Saturday, March 26, 2016

Safe Spacer Summary

Because my posts tend to be rather long (and hard to follow), here's a quick summary of how I analyze the safe-spacer free-speech-blocker movement.

The safe spacer movement is well interpreted by religious dynamics. I tend to think what we're currently seeing in post-secondary campuses is simply the final stages of religious self-organization.

A long trend toward increased societal diversity enabled a phase change in norms.  Things recently became unfrozen.  Once "anything goes" morality was legitimized, real questions about what can be and can't be accepted have emerged.  For the masses, morality has switched from its normal high implicitness to discussable (& questionable) explicitness.

Natural tendencies to religious-like dynamics ensure sacredization occurs (i.e. certain things become sacrosanct).  With multiple versions of morality out on the open, complexity theory ensures self-organization occurs (both mimetically, culturally, and in terms of groups).  Thus groups start rallying around various moral nexuses.  Standard religious dynamics (see Atran, In God's we Trust) illustrate likely group-behaviour patterns.  Multi-level selection theory provides information about group competition dynamics.

The net result resembles a great religious awakening cycle.  However, supernaturalism is absent. The strong embodiment of moral big brothers seems to not matter much in our reasonably scientific literate & rule of law trusting society.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Swarm Politics' Long Game

Scott Adams has a interesting post up this week.  Rather than his usual discussion about large-group persuasion, he proposes that social media (in this political season) has become the new source of US political power.

This is a rather interesting idea.  I mention it here because of its link to large group dynamics and cultural evolution.

Here's a long quote from his post:

The founders of the United States designed a system in which voters elected smart people and those smart people ran the country. They called it a republic. 
Over time, money corrupted the system. Rich people became the real power. The rich controlled the media, and that was enough to control the minds of voters. Let’s call that system a type of “economic fascism.” By that I mean the real power is the top 1% (as opposed to one dictator) and the rest of the country has no real power. 
Society has improved a great deal under economic fascism. Slavery ended, women gained equal rights, and gays are getting married. We also have lots of social nets and whatnot. But that stuff only happens because the top 1% is okay with it. As long as the rich get richer, the people at the top are fine with any other change. The rich don’t want the poor to riot, so some policies have to favor the masses. Drug cartels operate the same way. They provide social services to put the locals on their side. 
In 2016, our form of government took a new turn. Thanks to social media, the most persuasive ideas can always find an audience. The top 1% are no longer the gate keepers of truth with their control of the media. Now any good persuader can rise to the top of the influence pile. All he or she needs is a smartphone.

So Adam's proposed (cultural) evolution of political power is:

power via intelligence [& perhaps (of) positional manipulation]  --> power via intelligence of economic manipulation --> power via intelligence of social manipulation

Academics will certainly fuss about his broad generalizations.  However, it doesn't pay to lose the forest for the trees.  The interesting point (for large group dynamics) is the thesis that replacement of economic-strings with social-populism-strings is underway and that the Trump phenomenon may have instigated a rapid phase change in this regard.

From this social-manipulation lens, mob mentalities are the new norm.  Swarm effects have overshadowed the leverageable effects of money-politics. Money's lap-dog, mass media, is seeing its power to sway overcome by social media.  Social media swarm factors have negligible intersectionality with back-room money power structures (for the moment at least...structures have a way of winning long wars....).

While its not quite right to say popularism is the new de facto currency of political power, it seems correct to say, that since we're now in the midst of the long-foreseen identity wars, the ability of groups to convert, mobilize and compete against other groups* is more important than it has been for a long time.  Additionally, these identity groups are competing in an environment that seems to have fairly strong group selection pressure (MLS1 type).  The dynamics probably have a lot of parallels with new religious movement dynamics.

Social media has very strong local effects.  Society's general moral destabilization means that localized environmental effects can have significant global effects.  Our socio-moral system is in an unstable equilibrium. Localized phase changes may have minor global penetration, but their cumulative effects (via primary, secondary, or tertiary effects) are anything but environmentally negligible.

On the quasi-religious end of things, social media mobs and their swarming propensities are highly actualized by sacred value formation & breach.  Thus, as swarming's power becomes more noticeable, it should be leveraged more and more.  Sacralized hypersensitivity is to be expected.  As history shows, outrage is a virtue in inter-group conflict (at least up to the point where it engenders real existential destruction).

In fact, this seems to be what we're seeing.  Well intentioned identity-based groups are becoming more and more hyper-sensitized (think over-reaching micro-aggressions).  The sacred important ascribed to things that the uncatechized would see as fairly innocuous attests to this.  Moral outrage & the ability to swarm confer real group benefits upon individuals.

