What happened

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“I told you so,” isn’t as gratifying as you might think.

I’ve been writing about the business dangers of intellectual relativism and the importance of cultivating a “culture of honest inquiry” for more than 15 years (“Where intellectual relativism comes from,” 10/17/2005).

This week we witnessed the non-business consequences: A mob of armed insurrectionists, motivated by propaganda that was accepted as fact, specifically because the insurrectionists were, over the past several years, encouraged to accept “alternative facts” as being just as valid as any other kind of facts.

More valid, in fact, for two reasons. The first: actual facts might not affirm what their targets want to believe. They might even contradict it.

The second: Alternative facts have one and only one purpose: To enrage – to incite anger and hatred toward some convenient individuals and groups.

There are those who find the experience of anger, hatred, and rage gratifying. Pleasurable, in fact. Feeding alternative facts to this audience is much the same as giving Fido a doggie biscuit for rolling over.

That’s the first half of the symbiosis that was on display in our nation’s Capitol last week. The reciprocal half: People who want power, not to accomplish important goals but for its own sake. They give their audience what it wants – feelings of anger, hatred, and rage – and get power in return.


Persuading members of this audience that its leaders are playing them isn’t going to happen, because just as their leader’s goal is power, so their goal is a pleasurable experience.

It isn’t about the validity of the alternative facts they’ve been fed. The universe of alternative facts is built, not on validity, but on intellectual relativism – the branch of epistemology that insists all propositions are equally valid because how can you tell the difference? Just choose the ones you like best.

We’re all vulnerable to the temptations of intellectual relativism, and especially to the confirmation bias that makes it all work. And so, because we aren’t going to convince the insurrectionists or their cheerleaders that (for example), there was no vast deep state conspiracy that stole the election, we at least need to figure out how to inoculate ourselves.

Here are three tactics worth trying:

Inoculant #1: Anger management. This one is, in principle, simple: If someone is trying to make you angry at someone else – either an individual or a group – assume they’re trying to play you. Start ignoring them as soon as you possibly can.

Inoculant #2: The falsification test. Whatever the proposition you’re on the verge of accepting, ask yourself what collection of evidence would change your mind. If you can’t imagine one, well, meaning no offense, you’re part of the problem.

Inoculant #3: Choose your tribe. And choose it carefully. As human beings we’re all prone to viewing ourselves as members of some affinity group or other. Whatever our group, we know all the other groups are at best unenlightened and at worst despicable.

Religion is a common affinity group, as are political parties and sports teams, to name three of the more obvious. As a side note, it’s worth considering that last week’s assault on the Capitol resembled a soccer riot more than a policy dispute.

So whatever the subject at hand, “join” a tribe that has no stake in it. This helps you avoid choosing sides, helping you not think of the other sides as the awful “them.”

Bob’s last word: The purveyors of intellectual relativism in business settings might not use it to incite violence as their political counterparts did last week. That doesn’t make them okay. Quite the opposite – it makes them harder to spot.

Bob’s sales pitch: First: No, I’m not turning KJR into A Consultant Reads the Newspaper. But this week, not writing about last week’s attempted insurrection just wasn’t a possibility. Unless something equally grim takes place, I’ll get back to my usual fare next week.

# # #

Once a year I ask KJR’s subscribers to let me know if these weekly musings are still valuable to you, and what might make them more valuable. Let me hear from you, if for no other reason than to know you’re still paying attention.

Thanks, and here’s hoping for an outstanding 2021.

Comments (29)

  • I appreciate your blog. Thank you!

  • Hey Bob…responding to your call for feedback. Keep up your good work. I always enjoy your steady micro and macro takes on business and life. Your outlook is always thought provoking and insightful. Thank you!

  • I appreciate your work over the years. I share your stuff probably more than any others.
    And, yes, I used to read you in InfoWorld, on paper. God, I’m old.
    But I’m going to share this post more widely because there are too many polarized tribes and I like your take on this.

  • Hi Bob

    Yes your weekly musing are still highly pertinent and of interest. We hope that events of 20 January don’t warrant another diversion from your usual fare.

    SIMON (Auckland, NZ)

    • My wife and I watched a “New Year Around the World” broadcast as we watched New Year’s Eve turn into New Year’s Day. The Sidney display was particularly awesome – so much so that I wondered if it was real or CGI enhanced.

      What’s the story?

  • As a long-time reader I look forward to your newsletters each week. I have worked in and with the public sector throughout my career. Even though you write about the private sector, most of your thoughts and recommendations ring true for the public sector, too. I have shared them often in my own newsletter (not nearly as regular as yours). Because of my sporadic efforts, I am further impressed at your willingness and ability to do this every week. Please continue.

    Regarding this week, I was surprised but very pleased to read your comments. As usual, I find them thoughtful and useful.

  • Hi Bob,

    I’ve been reading your columns since the early 90s. (Info World in those days was a gold mine of tech columnists.) I’ve always enjoyed your thought provoking common sense perspective, and have laughed out loud many times at your occasional cultural references which dove tailed with my own experiences. You can’t have too many Zappa references, IMHO. You don’t need to change a thing as far as I’m concerned.

