Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Richard Dawkins Down Syndrome Twitter Controversy: Is Morality All About Pleasure?

Richard Dawkins has ignited yet another online firestorm with a provocative Tweet about abortion and Down Syndrome (DS, or trisomy 21). It all started when a Twitter follower of Dawkins asked him (completely hypothetically) if she ought to abort a fetus if it were found to have DS in a pre-natal screening. Dawkins' reply was, "Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice."

Predictably, a stream of criticism, insults, and threats rushed in to Dawkins' Twitter feed. Parents of children who live with DS led the charge; one woman tweeted "I would fight till my last breath for the life of my son. No dilemma."

Dawkins and his supporters defended his terse response by saying that Twitter's 140-character limit constrained what ordinarily would have been a more nuanced and drawn-out reply. In a follow-up statement, Dawkins clarified his position: "If your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down's baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child's own welfare."

There's already plenty of debate about whether Dawkins is correct to say that those who live with DS are condemned to a life of pain and misery, so I don't want to make that my focus here. All I'll mention on that topic is that this week a 16-year-old British girl with DS passed 6 General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams. I'm sure Dawkins' condolences go out to her family.

Instead, I want to focus on Dawkins' comment that his morality is based "on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering." Is morality really all about increasing happiness and reducing suffering?

The first thing to notice is how strongly Dawkins' definition of morality resembles one of the most basic concepts in Freudian psychoanalysis, the pleasure principle. Simply put, the pleasure principle is the unconscious drive to increase pleasure and reduce pain. In infancy, the pleasure principle governs everything -- infants poop, suck, gurgle, and eat to their heart's (or their id's) content.

Later on, the formation of the ego (the conscious, self-aware part of the mind) causes one to realize that it's not socially acceptable to pursue pleasure at all costs, and the ego starts to redirect these urges in other ways -- towards intellectual pursuits, athletic exercises, and interpersonal relationships. This is due to a contrasting drive to the pleasure principle, the reality principle, which is the ability of the conscious mind to assess the outside world and act upon it accordingly.

If all that mattered were increasing your own pleasure by following the pleasure principle, then there would be nothing in your psychology to stop you from stealing others' food off their plates, robbing them of their money, or forcibly having sex with them. But due to the reality principle, you can assess that the best way to get food, money, or sex is to ask for it, work for it, or pay for it (in no particular order, of course).

So, when Dawkins says that morality is all about increasing pleasure and limiting pain, he is saying that human beings should strip themselves of their conscious minds, forgo the reality principle, and instead subject themselves to the basic whims of the pleasure-seeking id. This is wrong. Morality does not spring forth from thoughtless intuition (something Dawkins relies on more and more in his comments). Rather, moral behavior is the result of careful deliberation. Instead of following the pleasure seeking id, Dawkins should advocate something more like the reality principle, which allows people to assess situations and make reasoned decisions.

Rather than going with the knee-jerk response to tell his Twitter follower (and, indeed, every woman in the world) to abort the hypothetical fetus, Dawkins might have taken a bit more time to consider his position before replying with something like: "I don't know. I'm neither a woman nor an Ob/Gyn." And look at that! Less than 140 characters.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Paranoid Style in American Police Departments

There is already plenty of news and commentary on the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old African American man who was shot dead by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. As information about the shooting is still trickling in, much of it contradictory and obscure, I don’t think it is appropriate to comment about whether the shooting constitutes murder, manslaughter, or excessive force. Instead, I’ll focus on the broader context of police brutality and militarization, a phenomenon that is far from particular to Ferguson.

Since the passage of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, over 5 billion dollars in equipment has changed hands from the US armed forces to local police departments. This gear includes everything from assault vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, and armored vehicles to underwear, cooking utensils, and office supplies. Initially, the program was intended to give local departments the resources needed to combat narco-traffickers in border states, but after 9/11 the program was escalated in order to fend off potential terrorist threats. As a result, in the past twenty years or so, America’s police officers have gone from Andy Griffith to RoboCop.

Source: Denverpost.com
Unfortunately (and predictably), such military equipment hasn’t been used much to fight either narco-traffickers or terrorists. Rather, cops have preferred to use their combat gear in grossly uncalled for situations, such as no-knock raids on suspected small-time drug dealers, or to put down legitimate exercises of free speech and freedom of association. Scores of innocent people have been maimed, traumatized, and killed in the process.

Why such excessive force? Are the police simply bullies and thugs who want to harm people? Some say hastily yes, but I think the issue is more complicated than that. Rather, police departments are under the influence of a powerful ideology, one which rationalizes over-the-top escalation of force and labels innocent civilians as malicious evildoers.

