Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Arbitrariness Candidate

For those struggling for an explanation of what happened, here's the best I can come up with so far:

Obviously, Trump's election represents a rejection of the Establishment, of which Hillary Clinton is, in many ways, the perfect embodiment. But if that's what the voters of this country have rejected, what, exactly, are they *embracing* by selecting President Trump?

Contrary to many of my liberal friends, I don't think the fundamental is racism or sexism or bigotry or even nationalism or authoritarianism. Those are elements of Trump, to be sure, and they are things to be concerned about, but they don't represent the fundamental of what I see people who were enthusiastic about Trump in my own circles embracing. I don't think the Trump supporters among my friends are motivated primarily by hate (though some are far more tolerant of it than I would prefer).

I think the fundamental thing people are embracing is this: the arbitrary. Trump was the Arbitrariness Candidate. He may well be the Arbitrariness President.

The arbitrary is that which is put forth without any evidence. The putting forth and accepting of claims without evidence (or in contradiction of it) defined Trump's campaign and his supporters. He asserted things (e.g. Mexicans are rapists, Ted Cruz's father participated in the JFK assassination, he alone can fix our problems without articulating any realistic or specific solutions, etc.) and a large number of his supporters accepted them even when no evidence was provided, time and time again. Even the racism and sexism that so many liberals fear are based in the belief in the arbitrary: the belief that one race or gender is superior (a belief for which there is no evidence). It is the essence of the Trumpian 'believe me', which is code for 'take my word for it because I'm not going to give you any reason to actually believe me.'

And among his supporters, there is a widespread attitude of 'we know what Hillary represents: the Establishment'. This is true. But then it is quickly followed up by some version of 'Trump may not be perfect, but at least there is a chance that he will be better.' This belief, too, is rooted in accepting the arbitrary. Donald Trump has been in the public eye for many, many years. There is ample evidence to draw conclusions about what he will do as President. The inferences we might reasonably draw based on that evidence aren't guaranteed to be right, but they are at least reasonable, as contrasted with the belief that he will be consistently pro-freedom, conservative or, indeed, consistently anything, which is pure fantasy.

Pure fantasy is not worthy of the same cognitive consideration as a belief for which there is some evidence, however robust or scant. (This is the answer to the emerging group of non-enthusiastic Trump apologists who are starting to say 'Well, you don't know what he'll do as President. Maybe it will be ok." It's true that we don't know for certain, but just imagining that it might be ok without being aware of any specific reasons to think so doesn't count as a refutation of people's legitimate, evidence-based concerns.)

It is a grave, grave error to entertain the arbitrary in your thinking, even for a second. If someone puts something forth without any real claim at supporting it with evidence, there is no reason to even consider it possible. If one entertains every statement that someone puts forth as possible, even with no evidence, that does not constitute thinking. It constitutes engaging in a flight of fancy that one has mistaken for cognition. It is a recipe for the sort of cognitive fuzziness and paralysis that allow one to fall victim to the next charismatic figure who comes along who is capable of conjuring up those fantasies and evoking the emotions they connect with.

I think a good, day one answer to 'what do we do next?' is this: fight the arbitrary. Both in your own mind and in the public square. Demand of your friends, your leaders, your teachers and yourself that views be supported by evidence. Train yourself, and help train others, to identify when things are asserted arbitrarily and to reject them out of hand until and unless some actual reason to believe them is provided -- whether you are disinclined to agree with the assertion or, especially, if you are inclined to agree with it. Do not accept the common belief that because we can't be certain of something, we must entertain all possibilities. That attitude elevates ignorance to the status of cognitive gold standard and is a direct path to the destruction of the intellect.

Contrary to the prevailing cultural attitude, not all opinions are equally valid. If, as a people, we were as adept at detecting the arbitrary as we are at, say, detecting racism, I don't think we would have President Elect Trump, and I certainly don't think we would be as primed for abdicating our collective responsibility to think and judge and embracing an actual dictator as I fear we are.

No comments: