The Sociopathy of the Information Age
© 2010 Ross Williams
Late last week I got an email at home from one of the very few “social networking” sites I participate in. Somebody I knew had posted something and the email was imploring me to look at it. Fine. I have two seconds to spend. It was some cheesy, partisan hissy fit over the election a few days before. Sore losers being immature. Nothing new. Big hairy deal.
I came back to my home computer several hours later to find I’d gotten another email from this website. Someone who I don’t know had filed a response to the original whine. The response was contained in the email. The sore losers were now insulting everybody who had voted for the jubilant winners in the election. And also those – like me – who had not voted for anybody, but against the sore losers.
Then I got another email, and another, and another. And another. Five emails from a social connection website, only one referring to someone in what passes for my social circle. Apart from the original which was a cartoon depicting a childish sentiment that may, if played right, be seen as satire, half the responses contained either broad-brush insults of those who voted contrary to the desires of the people making these comments, or statements which exceeded “opinion” by several paces and were, instead, analytical summation of outrageous cherry-picked, wet-panty expedience.
There are very very few things that truly offend me. Call me any name you want, I don’t care; I’ll let you know if you’re correct [you frequently will be], and I’ll correct you when you’re not. Hell, if the names I’m called have any amount of cleverness to them I will actually laugh out loud when reading them and inform the name-caller that – fair notice – I will be stealing the names for my own use later.
My personal philosophy is that it ain’t name-calling if it can be supported by evidence. I can’t begin to count the number of times that folks I’ve been in discussion with have bristled at having an uncomplimentary description lobbed their way; they accuse me of “name-calling”. Waaah. My response is uniformly, “If you don’t want people calling you ‘X’, then don’t do ‘X’.” I mean, really. It’s not difficult.
I am certainly called rude and insensitive and arrogant and smug and condescending by many, if not most, of the folks who throw words my way – and I deserve it. Because I am. But I’m also right. And pertinent, which is more important. I can support my positions like few others can: honestly, even if served with barbed adjectives. Most people infuse their positions with a ready mixture of desire and hypocrisy and ignore the otherwise crucial elements of factual relevance [if they deign to supply facts at all], and logical construction.
It is that lack of factual relevance and logical construction which I find offensive. Some people are offended by being called idiots when I inform them that their analytical output shows the telltale signs of idiocy; I am offended by the idiocy. It insults my intelligence.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it forever: sloppy thinking is offensive to me. You want to offend me and risk a war of words that you can only win by changing the playing field, then engage in sloppy thinking. I’ll accommodate you.
While I was sitting there at the computer scanning through emails informing me of the trite, insulting and offensive commentary being pasted somewhere out in the ether and wondering, “Who the fuck are these people and why am I being regaled with their childish horseshit?” ...
...I get another email, following on the first batch, pointing at yet another infantile rendition of American Politics as seen by kindergarteners in search of blue crayons. This latest response had been written by the person I knew. What? Is this supposed to be clever? Am I being included in your little self-pity party as an attempt to put me and my libertarian sensibilities in my place? Do I somehow deserve to be anonymously insulted and invited to read puerile, anti-intellectual drivel because I am identifiable on this social network as “not one of you”?
I am not amused.
And I let them know that. I responded to the people I didn’t know and their half-assed horseshit. Not wanting to cause unnecessary embarrassment, I left the person I did know out of my responses. Maybe my acquaintance would read the writing on the wall and inform the rest of the crowd that perhaps their deliberately inflammatory language, cast anonymously but somehow specifically finding me, might be considered inappropriate in some quarters.
No such luck. My acquaintance failed to participate and scold her kindergarten class like a considerate person should do. No matter; I’ve been in worse internet scrapes against better opponents.
Rather than substantively respond to my very pointed criticisms of their commentary, or take me up on my twice-repeated offer to give them a short course on the historical issues they were quixotically flailing against, they shot the messenger. Once again, no real big surprise – those who can’t reason often shoot first and … no, they don’t ask questions later, for that would be reasonable; shooting messengers simply makes them feel better. And after a disappointing election, taking it out on the rest of the world is cathartic. Messianic, but cathartic.
I was also demanded to explain to them who I was. Fine: a lower-case-l libertarian, recovering idealist, intellectual, and correct. I was offended by their nonsense as it did nothing but reinvest in the corrupt notion that the American Political Landscape is colored only in shades of blue and red.
Several rounds of messenger shooting, allusions to Hitler, facile impertinence, disingenuous dissembling and my responses to it all, the acquaintance of mine who both started this and refused to call a halt to it by owning up to the childish antagonism, bawled me out for being the bad guy and – essentially – how dare I respond to being offended. It was rude of me.
