Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Anomie Factor

Now, Alison Gopnik joins those who have taken Steven Pinker to task for the distortions and confusions in his book Enlightenment Now. However much you want to buy Pinker’s fascination with gauzy ideals like reason and humanity, he is wrong to blame an optimism deficit for the fact that people are not lining up to become atheists. In truth, people have paid a price for progress.

Gopnik places it on the Enlightenment’s account. For my part I prefer to say, as I have long said, that the Industrial Revolution produced the social turmoil and dislocations. Transformations in the way nations produced goods and services, added to advances in transportation and communication broke communities, causing a loss of social capital and a pervasive anomie.

Gopnik does not use the terms. Yet, she grasps the problem in an example. She shows what happens when she, a scientist, tries to encourage young women to enter her field. They all understood that that career path will detach them from home and hearth, from family and community. If I wanted to be churlish I would add that these functioning small town communities barely exist anymore, but I will leave that for another day.

She writes:

The young woman replies, “That sounds fantastic! But there’s just one thing. I love this town. I have a boyfriend who also wants to be a scientist, and I’d like to get married and have a bunch of kids here soon. My parents are looking forward so much to being grandparents, and my own grandparents need me to look after them. My family and friends are all nearby, and I’d like my kids to live in my community and take part in the same traditions I grew up with. Can I do that and be a scientist too?”

She continues:

The honest answer? “If you join us, the chances are very slim that you’ll end up living in your hometown. You’ll move around from place to place unpredictably, from college to graduate school to postdoc research to professorship, until you’re 40 or so. You’ll be separated from your partner for long stretches of time. You’ll have to wait to have kids, and you may not have them at all. If you do, they almost certainly won’t be able to grow up with their grandparents. But there’s always Skype.”

To be more honest, we would note that this scenario has been generated by the advent of contemporary feminism. It assumes that the young woman wants to have a career equal to that of her husband and that she will willingly risking losing domestic harmony and children in order to follow that rainbow.

Gopnik is brutally honest. And it’s well and good that young women hear the price of having a career just like a man. I would have preferred that she identify feminist theory as one of the causes of the pervasive social anomie. 

From there she continues to critique Pinker’s book:

The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism. If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values.

One understands that serious intellectuals feel obliged to use awkward locutions like “a more inclusive conception of flourishing,” but Gopnik is really concerned about the social anomie produced by rapid industrialization. I think that she is arguing, correctly, that Enlightenment idealism has failed to provide the moral basis for new forms of community, new ways to solidify community ties.

Where Pinker believes that people are simply blinded by their own pessimism—a theory debunked in other places, and even on this blog—Gopnik suggests that if people feel pessimistic perhaps they are reacting to something that Pinker ignores. Rather than address the problem, Pinker blames a few convenient scapegoats:

But if things are so much better, why do they feel, for so many people, so much worse? Why don’t people experience the progress that Pinker describes? Pinker doesn’t spend much time focusing on this question, and he gets a little tetchy when he does. Skepticism about Enlightenment values, in his view, comes from leftist humanities professors and highbrow-magazine editors who have read too much Nietzsche, or from theocrats on the right.

Pinker recommends that we all identify as members of the human species. Yet, this detaches us from social organizations. Humanity is not a social group. It does not have rules for entry and rules that cause expulsion. Being a member of the human species is a biological fact, but it does not confer group membership:

Pinker’s graphs, and the utilitarian moral views that accompany and underlie them, are explicitly about the welfare of humanity as a whole. But values are rooted in emotion and experience as well as reason, in the local as well as the universal.

What does it mean to belong to a group? Gopnik explains her reasoning:

In most mammals, a “tend and befriend” brain system—which involves the neurotransmitter oxytocin, among others—plays an important role in the bonding between mothers and babies. In humans, with our distinctive capacity for cooperation, this system of attachment has been expanded to apply to a much broader range of relationships, from pair-bonded partners to friends and collaborators.

Of course, to have a community you cannot keep it all in the family. Communities are alliances between families. Moreover, you cannot have a community that interacts with other communities if you see them all as dangerous strangers. The thought, for the record, comes to us from the Book of Leviticus and the Gospels—it’s presented as the injunction to befriend strangers and to love you enemy.

Anyway, Gopnik suggests:

In fact, the economist Robert Frank and the philosopher Kim Sterelny have proposed exactly the opposite view. The feelings that go with attachment—such as love, trust, and loyalty—allow people who have different capacities and clashing short-term interests to cooperate in a way that benefits everyone in the long run. Parents versus children, wives versus husbands, hunters versus gatherers—all of these relationships inevitably involve tension and conflict. Rationality and contractual negotiation alone can’t resolve the differences that arise. If individuals all just pursue their own interests, even in coordination with others, they may end up worse off. But emotions can help. Sterelny argues that attachments act as “commitment mechanisms.” They ensure that partners won’t just walk out of an argument or renege on an agreement when it becomes inconvenient.

In other words, it’s not just about oxytocin and empathy. It’s about rules and precepts, ethical principles, the sort that have been taught by religions. But that do not belong to the notably atheistic Enlightenment.

In the absence of religion we have far more difficulty dealing with the social dislocations caused by the Industrial Revolution. The more detached we feel the more we will be drawn to cults… now called tribes.

In Gopnik's words:

But scientific as well as intuitive evidence suggests that tribalism can be seductive when people feel that their local connections are under threat. At the same time, the Enlightenment emphasis on the autonomous, rational individual can also lead to alienation and isolation, which make tribalist mythology all the more appealing.


