What do you know about reality tunnels? This question used to greet me every day in the form of a poster I stuck at the bottom of my stairs, in order to remind me and my housemates of the urgency of finding out what the heck they were. At the time I had no idea what the term “reality tunnel” referred to. I have, however, mentioned it on here before.
A reality tunnel is what we now call an “echo chamber”. The idea is that you spend your life pursuing your own thing, surrounded by people, media and an environment which supports your views while keeping contrary views from you and protecting you in what might seem to be a nice safe environment. Other people are burrowing through their own reality tunnels and ne’er shall the twain meet. Well, more than two in fact. Possible examples of these tunnels include pro- and anti-vaccination people, Trump supporters and opposers and Corbyn supporters and opposers. We all seem to do this, and the people we oppose we are easily able to stereotype and convert into straw people. We seek to refute arguments which are not in fact the arguments our opponents present but simplified versions. Sometimes we also think of our own arguments and ideas in oversimplified forms. A personal example of this is that I tend to define fascism as that ideology for which the only or supreme duty is to the nation state. This is convenient for me because it makes it easier to remember and I can oppose it easily to anarchism, which is the claim that there is no political obligation at all, that is, that governments can have no ethical legitimacy. However, there are more sophisticated definitions of fascism, notably the very restrictive one which sees it as solely the ideology of an inter-war Italian political movement, which is rather inconvenient for someone who wishes to apply such a word to various political movements which are not, by this definition, fascist at all. It’s also notable that Nazism is not fascism according to this and several other views.
When I wrote the above list, referring to Trump, Corbyn and vaccination, I felt a sense of disorientation. Clearly I’m on Corbyn’s side, opposed to Trump and am in the middle with vaccination, a position which has been described by others as similar to the journalistic position of false balance. I would of course deny this. My actual view on vaccination is that they are usually best given as nebulisers, nasal sprays or inhalers rather than injected, with the exception of tetanus which should be injected, and polio which should be taken orally. There is some other stuff in there as well. My views on this have no connection to the autism question, and it’s unclear to most people what I in fact believe about vaccination because they tend to think I’m against them entirely for the same reason as other people seem to be. What I’m actually trying to do is reach an evidence-based conclusion based on immunology, and of course I could be wrong.
Whether or not I’m right about vaccines, the main problem with them is not their efficacy or danger, although this is a big, real world problem, but the tone of the disagreement. It might seem to be an outrageous claim that this is more important than whether they work or not but it’s clear that the kind of conversation that goes on about vaccines is merely a particularly clear example of a broader “discussion” style which affects most issues and the disagreement about them, where there is little hope either of successful compromise or arriving at a rational position rather than one guided by the need to feel one has something in common with a particular community or perhaps simply wants certainty. This is often seen in people who have traditionally been described as paranoid, where their poorly supported beliefs are important enough to them for them to be reluctant to abandon them even though they would be better off without them. This is in a psychopathological setting, but there is substantial overlap between ways of thinking and feeling in the realm of psychiatry and that of what passes for “normality”.
Assuming the polarised pro-vaccination position is correct, it’s a tactical error to be hostile towards anti-vaccination people because this will fail to persuade them and will not get them into a position where they would support vaccination. It may be scientifically well-informed but on an interpersonal level it’s crass and insensitive, and not likely to protect the population from the infections about which they claim to be concerned. The same applies the other way round. Proceeding from the assumption that vaccines necessarily do more harm than good, that damage will continue to be perpetrated because the approach taken by those opposed to it is not good propaganda for their cause. Both sides have a failure of rhetoric in a way which is found generally, far beyond the issue of vaccination, and the damage likely to be done if either pole of the viewpoints is correct is, I think, less than the damage done by the more general failure of mutual respect and dialogue. This is why I think the issue of vaccination is misconceived.
We all naturally think our opinions are true and we support them using arguments which seem reasonable. We often choose the arguments as a way to support what we already believe, or we may want to believe the conclusions following from a particular argument, or we may use the conclusion of the argument as a means to make emotional connection with other people. On the whole we feel fairly reluctant to anchor our views in reality if that means we end up with a minority opinion, and it’s difficult to maintain that opinion if everyone else disagrees with it. Or, we may gravitate to such an opinion precisely because it’s bizarre, extreme or unpopular because it enables us to be part of an in-crowd.
