Monday, January 2, 2012

The Power of Perspective.

A man living in a box thinks box-shaped thoughts. The tiny rip in the corner, the stain on one side - these are the stuff that occupy his mind. If a mold starts to grow on a piece of the box then the highly-evolved calculating machine in his skull will run in endless loops on the topic of mold.

You will not be able to teach such a man any thoughts about the world outside his box. He will not care to think them. The box is the world. If you want to get through to him, first you have to get him to step outside of the box.

We feel superior to the poor slob stuck in the box. But each of us lives in our own box. It is made by the boundaries of polite opinion, the range of philosophical and political beliefs held by our peers. It is a strange man who holds a belief not shared by a large portion of his friends. He probably has at least a low-grade mental illness.

If you seek to implant alien ideas into someone's head, then logical argument will not suffice. You first have to acclimate them to the world outside their box or their mental immune system will kick in and their brain will reject the procedure. Start by gently relating new concepts to beliefs they already hold. Patience is a virtue. Eventually they will be ready to consider an idea that lies outside their normal worldview.

This technique - establishing a wider mental perspective before diving into controversial ideas - is a necessary tool for the intellectual radical.

Two works I am currently reading use the trick of widening the reader's perspective to powerful effect. One is John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of the right of free speech from first principles, “On Liberty”. Americans take for granted the right to say or write whatever we wish but it is not the norm in the world today, even in the West, and it is a rare sight in human history.

Mill writes to a devout and conservative audience that is happy to see the law prosecute political and religious heretics. They figure that if Jesus is God and they are completely certain of that, and that it is evil to think otherwise, then why not make it illegal as well? Mill blasts through their mental walls with a mortar shell of historical perspective. He reminds them that Jesus himself was executed for speaking religious heresies and nearly everybody thought it was a good idea at the time. That this great evil was perpetrated because of religious intolerance is a powerful advertisement for the virtue of tolerance.

By linking "intolerance of heretics" (good) with "killing Jesus" (very bad), Mill sews cognitive dissonance in his readers' heads. Their old beliefs don't fit together any more. Now their mental barriers fall down and they are outside the box. Now they are ready to consider Mill's logical arguments without triggering their mental immune systems.

The other political tract I recently wrestled with was Moldbug’s “Formalist Manifesto”. Moldbug primes his readers to consider deliciously heretical political ideas by reminding them how much mainstream political thought has shifted over the years. If the current mainstream once sounded dangerous and crazy, then surely not all ideas that sound dangerous and crazy should be rejected outright. Moldbug writes on the topic of political “moderates”:

Moderation is not an ideology. It is not an opinion. It is not a thought. It is an absence of thought. If you believe the status quo of 2007 is basically righteous, then you should believe the same thing if a time machine transported you to Vienna in 1907. But if you went around Vienna in 1907 saying that there should be a European Union, that Africans and Arabs should rule their own countries and even colonize Europe, that any form of government except parliamentary democracy is evil, that paper money is good for business, that all doctors should work for the State, etc, etc - well, you could probably find people who agreed with you. They wouldn't call themselves "moderates," and nor would anyone else.

No, if you were a moderate in Vienna in 1907, you thought Franz Josef I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. So which is it? Hapsburgs, or Eurocrats? Pretty hard to split the difference on that one.

In other words, the problem with moderation is that the "center" is not fixed. It moves. And since it moves, and people being people, people will try to move it.

A reminder of how wrong the status quo can be is a powerful motivator to shine a light on long-held beliefs that have lived in the shadow of unreflective laziness. It helps guard against a slavish adherence to the popular ideas of our age and our clique.

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