The Common Sense

Note from the author: this is a non-technical, impressionistic introduction to my PhD dissertation. It doesn’t contain a mountain of technical references or jargon, and is going to be developed much further and with more rigor, when I reach those stages of the project. Think of it as an extended “Provocations” piece for now. To that end, it is broad in scope and sometimes impassioned in tone.

By: Daniel Tippens

On June 11th, 1963, the buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức sat down cross-legged in the middle of an intersection in Saigon, South Vietnam, pressed his hands together in prayer-like fashion, and had a fellow monk douse his body in gasoline. Moments later, he lit himself on fire. As the flames grew stronger, he remained in place, his body retaining an unwavering pose of stability as he disappeared into the flames. While this event was one of tragedy, it was also one of heroism. Thích was protesting the brutal persecution of buddhist monks (and nationalists more generally) by President Ngo Dihn Diem, and a New York Times reporter watching the event snapped the photo shown below:

Buddhist Monk

Once he took the photograph, Malcolm W. Browne rushed to get the image to the Associated Press. When it arrived 15 hours later, it was broadcast to the world. The reaction to the photo was dramatic, with U.S President John F. Kennedy later saying, “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion as that one.” Humanity, having a common sense of what is unjust, tragic, heroic, terrifying, and angering, felt the same reactive attitudes of indignation, profound sadness, compassion, horror, and rage, toward the same respective objects — the oppression in Vietnam, the cause of the monks, and Thích himself. Within weeks, waves of people around the world assembled to protest in solidarity with the monks. Kennedy, who had been promoting Diem’s regime, withdrew support. Just a few months later, President Diem was overthrown in a rebellion, and the oppressive government was replaced.

There are too many striking things contained in this event for one to unravel thoroughly, but one which particularly hit me is how people, of all stripes and cultural backgrounds around the world, felt the same reactive attitudes when they viewed the image. This easily could have failed to obtain. Suppose, for example, that Thích had decided on a different method of martyrdom, perhaps using a gun or a katana, instead of fire. Had he used a gun, would the population in the U.S have felt the same reactive attitudes as another nation’s population, given our particular feelings about guns and suicide? Would the people in Japan have experienced the same reactive attitudes as the French, had he used a katana? Moreover, what if Thích hadn’t sat still as he self-immolated, but rather expressed his pain by rolling on the ground? Would the world have reacted with the particular set of unified reactive attitudes that it did?

But things get even more interesting when you contrast this event with the collective reactive attitudes of the population of the U.S, throughout its history. Citizens of all backgrounds, having a common sense for what is tragic and unjust, reacted to the Pearl Harbor attacks with compassion for their fellow citizens and allies around the world, and anger toward the Axis powers. When the Pentagon Papers were released by Daniel Ellsberg during the U.S invasion of Vietnam, the citizens largely reacted in solidarity with him, feeling collective indignation toward the U.S government and the war of aggression. But these things make one wonder: why, when ‘we the people’ were presented with the image of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President in 2016, did we not feel collective disgust and repugnance, reacting against him, or feel collective pride and excitement, reacting for him? If humanity had a common sense — such that they reacted with unity toward  the situation in South Vietnam — why didn’t our common sense ignite in us the same reactive attitudes in the 2016 election? Why did we not react with unity (in one way or the other) to the image of Trump, the way humanity did to Thích’s self-immolation?

P.F Strawson, inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ruminations in Philosophical Investigations, popularized the notion of reactive attitudes in his landmark paper “Freedom and Resentment.” Reactive attitudes are our automatic sentimental responses to things we encounter. We laugh at jokes while leaning forward and holding our stomachs, the automatic behavior indicating that we feel that the joke is funny. We cry in movies and shed tears. We grow angry reading literature, and clench our fists. We feel wonder, inspiration, and awe at art and dance, and our eyes widen and our mouths hang open, as we sense that the works are beautiful.

Strawson was interested in the question of how we come to hold people morally responsible for their actions, and this led him into a detailed discussion of our moral reactive attitudes — resentment, disgust, compassion, approval, disapproval, etc. — and the conditions under which they are apt. What he was not interested in, however, was the question of how we come to have the patterns of reactive attitudes that we do — of how we acquire a common sense of what is beautiful, such that many of us will feel the reactive attitude of awe, together?

It is one thing to ask about the general causes of these reactive attitudes I have alluded to; it is another to ask about the variations to which they are subject, the particular conditions in which they do or do not seem natural or reasonable or appropriate; and it is a third thing to ask what it would be like, what it is like, not to suffer them. I am not much concerned with the first question; but I am with the second; and perhaps even more with the third (Strawson, 1962; my emphasis).

What I have been calling a common sense, broadly, is what I take to structure our patterns of reactive attitudes. If you and I cry at the same scene in a play, then we have a common sense of what is sad, and our tears reflect our sense of that property. If we crouch down and hold each other in fear together, when a loud noise booms above us, then we have a common sense of what is dangerous. We will sometimes co-react to the same objects, in this case some loud booms (even artificially emitted ones). As long as we have at least one object that we co-react to, we share some degree of common sense, with respect to the relevant property. What I will be concerned with, in this book, is the common sense of citizens.

As parents, we have a common sense of what is dangerous: local strains of disease, drunk drivers, online bullying, and perhaps child abduction, etc. We have a perspective as parents insofar as we have our own set of objects that we have acquired a common sense for.

As citizens of the U.S, we have a very different common sense of what is dangerous: terrorism, police brutality, North Korea, Russia, etc. While we don’t have direct access to these things through perception (most U.S citizens will never see North Korea), mention of them will bring about reactive attitudes of fear in us when we are engaging with the world as citizens.

When we take a perspective as parents — perhaps when playing with our children at the park — we are concerned with sharp objects and bullies, not threats from Russia. When we go as citizens to meet with our congresswoman about climate change reform, we will be concerned with more national issues. The citizens of another country may not share our common sense of what is nationally dangerous, and so they may not manifest any reactive attitude toward these things when they are mentioned. Of course, we also have a common human sense of certain things — remember that, ceteris paribus, all of humanity, when presented with the image of Thich’s self-immolation, felt compassion, fear, horror, anger, and sadness. One of my primary interests will be on the question of how we acquire a common citizen sense? What structures our collective reactive attitudes, as citizens, such that we will all react together when something like Pearl Harbor happens?

Answering the question of how we acquire a citizen common sense of what is dangerous, tragic, inspiring, etc., is a pressing task. For while one might think that it is always a delight to see people acting from a common sense — like looking at a group-photo of people laughing together — one cannot relish in this fantasy for too long. Unfortunately, populations acting with unity in reactive attitudes should also remind us of some of the most terrible moments in human history:

Nazi Soldiers.png

Marching Nazis.png

Nurnberg27

These images depict what authors throughout history have described as tyrannical societies, which I will define as societies in which the citizens only have a common sense with the state (or governing body), and not with each other. If the state — those people acting as state-agents — reacts with disgust toward a minority group, the citizens do so as well. If the state reacts with indignity toward a perceived offense, the citizens feel it too. When a dictator salutes, all citizens salute back. There are no longer people who sometimes act from their common state sense and other times from their common citizen sense, as the former has replaced the latter. The citizenry has lost control of their common sense, and are caught in the grip of tyranny.

Tyrannical societies are depicted in their most pure and extreme forms in a battery of classic dystopic texts such as 1984, Handmaid’s Tale, Harrison Bergeron, and Brave New World. In each of these works, we are shown a different picture of a society in which the population’s common sense is unified with the state:

Orwell hate week 2Orwell hate week 1

Handmaids tale sitting women

handmaids tale pointing blame

Contrasting these fictional depictions of tyrannical societies with the actual depictions shown above, our eye is naturally drawn to the unity displayed in the citizens’ behavior, which reflects their shared reactive attitudes. When all members of IngSoc in 1984 participate in hate week, their facial expressions manifest a shared anger toward the external enemies of the state — some foreign nations. In Handmaid’s Tale, the finger-pointing handmaids display their shared reactive attitudes of blame toward an internal enemy; a fellow female citizen who has acted out of the party line.

The issue with reading these works of literature is that while we know such societies are possible — indeed, some societies have come close to being completely like them — it is hard to see exactly how a state could take control of its citizens’ common sense in this way, and to this extent. Since the authors have set their stories in the final stages of societal decay, we are only shown a world in which the state has already achieved taking control of it. Indeed, most dystopias leave the historical chain of events which led to tyranny a hazy mystery, reflecting both the way the citizens feel toward their past, and our own lack of understanding, as readers, of how they got to that point. Because of this, when we read dystopic works we are likely to extract only warning signs of approaching tyranny and not a model which explains why those things are red flags.

