“Well you just stomped on my heart / and you mashed that sucker flat / You just sorta / Stomped on my aorta …” – from the chorus of “You Dun Stomped on my Heart” by Mason Williams (not John Denver)
“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.
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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.