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Intellectual Arrogance

One trait that one can see through history is a belief that we can actually understand our world and improve it.  This creates a tendency towards intellectual arrogance; people become sure that their theories about reality are right, and can build rational arguments and cherry pick data to buttress their belief.  Yet shouldn’t we strive to understand the world in which we find itself and make improvements? 

Yes, but sometimes the results are horrific.   Over 100 million people were killed because people thought various forms of the ideology of Communism were accurate, and would produce a utopia if only a country could be reshaped, by force if necessary.   We in the West are not immune.   The neo-conservative thought that brought a destructive war to Iraq — and which in its early stages envisioned a kind of American imperium with Mideast states reshaped to become pro-American democracies — was based on similar arrogance.    Our democracy and capitalist institutions are the right ones for the world, the neo-conservatives argued.   We should be bold in even using force to expand their reach.    Why do we so easily get seduced by illusions of certainty?

 The problem, as noted by Renaissance Guy is that we have uncertainty in a world that requires us to act.   Moreover, while any claim to certainty can be doubted, experience often proves beliefs to have been effective.   I may be wrong, but my experience suggests that I’m probably right, so I’ll act as if I can assume certainty.  For all practical purposes I’m certain gravity won’t cease to function, or that gas won’t change to wine in my car’s tank.  Almost all of life runs that way — we can assume we are right in our beliefs because of practical experience, and we can act with certainty.

But what about complex and abstract beliefs, like ideologies, moral codes, or core values?   Here things get murky.  Experience is less likely to give one an answer about what is right or wrong.   Moreover, experience is so vast that when you move from the concrete to the abstract you can choose the evidence you use and the interpretations you make in order to justify or rationalize any belief.    Often the consequences of acting with certainty on a false abstract belief are not directly observable, or may themselves be ambiguous.   China’s one child policy forced birth control and abortions on people, but the result is that they got their birth rate under control.  Does that mean they did the right thing?   Do we know the long term consequences yet?

While consequences determine how we judge ‘correct’ beliefs in the world of objects, it may be that in the world of values and morality the consequence is either irrelevant or invisible.  It could be that a morally correct action requires one to sacrifice ones’ own life and gain nothing.   It may be that results of doing the right thing won’t be observable.  I may not realize that by stopping to remove that debris from the road I prevented a car from an accident that would have taken two lives.  We can’t know what might have happened differently if we acted differently.

Why does this matter?   First, I want to live the best life possible, so I try to figure out what is moral and good — so a question like this is practical.  Secondly, as a social critic entering into a major research project, this question is at the core of my analysis.  It touches on the economic crisis we’re experiencing, how we’ve gotten involved in numerous wars, and the fundamental values of our culture.  I fear that at this point we’re lost in a kind of post-modern conundrum, whereby truth is less important than political victory.  Positions are determined and argued based on emotion and tactics, there isn’t a lot of listening or interaction.  Indeed, it’s become very easy to demonize the other side, and through insults convince oneself that those idiots are simply wrong.  It all becomes a discursive war, whoever wins gets their way.   The most dangerous opponent is someone who agrees with you sometimes and wants to understand you — they may force you to consider their positions and compromise, and that’s would weaken core principles. 

How can one conceptualize an alternative where one doesn’t need to claim certainty or being right, and one can listen to other perspectives, and try to figure out ways to learn and understand — how to see the situation through diverse lenses?    On the one hand this seems like it should be easy — politicians need to start acting the way we teach kids to act in kindergarten: respect each other, talk nicely, share and listen.  We seem to know how we should act.  But in the real world of politics where people get emotionally invested in debates, ideologies and causes, it’s easier said then done.  Moreover, our culture and way of thinking breeds this kind of intellectual arrogance, an arrogance which causes all of us to far too often ignore those basic modes of behavior we teach our children.   We personalize our intellectual differences, the “other” becomes not just a different person, but a personification of a different/dangerous/wrong way of thinking.

