Friday, 25 March 2011

Todays Battles : The Theory behind them

Some thoughts on Activism, inspired by some of the e-mails and private messages I've gotten lately.

If you Google my name, you'll see something astonishing. Well, it astonished me, anyway. Literally thousands of places where I've commented about TS and IS human rights issues, in places all round the world. India. South Africa. The UK. Australia. But mostly in the USA, in the Nashua Telegraph, the Houston Chronicle, the Talahasee Advertiser, the Denver Post.... in Greeley and Gainesville and Hamtramck and Kalamazoo and Nashville and a hundred other newspaper sites. On blogs, especially right-wing blogs.

Why did I do this?

First of all, let's look at social and ideological monocultures, where everyone in on the same wavelength, everyone agrees, there is an established consensus. Such things can easily become pathological, moving towards fanaticism. One member pushes the boundary a little, presents a slightly more extreme view than most, but still within acceptable bounds. Emboldened, another goes even further, and though the majority may have qualms, no criticism is forthcoming. Then an even more extreme view is presented, as everyone thinks that the rest of "their group" must be thinking that way. Soon what was once an extreme view becomes accepted, and anyone deviating from orthodoxy is attacked as an outsider, a RINO (Republican In Name Only), a DINO (Democrat In Name Only), a traitor, an infiltrator for the Opposition...

Dissent is silenced - sometimes literally, by censorship and banning. And the move towards an ever less sane, unreasonable and extreme position is inexorable. Soon the group becomes unrecognisable, a caricature of itself.

The effect is related to Pluralistic Ignorance.

From Wiki (to keep it simple)
In social psychology, pluralistic ignorance, a term coined by Daniel Katz and Floyd H. Allport in 1931, describes "a situation where a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but assume (incorrectly) that most others accept it...It is, in Krech and Crutchfield’s (1948, pp. 388–89) words, the situation where 'no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes.'". This, in turn, provides support for a norm that may be, in fact, disliked by most people.

Pluralistic ignorance can be contrasted with the false consensus effect. In pluralistic ignorance, people privately disdain but publicly support a norm (or a belief), while the false consensus effect causes people to wrongly assume that most people think like them, while in reality most people do not think like them (and express the disagreement openly).
I've encountered both. The Radical Lesbian Feminist Separatists are a perfect example of False Consensus, they genuinely believe that their ideas about the desirability of exterminating Trans people must be shared by everyone, because their clique all believe that view. Visitors who point out that they're advocating genocide, that they're batsh1t crazy, are many: but they get censored out, blocked as being some unacceptable fringe nuttiness.

When it comes to Trans and Intersex human rights issues, Pluralistic Ignorance is far more common. A few very passionate commenters speak about Trans people being Freaks, Perverts, Paedophiles, Insane, Evil, Morally Corrupt, and the majority of viewers think that that idea must be held by pretty much everyone, as there's no-one to gainsay it.
Pluralistic ignorance was blamed for a perception (among American whites) that grossly exaggerated the support of other American whites for segregation in the 1960s.
How to fight this? A series of experiments shows the way. The Asch Conformity Experiments.
Variations of the basic paradigm tested how many confederates were necessary to induce conformity, examining the influence of just one confederate and as many as fifteen confederates. Results indicate that one confederate has virtually no influence and two confederates have only a small influence. When three or more confederates are present, the tendency to conform is relatively stable.

The unanimity of the confederates has also been varied. When the confederates are not unanimous in their judgment, even if only one confederate voices a different opinion, participants are much more likely to resist the urge to conform than when the confederates all agree. This finding illuminates the power that even a small dissenting minority can have. Interestingly, this finding holds whether or not the dissenting confederate gives the correct answer. As long as the dissenting confederate gives an answer that is different from the majority, participants are more likely to give the correct answer.
Even one lonely voice, as long as it's polite, reasonable, rational, is enough to disrupt the formation of a Groupthink. Just one dissenter is enough, just as it only takes three or four to set the ball rolling, when a majority is unsure about the issue.

I've been told on a couple of occasions by locals, that my intervention, my blatant interference in another country's internal affairs, has made a difference. Only a few, I have no illusions about my own significance in the grand scheme of things. But I have been unusually prolific as a commenter.

When I started, nearly six years ago, for the most part I was alone. I still am on some of the more rabid right-wing sites, those that haven't actually banned me. But in the left-wing sites, there's usually some now who will admit to being a little right of centre on some issues, economic ones anyway. It's now OK to be a moderate, looking for genuine social reform when it's needed, but not giving the "progressives" carte blanche.

