The certainty trap and the filter bubble

Let’s begin with some obvious truths. Men (particularly white men) are not, in any sense, oppressed or under threat. There is no “white genocide” taking place anywhere in the world – not in South Africa, not in the USA and not anywhere in Europe. Many of the people who voted for Donald Trump and for Brexit are simply old, white racists – all of their other rationales are smoke screens or self-deception. (Many of those voters also do not fit into that category, but that is for a different discussion)

Now for some less obvious, more subjective truths. Progressive (mostly Leftist) movements around the world are behaving a lot like the authoritarian and/or fascist movements they so virulently despise. Freedom of speech has been co-opted by the Alt Right and its Neo-Fascist allies, and this has been embraced (in the negative) by their opponents. Filter bubbles on both sides allow the faithful to suspend rationality and reinforces their feelings of inherent, unchallenged virtue and correctness.

All of the ideas and behaviours above are, in a very real sense, insane. They do not match objective reality. This makes people in the centre, like me, alarmed and puzzled. When did everyone suddenly decide that reality is whatever best suits our ideology?

As an old-school Liberal, I lean strongly towards individual freedom, but I also see common and public good as vital to our survival as a global society and as a species. Left to our own devices we mostly make decisions that are good for us. Given a strong social fabric we mostly make decisions that are good, on average, for everyone.

This applies equally to markets. In many cases markets are just the most efficient and fair way to allocate our scarce resources. But there are many other cases – like education and social safety nets – where markets are not the best system. And markets controlled by special interests of any kind – whether capital or labour or political elites – are fundamentally broken and no longer act as real markets.

All of these values, once pretty humdrum, are now considered blasphemy by both the Progressive Left and the Alt Right. The neo-fascists seek to forcibly curtail the liberty of both citizens and immigrants based simply on religion or ethnicity. The social justice warriors seek to silence and ostracise anyone who expresses opinions contrary to doctrine.

I’m not drawing a 1:1 equivalency between white supremacists and progressives. I lean left, and history has proved that the right are always wrong about social issues in the long term. On every issue, from women’s rights to civil right to gay rights, the forces of conservatism come out looking like hateful assholes.

What I am saying is that celebrating ideas like “punching Nazis” and “deplatforming” is not making anything better – it is making things worse. When the white people in a debate are asked to leave the audience because their presence is termed “a violence”, we are supplying fuel to the fascists.

I am deeply conflicted about this position. History has shown that appeasing authoritarian movements – whether on the left or the right – only emboldens them. Nazi Germany is the obvious example, but modern Venezuela is another. Yes, Chavez did not systematically murder millions of people or start a world war, but this is a difference of degree and not of kind. The millions of Venezuelans currently struggling to eat are proof of that fact. But I cannot bring myself to agree that violence – physical or psychological – will make anything better.

This also applies to the people burning down buildings in South African universities because of a dispute about fees, and to their leaders who think that humiliating a waitress is great fun. And yes, it also applies to the thousands of racists who donated money to said waitress to make a point about the value of whiteness.

I’m aware of the collective eye-rolling and exasperated sighing that will result from another privileged white male using his platform to spout neo-liberal platitudes. There’s some truth in that, but there’s also a lot of untruth. That instinct – to dismiss and pigeonhole me – is the whole problem. If we can dismiss each other based on signifiers alone, and not on the content of our arguments, then we are headed down the same dark path as we took in the 1930s.

We are prone to blaming social media for a lot of our societal ills. The filter bubble is cosy, and it insulates us against views that we find unpalatable. But, really, we are to blame. The platforms we use reflect our own desires back at us – they do not dictate those desires.

Human beings crave certainty as much as we crave food and water. Religion is the ultimate embodiment of that craving, and political ideology is a close second. That certainty is an illusion. The universe is ultimately random. Cause and effect are dependable only for the most narrow and local cases.

Our defence against that randomness is society. It took us the better part of 200,000 years to get to where we are now. Like intelligence, long-term survival is almost entirely contextual. Earth can support 7+ billion humans because we all, in a very direct and real sense, support each other. (If you want a brilliant exposition on the contextual nature of intelligence, read this)

We need each other. If a killer virus were to strike, or a mountain-sized chunk of space rock were to plunge into the ocean, or the caldera under Yellowstone to explode, then the only thing standing between us and extinction would be our collective humanity.

There’s also a lot to be said for just not being a fucking asshole. The fact that social justice warriors are objectively right about the big picture does not give them the right to be self-righteous assholes about the implementation. The fact that you feel hard done by because it’s no longer possible to succeed just because you’re white and male does not give you permission to be a racist, homophobic asshole.

Why don’t we all try two things? First, if we find we’re absolutely certain about something we read or hear or say, we should stop and think about why we are so very certain. Certainty is dangerous, because it allows us to act in ways that contradict the messy reality. Secondly, before we say or do anything, ask ourselves if we’re about to be selfless and kind or selfish and cruel. History always judges the assholes. Don’t be one of them.

Speak!