Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Oh, allow me to both address the complexity of labeling & do some major name calling! (This post may be subtitled, “How to Have Fun with a Thesaurus”, with a smattering of gratuitous jargon)

We're all familiar with the usual political spectrum, from Looney Left through Rabid Right (with lots of intermediate positions along which we pigeonhole others).

Perhaps it may be more significant to categorize people as lumpers vs splitters.

Extreme lumpers group everybody into 2 camps: essentially us vs. them. At worse, Lumpers demonize everyone who disagrees with them, excuse those who agree, focus on their personal injustices (no matter how trivial), and turn a blind eye to those of others. Since reality is too complex to neatly fit into 2 pigeonholes, Lumpers tend to redefine reality to fit their categories, emphasizing facts that fit while trivializing inconvenient ones that don't. Depending on political proclivities, lumpers lump everybody into 2 camps: either Looney Left vs the Rational Right, or EnLightened Left vs Rabid Right.

On the other hand, Splitters not only see both sides of an issue, they also see many more. This has 2 down sides. First, they annoy the heck out of lumpers: while lumpers are busily pounding square pegs into round holes, they will be thoroughly annoyed by the splitter sorting out the round, square, triangular, and pentagonal pegs by symmetry, material, usage, color, luster, durability, ductility, friability, flammability, flexibility, and functionality. Second is “paralysis by analysis”: in the process of fully understanding all possible positions, they may not act when needed.

Everybody changes their minds over time. Thinking people naturally do so after pondering new information, while non-thinkers do so after having their ears tickled by something new. When Splitters change their mind over time, they rarely change their fundamental positions, and then only gradually after many incremental shifts. When Lumpers change their mind, they either redefine the their groups (for small changes), or they switch groups entirely (for large shifts). For instance, Bjorn Lomberg, the climate skeptic, claims to have once been a strident environmentalist (a la greenpeace), and since gone to the opposite extreme. Having read one of his books, it would seem that he went from a shallow understanding of the issues and a pro-environmental extreme, to a shallow understanding of the issues with an anti-environmental extreme.

A related description (as applied to pundits & experts) is hedgehogs versus foxes: hedgehogs take a position and stick to it, while foxes ‘hedge their bets’ by considering all of the contingencies. One famous hedgehog was Winston Churchill, who illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the hedgehog approach: he was spectacularly right about Hitler, long before Hitler came to power, but was equally wrong about Ghandi (whom he regarded as another Hitler). While Hedgehogs are often praised for taking courageous stands on fundamental issues, all too often they merely draw on their expertise for evidence that supports their pre-determined conclusion, and ignore any contrary evidence. On the other hand, Foxes tend to be disparaged for waffling on issues when they have merely considered the complexities of the issues.

Personally, I don't go by the 2 team model of politics (Republican vs. Democrat, or, tongue in cheek, Repulsican vs Demoncrat). After all, "All politics is local", and what we call the Republican and Democrat parties are more coalitions tied by tradition and affiliation than monoliths. [WARNING: math joke ahead] So, as a true mathematician, instead of a political spectrum, I think in terms of a multidimensional Banach Space with the following basic eigen-axes.

Everybody recognizes the familiar spectrum from Looney Left through Rabid Right, plus some intermediate positions. Lumpers tend to regard intermediate positions as being confused or evil (e.g., the disparaging acronym, “RINOs”=’Republicans In Name Only’). Splitters tend to regard intermediate positions as being insufficient.

We add Centrist Center to describe those that that could be described as doggedly centrist in rejecting both extremes & reaching a somewhat principled position in the middle. Not to be confused with the Muddled Middle, who pretty much adopt the last opinion that tickles their ears, with little regard to an overarching philosophy to organize their thoughts.

I also add to these 2 the Competent Kernel: these are the folks who actually know their stuff and know what they don’t know. These are not to be confused with those folks who assume they know their stuff, or the ones who know what they know, but don’t seem clueless about what they don’t know. As Socrates & Plato put it, 90% of smart is knowing where you are stupid.