Consider how we have extracted catch-phrases from 1984. ‘Thought crime’ or ‘thought police’ tokens the image of a mass-surveillance society, in which citizens are monitored constantly, by everyone in their community. This includes their friends, relatives, and even children. ‘Double-think’ refers to the ominous phenomenon in which citizens caught in the grip of tyranny will appear to have contradictory beliefs, when we watch them as observers. Perhaps worse, the population won’t seem to have almost any grasp on the truth, or its close relatives, at all. ‘Newspeak’ brings to mind instances of state-agents saying “Surely we didn’t commit mass extermination. We were pacifying the village, a notion covered by state law, mind you!” Tyrannical societies will manifest widespread abuses of language which are intended to circumvent, alter, and ultimately control the common sense of the citizenry. ‘Big brother’ focuses us on the thought of a dictator — in this case a slightly elusive agent personifying the state, similar to the Progressive advertising character Flo,’ who was hired to personify and sell a company brand.

Two additional Orwellian themes seem worth discussing, even though they never achieved celebrity-status virality. First, The ruling party, Ingsoc, uses war as a cudgel to instill existential fear and dependence in the population. They hammer the citizenry with depictions of ‘the enemy’ — some distant “other” — maiming their innocent countrymen. They will constantly remind the citizens that the enemies of the state “want to kill your children and everything you love!” Of course, since all citizens have a common sense for what is terrifying, which includes death by invading forces, they will react with fear and begin to look to the state for safety.

Second, members of the population only co-react with their fellow citizens when it either benefits, or is for the sake of, the state. Direct and voluntary co-reaction between citizens happens infrequently or is suppressed. We can see this in the citizenry in the Republic of Gilead, who only have sex with each other for the purpose of state-sanctioned-reproduction, and never look at one another in the eyes while doing so. Perhaps even stranger, or just eerie, is that this aversion to one’s own fellow citizens is ubiquitous, happening both inside and outside of the institutions owned by the ruling powers. In the novel, when some handmaids coincidentally run into one another, their exchange is often reduced to a momentary and mutual transaction of trite phrases — ‘praise be!’ or ‘blessed be the fruit’ — which have been given to them by the state. If we see a lack of co-reactivity between citizens in our society, even if we’re unsure about whether it is the result of malicious forces, we should take pause.

All of these ideas constitute something of a tyranny watchlist, whereby if a juggled handful of them appear in a society, we would say that it is more or less Orwellian. However, what dystopic authors did not give us is a more rigid understanding regarding why these warning signs of Tyrannical encroachment should be taken as such at all. While it is unsurprising that these literary writers didn’t tell us exactly how the road to tyranny will unfold, it is hard to deny that we would like more on the matter.

Fortunately, the novels do suggest some strong hints regarding how tyranny descends upon the people. We can start with the fact that the arts and letters institutions are completely controlled by the state. Fashion is strictly regulated, and comedy and philosophy have all but disappeared. The media, film, and academia churn out content that serves only to provide the state with justification for its behavior. Similarly, music, dance, and the fine arts more broadly are used as the state’s drum beats, inspiring the sentiments of the ‘masses’ to favor the ruling powers.

The second hint is just as conspicuous as the first, and somewhat similar: propaganda is rampant. In 1984, the Ministry of Truth is responsible for publishing pro-state news, and will constantly rewrite old articles that have fallen out of the party’s favor. Propaganda about progress on the domestic and international war fronts spans every inch of society, and yet whenever the citizens see the news, no matter how absurd and contradictory, they react with the attitude of complete credulity.

How could state-control of the arts and letters institutions, and ubiquitous dissemination of propaganda, result in a tyrannical society? How could it lead to their patterns of reactive attitudes being controlled by the state? Uncovering the answer to these questions could explain why the Orwellian warning signs would count as such. This should strike anyone as important once one considers for a moment that the U.S today is obviously and clearly Orwellian. Consider:

Proxy Wars

Abuses of Language

Propaganda

Mass surveillance

Citizens voluntarily avoid co-reacting with each other, when in direct perceptual contact.

The United States has been engaged in proxy wars in the middle east for almost two decades, with no end in sight, and worse conflict appearing on the horizon. Media institutions are widely believed to have a political bent (there is liberal news and conservative news), and many people get their political content from social media, which filters them personalized news feeds, creating echo chambers; spaces where people with similar views pass information back and forth. Fake news — egregiously false articles masquerading as journalism — circulates widely on the internet, and is shared more frequently than well-vetted stories. Additionally, the arts and letters institutions are bleeding, as attendance to public museums has hit record lows. We also hear frequent reports of colleges downsizing their humanities departments, laying off swaths of faculty who are teaching philosophy, english, and the fine arts. Even more concerning is the general impression of hostility between conservatives and liberals, which gives us the striking impression that the we do not have a unified citizen common sense. Given this background, Donald Trump was elected, despite losing the popular vote, and a surge in book sales for 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale ensued, reflecting a general sentiment bubbling; that our situation in the U.S smells of tyranny.

This book is an attempt to understand how tyranny takes hold of a population’s common sense, and brings its citizens’ reactive attitudes in line with its own. We will see that this can happen quite easily in both democratic and non-democratic societies. But first (Chapter I), I’d like to develop the idea of the common sense, and use an interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of art as a way to explain how we acquire, maintain, and alter the common sense we have as citizens. Tolstoy recognized art as a means of emotional communication between human beings, and that something is a piece of art when it elicits shared reactive attitudes in the viewers, which the artist sincerely intended to convey.

“Art is not… pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well‐being of individuals and of humanity…. however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it)…. And if men lacked this other capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still, and, above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another.. And therefore the activity of art is a most important one, as important as the activity of speech itself and as generally diffused.”-Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?

For Tolstoy, the artwork is only successful if the audience, upon viewing the piece, undergoes those intended reactive attitudes together toward the same object(s), such that they feel what Tolstoy calls “spiritual union” with their fellow viewers as well as the artist. They all co-react, and feel that they are co-reacting, toward that object. An audience watching Saving Private Ryan sobs together, and feels that they are sobbing together, when Tom Hank’s character weeps over the loss of a young, brave, and loyal soldier under his command. All of the audience members who feel this “spiritual union” of sadness in the scene have undergone a reactive attitude toward the same object, and have felt that they were co-reacting. Now, they have a common sense of what is sad — the loss of an American soldier. They will feel this heartache together, when they are later informed of American casualties in war, or see similar images, or hear similar sounds. Engaging in the practice of co-reacting with one’s fellow citizens is what instills, maintains, and alters our common sense of things for us (in this case) qua citizens.

Imagine that Dave Chappelle is giving a stand up show at the Comedy Club in New York. In a bizarre event, all of the people who attend the club laugh at the same time, and with the same strength, at every joke. What this would mean about the audience is that they have a unified common sense of what is funny, such that they all co-react with perfect symmetry at the same jokes. If a stranger to U.S society were to attend the club on this night, and many nights thereafter, he would begin to co-react with the audience, entering into spiritual union with them, and in doing so would acquire their common sense about what sorts of things are funny, as a U.S citizen (so long as the jokes are made at that level). In addition to acquisition, we can maintain a common sense by continuing to co-react toward objects that we have encountered to before. This is how, for example, we are able to keep inside jokes between friends “alive.” Altering a common sense is also possible by, among many other things, producing a work of art that has a profound impact on the audiences that view it.

While Tolstoy’s theory of art is quite interesting in its own right, my primary interest here is in the idea of “spiritual union,” for it provides us with an answer to the question that P.F Strawson was less interested in — how we come to have the pattern of reactive attitudes that we do. We must congregate with our fellow group-members, co-react to objects together, and feel that we are co-reacting, from a perspective. This idea of feeling that we are co-reacting is a hard one to capture, but we can take a cue from Wittgenstein and just look at what spiritual union is:

Notice the overlapping behaviors, which indicate co-reactivity.

(Chapter II) If we accept this interpretation of Tolstoy’s view, we have an answer to the question that P.F Strawson was less interested in — how we can come to have the pattern of reactive attitudes that we do, as citizens. We visit the public museums (both as children and adults), congregating with our fellow citizens, and we acquire a common sense of what is beautiful, ugly, tragic, heroic, and so on. We do the same thing when we go to see films, comedy shows, take a philosophy or history class, etc. At this point it should start to be clear why tyranny tries to erode the public arts and letters institutions, and how it uses them to serve its interests. If the state controls what is depicted as beautiful, ugly, tragic, and heroic, it can bring the citizens’ common sense in line with its own.

(Chapters III and IV) But of course, in a democratic society, we would be alarmed if the state systematically starting eroding the arts, for citizens have a common sense of what is ugly, and it includes the state having too much power in this way. So, supposing we lived in a world in which the arts and letters institutions were untouched by the state, and completely controlled and funded by the citizens — how could tyranny take hold? Surprisingly, it can be achieved by using three very simple and specific types of propaganda, which are intended to break the common sense of the citizenry, atomizing the population into individuals who only have a common sense with the state, and not with each other.