Broadening this out, it’s notable that a number of opinions are not well-supported by evidence, and it’s sometimes proven necessary for evidence to be manufactured in order to support these views. The point may come, or perhaps is already here, when the majority of such opinions is poorly supported. One way of understanding mental health is that people can be diagnosed with such a condition when their behaviour or mental state is very unusual, although this is not a sufficient condition. The question then arises of whether a whole society can “go mad” if madness is merely defined as such. It would, though, be easy in some ways if it turned out that there was a way to prove that a particular set of political opinions was delusional. Incidentally, we all have delusions – beliefs which persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary – and therefore this shouldn’t be taken as a means of “othering” those whose opinions differ from our own.
One particularly clear example of where this may have happened is in the realm of climate change denial, and of course I went into this some time ago on here. An interesting development in this area which illustrates where it would come undone is this report. A report which claimed that sea level in North Carolina could be a metre higher by 2100 was rejected by lawmakers because it was seen as likely to damage real estate prices. A somewhat similar set of circumstances obtains in southern England, where owners of homes recently built on the floodplain of rivers had to sign an insurance waiver for flood damage. Many people have already been affected by this.
Other possible examples of clashing rationality and politics include the teaching of creationism in schools and tobacco lobbying. The sensible response to all this would appear to be evidence-based policy – policy based on research conducted in a way which resembles the scientific method. What in fact happens quite frequently is that surveys and consultations are undertaken of opinion in areas considered to consist largely of well-informed people with direct experience of the issues, and this is then taken up with varying degrees of faith to decide government policy. There are, though, two overarching issues here: is there a “most rational” polity, and is it feasible or appropriate to apply rationality to the social system itself?
I make no excuses for lapsing into science fiction at this point because that genre often involves an attempt at social thought experiments. Nonetheless I recognise you might not all be as keen on it as I am, so bear with me because I will be coming back to the real world after making a few observations.
Many years ago, I came across an interesting idea in Handbook For Space Pioneers, the basis of the universe in which my novel ‘Replicas’ is set. By contrast with my prevailing political views, human civilisation in the Galactic Association universe is primarily capitalist in nature, although there are several examples of socialist societies. The relevant bit to this post is Herman Zweig’s intriguing social theory, mathematically demonstrated, that an equal and free society requires a controlled environment. Genesis is a planet with no land life and only primitive marine life which can therefore be given a planned ecosystem. This regularity, as I understand it, is seen as providing sufficient environmental stability for a socialist society to succeed.
An example of the reverse happening is found in the history of the first planet settled by humans, Wyzdom. This has an extreme climate due to its high gravity and therefore high atmospheric pressure, and although the early settlers organised themselves socialistically, this led to the deaths from starvation of many of the people. This is partly attributable to similar factors to the settlement of the real world lost American colony Jamestown, which is thought to have failed due to the fact that it didn’t include enough people with practical experience of farming and other practical skills. However, the fierce climate of Wyzdom meant that crops could easily fail and livestock become ill or die. Even in the late twenty-fourth century, large cattle cannot thrive on the planet due to its high gravity. As a result of the crisis, a benevolent capitalist dictator arose who was able to rescue the settlers from what would otherwise have been an inevitable demise. Another factor in this is the internal machinations of the administration, which made society unwieldy and impossible to manage, partly due to too much time being taken up in discussing what to do rather than actually doing anything.
These are effectively two fictional case studies of the prospects of a society in different environments. In the case of Genesis, the control it’s possible to exert over the biomes of the planet are taken to mean that, for example, known quantities of food will result from the input of known quantities of work, and that this enables society to plan on a large scale without anyone missing out. In Wyzdom’s case the extremes of climate and other conditions meant that an agile society would be needed to adapt to changing conditions and people would need to take the initiative, in the form of free enterprise. Bureaucracy is seen as stifling this, and in any case a small society cannot afford to have much of that because it would take people away from providing its immediate physical needs.
