I have recently completed a psychology course at a local college. This survey-level course was required by a lot of various majors, and suggested widely to undecided students. Because of this, the majority of the students would never again set foot in a psychology classroom. The instructor, a seasoned pro at this class, understood this well and structured the class to provide a very practical education in the field, one that students could take away and apply, immediately, to their lives. I am a big fan of this approach as it did no harm to those of us who (at the time) planned on a continued education in the field, but provided much more to those who didn’t. However, there was a common appeal that surfaced again and again in class: most of this is just common sense.
I have been distrustful of this phrase and concept for ages, but it became very clear in the course of this class just how problematic (and nearly useless) this concept has become in our age. I think there are three very specific reasons (among others, for sure) that inform my feelings on this.
First, “common sense” is anything but common. The ways that culture, media exposure, specific upbringing, social class, etc. plays into our lives, no one has enough of a common background for the assumptions and “obvious” answers they may formulate to an issue to be so similar as to call theym common. I may have learned, growing up, that small transgressions of rule are best handled with an iron fist. You may have learned that the same situations are best handled with forgiveness and education. When confronted with a situation that calls on us to handle a transgression of rule, you and I will have very different “common sense” ways of dealing with it.
Additionally, “common sense” is not particularly sensible. We could substitute a varitey of phrases for “common sense” such as “gut feeling” or “intuition.” The gist is that we somehow know, deep down, the right answer to a problem making careful, detailed analysis unnecessary to render a verdict in a situation. However, we know that this is simply not the case. Common sense would mean that insignificant numbers of people would smoke, that the economy would be an open book, and that other complex systems would be laid bare if we just dug deep enough within ourselves.
That brings me to the third reason that reliance on common sense frustrates me. Our world is far too complex to suss out with a feeling. Now, I’m not denying that experts in a field develop an innate ability to evaluate a situation fairly accurately without the same analysis as others may need, but this situation is outside the realm of “common” as we usually use it. (Experts, for instance, usually know what does need specific analysis and, rather than evaluating an entire problem using their guts, they usually use their narrow version of common sense to understand how to better tackle the problem) For most of us, the systems we try to judge through our common sense are simply far too complex, with far more hidden variables and repercussions than we can be aware of. Yet I think it’s human nature to simplify to the point that we do think we can make a judgement about a situation. By discarding and collapsing complexity, we shape a situation into one that seems familiar to us and that we can easily formulate a “solution” to. This is innate in us, and a very useful trait, but one that seems to get us in trouble all the time.
I would like us to stop treating complex issues as ones that can be solved with common sense. I think there is a place for it, as flawed as it is, but it’s at a specific scale. For instance, if we use common sense in the application of core principles to laws, we may write better laws. (flawed, still, but better.) If we use common sense to evaluate small aspects of complex systems, it can help us build up a better idea of the whole. (still flawed, but useful) If we use common sense to evaluate our own actions as they relate to others, we may act better towards people. (maybe I’m dreaming.) But in all these cases, common sense can only be used as a small part of a full systematic evaluation, not as a simple way to pass judgement or make decisions.
I really wish we would learn that things are too complex for simple evaluations.
One of the things I am most interested in is how we change minds. By this, I mean lasting, long-term change in attitude, not just a short-term, temporary persuasion. I think that there may be some overlap in technique, but my intuition tells me that these are vastly different activities with similarly different (and diverse) methods that must be brought to bear.
I have an enthusiastic hobbiest’s fascination with marketing and advertising which, I think, focuses much more on short-term change than what I am really interested in. However, I suspect that there is something to be learned by traditional marketing techniques, and newer techniques in particular. (Repetition, for instance, likely plays a role in both kinds of influence.) Since we are really just beginning to understand the psychology behind marketing techniques, there could be a wealth of knowledge around the corner. (That assumes that what we are learning ends up passing muster down the road, a substantial problem in the psychology field today.)
I have a lot of thoughts on the issue of changing minds in the long term, and I’ll mention them as they come up and my ideas on this matter refine. For now, I’ll just mention a few of the simpler ones.
Length and Depth of Engagement: I think that the amount of time and the depth of exposure to a potentially mind-changing point of view almost certainly influences its success. I imagine that a particularly traumatic experience may form lasting change, but outside of those unfortunate situations, regular, repeated exposure to an attitude, and more than a superficial understanding of that attitude is likely to be necessary for lasting change.
Willingness to Engage: This is really hard. I think it will forever be hard to change a mind that does not want to be changed. Or, put a different way, a completely closed mind is a static mind and a static mind, by definition, cannot be changed. I’m not much for absolutes, and that goes here as well, but “cannot be changed” and “exceedingly difficult to change” are nearly synonymous at this stage of our understanding of this topic.
Rewards for Engagement: Note that I say rewards for engagement here, not for actually changing of one’s mind which, if it happens, is probably it’s own reward in a way. (A more accurate/congruent sense of one’s beliefs, for instance, could be considered the reward.) I think that when looking at strategies for long-term changing of attitudes, rewarding the effort is likely to be at least somewhat important. I’m not sure exactly how this may play out, but instinctually, this feels like it has a place in the discussion.
