In this essay I criticize part of Pinker’s model of societal change. I leave my criticism implicit, since making it explicit – if it is correct – would be potentially (very) problematic.
We have also talked about Pinker’s model of societal change:
“Norm cascade” Argument of societal change
- The elites favor the position for which there are rational arguments.
- The position with rational arguments for it is position Y.
- Therefore, the elites favor position Y.
- If there are is an intense controversy between two opposed sides to a socially fractious issue (drug legalization, abortion, capital punishment, same-sex marriage), what the elite favors becomes legal norm.
- There are is an intense controversy between two opposed sides to a socially fractious issue X
- Therefore, position Y will become legal norm [3,4,5]
- If nothing terrible happens, then, people and press get bored.
- Nothing terrible happens.
- Therefore, people and press get bored [7,8]
- If people and press get bored, then politicians realize issue is no longer a vote-getter
- Therefore, politicians realize issue is no longer a vote-getter. [9, 10]
- If politicians realize issue is no longer a vote-getter, then politicians will not reopen the issue.
- Therefore, politicians will not reopen the issue. [11, 12]
- If politicians don’t reopen the issue, no one will.
- Therefore, the issue is not reopened. [13, 14]
Argument for “People accept the status quo as correct.”
- People accept the status quo as correct.
- Y is the status quo.
- Therefore, people accept Y as correct.
Argument for “Extremists cement the majority consensus.”
- “Norm cascade” Argument of societal political change
- Argument for “People accept the status quo as correct.”
- If a group goes against majority consensus and isn’t composed of elites, it will be seen as extremist/radical,
- Any group proclaiming ~Y, goes against the majority consensus
- Therefore, any group proclaiming ~Y will be seen as extremist/radical.
- The majority cements its consensus by opposition to extremist group positions.
- Therefore, the group proclaiming ~Y being seen as extremist/radical will further cement the majority consensus
I’m afraid of this model being mostly (instead of entirely) correct. It is not obvious to me that the elites favor positions for which there are rational arguments and cause it to become the legal norm.
I just think that that is what Pinker would rationalize himself into, being smart, and the status quo argument being correct. It is just too clean – if the argument obtains, we do, in some sense, live in the best of all possible worlds.
I fear it is much more complicated than that.
What I do see is pressure groups, societies for the advancement of, “rights” movements, pride days, manifestos, for freedom groups, lobbying, academic “fields”, and censorship. I don’t see any reason to believe that membership in this groups is explained by rational argument consideration and debate but rather it seems to be a contingent aspect of pre-existing membership.
I also find it a bit too convenient and unrealistic to suspect that all of these groups have had, in the past, their positions rationally assessed by a group of the elites which then enforce whatever is rational.
I do see some groups winning over others and see it reflected in the general populace pretty fast – things that were ok, normal, cool, not a “thing” become uncool and met with a learned moral disgust response.
And I see word wars to promote beliefs that matter to some actors. (This is not a syndrome of our time, though. In the Republic Plato proposed a Noble Lie that would keep the stratification of his idealized society: god had made the souls of rules with gold, those of helpers with silver, and farmers and craftsmen had iron and brass in their souls. This is why rulers were born to rule, helpers to help and craftsmen to craft; and a desire to change classes would not even be a possible idea.)
It seems to me that what is in fact happen is that some groups unite under the idea that “X is right/correct/moral” (or the converse) because they are part of X or benefit from that in some for. They then overpower groups that don’t and spread their belief through society. If it is the fact that these groups believe this due to membership and not rational argument, then you would expect your various society-given beliefs to be corrupted. (Descartes realized some form of this around 1650. One can only expect that the corruptors have gotten better since then. For a recent example – hopefully harmless to my audience – see the Different Media portrayals of the 2014 events in Ukraine and realize that, in the best case scenario, you got the right picture in one of three possible worlds.)
- astroturfing, crowd manipulation, disinformation, frame building and frame setting, infoganda, media bias, media manipulation, misinformation, perception management, political warfare, psychological manipulation, psychological warfare, mudsliding, sanctioned name-calling