Although I see this as flawed, it does have an interesting corollary which blends into Iain M. Banks’s Culture stories. Most people in the Culture live in ring worlds – artificial environments consisting of strips of material occupying the entire orbit of a star. Such an environment is completely planned and controllable, and as such would, according to Herman Zweig, be suitable as a socialist utopia, and in fact that’s exactly what they are, or at least appear to be. Arguably, the Culture is in fact run by the Minds, artificial intelligences so far beyond human capabilities that they can psychologically manipulate people perfectly into living “happy” lives. Nonetheless Zweig’s social theory works for the Culture.
However, there’s a flaw in Zweig’s theory from my perspective. The planet Genesis, whereas it doesn’t suffer from fluctuations caused by a complex evolved ecosystem because that ecosystem is designed from the ground up, is nevertheless not that stable an environment. Apart from its state of biological development, Genesis is in fact the most Earth-like of the eight settled exoplanets after Athena, so it can generally be expected to share quakes, volcanoes and tsunamis with Earth to about the same degree. In fact, because it’s much younger than Earth, it has more volcanic activity, and because its atmosphere is thinner there’s greater temperature variation between the tropics and the polar region, and it’s easy to imagine that these factors will still provide sufficiently disturbed conditions to upset the applecart of a carefully planned socialist society if Zweig is correct.
This brings me back to the question of climate change. Much of the hostility directed at climate change seems to be based on the idea that governmental planned intervention is seen as necessary to address the problems, and therefore that big government is needed which will intervene in industry. In other words, it looks very much like the very unpredictability of the environment is going to require large-scale public planning, and rational planning at that, in the sense that scientific research needs to inform the approach needed to minimise the threat to humanity. Having said that, the social model expressed in the Galactic Association universe does seem to have some merit, in that individuals need to take the initiative, and there doesn’t at first seem to be anything stopping us from doing that. Whether we live under a neoliberal capitalist regime or a libertarian socialist one, the capacity for people to make a positive difference still exists, and the problem is knowing which system, if either, best facilitates that. Idealistic socialism needs to have some degree of faith that people can be good, but crucially not as much as capitalism does, because capitalism requires its individuals to make rational economic choices and to be altruistic rather than selfish. This is less problematic in a socialist society because there is a safety net and possibly also because power is more evenly distributed. Although power might be distributed equally at first in a capitalist society, it drifts towards concentrations and inequality quite quickly because people and organisations win or lose in it, and whoever or victors can proceed to reduce choice. Therefore the idea that we aren’t good enough to live in a socialist society isn’t really true. What seems to be true is that we aren’t good enough to live in a capitalist one.
A possible response to that is to ensure that the members of a capitalist society are sufficiently good to run it, and this is in fact attempted via the provision of the likes of organised religion and the emphasis on a sense of duty. Having said that, due to the concentration of power it doesn’t take much to disturb that, and the actual approach of much organised religion doesn’t seem to end up very selfless. This is quite an unfair observation though, and since I’m trying to be “scientific” here I don’t want to pursue that too far.
The existence of organic institutions is an important part of much conservative thought. The situation in this country, with an established church, House of Lords and a constitutional monarchy, could be seen as a good example of this. In other areas of life, planning often seems to come unstuck. For instance, it’s proven to be very difficult to introduce new words to language or to take them out of it. A relevant case in point is the coinage of gender-neutral personal pronouns, which seem doomed to failure from the start. It’s also sometimes asserted that the free market arises without conscious intervention and is a kind of self-organising system, and there are other examples. One which springs to mind is that healthcare which is consciously paid for has been shown to have a placebo effect beyond its basic efficacy, which leads to an ethical problem with a public healthcare system free at the point of use, although of course most people have in fact also paid for that – they just aren’t conscious of having done so. However, just as high technology provides better solutions than artisan-based approaches, in that it can go places technology of the older kind never would have, it seems equally feasible that planning on a higher level would also be able to solve problems which the market, Church of England, House of Lords and the monarchy, among other things, wouldn’t be able to achieve.
