Making Sense of it All
Like many liberty-minded people, I can’t escape the feeling that we are on the downhill slope of the American experiment. Unlike some, however, I don’t see collapse as imminent and I’d like to offer a perspective that seeks to make sense out of ideas and events that seem like nonsense. My goal is to examine the forest of reality and take a closer look at the tress that modern social science uses as a basis for policies in education and governance. If you’re looking for a solution, dear reader, you won’t find it here. Instead, I hope to provide another layer for your own worldview and connect intangible ideas to tangible outcomes. Suspend your disbelief, pack a lunch, and follow me as we try to find a useful path through what may be to come.
Part One: Utopia, or Nah?
I’ll begin with a confession: In my teens and early twenties I used to be a socialist. Not in a political sense, but in the sense that I believed, and still do believe, that Earth has enough resources for all humans to thrive if everyone shared and worked together toward a ‘greater good.’ Coercion, thought twenty-two year old Steve, was a necessity because of shameful and selfish people who either hoard wealth, or steal it outright therefore upsetting any possible equilibrium. Fast forward a couple years and, like many basic white-guy libertarians, Ayn Rand was my first exposure to ideas of self-ownership that resonated with me. Ironically, I read Atlas Shrugged, then the more palatable The Fountainhead, as a result of a liberal arts education while studying to become an English teacher. In my quest to expose myself to more ‘classic’ literature, I ended up radicalizing myself toward liberty. Ideas about the natural state of mankind, or womankind if you’re into that, still fascinate me and this is also why I included this confession in this essay. Now that we’re in 2021 I don’t know that libertarian is how I would describe myself having seen the official movement evolve into something else than what I thought it was. Regardless, I haven’t forgotten the ideals of younger me, and my current job uses those younger values to inform my professional decisions-although not in the ways that you may think. We’ll get to those in future articles.
The belief that there is or is not a ‘natural state’ for humans is the philosophical root of all systems of governance and policy. The ongoing shift in societal values, therefore, is actually a logical progression of this foundation. Those who do believe in a ‘natural state’ see this as a culture war while those who do not see it as a slow, steady march of progressive values. To make sense of statements like, “not all men have a penis,” we have to consider several schools of thought. While we do that it might be useful to establish just a few definitions for the sake of the argument and then get into the meat of this message. For this we have to differentiate between A) True Believers; B) Opportunists; and C) The People. I understand that your instincts might have you draw the conclusion that I am about to perform some daring mental gymnastics if you’ve made it this far. To that I say: take a break, get some water, consider the difference between what you’d call socialization versus behavior modification and then come back because I’m just getting started.
Let’s be clear that True Believers, Opportunists, and The People are not static categories and most move between them in accordance with the issues being discussed. The True Believer is not so much a zealot as one who is self-actualized in their belief. For example, I am a true believer with regard to self-ownership and limiting the concentration of power; benevolent or otherwise. This is why I reject notions such as “[Federal Politician of your choice] is the most libertarian since sliced bread,” because the very act of him or her trying to solve problems implies that we should rely on federal politicians to solve problems for us; and I want to limit that power as much as possible. My confidence in this belief is such that I have integrated it into my worldview and identity, and it serves as part of the foundation for my parenting style, professional decision making, and most certainly voting choices. I am a True Believer when it comes to self-ownership. You can imagine what an Opportunist is – those who will feign belief when it serves their goals but can easily compromise when it becomes expedient. The best way to detect whether one is a True Believer, or an Opportunist is by their actions. The Opportunist lives by the mantra, “Rules for thee, not for me.” If I take a private jet to a summit on the destructive effects of greenhouse gases on global warming, or if I somehow make the bureaucratic state bigger and more expensive while simultaneously claiming to make it smaller, I might be an Opportunist.
That brings us to The People. The People in general don’t want to be inconvenienced or alienated. They don’t necessarily want to hurt anyone and don’t put a whole lot of thought into their typical daily activities. This makes The People the most easily convinced and also the easiest to get along with – especially when dealing with The People face-to-face. The vast majority of humans, myself included, on the vast majority of issues fall into the category of The People. At this point an appropriate question to ask would be: What does an idealistic socialist utopia, the belief in the natural state of humans, behavior modification, and differentiating between True Believers, Opportunists, and the People have in common with making sense of the culture war and decline of the American experiment? Welcome to my TED talk.
