Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Plausibility, Probability, and Conceptual Containers in our Guts

Recently I was reading and I felt, in a sudden and intense surge, awareness of the extent to which many of our political choices are not made on the basis of absolute, empirically derived certainty but rather on the basis of often unconscious gut-level evaluations of plausibility and probability.

I was reading an article by John Pilger, which is apparently the cover story of the current issue of the British political journal New Statesman. It is a discussion -- largely familiar in content to people who keep current on Western imperial adventures in Asia but still useful, I think -- of moral responsibility and atrocities by the West, past and present, with an emphasis on British involvement.

What got me started down this line of thought was the final paragraph:

These are critical changes in the way the sane world thinks – again, thanks to the Reich of Blair and Bush. However, we live in the most dangerous of times. On 6 April, Blair accused “elements of the Iranian regime” of “backing, financing, arming and supporting terrorism in Iraq”. He offered no evidence, and the Ministry of Defence has none. This is the same Goebbels-like refrain with which he and his coterie, Gordon Brown included, brought an epic bloodletting to Iraq. How long will the rest of us continue looking from the side?

Without me asking it to, my gut processed this paragraph and made three observations:

  1. This one specific accusation made by Blair is actually reasonably plausible, if understood in a certain limited light.
  2. This is in contrast to the bulk of the accusations made by government officials (and their media-based apparatchiks) from the U.S. and U.K. in the run-up to the invasion and recolonization of Iraq, which I, along with most of the world's population, found completely implausible at the time.
  3. Blair's implication that his accusation against Iran's government leads to the conclusion that taking military action against Iran will somehow make the world a better place and lead to greater human freedom and/or less human suffering than not taking military action against Iran remains so highly improbable as to be ridiculous.

The sudden and intense surge of awareness followed shortly thereafter. After all, given no direct experience of the situation, given no proficiency whatsoever in Arabic or Farsi, given no personal contacts in that part of the world, how can I presume to evaluate something like this? How should I think about reading such things? How should I evaluate what I read? What gives me the right to decide what is plausible and what is not?

I want to tackle that last question before I go through my exploration of what exactly my gut was doing to come up with those three points and what the implications are. I want to emphasize strongly that I don't think making such judgments is a right possessed by a privileged few; it is a responsibility faced by us all. Every single one of us is at where we are at in terms of our understanding of the world, and no matter how flawed our understandings might be, we cannot let awareness of these limitations paralyze us. We should be conscious of requiring a minimum threshhold of knowledge before acting, but act we must, so we must evaluate what we know and how we know it. We should do so self-critically and with caution, and we should be open to new information and interpretations, but every day we make choices to act in certain ways, so every day we are acting on assessments of what is and is not plausible whether we are conscious of doing so not. Even the "La-la-la, I can't hear you" response to things like news of faraway war in which Canada is involved or other sorts of nastiness closer to home is still based on finding statements like "This has nothing to do with me and/or there is nothing I can do about it" plausible.

Anyway, after that surge of awareness, I then thought a little harder to figure out in a little more detail my process of reading this small paragraph. It was nothing complicated, really. Each time my eyes scanned a word in that paragraph, that word evoked certain content stored in a container inside of me that is labelled with the word in question. Words like "Blair" and "terrorism" and "Iraq" and "Iran" each conjured from within me lots of content not explicitly specified in the paragraph. As words turned into larger groupings of words, the rules of grammer that I have been trained to use to understand how each of those words are supposed to relate to one another helped to organize the content thus evoked.

The conjured content itself is not just dictionary definitions, but a whole complicated mess of things. It includes empirically verifiable, widely agreed, mostly head-based nodes of meaning like the fact that "Blair" refers to the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It also includes more complicated gut-level stuff that could be excavated and put into words around, say, the relationships between this "Blair" person and actions of brutal import going on in Iraq in recent years, or even more general things like an instinctive sense of the ways in which modern, Western, state relations tend to operate. It also includes affective and visceral stuff that is less easily dug out and put into linear sentences, but that is still a crucial part of those in-the-moment gut reactions. Because the content in each deceptively simple little word is so vast and complicated, the relationships among the parts that took shape inside of me were defined not only by the grammer of the sentence but by the pre-existing relationships among the content those words conjured. One way to see this gut-level assessment of plausibility is as an in-the-body way to deal with the places where relationships as constructed explicitly in the text and relationships already existing in the web of content invoked within me do not agree with each other.