One of my favorite education jokes, that I stopped telling for fear of offending: You go to college. When you realize that you don’t know squat, they give you a BS degree. When you realize your classmates don’t know squat, they give you a Master’s degree. When you realize your professors don’t know squat, they give you a Ph.D. Now, anyone with a successful education will appreciate the point that the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know. The cruel aspect of the joke is, what about those people who never realize how little they know? (Are they awarded an Associates degree? Do they go into right wing talk radio?) Besides which, there are many educated folks—more so amongst the Batchelors & Masters—who have treated college as training, not as education, and do not quite realize how little they know. (Those who vehemently take the positions of their gurus, without realizing how little their gurus know, fall within the joke).

The axis of “Zealous Zenith” to “Nilistic Nadir” naturally follows from the above discussion. Lets face it, zealots are zealots no matter where in the belief spectrum (er, hyper-space). Some zealots may radically change their positions, but they are still zealots. We are all familiar with various forms of religious zealots. One peculiar form of zealot is secularists who are tolerant of anything, except what they perceive as intolerant. Those of the “Nilistic Nadir” are not only not driven by an overarching ideology, but they are extreme in perceiving life as empty & meaningless. So while Jerry Falwell may exemplify the Zealous Zenith on the radio spectrum, Howard Stern illustrates the Nilistic Nadir (at least, that’s my impression—I heard a little of each, but not much to contradict this characterization).

What started this all is the realization that many contrary opinions fell in the same places along the Looney Left-Rabid Right spectrum. What distinguished them was the axis from Fertile Front to Regressive Rear. The Fertile Front (FF) are those in society who tend to be early adapter & tinkers, while the Regressive Rear (RR) tends to avoid change at all cost. FFrs buy a new technology right on the cusp of its introduction, while the RR’s right on the cusp of it’s replacement. It should be noted that the Regressive end is not all bad, nor the Front end all good: FFrs embraced BetaMax VCRs & Ford Edsels in their time. While the RR’s are on the trailing edge of technology, it is also well tested and proven technology. The FF’s are on the leading edge of technology, which is also refered to as the bleeding edge.

Perhaps the distinctions between Left & Right, Front & Back can be best illustrated in the reactions in addressing climate change issues. The Loony Left Regressive Rear quadrent would have society return to a more agrarian & simple lifestyle, the Regressive Rear would step up fossil fuel consumption.

Finally, there needs to be an axis for Anarchist vs Fascists, in the sense that a right wind anarchist is a libertarian, and a left wing anarchist, is, well, an anarchist, and left wing fascist is basically an old style communist, while a right wing fascist is, well, a fascist.

So I also add:
Rebel Rim vs Fascist Hub. In the extreme, the Rebel Rim includes "Rebel without a clue", who Automatically fight against authority--any authority. Conversely, the Fascist Hub are those who instinctively follow authority, surrendering freedoms and insisting that others do likewise.

This might be a more fundamental axis than the others: for instance, a statistical analyses of supreme court decisions showed the 9 justices tended to cast their votes according to 2 main decision axes: the familiar Left vs. Right, and Federalization/Centralization vs. Decentralization. The latter axis is merely a segment of the spectrum from Rebel Rim to Fascist Hub.

NB: Rebellion may or may not be driven by principle. E.g. A rebel set in a leadership role may become an autocrat, since when constrained under someone else’s authority, rebelliousness is a way to gain and assert power. I tend to think that the nature of Rebel in power beyond a tendancy to undermine any authority besideds there own will be determined by other axes: Eg., the degree to which they seize power for themselves for their own benefit is a function of Selfishness.

To summarize:

The 2 clearest (to me) dimensions:

Loony left vs. Rabid Right
Fertile Front vs. Regressive Rear

Rebel Rim vs. Fascist Hub (with intermediate positions of Decentralization vs Centralization)

Various contenders for the up-down direction:
Altruistic above vs. Selfish substratum (or base below) vs Mercenary Middle
Zealous zenith vs. Nilistic nadir
Aloof above vs Diabolical down

And something for centrality/radiality:
Centrist Core vs muddled middle.


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