Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Welcome to George Orwell's 1984. On The Politics Of Doublethink.

George Orwell, 1984:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself--that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious to the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the world "doublethink" involved the use of doublethink.

The bolding of the last sentence is mine, and it is bolded, because doublethink is everywhere in today's political debates.

So it goes, as another writer (Kurt Vonnegut) used to sigh.

Dealing with nonstop doublethink necessitates mental health breaks.  Mine (I need more of them, these days, it seems) consist of lying in the darkened bedroom, with chocolate at hand, watching Nordic noir (1) or similar crime stories from other European countries.  I talk back to the television screen, extremely fluently in Finnish,  fairly fluently in Swedish, less so in German, and barely at all in French and Italian.  But my accent always sounds wonderful.  Bastardo!  Merde!  Kusimulkku perkele!  

Sometimes, when the plots become too predictable,  I watch all the episodes on full fast-forward.  A goddess can have her fill of existential Angst, fantastic ultra-modern architecture, and grey landscapes where dead-eyed people with never-closing inner wounds (and more expensive furniture than they could ever realistically afford) struggle, stumble and fall.  But she might still want to know who is left standing at the end of the series, if anyone.

But I also re-read classics, to recuperate, and that's why this post begins with a big mouthful from George Orwell.

My mental health breaks are a different reaction to the same Weltschmerz:  Why bother reading or engaging with people online (2) when fairly identical  parallel conversations can be had by yelling at the television screen?  At least the television isn't terribly good at gaslighting.  Nowhere near as good as even the most rudimentary Twitter users, at both ideological extremes, not to mention Our Dear Leader on Twitter.


What all this means is that I am saddened by the current state of both domestic and global politics, and that, to varying extent, I am saddened by the rhetorical and debate approaches which have grown in online popularity.

For one example, consider making sweeping over-generalizations about some demographic group.  I was stunned when I realized that the woke-world at the far left end of the political belief distribution avidly employs those favorite tools of the Alt Right, the tools which are so often employed in creating and maintaining racist and sexist beliefs.

I had naively thought that those social justice activists (my tribe!) who make such sweeping over-generalizations would immediately see how they are copying what sexists and racists have always done, how they are judging people on the basis of pure demographic characteristics, just as the opposition has always done, i.e.,  by assigning negative character attributes and group guilt to all individuals within a particular demographic without asking if all individuals within that group actually have those characteristics or are responsible for whatever they are now told to repent.

How I'd love to regain that innocence of my past!  Wiser and wearier, I now accept that making and repeating sweeping and incorrect generalizations is a human strategy, shared by people from all political paths and used to draw clear lines between tribal insiders and tribal outsiders for tribal warfare purposes.  A crucial part of this fence-building is to turn the outsiders into a vast homogeneous blob, defined only by their location: outside the home tribe.

I have been familiar with this strategy when it comes to how sexists and misogynists have traditionally turned the demographic group "women" into an amorphous (and fish-smelling) mass, easily described by a few sexist slogans.

But seeing the same strategy used both by many right-wingers (who make sweeping generalizations about all Muslims being potential Islamic terrorists) and by many progressives (who engage in yet another round of generational warfare ("OK Boomer") (3)) makes me want to start another mental health break.  To escape the inescapable.


That George Orwell quote is also useful when understanding the way our political views and voting patterns can be influenced through social media data collection.  We are being stalked now, my sweet ones, every day and everywhere!  Whether it matters is up to you.

But  I read about the Facebook's "Off-Facebook Activity" with that weary sinking feeling:

Even with Facebook closed on my phone, the social network gets notified when I use the Peet’s Coffee app. It knows when I read the website of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg or view articles from The Atlantic. Facebook knows when I click on my Home Depot shopping cart and when I open the Ring app to answer my video doorbell. It uses all this information from my not-on-Facebook, real-world life to shape the messages I see from businesses and politicians alike.

Doublethink doubleplusgood?  The doublethink here has to do with how Facebook justifies its eternal snooping activities as not-snooping at all, how terms are re-defined to allow it, and how nobody tells you about those re-definitions, so that what you think you have agreed to is not at all what you actually agreed to.

Facebook says it puts limits on the information organizations can share with it. For example, they’re not supposed to pass along health and financial information. But it’s unclear how well Facebook polices this. Using forensic software, I found Facebook tracker code on the website for an HIV drug. Nancarrow, the Facebook spokesman, says that “a health site with a Facebook Pixel does not mean that they are sharing sensitive medical information with Facebook.”
Don’t businesses worry we’ll find this to be oversharing? Most probably never thought we’d find out. Facebook says companies are required to provide us “robust notice” that they’re sending data about our activity to the social network. But I found very few explained this tracking in clear terms.
Facebook wants to paint surveillance as totally normal. Zuckerberg often says people want to see “relevant” ads. I wonder whom he’s asking. About 81 percent “of the public say that the potential risks they face because of data collection by companies outweigh the benefits,” according to Pew.

And sure, Facebook is not alone in that snooping and might not even be the biggest collector of information about our everyday activities.   We are never alone now, but actors in our own reality shows.

What I worry about is not the tailored ads one might get as a consequence of this (though it felt awful when I suddenly began seeing individualized terminal care ads simply because I had discussed a friend's sudden death from pancreatic cancer with someone on the phone, and some app eavesdropped on the conversation), but the theoretical scope this tracking offers to political powers wanting to create the 1984 world:  Most dissent could be wiped out if everyone's online activities are tracked and data on those activities is then centralized and used to punish wrong-thinkers (4).


