Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Do: protect yourself from values drift.

You're a human being, which means you're adrift in a wash of information, trying to discern the truth and make good decisions in an incredibly complex world using -- essentially -- a sack of gelatinous meat.  Like every other human being, you find it impossible to devote your full mental energy to confronting every dilemma that comes your way, so you use a lot of shortcuts.

For example, let's say you're on the beach, thinking about going swimming. Should you be afraid of sharks?  Well, that's an incredibly hard question, so most people default to the availability heuristic, asking themselves, "How many shark attacks come to mind?"  If it's a lot, then sharks must be very dangerous and common, so you should be afraid of them.  If it's very few, then sharks must not be very dangerous or very common, so you can go swimming.

Shortcuts like that make a lot of sense, since they save you a lot of time and energy and are usually pretty good about getting the right answer.  I cannot think of many available examples of people being bitten by sharks, and no one I know has ever been bitten, and so I probably don't need to worry.  Absent other information (like a sign saying BEWARE, SHARK-INFESTED WATERS), I'm probably right.

Sometimes these shortcuts go badly wrong, however.  Take our tendency towards tribalism.  Our judgment can be easily influenced, even by strangers.  It's even worse when it's people with whom we easily identify -- our "tribe."  This might be a regional tribe, ethnic tribe, political tribe, class tribe, or even something as frivolous as a sports fan tribe.  We associate ourselves with our tribes.  If they are successful, we feel a little successful.  If they are evil, we feel a little evil.

Once upon a time, this might have made a lot of sense.  In a primitive world, where small groups competed for resources and warred on each other, group cohesion must have been vitally important.  The groups with genes that favored hard-wired tribalism in our brains must have had an edge over those that did not -- a tribal group would more easily forgive their leaders, support their allies, and work together.  It's always dangerous for a layman to speculate about evolutionary biology, so we won't further into the roots of tribalism, but suffice to say that it exists and it probably helped us in the ancestral environment.

Today, it causes a lot of problems.  Today, it causes a lot of values drift.

Let's say that you love football.  You used to watch the games with your whole family, and you all rooted for the same team, and you'd get a pizza and all put on your jerseys, and your uncle would shout at the television whenever he disagreed with the coach's decisions.  Your email address might be packers4evah or giantsnation.  You're into it.  You could pretty easily answer a lot of hypothetical questions about the ethics of the game.  If I asked you whether it would be ethical for a football team to release a skunk into their opponents' locker room, you could give me an opinion.  If I asked if it was okay for a team to salt the field of an opposing team, to make it harder for them to practice, you could tell me your general stance.  You can do it.

But here's the thing: your answer might change... depending on your favorite team's actions.  And that's a problem.  If your team -- your tribe -- was caught releasing a skunk into an opposing locker room, you might call it a harmless prank.  But if your team was the victim of that prank... well, you might call it a chemical attack.

It's not always decisive and seldom overt.  Tribalism is insidious: it corrupts our independent judgment and we may never even know.

In politics, it can be terrible.  It's very hard to look at your own tribe and say, "No, what you're doing - what we're doing -- is wrong."  And so we get values drift.  If someone on our side does something wrong -- something we may even have said explicitly was wrong in the past -- we find an excuse.  We say that they didn't have any choice, that they didn't mean to do it, that it's not such a big deal after all, that the context is different, that it's all a frame-up.

You see, if your tribe does something evil, you feel a little evil.  And that sucks.

Tribalism and the resulting values drift explains a great deal of current politics.

The Republicans once considered themselves the party of family values and honesty, running George W. Bush to "restore honor and dignity to the White House."  Now they support President Donald J. Trump, a man who has admitted to sexual assault and who is willing to lie about anything and everything.  But either character is central to the job, or it's not.  It shouldn't matter if it helps your tribe.

Many Democrats have drastically flipped back and forth in their opinion of Senator John McCain's courage -- a hero when he stood up to Bush, a villain when he picked Palin as a running mate, a hero when he joined Sens. Murkowski and Collins to save Obamacare.  But either he's a good man, or he isn't.  It shouldn't matter if it helps your tribe.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has spent literally hours defending a far-reaching investigation of a Democratic president by Ken Starr, only to turn around and call the expanding investigation of a Republican president by Robert Mueller a "witch hunt."  But either special counsels should seek out all potential wrongdoing, or they shouldn't.  It shouldn't matter if it helps your tribe.

Most people never even realize their values are drifting.  And that makes it even harder to fix it, later.  If you hear that someone is doing evil, justify it to yourself, and continue to support them... well, changing your mind means not only defying your tribe, but also facing up to your own complicity.  You feel stupid and a little evil.  And that sucks.

So here is my advice to you: protect yourself from values drift in politics.  Write down some rules for yourself.  And if you have the courage, make them public.

If you think you're immune to the dangers of tribalism and values drift... well, think about the Patriots and their deflated footballs.  Was it really a coincidence that Patriots fans were mostly okay with it, and a lot of other people thought it was an outrage?  I'm not taking sides, but if the fable of the Republicans and Trump doesn't sway you on the danger and neither does Deflategate, then you're not sufficiently pessimistic.

Here are a few of mine.

1.  Violence is wrong.  It is wrong to strike someone, attack them with chemicals, or damage their property because you disagree with their political beliefs.  Even if you passionately despise their politics and their character, or if you think their decisions have hurt the country, it's still wrong.

2.  Using government institutions to adversely affect the ability of any group to vote is wrong.  No part of the government should be used to affect the franchise of any group of voters, no matter their affiliation or beliefs.

3.  Everyone has a right to book publicly-available facilities and hold their events, no matter their views or speech (barring outright violations of the rights of others, such as threats or incitement to violence).  You can protest them or you can boycott those who assist them, but you cannot restrict their right to be heard.  Other people need to be able to hear them.  The marketplace of ideas must be as free as safely possible.

4.  The truthfulness of public officials is important.  Their private conduct and moral character are also important, albeit less so.  These factors may even be more important than their policy positions, in some rare instances, because the long-term damage to the state may be greater than the short-term loss of preferred policy outcomes.

5.  Prosecutorial discretion and its analogs are dangerous tools that can be easily abused.  Valid laws should generally be enforced by those sworn to uphold them.  They should not be nullified by any public servants unless they are immediately and clearly unethical, and that should be a high bar.  Nor should prioritization should not be used as a fig leaf to hide such a process: finite resources must be assigned to priorities, but that should not be used as a form of lawmaking by fiat, either.

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