A multi-level-selection analysis of Adam's swarm based political power suggests loose confederacies will form and dissolve while fitness advantages between various groups and various group orientations are indeterminate.  To me, this is Adams point.

I suspect he sees weaponized complexity leadership expressed in the social media domain and actualized via quasi-religious dynamics as a steady state solution.  I don't.  I see it as a temporary state which enables in-group and out-group oriented components of a meta-group to get back together and eject free-loading power usurping radicals.  In this regard, I take Sigmund's Tides of Tolerance model to heart: a small preference for tolerance (out-group orientation) grows until there's a loss of connection with the reasons for tolerance. At that point, there's a temporary phase change to intolerance while the system resets itself.

Thus tolerance for its own sake reaches a crisis point: its ubiquity engenders massive meta-analyses.  This often takes the form of a "great religious awakening".  When morality emerges from its implicit shadows, multiple moral expressions compete.  Pretty soon everyone is offensive to someone. Intolerance keels over from its top-heaviness.  New norms are established.

Of course, the real question is whether perpetual swarms are stable (like Adams proposes).  I don't think there's a definitive answer for that.  Political theorists during the French revolution era considered popular democracy unstable.  History has proved this naive (at least under the right GDP conditions). So what's an appropriate time frame for stability judgments? 1 year? 10 years?

Based upon the historical pattern of moral instability lengths during religious awakening cycles and other periods of moral instabilities, swarms seem stable on the order of a few years, but not on the order of a few decades.  But, just because this has hitherto been the case, doesn't imply it will always be the case.  So, can a swarm pattern be stable on a decade order?

Multi-level selection theory is mute on this topic.  The best it can do is suggest (via historical deduction) that:

  1. Adaptive groups operating in a stable state are likely to have no clear fitness advantage over each other.  The tools used by competing groups offer no significant fitness advantage.  The analogy is nation state vs. nation state, chiefdom vs. chiefdom, etc.  Niche specializations are of course possible, but advantages are localized. Religion is another example: no single religion has a clear advantage over another.  Some may certainly be doing better than another, but few major players are disintegrating on the decade time scale under discussion.
  2. Adaptive groups may nest within a semi-cohesive meta-structure.  This structure provides moments of synergy, but has no clear fitness advantage over smaller group orientations. Culture and weakly functioning nation states may be examples of this.  Religions and tribes provide many rule-of-law like benefits & protections.
  3. Adaptive groups may nest within a dominant meta-structure or higher level group.  The higher level group provides clear fitness advantage over an exclusive small group orientation.  Functioning nation states may be examples of this.  Rule-of-law orientation is more beneficial/productive than tribal or religious orientations.
From this analysis, 3 (nesting under a large-group) suggests swarms and power to control swarms will eventually become dominated by a successful group or by an emergent nexus group.  Swarms are not stable, or swarms are indistinguishable from current political parties (although under the new swarm influence we may see an eventual move to a multi-party system)

2 (nesting under a weak supra-structure) certainly seems possible.  A combination of 2 and 3 seems to be what the 1730's great religious awakening produced (nascent but weakly functioning nation state).  3 seems to be what the 1820's great religious awakening produced (a strong nation state that effectively competed against state rights).  2 is the solution I tend to see as most likely.

1 (competing small-groups) is what Adams seems to favour.  I'd suggest it is unlikely to stay tenable over many years because:
  1. Repetitive sacrilege loses its synergistic value.  For example, gay marriage used to rile up righteous indignation in some people.  Now it seems pretty mundane.  Similarly racism's over-play seems to be softening its sacrilegial value. Now that most everything is racist to someone, its losing its meaning & significance.  Familiarity is the foe of a swarm's energizers.
  2. Maintaining swarm synergy in the context of diminishing sacrilegial energy requires size expansion.  Basic complexity theory suggests you need to add energy to a system by either creating new connections of by absorbing free environmental resources.  Thus groups either need to 2a) combine, 2b) swallow each other, or 2c) convert unaffiliated (or weakly affiliated) agents. 
While we're certain to see groups combine and dissolve (2a & 2b) I suspect, over time, these players foci (combining & domination) will be localized rather than globalized.  Global actions are likely to be costly commitment displays: useful for beefing up in-group commitment, group status, and keeping new recruit levels sustainable.

2c (proselitsim) is the most interesting option.  The history of 2nd & 3rd century Christianity is illuminating here.  Costly christian commitment displays, like helping plague victims, and martyrdom, seeded sect growth remarkably well.  However, I doubt a twitter triage or a publicized career suicide has enough commitment cost to function at the evangelical level needed....  However, I could be wrong.