In his books “Propaganda” and “Crystallizing Public Opinion,” Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, laid out a system of techniques for “regimenting the public mind” and controlling “public opinion” — techniques designed for controlling common sense. Regrettably, this hasn’t been given any serious treatment by philosophers.

Bernays, a public relations expert, recognized that one of the best ways to bring a population’s common sense in line with your client’s is by disseminating, on a mass-scale, certain kinds of insincere art (advertisements) to sub-interest groups. For example, suppose I am the owner of a Walmart, and so I want to attract my relevant interest group — customers — which in this case is the whole community. I hire Edward Bernays to help get the teachers, workers, parents, and children (the community) to bring Walmart into their common sense of friend, not just of store, because if Bernays can successfully achieve this, then all community members, let us suppose, will feel the reactive attitude of devotion or loyalty when they consider where — or in this case who — they want to shop with. If they are loyal, the owner of the Walmart makes money.

What Bernays does is what we now call targeted advertising. Suppose he isolates a target sub-customer-interest group: parents. He first does “market research” on them by knocking on their doors and asking them what kinds of things they need for their kids, their budget, etc. One thing he finds is that many of the parents in the community celebrate their anniversaries together, at the same time. At this point, he mails advertisements to the parents in the community, which say that Walmart is offering massive discounts on anniversary gifts for a specific span of time, because they care about parents’ being able to celebrate the life they have created together. The letter ad’s cover might look something like this:

Celebrate Anniversary.png

The parents see these advertisements together, and if they co-react to them in the intended way — perhaps by exchanging a quick glance and saying, “That’s really nice of Walmart!” — they will come to include Walmart in their parental common sense of friend, but not as customers. They will begin to feel reactive attitudes of devotion toward Walmart, when deciding where to shop for their anniversary; when they are deciding where to shop as parents.

Bernays then runs the exact same process on the teachers and workers, such that all of these sub-customer-interest groups feel loyalty to Walmart when considering where to shop as teachers and workers — all from their own special interests. All of the community members will be loyal Walmart shoppers. As I plan to show, propaganda in many of its forms is no different, except that it’s relevant interest group is citizens, and the sub-citizen-interest groups are politicians, workers, friends, relatives, parents, children, siblings, etc. If the propaganda is distributed successfully, the population will be composed entirely of loyal citizens to the state. Just as the community can come to love Walmart, the citizens can come to love Big Brother.

Of course, just as people can be manipulated into loving something, so too they can be manipulated, in the same kind of way, to hate or feel disgusted by something. Suppose Walmart wanted to weed out their competition, and were allowed to engage in hostile advertising. They could run the same process just described, except targeting the special interests people have for disliking certain things. If Walmart were to systematically release targeted advertisements to sub-interest groups, saying that their competitor K-Mart is eco-destructive, over-priced, and unfriendly to disabled groups, the community will come to hate K-Mart. Some people, being members of a climate-conscious club, will co-react to the ad with disgust toward K-mart. Others, being particularly agitated by companies that overcharge, may co-react to the ad with resentment toward K-mart, and so on and so forth for all of the relevant sub-interest-groups.

Propaganda that works like targeted advertising can be used to systematically atomize a population, by first breaking their citizen common sense, and then regimenting it in line with the state. Broadly, what I will call “atomization” is the process of moving a society from what a utopic stage to an atomized one. Here is the scenario:


Imagine a society which is a representative democracy — there is a congress, judiciary branch, executive arm, and an electoral college. Also, the arts and letters institutions are intact, being both funded and run by the people. However, it is also capitalist, in the sole sense that there are no laws protecting the arts and letters institutions from corporate privatization or slow and steady state intervention through corporate power. The only defense against the public arts and letters institutions coming under control of the state, is the common sense of the citizens. If the state qua state reaches into these institutions in an overt manner, the people will co-react with unity in defiance and indignation. So here is the question: how could a state, under these conditions, bring the common sense of the citizens in line with its own? How could it go from a utopic society to an atomized one?

Utopic society: All citizens have a unified common sense with one another. They all run from the same threats, cry during all of the same scenes at the theatre, react with credulity or incredulity to the same historical claims, clench their fists and snarl at the same aggressions, and smile at each other when they cross paths. They attend, contribute to, and curate, the public arts and letters institutions. In this way, they maintain control over their common sense. There is no propaganda.

 

Atomized Society: All citizens have a unified common sense with the state, but not with one another. They run from the same threats, cry during all of the same scenes at the theatre, react with credulity or incredulity to the same historical claims, clench their fists and snarl at the same aggressions, but do not smile at each other when they cross paths. They attend, contribute to, and curate the state arts and letters institutions. Their only exposure to art is in the form of propaganda. In this way, they do not maintain control over their common sense. Propaganda is rampant.


Atomization is possible by implementing two types of propaganda which rely on targeted advertising tactics —  fracturing propaganda, and regimenting propaganda. Fracturing propaganda is intended to create factions within the citizenry– groups of people with incongruous common citizen senses. Two groups have incongruent common senses when they have incompatible reactive attitudes toward all perspective-relevant objects, such that they cannot coordinate with one another. They are unable to work together and form shared political goals.

Suppose a liberal and a conservative are in a bar. The bartender, being a young and politically active citizen, invites them to sign a petition to stop climate change. The liberal will react with delight, pride, and support, but the conservative will react by rolling his eyes, feeling anger and resentment. The liberal and the conservative will be unable to work together, and sign the petition, because they have incongruous reactive attitudes toward the same object. If liberals have incongruous reactive attitudes with conservatives on all objects of citizen-concern (climate change, economic decline, immigration, police brutality, etc.), then they will be unable to work together simpliciter. Whenever liberals collectively cheer, conservatives collectively snarl, and vice versa — the groups are uncoordinated because their common citizen sense is incongruous.

What this results in, eventually, is the development of suspicion toward one’s fellow citizens, and persistent conflict between citizen-factions. Suppose, for example, that someone undergoes frequent incongruous reactive attitudes with his fellow citizens, toward objects of political concern. In this happens, this person will come to include his fellow citizens in his common citizen sense of suspicious, or stupid. Once all citizens have reached this point, they will be unable to coordinate on any issues of political concern — they will have to rely on the state to facilitate collective action for them.

Think about one of the primary reasons for the civil court system. When we are unable to settle our interpersonal conflicts on our own, we defer to the courts to tell us what to do. When we are unable to co-react congruously we require a higher power to unify our behavior — to regiment us such that we do not co-react incongruously toward the same object of legal concern. Unfortunately, the U.S appears to be approaching  atomization, as we clearly have deep-seeded citizen factions with wildly incongruous common senses in the population; we are currently susceptible to being regimented (Chapter V). Orwell vividly captures the outcome of systematic fracturing propaganda in 1984, when the villain, O’Brien, says,

We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer… There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother (3.3.34, O’Brien).

Regimenting propaganda attempts to instill that loyalty toward the state, of which Orwell speaks. Its purpose is not to create incongruous common senses, but rather a state-imposed congruous common sense, oriented in a desired direction. Regimenting propaganda takes the same form as the Walmart-style advertising described above, as it attempts to get all citizens to include the state in their common sense of loving, credulous, just, and so on, such that their common citizen sense is replaced by the common state sense. If fracturing propaganda was successfully implemented, the population will be incapable of co-reacting congruously — with unity — on all matters of political concern. Once this has happened, the state can impose a congruous common sense in the citizenry, such that they have unified co-reactivity in line with the state.

Here’s a general idea of how this process works. Suppose that Bernays is hired by a weapons-grade manufacturer, which depends upon continuous war for profit. War, of course, is a difficult thing to get support for, and so Bernays will try to do two things in order to democratically pass a bill to start war-making. First, he will use fracturing propaganda to create factions amongst the citizenry, breaking their bonds of trust and loyalty toward one another. If it is successful, factions — e.g liberals and conservatives — will come to include their fellow citizens in their common citizen sense of suspicious or disgusting.

Once this is done, he can regiment the population’s common sense in line with the weapons manufacturer, by using targeted advertising on all sub-citizen-interest groups, such that they come to approve of war. He may send targeted propaganda to parents, telling them that the government — via war-making — will keep their children safe. If they co-react in the intended way, parents will come to approve of war. The same process will be run on a variety of socio-economic sub-citizen-interest groups.  If he is successful, the citizenry will all co-react with agreement when war-making policies are proffered, but from their own special interests. The parents will approve of war because it has entered their parental common sense of protective, and if Bernays sells them on promises of war-derived prosperity, the lower-class may include war in their common sense of helpful. All citizens will react with approbation toward war-making, for their own sub-citizen yet perspective-relevant reasons.

