Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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Generalization of opinion corridors

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A while back, I published a text on “opinion corridors”. Since then, I have realized that this concept is just a special case of a wider phenomenon of corridors of compliance and similarity. Generally, there seems to be a strong human tendency to be hostile towards those or that which is different. While such a tendency could have made great sense in an older time*, it is rarely helpful and very often harmful today. Consider e.g. the relation between the words “strange” and “stranger” (noun; not comparative), the way children with the “wrong” clothes are often mistreated by other children, the “Tall-Poppy Syndrome” and its variations, and, obviously, various xenophobic attitudes. From another point of view, there is often a strive to create similarities in outfits, mannerisms, whatnot within groups that set themselves apart, e.g. in that members of a clique, a gang, a professional group, or some more formal associations match their clothing or adopt a uniform—culminating in the very formal uniforms used by military and police forces. (Also note the overlap with a recent text on identity politics.)

*E.g. because the differences between two people might have resulted from their stemming from two different tribes, because there were times when experimentation brought more danger than benefit, or similar.

A particularly dangerous variation of this is the wish to be “brav”, likely often related to the “me too” band-wagons:

When people hear that this-or-that opinion is the right opinion to have, the opinion that a particular idol or political leader has, the opinion that members of a certain party or movement usually has, they are more likely to adopt that opinion without proper thought. When people hear that this-or-that accomplishment in life makes one successful, they are more like to strive for that accomplishment without considering whether it makes sense in their own lives. When people hear that a college education is a must to make a good living and what sets the intellectual apart from the non-intellectual, they are more likely to go for a college education without considering whether some other road might work better or be more suited to their own talents. Etc.

This is made worse when journalists, teachers, politicians, and other influencers of public opinion tend to be uninformed, poor critical thinkers, ideologically biased, whatnot.

The college example (and education in general) is particularly telling: Having a college education might have been truly beneficial in the past, when few people had one, when the filter effect* was strong, and before dumbing down and academic inflation. Today, a bachelor is severely watered down/transformed into regular school and everyone and his aunt has a bachelor, turning the master to the first degree that has a true filter effect. In the U.S. this has coincided with a steady increase of tuition fees, making the cost–value quotient compare even worse with the past. A strong case can be made that going to college today is a bad idea in many countries, including the U.S., for those who do not have some specific careers** in mind. Nevertheless, journalists, teachers, and, above all, politicians never seem to tire at telling us how urgent it is that the proportion of the college educated is increased even further, that everyone without a college degree will have a poor (and those with one will have a great) future, etc.

*I re-iterate my claim that, when looking for work, the main benefit of a certain level of education was the demonstration of an implied level of intelligence, diligence, ability to work independently, …—not an implied level of knowledge.

**Notably, careers in academia and research, and those that have a certain educational requirement, e.g. as a physician.

What if someone was better off going straight to work after high school*? What if some type of apprenticeship was a better road? What if some other** approach to higher education was better?

*Indeed, even high school is dubious on a systematic level. For many, it amounts to over-education, a waste of time, the wrong type of education, or a sub-optimal way of reaching an education—I, e.g., have always learned faster and better outside of school (note: “school”, not just “high school”).

**Apart from the obvious possibility of self-studies, I note that with many U.S. colleges five-or-so students could pool their money and afford to hire their own, dedicated full-time professor as an alternative… A current hitch with such alternatives is getting a formal degree, but I suspect that this will change with time, one way or the other (e.g. in that there will be a few providers that allow anyone to take the tests for much-smaller-than-tuition fee, and leave it to the students to develop their knowledge and understanding anyway they see fit).

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 1, 2018 at 9:22 pm

Opinion corridors and related topics

with 7 comments

I recently randomly encountered a Wikipedia article on “opinion corridors”, or “åsiktskorridor” in the original Swedish.* While this particular word had flown under my radar, it is hardly a surprise that my native Swedes are the inventors: Sweden is one** of the countries, outside of dictatorships, where the tolerance for “heretic” opinions is the lowest, where those holding such opinions are exposed to the most denouncement*** (sometimes even hatred and persecution), and where politicians are the most likely to ostentatiously profess their (real or pretended) orthodoxy. Indeed, the expression “the Official Truth” (“den Officiella Sanningen”) is often used to derogatorily describe the problem that an unholy alliance of media, politicians, pseudo-academics from the field of “gender studies”, and various interest groups has dictated a certain “truth”****, the questioning of which is grounds for a virtual excommunication: Those with the “wrong” opinion are condemned, censored, see their positions severely distorted (e.g. by leaps like “He said something negative about Islam; ergo, he must hate Muslims.” or “He wants to reduce immigration; ergo, he is racist.”), etc.

*While the Wikipedia article lacks a formal definition, the general intent is easy to understand: Opinions that lie within or move along a certain corridor are acceptable; others are not.

**Unfortunately, this problem has been rapidly expanding in the rest of the world, including the U.S., over the last one or two decades—and is the reason why I have great fears about the current obsession with “hate speech”: The cure could very easily turn out to be a greater threat than the supposed disease.

***Note that I speak of a denouncement on more-or-less moral grounds—not factual analysis and sound argumentation, as can be used against e.g. homeopaths, or even a “you are so wrong that you must be an idiot”. No, a typical reaction amounts to “anyone with such opinions is evil”.

