Tag Archives: ambiguity

The Threat Of Ambiguity

Comments to previous posts to this blog have focused on the role played by religion in the polarization that characterizes today’s America. I’d like to put a slightly different “spin” on that conversation.

As Len Farber noted, it is unfair to lump all religions together–there is, as my youngest son has noted, a great deal of difference between religions that help adherents wrestle with the “big questions” of life and those that dictate an infallible answer. That difference extends beyond the worldviews we label “religion.” Back in the days of the communist USSR, it was often remarked that communism was a religion of sorts, and that observation can be enlarged to include pretty much all rigid belief systems.

Which brings me to one of those “there are two kinds of people” generalizations. (Obviously, a dangerous overstatement, but bear with me…)

We live in a world that can seem incomprehensible; confronting our complicated reality can range from exciting to intimidating to extremely frightening. Most of us (I hope, at least, that it’s most of us) muddle through, recognizing and coming to terms with our human limitations and making what sense we can of a complex world. But for a not-insignificant number of our fellow humans, keeping oneself open to change, to reconsideration–a necessary attribute of living with ambiguity– is intolerable. Shades of gray are terrifying. Such people are desperate for bright lines, clear rules–for certainty.

Enter some–not all–religions and other belief systems, including conspiracy theories that “explain” the inexplicable and bring clarity to messy reality.

If you are an older white male in today’s America, you were probably born into a society that promised you a future in which you would be a part of the dominant caste, a future in which you wouldn’t have to compete with–or share importance with– uppity women and minorities. That future didn’t unfold as promised. It’s understandable that you might want someone to blame for the social changes that cost you the reality you had the right to expect.

It was probably the fault of the “libs” or the “femi-nazis” or Blacks, or maybe the immigrants from “shit-hole” countries.

As I have tried to understand how any mentally-competent American could look at Donald Trump and see someone who belongs in the Oval Office, I have become convinced that an inability to cope with the ambiguities of modern life explains a lot.

There is, of course, a lot of research telling us that “racial resentment” is the most prominent predictor of support for Trump. There is also ample research suggesting that feelings of inadequacy and fearfulness–characteristics of an inability to cope with the ambiguities of life–are predictors of “racial resentment.”

Cristina Bicchieri is a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the lead author of a paper with the intriguing–if somewhat challenging/incomprehensible– title, “It’s Not a Lie If You Believe the Norm Does Not Apply: Conditional Norm-Following with Strategic Beliefs.”

In a discussion with Thomas Edsall, Bicchieri attributed one of Trump’s strengths to the fact that “people hate ambiguity,” and if there is one thing Trump is not, it’s ambiguous. “Trump’s ability to convey conviction, even when saying things that are demonstrably false, is critically important in persuading supporters to believe and vote for him.”

There’s an old saying “It isn’t what you don’t know that hurts you; it’s what you know that ‘just ain’t so.'” Too many Americans prefer to cling to certainties–theological, ideological or conspiratorial– that “just ain’t so.”

I think it was Bertrand Russell who said, “What men want is not knowledge, but certainty.”

 

 

 

 

 

Their War Is With Modernity

The Guardian recently reviewed David Frum’s forthcoming book, “Trumpocalypse.” Frum, as most of you will recall, was the speechwriter who penned George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” accusation; whatever lingering concerns I may have had about his judgment, however, have waned, thanks to his work as a “Never Trumper.”

In “Trumpocalypse,” Frum makes the case that Trump has gutted the rule of law and institutionalized “white ethnic chauvinism.” The article notes that Frum’s journey is emblematic of an ongoing political realignment, in which the GOP has increasingly embraced white rural voters and steadily lost college graduates and suburbanites.

One of the points Frum emphasizes has reinforced my own belief that America–and for that matter, the rest of the world to varying degrees–is undergoing a paradigm shift.

The concept of paradigm shift originated with Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist and philosopher, to explain why people working within a particular worldview or scientific framework cannot understand explanations of works produced under a preceding or different framework. Fundamental changes in basic concepts make genuine communication impossible.

Frum’s book quotes the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the proposition that it is “culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” and he identifies specific aspects of the culture Trump’s base believes it is defending–especially, as he says,  the belief that by supporting Trump, they are defending a “distinct way of life”, one challenged by modernity.

I think this is the key to understanding what is otherwise inexplicable: how any rational individual could look at the operation of Trump’s administration, with its massive corruption and overwhelming incompetence, and still support him.

Support for Trump is how people who are profoundly threatened by modernity say “Stop the world, I want to get off.”

That reaction against modernity, which is characterized by increasing secularism, explains why religious fundamentalists make up so large a part of Trump’s base. Secularism, in this sense, isn’t necessarily the absence of religious belief, but it is the absence of a certain type of religious belief. It refers to the ability of science to explain phenomena that biblical literalists attribute to God (remember when Bill O’Reilly defended religious belief by saying “the tide goes in, the tide goes out–who knows why?” We do know why.)

In my 2007 book “God and Country: America in Red and Blue,” I examined differences between religious folks I dubbed “Puritans” and those I identified as “modernist.” Among other things, Puritans tended to believe that Christianity requires capitalism–that in a sense, God was Adam Smith’s “Hidden Hand”– and that poverty was evidence of moral defect.

Modernity is also undermining economic fundamentalism. Rutger Bregman was the  historian who told the zillionaires at Davos a couple of years ago that they would be more effective at fighting poverty if they paid their taxes. Time had an interview with him, focused on his new book, “Humankind.” Bregman argues that the core beliefs about human nature that justify exploitative capitalism are simply wrong, and that we are coming to recognize that fact.

The old fashioned “realist” position has been to assume that civilization is only a thin veneer, and that the moment there’s a crisis we reveal our true selves, and it turns out that we’re all selfish animals.

Bregman disagrees, asserting that, over thousands of years, people have actually evolved to be far more collaborative and kind. He also points out a central lesson of the pandemic: as governments make lists of so-called vital professions, those lists don’t include hedge fund managers or captains of industry. It’s the (underpaid) garbage collectors and the teachers and the nurses who turn out to be people we can’t live without.

Our assumptions about human nature matter, because those assumptions guide the design of our institutions, and the design of our institutions encourages behavior that is consistent with the assumptions.

One of the big differences between religious and economic fundamentalists on the one hand, and modernists on the other, is the inability of the fundamentalists to tolerate ambiguity. As both Frum and Bregman make clear, however, modernity absolutely requires the ability to reject “either/or” “black/white” versions of reality.

As Bregman says,

I don’t live in that binary world. Sometimes markets work best, sometimes the state has the best solution. During the Enlightenment, there were brilliant thinkers who realized that, if you assume most people are naturally selfish and you construct the market around that, sometimes it can actually work for the common good. I just think that in many cases, it went too far. What many economists forget is that this view of humanity, the so-called “homo economicus,” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Or, as Frum notes, “politics can change a culture and save it from itself”.

That’s the politics of change–the politics that Trump’s base hysterically rejects.