You’re Stupid

This picture shows two Shepard Tables, named after Roger Shepard, the Stanford psychologist who conjured up this illusion. The geometric parallelograms that make up the tops of the two tables are identical. Yes one looks skinny and long, the other short and stubby. My brain fills in information that doesn’t exist (three-dimensionality) and in this particular case it arrives at an incorrect conclusion that the two table tops are different. The reason my brain is tricked by this illusion is evolutionary – the shortcut my brain takes is what allows me to navigate my three dimensional world every moment of ever day without stumbling and crashing into things. When I first came across this illusion, I didn’t believe my eyes. So I created a google slide and manually shifted one parallelogram on to the other. They fit perfectly. But knowing this didn’t change a thing. The table tops still look different. Shepard said “any knowledge or understanding of the illusion we may gain at the intellectual level remains virtually powerless to diminish the magnitude of the illusion.” Wow. Makes me feel stupid.

It is easy to trick our brains. This is why marketers and Russian trolls have jobs. They make us buy crap we’ll never use or manipulate us to vote for The Rump. Psychologists create traps for our biases that, like the Shepard Tables, prove that we often act irrationally but predictably. If you are interested, explore the works of Ariely, Tversky (whose grandson played soccer with Evan last season), and Kahneman.

Don’t wear masks. Don’t reopen schools. Black Lives Matter. Defund the police. Vote by mail. We are constantly grappling with what’s the right thing to do. There is an overpowering tendency to collapse complex issues into blinding moral certainties. And whole groups of people into idiots or flakes. The other day someone asked me, “so, has it been shown that Trump supporters are dumb?”. Only anecdotally, I wanted to think.

It turns out that social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has answered a similar question: do conservatives and liberals have different morals? How can you and I each hold that face masks are a constitutional infringement and that face masks are useful in slowing the spread of Covid?

Haidt has suggested that each of us come equipped with five moral foundations: care/harm (for instance, almost universally people care about children and cute young animals and morally oppose harm to them), fairness/cheating (we like to be treated fairly and bristle at cheaters and free loaders), loyalty/betrayal (also referred to as “ingroup” – our tribal instinct to like our own people and our instinctive fear, dislike, or apathy for outsiders), authority/subversion (the moral power of hierarchical structures that permeate our families and societies like the patriarchy, teachers, priests), and lastly sanctity/degradation (the emotion of disgust for things like rotting meat or unusual sexual practices).

A moral foundation can be interpreted in different ways. The care/harm foundation gets me to send money to displaced Covid workers in a distant country and makes you like videos of kittens on Facebook. The fairness/cheating foundation means I like public education and you want lower property taxes. The loyalty/betrayal foundation triggers my support of Black Lives Matter and your support for Behind the Blue. Authority/subversion nudges me to listen to Fauci and you to Kushner. The sancity/degradation foundation explains why you are worked up about rioters defacing statues of confederate “heroes”. Haidt’s studies have shown that if you are conservative and I am a liberal, we value or prioritize the five moral foundations in different ways.

So now, in addition to interpreting the same moral foundations in different ways, it turns out that if you are conservative, you have more moral triggers than me. It explains why I don’t get worked up about kneeling during the national anthem while you do. It explains why Fox News and the OAN network and your preacher have a big effect on what you decide is right while I teach Vivian to question everyone including myself.

How do we examine morals of people separated from us in space and time? Should morals be relative? Is slavery wrong? Was it always wrong? Did the founding fathers (not mothers?) of America know that? Should they get a hall pass today because of the social mores of their times? How do you judge another culture? One view is that morality is local and relative. Another is that relativism is a slippery slope and that things are right or wrong, everywhere, every time. What will our descendants hold us morally responsible for? Incarceration of the largest number of people in the world in the land of the free? Fucking up the planet? Living in a world which includes Jeff Bezos and millions of wretchedly poor people?

So you aren’t stupid because you are conservative (though, I suspect that liberals mainly worry that the causality of that relationship works the other way around). And I’m not immoral because I am not patriotic. Additionally, we both think we are right and morally superior to the other. In the face of such clear moral differences, the only option left is to think of the other as stupid. You can dig deeper into all this in THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.

Opinions are like assholes. Everyone’s got one. In today’s world, our opinions are rarely ours. Our moral certainties emerge from our tribal social-media fueled group-think resulting from the same types of evolutionary shortcuts that make us fall for illusions. We are predictably irrational.

This exercise is an attempt to bridge the gap between conservatives and liberals. It does not shed any light on the vacant idealess cult of The Rump. If you believe that face masks are an instrument of evil created by Bill Gates to topple Trump, you are sadly beyond help. Moral foundations aside, Trump is still an huge asshole and if you vote for him in November you are still a bag of shit, and that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it 🙂

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