The reign of Donald Trump is Orwell's 1984 at its very core:

Trump’s election brought a rush of cautionary books with titles like On Tyranny, Fascism: A Warning, and How Fascism Works. My local bookstore set up a totalitarian-themed table and placed the new books alongside 1984. They pointed back to the 20th century—if it happened in Germany, it could happen here—and warned readers how easily democracies collapse. They were alarm bells against complacency and fatalism—“the politics of inevitability,” in the words of the historian Timothy Snyder, “a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.” The warnings were justified, but their emphasis on the mechanisms of earlier dictatorships drew attention away from the heart of the malignancy—not the state, but the individual. The crucial issue was not that Trump might abolish democracy but that Americans had put him in a position to try. Unfreedom today is voluntary. It comes from the bottom up.

The bolds are mine. 

Doublethink and suspecting others of thoughtcrime are common among Americans.  But the Orwellian nature of this era is crystallized in the expressions that leave Trump's pouting lips, and in the "alternative facts" his administration prefers to disseminate. 

For Donald Trump news are fake if they are news which don't present him as the glorious person he knows he is.  Their actual truth-value is irrelevant.  It's not Donald's narcissistic opinions about news that is the real problem here but the willingness of far too many people to accept those narcissistic opinions as the basis on which to judge the events in the world around them (5).

The Trump administration is not the first administration to have tried to change truth by re-defining which facts are to be regarded as facts or by changing definitions to make social problems invisible, true.  But few administrations have been as thorough and as open about this as the current one.  Scientific research is decimated and scientific findings are twisted so that flawed decisions, benefiting certain moneyed interests, can be made to look reasonable.  Or doubleplusgood.

Still, it is Donald Trump himself who stands as the avatar of the post-factual era we are currently living (6). To me he personifies the worst aspects of American political discourse, the worst aspects of Twitter and the worst aspects of emotion-based tribalism and the loss of all shared rules about what constitutes facts.

And it is to avoid him that I go on so many mental health breaks.


(1)   If you like this genre I'd recommend the Finnish All Our Sins. It's a story about murders inside a Laestadian fundamentalist religious community.  Though Laestadianism is probably not a sect active in the US, it resembles many isolationist ultra-religious sects.  The status of women, for instance, is low and sex roles are rigidly defined.

(2)  Especially on Twitter. The rules of many debates there have very little to do with actual debating, but much more about silencing those who disagree.  Sometimes this silencing is an explicit demand (shut up!), sometimes it is achieved with threats of violence, including sexual violence, or through doxxing.

But often a different kind of tribalism works to create conformity, both on the right and on the left.  The following quote, from an Atlantic Monthly article published last summer, focuses on the left side of the aisle, but the same pressures apply on the right, in slightly different formats:

Orthodoxy is also enforced by social pressure, nowhere more intensely than on Twitter, where the specter of being shamed or “canceled” produces conformity as much as the prospect of adding to your tribe of followers does. This pressure can be more powerful than a party or state, because it speaks in the name of the people and in the language of moral outrage, against which there is, in a way, no defense. Certain commissars with large followings patrol the precincts of social media and punish thought criminals, but most progressives assent without difficulty to the stifling consensus of the moment and the intolerance it breeds—not out of fear, but because they want to be counted on the side of justice.

(3)  This Vox article gives a good basic explanation of the current "OK Boomer" meme.

Otherwise the article is a good example of how that sweeping over-generalization happens.  This consists of several strands, such as a) equating everyone born before 1965 with the much smaller group of powerful white male leaders in the US just because most of them belong to the Baby Boomer age group, b) assuming that any rant aimed at younger people by some older author is representative of the views of everyone of the same age, c) erasing the fact that many baby boomers spent their lives actively fighting the negative developments which can now be attributed to their generation, and d) assigning collective guilt for the election of bad past leaders to everyone who voted or could have voted in the elections which brought them to power, including those who fought hard to stop them from getting power.

That last bit is best understood by realizing that all of us who fought hard to keep Donald Trump from becoming Our Supreme Leader will, one day in the future, be judged responsible for his reign when collective guilt is assigned to age cohorts.

It's important to distinguish between two different phenomena:

One is the human tendency to draw inferences about individuals on the basis of nothing but their demographic characteristics or the stereotypes associated with those characteristics.  I criticize this tendency here, mostly because it is exactly the way some types of sexism and racism (and other -isms) are created and maintained, but also because I don't believe tribalism of this kind works well in getting us to a fairer and happier world.

The other one is the fact that different demographic groups, when viewed as political classes, do, indeed, benefit differently from different economic and social policies and from societal biases.

Thus white people, as a class, can benefit from racism which hurts black people, as a class, and men, as a class, can benefit from sexism which hurts women, as a class. Likewise, young people, as a class, do suffer more from many recent economic and environmental changes than old people, as a class.  The crucial qualifier here is to keep the debate on the level of the class.  When we do that we can have meaningful conversations about the problems and their solutions.

Generational warfare is not a new phenomenon, by the way.  For instance, many among today's baby boomers once used the phrase "don't trust anyone over the age of thirty," and older writers and speakers obviously engage, and have always engaged,  in over-generalizing about the youth of their day.  Still, this rounds seems to be particularly vicious and the over-generalizations more extreme.

(4)  Some countries are already using Internet surveillance to stifle dissent, but its scope could well expand everywhere if we are kept unaware of it.

(5)  This, too, is because of tribalism.  Many Republicans approve of Trump, not necessarily because of his policies or because he is Donald Trump, but because he is not a Democratic president.  Given these general tribal roots, progressives and liberals should examine themselves for the reverse tendency.

(6)  Even the way he styles his hair looks like a form of doublethink to me.  Where does all that hair in the quiff come from?  The back of his head?  Does it circle around the whole head first?

I very rarely criticize how people look, because it is irrelevant for political writing.  But it's hard not to see Trump's hair as a separate avatar of this era of unreason, because everyone pretends not to notice that it is weird.