    Rich Small

  • The right column for this week! And your musings are valuable, and I don’t have any thoughts re: how to make them more valuable.

  • Bob,

    Happy New Year! Regardless of our tribe, we are supposed to be Americans in the tribal council of nations. We are all in this mess together until we aren’t if the nation somehow decided to split itself. Whatever last weeks event was, it was not a coup. It was more like an angry mob stomping through the Capitol building. To label them terrorists is an overstatement, and worse, if they are labeled terrorists then what happens to the next protestor? Will public assembly be dead, much like freedom of speech is now by corporate censorship? I wish I had the answers, but neither party seems to have the solution either. They are probably part of the problem since they have let corporations become monopolies and accumulate power over consumers and government alike. Thanks for the essay. I will take the lessons to heart, but we appear to be entering a new Dark Age in some respects.


    • I agree that “terrorist” is too extreme for what we saw. On the other hand, “protester” is nowhere near strong enough. Given that the ringleaders were quite clear they were trying to prevent the results of our democratic process, I’m among those who think “insurrectionists” is accurate.

      • Thank you for facilitating a rational discussion, almost all I’m reading on your ‘off topic’ is helpful. ? to you and your readers. As to terrorists
        we should ask the elected officials, staff & police who where at the Capital Jan 6 who they think are terrorists. American Heritage Dictionary says “One who favors or uses terrorizing methods for the accomplishment of some object, as for coercing a government or a community into the adoption of or submission to a certain course; one who practices terrorism.” ?

  • Nicely said, Bob. One teensy challenge: item 3 “join a tribe that has no stake in it.” Other than pure scientific inquiry, what would motivate a tribe to create if it has no stake?

    • A tribe can create in one domain while practicing extreme apathy toward other domains. For example, I imagine that as I read about political unrest, I might focus on how it affects me as a master baker.

  • Inoculant #4: read both sides propaganda, to keep your immune system able to resist it.

  • Thanks Bob, gutsy column and spot on.

  • Still paying attention. I find your comments and perspective insightful and helpful. Yours is the only newsletter I subscribe to.

  • Stick with what you know, Bob.

  • still valuable

  • “Inoculant #2: The falsification test.” I’ve been musing about this one.

    If some largish fraction (e.g. 20%) of the lawsuits had actually won, I’d have started wondering seriously if there really WAS a significant problem and pattern with fraudulent votes, and not the usual extremely rare scattered oddity measurable in thousandths of a percent. There have been so many lawsuits that, instead of thinking of them as individual events, they can blur together into an aggregate, and a STATISTICAL phenomenon.

    And from the aggregate, themes vaguely emerge in the judges’ comments: (1) You didn’t present any evidence; hearsay sometimes, and speculation, and astonishment/dislike/disbelief at what happened, but no actual EVIDENCE of anything. (2) You didn’t present a case; e.g. some randos wanted to walk in off the street and observe the vote-counting process up close, and were refused, and are now complaining in this lawsuit that they should have been allowed in, but the election laws provide for specific procedures for would-be observers to sign up ahead of time (which is why hundreds of pre-registered observers were present), and the law has no provision for randos to walk in off the street at the last minute as volunteer observers, therefore you have no case. (3) I, the judge, am amazed that you are bothering me and wasting my time with such a shoddy case, or rather a shoddy non-case.

    The usual argument of conspiracy theorists is: there is no evidence because the conspiracists / establishment / reptilians / whoever hid it all and covered it all up, and all the media are in on the conspiracy/cover-up too, therefore OF COURSE there is no evidence. COMPLETE absence of evidence is conclusive proof that the conspiracy is real and effective!

    One counterargument: somebody could win a very easy Pulitzer Prize by scooping everybody and blowing the whole thing wide open. Everybody LOVES winning Pulitzer Prizes. So where’s the whistle-blower?

    Even at this late date, clear evidence of voter fraud could, conceivably, turn up; if it was going to turn up, it should have turned up long ago, but better late then never. Suddenly, a lot of things would look very different. I’m not holding my breath for anything like this, though.

  • The phrase that has been coming to my mind is that the ends do not necessarily justify the means. Those desiring power are so convinced that good will come of it that a few — or many — lies here and there are worth it. Or sharing an inflammatory post is okay if it makes your side look good. We have paved the road to where we are now with such a philosophy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this challenging time.

  • Still great stuff, Bob! Keep it coming! I’ve been paying attention for well over twenty years and still enjoy reading your musings…most of the time. You keep on writing it; I’ll keep this joint running… Thank you!

  • Extraordinary clarity! (But not so extraordinary for you.) Bravo.

  • I like reading what you write. I don’t understand all of it, but, that’s the point.

    Keep on writing.

  • Just to let you know I AM still reading your thoughts and insights; and learning from them, and enjoying them, and looking forward to them.

    And I enjoy Arlo & Alice. “We’ll wait for it to come around on the guitar …”

  • Your commentary is much appreciated. Your readers might be interested a recent episode of Rick Steve’s Europe S11E4 “Germany’s Fascist Story” airing now & first aired 11/5/20. A key takeaway is how business stayed on the sidelines or enabled Hitler including tech. The story line is hitting too close to home now.

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