Remember now, twenty-two-year-old Steve thought socialism in theory could work provided there were enough cooperation among people. In essence, the socialist ideal is a purely voluntary, stateless society which is why we see a lot of self-identified anarchists supporting these ideals. In practice, however, one would need to be able to outlaw this, close that loophole over there, and generally monopolize force in order to coerce back into line anyone who steps away from the ideal. Following this to its logical conclusion inevitably leads to slavery and oppression. If you think that there is a default, natural state to human nature because there will always be someone trying to either game the system or flat-out take from those who are weaker than them, this default state has to be the product of one of two worldviews that can then be further divided into many, many different views. The first is that there is a Creator, and we are born with this flaw in our character that cannot be overcome through any self-derived means. The second view is that we are the products of our environment and, given the overwhelming survival instinct encoded into our DNA, we will always seek to maximize the ratio between physical effort and resource acquisition.
I do not hide the fact that I subscribed to the first worldview. I know you may not agree, and it is not the goal of this essay to convince you that we are born into sin and the earth will always be coercive and unjust. The second premise is the apparent operational view of society. For evidence of this claim, one just has to look around at the amount of energy and resources we as a society expend toward the Sisyphean task of saving us from ourselves. This is an important point because many who hold this value are good people and truly mean well for us all. It is that second view of humanity that makes it possible, in theory, to satiate our natural survival instincts while also shaping our self-concepts to one that supports a collectivist identity. To take it a step or three further, one might say that once humanity is capable of working toward a common goal then we can evolve into the type of society that Star Trek nerds dream of. The question is then, how do we move toward that ideal? This is where we consider large scale behavior modification. No, this isn’t an Illuminati conspiracy out of a Dan Brown novel spanning hundreds of years. If it were then we would probably be further along instead of the slow-motion train wreck that we are experiencing now. Rather it is the natural progression of atheist philosophy preached by True Believers and clumsily put into practice by Opportunists of varying stripes with the passive, and sometimes active, consent of The People.
Any decent behavior modification plan has elements of several psychological theories built into it. Operant conditioning is the concept that describes the usual but not always intentional pairing of a conditioned stimulus to an unconditioned response as demonstrated by Pavlov and his unfortunate dog. In the real world this entails introducing some sort of meaningful incentive for completing undesirable tasks while punishing undesirable behavior. Another element to consider is social learning theory. Simply put, this describes the different ways we can learn from watching others by the feedback that their environment gives them. In the real world, we should model for others how to respond to various events, positive and negative. You can even talk to them through things using tools like social behavior mapping and introduce elements of cognitive therapy but getting someone to think about how they think (meta-cognition). The end goal is cognitive reappraisal where someone changes the way they interpret events. In the real world it is teaching someone that it often does take more strength to walk away from a fight when possible and that violence should generally be avoided-regardless of what you just watched on UFC Fight Night.
Some organizations are intentionally introducing these elements into their organizational structure but have limited success if they don’t understand the underlying concepts. We’ll get into that in more detail in later parts as well. For now, that inadequate primer should be enough to segue to my next point which is that you cannot have an effective behavior modification plan without defining what exactly it is that you’re hoping to modify. Just like a physician should have an idea of what your health problems are before they treat you, society has to define what change they want to happen and the underlying source of what is wrong. For that we have to look at social theories that began but certainly don’t end with postmodernism. In a nutshell Western society is a proud federation of individuals. The rights our laws are founded on begin with the individual and proceed through larger and larger organizations up to and including nations. The inherent problem with this is that the concept of the individual rests on the concept of “I” and “mine.” This inevitably leads to another concept called “you” and “yours” and eventually, once we expand ourselves to groups, we find the concept of the “Other.” The idea of “Other” implies “not me, nor us” and is an impediment to social cooperation. This is important point because as one works their way through social layers there is an infinite number of ways we can use ideas of intersectionality to identify an “Other” and all of them are only possible if we have a concept of “I.”