(Chapter VI) The effects of fracturing propaganda in the U.S are quite obvious. U.S citizens surveil one another constantly, using their phones to report — either to the police, social media, or news outlets — their neighbors, friends, and even family members, regarding all manner of evils: racism, sexism, and bigotry (liberals), and anti-patriotism, extremist anti-fascism, and censorship (conservatives). All of this is fueled by further fracturing propaganda which has become an ordinary part of our lives, and clearly attempts to maintain our incongruous common citizen senses, like this:

See something say something.png

In addition to surveillance, congress is frequently deadlocked, divided on issues of national concern, and the population too frequently approaches a 50/50 split in our two-party presidential election. Consequently, the “popular vote” is increasingly out of sync with the electoral college.

In the meantime, mass shootings of our fellow citizens are on the rise, with more attempted shootings in recent years than in all of U.S history, reflecting how one’s fellow community members are increasingly included in the common citizen sense of suspicious and disgusting.

Income inequality has also reached astounding levels. A phenomenon known as “suburban poverty” is on the rise, in which families live in middle-class neighborhoods, but with an income level hovering around poverty line. The rates of suburban poverty have exploded over the past 10 years, as we are seeing 100% increases in the phenomenon, in most states around the country. Food pantries are popping up in these areas, and food stamps are becoming widely used by “middle class” citizens. In 2013, the top 10% of families in the U.S held 76% of the wealth, while the bottom 50% of families held 1%. Oxfam has found that eight super-rich people, six of whom are Americans, own as much combined wealth as half of the human race. Surely all of these things this reflect a lack of compassion and trust in the population, and betrays pervasive sentiments of disgust or apathy toward other citizens.

At this point, I hope that the reader has a prima facie sentiment that the U.S population is being regimented, whether it be intentional or not. But this still leaves us with an important question: What is regimenting the population? What is bringing about tyranny in the U.S? What is disseminating propaganda on a mass scale, and how have we gotten to this point of societal decay? I believe that the answer to this question is corporate power.

Remember that targeted advertising just is propaganda, when aimed at sub-citizen-interest groups. Private (corporatized) media institutions (FOX, CNN, Brietbart, New York Times, etc.) are constantly disseminating targeted articles and advertisements to the citizenry. They target sub-citizen-interest groups according to their own profit-seeking goals, and pressures from the government. Unfortunately, the government itself is beholden to strong financial interests, and so their pressures on the media reflect the needs of corporations.

Social media are probably the most widely used communications networks that exists. The most popular platforms are shamelessly designed for propaganda and advertising. No status is posted, no tweet sent out, and no photo uploaded, unless it has first gone through the necessary steps to target certain populations. While every person is a potential viewer of social media content, not all people will in fact be viewers of it. Those of us who are (un)lucky enough to receive a post do so because we have been targeted. Somewhere, someone (or something) has determined that this content — this advertisement/propaganda — would work on your relevant community, given your collective special interests.

We receive a mix of advertising and propaganda which fractures and regiments us in line with corporate interests. This seamlessly explains, I hope to show, both the fact that the U.S citizenry is divided, and the increasing wealth gap. The common sense of U.S citizens — our shared set of rules for emotional coordination — is being regimented in line with corporate agencies.

As I alluded to earlier, this is because, in the United States, the arts and letters are completely susceptible to slow and steady intervention by corporate power — they are not protected from the encroachment of privatization and profit-seeking motives. Of course no corporation could, or would, actually attempt to erase the public arts and letters institutions. But what they can do is turn the citizens against them by means of more propaganda and advertising. One doesn’t have to beat the competition by trashing their stores, sometimes all one needs to be do is perform a trick with which magicians are familiar: distract your audience. If one can regiment citizens to react with boredom or moral indignation toward the arts and letters, nobody will pay any attention to them. Just as a law with no enforcement is no law at all, so too an art museum with no attendees is no institution to nurture common sense. If every member of society is disgusted by the arts and letters for their own particular reasons, a power can take control of the market with the consent — at least tacit –of the public.

It should be clear that this is happening as we speak. As mentioned earlier, attendance to public museums has hit record lows, humanities departments are being closed at universities around the country, and music and film is dominated by pop culture, which is yet another institution under corporate control. At the same time, many U.S citizens openly decry “morally-problematic” art. We refuse to watch comedians whom we find offensive, call for those films created by moral villains to be banned, and many (even prominent physicists) publicly scoff at the uselessness of philosophy. Our society is literate, but we do not value it. Instead, we advocate for narrowing the materials upon which we may develop our common sense.

If you reads Bernays, you will not be surprised that art is being taken over by corporate power. In the very first pages of Propaganda, he acknowledges that the “tastes” of citizens in the U.S must be controlled. It would seem that he thought tyranny was necessary for democracy:

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. It may seem an exaggeration to say that the American public gets most of its ideas in this wholesale fashion. The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society… In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if every one went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would become hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea (Bernays, pp.1 – 5).

Note that Bernays was a professional advertiser and propagandist — a public relations agent — for massive corporate agencies. He became known for getting an enormous number of women to smoke by selling them “torches of freedom” during the women’s rights movement. He managed to persuade people to feel that Dixie Cups were more sterile (safer) than regular cups, and doctors to recommend smoking to their patients. With a corporate client, and nearly unlimited financial support, the public relations expert — the corporate propagandist — is capable of regimenting the common sense of the masses.

Finger-pointing corporate power is fraught with prejudice, politicization, strong sentiments, and confusion. Many have decried the influences of powerful financial-interests in democratic societies, which has poisoned the well for healthy discussion. It is also unclear what one is even referring to when they speak of corporate power, other than perhaps some abstract, nefarious villains lurking in the shadows. The poison which has infected the well, I believe, is not some kind of innate tribalism or selfishness, as many have been quick to claim. Rather I think, to draw on Bernays, our “minds have been molded.” A mix of fracturing and regimenting propaganda is a potent psychological cocktail.

I ask the reader to keep an open mind with regard to the criticisms I will make, in the following pages, of corporate power in a democracy. I hope that one can engage this book with a receptiveness that Thomas Paine called for when (anonymously) advocating for American independence from Great Britain, at the start of his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense:

In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense; and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader, than that he will divest himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves; that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off, the true character of a [human being], and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day (Thomas Paine, 1776).

American citizens have needed to establish independence from controlling powers in the past, and we are in need of doing so now, lest we allow our bonds with one another to be broken, and our common sense regimented. I sincerely hope that the following pages will resonate with the reader’s common citizen sense of credulous, just as Paine’s pamphlet did over 200 years ago, before America fought for their independence.

77 Comments »

  1. The United States is an incredibly divided country in cultural and political terms as well as in income. The U.S. now has a worse Gini coefficient (measures income inequality) than India.

    There are many different social and cultural groups with differing interests and differing values and it is unlikely that any commons sense will develop in such a contradictory climate, not to mention the differing class interests between the poor, the middle class, the rich and super rich.

    In any way, the contradictions between differing and opposed social groups and classes make it more difficult for a classic tyranny to take power since no demagogue can appeal to the majority of the population. More than half the U.S. population detests Trump, which makes it impossible for him to turn into the fascist demagogue that some fear.

    The best that can be hoped for is that differing social groups and classes learn to live together, but there is no way that a new common sense will appear as there may have been one in the 1940’s or 1950’s.

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  2. DanT,
    I completely share your sympathies. However, there are a number of problems here. I will try to address them constructively later. I do want to caution other possible commentators here that this is obviously a work in progress and requires constructive response rather than negative critique. Even on points I might clearly disagree with you, what you really need is discussion of how to present those points better, not my disagreement. You have an issue worthy of discussion, certainly.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. In the spirit of EJ’s comment, with which I entirely agree, I submit the following. They are chronological in the sense that they reflect the order of my thoughts, as I read the essay in real time.

    = = =

    1. I’m not sure I think the reactions to the monk’s self-immolation reflect a human common sense.

    2. I’m not at all surprised that there was a very contradictory reaction to Trump by large portions of the electorate.

    3. I don’t know that I think that “If you and I cry at the same scene in a play, then we have a common sense of what is sad.” Certainly, we both find the scene sad, but that doesn’t mean that we experience sadness in the same way.

    4. I wonder whether there is such a thing as a citizen “common sense.” Certainly nothing like there is a parental one. Citizenship is somewhat formal – ethnicity and nationality seem less so – and I’m pretty sure one doesn’t feel it like one feels parenthood (regardless of what loud real ‘muricans might say).

    5. It’s a bit jarring to go from an ordinary notion of a common sense – as you define it – among people to the machine-like rows of Nazis and bonneted Handmaid’s Tale women. I’m not sure that’s just a difference of degree, rather than of kind.