Sore losers being crybabies and proving 2+2=5 by silencing the mathematician.
In the end, I was told they were entitled to their opinions, and I was blocked from the discussion I hadn’t wanted to be involved with in the first place.
“Entitled to their opinion...” This brings up a long missive I wrote years ago explaining the difference between different aspects of rational discussion and how people who don’t know how to think ... or those who do know how to think but are trying to manipulate the unthinking masses ... confuse and conflate those aspects.
So I’ll synopsize my earlier diatribe and reconstruct it here.
Opinion is a statement of personal interaction with the world around you. “I like chocolate milkshakes” is an opinion. “I think I deserve a promotion” is as well. “I don’t think the Democrats did a good job recently”. All descriptions of one’s personal interaction with the world.
These cannot be quibbled; no one else is you and no one else has your exact take on the world. You can have any opinions you want.
...but you cannot have any facts you want. You can only have the facts that are.
“I think I deserve a promotion” is an opinion. “I deserve a promotion” is an assertion of fact. And a tenuous one at that. “Deserving a promotion” is a commodity based on a whole bunch of variables, some of which cannot be measured [or the measurements are administratively hidden from the employees they affect]. And the assertion of this fact – while subjectively understandable – is objectively insupportable by the information available. The employee is making it up because it makes him feel better to do so. It is a non-factual “fact”. It is desire stated as fact; it is opinion elevated to the status of fact. It is not appropriate as such in a rational discussion between employee and manager. It conveys nothing; it is not real outside the mind of the person stating it.
The fact that you have an opinion does not make your opinion fact.
Facts are, in short, a small – very small – slice of the real world. They do not change by perspective.
Some facts are universal. 2+2=4. That is not going to change no matter how much you’d really really like to have the bank get 5 for the answer when they sum up your account balances.
Other facts are mutable – they have a time and a place for their factuality. In 2006, in the United States, the statement “George W Bush is President” was factually correct. In 2010, in the United States, it would be a lie at worst, or factual inaccuracy at best [where “lie” is distinguishable from “inaccuracy” by the prior knowledge and deliberate use of the inaccuracy]. In 2006 in Venezuela, the statement would also be wrong; George W Bush was Satan in that time and place.
And still other facts are circumstantial: they accurately reflect a position taken by someone else in their own circumstances. “In 2003, the Bush Administration felt that invading Iraq was the thing to do.” That is a fact. The Bush Administration did indeed feel it was the thing to do. You cannot quibble with that – they took that position. What you can do is quibble that the analysis they conducted to arrive at that position was invalid or incomplete.
This brings in the stickiest part of the “rational discussion” triumvirate. Analysis – my occupation. The one I’m very very good at.
Analysis is difficult for most people to accomplish properly and honestly, and hence most people do not properly or honestly analyze the realities they are confronted with.
Analysis is the collection of facts – data – pertaining to a situation, sorting those facts and weeding impertinent facts from the data set, and the arranging the remaining pertinent facts into a representation of the reality which can be used for a desired purpose.
Honest analysis requires collecting all facts, even and especially ones which may be troublesome to you. Most people do not do this.
Proper analysis requires keeping and using all pertinent facts … even and especially those which may be troublesome to you. Most people cannot do this.
When a large body of data is honestly collected and properly sorted, then if the analyst follows a fairly simple method, he will arrive at a valid conclusion.
The reason analysis is so difficult, and hence so little practiced, is because most people dithering around the edges have gross misconceptions about the results of analysis and what goes into it.
The reason I describe a fact as a little slice of reality is because reality itself is not workably conceivable by the human mind. On your next car trip, try to conceive – register and process – the totality of the world as you drive through it. That mailbox ... what color is it? what side of it is the street number on?
What? you didn’t notice? How about the dead squirrel in the left lane ... was it facing east or west? and was it a squirrel or a rabbit?
Didn’t see that either?
There’s a reason: because you cannot. No matter how many details you register and process into consciousness during the simple act of taking a short drive down the road, there are infinitely more you do not register. Did that house have a front porch? a swing? How many telephone poles did you pass?
Again: A fact is a very thin slice of reality; it is not reality itself.
Because a fact is only a very thin slice of reality, in order to weed the pertinent from impertinent facts and have anything useful to work with, you are required to collect a rather sizable batch of details. Is the dead squirrel in the left lane pertinent to you driving? Not likely ... unless an oncoming car in that lane is attempting to swerve around it to avoid getting squirrel goo on his tires and crosses the center line. ...another thin slice of reality.
