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March 18, 2012

Anybody Got Any Good Crackpot Theories?

Recall the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, a person’s incompetence inhibits their ability to recognize his or her incompetence. The people who think they are the smartest are the dumbest, essentially, because they are blind to their stupidity. The people who think they know better know the least. And isn't it interesting that they are almost always the first to hurl the insult "you're stupid"?

Anyway, I was reading about the police busting OWS people and closing Zuccotti Park today, and it occurred to me that there is a variation on the Dunning-Kruger effect that has to do with other forms of self-awareness. Several examples:

  • Doesn't it follow that the people who think they're the most egalitarian become the most sexist, biased, and/or prejudiced? Because of the fact they admire that quality in themselves, egalitarianism, they are blind to the reality that they are not. These are the people who say "flyover states" and "rednecks." These are the people who come down on Limbaugh for a single use of "slut" while thinking someone else's use of much worse language is okay.

  • Doesn't it follow that the people who regard themselves as the most open-minded are in fact the most close minded? Their errant self-view causes them to be blind to how close-minded they are. Progressives in many institutions like academia, for example, talk endlessly about diversity while at the same time denying, marginalizing, and shutting-up voices on the right. Conservative professors don't get tenure. Conservative voices on campus are shouted down and silenced by left wing perma-children. A more specific example: Andrew Breitbart was often called a fag by the most wonderful people in the world.

  • Doesn't it follow that the people who think they're making the world a nicer place are the ones who are making it worse? They have a blind spot for their own bad behavior. A specific example: Al Gore and energy usage. Gore wants to make the world a better place by decreasing reliance on fossil fuels. (Assume for a moment he actually believes his bullshit. I don't think he does.) While having a bigger carbon footprint than anyone else on the planet, with the exception of the president... who at least has an excuse.

  • Doesn't it follow that the people who think they are the best suited to lead others would often be the least suitable/capable to do so? Here's a quick example: One of the creepiest people I ever knew sought out positions of authority on ethical panels. He had to be one of the least ethical, least well-suited people to serve in such a position, but he thought he was fantastic, and very well-suited to judge the behavior of others. A friend quipped, to paraphrase, "The type of people who seek out positions of authority like this are usually the people you would least want to serve in those positions." We agreed that it's almost as if we should automatically eliminate anyone who volunteers for a such positions and recruit from those who do not.

  • Doesn't it follow that the people who think they're the most wonderful/moral are in fact the most horrible/flawed? Their self-regard blinds them to their bad behavior. Tea Party people, for example, left the National Mall cleaner than when they found it. OWS people crapped on the ground. Union protesters in Wisconsin and people at the Rally to Restore Sanity left a huge mess for others to clean up.

  • Doesn't it follow that the people who are the most selfish would believe themselves to be the most selfless? They want people to give more, to pay more taxes... so they themselves can have a bigger slice of the pie. Their self-view disables their ability to reality-test. Ever hear of a progressive avoiding a tax dodge? Related, doesn't it follow that the people most interested in redistribution of wealth would give the least? I recall reading an article about ten years ago that surveyed charity giving on a state-by-state per capita basis. Or maybe it was as a percentage of income. Anyway, the "flyover states" were the most giving. The least? Massachusetts. Followed by the usual suspects.

  • A more specific example: I've read several times that Michael Moore is one of the most painfully greedy people in the entertainment industry. Now, from his words and actions--well, at least from the image he tries to project--one would think he would be easy to work with. After all, he's all about justice and fairness. And doing good. Right? But the reality is he's one of the most annoyingly greedy assholes imaginable.

Because of the built-in assumption that everything about the self is fine, time spent fixing flaws naturally has to do with others. And flaws must be fixed. "I'm fine. That's understood. So lets take a look at the actions of others." They don't look at themselves objectively. They don't question their own motivations and actions. They take it as a given they are exemplars of only the finest qualities.

Which leads me back to the question of why. Certainly Dunning-Kruger comes to mind, but there are many smart people among the ranks of the voluntarily blind. There is something relevant about the idea of "mental focus." If you're focused on the actions of others, it follows that you might not focus on your own. There is simple projection, attributing to others one's own unacknowledged bad traits, thoughts, or behaviors. And, of course, there is one of my favorites, working memory overload.

A while back, I went to the comments section of an article in a British newspaper that was generating a lot of interest. There was a lot of back-and-forth, but one thing kept popping up over and over during the course of the debate--which went on for over 700 comments. (Note, this was a piece that appealed primarily to progressives, so the debate was mostly internecine.) Time and again the debate circled back to "after all, we are superior." It surprised me to see that stated so openly and aggressively and without shame. I saw a variation of that comment at least a dozen times. And it always seemed to follow some particularly hateful comment or point of view. Note that you never see the "after all, we are superior" sentiment expressed in conservative debates.

That reminded me of something I posted on a comment board several years ago. The topic was Bruce Thornton's Embedded and Elitist Left: The Long March through Schools of Journalism. [Corrected: It wasn't a piece by Victor Davis Hanson as I initially indicated.] The first paragraph is from that article.

But there is another dimension of the institutionalization of the left, one also illustrated by Schell – what Tom Wolfe famously called "radical chic," the use of leftist ideology as a fashion marker to signify one's elitist superiority to the bovine middle class befuddled by a false consciousness that keeps them from seeing the horrible oppression and injustice of America.

Nicely put. I'm always interested in that little mental trick people play on themselves that allows them to maintain seemingly mutually inconsistent self views. The answer is that this need to perceive self as superior is of central importance, and that, to some degree, even the good deeds and apparent concern for equality and the well-being of others are just ways of reinforcing their superior self view. There is a payoff.

Another part of the answer is that this conflicting view of self can only be maintained with a strong ability to repress, distort, and/or filter dissonant information. In other words, they're typically more subjective than objective. So even reality can be manipulated and made to fit the superior self view. This is how some seemingly highly intelligent people can be so utterly stupid. I sometimes call them "perception morons" (which always makes me think of Noam Chomsky, btw).

On a primal level, it's about the need for security in numbers in the perceived strongest group. The social concern worn on the sleeve is, to differing degrees, simply one of the many methods of display, signifying inclusion and the absence of threat to other in-groupers. (In this culture, that is. In other cultures and times, display for these same people might involve throwing others to lions.) Identifying groups correctly and identifying group inclusion and exclusion is necessarily important, thus the preoccupation with identity politics.

. . .

Safe and secure in the dominant herd. It all seems very anti-human. But all this is for another thread.

Maybe that's it. Maybe it's all about survival and ego-protection. But maybe there is one more basic level, one last meta-level of understanding. I saw a scientist in some show talking about the sequestration of energy, if I'm phrasing it right. All life throughout history has had at its heart one purpose: gaining energy (presumably for reproduction). More specifically, he said that all behavior is an attempt to secure more of the energy that was initially released in the big bang. Interesting, that.

Anybody got any other ideas?

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posted by rdbrewer at 01:36 PM

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