with a particular ‘who’ no matter what is the basis of their legitimacy to act. The interaction between the two indicates that the ball is always in play. When the rules of that game are expanded to allow and encourage questioning, debate and different points of view, the ‘who’ find themselves accounting for their policies to the ‘whom’. To stigmatize disagreement guarantees tyranny. In the larger scheme, being a perpetual ‘whom’ in this equation, and a foreign ‘whom’ to boot, I acknowledge my bias—the ‘who’ doesn’t have my best interest in mind and I am powerless, like all outsiders where in-group bias prevails, to change the order of things.

Posted: 10/11/2015 8:55:23 PM 

 

 

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