Re: What forces have shaped humanity most?

Virginia Postrel: Well I think that there is a drive in human beings, and perhaps in some of our ancestors . . . ape ancestors as well . . . There’s something that happens to human beings where there is a kind of dissatisfaction. Where it can be as simple as a tool that doesn’t work very well, and you modify it so it works better. There is sort of a drive to make incremental improvements. And it could be, you know, you really hate the way your parents behaved towards you. So when you have kids you’re gonna do it a different way. And maybe it’s better and maybe it’s worse. And your kids then do it a different way. And it can be as simple as modifying recipes. It can be as big as, you know, writing the U.S. Constitution and sort of creating a new country. And there’s a learning process that takes place with that. And a lot of that learning – and this is one of the message in “The Future and Its Enemies” is very incremental. It’s a lot of modest changes and experiments that add up over time to major progress. And you don’t necessarily know where you’re headed. There’s a writer named Henry Patrosky who’s a civil engineering professor at Duke. And he writes about the evolution of technical things . . . of objects and artifacts. And he has this great phrase: “Form follows failure” which is of course a play on “Form follows function.” And his idea is when you have an artifact, as soon as it exists, you find the things that you don’t like about it. And the existence of the initial artifact allows you to innovate and say, “Oh well, this is how we’d like to improve it.” And I think that’s a process that goes far beyond artifacts. It is how we get technological improvements, but it is not the only way. So that’s . . . That doesn’t account for everything of how we’ve done all this, but that’s a lot of it. I think there is a power of individuals when they interact a lot together. There’s an idea that I sort of took from Daniel Boorstin – as you can see I am a big synthesizer . . . everything has a footnote for somebody else – called . . ., which is the idea of different things coming together. So it could be ethnic groups trading. Different geographical regions coming together. This notion that’s where a lot of creativity takes place. And I think that a lot of the creative power of cities over the centuries has come from that sort of being a place where people of some kind of difference interact in a positive . . . usually more in a positive way. Trade is a lot of that. Various forms of learning is a lot of that. Even things like missionary efforts can take place there, and that you know . . . There’s positives and negatives, but that’s ultimately where you come from. This sort of exchange is where a lot of the sort of progress, and growth, and development of civilizations come from. And then there are things that you just go, “How could that happen?” It’s so amazing. There are bad things that happen to you, but even on the positive side, how is it . . . I’ve been reading a lot about Renaissance . . . How did that happen? What is the historian’s puzzle of this? How do you have this flourishing of art in certain places or of science in certain places? What was it about Vienna in the early 20th century, or Budapest that allowed these great minds to prosper . . .each other in such interesting ways? Or London or Edinburgh in the 18th century. What happened there? What was going on with the founding fathers? They seem like a remarkable group of people. That had something to do with interaction. The parts are great, but the whole is even somehow greater than the sum of the parts. And these are, I think in some sense, historical mysteries, but really worthy of thinking about and studying. Because they go beyond the simple incrementalism of saying there could be progress even if it is very modest efforts of making better toothpaste or whatever.

Recorded on: 7/4/07

 

The drive to improve has shaped humanity.

Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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