None of these ideas are terribly novel, of course. In a lot of ways, this is just a different way of describing what many academics have talked about for years in terms of discourse and its anlaysis. However, a lot of those discussions attribute agency to discourse itself and erase people. The way I've just described it recognizes that what matters it not some abstract discourse that functions on its own, but a very specific active process happening in a single person's gut. The pre-existing content that these words invoke for me are not the same as for you or for my mother or for George Bush. Because the existing meaning invoked by those words is, to a certain extent, specific to the person in whom it is being invoked, it follows that my reading of that paragraph is not deducible purely by looking at the general content of those terms out somewhere in the world, but rather it is a product of a specific history of my individual encounters with direct experience and texts. Well, mostly with texts, in this instance, but in other circumstances material experience can be important too. Each time I have encountered the word "terrorism", for example, the content of the container inside of me labelled by that word has been modified in some way by the circumstances of the current encounter as interpreted in light of the meaning already stored in the container. Obviously the conceptual contents of my "terrorism" container are more likely to be shifted by a detailed book length historical analysis of the phenomenon and related terms than, say, a passing mention in a daily newspaper article, but both can have some impact.

Like I said, none of this is particularly original, though framing it as an active process that occurs within a specific human being is perhaps less common. The thing is, though this understanding is out there in academic ways of looking at the world, we don't tend to think in these terms when we act and speak and write in the world in non-academic spaces, whether that is in alt/indy media spaces or blog posts or verbal texts in discussion with right-wing family or pamphlets to hand out on street corners or whatever. Very often in progressive or lefty or radical circles, even if we know better we sometimes fall into the trap of implicitly treating people as passive containers into which we can pour facts, and as if they were stupid or the enemy when they refuse to act like one. We want to "get the facts out there" and "tell the truth" and show people how they are wrong. All of which can be important, but treated simplistically that can lead to us not recognizing what is actually going on when we engage in a communicative or pedagogical act. It can also lead to use being less than honest with ourselves about our own journies of learning, too -- all of us react in significant ways based on these gut-level assessments of probability and plausibility rather than purely on linear, easily sourceable stuff we could expand into a heavily footnoted Chomsky book at the drop of a hat.

I don't have any single conclusion for what this can or should mean to those of us trying to create social change and trying to read and create texts in that process. I just have a few thoughts.

First of all, I want to reiterate that this is unavoidable. This is not a matter of stupid people, it is not a matter of lack of education, or of working to refine some supposedly scientific understanding of society to eliminate this process within ourselves. Rather, it is the harsh reality of how we have to interact with a world in which we are implicated materially, politically, and morally in a whole web of relationships that extend far beyond our immediate environment. We all do this and no amount of wishing can make it go away.

Yet not only is this gut-level evokation of existing images, narratives, stories, feelings, facts, conjectures, and beliefs completely universal in how all of us make decisions yet often ignored or forgotten, it is ignored and forgotten despite being central to a number of socially and politically important realities.

It is an important part of how our media system sustains and supports oppressive social relations, for instance -- that is, it is a central site for the operation of the propaganda machine that is our dominant media. Sure, there is direct deceit involved sometimes too, but a big part of how our media system convinces so many of us to internalize the standpoint of the powerful is by the investment of billions of dollars in media, both news and entertainment, that shape that space of gut-level assessment of probability and plausibility. We can be lied into war, for example, in part because in school, from the state, and in the news and entertainment media we are relentlessly pounded with particular content meant to fill the containers labelled "my country" and related things. For a lot of other issues, specific interests try to shape what's in containers like "global warming" and "cigarette smoke" not so much to convince us of anything but make us sufficiently skeptical or confused about the claims of those pressing for change that we end up feeling that there is still a lot of doubt when there is little, and that we do not need to act when we really do.

This space, this process, is also an important means by which oppressive social relations are expressed and replicated at the individual level. Our containers for "woman" and "Black" and "gay", for example, are shaped from the time we are born with content naturalizing and rationalizing the subordination of the people to whom those labels get applied, whose bodies and words conjure that content. We see the word or the person, and it evokes that near instantaneous and largely unconscious gut-level assessment of what is probable, what can be expected from this person or from "these people." What we accept and what we question when we read a newspaper article or hear a comment from a co-worker is framed by the containers in our guts attached to these different groups of people. How we react in both gross and subtle ways in social situations, in activist situations, in our workplaces, in our families, is shaped by this gut-level assessment. As I described above, the content of these containers is not unchangeable, but neither is it easily or rapidly changeable, so decolonizing our guts is a lifelong process. Taking on some sort of assumed identity as anti-racist or anti-sexist or adopting a certain set of intellectual positions is not a sign that we have conquored this conceptual colonization of self but, at the very best, a recognition that we are putting energy into wrestling with that lifelong process on an ongoing basis.

This process of gut-level assessment is not just a space where big nasties can do their thing, however. It also has huge implications for those of us trying to create a better world. Even for the most dilligent practitioner of direct action politics, the largest mechanism of action of what we do in the world has to be through the changing of human consciousness -- ours, those of people we interact with interpersonally, those with whom we are collaborating politically, those who are intended to take up the words we write and the videos we produce, and also a more diffuse and amorphous public that will (if we are at all successful) come to know in one way or another about what we are doing. Changing consciousness -- that is, pedagogy -- is not so much about convincing ourselves or others of facts as influencing the contents of all of these containers so as to bring them closer to the real world and into harmony with goals of justice and liberation.