That’s a key question I’m delving into.    Being at a university that is not publish or perish, I have the leisure of being able to read a lot, develop a research plan that reflects my interests (in this case it’s connected to consumerism and militarism), and try to address a major issue of the day, to make a real contribution.   I’m currently grappling with trying to understand Theodor Adorno, and have a list of other thinkers — even ‘out there esoteric’ philosophers — I’m going to consider.  This is going to involve psychology, sociology, philosophy, and bring together diverse approaches.  Peter Berger is another important thinker in this regard, he and Thomas Luckmann wrote the classic “The Social Construction of Reality,” and Berger has been involved in exploring the sociology of religion.  Art is important, I plan to work with people in the arts to develop this approach.  I may fall flat on my face with something totally unpublishable.   But I’d rather do that then engage in the cookie cutter writing that people at publish or perish institutions are forced to engage in.   Being willing to risk failure is necessary to success — and probably a good antedote to intellectual arrogance.   And if I have fun and learn something, all’s well.

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Why is War Easy?

I have spent the entire summer trying to put together my next research project, and it’s not been easy.  Teaching at a school without a “publish or perish” mantra, I’ve been able to pick and choose what motivates me, even if it is time consuming or ultimately leads nowhere.  I’ve published one book, German Foreign Policy: Navigating a New Era, and have done other work on Germany and on Political Science teaching and learning, but am ready for a new direction.  So rather than just solicit academic input, I’m going to put my proposal for a project designed to yield a book about two years from now in my blog, and ask for any ideas and input readers have.  This description does not include my methodology and time line, though I may post that at a later date (it’s already long).

Why is War Easy?

Goal: to produce a book, at the reading level of an average advanced undergraduate, to make an argument about why war is chosen very easily by both publics and policy makers in the US, despite the intense human suffering caused, and to offer an alternative way to look at war and modern politics.

While most theories of war look at various causal factors (economic, ethnic, power politics, ideology, etc.), I argue that the core problem lies not with the external environment or variables that cause conflict, but in how we think about war. This includes not only publics and leaders, but also scholars who study war, even those who are skeptical of the use of war in foreign policy. The root issue comes from the nature of modern enlightenment thought, whereby sentiment is distrusted so one can undertake a rational and objective analysis of social reality. Yet if one can bracket out the intense human suffering caused by military conflict, then it becomes far easier to simply use economic interests, strategic concerns, or ideological causes as being enough to rationalize risking war. By not letting sentiment be a part of the whole analysis, our policy schools, foreign policy bureaucracies, and universities leave out the most tragic part of the analysis.

The goal of this research is to offer an alternative perspective, one that does not sacrifice the benefits of social scientific research in favor of a knee jerk emotional reaction to war, but which can posit ways to overcome the way modern enlightenment thought makes it seem necessary to bracket out sentiment. This problem moreover affects issues beyond war, such as consumerism and the difficulty people have in finding meaning for their lives. In that sense this project is as much about problems with western enlightenment thinking as it is about war.

Project Description

In past research I made the argument that German foreign policy norms are far less militarist and nationalist than those of the United States. German foreign policy (both actual policy and policy research) also tends to advocate multilateralism and places a higher value on peace, even though the methods and style of analysis are just as rigorous as those in the United States. It does not appear that the differences between the two cultures are due to better research or analysis. Most scholars believe this is a reaction to German history and the horrors of Nazism. This means that the causal factors for different attitudes on war do not come from rational analysis and study, but from culture. “Europeans are from Venus and Americans are from Mars,” as neo-conservative pundit Robert Kagan posits.

Social Constructivist theory considers culture as a result of shared/contested norms and understandings about reality, and there are various theories about why these understandings are reproduced and sometimes transformed. I argue that the reason for cultural differences cannot come from rational analysis or reason alone. Rather, they are rooted in psychology, particularly emotion and sentiment. Reason and rational analysis serve to justify and support cultural predilections; or they can be used to critique and criticize these traditions. Yet core values and their interpretation come from outside pure rational analysis.

After World War II scholars representing the so-called “Frankfurt School” tried to cope with the fact that Germany, perhaps the most culturally advanced state in Europe with top philosophers, musicians and scientists, slipped into barbarism so easily. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued that the reason the enlightenment was not able to fend off fascism is that enlightenment thought was in fact the cause of fascism. The enlightenment creates a fiction that it is liberating humans from mythology and irrationality through the use of reason. However, reason has no center, no essential set of values that give meaning to human existence. A brilliant scientist and an evil genius can use reason just as well. Reason simply provides the capacity to build new myths, ones that seem rooted now in some kind of rational system of thought, rather than mere tradition or religion.

