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Incomplete Information, Inference, Truth, and the Human Condition – Part 3

Incomplete Information, Inference, Truth, and the Human Condition – Part 3

By Dennis Loo (2/8/14)

In Part 2 of this series I explained how issues presented to the public invariably contain within them unstated value assumptions. If you don’t know how to explicitly identify those values and evaluate them, then you will be unable to truly think on your own. You’ll be forced to accept those hidden values as your own. Since the framing of an issue pre-determines what is “on the table” and what is not, by accepting that frame as the appropriate one you have bought into the values of those who framed the issue in the first place. Examples that I used included such things as “support the troops” and the “war on terror.” If you accept the “support the troops” framing then you have given up your ability to oppose the war because you’ve been seduced into seeing it in terms of the US troops rather than the question of what it is that those troops are doing. If you accept the “war on terror” frame then you are now stuck thinking that anything done to “fight the terrorists” (i.e., opponents of the US government) is acceptable because the “good guys” (i.e., the US government) must ward off the implacable danger that the “bad guys” (anyone who questions the government’s “anti-terrorist” policies) present.

It is by this means that those who actually run the country manage to smuggle in and carry forward their agenda while still falsely convincing most people that the public is in charge of public policy. They do this sleight of hand trick in plain sight.

My point illustrated by different framings of issue can be generalized on a higher level. To demonstrate this I am going to next discuss the two major paradigms in sociology and their respective arguments about how the world is and should be. These two paradigms correspond to a basic cleavage in the ways that all people see the world. In other words, even for those who never studied sociology and/or have never heard the term “paradigm,” their world outlook and understanding of why things are the way that they are can be basically categorized into either one of these two major paradigms.[1]

The first paradigm is known as Functionalism. As Emile Durkheim put it, explaining this view in its essence:

“[The collective conscience] requires us only to be charitable and just towards our fellow-men, to fulfill our task well, to work towards a state where everyone is called to fulfill the function he performs best and will receive a just reward for his efforts.”[2]

The collective conscience is Durkheim’s term for what he postulated were the mutually shared values and sentiments that bind people together in the same society. These shared sentiments make society possible, according to him. What Durkheim means by being “charitable and just” is that people should accept their position in the social hierarchy and that of others; he does not advocate that people should challenge social inequality except insofar as it might suit them individually – in other words, in the very narrowest sense - to try to find their own highest possible place within that hierarchy through personal ambition. Durkheim means charity in the commonsense meaning of the term, as in giving alms to the poor and donating some of your income to various charities. He does not mean challenging the existence of poverty itself or the fact that a “just reward” for one’s efforts is differentially determined by the existing social hierarchies and their respective lopsided degrees of power. When you look at how different classes and groups can set their own terms versus those who must accept the terms of others (for example, those bank executives and hedge fund managers who awarded themselves 19% or $32.5 Billion – with a B - of the TARP funds to themselves as “bonuses” for their exceptional work of driving the US economy to the brink of collapse if they hadn’t been rescued with TARP monies), it’s hardly accurate for Durkheim to call wildly varying incomes a “just reward.”

According to him, the harmony of the whole society is ensured by people being placed within the division of labor in a manner that as closely as possible matches their “natural inequality.” He thus takes as a given that individuals are not only not equal in endowments, but that this inequality fully explains the division of labor. Translated into today’s terms, Durkheim would have to argue that the 85 super wealthiest individuals in the world who have more than the bottom 3.5 billion of the world’s population are worth a trillion times more than the world’s poorest.

From the functionalist perspective what matters most of all is what is happening to you and your immediate loved ones, such as your family and perhaps your close friends. If your and their situations are fine, it does not really matter what is going on with others. As I heard a haughty student tell another student who was trying to interest him in a progressive political cause: “Your issue is not my concern.” The principle criterion for this perspective is what is happening to you and yours, not others. If something is unjust it is unjust because of what it’s doing to you and yours. If it stops happening to you and yours, then it stops being something that you are concerned about. In other words, if there’s injustice, "if it doesn’t affect me, then I really don’t care."

