Strategic Knowledge part 2

We are going through a list of facts — chunks of knowledge — that will help people understand that we can make a non-violent revolution to transform our economic and political systems into more socially just systems. We are analyzing these facts to see where they come from, to see how they are related, to see what other information they depend on, so that we may put them in an order that will most easily allow their spread to a large enough chunk of the whole population. We analyzed some in the previous post. Here are swveral more from the remainder of the list.

Thinking requires feelings. Excessive amounts of feelings degrade thinking. We talked about the emotions fear, anger, hatred, disgust, and grief above. Emotions are changes occurring in your body in certain situations. In fear your heart beats faster, your blood is circulated to your muscles, your muscles tense, cortisol and adrenalin are secreted into your blood stream. This is the emotion — the actual bodily changes. The feeling associated with the emotion is your experience, your awareness, your sensing of these bodily changes. The feelings are inside you. Some of your emotional responses can be seen by other people since tensing of muscles can be seen by others, in particular your facial muscles, since each emotion has a unique pattern of facial muscles tensing and relaxing. (Read “Emotions Revealed” by Paul Ekman.) Your feelings can’t be seen by others. But they can be inferred from your facial and other bodily expressions. Feelings are stored away with all our memories. Some amount of the feelings we experience during some memorable episode are stored away with the other information about that episode such as where it was, when it was, who you were with, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes (if any), the pain (if any). The feelings stored away with a memory are recalled along with the other information when that memory is used in thinking. For example if you are in a restaurant looking at the desert menu and you see pumpkin pie listed and when you were a child you once ate too much pumpkin pie and got sick, you might have very bad feelings regarding pumpkin pie, and thus you decide not to have pumpkin pie for desert. So you used your feelings about pumpkin pie, stored in your memory from long ago, in the process of thinking about what desert you might want, and you decided not to have pumpkin pie. Your feelings helped you decide. Your feelings were necessary for your thinking. When a person has damage to particular areas of their brain that connect feelings and thinking, they cannot make decisions. They can go round and round considering all the possibilities, but they cannot decide, they cannot “make up their minds”. This is especially true for social decisions like whom to marry, whom to trust. (Read “Looking for Spinoza” by Antonio Damasio. One person with such brain damage spent more than a half hour trying to decide which of two possible appointment times was better.)

OK, thinking requires feelings. So what’s the big deal? There are several reasons why this is important to understand. The fundamental reason is that it explains many distortions of thinking, poor thinking, that lead to irrational and inappropriate behaviors. Another reason is that it used to be thought that the best thinking should be totally detached from emotions and feelings. And some people still try to eliminate all feelings from thinking. To actually do that would degrade their thinking. The amount, the intensity, of feelings associated with some thought can be too much or too little. The feelings associated with one thought can spill over and affect another thought. And there are phobias. Some people regularly have fears of some things way out of proportion to the actual danger: fear of spiders, fear of snakes, fear of heights, fear of closed spaces, fear of open spaces, some people are afraid to leave their house or apartment. There are many others. (Read “Feeling Good” by David D. Burns, M.D. The whole book is about the multiple ways people use distorted and unrealistic thinking about themselves and the world.)

We need to understand how good thinking and poor thinking actually work so we can teach ourselves and others how to think better. Then our choices, our decisions, will be better. We will be more effective in our actions, in everything we do. We will be less susceptible to propaganda.

I have said that thinking with fear and anger degrades thinking; yet here I say feelings are essential for thinking well. The degradation of thinking comes because the amount or intensity of the feelings is wrong, or the feelings are associated with the wrong object. Anger toward one person often spills over to nearby people. So thinking with fear or anger really means having too much fear or anger or it’s directed at the wrong object.  

Repetition is very effective. Repetition is how we memorize things  — basic facts like 3 X 8 = 24 or Columbus is the capitol of Ohio. These are facts — chunks of knowledge, chunks of information we use in our lives to make decisions, to do whatever we do. We learn and remember these chunks of information by hearing them spoken or seeing them written over and over during our education in schools as well as everywhere else. We also learn and memorize chunks of information that are less basic, more speculative, incomplete, somewhat useful, misleading or just wrong. Some examples: people are selfish; people are greedy; buy low, sell high; speed kills; follow your gut; look before you leap, etc. There are thousands of facts, factoids, rules of thumb, aphorisms, etc. that we have learned, memorized, through hearing or reading them over and over again. Repetition is the process by which we learn, store, memorize these chunks of information, treat them as knowledge, and use them in thinking and making decisions in our daily lives. Most of the information we accept and use as knowledge we get this way. Only sometimes do we carefully assess the usefulness, the truth, the consistency, of new information we accept and use.  

Propaganda works. Propaganda works by repetition, by excessive generation of fear, anger, hatred, disgust, contempt, by demonizing individuals and groups, by simplistic thinking — thinking in terms of absolutes and binaries such as good and evil and rejecting gradations in between the absolutes. Another form of simplistic thinking propaganda uses is focusing on people rather than issues and policies — the advantages and disadvantages of proposed changes to our systems. The person becomes a symbol for the policy. The character of the person is substituted for the policy. Propagandists then glorify or demonize specific people rather than discuss the proposals the glorified or demonized people make. We can call this thinking in terms of people. It goes along with thinking in terms of excessive fear and anger.

