Emotional attachment or investment is the greatest barrier to engaging rational thinking, or the type of empiricism which could solve our most pressing thorny problems. When we first envisaged the promised land which MLK invited us to march towards, we had no understanding that in this march of progress, our very own natures would be the greatest barrier- but this is very reason why, despite our best intentions and significant progress, our ultimate goal remains out of reach and will continue to be out of reach until we begin to understanding of our profound limitations when it comes to emotive subjects.
Here is the problem in a nutshell- our problem-solving is at its best when we are emotionally detached. We’ve all tried solving problems when we are angry, depressed or frustrated. Yelled at the poor company representative on the phone, ignored the email or letter from our bank in our youth, or left important, but lengthy, form-filling for another day ad nauseam. It’s usually not a strategy conducive to success, as we all know from experience. But how much worse does this problem become when we try solve problems which require cooperation, compromise across political divides and the achievement of a consensus which incorporates the best ideas and knowledge which viewpoint diversity has to offer and requires that political opponents declare a ceasefire and break bread together?
This is the problem with race in America, and the reason why no further progress can be reached until we adopt an aspect of humility in understanding how to overcome our deeply flawed human nature. Because race is a subject so emotive that it not only invites emotionally attached thinking, but demands we address the subject with the highest levels of emotional investment. Some would have us believe that America in inherently white supremacist and we should not rest until Equality of Outcome has been reached, others that both Equality under the Law and Equality of Opportunity have already been achieved and whether individuals or communities sink or swim can only be achieved by their own efforts, because the governmental approach has not only failed, but also repeatedly made matters considerably worse.
But the truth is that it is a problem which desperately needs to be solved, because it’s at the very foundation of the societal friction which is tearing America apart- and whilst one side is making matters considerably worse by ignoring uncomfortable truths, the other side obstinately believes that nothing more can be done. It’s our emotional attachment which is to blame. Because when we see opposition to ideas we care deeply about, it causes the brain to adopt a biologically triggered attitude of reactive and defensive thinking. It’s the same mechanism which helped save us on the plains of Africa from large predators, and why if a squeaky door handle moves, everybody in the room turns automatically to see who is coming in, the shadow of potential threat lingering imperceptibly in the back of our minds, ready to react.
I really didn’t understand the nature of the problem until I watched this podcast from Triggernometry:
The problem with the mindset which emotional attachments creates is not just that it impairs our minds with reactive and defensive thinking, but it also forces us into ideological tribes. A part of this relates to our intuitive knowledge that a problem shared is easier to solve, but the far more pressing concern is to seek safety in numbers, to find those who would endorse our perspective without reservation and help us prepare for ideological warfare. It offers an emotional safety blanket of mutual support from people who share our views. It’s also not healthy- and in relation to race it’s the epistemological equivalent of constructing a one hundred foot wall across America, with RACE painted on the side. It means that anyone who wants to approach the issue with a degree of nuance and genuine good faith, is sure to fail, if for no reason other than ideological isolation.
And in this political climate where no one wants to accept compromise or the prospect of working together, liberals and progressives are in the process of failing. Having confined the debate about education to a monomaniacal obsession that the problem is money, when simply pouring resources into the problem has proven to fail time and again, they have turned to ideas which are sure to make matter worse. Kids should be taught Maths, not how Maths is racist! The real problem is the ideological inability to create an environment in which parents are required to invest time and effort in their kids successes if they want them to succeed and in which headteachers are free to create environments of structured low-level discipline, where detentions are handed out for minor infractions, free from the constraints of a zealous bureaucracy ever alert for implicit bias and racism.
And before liberals or progressives dismiss this thought out of hand- consider the case of the state-run Brampton Manor Academy in London with its primarily Black British students, which recently outperformed Eton in placements to Oxbridge, and which doles out detentions for being one minute late to school. Unlike America, these kids didn’t need Affirmative Action or a DEI bureaucracy to achieve their dreams- they achieved their successes through hard work and determination, outperforming the competition. Every student carries an activity book which shows where they should be every day and every parent is subject to the same stringent disciplinary code as the students. Teachers are deferred to and obeyed in all reasonable circumstances.
