Contrived Chaos and States of Confusion

by Randall Amster, Common Dreams, February 24, 2017

There has been a lot of analysis suggesting that the executive-level politics we’re seeing play out right now are about incompetence or irrationality. The psychology of the President himself has been called into question, with bizarre public performances and blatant falsities being propagated, mirroring that of others in the Administration. To those accustomed to the presidency (irrespective of ideology) requiring certain levels of comportment, decency, and accountability, this moment can be dizzying and even terrifying.

To reach the conclusion that this is the product of ineptitude or insanity, however, would also require us to conclude that the past two years of campaigning and governing have been equally accidental or the result of someone being unhinged (not to mention the years spent on television). A far more plausible conclusion is that this actually is being done by design, in the sense that the immediate goal itself is to stimulate chaos to induce fear in some and admiration in others. Indeed, Dr. Allen Frances (who helped write the DSM) cautioned against following this red herring: “Trump represents a political challenge to the American democracy. To attribute this to his psychological quirks is to underestimate the danger.”

This is distinct from supposing that the contrived nature of the turmoil and ineptitude we seem to be experiencing is a kind of diversion or subterfuge meant to keep us from following the real moves being made or to throw us off the trail of potentially damaging storylines. It might be even simpler, in that chaos is the lifeblood of this Administration, the essential quality that animates their personalities and that has made them seemingly impervious to rational discourse, bad publicity, lampooning, or even fact-checking.

If chaos itself is both their method and goal, then the principal mistake they could make would be to seem reflective or repentant at any point. Instead, the premium is on being outrageous, unvarnished, off-the-cuff, impolitic, even shocking. In this view, the value is in appearing “unhinged,” taunting the media and others with ridiculous “alternative facts,” tweeting out misspelled rants at all hours of the day, asserting bald-faced lies, and acting in bizarre ways that give new meaning to the “bully” facet of the bully pulpit.

Taking it one step further, one can see the potential appeal of this modus operandi in some sectors—particularly those in the support base who are tired of politicians being all talk and no action. This contingent is more accustomed to the personality types found on “reality TV,” which is popular for a reason. The President not only garnered support through those channels, but did so by accentuating a persona that is natural in its brashness—and that doesn’t overestimate the refinement of the public.

Still, it leaves one to wonder where all of this may lead. Chaos for its own sake may be the order of the day, but surely there must be a long game at work in all this. Consider the posturing of an Administration whose support hinges on an intention to dismantle bureaucracies and “drain the swamp,” to roll in and restore that which has been lost through years of capitulating to career politicians who have sold out our values, jobs, and security. This has been the mantra for a long time now, as was noted back in 2015:

“And while it may seem like a lurching, chaotic campaign, Trump is, for the most part, a disciplined and methodical candidate, according to a Washington Post review of the businessman’s speeches, interviews and thousands of tweets and retweets over the past six months. Trump delivers scores of promises, diatribes and insults at breakneck speed. He attacks a regular cast of villains including undocumented immigrants, Muslims, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, his GOP rivals and the media. He keeps the narrative arc of each controversy alive with an endless stream of statements, an unwillingness to back down even when he has misstated the facts—and a string of attacks against those who criticize him. All the while, his supporters see a truth-talking problem solver unlike the traditional politicians who have let them down.”

That was written over a year ago, in an article titled: “It’s not chaos. It’s Trump’s campaign strategy.” The phrase “disciplined and methodical” stands out, as in sticking to the game plan and being calculated—further suggesting that all of this isn’t happening by accident or due to irrational behavior, but instead represents a form of contrived chaos. As such, Steve Bannon recently stated that the aim is nothing less than the ”deconstruction of the administrative state,” and previously had reportedly said that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down.”

Which brings us back to the question: to what end? The inducement of dizzying chaos may be a brilliant strategy and even a short-term goal in itself, but if it actually succeeds in bringing “everything crashing down,” then what? And who or what is the “everything” in that equation? We might surmise that this could mean “everything that potentially stands in the way of our agenda,” or perhaps simply that which is deemed superfluous or redundant in an attempt to streamline operations and consolidate power.

Following this arc, David Brooks recently characterized his fear about this Administration as “not that it’s incipient fascism, it’s that it’s anarchy.” Brooks is making a common mistake here in his conflation of anarchy with chaos, and moreover with his assessment of the Administration’s possible intentions. One clue is the nod to Lenin as a paragon of “destroying the state,” since what he replaced it with scarcely resembled anything like anarchism, instead moving toward an even more centralized apparatus. An even stronger prompt is Bannon’s description of the aim as implementing “an economic nationalist agenda.”

