A Ridiculously Long and Unnecessary Post on the Biggest Problem in the World

(This post is very long. It’s also unoriginal. Amazingly, I wrote it before coming across this essay by Bruno Latour. It says all the same things in a different way. You should probably just read that instead.)

A Forewarning

Be warned. I’m going to kick this off by talking about Donald Trump. But this not really a post about Donald Trump. This is about The Biggest Problem in the World.

Right now, people are talking about Trump, so Trump is a good way to introduce the topic. In a week, people will be talking about social justice, and in another week, they’ll be talking about technology, and a week after that, and in another week, campaign finance, and in another week, global warming.

It doesn’t matter. The Biggest Problem affects all those topics and more. It affects everything. It’s the Biggest Problem in the World.

Talking Heads, Schmalking Heads

So what are people saying about Donald Trump?

Recently, I put up a post about what I call the cynical explanation for Trump’s rise. One of the champions of that explanation, the cartoonist Scott Adams, elaborates on it here:

Trump knows psychology. He knows facts don’t matter. He knows people are irrational. So while his opponents are losing sleep trying to memorize the names of foreign leaders – in case someone asks – Trump knows that is a waste of time. No one ever voted for a president based on his or her ability to name heads of state. People vote based on emotion. Period.

And he doesn’t apologize or correct himself. If you are not trained in persuasion, Trump looks stupid, evil, and maybe crazy. If you understand persuasion, Trump is pitch-perfect most of the time. He ignores unnecessary rational thought and objective data and incessantly hammers on what matters (emotions).

Did Trump’s involvement in the birther thing confuse you? Were you wondering how Trump could believe Obama was not a citizen? The answer is that Trump never believed anything about Obama’s place of birth. The facts were irrelevant, so he ignored them while finding a place in the hearts of conservatives. For later.

It couldn’t be clearer. Trump’s a con man. So what? All politicians are con men. The only difference between Trump and the others is that he’s better at it.

The weird part is that Adams thinks this is a novel idea.

Do you remember a year ago when you thought humans were rational most of the time – let’s say 90% of the time – and irrational the rest of the time? That was how most people saw the world, and still do. But Trump is teaching you that you had it backwards. The truth is that humans are irrational 90% of the time.

Well? Do you remember such a time? A utopian time when people believed that reason was supreme, that human emotions could be corralled and controlled, that gross propaganda and manipulative advertising could be rendered ineffective, that political disagreements were merely honest differences of opinion among astute and rational interlocutors?

I do not remember this time. Not that there wasn’t such a time. It was called the Enlightenment. It was a long while ago.

Since the heady days of, say, the 1770s, there have been several movements that in different ways have challenged the sovereignty of rationalism. Metaphysicians raised questions about the nature of observed reality. Romanticists challenged the suppression of the emotions. Marx argued that reason was slave to material considerations. Nietzsche challenged reason’s claim to universalism. Freud interpreted consciousness and behavior as disguised expressions of unconscious desires. The modernists challenged the reliability of thought and perception. Psychology boxed in the scope of consciousness. Neuroscience attacked the value of introspection. Quantum mechanics and relativity complicated the power of empiricism. Biology showed how human desires were shaped by anatomy and evolution. Chemistry advanced the manipulation of consciousness through medication. The study of science exposed the circumstantial nature of scientific revolutions. Nazism and fascism refined the art of mass propaganda. Commercial advertising refined the techniques of subtle and subliminal manipulation of mass desires. Behaviorism demonstrated the power of external conditioning. Computer science helped to expose the limits of human cognition. History documented the failures of past efforts at rational cogitation. Historiography exposed the errors and biases of historians. Linguistics and structuralism explored the ways in which thoughts were conditioned by language. Anthropology, ethnology, and poststructuralism explored the ways in which thoughts were conditioned by culture. Postcolonialism explored the self-deceptions induced by political power. Postmodernism challenged the concept of meaning itself.

