Degrees of Dissent

Observations on the ecosystems of agreement.

‘Mostly peaceful’ means not peaceful. That applies to protesters. That applies to peace officers. So how much violence can we afford? How much can we tolerate? It all depends upon how far we can get away from it. Should we stand far from it? Should we pick sides?

My interest is piqued these days about what to do about dissent of the sort that can essentially only be measured by the willingness of dissenters to get loud, act out, defy society, aggregate power, get violent, etc.

At the center of this is the matter of the Woke Mob and its escalation of the Culture Wars to the extreme levels we have seen in Portland and Seattle, and the wobbly virtue signaling of retail giants and commercial news media during such times.

I fear that our computer mediated communications have rendered America not such a big country as we used to call it. So we are closer to all the violence and dissent than is comfortable. It is not that this violence is itself so abhorrent; from my point of view it’s fairly ordinary rioting, looting and crowd control and arrest with the one notable exception being that of the viral recordings of the Kenosha Shooter, aka Saint Rittenhouse. Indeed what I find most disturbing about these general purpose garden variety protesters and their antagonists is the ease with which we spectators are inclined to sink to that level, trying as we may to associate in solidarity to some concept or meme we agree with. We used to say, “It’s a big country, find a corner of it and go do what you want.” Now certain people, call it 70 dozen of the influencers have determined what the rest of us are focused on as time goes by. Every local event that grabs their attention is pushed upon us as one bit of proof of their world views. In short, we are in a period of historical transition in which our notions of proximity have changed dramatically. It has gotten so bad that it feels as if we no longer inhabit a big, free country. It feels as if that nice quiet young man next door has suddenly revealed himself to be a serial killer. Except he’s not next door and he has not been carrying out a homicidal agenda. This is an illusion that needs to be dispelled.

I think I understand this well as an engineer and writer. I have been online for over 30 years and watched the shape and content of this medium change. There have been things I saw coming and things that surprised me. For example, it was always clear to me that in a world of ever increasing ‘computer literacy’ there would be an expansion of ideas. This dynamic has much in common with the Reformation. I have approached the matter with the question, what kind of material do you produce for the largest literate population in world history? It doesn’t surprise me that people would choose that information that best conforms with the way they view the world. I quoted Michael Heim:

"According to Heidegger, we notice the eclipse of the truth of being occurring already in Plato's metaphysics. Once the truth of being becomes equated with the light of unchanging intelligibility, the nature of truth shifts to the ability of statements to reflect or refer reliably to entities. With the steadiness of propositional truth comes the tendency to relate to being as a type, a form, or an anticipated shape. With being as a steady form, entities gain their reality through their being typified. Already in Plato we see the seeds of the Western drive to standardize things, to find what is dependable and typical in them. Truth as the disclosure process, as the play of revealing/ concealing disappears behind the scene in which the conscious mind grasps bright objects apprehended as clear, unwavering, rational forms. As humans develop the ability to typify and apprehend formal realities, the loss of truth as emergent disclosure goes unnoticed. All is light and form. Nothing hides behind the truth of beings. But this "nothing" finally makes an appearance after the whole world has become a rigid grid of standardized forms and shapes conceived and engineered by humans. As the wasteland grows, we see the devastation of our fully explicit truths. We see that there is, must be, more. The hidden extra cannot be consciously produced. Only by seeing the limits of standardization can we begin to respond to it. We have to realize that each advance in typifying and standardizing things also implies a tradeoff. When we first reach forward and grasp things, we only see the benefits of our standardization, only the positive side of greater clarity and utility. It is difficult to accept the paradox that not matter how alluring, every gain in fixed intelligibility brings with it a corresponding loss of vivacity. Because we are finite, every gain we make also implies a lost possibility. The loss is especially devastating to those living in the technological world, for here they enjoy everything conveniently at their disposal -- everything that is, except the playful process of discovery itself."

In other words ‘the science is settled’ is precisely the oxymoron we live with in large part because literacy only implies but does not necessitate discovery. I digress but do you seek where I’m going? OK in plain English:

We accept authoritarian thumbnail sketches of each other as Americans and of every fact relevant to our lives in society, because we don’t discover for ourselves.

Now that we have social media, it is dominated by Twitter and by comic memes, the shortest forms of abstraction possible, essentially propaganda. Even as I write this very essay I am constrained to make it popular by using ‘mostly peaceful protest’ as the viral phrase.

As people debate the demerits and relative danger of cancel culture, we are forced to reckon with the aggregation of the power of simple-minded rants and raves. The difficulty is a bit more perplexing than it seems on the surface, especially for those steeped in proper critical thinking and well-informed habits of dealing with new information. You see, if you know the right answers, no matter how simple they are, you have to contend with the fact that your fellows who are out in the cold cannot be as assured as you are. What you learn from hard study and questioning among peers is a set of facts and proofs that will take a good deal of force to unwind, especially if you can make winning bets off that knowledge in life. Those of us who are successful in our lives are in that way prisoners of our own success.

