Thursday, March 18, 2004

Pinker and No Right Turn

My impression is that No Right Turn has taken those aspects of Pinker's The Blank Slate which are critical of particular strands of Left/Liberal thought to mean that Pinker is attacking liberals and liberalism as a whole. Pinker is not "denouncing" liberals. Quite the opposite is true.

Pinker is himself a Liberal. He is also a scientist. He has written The Blank Slate to serve two purposes. Firstly, to show that liberal values are under no threat from the discoveries that are being made in the science of evolutionary psychology about how our minds work. Secondly, it is a cautionary tale for both the Left and the Right about what went wrong last century when human nature was ignored by those who wanted to improve the lot of our species. And for the Left it was Social Constructivism, the theory that the mind is made by society, that helped lead to the Gulags and Killing Fields.

Pinker is offering a critique from within liberalism of aspects of liberal thought. In a similar manner Peter Singer, author of A Darwinian Left, offers a critique of Left wing thought from within the Left. It is not just that they are not hostile to liberalism, they are attempting to breath new life into age-old political disputes by looking at how our minds actually work and they believe that liberalism can only benefit from this. That they both may appear to spend more time analyzing the Left is because that is where their sympathies lie, they are concerned with improving Left/Liberal arguments. The Right can do their own house keeping.

One particular aspect of this project, which NRT focuses on, is the degree to which various aspects of our behavior and thought processes are or are not influenced by environmental factors such as society, culture, the media etc. One conclusion that has been verified by over twenty years of scientific research is that our minds are not as susceptible to external influence as we thought. Contrary to what NRT claims, without evidence, propaganda does not work nor are we at the mercy of advertising.

If our minds were able to be controlled to the extent that NRT imagines then why should Totalitarian regimes all have needed to rely on terror to keep their populations subjugated? Surely, if propaganda and advertising had such a controlling influence on our minds, then Totalitarian regimes, with their complete control over what messages people are exposed to, would not have needed the terror infrastructures that are characteristic of such States. It is precisely because our minds are not susceptible to propaganda that terror was required. All those public pictures and statues of Saddam - political advertising par excellence - sure came down pretty quickly once the threat of the secret police was removed.

This still leaves open the question of how people arrive at particular political opinions. For NRT to offer the explanation that people vote for ACT, not because they are stupid, but because "they're just wankers, with extremely egocentric interests" is not to explain anything. There are many people one might want to describe like that but why do some vote ACT and the rest vote for the Greens? And this position hardly gells with his previous statement that "... political issues are - almost by definition - issues that people can reasonably disagree over".

Neither does NRT's views on how people are manipulated because "politicians and advertisers lie to us" indicate an acceptance that there are "reasonable" disagreements.

Because who is it that is being duped? I presume that NRT does not believe that his mind is controlled by Bush and Blair. No, those he accuses of being duped just so happens to coincide with those people with which NRT disagrees . Those with whom he agrees are inexplicably privileged with some form of (mental) capacity enabling them to sail through life unaffected by the winds of lies and manipulation blown by perfidious advertisers and politicians to which the rest of us have no defense.

While I agree with NRT that universal education, a free press and a healthy skepticism of authority are prerequisites for democracy he offers no credible theory as to why people adopt the political opinions they do. To claim that its "...a matter of the sophistication of manipulation techniques and the flaws in our nature they exploit" is to make an hypothesis about how the mind works. But the scientific evidence supports Pinker not NRT. In fact it is a remarkably unliberal point of view to believe that large sections of humankind are so easily duped.

(If anyone doubts Peter Singer's Left wing credentials then read The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush).


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