My Cynicism and Optimism For Humanity

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I haven’t been blogging much lately as I work on my dissertation. I haven’t been on social media much either. But when I do go on, I still see the same sad things as I usually do.

The most obvious sad things involve the current state of American politics. I’ve written about some of the harmful Trump policies before and how we need some sensible gun control to help prevent these consistent atrocities. But even beyond the horribleness in the news, I see more mundane behavior online that just makes me sad about people in general.

I’d like to rant a little about the tribalism we see online. Humans have been tribal forever. Tribalism has been suggested to be adaptive for our early ancestors in hunter/gather tribes. If you stick with your group and distrust a different group, you may live longer. But now we cannot seem to free ourselves from such genetically imposed cognitive shackles. It’s a bummer.

So often I’ll see people who belong to one political/religious camp support the person on their team, even if they are doing something harmful or wrong. Too often I’ll see people support their person’s bad argument as long as it’s for something they agree with. Too often I see people engage in completely uncharitable ways with their political opponents. Even if you disagree with someone, you shouldn’t mischaracterize them! It only further generates polarization. Beyond that, there are countless instances of people using their ideology to justify being cruel to another person.

But why would we take the extra effort to “steel man” our opponents instead of strawman them? Why would we risk being ostracized from our group by calling out some of the problems within it? Sadly, it is completely rational to engage in groupthink or to avoid grappling with nuance. Why use extra brain power if you don’t need to? Psychologically, it makes perfect sense to avoid using extra cognitive effort and avoid potential social problems that can come with asking tough questions. Our previously adaptive psychological processes of tribalism and avoiding extra cognitive effort ultimately have become rather harmful for our species.

This is all exacerbated by the internet, but these human tendencies have always been there. So what do we do about it?

Well, I don’t have any good answers, but I’m certainly open to listening to anyone who does. How do you reward people for doing extra work? Studies do show that giving people money to answer honestly can help make them answer politically questions more accurately. Same with boosting their self-esteem before they see identity threatening information. But it’s not practical to go around and constantly pay everyone online and offline to make sure they are being as honest as possible. Nor is it possible to make sure people are always feeling great about themselves before they see information they may not like. One partial solution is to create social rewards for asking tough questions, changing our minds, and engaging with our opponents in a civil manner. But this is very difficult, though not impossible.

It’s probably easier in smaller communities. For example, I’m a member of a very small Facebook group that regularly discussing “unpopular opinions.” It’s rather incredible because there are many different political opinions presented, but we all manage to be kind to each other and take charitable versions of the opposing arguments. The group really has created a social norm for taking that extra effort to be honest and civil. However, the group is still more politically moderate overall. There are no Nazis in the group for example.  Once you have someone actively fighting against the rights of a group of people, it is very hard to engage in any sort of civil dialogue with them.

So there are some instances of people willing to engage in discussion with those outside of their direct tribe. I think that is a good thing (but again, even I have my limits. I don’t care to host a discussion with anyone advocating genocide for example). Thus, when I run into the rare person who values truth above groupthink, I do feel some optimism. The sad thing is they are usually not popular. The most popular public figures do not upset their audiences with going outside the expected doctrine. And again, it makes total sense psychologically. Why follow a person who makes you uncomfortable sometimes with their words? Why follow a person who provides more nuanced arguments that makes you spend extra time researching stuff just so you can know what they are saying? It’s so much easier to follow a figure that gives you warm fuzzies (religion has highjacked this cognitive process very well as I’ve discussed many times.)

I’d like to state now that I’m guilty of everything I’ve said above. I have my own echo chambers. I tend to follow people I generally agree with. However, I have been trying to regularly get exposure to people outside my bubble too. I’ve hosted a few different discussions on my blog with people that have different viewpoints including a conservative libertarian, Catholic scholar, Muslim doctor, and a Pagan. I also watch conservative YouTube videos sometimes and follow more conservative people on Twitter. And in Real Life, I’ll have frank discussions about politics with people who I know disagree with me on many things. I don’t consider myself any sort of paragon of discourse, but I do make an effort sometimes.

There are people who do this better than me and I think it is very admirable. So to end this diatribe, I’d like to talk about the positives of humanity. Yes, there are some people who have an intrinsic motivation to follow evidence, but more broadly, there are people out there who care about other humans. Those who have a motivation to help others even if it causes them some discomfort or is inconvenient. For example, I’ve met and worked with many incredible human rights activists doing tiring and often thankless work in South Carolina. Although I don’t think pure altruism exists (helping others still gives a selfish reward of feeling positive emotions), any motivation to make the world a friendlier place for everyone is a good thing.

We can see human progress overtime. Yes, we still have a long way to go, but there is no doubting the ways our lives have been getting better. Science and technology certainly help. As does medicine. But socially, we can see less harmful behaviors. It was just a few hundred years ago where it was perfectly acceptable to kill someone if you thought they were a witch. Sadly, this still happens in some places, but it’s not as common. Slavery is another thing that still happens in some places, but is also less common today. I know murder and slavery are low bars, but hey, we got to start somewhere! We need to remember that we are primates still pretty early on in our existence. Yes, we still have many problems. And yes, there is no guarantee that we won’t find a way to eventually blow up the planet. Despite our flaws, humanity has made some improvements and as long as we stay curious and kind to each other, we can continue to make progress.

PS: I now have a Patreon if you’d like to support my writing and podcasting.

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