Consider the addage: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. What we know is important, but who we know is more important because our engagement with such people that know the same things we know keeps what we know relevant. Is that a filter bubble? Yes. It’s a neighborhood. It’s a religion. It’s a regime of truth. It’s an academic discipline. Whatever you want to call it, your realm of knowledge must exist in an informational ecosystem that runs on and is sustained by the energy of apologetics. It’s about you and your colleagues establishing a ruleset of confirmation and disputation. This reflects my recent learning from Donald Hoffman who argues quite convincingly that we do not perceive the universe as it is, but that the simulation of the universe is in our minds and it is a matter of evolutionary fitness that guides our perspective, not the accuracy of our perception.

So when these filtered bubbles collide the result is rather chaotic. This is the nature of dissonance and dissent we are witnessing. We have people testifying and confessing what their life experience has taught them, and they find it almost impossible to imagine how someone could possibly dispute their claims. Having climbed a lot of fences into other people’s intellectual backyards, I am familiar with the open mouthed stare of puzzled recognition. “I’ve never met an X like you before.” My standard response is twofold. One, you don’t get out much do you? Two, take advantage of this opportunity because chances are you’re going to have to explain to your friends who have also been huddling around the same tiny campfire. Americans are upset because they are not university undergraduate professors. They are unaccustomed to being responsible for communicating what they know to hundreds of younglings from all over the country suffering umpteen flavors of cluelessness, patiently.

It would be cute in a retro sort of way to cast this dissonance into the old paradigm of city mouse and country mouse. Unfortunately, what we all have learned often comes from traumatic reasons. For example, the Progressive dimensions and their attending rules of engagement. So it can’t be about city vs country, it must be about straight vs gay, rich vs poor, black vs white, red vs blue, ad nauseum. These boundaries are the gruel of our politicized moment. They are the frames of our Overton windows. They are the standard deviations of our Dunning-Kruger boundaries. They are the attributes of our demographics and they are what reduce us to marketing segments for the sake of the simplistic AIs we have decided to use to define the bounds of social media. So it is no wonder all the ridiculous differences between us are amplified - they are what tickle the resonant frequencies of this echo chamber. This is why every dissent seems so loud. It is why we are doubting that we are even Americans any longer. We know. They don’t even. More over, they can’t even. Or I can’t even.

The word that’s missing there is imagination. And imagination requires discovery. Quite frankly many of us simply are not open to discovery. But discovery and imagination generate the dynamism that is required for us to deal with the very existence of that which we are not prepared to understand. Not because we can’t, but because we didn’t have to in order to survive and succeed within our filter bubble. We have been prisoners of our own success. Are you seeing this now? Are you starting to visualize where there have been red pill moments in your life that you declined?

I don’t want to reduce the scope of this observation to politics, but it is worth noting and overloading the red pill metaphor that our own American political duopoly presents itself as Morpheus. Yes, but there are more than two choices. There are more pills in the world than a red one and a blue one. You cannot wait to be kidnapped or chased to the outside of a skyscraper and drawn into the conspiracy. You need to discover and imagine ahead of the crises. As Heim says, there is not unchanging intelligibility. You cannot typify, and so I emphasize:

As humans develop the ability to typify and apprehend formal realities, the loss of truth as emergent disclosure goes unnoticed.

If you can virtue signal, then you’re already dealing with a formal reality, not actual reality. You’re just proving your evolutionary fitness for your filter bubble. You are merely signifying. And what if you don’t like the signifying of others? You dissent. The less prepared you are to deal with the inevitable dissent from those ideas embodied in the ‘mostly peaceful protests’ and the ‘mostly peaceful arrests’ the more you participate in elevating their significance, most unfortunately and likely, along the lines of resonance that were predetermined before the conflict even began. After all, we know these Culture Wars very well. They’ve been going on since the day after VJ Day.

The degrees of dissent therefore should be measured not by the violence attending them, but by our ability or lack, to be able to communicate in the languages of each filter bubble / regime of truth each of which has its own informational ecosystem which sustains its defining logic and raison d’etre. The importance of violent dissent should be measured by our physical distance and our political distance, and by political I mean our ability and/or responsibility to be directly accountable to the selfsame system of governance which is in dispute. If you don’t vote in the state of Missouri, your dissent over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson is moot, no matter how closely CNN or YouTube makes you feel that you are to the action.

I get away with talking about this because I am engaged in observation. With any luck, my obsession over logic and rational explanation can provide insight as to how we are thinking, underthinking or overthinking these situations whose broad outlines we unable to avoid in our panoptic society. Yes there are boogeymen out there, but they’re not coming to get you. You just see them a lot on social media. We just cannot let its lightweight framework occlude that which we require for imagination and discovery. If we accept the terms that are given, if we typify and expect that ‘the science is in’ then we lock ourselves into a set of false attributes defined by someone that is not us. We cannot, ultimately be responsible for anything in such a world and our self-determination will be taken away.