This presents a conundrum for swarms.  They must have a ripe target (i.e. cis-gendered white males), but can't risk alienating too many people or else their source of synergistic energy will shrink (unaffiliated actors).  However, I've already mentioned that once everyone is someone's target, sacrilege loses its power due to pluralistic dilution.  It's impossible to limit a big trump card to just a few people's hands.  Scott Adams, however, alludes to the idea that truly great persuaders may always be able to stay one step ahead of the curve: continually finding new sources of unique outrage.  

Call me skeptical, but I think real outrage and groundswelling sacrilege need time to fester. Pop the outrage blister too much and its reservoir run dry.  Big moral reboots and total-value questionings need unique environmental superpositionings to reach critical social mass.

Thus, I think swarm power is likely to have a good run for a few years.  After that though, I can't see it having much staying power.  Power brokers will certainly try to harness it as much as they can.  Every so often it will catch. But, over time, ground-level swarm power will be surpassed by structure.  Successful structure will likely be a combination of old and new power (back-room machines & social media swarms).  

However, to me, swarm structure is unlikely to be much different from current religion.  Certainly it will be secularized and non-supernatural.  But, as readers already know, I don't think supernaturalism is great boundary for religious dynamics.  What this means is that politics is likely to merge with secular quasi-religion and we'll be doomed to have to relearn the lessons that gave rise to the separation of church and state.

* Of course I'm referring to groups within our society

Saturday, March 19, 2016

How "Hitlers" Facilitate Pluralism

In Beyond Toleration: The Rise of American Pluralism, Beneke sheds light on the socio-environmental conditions preceding the American religious pluralism phase change. One point,very relevant, today was the major increase in the severity and frequency of counter-cult* rhetoric (both its severity, frequency, acceptability & ubiquitousness).  Preachers waged war against the pernicious influence false doctrine might have if allowed to stand within their community.  Any belief outside their narrow denominational corridor was damnable.

In the terms of group dynamics, leaders simply exaggerated between-group differences. This increased defection costs.  It also produced some sacred value feedback, elevating certain beliefs, such as in-group purity, above others. Intentional hypersensitivity ensued (as manifest by heresy priming).  Hard-bordered group would compete with hard-bordered group.

In the American case, denominational fluidity & heterogenous communities challenged the success of a hard-border strategy.  (Perhaps to compensate) Leaders ramped up their rhetoric to vitriolic levels. Attacks reached such hyperbole people started experiencing some significant cognitive dissonance: could their old neighbour actually be as bad as their preacher suggested?  Interaction showed the answer to be no.  Furthermore, ideological diversity wasn't as problematic as elites suggested.  Hyperbole was, well, hyperbolic.  Leaders over-played their hands. Religious pluralism emerged, enshrined by the rule-of-law's separation of church and state.

Donald Trump has brought this same issue to a head.  The illiberal SJW/free-speech denier/hypocritical-safe-spacer (or whatever this intersectionality is best called) are, with the addition of progressive oriented media & the RNC replicating the dynamics that gave rise to American Religious pluralism.

Groups are going over the top with hyperbole about how Donald Trump is the next Hitler. Justifications mirror those used by preachers of old. Anyone who sides with any aspect of the enemy is supporting fascism, racism, or any of today's sacred sins.  Indeed many of society's guardians suggest "we're letting the devil in".  Even the language employed in this in-group norming is the same! But the group-hardening isn't working. Consensus isn't possible.  Ideology is "multi-denominational".  Even progressivism's universal sins (racism, homophobia, etc.) aren't universal if people are allowed to question their religious-like application with other canards like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, political voice, etc.

Unfortunately many people utterly fail to see the parallel with religious pluralism. While I could speculate on the reasons for this, the dynamics seem to be unfolding in a way that is eerily similar to the 18th & 19th century great awakenings.  Once social dogmas are questioned, naive universalism is not possible.  Right now we're at the point where social progressivism / identity politics is quickly losing its naive universalism.

One flash point for this realization was the #AnythingButTrump movement.  The Chicago version of this movement challenged the very right of people to enter into political dialogue (or hold & speak in a rally). This wasn't akin to your preacher telling you not to talk to you Baptist friend.  It was akin to you preacher telling people to prevent the Baptists from even assembling (which of course happened lots just prior to the flip to 18th century pluralism).  Unfortunately what's good for the goose is good for the gander.  In the 1730's everyone was in danger of losing their assembly options.  Today, people have a very real, albeit exaggerated, sense that the norms of free assembly and speech within those assemblies are under threat.