How can I put this plainly? The intellectual history of the last several hundred years has been dedicated almost entirely to the thesis that people are not rational.

Nevertheless, the fascination with rationalism persists, illustrated by the observation that all the examples above are rational disciplines. Each uses the techniques of rational argument to insist that those other rational arguments you’ve heard about are bunk. The history of modern times boils down to a lot of clever people saying, My rationalism totally invalidates your rationalism.

Of course, this is what Scott Adams believes, too. People are irrational, he says–except for people like Scott Adams and his ilk, who are “trained in persuasion,” who as “hypnosis students learn on the first day of classes that humans are not rational,” who know that “[b]rains did not evolve to give us truth,” who have discovered, in short, “that psychology is the only necessary skill.”

Humans aren’t rational–except for those savvy humans who use their rational faculties to study the techniques of hypnosis, the theory of evolution, the science of psychology, and the manipulation of other hopelessly irrational people.

Adams has harsh words for politicians. Why didn’t they see Trump as a threat? It must be because, like Rand Paul, they were hopelessly wed to the theory that voters are rational.

Yes–because if there’s one common complaint about today’s politicians, it’s that they have too much respect for the intelligence of the average voter.

Adams also attacks the pundit class. They all dismissed Trump, too. Stupidheads! If only they had spent more time covering the presidential race as a form of salacious public theater, and wasted less time on dry analysis of the issues, they might have been clued in to Trump’s appeal.

The thesis that voters are fickle dopes has guided Washington’s relations with the public for as long as I can remember. The pundits repeatedly harp on the argument that the economy shapes national opinion. But all they really mean is that when the economy stinks, people get angry. Pure emotionalism.

When it comes to actually covering an election, what do the pundits do? They gossip about attack ads. They howl about gaffes and zingers. They sensationalize trivial controversies. They speculate about hidden biases. They track which candidate has spent the most on advertising. They futz like fortunetellers over poll results. They make reductive assumptions, arguing that Americans will vote according to gut-level identifications: Blacks for Black candidates, women for women candidates.

They frankly treat televised debates as an occasion for style to triumph over substance. It’s a commonplace among pundits that the best way to watch debates is with the sound off, so as not to be distracted by what the candidates are actually saying. You know, all those irrelevant rational arguments, such as they are.

As for the politicians, does anyone seriously believe they don’t aspire to be experts–or to employ experts–in mass manipulation and crowd psychology?

Would a pundit class devoted to the theory that voters are rational have spent three years talking about the time Marco Rubio looked awkward while sipping water?

Would politicians devoted to the theory that voters are rational air ads like this?

Scott Adams knows this. His argument is just that Donald Trump is much better at pandering to mindless irrationalism than all those other cynics out there.

It’s true, Trump is even more vacuous and disingenuous than the average political candidate. But I don’t think that’s why pundits and politicians were caught off guard. I think they were misled by two assumptions.

First, that the emotional, irrational public would still value appeals to rationalism, even if only in a blindly emotive way.

Second, that old, proven techniques of manipulation and persuasion would still be effective.

The politicians thought they could use the same strategists and TV spots and party apparatus to manipulate people into voting for establishment candidates. The pundits thought that calling a candidate a “liar” and a “sexist” and a “racist” in a respected newspaper would help to sway national opinion.

None of these people are unwise to the power of emotion. They just misread the emotions in play.

Adams picks the example of Rand Paul. Look at him, standing like some clueless poltroon up there on the debate stage, rattling off a list of boring ol’ facts. Why would a candidate like Paul think it was important to do this? Is it because he expects voters to carefully follow along with his argument and change their political allegiance after sober attention to his logic?

I don’t think so. I think this kind of performance has two goals.

One, roleplaying: embodying the image of a presidential candidate. The idea is that a president ought to seem smart, serious, dignified, informed. It doesn’t matter what facts he quotes, so long as the candidate sounds like a smart fella.