This perspective dovetails with Adam Smith’s views that the best society results from everyone acting on their own selfish behalf and acting as if there was no such thing as the public interest.

Durkheim’s work dovetails with Smith not because Durkheim thought that egoism was the best approach. To the contrary, he thought that what made society functional was that people were socialized through their upbringing to respect social norms that made it possible for people to live together; co-operation and inter-dependence make society possible. Without it, humans could literally not survive because even the very act of being born involves a group of at least two people and surviving and growing up requires others to nurture the newborn, teach them a language or languages, and so on. Individualism, to Durkheim, was something that could only exist on the pre-existing and primary foundation of collectivity.

So while Durkheim did not share Smith’s credo that selfishness is the best policy, he nonetheless argued that acting on behalf of others disadvantaged by the existing class structure was unnecessary. The working class in particular could and should be kept from rebelling against their conditions by a) telling them that they were contributing to something larger than themselves in their jobs even though their jobs make them feel like a “cog in the machine,” b) ensuring that there was as much equal opportunity as possible so that people would feel that they had a fair chance at social mobility, and c) not exposing too many from the working class to the “vast horizons” and “fine generalizations” that a higher education can bring because this would make them unwilling to continue living the artificially constrained existence of the working class:

If one acquires the habit of contemplating vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations, one can no longer without impatience allow oneself to be confined within the narrow limits of a special task. Such a remedy would therefore only make specialization [the division of labor and existence of classes] inoffensive by making it intolerable and in consequence more or less impossible.[3]

As you can see, this perspective matches most closely what you tend to find among the more privileged and is much less likely to be adopted by those who are disadvantaged. Durkheim himself was a political liberal who was not immune to injustice and raising his voice against it at times (e.g., the Dreyfus Affair) but his theory readily accommodates itself to politically conservative beliefs since it justifies and naturalizes social inequality.

The other major paradigm in sociology is the conflict perspective. Rather than seeing society as principally one of harmony and agreement, as the functionalist perspective does, the conflict perspective sees conflict between groups over resources (material and non-material) as central to understanding why things are the way they are. The conflict perspective regards social inequality as not principally a product of “natural” inequality but principally the exercise of political power by elites in an exploitative relationship. Conflict theorists look back in history and note how prior regimes of inequality that were touted as everlasting were eventually overthrown and look to the present and future as pregnant with the bases for this to occur again.

Those who adopt a conflict perspective respond to injustice qualitatively differently than functionalists do. If something unjust or unfair is happening to others, even if the situation is not happening to you, it will still be of concern to you to the point that you will do things to try to end those injustices, involving your making significant personal sacrifices for that. The objective here is not to smooth over contradictions but to end the causes of unnecessary suffering no matter where they occur and no matter whether you are directly and personally impacted or not.

The ideological perspective of right-wingers is functionalist and the conflict perspective is that of the Left. Most people in society are on the continuum between these two poles but since the dominant ethic in the US is functionalist even those who are not advantaged by that perspective tend to “read the world” through its lens and their accounts about the world are marked by a mixture of both functionalist truisms and their life experiences by comparison better explained by the conflict perspective.

To fully understand the nature of these two paradigms, to see their internal logical consistency, and the difference between the two requires getting to the Evaluation stage of Bloom’s Taxonomy. If you don’t reach that stage in your intellectual development then you will be unable to understand why someone from a functionalist viewpoint will always be at odds with someone from a conflict perspective on numerous questions. The reason for this is that their value systems are in conflict with each other and as a consequence, while there may be some areas that they can establish as mutually agreed upon or at least stipulate not to argue over, they will always be unable to agree on certain crucial questions.

If you do not know the premises of a paradigm – its unstated assumptions and value judgments – then you cannot consciously adopt or reject a paradigm because you don’t really know what those hidden value judgments are. Since everyone has to operate in the world based on one paradigm or another, and since everything is subject to interpretive framing and therefore contains hidden assumptions, if you cannot yourself consciously adopt certain assumptions, then you will be forced to accept others’ unstated assumptions as your own. Thus, your making decisions about, for example, public policy questions or interpersonal relations such as gender, race, ethnicity, and so on, cannot be based on a real choice by you but your acceptance of previously decided upon choices by others. In other words, free thinkers cannot really be free thinkers if they don’t know what their and others’ value choices are.