The contrast returns us to the question of what ensues in the emptiness created should the “chaos first” strategy succeed in crashing the system. History cautions that inducing such a vacuum by itself will more likely lead to authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, fascism, or other similarly troubling variants. These repressive outcomes entail the replacement of the preexisting state with deeper forms of autocratic power (even when cloaked in populist rhetoric), often vested in an “inner party” circle or a single person.

Anarchism is actually the opposite of this. While the impetus to break down oppressive structures may be overlapping, it is equally the case that anarchism seeks to foster wider forms of participation in the process. As such, it is constructive in its attempt to “prefigure” this future through action in the present, seeking not primarily to create a vacuum (which could serve as an invitation to tyranny) as much as it strives to cultivate more egalitarian relationships and greater capacities for self-organization in the process.

As the German anarchist Gustav Landauer observed: “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another…. We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.” Landauer articulates a more evolutionary perspective that sometimes contrasts with anarchism’s revolutionary spirit, but the shared impetus is constructive.

At this juncture, the current Administration has not articulated a coherent worldview that provides any confidence that its penchant for destruction and chaos is anything other than an attempt to consolidate power. Indeed, the methods utilized (promulgating alternative facts, false populism, bullying and strong-arming, profiteering through governance, and the like) align much more closely with the hallmarks of despotic regimes, and bear no semblance to anarchism beyond a superficial equation with disarray.

Today we find ourselves at the horns of an ostensible conflict between “order” and “chaos,” with the apparatuses of the “deep state” seemingly at loggerheads with this Administration’s desire for “deconstruction.” Where it will lead is hard to say, and we still haven’t factored a third pole into the dynamic: the people, a large number of whom are awakened and mobilized right now. It is entirely possible that this era represents an opportunity for another framework to emerge, one that isn’t defined in either reactionary or stationary terms. Perhaps out of the confusion will ultimately emerge evolution.

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. His books include Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008); and the co-edited volume Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013).

Climate and the Psychology of Loss

by Joe Brewer, Published on Wednesday, November 7, 2007 by

An article today in the Washington Post is using fear to inhibit action. Juliet Eilperin boldly declares “climate is a risky issue.” Essentially saying, “Be careful! You are going to lose something of value.” She then goes on to frame efforts to address the climate crisis as costly, while ignoring all of the serious risks to society that come with doing nothing.

Instilling fear in the populace, it seems, makes for good journalism. But it is bad for informing citizens about the real threats we face as a nation.

Riddled throughout the article are references to loss. I stopped counting after fifteen. Examples include “costing billions of dollars,” “the cost of coal could quadruple,” and “huge costs associated with limiting emissions.” It is almost as if Eilperin understands the importance of repetition for reinforcing neural associations in the brain.

Every time climate change is referenced in the context of economic loss, the brain binds them more strongly to each other. The consequence being that people miss this key truth: Protecting the environment is essential to strengthening our economy.

Placing loss on the correct side of major decisions is extremely important because fear and uncertainty are powerful motivating factors. Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon; it is called risk aversion. Simply put, we feel more strongly about avoiding loss than seeking gain. When outcomes are uncertain or unfamiliar, motivation to change our behavior plummets further.

This is why people stay in abusive relationships. The harms are well known, but what will happen if you leave? A big question mark – and plenty of anxiety – encourage you to reconsider. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

This way of thinking leads to more abuse. And it leads to more harm from the climate crisis. Our fear of losing what we have places us at jeopardy of losing much more. This recklessly places us all at risk of unacceptable consequences.

So what can we do when a major threat is looming on the horizon? First off, we don’t frame it in a way that misleads people about where the losses reside. Energy costs are already going up. And job security is becoming more like a joke without a punch line every day as manufacturing is moved overseas and profit motives compel wealthy executives to cut benefits. So the losses plastered on climate action are already lurking at our doorstep – without doing anything about global warming!

Instead, let’s look at the real costs of inaction in the face of the climate crisis. Our children get asthma before enrolling in kindergarten. We pay for increased medical visits. Severe storms – flooding, drought, tornadoes, hurricanes – ravage our cities with greater intensity and frequency. We pay for rebuilding after devastation. Viruses carried by mosquitoes threaten our health security at higher elevations and for longer parts of the year. We pay with our livelihood.

You get the picture.

Everywhere in the world there will be more risk. Increased risk of crop failures as rainfall patterns change. Increased risk of mass migrations as sea levels rise. Increased risk of regional conflict as natural resources become more scarce.

Eilperin got it wrong. The real “risky issue” is staying put and doing nothing: continuing to spoil our air and ignoring the harm we’re already suffering.