I note that all three of the initial thoughts I mention above center around engagement with a new attitude. This is encouraging in a way because it means that there is some cohesiveness to my thoughts at this point. It is, however, discouraging because it’s the willingness to engage that I think is most lacking in our US society at present. I think I shall spend some time thinking about ways to prompt that engagement (and incorporating rewards for it, as mentioned above). A post is sure to follow.
I have a basic philosophy that comes up in conversation quite a bit. I find it very useful to understand how rights in a civil society could be balanced using a simple refrain. It goes like this:
My rights end where yours begin.
This statement, if applied universally to all, leads to much clearer boundaries between people in society. I like to imagine the sphere of rights afforded each of us as small bubbles, pressed together like an n-dimensional foam. We all butt up against others, and others us, but none of us intrudes upon one another.
So, while I have the right to believe that a golden monkey rules existence, I don’t have the right to force your belief (or appearance of belief) in the same.
I sometimes extend this further.
You have the right to believe in murder as a fun thing to do. You even have the right to commit murder, I suppose. But others have a right not be be murdered. Since exercising your desired right to murder would infringe other’s right not to be murdered, you aren’t allowed to kill people. You are allowed to believe it’s OK to do so, but you don’t get to actually do it. (This does lend a different moral perspective to the occasional, and usually sensational stories of willing victims of murder.)
So then things get complicated.
Which right is to be protected more, the right to murder or the right to live? The right to believe in a deity or the right to live without such encumbrances? The right to a basic, living wage or the right to vast sums of wealth?
It seems there is no answer to this without a sense of just what we consider basic human rights, enumerations of which have been plentiful over existence, but meaningful application in society always seems to fall short.
But if we can come to consensus on what protected rights should be, I think my concept is useful for better understanding the limits of an individual’s rights.
The night of the latest US election was tumultuous for many of us. For me, it meant getting only a small amount of fitful sleep. My mind was racing about what I could do. (Which is telling, I suppose, as at that point I was barely concerned with how things happened, just that they had and that I needed to do something to help.)
Within that mental turmoil, I seized on an image of an inverted capital T – an anti-Trump symbol in my mind. The next morning I spent some time playing around with some designs. It was therapeutic as it kept my hands, eyes and brain engaged in something that, while small, was at least productive.
During that exploration I checked – as I try always to do – on alternate meanings of the inverted T. It never does to introduce a symbol to mean one thing only to find that it means something vulgar, silly, or even opposite in intent in another culture, language, etc. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that ⊥ is also used to convey “contradiction” or “unconditionally false” in mathematics. (And, also, “perpendicular to” in geometry.) So I found I had a symbol that directly referenced an inverse of Trump’s policies that already had very similar connotations in existing usage.
That feels powerful to me.
I released some graphics, made some jewelry, ordered some buttons and bumper stickers, and officially released the design to the public.
It turns out this is my most popular jewelry design to date and the buttons and stickers are proving popular too. To be clear, I’m not trying to capitalize on the events in our country (though that would seem to be the most modernly American thing to do) and so I’ve priced everything well below what I would for purely aesthetic designs. My costs are covered and just enough extra is added to let me expand the line, but I’m not making bank on this.
If it means something to you, please use and share.
You can access high-resolution and vector images here: http://www.waaronw.com/resist
By the way, the “Up Tack” character (⊥) is U+22A5 and the similar “Perpendicular” character (⟂) is U+27C2.
I’ve dabbled with Noam Chomsky’s longer form writings for years, but found I rarely got very far into any given work. There are the one-off essays that can be found online and a couple of pretty well-done video compilations of talks (available on Netflix, even) that I have enjoyed. I’ve been meaning to read more for a long time, but I think I made little progress because his work does not make one proud to be an American. (Or, at least, it doesn’t make *me* proud and, I would hope, it wouldn’t make many others proud of our past actions either.) It’s depressing to truly realize one is part of a hypocritical terrorist state.
I’m nearly finished with Hopes and Prospects, and I did finish most of Manufacturing Consent, and I am pretty blown away by just how prescient these texts are considering they are mostly history books. Facing a Trumpian near-term future, I think the facts elucidated here are all the more important to be very familiar with. The patterns have not changed much, but the intensity has ebbed and flowed – and not always they way one might expect under particular administrations.
I’m trying to stay strong in the face of seemingly overwhelming condemnation for what I have always thought were core American beliefs, but I won’t lie and say I’m finding it easy. I’m hopeful that if I can make it through until April, Chomsky’s upcoming book Optimism over Despair (based on interviews) will have some tidbits that will help.
For a long time now, I have missed having my own space to post content that I have been itching to write, projects I want to create, and questions I want to explore. This site is an effort to collect my work in one place where I can control it and ensure that it’s available in the future. (I also prefer not to let my work provide advertising revenue to unaccountable companies – there will be more on that subject for sure!)
Over the coming months, I’ll be using this space to document some of the projects I’m working on and, generally, use it to noodle at the topics I’m passionate about. Not everything here will be polished, or even finished, but it will be real and it will be, occasionally I hope, important.