It is worth noting that even modestly disrupted classrooms can result in two years of lost education by the end of K-12. The worst aspect of this soft bigotry of low expectations with regard to behaviour, is that the juvenile mind is guaranteed to interpret as simply not caring- far from feeling that they are being given special privileges, it reinforces and cements a belief in bias and prejudice. When we ponder the differences between White and Black teachers, and casually blame the White teacher for underestimating Black students by blaming the problem on implicit bias, shouldn’t we first understand that we have rendered them powerless to impress a sense of agency (which Black teachers are far surer to inculcate) and systemically prevented them from enforcing standards of behaviour, let alone holding students to account for failing to live up to their potential. Shouldn’t we first consider the Stasi-like bureaucracy we have imposed from above? Two year worth of lost education or more, far more likely to be visited upon primarily African American classrooms…
And this is other problem of the mindset of defensive and reactive thinking, the problem of multiple constituencies within one ideological bloc- it forces us to choose ideological bedfellows which are not best suited to our moral principles. Conservatives should be naturally inclined to want to make modest investments is systems which aid social cohesion, support families and communities. They tend to support discipline in schools. This is not the libertarian position. Meanwhile, although it might be possible to argue that public schools and Black parents interests might be aligned, there is no world in which a Black parents interests are aligned where a overzealous bureaucracy of apparatchik are constantly on the prowl for implicit bias, and in the process fatally undermining their child’s education.
And this is the problem. By choosing a subject which draws emotive responses I’ve been naturally drawing you into a state where you want to defend those kids and those teachers. I have no doubt that the issues raised are part of the problem, but there are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. When we have an attitude of intellectual detachment, we are able to cooperate in groups, and deal with problems rationally and empirically. We can clinically deconstruct a problem, structuralise it and look at all the constituent elements. With race, we are at the mercy of our tendency to form ideological tribes. It means diagnostics which tilt towards the monocausal and solutions which simply don’t work.
In 2004, Scotland was in the midst of a knife crime epidemic. Glasgow was the knife crime capital of Europe at the time. Because the populations involved were 99% ethnically white a whole raft of measures and policies were introduced, using the best rational and empirical thinking available. A great deal of inspiration was drawn from across the Pond, with various local America initiatives transplanted to Scotland. The work of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, with his view that violence was like a social contagion which could be treated and triaged, highly influenced the project. Within ten years knife crim had been halved, without significantly increasing the prison population of the mainly youthful offenders responsible. But because in America race invites us into political tribes with our preferred prescriptions proactive policing, communities and youth reform-based thinking are never drawn together into one comprehensive and all-encompassing plan. Race makes the issue thorny and impossible to solve. Emotional thinking makes us discard those elements of any proposed solution which we find ideologically unpalatable, and makes these thorny problems all but insoluble.
When the young adopt ideas which are counter-Enlightenment, it’s tempting to circle the ideological wagons. When we hear that America is a white supremacist country, our kneejerk reaction is to defend the progress that has been made over the past sixty years. But there are several steps we can take to prevent ourselves from falling into the same trap that our supposed ideological opponents find themselves in.
First, we need to be WARY. If we find ourselves defensive or automatically constructing reactive arguments meant to undermine their position we should realise that we are allowing our emotions to guide us.
Second, we need to be GENEROUS. If we doubt their proposed solutions, we should at least be generous enough to understand that whilst there may be bad actors within their movements, the majority are well-intentioned and are trying to resolve very real problems which they perceive.
Third, we need to HELP. If we have anything at all to offer, even if it undermines our cause and helps reinforce theirs, we should offer it freely.
Fourth, we should CONCEDE. Although we may not agree with the central tenets of their belief system, we can at least concede when they make a contribution which is valid or worth further consideration.
Finally, we should HOPE. It won’t always work. Some will be too emotionally attached to their positions to start to think about the problem in an intellectually detached manner. But there will be some who will want to add to their knowledge, regardless of whether the new information aligns with their preconceived notions, and these invaluable few will be in an ideal position to disseminate their hopefully far healthier idea pathogens to a large and receptive audience. It might add a little much needed nuance to debates which are becoming increasingly fraught and subject to the seesaw capture of American policy by ideological extremes.
Because something has to change on this issue. It is a sad fact that when either side wins in America on this most emotive of subjects, everybody loses- otherwise we would have already solved the problem decades ago.
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