How extremists cope with widespread dissent

July 28, 2011 at 3:41 am (Humans, Politics)

How do extremists continue believing what they believe? The recent attack in Norway, I think, has brought up this question in many people’s minds (helped by the fact that the perpetuator is white and blonde and thus ought to be perfectly normal). The usual response is that they must be either unintelligent or mentally disturbed. Neither, from my observations, is true. In fact, those who take a definite political position have on average a higher intelligence than the “moderates” and the politically unaffiliated, and political extremists are well-represented in the academia and in prominent professions.

The most common trait among extremists, I would say, is the ability to rationalize why others disagree with you, a trait that is usually seen by others as a form of cynicism – for example, a central tenet of Marxism is the fundamental role of ideology, or that what people believe tend to be a result of their socio-economical circumstances. A second and related trait is the belief that their beliefs are misrepresented by others to be something related and wrong, but that they themselves are in fact different. For example, Marxists are notorious for their many ideological streams, each of which criticizes and fights against the others; while the neo-Nazis take great pains to distinguish themselves from the Nazis.

For a practical demonstration, here are two excellent examples of how extremists deal with ideological insecurity, one from the Marxists and one from the neo-Nazis:

1. Badiou: On Different Streams Within French Maoism (an interview with Alain Badiou, a prominent French “philosopher” and probably the most famous Maoist in Europe)

2. Do you ever lose faith in your racist beliefs? (a thread on Stormfront, the largest neo-Nazi forum on the Internet)

I do not imply by this post that extremism itself is a bad thing. In fact, I have plenty of extreme beliefs, such as my atheism and my belief that family as a social institution ought to be abolished; and I am sure we can find in history countless examples in which an extreme minority turned out to be correct (by beliefs, I mean only falsifiable beliefs, not opinions relating to moral values, although these two are often confused with each other).

However, most beliefs held by an extreme minority are probably false, and this is especially true for those that have been out of favor for years – in the above two cases, the Maoist beliefs about class struggle and the viability of central planning; and the fascist belief that race is a fundamental determinant of personality.


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Efficient arguments

July 16, 2011 at 1:08 am (Humans)

I. How ordinary people argue over issues:

A: Intellectual property protection is such a ridiculous thing. How do you justify charging $10 for a music album that costs next to nothing to produce*?

B: Wow, I can’t believe you said this. So you want to STEAL from honest artists*? Would you like others to steal from you too*? I think I might defriend you on Facebook.

A: Well, YOU don’t have to worry about buying stuff because you’re rich*. Not everybody is as privileged as you*. And record companies are too rich anyway. If they were honest, they could pay more of their profits to the real artists*!

B: Not stealing from others is not a choice, it is a moral duty*! “Thou shall not steal”*. You only think intellectual property is bad because you don’t want to pay for what you purchase**! You know who else forcibly took the property of others? Adolf Hitler.*

II. How economists[1] argue :

A: I detest intellectual property rights, for they limit the spread of innovation.

B: I support intellectual property rights, for they provide an incentive to innovate.

A: That is a good point. Let’s find some way of quantifying the benefits from providing incentives to innovate and the costs of limited innovation and compare their magnitude, then we shall know which of our opinions is more valid.

III. How sociologists argue:

A: Over the last few years there has been significant debate about whether intellectual property rights are desirable or even justifiable. Certain economists have argued that intellectual property rights may have some merit, based on their so-called “cost-benefit” mathematical model. But such mathematical models with their reliance on complicated equations and statistical jargon grossly simplify the realities which underlie intellectual property, in the context of an increasingly deregularized and privatized society which operates under the neoliberal doctrine of “free market” capitalism. (Althusser, 1965)  Indeed, seen properly in the context of the late-capitalist épisteme, intellectual property is no more than a metaphysical form of social coercion designed to benefit the upper middle-classes by protecting the status quo – hence the eerie resemblance of the ideology’s name to the classical belief of “property rights”, which had always been more concerned with protecting the physical property of the privileged rather than the mental property of the poor, thus justifying drastic cuts in education, arts and culture, even as the tax system is made to disproportionately favor the wealthy bourgeoisie.

1. Except for Steven Levitt. Here’s the Levitt argument: Is intellectual property protection a good thing? Well, how would my daughter feel about it?

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June 19, 2011 at 3:53 am (Humans, Politics)

I’ve been involved in the Chinese democratic movement in Hong Kong for quite a while. In fact, I’m a registered member of the League of Social Democrats (whose leaders are mostly famous for throwing bananas at government officials and accusing others of being Communists while wearing Che Guevara shirts themselves[1]). I’ve been to speeches, rallies and gatherings and I’ve had the chance to see almost all of the pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong. Then when I tell my friends that I have absolutely nothing against the Communist Party maintaining their rule and I think they are one of the most competent governments since the history of human civilization, I am always met with blank stares.

Why? I’ve never really understood why most people find it unimaginable to support people who they might disagree with, or the other way round. When I think of whether to support the Communist Party, what I am thinking of is what my support could possibly do to the rest of society. In particular, I wonder whether it would increase the chance of having a better government in China if I did not support the Communist Party. My answer right now is an uncertain no. I do not think a regime change or a transfer of power in China in the next twenty years is likely to benefit society as a whole, and hence I support the Communist Party (or rather, do not actively try to challenge it).
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Don’t be a Kant

June 8, 2011 at 11:50 am (Humans, Logic and philosophy)

Should Sick People Be Paid to Risk Their Lives?