And in newspapers and on TV station comments sections, it's now almost unknown that I be the lone voice of opposition to the meme that Trans people are Demons Incarnate (and quite possibly Communist infiltrators) Out To Destroy Society As We Know It and Pollute The Purity Of Our Precious Bodily Fluids.

Three years ago, there were a handful like me, usually the same few names. Now, it's rare indeed that I'm the first in. In some, sanity is now the norm, rather than the exception. It may be a view I disagree with, but at least they're rational, open to new ideas, and willing to give their sources, so that I can critique them. Sometimes I change my own opinions as the result, it's not a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser, it's a shared quest to determine what is, and what is not.

I didn't know anything about the psych theory when I started this. I just observed the tendency in a monoculture to become fanatical, and wanted to disrupt that. I knew nothing about the Asch paradigm, I just wanted to let the majority get an alternate view, that they couldn't just write off the issue as solved. It's starting to look like Pluralistic Ignorance may have been at play though, as such small interventions shouldn't have had such a large effect. Time will tell.

And in the meantime... I'm rather more tolerant of diversity in my comments section than most. Most of my friends and readers of this blog agree with me on most issues, so I try to nurture those who do not. I don't want this to be a runaway pathological monoculture you see.


Zimbel said...

But in the left-wing sites, there's usually some now who will admit to being a little right of centre on some issues, economic ones anyway.

At least in the U.S.A., both major parties have significant presence of corporate conservatives, many of whom believe in the Austrian School of Economics, and/or follow Real Business Cycle theory. This is partly due to our duopolistic politics, and partly due to how we fund our political campaigns. So it's of little surprise (that in the U.S.A., at least) you'd note economic conservatives in left-leaning sites.

Nicole Jade said...

Well said, Zoe.

Lloyd Flack said...

Unfortunately the internet has made the formation of echo chambers easier since one can now search the whole nation or ever the whole world for those who agree with you. If you then make them your near sole source of information then you are in trouble. With the older media it is more difficult to avoid information coming from those you disagree with.

An area where I think you have fallen into this trap is climate change. You have sometimes believed claims in this area that are internet myths. You have got too much of your information from sites with a political axe to grind and not looked in detail at what those actually working in the field have done. This has fed into the blind spots that working in IT can cultivate. I've noticed how much climate scepticism comes from people in IT trying to fit natural systems into their approach to problems.

svelte_brunette said...

Hi Zoe,

I've noticed your prolific commenting for several years now, and I thank you for it. However, I sometimes wonder how just ONE person can post on so many different sites!

It's led me to wonder if you're not actually an entire group of grad students running a social experiment posting under one name, or if in addition to your other biological anomalies, you suffer from a SERIOUS case of insomnia that keeps you up all night posting on trans / intersex issues all over the planet.

Either way, I'm grateful for all your help in educating the public.



Anonymous said...

It is OK to discriminate and have beliefs. We need individualality and a purpose.

What we do not need is multiculturalisum and one size fits all.


Zimbel said...

@Lloyd Flack-

The main advantage of the internet is that if I know what information to look up, and how to find a trustworthy source, I can do that nearly instantaneously. I can even often delve a level or two into source materials far quicker than I could look up a single source in a brick and mortar library.

To take your particular example, I can easily read the most recent IPCC report. Less than 1 minute later, I can get to the information they have in the fourth report on the Mid-Pliocene era. Previously, it might have taken me days or weeks just to get my hands on a physical copy of the fourth report. At minimum, I would have needed to travel to a major library, and manually copy down information or photocopy pages to find that information - and that's ignoring the time it would have taken to figure out that that's the report I probably wanted.

Lloyd Flack said...


That is where the Internet and online education of all forms is useful, to fill in gaps in your knowledge when you already know the basics. It allows information to be distributed cheaply to a very dispersed group of information seekers. It can make things affordable that otherwise would not be.

But online education is not a good idea for teaching basics. You need the interaction with teachers and other students to stop you from continuing on mistaken paths when you are being introduced to unfamiliar concepts.

Zimbel said...

I don't see the lines quite as cut and dried - I've gone down false paths in areas that I've had a significant amount of education (but was insufficiently skeptical), and I've never seen a significant false path in others where I have little education (say, Spanish) but I think you have a good point overall.

I think perhaps the thing to keep in mind is that in some fields there are advantages to keeping false paths for some people/entities - for (a hopefully archaic) example, Tobacco companies want to promulgate the few studies that show beneficial or few harmful effects from tobacco, whereas there's little benefit to creating and maintaining a constructed language as though it were another language.