In a highly influential essay from 1964, the Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter detailed an ideology that he called the “paranoid style” in American politics. This ideology is characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Hofstadter labeled the contemporary movement supporting Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for U.S. president as exemplary of the paranoid style, but he notes that paranoid movements have existed all throughout American history. The paranoid style can be located
“in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims.” 
And today, I argue, the police departments of America are firmly in the clutches of the demon that is the paranoid style.

One key component of the paranoid ideology is that its adherents invent straw-man enemies, threats both domestic and foreign, and then unconsciously emulate the characteristics of these made-up bogeymen. For example, the KKK’s anti-Catholicism led Klansmen unknowingly to emulate Catholic clergy by donning priestly vestments and developing elaborate rituals reminiscent of the Catholic mass. The John Birch Society, paranoid about Communist plots and cells, “emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through 'front' groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.”

The modern American police are strikingly similar. After 9/11, American law enforcement has taken paranoia to new heights, arming themselves to the teeth against an enemy that does not exist. This is not to say that the threat posed from narco-traffickers and Islamist terrorists is made up, but such groups do not (and would not) attack the U.S. with armored battalions or fighter aircraft. Due to imagining that such fantastical scenarios are plausible, police do everything they can to stave off these fake threats, and in so doing they start looking more and more like the imaginary foe -- an enemy force set out to destroy American liberty.

How can the police be cured of this pathological way of thinking and acting? The best thing to do would be to publicize police behavior so that it can be scrutinized by ordinary, non-paranoid citizens. Of course, many police cars are outfitted with dashboard cameras, but such cameras conveniently and suspiciously “malfunction” when police are accused of wrongdoing. Moreover, beatings and other forms of police brutality are often committed out of the scope of the dashcams. What really needs to happen, then, is to outfit every cop in America with a camera on his or her chest or glasses, which streams live video to servers maintained by an independent third party. We then would have to hope that cops won’t then turn their 50-caliber machine guns on the servers.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Double (2013) and the Uncanny

Source: Traileraddict.com
Freud describes the uncanny as a special kind of fear; it “is that class of terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Whereas we are usually frightened by what is unknown and unfamiliar to us, we experience the uncanny when we are startled by something from the past that had been pushed out of conscious recollection. There are many things that one desires when still a child, but which provoke fear as an adult. The seeds of the uncanny lie anywhere there is an object that we once, as children, associated with joy but which we later, as mature adolescents and adults, associate with fear and loathing.

Consider how many adults are afraid of clowns. (It is interesting to note that there are no adults who like clowns. People who didn’t like clowns as children continue not to like them as adults; those who adored them as children experience uncanny horror as adults.) For a child so inclined, clowns are objects of wonderment and fantasy. When the child matures, she realizes that clowns are just ordinary human beings wearing costumes, and she starts to feel ambivalent about them. The desire for clowns does not ever go away completely, though. It has to be pushed violently down into the unconscious mind, and a great deal of “psychic energy” must be expended in order to keep it there. The conscious mind or Ego begins to develop a fear of the repressed former object of desire, and the sight or mention of clowns is enough to instill uncanny horror. Thus, the uncanny is tightly wrapped up in a crucial and sometimes traumatic emotional turning point in any child’s life, the moment when the child realizes that the world is not a magical place with things like talking dolls, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy. This event in many ways sounds the death knell of the child and ushers in the age of the adolescent; it’s no wonder it should cause so much fear and trepidation!

Richard Ayoade’s 2014 black comedy The Double is about the uncanny experiences of Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), a shy and lonely clerk working in human resources. Simon is hopelessly and secretly in love with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who works in a different department of the same company. Every evening Simon sits alone in his apartment and, using a telescope, spies on Hannah in her equally lonely apartment. One night, Simon sees a man standing on a ledge high up near Hannah’s apartment and looking back at him through binoculars. The man waves, Simon waves back, and then the man jumps to his death. The gruesome scene on the street below attracts a crowd, providing the first-ever opportunity for Hannah and Simon to interact outside of their workplace. The two go out to a diner for a late-night cup of coffee and become friends. Simon at first mistakes this friendship for romantic interest, but the arrival to the company of a new hire, James (also Jesse Eisenberg) sets him straight. James is everything Simon is not – charming, assertive, and virile. One very important similarity exists, however: They look exactly the same.