The inability of reason to provide any clear center for values and moral authority creates a void, or a lack of meaning, that people need to have filled. This allows the powerful in society to use the tools of the enlightenment to fill that void in a way that benefits themselves, and then justify it through secular myths. These myths can form ideologies (free market capitalism, nationalism, communism) or can involve narratives justifying various acts such as spreading democracy, waging war or allowing third world sweat shops.

This is a different kind of myth than those promulgated by political fascism, which used hypernationalism, hero worship, glory and war. Yet this myth can just as easily obscure the actual human cost of activities undertaken or even see them as normal and necessary. The reason such myths have so much power is that they fulfill the need for meaning that humans have, a need which is not filled purely by intellectual satisfaction but also by a sense of emotional contentment and wholeness. A person lacking meaning in life seeks it, often driven by feelings of anxiety, depression or desperation at living a life which seems wasted. This has been called alienation by numerous philosophers. While many find religion sufficient to give them a sense of meaning, that is not as powerful a force in a secular society where rational thinking distrusts taking anything on faith. This means people move either towards secular myths (political ideologies, consumerism, careerism) or distractions to hide the lack of meaning (sports, video games, alcohol, various addictions, extra marital affairs, etc.)

These forms of finding meaning share two traits. First, they rely on sentiment or emotion for their potency. People need to feel something, create a sense of excitement, a rush, or an escape. Even people claiming to follow secular ideologies engage in emotion-laden “wars” on blogs, websites, and political campaigns. The second thing is that this is often an incomplete emotion. People aren’t sure what they’re seeking, they don’t know why they are taken by their political activism or obsession with sports, they just know they need it. By not understanding the motives and purposes behind their desires, people can be easily played by powerful actors – commercial advertisers, political leaders, and others who use the tools of the enlightenment to sell and entice people towards grasping at these myths and distractions.

These myths and distractions also disconnect humans from both nature and each other. Two generally effective ways people find meaning involve either family, friends and communities, or connections to nature. Modern rational thought has continually stressed control of nature, and individuals as discrete, disconnected units with self-interests which they rationally pursue. Both of these aspects of enlightenment thought abstract individual humans away from both nature and other people.

The goal in modern social science is to overcome sentiment to rationally understand the world one confronts. This means that emotion does not fill its role in expanding ethical concerns by increasing empathy, promoting listening, and exploring human connections. Rather, emotion is relegated to entertainment and consumption. This includes turning politics into a “show,” where the goal is to market candidates, parties and even wars, and create an emotional connection in much the same way advertisers try to sell their products. CNN and other media outlets treat war as a spectacle, as each conflict has its own graphic and theme music. The analysis by experts and on the field reporting treats war more like a sport than a human tragedy, with every effort made to “protect” the public from disturbing images, and anything that works against war as an abstraction. Embedded reporters telling life stories of the soldiers are much like reporters at the Olympics telling the personal stories of the Olympians before the competition. This warps our collective ethics, and creates the capacity to shut oneself off from considering the impact of choices made on others.

The result: war becomes easy to choose, easy to rationalize and easy to sell.  Only when the myth is exposed as having been based on lies or false beliefs, such as in Vietnam or Iraq, do people turn against it.  Even then the focus is less on the suffering of others, and more on the internal political battles.

I envision the final product of this research to be a book that: a) critiques the enlightenment approach of focusing simply as rationality as superior to sentiment, providing an alternative that, for lack of a better term, is able to ‘balance’ the two and avoid treating sentiment as knee-jerk emotion; b) better integrate an understanding of human psychology with analysis of  political culture and the way it shapes our ability to rationalize violence; and c) to unmask the myths used to make war appear rational, honorable and necessary in so many cases.   The goal is not to say all war is wrong, but to unmask the myths that lead us to accept rationalizations that hide war’s true meaning.

Finally, I plan to extend this analysis outward, to touch on issues like consumerism and how our culture often uncritically accepts as valid various ‘myths’ sold in the political and social realm.   I will conclude by considering how to “make war harder,” and figure out a way to reintroduce the importance of meaning into political analysis and our social discourse.

(Sorry for a boring research post today.  Methods for this will involve discourse and media analysis, including a look at how German political culture changed after WWII, and comparisons between the US and Germany in the present.  The biggest stretch for me is to educate myself more thoroughly on various psychological and philosophical traditions that speak to this issue).

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