    6. I feel like there’s a mixture of genres going on – of social science and philosophy – without being clear about how it’s all supposed to work together. A lot of the things you talk about sound like straightforwardly empirical questions, rather than philosophical ones.

    7. Stop using ‘tokens’ as a verb. It’s horrible analytic-speak.

    8. There is a reveling in the iconography, tropes, and logic of totalitarianism that is almost literary-critical in its interests. It would be an interesting exploration in its own right, but I’m not sure how it’s supposed to fit in with the other things you’re doing.

    9. The juxtaposition of images from totalitarian fiction and contemporary real life is strong. A significant difference, which goes unmentioned, is that the state of affairs we find in contemporary real life has not been orchestrated by the State. Nothing so dramatic, I’m afraid. It’s more like death by a thousand cuts, a consequence of an ultimately boring combination of mindless technological advancement, political cynicism, shallowness, and a debased and compromised public discourse. It would be lot cooler – and also a lot worse – if it was Big Brother or Mustafa Mond.

    10. The thing sorely needs sections and section-headings.

    11. Now there emerges yet another subject, an almost rhetorical investigation into the ways in which the common sense is manipulated and the role played by propaganda and advertising in the process. Another worthy subject, but at this point, there simply are too many of them, of too disparate varieties, to treat in an academically rigorous fashion. This is the sort of thing one can write in the later parts of one’s career, when one’s research and capacity to draw broad and far-reaching connections in an accessible manner have developed and matured together. But it’ll take David Hume like precociousness (he was 27 when he wrote the Treatise) to pull it off in a dissertation.

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  4. Habermas on refeudalization of the public sphere; obviously Herman and Chomsky; Durkheim on solidarity; compassion fatigue – self-immolation evokes little interest these days (10% of all Iranian suicides; common in Tibet, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka).

    Is propaganda really more effective now in the atomized media landscape than in the partisan 19th century or more oligarchic 20th? The very fact we are sensitized to what goes on in the advertising and social media worlds shows “the public sphere” still works as well or as imperfectly as it did in the era of William Randolph Hearst or Josef Goebbels. Did Protocols of the Elders of Zion do more or less than those Facebook ads ever did?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Dan,
    Biggest problem right now is structural. You are trying to lead the reader into your case by building a prior case to run in the background as comparison. But I found this confusing. We find your primary case only at the mid-way, and not stated outright, but again led into. So if the reader has difficulty with the first (but background) case, they are likely going to resist the primary case (which is actually quite easy to agree with). So I suggest bringing the primary case up front and then curving back to the background case as supportive clarification.

    This, third paragraph from the end, seems more likely your first paragraph: “Finger-pointing corporate power is fraught with prejudice, politicization, strong sentiments, and confusion. Many have decried the influences of powerful financial-interests in democratic societies, which has poisoned the well for healthy discussion. It is also unclear what one is even referring to when they speak of corporate power, other than perhaps some abstract, nefarious villains lurking in the shadows. The poison which has infected the well, I believe, is not some kind of innate tribalism or selfishness, as many have been quick to claim. Rather I think, to draw on Edward Bernays, our ‘minds have been molded.’ A mix of fracturing and regimenting propaganda is a potent psychological cocktail.” It tells us right away what your main issue is and the effort you will make to clarify and strengthen your case.

    Another problem I find troubling here is your use of history, which needs a sharper critical reading of that history, and the way you occasionally use sweeping generalities to present that history. I was only eight when Thích Quảng Đức performed his self-immolation protest; but monks would occasionally repeat his protest throughout the ’60s, and by the time I was aware enough to understand anything about Vietnam, it was clear that many of the adults around me thought this behavior simply weird: the product of a culture they didn’t understand and didn’t wish to understand. By then the US was completely polarized over the war. (The public reaction to the Pentagon Papers was far more divided than you present.)

    So I have difficulty accepting that “(h)umanity, having a common sense of what is unjust, tragic, heroic, terrifying, and angering, felt the same reactive attitudes of indignation, profound sadness, compassion, horror, and rage, toward the same respective objects – the oppression in Vietnam, the cause of the monks, and Thích himself.” All humanity? That’s completely unverifiable, especially as at the time the West had little access to public opinion behind the “Iron Curtain.” I don’t doubt that “(w)ithin weeks, waves of people around the world assembled to protest in solidarity with the monks.” This is verifiable. But it is not strong enough evidence to justify the sentence preceding it.

    And it is not quite the case that “Kennedy, who had been promoting Diem’s regime, withdrew support. Just a few months later, President Diem was overthrown in a rebellion, and the oppressive government was replaced.” We have transcripts of Kennedy’s conferences with his advisors. Kennedy approved the CIA’s support of the junta that assassinated Diem and replaced him, hoping it would reduce America’s public embarrassment while increasing sub-rosa control over the Vietnamese military. I hardly think that this neo-colonialist intrigue is evidence that Kennedy’s sense of humanity was outraged (although it may very well have been).

    It should be remembered that Kennedy, as president, was expected to fulfill a well-understood social function (which the current chump in the White House is clearly unable to do), which is to address and empathize with emotional upheavals among the electorate, in a manner to both mollify and yet reassure those emotions. He knew this, and he was very good at it. Rhetoric can divide us, but it can also bring us together.

    And it can also shade reports, journalistic or historical. The reporting of the self-immolation and of public reaction to it was accurate, but not disinterested. No news is; and our awareness of this fact gets played upon by politicians asserting that their very positions grant them access to a higher, unassailable truth. The proper attitude, however, is treating information sources critically and with awareness that any information needs confirmation, not just from ‘trusted’ sources, but *trustworthy* sources, who nonetheless may be unaware of their own enhancement or weakening of the force of the information.

    So the most you can safely claim in your next paragraph is how you were struck by ‘how *some* people, of *many* stripes and cultural backgrounds, *in different countries*, felt the same reactive attitudes when they viewed the image.’

    By now I hope you see that I am not unsympathetic to your main case, but worry that your background case needs re-thinking in presentation.

    As to your main case, concerning corporate propaganda driving wedges into the sensus communis, I suggest that you can add to it by looking into what went on in the mid-80s, when across the board, but especially in broadcast television, corporate producers of news media decided to achieve a high-profit expectation of the income generated by news. After this, news needed to become more ‘entertaining,’ and less delivery of information. Once the Clinton administration de-regulated news objectivity, it became possible to say anything if one had a presumed or claimed ‘information source’ platform, and find an audience for it. The only ‘watch-dog’ agencies we have now are in the private sector – which means they too are open to suspicion of ‘interest.’ And they too can be rigged to a given point of view. (Alex Jones presents his Infowars as just such a watch-dog agency, so there we go.)

    I understand that the current post is preliminary, and that you allowed yourself to write with some passion. But I strongly urge that as you refine this into a dissertation that you approach the subject as analytically, and with as little passion, as possibly. Otherwise you may end up writing a manifesto and suggesting solutions that cannot be obtained. The best that we can do in situations like the current is to continue to make arguments, counter-arguments, and deploy rhetoric to remind our readers of their commonality, and their shared reality. Hopefully, individual by individual, we may sway them to share ‘spiritually’ as well.

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  6. Yes, EJ speaks to a concern that I left out (should’ve been #12), which is some pretty dodgy — or at least highly contestable — history.

    I also doubt that there is a human common sense, in the sense you mean of “common sense.” It seems even less likely to me than a citizen common sense.

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  7. Hi everyone,

    Thanks a lot for working with me on this. Yes, EJ and Dan K have the right idea— this is a big work in progress, and I’ll definitely have to chip away and restructure it for a dissertation. But I really wanted to throw up the directions I’m taking, to get the kind of assistance everyone is giving, here.

    Thanks, and I’ll reply later tonight (fixing the internet in my apartment 😪

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    • I was also going to say that it strikes me as rather early to be thinking about dissertations. I really didn’t think seriously about mine until I’d finished my coursework and was taking my comprehensive exams. I needed all that education, before I could have any hope of putting together a project that was both credible and doable. My interests and focus also changed substantially over that time, so if I’d started something earlier, I would have had to scrap it and start from scratch.

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  8. Hope this might help somehow. Consider the concept of an elevator speech. If you had to make your case in the time it takes to travel from the lobby to the 34th floor, what words would you choose? You might use the first few paragraphs to concisely summarize the bottom line of your case, and sell us on why we should read it. Where are we going, and why should we take the journey?

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    • I’m afraid I’m not really interested in doing this. Indeed, this conversation has gone on longer than I would have liked. And has absolutely nothing to do with the essay.

      I am going to start enforcing the “relevance” part of our guidelines. So, let’s stick to discussing the posts, shall we?