The pertinence of a mailbox along the side of the road also depends on other facts, such as whether or not the mailman has stopped half on, half off the road to fill it up, or the old geezer who lives in the house is collecting the mail by standing close to the pavement, or if the mailbox is just sitting there minding its own business. In a few of those situations your actions as a safe driver need to consider that mailbox.
Which brings up another of the things I have to continually remind people: You don’t get points for being right; you get points for being pertinent. When the task at hand is balancing your checkbook, it doesn’t matter how many times you correctly recite the multiplication tables; your checkbook is not getting balanced. Some facts simply don’t matter.
The ones which don’t matter are usually dwelt upon by those who are not clear-enough thinkers to properly and honestly analyze. They know one detail, they know that one detail very well, and – rather than look around and learn something about the subject and pick up more details – they construct vivid and magical worlds of fantasy out of one single solitary fact. Often not even pertinent to the rhetorical task.
Next, many many people believe that “valid” means “exclusively correct”. If they have actually conducted honest and proper analysis and derived a valid conclusion, that means they have arrived at The One True Answer. “This is a valid answer, it is therefore the only correct one”. Incorrect.
Any sufficiently large body of data will yield innumerable valid conclusions. Given the amount of money a family has to spend on a vacation, given the amount of vacation time each one in the family has, given the myriad likes, dislikes and desires of those in the family ... which vacation is “correct”? the cruise? or the week in the mountain cabin? or the week visiting distant family?
The answer is “yes”. Valid analytical conclusions are often, if not usually, mutually exclusive. Political opponents, each having different ways of honestly and properly collecting and classifying the data set, can arrive at opposing, “right”, conclusions. You can’t implement all conclusions into policy, but yet they’re all valid. So which do you choose?
Ahhhh. That’s policy analysis, not data analysis. The reasoning that goes into which option is chosen is entirely different from the reasoning which goes into creating the options in the first place. Policy analysis requires looking at the inherent drawbacks and benefits of each of the options. There is no valid option which does not have advantages, and there is none which does not have disadvantages. Analytical honesty requires acknowledging this.
Was invading Iraq valid? Yes.
But so was standing offshore and lobbing missiles at them forever.
And so was doing nothing.
And so were hundreds of things in between.
Those who don’t like what we did usually spend their time inventing facts that don’t exist to quibble against the data analysis rather than the policy analysis where the quibbles belong.
Those who allow for only one answer are usually those who made the conclusion first and collected only those details which supported the conclusion they’d already come to. Both these people are called, in political terms, idiots. Hypocrites, partisans and dishonest advocates, as well. But, to make it simple: idiots.
There is, as one might figure, much idiocy in politics. Particularly in the discussion of it by those who do not know how to think. And it is - again - the non-thinking to which I am made subject that I find offensive.
It is your business what you are offended by; if I deliberately do that thing after knowing that it offends you, then I’m being a dick. It is my business what I’m offended by; if you deliberately do that thing after knowing what it is, then you are being a dick. We can’t always help being a dick.
And there was a whole crowd of people being dicks last week. They were not pleased by the results of the elections, they started small with juvenile artwork and petty comments, quickly elevated to broadly insulting everyone who doesn’t think like them [which in parts of the country is 80%], and then they crossed my specific line: peevish, wet-panty rationalization which someone felt obliged to make certain I saw.
The acquaintance involved in this episode knows very well what offends me and why; it is considered amusing – a veritable spectator sport – when circumstances arise in other places and I inform the dishonest nitwits of being the dimbulbs they are. “That’s different.” No, actually, it’s not. It’s just your ox being gored this time instead of someone else's.
You can have any opinion you want, I could not care less if I tried. What I do care about, what I care very very very very very much about, is whether you attach “because...” to the end of your opinion. At that point you cease to be dispensing an opinion, and you start to provide analysis.
I cannot argue opinion; it’s yours. It’s your likes, dislikes, desires and fears. I can – and will if it is dishonest – argue analysis and the made-up, fresh outta the box facts many use to support themselves.
“I don’t like chocolate milkshakes.” Okay, fine. Find me giving a shit.
“I don’t like chocolate milkshakes because they’re made from monkey snot.” Not fine; you’ve now got an argument on your hands, and all the evidence points to you being a dishonest, peevish knave willing to lie to himself and the rest of the world by extension. You’d better like hearing uncomplimentary terms used to describe you, because they’re coming.
Just one of my many services, provided with a snarl.
You’re welcome, and come again.