This is not to say that we should engage in manipulation and deception based on our analysis of the contents of these containers, the way the dominant media and the state often do. Actually, that kind of manipulation for supposedly positive ends is how I understand a major part of the agenda of those progressive all excited about George Lakoff's talk of "framing." Manipulation for short-term gain is ethically and politically dubious. What we need to do is challenge the containers that feed into the gut-level plausibility evaluation, again both in ourselves and in everyone around us.

We have to recognize that the kind of pedagogy that we need is seldom instantaneous. Shifting what's in those conceptual containers takes time and is not going to be purely cerebral and linear. Also, because learning always happens in the context of relationships of one sort or another, we need wherever possible to find ways to create sustained engagement rather than just drive-bys.

Regardless of whether it is a lifelong political dialogue with a loved one or a ten minute interaction on a street corner or a debate in the comments section of a blog, we need to seek opportunities for interactions with those who differ from us that are more about mapping than about combat. Jumping straight to the flames tends to leave the real differences -- the differences in what's in each party's conceptual containers -- obscured, and noone gets to learn anything. Of course sometimes jumping straight to flames is entirely justified -- noone is ever under any obligation to try and educate their oppressor, especially when he's being a no-holds-barred idiot. But in other sorts of situations we are likely to learn more ourselves and to facilitate more learning in whoever we are talking with if we try to tease out what is lying underneath our differences.

Understanding the actual basis for, the actual conceptual construction of, the opposition of those who we think it might be possible to sway will help us make decisions about how to intervene in the world, textually and otherwise. We need to know what exactly we are trying to accomplish by our activist pedagogy in order to effectively do it.

Also, as I've tried to keep visible by my choice of wording, the fact that we have no choice but to base our own political decisions on exactly the same process as everyone else should encourage us to enter into pedagogy with humility, and with an explicitly dialogical approach. By definition, an activist or a writer is someone who has certain understandings of the world that they think are worth sharing and acting on. That's fine, but a good activist or writer is one that keeps as far away as possible from thinking that means they have all or even very many of the answers, and that prioritizes active listening even, or perhaps especially, to people and views that challenge them.

The colonized nature of the conceptual containers that most of us are bequeathed by the world in which we are raised means that beyond actively listening to challenges, we have a political obligation to seek them out. Obviously that should not happen at random, but should be shaped by what we learn about how those containers have been colonized, and how that relates to oppression in the broader world.

And I didn't really think of it this way until I started writing this post, but I think an unarticulated recognition of the phenomenon that is the focus of this post has a lot to do with my approach to blogging and to political learning more generally. Engaging purely with current events, in your media consumption and in your blogging, will leave those conceptual containers largely unchallenged because of the fairly narrow range of production relations that result in most media and because of the almost complete lack of critical content in media that focus purely on current events. So go read some books. And it is because it is this kind of process that I am interested in that I blog about the things that I blog about.

Oh. And in case you were wondering about why I came to those three points listed miles and miles above near the top of the post re. Iran and Iraq and Blair and so on:

Frankly, given the forces arrayed against it, it would be surprising if Iran was not doing whatever it could to have influence in the chaos across its border and to maximize its ability to strike against the superpower that is threatening to pulverize it, even if that means some level of non-belligerent interaction with groups that are otherwise its deadly enemies (something that it would have to be doing for Blair's accusation to have even a whif of truth about it, since the groups in Iraq that are actually pro-Iran are the biggest part of the current U.S.-approved pseudo-government and not part of the insurgencies). That's why the accusation is plausible. But the insurgencies in Iraq would look much the same whether or not Iran was meddling, I think -- another long-distance gut-level judgment of plausibility and probability. The insurgencies are creations of the U.S. invasion, they are firmly rooted in Iraqi society, and they are largely self-funded (I have read) and at least some of the Sunni groups probably get more external money from people intimately connected to the House of Saud, a supposed U.S. ally, than from anywhere else (I couldn't prove in the least but I would bet). As well, claiming to have evidence for something that you have no evidence for, and that is merely a plausible guess, is still a lie. And Bush and Blair fabricating evidence to justify imperial military intervention go beyond plausible to virtually guaranteed, just based on knowing how states have always done war and without even looking at their disgusting performances in 2002/2003. And any good propagandist will tell you that any good house of lies gets built not purely with falsehood, but with bricks made of a mix of overt falsehood, things that have been proven, and things that may be true but for which there is no evidence, all of which are put together and spun in deceptive ways. So I find this accusation somewhat plausible, but largely irrelevant to the actual functioning of armed opposition to the U.S. recolonization of Iraq, and the idea that it justifies military action against Iran would be laughable if so many lives weren't at stake.

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