Monday, February 13, 2017

Can "Civil Discourse" Save Us or Are Humans Hardwired for Extinction

I have read and heard some pundits and friends of social media friends, question why we can't have a civil discourse anymore, as if we ever really did and if that state of being would further the cause of America and the world at large.

Sure we can fantasize about a time when the appearance of civil discourse existed and while many such examples are in the history of human kind, I think that a further look into the matter may reveal that civil discourse or working across the aisle or "politics making strange bed fellows" usually derived out of necessity, rather than a natural desire to give ground.  It is a fact that during real war (not distant wars fought by less than 1% of the population), famine or plague, people often band together, but sometimes anarchy rules.  There seems to be a steady state where people choose up sides, then if things get a little rough, sometimes people can put their differences behind them for a while, but when things really go sour (think Dark Ages, Black Plague, Poison Lands) polarization can peak and peak way beyond anything we have seen in these last decades.

At any rate, it does "feel" as if we have been wandering down the road of polarization in America and around the globe for a few decades now.  It does "feel" to many that the strides that we have made in cleaning up our environment, becoming a more fair and just world and feeding and caring for the poor and sick have begun to come into question at best or turn backward at worst. Cooperation seems to be at premium and the they versus us mindset seems pervasive.

Just today, a close friend of mine Ret. Maj. Gen Laich (known as Dennis to me), commented that it seems we have gone from a place of "we don't agree" to "I am right and you are wrong" to finally "I am good and you are evil" in the space of a very few years.

I was talking to him about our shared experience of watching Meet the Press this Sunday and in particular the piece featuring DT's chief policy advisor Stephen Miller.  Playing devil's advocate (full disclosure, I did not vote for DT, nor do I respect him by any measure) I commented that the Sunday talk show format frustrates me (I still love you Chuck Todd) because they don't do a deep dive.  It seems that people of both "sides" of these recent arguments are given only 4 minutes to say what they want to say and are interrupted at least once by commercials.  I find it to be in no one's interest, other than that of the network ad sales staff, to follow this format.  Why can't we have a national dialogue about immigration reform or Palestine or gun laws or abortion or The Constitution?

Both sides are guilty.  The press is pressured into making money and feeding social media, while the administration is either crafty in their ability to distract us with meaningless, but provocative ti-bits or they are truly incompetent.

To be sure, a topic like immigration reform really takes hours to explore and probably at least 30 to 40 minutes to even summarize the current data, theories and cost/benefits of the most realistic options.  Going THERE would be doing everyone a great service.

However, the networks are afraid of revenue loss because their viewers are perceived to have the attention span of gnats.  The administration, the RNC nor the DNC have spent the time to truly think these issues through in order to present coherent ideas, plans and to discuss the pragmatic side of how are we going to do this, how much will it cost, what makes it "better" and what will we have to sacrifice in order to implement something new.  Just print more money and get re-elected.

Moreover, if they did manage to go into that much detail AND not lose their audience, the audience would be aghast that they couldn't have their cake and eat it too.  We have not educated our citizenry to appreciate that for every decision there are multiple types of costs.  Financial costs (sometimes offset by revenue enhancement, in the immigration case maybe more creativity and innovation), Social Costs (maybe more or less freedom of movement, privacy, delays at ports) and Ethical Costs (how we are trusted and perceived by not only our friends, but enemies around the globe).  What about the benefits?  How do you weigh those?  What about priorities?  We can not "do" everything, so if we invest time, energy and money in immigration reform, what gets slighted and by how much?  Are most people willing to work an additional year before retirement to fund this?  Are people willing to pay higher taxes?

I got away from my initial point a bit there - Sorry.

The main point is another peeve particularly the group of well meaning people (including a guy that I love to watch on TV, Stephen Colbert) whom ask a poignant question, "why can't we focus on what we agree on and set the controversial stuff to the side?"

To me, the putting the controversial stuff to the side IS one of our biggest problems as human beings.  In spite of all of our tribal behaviors and willingness to kill each other over books that were written thousands of years ago, in many face to face situations, people will strive for short term peace.  Sort of a "just get me out of here" strategy, that allows us to retreat to the privacy and security of our own tribe without pissing off the other person.  While this is a good strategy as a caveman or as a person with no leverage, the long term implications are disastrous.

The idea that "we all want to be safe from terror" as a point of agreement QUICKLY breaks down when we start discussing what each person means by "all", "safe" and "terror".  Does "all" mean all American citizens?  Naturalized or born here?  All races and religions?  Does "safe" mean that no one EVER dies from a terror attack or that more people die in ATV accidents than by terrorists?  Do "terrorists" include only Islamic Extremists or anyone acting against a group that they feel deserves punishment?  So, while we may say that "we can all agree" about certain things, I don't think that is in any way true.  Meanwhile, we are pretty good at pragmatically dealing with immediate threats as a group or team or country or nationality, so this is not where the resolution to our problems lie.  This stuff falls under the "more perfect union" section of our ideals.  We don't ever really get it perfect, but we improve on it and we get by.