Jack Fisher said...

"Pinker recommends that we all identify as members of the human species."

We've got a friend who identifies as a Hesperornis. But we just let her in the pool and she's ok after a while.

Ares Olympus said...
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Ares Olympus said...
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Ares Olympus said...

Gopnik: Marriage counselors often say that relationships can weather anger, misunderstanding, jealousy, fundamentally different values—even the occasional bout of hatred. But they can’t survive contempt, which has become the signature political emotion of our age.

An interesting quote. I recall from wikipedia that contempt can be related to status, although tribalism itself enables mutual contempt, while money becomes the "objective" measure of status in individualism. So I don't have to care about you if I can get all my needs met without your cooperation, and I'm free to scapegoat you or your kind as the cause of whatever difficulties I see that are not my fault.
"Robert C. Solomon places contempt on the same continuum as resentment and anger, and he argues that the differences between the three are that resentment is anger directed toward a higher-status individual; anger is directed toward an equal-status individual; and contempt is anger directed toward a lower-status individual."

David Foster said...

I wouldn't go too far with arguing for the superiority of pre-industrial-revolution societies, or rural & village life as opposed to the city. Here's Peter Drucker with what I think is a balanced view:

"Rural society has been romanticized for millenia, especially in the West, where rural communities have usually been portrayed as idylic. However, the community in rural society is actually both compulsory and coercive.

One recent example. My family and I lived in rural Vermont only fifty years ago, in the late 1940s. At that time the most highly popularized character in the nation was the local telephone operator in the ads of the Bell Telephone Company. She, the ads told us every day, held her community together, served it, and was always available to help.

The reality was somewhat diferent. In rural Vermont, we then still had manual telephone exchanges...But when finally around 1947 or 1948, the dial telephone came to rural Vermont, there was universal celebration. Yes, the telephone operator was always there. But when, for instance, you called up to get Dr Wilson, the pediatrician, because one of your children had a high fever, the operator would say, "You can't reach Dr Wilson now; he is with his girlfriend." Or, "You don't need Dr Wilson; your baby isn't that sick. Wait till tomorrow morning to see whether he still has a high temperature." Community was not only coercive; it was intrusive.

And that explains why, for millenia, the dream of rural people was to escape into the city. Stadluft macht frei (city air frees) says an old German proverb dating back to the eleventy or twelfth century. The serf who managed to escape from the land and to be admitted into a city became a free man. He became a citizen. And so we, too, have an idyllic picture of the city--and it is as unrealistic as the idyllic picture of rural life.

For what made the city attractive also made it anarchic--the anonymity; the absence of coercive communities. The city was indeed the center of culture. It was where the artists and the scholars could work and flourish. Precisely because it had no community, it offered upward mobility. But beneath that thin layer of professionals, artists, and scholars, beneath the wealthy merchants and the highly skilled artisans in their craft guilds, there was moral and social anomie."


"The city was attractive precisely because it offered freedom from the compulsory and coercive rural community. But it was destructive because it did not offer any community of its own.

And human beings need community. If there are no communities available for constructive ends, there will be destructive, murderous communities..."

Also, here's a passage from German author Hans Fallada. His protagonists (in 'Every Man Dies Alone') have left the politically hysterical environment of Nazi-era Berlin for a small town where–they believe–life will be freer and calmer. But:

"Like many city dwellers, they’d had the mistaken belief that spying was only really bad in Berlin and that decency still prevailed in small towns. And like many city dwellers, they had made the painful discovery that recrimination, eavesdropping, and informing were ten times worse in small towns than in the big city. In a small town, everyone was fully exposed, you couldn’t ever disappear in the crowd. Personal circumstances were quickly ascertained, conversations with neighbors were practically unavoidable, and the way such conversations could be twisted was something they had already experienced in their own lives, to their chagrin."

(I made the argument that some of these negative aspects of village life have also become a big part of the *Global* Village, especially via Facebook and Twitter lynch mobs)

Ares Olympus said...
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Sam L. said...

There are many reasons for "getting out of Dodge". Marshall Dillon is not one of them.
Wanderlust, "seeing more the world", not fitting in or not having room to move are good.
Where I grew up gave me the ability to appreciate other parts of this country. A guy I knew in the Air Force and I both got reassigned into the same career field, but he chose to go to a base near his home, and I to one far from home.

David Foster said...

There's a very interesting book, published in 1836, in which author Peter Gaskell discusses what he sees as the effects of the industrial revolution on society. I reviewed it at some length here:

Anonymous said...

isn't Gopnik the one who thinks that Psychology is a "science"?

Ares Olympus said...

David Foster, I see there's two similar but different issues. Small towns and large extended families (who live in proximity for decades), and both can provide a sense of connection and both can squash individuality under expectations of who you're allowed to be. And in both cases you can create big fish in small ponds. OTOH, gossip in both cases often can be productive, maybe cowardly but not necessarily ill-willed.

I also recall Scott Peck explored the idea 4 levels of community, and the first level as pseudo-community where everyone tries to get along by intentionally hiding their differences, followed by chaos when what is hidden finally can't be contained, and then emptiness where expections are withdrawn, and people then have a chance to come back together with a new deeper acceptance and appreciation. Of course the chaos can also lead to fight (a bully takes over) or flight (people go their separate ways), but if there are deeper bonds between people, its more likely people will stay long enough to find a way through their differences. It probably makes more sense in religious community, and they break all the time too.