Propaganda is made easier by mass media — which send information from a very limited number of sources to millions of viewers or listeners such as TV and radio. But propaganda can be sent through any media. One possible advantage of the internet as the medium of information spreading is the large number of possible sources should be harder for a small number of people to attempt to control. But on the receiving end, which sources will people listen to? If we group people by their main sources of information will we have millions of groups, or thousands, or hundreds, or three (like we had when there were only 3 TV networks)?

Propaganda also occurs in person-to-person conversations. Just talk to someone who has been propagandized by one of the TV so-called news channels.  The propagandaness (the essence of propaganda) is still there: distorted thinking, simplistic thinking, thinking with excessive fear and anger, thinking in terms of caricatures of people. There is no question that propaganda works. It clearly leads people to support war, promote war, go to war. It easily convinces people to vote against their own interests.

So should the revolution use propaganda? The answer has to be no for several reasons. It’s like violence. Implicit in our goals of social justice is the goal of eliminating or continually reducing violence in our societies and cultures. We also surely want to reduce propaganda as I have characterized it. We want to eliminate distorted thinking, simplistic thinking, thinking with excessive fear and anger, thinking in terms of caricatures of people. We want more and more people to see and understand how our social systems can be improved, to bring them closer to our goals of social justice. It would be absurd to try to teach and spread methods of better thinking by using distorted and simplistic thinking. As with violence, if we try to use propaganda to make a revolution, then we will not be successful, we will have changed very little.

Another reason we must teach, promote, and spread better thinking is to undo the neoliberal propagandistic thinking that has led to the present neoliberal dominance. How do we get our Democracy back? One way might be to teach better thinking — thinking without excessive or mis-directed fear and anger, etc. — so that a large enough number of people have learned to recognize propaganda and therefore reject it. This is not impossible. All it requires is spreading the necessary knowledge to enough people. Part of the revolutionary program, part of the revolutionary strategy, must be to spread the knowledge of how to avoid propagandistic thinking to as many people as possible, and ultimately to almost everybody in the world.

Truth has an advantage. This may seem to be an odd assertion. It used to be thought that all a scholar or scientist had to do was to discover the truth, publish it, and our societies and cultures would accept it and act accordingly, and all would be well. It’s not that simple. Philosophers still argue about what truth is. Truth is or was one of those absolutes that modernists or post-modernists rejected. Absolutes seem to be quasi mathematical concepts. They may not actually apply to everyday human activities. Some have embraced this idea to claim then that truth does not matter. And from that they have concluded that anything goes — lies and tricks are OK in trying to convince people about something — maybe even Milton Friedman’s stupid assertion that the assumptions of an economic theory don’t matter comes from this mindset. Absolute truth may not matter, but relative truth surely does matter. Relative truth is how accurate a theory is or how well it works, or how useful it is in making predictions. Relative truth is how well some rule of thumb, some fact, some factoid, some statement, some rule, some knowledge, some information actually works in the world for people using the information. And we have systematic ways of checking, testing, finding out how well some theory, statement, fact, idea, etc. works. It is called the scientific method. Some theories, statements, facts, ideas work better than others. By the methods of science we find out which are better or worse than others. Truth matters.

The remainder of the list is below. I’ll look at some of these in the next post.

People have a strong sense of, a feeling for, justice, fairness which can be increased or decreased by learning. Most economic talk and theorizing is total bullshit. The superrich run things, or think they do. No one controls anything. At most we can have some influence. Information leaks always. Most people are not stupid. Almost everybody can learn new things at any age. Force and threats are counterproductive. Altruism exists. Altruism can be taught. Generosity is taught. Excessive selfishness is taught. We must take care of ourselves. In everything we do we are helped by others. We learn and create only by building on the knowledge, the work, of others. We are almost never alone. Conflict and competition are not the same. Competition is a form of cooperation. Conflicts exist but they can be limited. Thinking with too much fear, anger, or hatred can lead to wars. Everything evolves. Everything changes only slower or faster. We can influence social change. From the day you are born till you ride in the hearse there is nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse (or better). Depression is dangerous, even deadly and anyone with even a little depression should seek professional help. Mania is dangerous. Authority is dangerous. Ideologies can be, and probably most are, traps. Limiting your thinking is limiting yourself. Fear, anger, hatred, disgust are effective propaganda tools. Complex systems must be changed very carefully one step at a time. Complex systems can sometimes do very unexpected things. There are almost always unintended consequences when a change is made to a complex system. Some knowledge speeds up the evolution, the changes, in a society or culture. Freedom of speech should speed up the evolution of a culture. Freedom of behavior consistent with nonviolence should speed up cultural evolution. Both of these allow for increased spreading of new knowledge. Secrecy limits cultural evolution. There are many chunks of knowledge that if spread to enough people could significantly speed up the changing of our present system to a socially just system. Big changes can occur quickly. Some ideas, some chunks of knowledge, can spread very fast throughout a whole population, especially if the population has been prepared by being supplied with the intermediate knowledge required so that the new or radical idea makes sense. The foundation is already there and when the new idea is heard even once the reaction in the vast majority of people is “Yes!, Yes! That’s exactly right. That is what we must do.”