When, one evening, Hannah confides in her just-a-friend Simon that she “likes” James, Simon experiences painful humiliation and despair. He tells James about it, and surprisingly James wants to help. James maps out a plan whereby Simon will pretend to be James and go on a date with Hannah. The facial resemblance, James admits, is uncanny, but their personality types could not be more different. Therefore Simon must act like James. (In po-mo identity theory terminology, Simon has to do being James.) The plan naturally goes south due to Simon’s insurmountable cringy awkwardness, and Hannah stares back at him in knowing, angry silence until he leaves. By and by, James sees Simon as beyond help, and he takes advantage of Simon’s meekness instead of trying to reform it. While James sneaks off for mid-workday trysts with Hannah, Simon covers his workstation, producing brilliant work for which James earns all of the credit. James also demands the key to Simon’s apartment, which Simon uses to hide his other romantic affairs from Hannah. As James encroaches more and more upon Simon’s identity and sense of individuality, Simon discovers that their bodies have become causally linked; if Simon cuts himself, an identical wound appears on James’ body. At last, Simon has the epiphany that he needs in order to eliminate James: If he jumps off a building into some sort of cushion, then he will survive whereas James will be thrown against hard ground at terminal velocity.

Why is James so uncanny for Simon? There is of course the striking physical resemblance, but what does this have to do with the return of repressed childhood desires as outlined by Freud? The answer to this question arrives when we investigate why Simon sees himself in James. As the film makes clear, no one other than Simon (and James) really notices that the two look alike; therefore, in order to make the connection, there must be something else that Simon sees in James which reminds him of himself. Taking a deeper look at the film, there is indeed a repressed childhood desire of the type discussed by Freud. At various points throughout the movie, Simon sits fixated on a TV screen, watching a series about a space cowboy with childlike awe. The space invader stands up for justice, fights evildoers, and wins the affection of beautiful women. The space cowboy is Simon’s ideal self, the person he wants to become. But life got in the way: His father is apparently dead or out of the picture, his mother is dying with dementia, and he has to work a dead-end job to pay the bills. Simon pushed his desire to be like the space cowboy aside and instead shouldered the burdens of “real life.” But this fantasy never went away entirely, and when James shows up one day, Simon is reminded of his repressed ideal self. As the story develops, it becomes more and more clear that James is not a separate individual, but rather a projection of Simon’s own psychological crises.

NYPD Goombas blame anti-cop rhetoric for the murder of Eric Garner

The Orwellianly-named NYPD Policeman's Benevolent Association today came forward with official comments about the incident of unprovoked police brutality that resulted in the murder of Eric Garner last month. Amazingly, President Patrick Lynch -- backed by a squad of troglodytes reminiscent of the Goombas from the Mario Bros. movie (1993) -- does not attribute blame for Mr. Garner's wrongful death to the officers who assaulted him, stood on his body, choked him, and gradually asphyxiated him to death. Instead, Swinemaster Lynch blames anti-police rhetoric, which he says leads people to brazenly resist arrest when the boys and blue decide to shake them down for no good reason.

It was due to a horrible infection by anti-cop ideology that Eric Garner, in the description of Big Pig Lynch, "resisted" arrest instead of graciously submitting like a properly-trained model citizen.

The suggestion that it was anti-cop rhetoric, and not escalation of force, that caused Eric Garner's death is so stupid that it doesn't warrant any discussion. Of course it is wrong to say that something indirect and abstract like rhetoric could have killed a man, especially when video evidence clearly shows that a gang of professional thugs attacked Eric Garner when he was vulnerable and unarmed and minding his own business.

But in a way, the NYPD Goombas are actually right. Remember that fundamental lesson from psychology: For a person who is suffering from delusions, there can be no question about whether the delusions are real -- for the sufferer, they are as real as anything, and their effects are concretely observed. The same goes for the NYPD's paranoid delusion about society's hatred of cops leading people to become martyrs for the cause of resisting a petty arrest. It doesn't matter whether anti-cop rhetoric is actually the cause of Eric Garner's murder. All that matters is that the police believe it.

This illustrates the crucial role played by paranoia in horrifyingly violent and racist organizations like the NYPD. Because the police believe that they are under siege by an anti-cop society, they act as if they are being attacked from all sides. This causes the cops to lash out, which consequently stirs up anti-cop sentiment, which reinforces the cops' ideological belief that anti-cop sentiment is to blame.