There is, however, a potential problem with all this: something I’m going to call the “liberal feminism problem”. Liberal feminism involves the belief that individual women can make choices which will address inequality, which can otherwise be relatively easily overcome by legislation rather than a general reform of society. One of the issues some feminists have with this view is that it’s possible that men are not, as a rule, in fact essentially able to treat women fairly. This is an essentialist view, which may or may not extend to women, but if men are in fact iredeemable as a gender this suggests that liberal feminism can’t work.
If it turns out either that humans, or perhaps men again, are essentially unable to behave altruistically, or that they are in principle able to do so but cannot change en masse from their current social position, then socialism would seem to be doomed. However, it’s not more doomed than capitalism, since one flaw with capitalism, and probably also any totalitarian or authoritarian system, is that it enables people with antisocial personalities to dominate. It doesn’t follow from the premise that capitalism doesn’t work that socialism will, and nor does it follow from the premise that socialism doesn’t work that capitalism does. We might just be doomed anyway. Maybe nothing works.
It’s recently come to light that a number of people have very poorly-supported belief systems. Outside the obviously political realm are flat earthers and those who believe in gangstalking. Gangstalking is the belief that groups of people are secretly organised to harass targeted individuals. These individuals may be aware of their insignificance but justify it by claiming that they’re being used for training purposes. Since this is a typical paranoid belief, it lacks the bizarreness of schizophrenic delusion and may be reflected in the occasional real incident, but is very unlikely. The internet has, however, acted as a means for people who believe they’re being targeted to get together and confirm each others’ beliefs. Flat earthers presumably need no explanation, and have similarly recalcitrant beliefs not amenable to reasoning.
It’s not a stretch to extrapolate this to other, more obviously political, belief systems, Holocaust denial being a particularly disturbing example. Others would be the manosphere, incels and this can extend easily into the political mainstream with supporters of Trump. And here I feel myself pausing, because although support for Corbyn is the same phenomenon I am actually in this case part of that group.
A common explanation for all of these would seem to be poor education and easy access to information, accurate or otherwise, along with the ability to communicate that information and draw possibly ill-founded conclusions based upon it leading to political activism. Even so, I feel compelled to exclude the Corbyn phenomenon from that. Coming up with reasons why it’s not the same is left as an exercise for the reader!
Given enough irrational opinions, where they add up to a complete irrational world view which is likely to have negative consequences either for the believer or those over whom she has sway, it seems to make sense to call the holder of those beliefs mentally ill. But this is a problem, because it amounts to a reality tunnel outside which are people who disagree with one. The Soviets had an answer to this of course. They pathologised dissidents. Since the internet is liable to generate irony-free zones, I’m going to have to clodhop in here and say the following is not meant literally. However, if there is a social system clearly based on rational principles, it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that those who disagree with it must be mentally ill and should probably be put away in a special hospital. This has been referred to as “Вялотекущая шизофрения” – “Sluggish schizophrenia” – or “delusion of reformism”. Since I used to be Stalinist, I have a probably disturbing degree of sympathy with this idea which I do however recognise as quite undesirable. That said, clearly you cannot go that way and simply decide that everyone who disagrees with your politics is mentally ill. But I don’t know what you should actually do, because I have to admit that much of what certain people believe does seem frankly delusional. This probably reflects a lack of empathy on my part.
Whatever else is true, it occurs to me that part of the problem appears to be that this is what you get when people are only educated to the extent that they are able to keep society going rather than to question that society. When they actually do come to question established beliefs, such as the one that people visited Cynthia (the Moon), the one that Earth is round, the one that evolution has taken place over countless millions of years and the assumption that they are not being followed around and gaslighted by gangs of stalkers organised by the CIA, they unfortunately seem to choose a fairly well-established and politically inconsequential set of beliefs. Then again, considering that they also draw conclusions that Michelle Obama is trans, Barack Obama is a secret Muslim or that it’s a good idea to vote for Donald Trump, maybe that’s just as well.