The meat is the controversial stuff like, "is religion the root of all evil"?  Are there fundamental and inherited differences between races and nationalities?  Should there be borders?  Is healthcare a fundamental right?  Is abortion murder? Is capital punishment effective and/or moral?  Is the redistribution of income a deterrent to innovation and if so, how much is too much?  Should anyone starve in a world with plenty of food?  Should anyone be allowed to be a billionaire if anyone is homeless, poor or sick?

Now comes science and fact and knowledge.  There are three basic levels of ideas.

Things that are known to be true without any current evidence to the contrary.  They may in fact not be true, but no evidence exists to dethrone them in part or in whole at this moment, even after rigorous testing.

There are things that are likely to be true because there is overwhelming evidence to support their basic truth, but there are still some portions, insights or inferences drawn from these ideas that have not been adequately (usually because no method yet exists) tested to the fullest.

There there is belief, based on personal sensory or emotional insight, that can not be independently verified, proven or corroborated.  These ideas are either the result of false interpretations of sensory feedback, something manufactured in the mind with pure intentions or just utter bullshit.  There is usually no sure way of knowing.

So why does any of this long winded essay matter?

Try on this solution for a fit.  What if we dispensed with emotion when it came to making decisions that did not involve immediate life threatening situations?  Let's be honest.  Most of our lives are spent in non-life threatening time and space. Like 99.999% of the time.

Further, just to be sure, what if we employed AI or a series of algorithms to present arguments for policy, the consequences of that policy, the risk, costs and rewards/benefits of that policy by demographic group and used the power of the internet to engage 100% of the adult populace in acting on that policy.

Now, that algorithm would have to be scrutinized, sanitized and debated to make sure that it wasn't biased or at least as slightly biased as possible toward any one group or person.

In addition, all of the population would have to PARTICIPATE in not only testing the algorithm so that they "trusted it", but also they would have to participate in the act of selecting and prioritizing what set of outcomes was most desirable for themselves and the population as a whole and not only in the near term (cost/benefit), but in the long term (risk/reward).

This would also require a highly informed and highly educated populace with a ethical code (not necessarily a moral one) that put being informed and participating AHEAD of ALL other motivations and uses of their personal resources.

Here is the hook.  If even 1% of your being thinks or hopes that this solution "might work".... then I have sort of conned you.  WE could do this now.  We have the means, the knowledge the infrastructure.  The data that we currently and voluntarily provide to Microsoft, Apple, Verizon, the Government, doctors, lawyers, our friends, spouses, employers, gas stations, banks, kids is more than enough to expose our deepest secrets and most importantly allow for the data base to articulate the impact of any social change in policy in both the short and long term.

Given this vast amount of data and an algorithm of desired outcomes, prioritized by old fashioned democracy (think Athens, not DC) a series of policy suggestions could be given, with a comprehensive analysis of impact and margins of error and uncertainty (I mean, shit is still gonna happen) and we could run the country, if not the world as RATIONAL human beings.  There would be no they, there would only be us.

Borders - not necessary.
Religion - in tithing the data.
Freedom - won by giving, not hording. No one would judge what you do if everyone was 100% transparent.  Humans would be allowed to BE human, with our lusts and greed and self loathing and love and kindness and compassion.

The Devil's Advocate in Me:

It is also possible, that maybe we should lay down our hubris and our fascination with "how far we have come" due to the illusory and blinding attributes of our technology.  All technology has done is provided us with the idea that we are superior to all other creatures and that we can almost see all there is to see and even one day be immortal.  In the end, we are just really smart animals and all of our toys can't save us.  If anything, our lust for the material will doom our one and only planet.

Therefore, PLAN B might just be the way to go.  This plan is much less subtle than the hundreds of words above.  Maybe, we just accept the age long fact that as animals, might equals right.  As I see it there are three types of might.  The Brute, The Intellectual and The Lever.

The Brute:  This one is the oldest and most tried and true and like the others, still exists in full force today.  The most physically strong wins, owns and rules.

The Intellectual:  This is the "techie" the smart, the clever.  This is a way to use the creativity and innovation, often quickly and precisely to gain an advantage that your advisory can't see coming.  This tactic has been lauded and cursed and persecuted over the ages by The Brute and The Lever alike, often to their embarrassment.

The Lever:  More effective than the Intellectual and as equally pervasive as The Brute (in fact, often The Brute and The Lever form alliances, both thinking after the others are brought to submission, they can usurp).  The Lever is anyone or any group who holds the others by leverage.  Often fear is the trigger.  Wealth and/or Faith are the means.  The Levers go by names like Governments, Religions, Philosophies, Markets, Banks, Food Supplies, Armies .....  you know them well.

 Maybe we are therefore hardwired for our own extinction  .....  

The End.