****Often it has little or nothing to do with the real truth, stands in contrast with actual statistics, disagrees with real science, …

This concept, along with several others linked to in the article (including Overton window and Hallin’s spheres), overlap strongly with many of my previous texts, observations, and complaints.* Indeed, one of my most repeated claims is that only actions, not opinions, can be a legitimate cause for condemnation—while e.g. many members of the PC crowd engage in wholesale moral condemnation of opinion and allow themselves to take any action they see fit to silence dissenters. (Leading me to repeat another observation: Fascist is as Fascist does.)

*To mention but a few: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]. Also note a great many earlier texts on the topic of censorship, especially through feminist bloggers.

This issue complex is one of the most important in today’s Western world, and one of the greatest threats against democracy, enlightenment, sound governance, and even science. Worse, it is a threat against the finding of truth and the development of human knowledge and understanding: We cannot know with certainty, which of our opinions, no matter how plausible they seem or how many others share them, are right or wrong—but we can say with virtual certainty that some of them will be wrong to at least some degree, possibly entirely. By preventing the expression of dissent, the development and improvement of opinion is severely hampered.

That this is not a hypothetical situation can be seen e.g. in the feminist blogosphere where exactly the comments that stands the greatest chance of affecting a change in opinion, e.g. through solid arguments and published statistics, are those most likely to be censored—and in the mean time, the pseudo-knowledge of propagated Woozles, slogans void of arguments, and emotional perception remains the “truth”.

A very interesting example of how opinion corridors, Overton windows, et al., can exert undue influence is the situation of the Christian Churches* (especially the Catholic): Large blocks of the population seem to believe the absurdity that the Churches must modify their opinions (e.g. regarding homosexuality and female priests) to match the surrounding world. However, if we accept** that the premises of a religion are true, the opinions, behavior, whatnot of a Church must obviously be based on these premises—not on the current opinion corridor. There can be legitimate instances of changes to an official stance, e.g. because of new revelation, a find of alternate text sources (like with the Dead-Sea Scrolls), a development of the understanding of old texts based on new scientific methods, the discovery of an incorrect translation, …—or, obviously, a previous minority interpretation developing into a majority interpretation. For instance, if a scroll is found, pre-dating the Gospels, relating Jesus’ blessing of female priests, and considered authentic by the Vatican, this could be valid reason to allow female Catholic priests. In contrast, to reject some two thousand years of policy, with a base in Biblical interpretation or theological contemplation, merely because the opinion corridor in overall society has changed, would not be a valid reason.

*While these are the potential victims in this scenario, they have historically very often been perpetrators.

**In my case, as an atheist, arguendo; in the case of those religious, this is almost a given as a matter of definition. Should we not accept these premises, chances are that the Church or religion must be rejected in its entirety. (Similarly, it can be legitimate for someone to see a religious position not matching his own preferences as a reason to reject a particular Church or religion entirely. An obvious example would be a Church that insists on a literal interpretation of Biblical events that are not compatible with mainstream science. Still, this only gives the right of rejection—not the right to force the Church to change its own stance on any given issue.)

Particularly dangerous areas, especially with an eye on artificial “echo chambers”, include:

  1. Governmental restrictions on opinion, be they direct (e.g. an outright ban) or indirect (e.g. in that only sufficiently orthodox parties or scientists receive public subsidies).
  2. Deliberate abuse of or naturally developing “echo chambers” in the education system to enforce some set of of opinions. Unfortunately, this is by no means restricted to the lower stages—as demonstrated by the current U.S. crisis of the college system.

    (If influenced by the government, this can overlap with the previous item.)

  3. A press dominated by some set of opinions.

Note that these can all (a) have a massive effect on the overall population through a very wide reach; (b) can tend to be self-perpetuating, e.g. in that non-conformant parties are hindered from gaining votes through less founds and can therefore not affect changes to the rules for public subsidies, that the chances for a college student to eventually join the faculty can depend strongly on having the “right” opinions, and that an aspiring journalist faces a similar situation. And, yes, these are all definite problems in today’s Sweden.

Excursion on topics, fiction, and similar:
Unfortunately, these problems extend into areas not directly relating to opinion, e.g. in that certain entire fields of investigation, topics for books, choices of characters for a movie, and similar can be unduly suppressed or altered, in order to avoid controversy and criticism. For instance, (real) science that deals with e.g. biological differences between men and women or psychometrics is often viewed very negatively by ignorants. (Say, as inherently sexist or racist, or as modern versions of phrenology. Worse: Some seem to believe that even if there is something to discover in this area, it must not be discovered, to avoid influencing opinion in the “wrong” direction.) Similarly, a work of fiction that shows a hero rescue a damsel in distress (or any number of other scenarios) stands the risk of being condemned as e.g.“perpetuating stereotypes”; while it is common to see tiny women with some martial arts training easily beating up men twice their size and with more martial arts training,* women abounding even among “STEM” professionals, …—that the world depicted is sufficiently PC is more important than that it is realistic.

*Going well beyond the typical, already unrealistic, “hero bonus” that is so common in fiction.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 18, 2018 at 2:36 am