Joe Brewer is a fellow at The Rockridge Institute.

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On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits by Wray Herbert

Huffington Post, 8/22/2012 

Scientific meetings are not usually confrontational events, so it was notable when University of Virginia psychological scientist Jonathan Haidt roiled his colleagues at the 2011 gathering of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Addressing an audience of more than 1,000, the bestselling author of The Righteous Mind asked all those who considered themselves politically conservative to raise their hands. Three hands went up. He then described two other attempts he had recently made to locate conservative social psychologists. He had searched the Internet for “conservative social psychologist,” and he had asked a small sample of social psychologists to name just one ideologically conservative colleague. These efforts together had turned up a single conservative social psychologist.

These small, informal efforts have big implications. They point to a “statistically impossible lack of diversity” in the field, Haidt has since argued, a worrisome situation that almost certainly fosters discrimination against both colleagues and students and, what’s more, may be skewing the entire research enterprise. Haidt is advocating remedies to reach a quota of 10-percent conservatives in social psychology by 2020.

Haidt’s message hit home with many of his colleagues, among them Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers of Tilburg University, who describe the 2011 event in a new paper, to be published soon in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Inbar and Lammers decided to add some rigor to Haidt’s provocative but anecdotal findings, which they did in two anonymous, online surveys of personality and social psychologists. They wanted, first, to verify the widespread impression of a pervasive liberal bias in the field, but they wanted to drill down even further, asking: Are there really no conservative social psychologists, or are they just well hidden? Are some liberal on social issues, but perhaps more moderate, or even conservative, on economic questions, or foreign policy issues? And if they are deliberately hiding their politics and values, why?

Inbar and Lammers drew their sample from the membership of the Society for Personality and Social psychology, the same scientific group that Haidt addressed in 2011. They contacted all members on the mailing list and got nearly 800 responses.

The findings clearly confirm the field’s liberal bias, but they hold some surprises, as well. For example, although only 6 percent described themselves as conservative “overall,” there was much more diversity than anecdotal evidence suggests. Inbar and Lammers found an overwhelming liberal majority when it comes to social issues, but only when it comes to social issues. On economic issues, nearly one in five is a self-described moderate, and slightly fewer put themselves to the right of moderate. Similarly, on foreign policy questions, nearly a third of respondents called themselves either moderate or conservative. In short, there is much more ideological diversity among these scientists than generally thought.

So why are only three out of 1,000 raising their hands when asked? Apparently, it’s because conservative social psychologists perceive the field as hostile to their values. And it’s not just perception. The more conservative respondents were, the more they had personally experienced an intellectually unfriendly climate. Importantly, self-defined liberals do not see this — or believe it. The hostility is invisible to those who don’t run into it themselves.

It gets worse. Inbar and Lammers also asked respondents to assess their willingness to discriminate against conservatives. Would they be more likely to reject a paper or a grant application that showed a politically conservative perspective? Would they be reluctant to invite a conservative colleague to a symposium? Would they favor a liberal job candidate over a conservative candidate? The disturbing answer to all these questions was yes, and the more liberal the respondents, the more likely they were to discriminate against conservatives in all these areas. So it appears that the well-hidden minority of conservatives have good reason to stay hidden.

The irony of these findings is not lost on Inbar and Lammers, nor on the several colleagues who have written commentaries to accompany the Perspectives article. If social tolerance and fairness are liberal values, most social psychologists would plead guilty to that bias, so it’s embarrassing to uncover intolerance of a different kind in one’s own backyard. What’s more, psychological scientists are supposedly the experts on cognitive biases, including harmful ones, yet here they are displaying just such skewed judgments and decisions. Several of the commentaries raise serious questions about how ideology might be shaping the issues and questions that social psychologists choose for exploration — and the ones they are blind to, or deliberately reject as uninteresting or taboo.

Why is social psychology so politically skewed, and what’s to be done about it? It may be true, as some of the commentaries state, that the field attracts a certain kind of inquiring and open mind that tends to embrace liberal values, and that conservative self-select out of the field. But this, most commentators agree, does not change the fact that pervasive liberal bias is unhealthy for the field, and for intellectual inquiry generally.

Perhaps even more alarming is what Richard Redding, of Chapman University’s School of Law, labels “prejudice and discrimination, straight up” — that is, the deliberate discrimination against conservative thinkers is not subtle, unconscious, or inconsequential but real and harmful and in need of remedy. That remedy may be the kind of affirmative action that Haidt and others are now endorsing, or it may be something more measured. In any case, the Perspectives article and commentaries suggest that the time may be right for some self-examination in the field.