For those of us who have been actively trying to alert people to what’s being done in their names, it is frequently frustrating to get less of a response to calls for people to stand up and speak out than is needed. What these attendees’ responses indicate is how much people have been kept in the dark.

This raises at least three matters that flow from this that should be explicitly discussed at this point.

First, the need to spread facts and the truth about what’s really going on is tremendous. The numbers of people now who are trying to spread this to others are far, far too few and the ranks of those who are committed to waking others up needs to swell dramatically. The extent to which even those who are completely new to political life can effect others cannot be overestimated: one person can have a wide impact on many more people because for one thing, every single person we influence is connected to a network of others, so word can spread a great deal, particularly in these times of social media.

Second, we should not understate the degree to which most people are going along with the status quo out of lack of knowledge rather than affirmative acceptance. Most Americans are tolerating the continuing existence of places of torture like Guantanamo and Bagram not because they know what goes on in these places, how people end up there as prisoners, and what international law says about suspending people’s universal rights to challenge their detention (habeas corpus rights), but because they have been systematically lied to about what the facts are. Secondarily there are those who deny the reality of injustice due to a sense of self-entitlement, but this is the secondary aspect here, not the primary one. The mainstream media and the government are guilty of concealing and distorting the truth and they have to continue to do this to keep people from rebelling against the conditions in which we are confined. Prisoners at Guantanamo and Bagram and elsewhere are physically confined and tortured and the American people are being confined by the lies we are being told constantly about what is going on. This is why universal warrantless surveillance is going on – to intimidate and provide the means for the government to chill and suppress dissent against the crimes it is committing all over the world and here at home.

Third, there is a larger issue that is posed by the preceding: what kind of society do we want? What do education, media, and the making of public policy have to do with that?

Most people are not thinking that if you want authentic popular rule that this means that the grassroots have to take hold of the organs of political power themselves and learn how to run things themselves under leaders who are committed to progressively bridging the gap between the leaders and the led so that the historic gaps between mental and manual labor, between city and countryside, between women and men, between divisions by class and by race and ethnicity, and so on, can be overcome, rather than simply electing some individuals and organized political parties to take care of it and everyone who is now in the streets can go home and not have to directly be involved in politics and economics any more. There isn’t room to elaborate on this very much here, but I would strongly recommend that readers go to this article “Why Democracies Aren’t Democratic” to make a start of it.

If you want to fix a machine but do not know how the machine works and do not understand the principles that apply, you cannot fix it. Societies are like machines, only far more complicated; all the more reason, therefore, to study societies carefully and to draw deeply upon historical lessons. If you want to actually have an impact on a societal level—a complicated endeavor—then you need analytical tools that are up to the task. You cannot possibly get such sophisticated tools by relying on the conventional wisdom dispensed via the ordinary organs of media and public officialdom. Does the advice we get on health care over the mainstream media give us enough scope, depth and detail to allow us to treat ourselves and be our own physicians? Certainly not. Why would political advice dispensed via mainstream media and existing governmental institutions be any better? Is it reasonable to expect that reliance upon the major parties’ campaign pitches and the injunction “just vote” could possibly be all you need to know to change society? The richest 497 individuals [now it’s 85 individuals] in the world have more wealth than the bottom fifty percent of the world’s population. If you had such extreme wealth and power and enjoyed your luxuries more than justice, would you let your possessions be subject to the whims of the principle of “one person, one vote?” Would you let your extraordinary wealth be outvoted? You would be crazy to do so. (GDS, Pp. 23-24)

End of Part 3. To be continued.

Part 2 is here. Part 1 is here. Part 4 is here


[1] There are variants on these two paradigms, as individuals are all on a spectrum, but the variants are just that, variants, not distinctly different perspectives.

[2] Emile Durkheim, “The Division of Labor in Society,” in Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, ed. Ian McIntosh, (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 204.

[3] Emile Durkheim, “The Division of Labor in Society,” in Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, ed. Ian McIntosh (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 200.

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