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Posts Tagged ‘opinions’

Robin Hanson expresses eloquently a theme I have often touched upon:

We feel a deep pleasure from realizing that we believe something in common with our friends, and different from most people.  We feel an even deeper pleasure letting everyone know of this fact.  This feeling is EVIL.  Learn to see it in yourself, and then learn to be horrified by how thoroughly it can poison your mind.  Yes evidence may at times force you to disagree with a majority, and your friends may have correlated exposure to that evidence, but take no pleasure when you and your associates disagree with others; that is the road to rationality ruin.

I see this everyday with my liberal friends, I see it in the blogosphere, I see it in atheists and worshippers, libertarians and socialists, idealists and pragmatists. The collectivist tendency is a powerful one.

And I know it exists within me too, though it is rarely displayed on a social level, principally because there’s no one I know who I think of as an intellectual associate. Perhaps that is a good thing.

The tendency to immerse oneself within echo chambers is hard-wired into the human psyche. It is a survival mechanism and it is an enemy of rational thought.

Robin Hanson’s words deserve to be remembered everyday by each person who thinks of himself or herself as a rational, intellectual being.

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Ed Winkleman writes:

My personal take on political correctness is that it’s an artificial construct that has benefits in the short run, but will outlast its usefulness and eventually become harmful. What I mean by that is shaming people into considering others’ feelings (or at least keep their hurtful opinions silent) long enough for those others to gain some power socially is a good thing, but for everyone to truly be on an equal playing field, that pseudo-politeness eventually has to end. It’s foolish to think you’ll ever get everyone to like/accept each other. The only practical thing you can hope for is that people have equal opportunity and equal protection under the law and that with those protections they can fairly fend for themselves.

I am no big fan of political correctness. I articulated my thoughts recently in a comment at Quirky Indian’s blog:

Personally, I dislike political correctness and think it does more harm than good.

It is of course a laudable trait to keep in mind other people’s feelings. And I have nothing against those who choose not to use phrases that might demean certain groups of people. However, there are pitfalls to taking these kinds of things too seriously. Today, we are in an era where political correctness often takes precedence over accuracy or truth, or where it is deemed right to suppress free expression simply to avoid hurting certain people. Or, it leads to situations like you mention, where certain groups get worse treatment than others. It leads to other absurdities too, with alarming regularity.

The better alternative to political correctness is a culture where people are — well — less sensitive. I am not saying this lightly. I am fully aware of the historical suppression of certain peoples and also of the power that words can carry. But everything is ultimately about striking balance and it seems to me that if people display a little less offence and a little more humor in dealing with perceived slights or offences, and able to, for instance, laugh off a politically incorrect joke rather than get worked up over it, we will all be better off. And the kind of culture I am proposing would also be one in which freedom of expression is accorded more respect than it is today in much of the world.

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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about the echo chambers that you specialize in. These are the chambers that exist, both small and large, in cyberspace.

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. The internet has many great advantages from the standpoint of democracy, ’cause people can expand their horizons, but one thing that’s happened is that many people use the internet to narrow themselves, so that they end up speaking mostly to people who already agree with them. So one just fact about the operation of the internet is you get these Dean supporters, for example, speaking most of the time to fellow Dean supporters, and the same can happen for Bush supporters who hear only what other Bush supporters say about the Democrats or about France. And the internet really facilitates a situation in which people are in a way living in echo chambers that they themselves have created.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this phenomenon you’ve applied a new term to called “cyber cascade.” Does that relate to incestuous amplification only it’s on the web?

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. Cyber cascades are specifically a web phenomenon in which one fact or something that’s supposed to be a fact is stated to another person who then tells maybe another dozen people who then tell maybe another 10,000 others, and pretty soon people all over the world are hearing and potentially believing something that just isn’t so.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the risk of being obvious, state for the record what you think the long term impact of the proliferation of these echo chambers would be.

CASS SUNSTEIN: The greatest danger of the echo chambers is unjustified extremism. So it’s a well-known fact that if you get a group of people who tend to think something, after they talk to each other, they end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before, and the danger of that is you can make a situation where mutual understanding is, is difficult, and people don’t appreciate but instead demonize those who disagree with them. And that’s an ongoing threat to our democracy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So beware the echo chamber?

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. If it turns out that we’re talking mostly to people we agree with, something’s gone wrong, and there’s a kind of obligation for citizens to leave their echo chambers at least some of the time and seek out dissenting opinions.

Assuming Prof. Sunstein isn’t actually advocating regulation of the internet to discourage these echo chambers, I find a lot to agree with in what he says. It is a human trait to seek out supporting opinions, or only listen to those whose views we already agree with. I myself am guilty of reading mostly blogs that I agree with ideologically. But the internet is a vast, vast place and there is some excellent stuff out there written by people whose philosophy differs substantially from ours. It would be a shame to shut them out completely, don’t you think?

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The war of gaffes gets more ridiculous each day. After the frankly irrelevant controversy over Obama using borrowed words in a speech, it is now Cindy McCain’s turn to make a not so subtle point about her patriotism vis-a-vis Michelle Obama’s.

For those who missed it, here is the article.

My first reaction to such news is that there are issues, and then there are issues. Such jabs are common place in election season, and entertaining for the observer but usually of little content. This particular controversy is however of some independent interest for one reason – it reminds us of the visceral need that many people feel to be ‘proud’ of the institution they belong to. They may never know what exactly they are proud of but they pretty damn well know that to be not proud is treachery. Politicians -from Mumbai to Madison – are of course masters at manipulating this pride.

My view of patriotism and related matters is reflected by a reader’s comment on the above linked article.

Give me a break. This is non news. I am roughly the same age as Michelle Obama, and let me tell you, it’s been a while since I’ve been REALLY proud of this country; particularly in the past seven years.

People who think you have to constantly express pride in your country or you’re somehow unpatriotic drive me crazy. I happen to think the opposite is true. If you love this country, you speak up for the changes you believe in and try your best to help make those changes.

People who are trying to dissect this comment and somehow turn it into something it wasn’t just make me laugh. The last thing we need in the White House is another robot spouting blind patriotism as justification for his or her own personal agenda.

-Cami.

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