Thursday, December 21, 2017

Creeds & Creedal Defences: They're Adaptive & They Bi-normalize

A while ago I made some comments about how I was worried about a nascent trend in academia for formal creedal statements concerning the morality of certain positions.  While the original manifesto came from a religious studies department, the whole dynamics had me a bit worried for academia.

My main fears were that it could open the door for litmus tests about peoples' politics and political moralities.  "Where do you sit on the morality of position X?"  Morality tests are not something I generally think many academics should willingly bring into the pursuit of objective truth.  Of course I also don't think science should be "intersectional".  Research needs space to be research. It requires the space and freedom to  be able to look at controversial ideas with minimum deference to how people might use or interpret the results.

Of course once you start telling or suggesting how people should act, or what policies should be followed, moral ethics seem mandatory. From one frame, current tensions in academia reflect the tension of higher education as a pursuit of abstract knowledge versus a pursuit of applied knowledge. While the two intermingle, abstract pursuits are really only suited to a small minority of people. Applied pursuits appeal to a much broader range of people.  The expansion of higher ed into an ever increasing percentage of the population no doubt informs the shift in these tensions.


As most people know, Brett Weinstein of Evergreen college sent out an email where he said that telling people to leave college for a day due to their skin color was an act of racism.  The ultimate intentions of the act (to combat racism) did not justify the racist of the act itself.  One dimensionality is of course a hallmark of modern intersectional theories.  For this defence against classical racism he was branded a racist nazi.  He was racist because he did not accede to the right level of support for students of color.  Thus his act was racist by omission.  It was not racist by commission.  Second, he was a Nazi because his lack of support for people of color was a form of violence. It perpetuated and gave space for rhetorics of violence, which could cause actual violence.  Further, the flash-point this created spawned a backlash involving unsavoury people who created a hostile environment due to who they were and what they were perceived to support.

Luckily Brett had a pretty good memo.  He specifically called to end racism. But he defined racism in the classical sense (against a phenotype) rather than in an intersectional sense (one-way down punching).  Did many of his attackers look at the nuance in his memo?  No.  It didn't support the right side of things and so was wrong by omission.  He omitted the "right" kind of support.

The purposefully pejorative over application of "supremacist" labels,  mean many people are in the same boat, or have the potential to so be.  I think Lindsay Shephard is the latest example.


Over the last few years I've tried to listen to enough "alt-right" youtube feeds to get a sense of their paradigm.  Why?  I'm interested in understanding deep seated, genetic-level social dynamics.  This means coming to grips with the moral flash-points around which the left and right adaptively resonate.  Models are only as good as the data you feed into them.  Part of the picture I get is that at least some "alt-righters" are protesting what they see as white directed racism.  That is, classical racism against whites. "Kill all whites", "whiteness is the problem", "I lick your white tears", "No more old white men", etc;

What I worry about is that various supremacist groups on the left and right are going to see the value in creedal like statements.  For instance, imagine if like Brett Weinstein, you are protesting against white directed racism but are lumped in with a bunch of vile supremacists.  Instead of pleading your case, which seems utterly pointless in highly polarized environments, it is easier to refer people to a well vetted creedal statement that summarizes why you think all racism is bad, but which also indicates that you see your role as protesting against a specific incarnation of classical racism because no one else will.  Or, your creed could sophistically defend why racism, as a one-directional punch-up phenomenon, is valid and actually not phenotypically supremacist.

That sounds pretty reasonable.  It may not make much of a difference on the ground, but it may help a teeny bit with any larger media outlets which haven't fully fallen for click-bait polemics.  You just lump people into good or bad groups and encourage them to get on board with the right verbiage or right groups.  Sounds very religious like doesn't it?


The problem is that this type of orthodox foil can be used to protect against all sorts of hypocritical behaviour.  Hey, you can't call me a racist because I won't hire white people - see this academically accepted statement on intersectionality and the impossibility of punch-up racism. Our intent is to make America Equitable Again!

Note, that it doesn't actually matter whether the individual's intention was actually for equity or whether the intention was unbridled white racism.  Reference to formal creedal statement ends conversation. Sure intrepid investigators can try to tease out whether you're actually following the creed or not.  In fact it provides the investigator an easy way to see theoretical tension points.  But, creedal confessions tend to only require basic understandings and acquiescence to creedal intent. How many Nicenists are really up on homoousia or homousia distinctions vs. how many are up on the creed's overall intent?  I force you, the journalist, to get lost in sophisticated sophistry whose cover frees up my action space.

In practice, what creeds allows is individuals to hide under a cloak of group acceptance. Groups are adaptive for a reason! Never underestimate human propensity for "freeloading" (advantage taking self-interest).  When I publicly acquiesce to a creed I also enable orthodoxic protection, which for those so inclined, can free them up for much greater ranges of motion.  For others though, it provides a unifying goal.  The whole thing is rather bimodal...

In this sense it mirrors what gene-culture models suggest.  Large groups require transparent norms. You can't judge individuals (too much anonymity). You can only judge power acquiescence.  The loosening of norms, compensated by their easier comprehension, enables group size to expand. But is also bifurcates the population. You get a core group of altruists who supply much of the group's day-to-day adaptive fitness.  You also get a large group of freeloaders who pursue self-interest and advantage taking.  Out-group (between-group) competition keeps things in check.  But without existential doom hanging over you, what keeps the freeloaders in check?

Creeds without existential pressure serve as a pandora's box for advantage takers.

But for those of us in academia, the adaptive groups they facilitate might just be the only way we can protect ourselves against Spanish Inquisitions.  What a conundrum!

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