Two, playing to the judges. Candidates pander to reporters, who are then expected to use their authority and influence as a kind of free advertising. Here, the facts do matter, but only as moves in a propagandistic game. The candidate cites a detailed argument championed in the National Review. The National Review columnists applaud his qualifications. Gradually opinion trickles down to the ordinary emotive boob whose attitudes are mostly shaped by what other people think.

That’s what happened this time around, except that the last step didn’t work. The candidates got up and did their best to seem presidential, serious, informed, principled. And the public said, “To hell with that. We’re tired of people who act presidential. This time, we want someone who acts un-presidential!”

The National Review came out with its symposium issue, saying, “Look, all the smart conservatives are against Trump. You like smart people, don’t you?”

And the public said, “No! Smart people suck!”

To put it simply, the emotional valence of seriousness has gone down, and the emotional valence of unseriousness has gone up. But the emotionalism itself is still going strong. What happened is that a political machine designed to turn out one kind of candidate–presidential contender, Ivy League model–has been unable to switch production lines without jamming gears.

The power brokers of the Washington establishment are all too familiar with the utility of emotional appeals. If anything, that’s their problem. When an emotional appeal fails, there’s nothing for them to fall back on. They can’t switch to a different emotional appeal–that looks insincere. They can’t switch to reasoned argument–that also looks insincere, and anyway, no one believes that stuff anyway (except, as I’ve been arguing, as its own kind of emotional appeal). They end up saying the same thing over and over, in increasingly desperate and unconvincing tones.

But forget the politicians. They’re not the only ones who think this way. Nor are the pundits. Nor is Scott Adams. Nor are the psychologists or the hypnotists or the adherents of the science of persuasion, whatever that is.

This is now how everyone thinks. We all believe that people are 99% irrational, except for the 1% using preferred rational methods to explain and exploit this pervasive irrationalism.

And this is the Biggest Problem in the World.

My Conspiracy Theory, Your Conspiracy Theory

The neuroscientist knows that people aren’t rational–except when they’re using the rational methods of neuroscience. The philosopher knows that neuroscientists aren’t rational–as evidenced by their irrational disdain for rationalist philosophy. The conservative thinker knows that liberals aren’t rational, otherwise they wouldn’t evince so much irrational disdain for reasoned argument. The liberal thinker knows that conservatives aren’t rational, otherwise they would see that their defense of reasoned argument is merely an irrational attempt to rationalize latent prejudice.

Right now I’m reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, a classic of postcolonial studies. Said attacks Western scholarship on the Middle East. He uses several lines of argument, but the most fundamental one is that the European tradition of rationalism betrayed the early Orientalists into error. They thought they were being rational in their efforts to study foreign cultures, but their very belief in rationalism blinded them to the biased nature of their work. Said frequently implies that the act of scholarship itself is inherently suspect, because it casts the scholar as a privileged observer with respect to his subject. When you study someone, you take upon yourself the power to interpret him, explain him, understand him. How could that not be problematic?*

Fine. But Said’s book itself springs from the same rational tradition. He uses rational argument to analyze the culture of European Orientalists. He also adopts a privileged position with respect to his subject, otherizing the Orientalists, arrogating to himself the power of speaking for them, interpreting them, explicating them. He uses the same techniques that he denounces.

The Orientalist uses rational analysis to subvert the agency of Middle Eastern peoples. The critic of Orientalism uses rational argument to subvert the agency of Orientalists. And in due time, along comes a critic of Edward Said who uses rational argument to critique Said’s use of rational argument to dissect the Orientalist’s use of rational argument to assert hegemonic control over Arabia.

Round and round we go.

I don’t want to suggest that there’s a moral equivalence here. I think the European Orientalists were basically the bad guys, and that Said is basically one of the good guys. My point is that a rational argument that sets out to undercut the legitimacy of rational argument is proceeding on shaky ground.