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  9. Hi Everyone,

    I want to state at the outset something I only now realized should have been put at the top of the article, probably in my announcement. The first is that when I say that this introduction is intended to be impressionistic, I mean that I am trying to use whatever materials I can find — historical, literary, photographic, etc. — to illustrate the philosophical points. This is because, for the introduction, I wanted to keep the reader in a mindset that has one foot in the real world and the other in philosophical theory. So I took some artistic liberties with the history — not filling in all the details, highlighting certain parts, etc — like films that are “based on a true story.”

    The proper history and academic details would be fleshed out in separate, more extensive chapters, should I be able to take on a task like that.

    With that said, both Dan K and EJ expressed concern about whether there is a human common sense.

    Empirically *proving* this wouldn’t be easy, but fortunately that is where philosophy frequently begins. I think there is a human common sense by considering things like this: Ceteris peribus, all humans would run in fear if a flood began sweeping toward them. All humans would be alarmed if they were to see and hear a nuclear explosion going off in the atmosphere. Of course there will be some outliers here and there, but the number of human beings who would co-react to these in unison would approach the limit, so to speak.

    The human common sense is depicted artistically, as well, in a number of films:

    -Alien-invasion, like war of the worlds, in which all humans react to the invading species with either terror, defiance,
    -Watchmen — Give humanity a *common enemy* in order to unify them; one that taps into the human common sense of existentially dangerous.

    I really liked the budhist monk case as an illustration of my point, because the way the events unfolded reminded me of the way the innate immune system works. An innate immune cell will encounter a pathogen, and send out a signal to recruit a mass-influx of more immune cells (inflammation). Upon receipt of the signal, the area is swarmed with immune cells, and the pathogens are eliminated. Malcom Brown snapped a photo of the Monk dying, and people received that signal, collectively feeling ready to assist. Those who were nearby “swarmed” the area, protesting and eventually forming a rebellion.

    EJ, with regard to your points about Kennedy, I certainly wasn’t trying to let him off the hook, or depict him as having pure motives. In fact, that’s why I threw in the part about his support for the brutal regime, as a nod to the audience that — as usual — the U.S govt was promoting the thing that we all come to agree is morally bankrupt.

    With regard to the 80’s and the media — yes I would like to have a section on Regan’s decision to kill the fairness doctrine, and the effect that had on the media landscape.

    Dan,

    “I don’t know that I think that “If you and I cry at the same scene in a play, then we have a common sense of what is sad.” Certainly, we both find the scene sad, but that doesn’t mean that we experience sadness in the same way.”

    This is something I want to discuss at some length in the chapter on the common sense. I draw the distinction between having a common sense with *one another* and having a common sense in line with something else.

    Remember that regimenting propaganda involves getting people to react with unity toward the same objects, but from different perspectives/for different reasons. Similarly, people can cry and feel sad at the same scene in a play, but do so from different perspectives. Like a child and a parent watching a pixar movie, the parent may laugh for different reasons from the child, but they both laugh in unison at the same jokes, since they operate at two levels — the immature and mature.

    “The juxtaposition of images from totalitarian fiction and contemporary real life is strong. A significant difference, which goes unmentioned, is that the state of affairs we find in contemporary real life has not been orchestrated by the State. Nothing so dramatic, I’m afraid. It’s more like death by a thousand cuts, a consequence of an ultimately boring combination of mindless technological advancement, political cynicism, shallowness, and a debased and compromised public discourse. It would be lot cooler – and also a lot worse – if it was Big Brother or Mustafa Mond.”

    I don’t believe that there is a big brother regimenting the public. As I said in the essay, this is one way that “corporate power” is an unclear notion. Some have the image of corporate power as some unified entity with malicious intent, but I think nothing so sinister is going on. I actually agree that it is death by a thousand cuts, but not as “boring” as you think.

    It is “the logic of capitalism,” as Marx would say, such that the things you describe — political cynicism, shallowness, and a debased and compromised public discourse — aren’t mere contingent events that have occurred out of nowhere, but predictible effects of masses of agents who act from a capitalist *perspective,* with its own common sense. The businessman puts on his suit and goes to work, and the rules for his reactive attitudes change during that time. Tragedies are “public relations problems,” and profit is maximally important. When he takes off his clothes and hangs out in the evening, his perspective changes, and he will be concerned about any number of moral projects and people in his life, etc. But this is also something that I’ll have to discuss more extensively. Of course, the media also is governed by this perspective, at least according to Herman and Chomsky.

    “I wonder whether there is such a thing as a citizen “common sense.” Certainly nothing like there is a parental one. Citizenship is somewhat formal – ethnicity and nationality seem less so – and I’m pretty sure one doesn’t feel it like one feels parenthood (regardless of what loud real ‘muricans might say).”

    Yeah, thanks for this. Maybe citizen isn’t the right level of analysis, at least these days.

    S. Wallerstein,

    “In any way, the contradictions between differing and opposed social groups and classes make it more difficult for a classic tyranny to take power since no demagogue can appeal to the majority of the population.”

    I disagree. A divided population cannot act together against an encroaching body, making them easy to control. I wrote something about this a little while ago, here: https://theelectricagora.com/2018/03/15/see-something-dont-say-anything/

    Thanks for the references, David Duffy!

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    • Dan T.

      The classic situation of a fascist demagogue is Nazi Germany. There you have a homogenous population and a minority, the Jews, whom people either dislike or don’t care about. The fascist demagogue scapegoats the minority and blames all society’s ills on them. An economic crisis seems to generally be a pre-condition for a demagogue.

      For example, in the U.S. in the 50’s there was a fairly homogenous population in cultural terms and much less income and wealth inequality than now (among whites) and it would have been possible to scapegoat the communists during the McCarthy era for the nation’s ills, but there was unprecedented prosperity and economic growth, and thus, almost no possibility of a demagogue coming to power.

      In general, you overestimate the role of morality and moral sentiments in changing history and underestimate the role of self-interest. I had just turned 17 when the Buddhist monk burned himself to death and I don’t recall the moral outrage that you speak of among my family or classmates, but I might have missed it. However, what is clear is that no amount of atrocities in Viet Nam, My Lai, the bombing of civilians in North Viet Nam, napalm, etc., turned U.S. public opinion against the war: rather it was the death in combat of countless U.S. soldiers (self-interest) and the fear of being drafted of college students.

      I spent 11 years of the 17 year Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. There were no mass protests against the dictatorship, in spite of torture, concentration camps, people being disappeared and murdered by the army and secret police, until
      the economy crashed in 1982 and 1983 and unemployment soared to record levels. Those who were not or less affected by the crash, mainly the wealthy and the upper-middle class, continued supporting Pinochet until the end, because the Pinochet dictatorship governed in favor of the rich, privatizing the public sector, suppressing unions, cutting social spending, etc.

      I’m not saying that morality or moral sentiments never move people at all, but that in general, it’s self-interest (which is more than just economic self-interest of course) that does, and in a country as divided as the U.S. today, conflicting interest group make it almost impossible for a fascist demagogue to take power.

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    • DanTip wrote:

      The first is that when I say that this introduction is intended to be impressionistic, I mean that I am trying to use whatever materials I can find — historical, literary, photographic, etc. — to illustrate the philosophical points. This is because, for the introduction, I wanted to keep the reader in a mindset that has one foot in the real world and the other in philosophical theory. So I took some artistic liberties with the history — not filling in all the details, highlighting certain parts, etc — like films that are “based on a true story.”

      = = =

      I don’t see how that works, honestly. I mean, part of the point of the critique is that if you’re getting the history wrong — or if the account you’re giving is highly contested — then it doesn’t illustrate the point you want to illustrate.

      And regarding your answer to EJ and I about the human common sense, I don’t find your examples persuasive. All they show is that we share some fundamental, common instincts that operate at the pre-social/pre-cultural level.

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  10. Hi s wallerstein,

    I don’t think I overestimate the role of the moral
    Sentiments. In fact, they play a minor part. I employ *all* of our reactive attitudes — moral or not — to explain how propaganda regiments a population.

    PF strawson was interested in the moral reactive attitudes. I’m interested in where our patterns of reactive attitudes *generally* come from, moral or not, and how those play a role in political developments.

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  11. Dan,

    If you want to call the idea that all humans would in from a flood, duck at an explosion in the atmosphere, or feel fear when aliens invade a common instinct that’s fine. I call it a human common sense of what’s dangerous, etc.

    As for the immolation example, okay, i guess I’ll drop it if it really isn’t working for any of you.

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  12. The only reason I’m hesistant to use the term “instinct” is because it implies something about the origin of the human common sense — that all things that all humans would respond to are built in from birth. But there’s no reason to suppose that there *couldn’t* be any things humanity has a sense for which are post-cultural.

    So I want to leave things more open ended.

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    • Whether it’s “possible” really isn’t interesting. It’s whether it’s *likely* and I don’t think it is.

      My point re: instinct was that it is pre-social/cultural and thus, not of use to your thesis.