In the States, people (on both sides of the political middle) are genuinely worried about potential losses in freedom. Because of this, illiberalism is doomed. The goons ramping up violence to shut speech down have over-played the righteousness of their cause.  People can be good people and still have different ideas. Most people are, after all, able to interact with their ideological opposite with little to no problem (despite what your elite demagogue may say).  Because of this, pluralism will emerge: ideological pluralism.

Well, let's hope so.


The title of the post is a obsequious jab at how Hitler functions as a de facto Devil today.  Hence the Trump = Hitler meme is just too hard not to make fun of.  The fact many an otherwise rational academic buys into this just goes to show you the depth to which religious like thinking is hard-wired into us.

*Here I'm using cult in its technical sense: a religious splinter group.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Great Religious Awakening

In the 90's the rise of the religious right, rapid growth of Evangelical Christianity and the growth of costly commitment religions (& decay of low cost religion) had some people speculating about another great religious awakening.  However, the glass ceiling of criticality was never broken.  While change occurred, phase change did not.  The US did not unite behind a new religious form nor ideal.

The slow but steady growth of (some) academics' quasi-religious labelling of the (evangelical-like) social justice movement has me wondering though... have scholars missed this century's religious awakening?

In this post, I'll quickly explore whether outdated reliance on supernaturalism-as-religion has led people down the wrong path for the religious phase change markers associated with great religious awakening cycles. 

Defining Religion

Academically, supernaturalism is a convenient tether against slippery slope definitions of religion. Without some hard lines you face social science's "open borders" conundrum: eventually anything goes. In this case, anything with interesting social dimension becomes a "religion" to someone.  I disavow this notion. Individual approaches to the social science of religion are blind to phase change dynamics. 

Multi-factor approaches are one way of framing religious definitions. (Probablistic) Checklist approaches seem more valid than necessary condition definitions (think 5/7 factors vs. these 3 properties).  However, without rigorous (and nigh impossible) quantitative modelling, multi-factor definitions tend to fall into an "appeal to authority trap": categorization evolves into a highly opinionated game based upon who (or what) is in the in-group. 

Other approaches leverage a process philosophy (i.e.. functionalist) approach: religion is best framed in terms of religiosity, its purposes/functions and internal personal significance. A bastardized version of this lens would have one looking for things like:
  • (the function of) costly commitment display acts
  • (functional) responses to sacred value breaches
  • influence & role of moral big brothers (on the individual)
  • felt value of ritual & ritually facilitated bonding
  • the degree to which the group influences the individual (explicitly & tacitly)
  • identity fusion & functional role of identity fusion
  • the purpose of the movement participation for the individual

Exploring the (potential) Recent Great Religious Awakening

From this angle, general trends toward the progressive secular state, while unremarkable by themselves, take on a different light when framed by the quasi-religious spin offs the progressive-secularlist landscape has enabled.

Now, I'm certainly not saying we've had a phase change to a progressive based quasi-religion. I'm simply saying that things like progressivism have evolved a level of morality that facilitates an ever increasing number of people to treat what it facilitates religiously (mainly via value sacralization & identity fusion).  The phase change is that questions of morality emerge explicitly & ubiquitously.

The river of history would therefor be something like:
  • Religious right over reach facilitated social progressivism.  
  • Social progressive over reach is facilitating political popularism.  
  • Power dynamics become real concerns & morality emerges from its implicit lair.
  • Political popularist over reach facilitates a stronger and less corrupt rule of law.  This also facilitates greater faith & reliance on the rule of law. 
This final shift is what heterodoxes like me hope for: The great religious awakening of progressive morality (and all the quasi-religious experimentation and conflict that goes with it) breaks down social cohesion and social structures.  This loss reaches a point where it has real cost (for example post-secondary's can't have real academic discussions on many topics, or immigration pro's & con's can't be discussed).  The hoped for result (which follows the pattern of a variety of religious awakenings) is that people settle on a set of norms that facilitate interaction & communication.  This relegates (through popular de-ligitimization) special interest concerns into non-universalizing ideological/religous safe spaces. Specialized sacrileges get worn out.

See Beneke's Beyond Toleration for the full cycle as situated in the 1730's great awakening.


Thus, this century's (possible) religious awakening is about multiple moral based approaches to progressive secularism appropriating quasi-religious like dynamics.  The phase change is people's ubiquitous involvement in social re-norming.  Every permutation is explored (Trump, Black Lives Matter, Oregon Standoff, Safe Space, etc).  Every permutation is challenged. Everyone movement competes for sustenance. But the real dynamic is that because multiple moralities are sacralized everyone becomes a sinner to one group or another.

Moral questions become explicit. Moral confrontations inevitable. Adaptive groups form. Societal dissolution becomes a possibility. Rule of law provides a pressure valve for the obviousness of irreconcilable sacred values & their associated blasphemies.