Unfortunately, I am skeptical that knowing the psychological workings of things like police brutality can do anything to effect any change. Big city police departments like the NYPD have budgets in the billions, and are better armed than many countries' armies. Police operate behind a blue code of silence that makes any protocol decision an inherently top-down, authoritarian procedure. But alas, I suppose we can take refuge in the fact that these things are at least somewhat interesting. And now, if you'll pardon me, I was just about to finish chewing my own thumb off.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Zero Theorem (2014) and Faith vs. Reason

The late twentieth century and early twenty-first century are marked by several key ideological shifts. The collection of uprisings and popular movements of the late 1960s, collectively referred to as “1968,” ushered in the rise of identity politics to replace the “old” politics of class or national consciousness. Before 1968, politics had been marked by one type of optimistic belief or another. Leftists believed that a new world could be forged through class struggle; American liberals believed in an “American dream” whereby successive generations would prosper ever more; black Civil Rights campaigners led by Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that social justice was commanded by an almighty God. Starting with 1968, however, people’s politics stemmed less from their metaphysical beliefs and more from a sense of belonging to a particular identity. This resulted in the fragmentation of the “New Left,” whereby a movement once united by the tenuous and abstract notion of class was broken up into various single-issue groups campaigning for environmental justice, animal rights, a free Palestine, LGBTQ rights, etc. The decline in the importance of belief and the rise of identity politics has over time developed in some people into an outright aversion towards people who profess strong beliefs. People who hold such hostile opinions about belief are well known, and are often referred to under the umbrella term “New Atheists.” Another popular term for such people is “anti-theists,” since not only do they not believe in God, but they are morally opposed to believing in God. In this essay, I refer to them as unbelieverists, using the suffixes -ism and -ist to show that an ideological system is involved. According to unbelieverists, irrational belief is the cause and culprit of all of the world’s evils – genocides, massacres, wars – and the antidote is science and reason.

Of course, it isn’t hard to see why people might be skeptical of passionate belief; the horror stories of twentieth-century fascism, communism, and religious extremism are all that need to be referenced to demonstrate that believers are often the most violent, dangerous, and destructive of human beings. But unbelieverists aren’t just skeptics of belief; rather, they are contrarians – gainsayers and negators of anything and everything that believers believe. The guiding principle behind this philosophy is that belief is irrational, so therefore the negation of belief must be inherently rational. But anyone who thinks about this for just a moment knows that this isn't true. Martin Luther King, Jr., was acting on his Christian faith when he led Civil Rights rallies and marches, but only a fool would say that he was immoral or irrational for doing so.

Belief may be irrational, but it does not automatically follow that acting on a belief is an immoral or even an irrational action. To say so would itself be irrational. Nevertheless, unbelieverists often do say as much. According to the late New Atheist author Christopher Hitchens, religious belief is inherently immoral, poisoning a person's consciousness so that she or he can do no good. Physics professor Lawrence Krauss also equates science and reason with morally positive traits like fairness, openness, and full disclosure, and religion with negative traits like deceit, trickery, and hidden agendas. Richard Dawkins recently stated that teaching children about hell is more immoral than fondling them repeatedly. I have never heard any of these people comment on the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., but I wonder whether they would say that his religious belief made him an inherently immoral man. (Hitchens, of course, is well known for his attacks on Mother Theresa, but he preferred in his rare discussions of Civil Rights to talk about how Christians since MLK have tarnished the legacy of Civil Rights rather than confront the problem of MLK's faith ouright.)
Source: Nerdgeekfeelings.com

Unfortunately, we are not able to run an experiment in order to find out what a world without beliefs would look like. However, it is possible to peer into such a society using the medium of film. The 2014 Terry Gilliam film The Zero Theorem provides us with a suitable example. The film’s protagonist, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), is an anomalous believer in a society of unbelief.  During the daytime, Qohen works for the Mancom corporation doing research using hyper-rational data more complex than numbers.  Every evening, Qohen sits eagerly beside his telephone at home, waiting for it to ring.  In stark contrast to Qohen the ardent believer, the society at large is one in which belief has ceased to exist. The head of Mancom, a man called Management (Matt Damon), is an absolute atheist, a man who despises irrational belief and embraces the cold logic of business.  Mancom is Management’s brainchild: A rational, centrally-planned organization, uninfected by belief and instead thoroughly governed by practical reason.  Workers at Mancom are not indoctrinated with any kind of belief system; they aren't told that their work is for the betterment of society or the improvement of the economy. Rather, the workplace walls are plastered with purely pragmatic platitudes aimed at increasing production like, “Don’t ask – multitask” and “Everything is under control" (and "Arbeit macht fun!"). 