The good news, if you are a True Believer and your worldview excludes an immutable natural state of humans, is that the concept of “I” is a learned concept. Again, the True Believer sincerely wants the best for all of us, but we have to, as a society, unlearn the concept of “me”. When there is no “I” there can be no “Other” and there is nothing left but “we”. Now that we’ve identified the underlying behavior to target for our behavior management plan, we have to do what every 12-step program attendee knows: admit we have a problem. How do we get a society of individuals to see that our individualism is the problem holding us back from riding across the stars on The Enterprise? Introduce Critical Theory and Deconstructionism. To be perfectly clear, these are not new concepts and not inherently wrong or bad. Into punk music or anything counterculture when you were young or not so young? Congratulations, you’re participating in Deconstructionism and Critical Theory. These theories merely describe the ways that we identify those who don’t share our values and seek to disrupt our cognitive bias against the “Other.” In the 20th century it was cool, and Opportunists made boatloads of money packaging counterculture and selling it to us. The difference between then and now is that more people in positions of power are aware and are becoming increasingly intentional about injecting counterculture into parts of life outside of entertainment such as education. In later parts I’ll outline how I am complicit through actively helping to introduce social and emotional learning into the school district that employs me. In this way, I am an Opportunist.
Remember, each element by itself is not inherently wrong but each informs much of what we see today in terms of cultural change. It also allows us to teach our kids to critically view the existing structure but, at the same time, many Opportunists use it to perpetuate the divisions that keep them in positions of power and affluence. It works because there are elements of truth and shame in those views, specifically when we talk about like racism and privilege. It is not my intention to accuse you, dear reader, of being complicit in any form of supremacy or oppression – or absolve you of complicity either. Rather, one can make the observation that we generally tailor our behavior, in part, by outward appearance and past experience. Simply asking you to consider this is to engage in a form of meta-cognition. From there it is a very small step to ask you to identify your own thought patterns and attempt to change them when those thoughts seem unjust. It can be even more effective if I call it something that seems noble, like anti-racism. Thus, we are beginning to have a social structure that increasingly rewards the evolution of this view of “I” into “we.” To bring us back to our wide scale behavioral management plan, we get elements of operant conditioning and social learning theory in our media, both legacy and social. Legacy media, through financial lessons learned by Opportunists who packaged and sold us counterculture in the past. Social media is more explicit and does not hide their goals of further eroding existing structures by elevating marginalized voices. The messages in our music, movies, television shows, and journalism all serve to help encourage cognitive reappraisal through social learning and explicit instruction and are reinforced materially through revenue and contracts. The most effective reinforcement comes through the reactions that a like, share, or retweet elicits. Some undoubtedly have become familiar with the term ‘dopamine hit’ which is absolutely a thing and most applications on your computing devices attempt to incorporate this in some form or fashion to keep users engaged. It feels good to be validated with s stranger’s agreement. Think about which is more difficult: getting to know someone else or making yourself known to others. There is a degree of vulnerability in making yourself known and the payoff is powerful when it is acknowledged and accepted. Again, and I can’t repeat this enough, the effort is not out of malice for the existing dominant systems or the individuals that make it up. They are True Believers.
At this point you may look at phenomena such as the increasing calls for silencing dissenting opinions and, much worse, targeting the careers of dissenting voices in an effort to remove those views from media as a refutation of my belief that there are indeed good intentions paving this road. For this, let’s look at the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. The experiment was cut short when a group of students who were merely supposed to impersonate prison guards enthusiastically embraced their role and became abusive toward the experiment participants playing as the prisoners. While there is some debate as to exactly what happened and what conclusions we can meaningfully draw from the Prison Experiment, I mention it because that’s what I think of when I see behavior that amounts to “cancel culture.” Providing systems where an individual’s advocacy of social justice values becomes increasingly rewarded has a deleterious effect that results in relational, and sometimes physical, aggression directed at non-conforming views. This is further evidence that the whole endeavor is built upon a faulty premise regarding the natural state of humans. The end result has been an exacerbated sense of “Other” and an entrenchment of resistance to the sort of tolerance that, on the surface, one would think we all would embrace.
I think this is a good place to conclude this part. Congratulations if you made it all the way here. Again, this essay was not intended to be a solution to a problem. Rather, it was intended to highlight an observation and hopefully further inform your understanding of current events. Regardless of your worldview, the last thing those who make our rules want is for We the Ruled to increase our understanding of each other. In a later article I’ll dive further into policy and laws that are based on the ideas written about here and how they have shaped and continue to shape educational policy. It is my hope that someone will read this series and come away with a better understanding of how their child’s education works as an institution and become empowered to demand better. Feedback is always welcome.