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  13. The only reason I’m hesistant to use the term “instinct” is because it implies something about the origin of the human common sense — that all things that all humans would respond to are built in from birth.

    I don’t think it has that implication.

    Much of how we react when driving an automobile is instinctive but not innate (in my opinion).

    I tend to take “instinct” as implying that no deliberative reasoning was involved. But there could still have been a great deal of learning.

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  14. But one other main reason for deploying it is descriptive — to give an explanatory framework for how tyranny takes hold.

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  15. And yeah I have to read more Arendt to make sure this is worthwhile at all. Thanks for her books by the way 🙂

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  16. Dan K.

    Slow, creeping and inexorable decline of what? Of the United States? Of Western civilization? Of humanity as a whole? Of the world ecosystem? All of the above? None of the above?

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      • I agree with you about the U.S. and about Western civilization (in the classical sense at least). I also agree with you that tyranny, once again in the “classical” text book sense of a Hitler, a Stalin or a 1984, is not a big threat in
        the U.S. or Western Europe today or even the more advanced countries of South America: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. I define tyranny much more broadly than the stalin/hitler sense. A huxleyan world would be tyrannical on my account, as well. And I’ve made a case for impending tyranny being a concern, and stand by it, even if its not the only thing to be worried about.

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    • I’m a bit rusty on Brave New World, but generally, tyranny implies that one person or one party or one elite controls or has arbitrary power over the rest of the population.

      Today multiple forces try to control and manipulate us: the U.S. government, Facebook, Google, the Russians, probably the Chinese (and I assume the U.S. government tries to manipulate and control the Chinese and Russians too),
      myriad giant corporations, etc. All those forces compete with one another: Facebook would love to put Google out of business, Apple wants the monopoly of their market as do the other high tech companies, etc., so there is no one tyrannical figure or party or elite which is in charge.

      In any case, no one obliges or forces you to use Facebook or Google or even a smartphone or to believe the nonsense that Trump spouts or that Clinton did too. I think that there are lots of spaces of freedom today for anyone who keeps their eyes open and is willing to pause and take a deep breath when they sense that they are being manipulated.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Huxleys is a one state dictatorship. I agree with S. Wallerstein that the forces acting on us today are too disparate,mutually antagonistic, and market driven to comprise a tyranny in any meaningful sense of the word.

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  18. S. Wallerstein,

    “so there is no one tyrannical figure or party or elite which is in charge. ”

    “Huxleys is a one state dictatorship. I agree with S. Wallerstein that the forces acting on us today are too disparate,mutually antagonistic, and market driven to comprise a tyranny in any meaningful sense of the word.”

    I never said there was just one figure. There are multiple, splitting the market, each regimenting populations in a manner that piranhas would. We all know an oligopoly is forming in direct correlation to an ever-increasing wealth gap which is approaching the limit of disparity. To not even grant this *prima facie* reason to consider tyranny a problem is odd to me.

    Again, I don’t think any nefarious motives have to be ascribed to anyone, in order for this to be the case (though I’m sure there are plenty of those around). Market forces and an entrenched capitalist perspective could do all the work.

    “I see no reason to think they *are* related.”

    Lack of trust, inability to cooperate with another, and isolation means we reach a situation that Thomas Paine described:

    “The strength of one man is so unequal to his wants, and his mind so unfitted for perpetual solitude, that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same. Four or five united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of a wilderness, but one man might labour out the common period of life without accomplishing any thing; when he had felled his timber he could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed; hunger in the mean time would urge him from his work, and every different want call him a different way. Disease, nay even misfortune would be death, for though neither might be mortal, yet either would disable him from living, and reduce him to a state in which he might rather be said to perish than to die.”

    How can you be anymore *more* than a mediocre mush of people, slowly wasting away, if you cannot cooperate?

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    • I’m afraid I’m still not buying it. I don’t think the situation that is unfolding is a tyranny in any meaningful sense of the word, and I don’t think our slow decline is a matter of lacking a common sense, as you mean the expression. Rather, it is a result of poor education, constant distraction, shallowness, and self-absorption.

      I just didn’t find the arguments very persuasive, for all the reasons I outlined in my itemized comments. I also found that the tangle of different genres made it difficult for me to sustain a consistent line of thought.

      I may be the wrong person to give you feedback on this, as I am not really sympathetic even to the basic premise. You may want to seek out people who at least buy into the starting assumptions.

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      • Dan T.,

        I also don’t buy your arguments, but let me explain that I am not a professional philosopher nor was I a philosophy major nor am I an academic. I have a fair amount of practical experience in politics and follow politics closely in the media and have done so for over half a century. However, a friend of mine with several advanced degrees, with whom I often argue politics, comments that talking politics with me is like talking to a very intelligent taxi driver, someone with strong opinions, good insights, well informed about the news because they listen to the radio all day, but with a weak theoretical basis.

        So it well may be that your arguments are a contribution to academic philosophy, a field I know almost nothing about beyond what I read in a few blogs. It might be a good idea, as Dan K. points out, to seek other opinions about your work within academic circles.

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  19. Dan T:

    Your argument relies rather heavily on the idea of an “increasing wealth gap” in the US. In my view this increase is not obvious. Have a look at Figure 10.6 in Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”. It shows that the top 10% share of total wealth was 66 per cent in 1940 and 71 per cent in 2010. The trend in 1990-2010 shows little rise, less than that in 1970-1990. This is also true of the top 1% share.

    The worrying upward trend is in income inequality, not in wealth inequality.

    If you don’t have the book, Piketty’s figures are on his personal website.

    Alan

    Liked by 1 person

  20. On the other hand you appear to have a President with an entire large TV network with a personal loyalty to him (as opposed to his party), and presumably to anyone he anoints as his successor.

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  21. There is a PolSci term whose name escapes me for the fact that a lot of people think that political systems go along some linear scale from Fascism to Democracy. So if democracy is in trouble we must somehow be regressing to some form of fascism. This is false. Fascism, Nazism, Communism and so on were very much products of their time. Dependent on the social and economic foundations of their societies and the forces at work at the time. Thinking they represent a viable threat now is as ridiculous as insisting that chattel slavery is just around the corner.

    Of course, terms like fascism are no longer being used with any form of conceptual precision. It’s become nothing more than a pejorative term for anything someone doesn’t like. This has always struck me as a somewhat shallow. Much better to develop a vocabulary that facilitates analysis and accuracy. In fact I see this sort of labelling exercise as a large part of the modern problem. Instead of engaging people with argument and evidence, it has become typical to use labels such ‘racism’ or ‘fascism’ the same way a mathematician uses QED. Once a view is labelled this way it becomes toxic and so no further argument or debate is possible. This encourages groupthink as people stick to their own circles for discourse eschewing dialog with groups deemed deplorable.

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  22. Hi Bunsen,

    Yeah, Bernays would likely have classified terms like “racism” and “fascism” — as they are used these days — as “rubber stamps,” devoid of any original thought and mere imprints of other people’s bland ideas, which we continually pass around in speech.

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  23. In fact I see this sort of labelling exercise as a large part of the modern problem. Instead of engaging people with argument and evidence, it has become typical to use labels such ‘racism’ or ‘fascism’ the same way a mathematician uses QED.

    It seems even more common to interpret criticism this way in order to avoid further argument.

    It seems to me that if someone dares suggest that anyone is motivated in any way by prejudice they get labelled ‘authoritarian’.

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  24. Bunsen Burner

    Once a view is labelled this way it becomes toxic and so no further argument or debate is possible.

    Why is it not possible?

    I get called names all the time. “Leftard”, “Nazi”, “Neo Nazi”, “Authoritarian”, “Stalinist”, “Christophobe”, “transphobe”. My personal favourites are “Rainbow Fascist” and “Waffen SSM”.

    I take such things in my stride and whether or not this language is intended to shut down debate is irrelevant because it won’t stop me.

    So how is it a big problem that some people get triggered when someone calls them ‘racist’? How does that stop further debate? Are these people so mentally fragile that they can’t take a little intemperate language in their stride the way I can? Find them a puppy room and the debate can go on.

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    • I thought I explained pretty comprehensively why epithets have no place in a serious discussion, in the recent essay I did on the topic.

      Why would anyone want to have a debate with a person who is acting like an asshole?

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  25. The question is, why would someone consider that debate is is not possible because some act like assholes?

    Do we need everyone in the world to stop acting like assholes before we can debate? Debate has always weathered intemperate language and behaviour why can’t it now?

    The fact is that the MSM arseholes who call me “Rainbow Fascist” and “Waffen SSM” can suit themselves. My debate is with the reasonable people on both sides and not the minority of arseholes whether they be in the MSM, Parliament or elsewhere.

    So I ask again, why is debate not possible because some people get offended by being called racist or fascist?