Said draws on the work of Foucault, who interpreted culture as cover for hidden power struggles. Combine Foucault’s social criticism with the lingering influence of Freud and Marx, the hermeneutical strain of continental philosophy, and the fill-in-the-blank studies of various identity groups, and you have a recipe for leftist thought today: an ongoing effort to explain how people’s actions are determined, largely without their knowledge, by larger social and historical forces.

This tradition is sometimes contrasted with positivism. But positivism, as realized in the natural and social sciences, has ended up making the same fundamental claim: that people are so desperately irrational they can’t be trusted to understand their own irrationalism. They need scientists to do that for them.

Why stop there? A popular theme in conservative thought is that the agitations of the Left aren’t actually driven by a concern with injustice, but by cliquishness, narcissism, childish resentment, a self-aggrandizing need to play the part of righteous crusaders. After all, just look at the findings of psychology, of sociobiology, of neuroscience, of modern economics, of political analysis, of the business literature, all of which demonstrate that people are helplessly shaped by subtle situational cues, social conditioning, priming, cognitive biases, hormones, inborne instincts, and a compulsion toward status-seeking within relatively small social units. Agitators on the left can thus be examined and diagnosed like so many hospital patients or unruly toddlers, using the tools of modern biology and psychology.

This happens even while those same agitators are using the tools of modern philosophy to paint their opponents as the mouthpieces and sleeper agents of oppressive social structures.

Look at popular culture–or rather, listen to virtually any cultural critic rail against it. The critic will tell you that it’s plain to see how the media have molded us all, without our even knowing it, into women-hating, man-hating, feminist, anti-feminist, slut-shaming, prudish, licentious, racist, free-speech-obsessed, free-speech-hating social justice warriors.

A man recently explained to me that science clearly shows that love is a form of self-deception, invented by women to trap men into disadvantageous partnerships. Not long before that, a woman explained to me that science clearly shows that love is a form of self-deception, invented by men to trap women into disadvantageous partnerships.

Should we bring up environmentalism? Surely you’ve heard by now that the consensus on global warming is merely a sign of groupthink and insularity within the scientific community. But you must also have heard that opposition to that consensus is fomented by conservative demagogues, who cynically whip up mass discontent for their own purposes. What’s more, public opinion on the issue has been almost wholly determined by behind-the-scenes bribery from the fossil fuels industry. But it’s also been almost wholly determined by the fearmongering of preening lefty agitators like Al Gore, whose real aim is to milk profit from an alarmist and sensation-driven media.

Anne Applebaum, among many others, wants to talk about conspiracy theories. But what else has anyone been talking about? All theories are now conspiracy theories. The only argument we have nowadays is the argument that people are being manipulated by forces they can neither comprehend nor control.

Old school leftism is a conspiracy theory about the pernicious influence of capitalism. Right-wing populism is also a conspiracy theory about the pernicious influence of capitalism, plus a conspiracy theory about the pernicious influence of anti-capitalism. Today’s religious thought is largely a conspiracy theory about popular culture, or higher education, or the media, all of which do their devilish work under the heading Western Values. Radical feminism is a conspiracy theory about the patriarchy. Anti-feminism is a conspiracy theory about second-wave feminism, which is itself developing conspiracy theories about third-wave feminism, which has shown signs of budding off a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton. The social justice movement has its conspiracy theories about white-cis-hetero-old-dead-male-supremacy, and approximately fifty percent of the people opposed to that movement have a conspiracy theory about Trayvon Martin. How many conspiracy theories about “people in the media” are there? Is it possible even to count?

The point isn’t that these positions are equally valid, or equally well-supported, or equally dangerous, or equally anything. Not all conspiracy theories are created equal. Sometimes there are actually conspiracies!

The point is: how are we to argue against these theories when all of them are self-contained?  Each theory incorporates the premise that any criticism will merely prove its relevance.

If people are critical of the concept of rape culture, that further demonstrates the power of rape culture.

If people don’t see bias in the liberal media, that  further demonstrates the power of the liberal media.

