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March 22, 2007


Mark Wadsworth

This reminds me of a delightful article in The Onion ...



"Extreme views, weakly held" - I like this a lot. Personally I believe in the abolition of wage labour, commodity production and the state, and their replacement by a world of abundance held in common. But I don't bang on about it all the time - and, if you were to point out that socialist X is talking less sense than conservative Y, my views are held weakly enough to let me consider that you might be right. I imagine Taylor's own Marxist leanings worked similarly.

(Or you could say that I haven't got the courage of my convictions - or that I've carefully chosen convictions that it's particularly hard to have the courage of. That's a possibility.)

Matt Munro

There's another phenomena from social psychology (forget the technical term) where, contrary to popular belief, groups who go into a dialogue with differing views tend not to end end up in a touchy feely love-in where concensus is reached, but that the process of discourse actually polarises opinion. Individual differences are magnified and become more oppositional and extreme than they were to start with.
Under nulabs groupthink, and the way it encourages private opinion to become public through pressure groups, campaigns, petitions and all the other parapehnalia of minority politics, this polarisation of opinion is actually encouraged.
This is the theory behind the claim that multiculturalism, far from leading to greater understanding, actually fuels fanatacism.


"people with centrist views can be irrational too": indeed. If they adopt them merely because they are centrist, they are certainly being irrational.

James Hamilton

"What puzzles me about so many people is not what they believe, but the sheer vehemence with which they do so." You can guess, can't you, without my saying, what that reminds me of, of whom.


[What puzzles me about so many people is not what they believe, but the sheer vehemence with which they do so]

does this mean you're planning on stopping calling people like Polly Toynbee "idiots" and "economically ignorant" for disagreeing with you? I mean, this is a good idea, but we are all guilty of this sin, aren't we? I don't recall you ever acknowledging the case for managerialism, despite the fact that a lot of intelligent and successful people believe in it as an approach - in fact you usually suggest that they do so because of some defect of rationality bordering on mental illness.

Luis Enrique

"I don't recall you ever acknowledging the case for managerialism"

two post down ...

"Now here's a challenge to my prejudices ..."


I just have to comment on this essay.

1)Over-rating intellect and learning.

What? The "exaggeration...of intelligence and learning"? Intelligence and learning are important corner stones for adopting or creating an accurate, holistic, rational philosophy of life. A firm philosophy is the foundation of all political beliefs. Political beliefs without sound, rational philosophical support is the very essence of fanaticism. This contention has no merit.

2)Ego Involvement.

True. Our political philosophies are integral parts of our self-concepts. So are our philosophies.

3) & 4) Should really be grouped together because their related. Incentives only have more pull if the arbiter is a member of a sympathetic group (i.e., vulgar democracy).

Your conclusion I must also disagree with because you assert that "enlightened" debate is impossible because of these biases. This is not 100% true. Reason and logic, the weighing of evidence, have been shown by social psychologist to have a tremendous impact on changing opinions. They demand we use our critical thinking faculties instead of our heuristics. Granted, there will be resistance, but there are ways to bypass prejudices. Homogeneity is a powerful tool of influence, and by appealing to similarities, you can persuade others to your point of view.

While an "enlightened" society is light-years away, assuming it's more than a delusion, we shouldn't dismiss the most lucrative and effective tool we have at our disposal (reason) just because others might be initially resistant. Your argument that emotion will always win out over reason is not accurate. It's only when we give up on reason, allowing emotion to win by default, that we become deluded into believing such things.


I believe this is one of the clearest and best put statements on the matter. Espeically N1 - overarating capacity, in other words.


"An extremist, not a fanatic": I like that. Who is your natural foe? "A custard, not a blancmange"?


"Most politically active people are more intelligent or better educated than average"

do you REALLY believe this?

Matt Munro

"Reason and logic, the weighing of evidence, have been shown by social psychologist to have a tremendous impact on changing opinions".

So have fear, prejudice and irrationality.

Not Saussure

Depends, I'd have thought, on who you're discussing things with and why. When I'm trying to persuade someone to my point of view, we usually manage to have a perfectly calm and reasonable discussion, because that's the best way to persuade them. If, however, I for some reason want to wind them up (possibly to discredit them in the eyes of the audience, because I'm trying to win over the audience rather than them), I can usually manage it quite easily by pressing the right buttons.

A classical education does have its uses, at least if it includes the ancient writers on rhetoric. They certainly knew a thing or two.


Kimmitt's right. Too often the politically active have ill-informed views, strongly held.

Also, political activisism is the way to access contracts. Here in the States, if you want to to make the big bucks, you need to get access to Appropriations. Of course that's just my opinion.

el Tom

"mean that people with centrist views can be irrational too"

Quite. Consensus does not necessarily accurately reflect truth or desirability. In fact, consensus is often a barrier.

Matt Munro

I'm thinking of Milgram, Ashe and Zimbardo, all of whom showed that under the right sort of social pressure a wide variety of people, irrespective of age, background, intelligence or existing prejudice are capable of acting in inhuman and cruel ways, for no good reason other than conformity to perceived group norms and/or the direction of an authority figure. What this means is that psychologically, rather than morally speaking the "I was only following orders" defence is perfectly sound.
Admittedly this research was done at the group rather than the individual level, but the problem is that, as history shows, any old bollocks can be cobbled together and turned into a persuasive and rational argument. Just look at the "green" movement, traditionally it was thought easier to convert less intelligent people to a dubious cause, but the whole eco thing has been bought hook line and sinker largely by the educated middle classes.

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