Sunday, July 16, 2023

Changing the Atmosphere

A.R. Moxon wrote about an interaction with an old friend, he calls Stove Minivan, who became a MAGA guy. At first Moxon tried to explain reality to him, but soon became frustrated:

"Minivan was not somebody whose intentions could be trusted. He was not operating in good faith, and I believe he well knew it, because many of his favorite sources of information have written instruction books on how to engage with people in bad faith. Minivan was not debating; he was using debate to inject his counterfactual beliefs into the discourse, which were designed to further marginalize already marginalized people while simultaneously cloaking himself in self-exonerating grievance. More, he was exerting an active effort to not know things that could be easily known, and to demand to be convinced out of deliberate ignorance, not because he was interested in having his ideas challenged, but because he demanded a world in which he got to decide what was real. 
Further still: Minivan learned from me. The effect of telling him he was using one or another logical fallacy was not to sharpen his reasoning, but to teach him about the existence of logical fallacies, which let him (incorrectly) accuse others of those same logical fallacies. So Minivan was deploying the language of logic in ways that betrayed a total lack of understanding about what those fallacies were, granted, but in ways that likely made him seem more knowledgeable and reasonable to a casual or sympathetic observer. He learned to ape our phrases and arguments, in much the way he’d learned to ape the style of Alex Jones and all the various Breitbart and Newsmax contributors he used to inform himself."

And then Moxon tried to understand Minivan's trajectory and that of enough people to actually vote Trump into office (and Ford and all the other conservative premiers here). The rise of the far right is daunting:

"Stove Minivan, it turns out, wasn't some weird outlier. 

He was part of a growing new normal, a group of people who had been offered a chance to immigrate from observable reality and enter a dark world of constant hostility, misinformation, and self-loving grievance. It's an invitation they leapt at, to which they cling even now. It's a constituency immune to proof, angered by equality, cheered by cruelty, who blame others for the foulness of the shallow puddle of reasoning within which they have demand to be seated, even though we can all see them fouling it themselves, every day. 

And afterward, a huge number of those shocked by this development decided the proper reaction was to accommodate it, in the name of unity—a belief, it seems, grounded in the idea that what you choose to get along with isn’t as important as getting along no matter what. 

I’ll finish with the question that all of Minivan’s former friends would eventually ask, whenever they gathered together long enough for the subject to arise. "What the hell happened to Minivan?" Here’s the answer, I think: nothing. Nothing happened to Minivan. Nothing at all. He was always that guy, and he always thought the things he thought. What changed was that he was given a lot of language with which to express those ideas, and access to enough other people who thought that way too, that it created a critical mass of permission. The permission allowed him to change his attitudes and actions, and created a lot of other people willing to accommodate and normalize his antisocial anti-reality behavior, rather than reject it out of hand. In college you could be pretty conservative, honestly. It was a pretty conservative place. But you couldn't behave like Minivan later would. You’d be understood to be a far-right extremist, and people would then treat you like a far-right extremist. Which is what you'd be. I think it just wasn't possible for Minivan to be what he later became, because the atmosphere wasn't conducive to the possibility. But then the atmosphere changed. If we want to change it back, it's worth thinking about how atmospheres change."

What's atmosphere?

"Atmosphere is about adjusting underlying ideas. It’s about changing foundational aspects that determine what “the way things are” can be. Example: when targeting trans and gay people for abuse and harm and death becomes so widely understood to be unacceptable fascist hatred that anyone belonging to a movement attempting it can expect to suffer the permanent professional and reputational damage that comes with being widely understood to be a hateful bigot—to such a degree that targeting trans people is no longer seen even by bigots as something that is possible—that’s an adjustment in atmosphere."

Currently, the algorithms on social media sites and elsewhere on the internet make distribution of propaganda incredibly easy. Mindlessly easy! And people with fringe ideas that don't make sense can find each other online, and group together enough to make it seem like their ideas maybe do make sense in a self-reinforcing ad populum way.

Moxon makes it clear what we're up against. It feels impossible. The only solution I can see through it all is to keep holding on to reality and talking to people, one at a time if necessary, about what needs to change in the world. We need to peck at this lunacy until it comes crashing down. Doing, without striving, without holding on to any expectation of success, or else it will drive us mad. 

Luckily, the internet also allows us to find one another! 

Tao Te Ching, ch. 78

"Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

Therefore the Sage remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people's greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical."

Drip, drip, drip...

And there's always this bit of encouragement:

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