If people dispute critiques of capitalism, that illustrates the power of capitalism.

If people object to an accusation of racism, that illustrates the prevalence of racism.

If people think they know themselves, that only shows how little they know themselves.

If people set out to make a rational argument, it must mean they think human beings are rational. In which case, what better proof could we have that the people making the argument are blind to their own irrationality?


We can’t attribute this to hypocrisy or bad faith. Most people making these arguments will readily admit that they themselves are affected by irrational influences. The social justice partisan will be first to confess that she herself is unconsciously sexist. The neuroscientist is compelled to acknowledge that his own capacity for rational self-direction is just as illusory as his subjects’. When Daniel Kahneman wrote his renowned treatise on irrationalism, he peppered it with examples of his own irrational behavior.

“Don’t trust anyone,” says the conspiracy theorist. “Not even me.”

An Embarrassment of Niches

Admittedly, this is not a novel issue. To say “I don’t think so-and-so knows what she really wants” is an age-old human tendency. Catch-22s predate Catch-22. Denial has always been more than a river in Egypt.

Remember that old bit about how only a witch who embraced the sovereignty of the Prince of Lies would ever be so devious as to argue persuasively that she wasn’t a witch who embraced the sovereignty of the Prince of Lies?

What’s new is that the complexity, the scope, the sophistication of these multiplying theories keep us from arriving at such a bald assertion of the paradox. What’s new is that the basic conundrum–only reasoned inquiry can succeed in demonstrating the futility of reasoned inquiry–has ramified into an impenetrable jungle of intellectual specialties.

What’s new is that it’s impossible even to discuss this issue without getting lost in endless speculation about prehistoric life on the African savanna, gender roles in the Roman Republic, the false consciousness of wage earners, problematic incentives, complexity theory and emergent behavior, racial coding in the latest superhero movie, personality disorders as defined in the DSV, the machinations of the power elite, structural biases in higher education, unconscious yearnings inculcated by mainstream advertising, hidden chemicals in cat dander, and the economic interests of soybean farmers.

No disagreement can ever be resolved, because parties to the disagreement can never agree on any shared principles, because the only principle they share is that we should be endlessly skeptical about appeals to shared principles.

“I think we need to have a conversation about race.”

“What do you mean by race?”

“I mean what people usually mean.”

“I think we need to have a conversation about the assumptions behind this conversation.”

Something weird happened a few hundred years ago. The early moderns used the tools of reason to attack the foundations of religious belief. It went well. It may have gone a little too well. It went so well that we never stopped. We keep using those tools to attack every other belief, including the belief in reason.

I call this the Biggest Problem in the World because it defeats our attempts to solve every other problem, or even to do much of anything at all. Imagine a team of people fervently building a machine, the chief function of which is to take itself apart. From time to time, one of the members says, “Gee, maybe we shouldn’t be putting all this time into building a machine the chief function of which is to take itself apart.” At which all the other members pipe up to say, “But that’s how we know it’s working!”

Can we have a society whose only shared belief is that we should be suspicious of shared beliefs? Whose main intellectual activity is the rational debunking of rationalism? Can we sustain a public sphere in which everyone is perceived as a propagandist?

If people are mostly irrational, rational argument is futile. If rational argument is futile, all persuasion is manipulation. If all persuasion is manipulation, who will manipulate the manipulators?

The future is a twist on a classic M. C. Escher drawing–two hands, drawn in pencil, each studiously erasing the other.

*Note for readers of Said: he complicates this argument in many ways, and sometimes denies outright that he’s making it. To my mind, Said fails to fully distinguish his focused historical critique of Orientalism as a particular discipline from his broader, postmodern argument about the hegemonic properties of culture and cultural study. However, I think his historical critique is persuasive on its own terms. This is a simplified treatment of a complicated subject; for now, just accept that I’m using Said as a proxy for the more sweeping claims of European philosophy.



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