    For example one of the people I follow on Twitter is the ex pollie and media figure Warren Nyunggai Mundine and he regularly gets called “Uncle Tom” and “Coconut”. He calmly points out that these are racist epiphets and moves on. I don’t agree with much he says, but I always support him in this. So how has debate been shut down here?

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    • The issue isn’t what’s possible, but what’s likely. And if you act like an asshole towards me, I’m not going to continue debating you. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

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      • Let’s say someone insults me in a debate. One of the favorite things I was called was “reactionary binary old sod”. That person has no interest in learning from me nor after that insult, I from them. However, generally, there are spectators to the debate, passive or not so passive onlookers, and at times one tries to convince the spectators, not the other party. If there are no spectators, there is no point debating someone who is so closeminded that they insult you.

        Liked by 1 person

  26. In the past I have been racist and people have sought to point this out and talk to me about it. I am grateful that they did.

    What if they had felt that they had no right to allege racism, or that I had felt that even the suggestion that I was racist made no further debate or argument possible? Then they would have said nothing, or I wouldn’t have listened.

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  27. The issue isn’t what’s possible, but what’s likely. And if you act like an asshole towards me, I’m not going to continue debating you. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

    Sure, then what is to stop you going on to debate with others? The fact that someone has acted like an arsehole towards you and the fact that you don’t like to debate arseholes has only shut down debate between you and said arseholes, it has not shut down all debate.

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  28. I am not sure how you think that we could have overturned the anti gay laws in NSW without being able to suggest that the only reason for those laws was a prejudice that most of us no longer feel.

    To change a law you must demonstrate that the reason for the law no longer exists.

    Sure that might contain the suggestion that those arguing to keep the laws still felt that prejudice. Sure that suggestion may have hurt their feelings.

    But the law got changed and the indications are that those hurt feelings were not fatal.

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  29. That is probably true, but not everyone sees converting the heathen as their mission in life.</blockquote
    If said heathens want to put you in prison for 14 years and have the power to do so then you would want to convert them just a little, if only in that respect.

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  30. We will have to disagree, but I still haven’t heard any good reason why including the possibility of there being prejudice will make debate and argument impossible.

    All I have heard is that it will make some people less inclined to join that debate, but then those people are hardly likely to be listening to me whatever I say.

    I can’t see how you can have any sensible discussion about human behaviour if you arbitrarily rule out mention of prejudice.

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  31. Dan

    Expressing my point of view does not entail that I am having an argument with you. You have put your case and I have found your argument unconvincing for the reasons I have said and so there is no more that needs to be said between us on the matter.

    But the idea that allegations of prejudice somehow makes argument and debate impossible did not originally come from you.

    I would welcome it for anyone to give a sensible account of why this is so because I am genuinely perplexed by this since, as I say they torrents of epiphets that come my way have never harmed my ability to engage others in argument and debate, why should some much milder allegations affect this ability in others.

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  32. Robin.
    It is one of the least appealing qualities of your commentary, that once you have a logical problem (or what you perceive as a logical problem) in your craw, you won’t let go, even though you your interlocutor says ‘enough is enough.’

    “I would welcome it for anyone to give a sensible account of why this is so because I am genuinely perplexed by this since, as I say they torrents of epithets that come my way have never harmed my ability to engage others in argument and debate, why should some much milder allegations affect this ability in others.”

    In the first place, this case has been made and time again; you apparently still don’t grasp it. Why not? Your standard of judgment seems to be ‘Robin Herbert’s experience.’ No one can account for your experience but you; but by a similar token, those with shared experiences can engage generalized social judgments to which others can – and do – agree.

    “Expressing my point of view does not entail that I am having an argument with you.” I note the logical claim of entailment (or lack thereof). That’s not generally how p[eople converse. In any event, if an interlocutor says, “this conversation is over,’ and no one else steps forward to act as interlocutor, it follows that the conversation is over, whether you will have it or no.

    At which point you may continue to forward your argument, but if you find an audience for it, good luck to you.

    (I have pointed these issues out to you before; and on specific topics you have learned from this. But there are general principles worthy of continued consideration. Sometime I think you’ve grasped these, other times I worry you want the formal logic, of what is an informal logic discussion.)

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  33. ej

    It is one of the least appealing qualities of your commentary, that once you have a logical problem (or what you perceive as a logical problem) in your craw, you won’t let go, even though you your interlocutor says ‘enough is enough.’

    Bunsen Burner was my interlocutor as he made the claim I was addressing. Dan joined in as have you. I am not sure that he was even on point because both ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’ can be straighforward descriptions as well as epiphets.

    As I said he made his case and I find it unconvincing for the reasons stated. You find it convincing, OK, I didn’t

    In the first place, this case has been made and time again; you apparently still don’t grasp it. Why not?

    I understood fine. I found it unconvincing for the reasons I stated. No one has addressed those reasons. I am happy to leave at that.

    Sometime I think you’ve grasped these, other times I worry you want the formal logic, of what is an informal logic discussion.

    I am not sure what can have brought you to that conclusion. Words like ‘entail’ also have meanings in general language. If I have ever presented any formal logic (which I do extremely rarely) I make this clear.

    What it comes down to is that there is a claim that the use of words like ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’ make debate impossible. This seems implausible to me for reasons I have given. I was just interested in why anyone would think this is the case. I still don’t know. I really don’t.

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  34. Robin:

    My point was a simple one hinging on what one expects from a discussion. If the discussion is to be meaningful you must accept the possibility that you are wrong and the other person is right. By labelling them a racist or a nazi you have pretty much said that there can be no middle ground between the two of you. So why are you still debating? To show how clever you are? As a form of signalling to your in-group to demonstrate loyalty?

    This has nothing to do with never discussing racism or always being respectful towards bigots. In fact I don’t remember any anti-gay laws being repealed by people shouting homophobe. I do remember a lot debate with religious groups pointing out that the Bible did not dictate the behaviour of a large group of people, and as such shouldn’t be used as the basis for our civil laws.

    So let me stress that my point was in no way as dogmatic as you seem to think it was. If you don’t have much of life and you just like arguing endlessly with people without learning anything new, then yes, you can call people names and get insulted back and carry on until the heat death of the universe. However, some of us do have meaningful lives and simply have better things to do than carry on a discussion with someone who has basically stated that they don’t care about our logic, or facts, or any possibility that what we are saying might make sense.

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      • If I may make one more point in this conversation, doing away with anti-gay or racist laws is political. You have to pressure people in Congress or in Parliament, you have to get people on your side to register to vote and to vote, you have to run and fund candidates who support your positions.

        It’s not a question of converting all bigots to liberal toleration, but of changing the laws.

        Now there may be a moment when the movement for more toleration, in this case, gay liberation, begins when you can convince people through argumentation. I recall back in the 1970’s when the gay liberation movement first came to my attention that gay friends and acquaintances would correct things which I said which were anti-gay and I was grateful for their correction. However, that moment is long past, and now anyone who is openly anti-gay or openly racist is deliberately and consciously that way and there is no way to convince them, at least not through rational argumentation.

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  35. Dan wrote…

    “And if you act like an asshole towards me, I’m not going to continue debating you. And I suspect I’m not the only one.”

    This is a choice everyone is of course entitled to make. There are better choices available though, especially for philosophers.

    What does “acting like an asshole” mean? Usually it means one person is somehow interrupting the story another person tells themselves about themselves, ie. their ego.

    Typically we respond to this by trying to somehow change or get rid of the person doing the interrupting. This is understandable in human terms, but not very logical, because there is an endless parade of people extending out over the horizon who are willing to act like assholes. And new ones are being born everyday. So however successful we might be at fixing the problem with one inconvenient person, there’s always another ready to soon take their place. Thus, keeping our focus on the asshole is basically a fool’s errand.

    The more rational response is to flip the focus from what the other person is saying, to what we’re hearing, and how we’re experiencing what we’re hearing. This is something we have some hope of understanding and controlling, and if we succeed we will have solved the entire problem of assholes.

    While being highly rational, this approach tends to be wildly unpopular because it requires the surrender of the cherished fantasy victim status. I say “fantasy” because at least in the context of the Internet, no one actually has the power to make us feel anything. We choose what to read, and we choose how to experience what’s been read. We can choose not to read the asshole, but it would be wiser to choose to experience them in whatever manner we prefer.

    Egos appear to be necessary for human survival, but they are also the primary source of human suffering. Philosophers should be using assholes as a doorway in to an investigation in to this little psychological prison cell we create for ourselves. Shoving away the asshole just reinforces the fantasy that we are victims, and puts off the day when we look more closely at why we experience challenges to our story the way we do.

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    • Well, we will just have to disagree as to what counts as a better choice for philosophers. If someone is hurling epithets, I’m not going to converse with them. It’s really quite simple.

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