Management, an atheist, is certain that all that exists is chaos. He's convinced that the universe originates in nothingness and will eventually collapse back into a supermassive black hole. The Zero Theorem, which states that 100% = 0, is the mathematical formula for expressing this fact. For Management, proving the Zero Theorem will be the culmination of his ultimate goal in life. Why? If all is nothing, then wouldn’t that just mean that existence is meaningless? For a believer like Qohen it would, but for Management, the Zero Theorem would provide the only possible meaning that can ever exist: “There’s money in ordering disorder. Chaos pays, Mr. Leth. Chaos comprises a rich vein of ore that, with Mancom’s muscle, will be all mine to mine.” Commodifying the chaos gives meaning to it. Management, the ultimate disaster capitalist, sees the supermassive black hole as the ultimate engine of capital accumulation, which exists to be mined, refined, and sold in order to create the only thing of any meaning to him – commercial value.

In order to mine the chaos, though, Management still needs to prove that chaos is in fact all that there is. Unfortunately, the math hasn’t been forthcoming. The Zero Theorem has been given to numerous researchers and baffled them all. So Management adopts a new approach: He will instill in someone a sense of belief that is so strong that it seems unshakeable, and then he will bring it crashing down. He therefore constructs a myth for Qohen to believe in; this myth is the “call” Qohen sits awaiting at every free moment. Once Management reveals that the “call” is a ruse, he thinks that this will be sufficient evidence to prove that the universe begins and ends in chaos. Qohen, the last believer, will finally be converted by the logic of pure reason, and at last the Zero Theorem will be proven.

At first, it seems that Management’s plan has worked. Qohen is utterly devastated by the news that the “call” was just a conspiratorial hoax. The supermassive black hole that is gradually sucking in everything emerges before him, and he sees all the people he knows drifting into its void. Instead of succumbing to nihilism, however, Qohen’s faith is re-energized. He jumps into the black hole, a leap of faith that proves to be the right choice: Qohen reemerges in a tropical beach paradise.

This scene from The Zero Theorem exposes a critical paradox: Sometimes it is irrational to be rational and rational to be irrational. Management, of course, is rational to a fault, using reason even where it doesn't apply.  Whereas he ought to have known that Qohen’s deeply-held beliefs could not possibly be shaken by cold logic, he nevertheless pursues this course to his own downfall.  Qohen is the exact opposite; he sticks to his beliefs even when it would seem that they have been logically refuted. Instead of succumbing to Management’s logic, Qohen takes a leap of faith into the black hole – which turns out to be the most rational thing he could do!

Was it possible to see this conclusion ahead of time? Indeed, a close examination shows that Management has a strong irrational streak, try though he may to hide it from view. But his irrationality bubbles to the surface in ways that can be noticed if we look hard enough.  For example, note that Management’s atheism oddly takes the form of a fanatical religious belief. Management has invested all of his desire in proving the Zero Theorem, a mathematical equation that all logic seems to indicate is false. Some of Mancom’s greatest researchers have worked on the problem, but to no avail. A truly disciplined man of reason would discard the Zero Theorem for a more nuanced theory, but Management holds to the same dogmatic line. This has a very similar structure to the way that New Earth Creationists defend their beliefs. When presented with overwhelming evidence that he is wrong, Mancom still insists that he is the one that is being the most rational.

Now taking a look at real life, we see that Management’s syndrome of irrationality masquerading as reason is rather common among unbelieverists. Richard Dawkins, for example, deplores religious belief with all the same fervor and rancor as Management does. But Dawkins is far from innocent of speaking out irrationally. Recently, Dawkins made excuses for pedophilia in English boarding schools on the heels of comments he made earlier in the year that teaching kids that hell exists is worse than abusing them sexually.  Importantly, he says that this latter conclusion was reached not through reason but rather through spidey-sense: “It seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse.”  Of course, no psychologist or social scientist would ever speak from intuition about child sexual abuse, but Dawkins seems to have no problem with abandoning reason whenever it's convenient.

In fact, Great Men of Reason who speak and act irrationally are the norm, not the exception. Philipp Lenard, the German physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1920, was convinced that that rise in nuclear physics in the 30s and 40s was due to Jewish influence, and warned agianst “relativity theories produced by alien minds.”  Bobby Fisher, perhaps the greatest ever Master of the hyper-rational game of chess, denied that the holocaust took place and was plagued by paranoid delusions.  My idea is not to suggest that scientists who claim that their social and political views are motivated by the same pure reason that motivates scientific inquiry are somehow more irrational than the average person; rather, what I'm saying is that everyone's political and social beliefs are motivated by one ideology or another.  As all ideologies are to some degree irrational, this means that everyone's politics, including scientists', are irrational to the core.