The fact that such questions need to be asked – such questions as whether it is acceptable to receive payment for testing drugs, or for donating blood and organs, or for any other kind of voluntary behavior – is, I think, a fundamental indictment of the intellectual decay of our society.

Peers and friends have always been surprised by my virulent hatred of this subject. I am convinced that if they understood the nature of the discipline – those self-gratifying, masturbatory arguments known collectively as deontological ethics that are almost without exception ridiculous, juvenile and unworthy of discussion – they would feel very much the same way. Only the most wretched and utterly idiotic of men could think that, for instance, it is worthy of debate whether it is ethical to kill an innocent person to save five equally innocent lives. Of course it is, and the illusion that this question is somehow worth pondering is a tragic failure of human rationality.

I have no doubt that all deontologists would be utilitarianists if some unfortunate event was to strike them instead; say, if they were the ones who have to decide between selling an organ and watching their parents suffer; or if they were the five people on the tracks, soon to be run down by a trolley. That is because deontology is designed fundamentally to preach, to tell other people how to act. Deontological ethics had always been, and will always be, a luxury of the rich, the bourgeois of developed nations. “Dignity”, “humanism”, “moral righteousness” are their catchphrases because they cannot hide their moral insecurity in anything but abstract terms. For them, of course it is perfectly unacceptable to work for sweatshops, or to prostitute, or to do such various unimaginably vile things that only the poor and downtrodden would ever dream of doing!

Meanwhile, millions and millions of the poor and unfortunate – those that the first-world bourgeois claim to protect – suffer and perish for the lack of access to a good job, to genetically-modified crops, to free trade and free market. For them, ethics has never crossed their minds. Or rather, it is a meaningless term for them. For them, to be ethical is quite simply to do what is best for one and his family, to survive and hopefully to enjoy surviving. And, quite appropriately, they find any other definition of ethics utterly incomprehensible.

Even amongst the lower middle-classes of Hong Kong (a quite prosperous city) with whom I grew up with, I find no sign of any comprehension of deontological ethics. Among the many to whom I have asked the “trolley problem”, all found the answer immediately obvious, and similarly all found the existence of any contrary answer to be unimaginable. It is only in the upper classes of the Western world that we find this peculiar formation of ethics: that it is somehow ethical to impose your judgment on an unknown stranger eight thousand miles away and forbid him from doing something, all in the name of protecting him.

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“The Capacity to be Alone”

May 27, 2011 at 12:18 am (Humans, Mathematics, Personal experiences)

I realized several important things in my freshmen year at college:

  1. That my real talent lies in academics and not in organizing;
  2. That my real interest lies in economics and not in literature and philosophy;
  3. That I frankly am not good at mathematics.

The latest is not a life-changing discovery by any means, certainly not comparable to the first two; but it is important. To elaborate, I don’t think anybody in fact is really good at mathematics. One begins to realize quickly after studying point-set topology that pure mathematics is far less about the quick wits and clever intuition that underlies success in high school algebra, and far more about hard work – a willingness to spend hours and hours on what seems to be a trivial problem, but which you simply cannot grasp.

Even the old trick of staying up until mornings to solve the problem no longer works; some concepts crack only at the right moment, often when you least expect it. I had always thought that Einstein’s famous quote (of genius being 90% perspiration) and more recently Terence Tao’s comments were merely modesty.  Now I understand that there is, of course, no modesty involved when one consider the kind of work ethic that it takes to be such successful academics.

But hard work is not impossible. I have found that there is a far more substantial limit to my mathematical ability, namely the state of my mind. I trust that the passage that follows will be a sufficient explanation for what I mean here. From the great French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck:

“…Since then I’ve had the chance, in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my “elders” and among young people in my general age group, who were much more brilliant, much more “gifted” than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle — while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things that I had to learn (so I was assured), things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end.Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates, almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects. In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still, from the perspective of 30 or 35 years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve all done things, often beautiful things, in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have had to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birth-right, as it was mine: the capacity to be alone.”

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“Why Nerds Are Unpopular”

May 23, 2011 at 5:24 am (Humans)

A spectacular, spectacular essay that touches on a surprising number of issues. If I had to recommend one and only one essay for every American (adult or child) to read, this would probably be it. The author also has a large collection of other essays on the web. All of them are worth reading.

Some excerpts:

“Around the age of eleven, though, kids seem to start treating their family as a day job. They create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters, not standing in their family. Indeed, being in trouble in their family can win them points in the world they care about. The problem is, the world these kids create for themselves is at first a very crude one. If you leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices, what you get is Lord of the Flies. Like a lot of American kids, I read this book in school. Presumably it was not a coincidence. Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world.”

“As a thirteen-year-old kid, I didn’t have much more experience of the world than what I saw immediately around me. The warped little world we lived in was, I thought, the world. The world seemed cruel and boring, and I’m not sure which was worse.”
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