The Trump-Weinstein-Lauer-Franken Philosophy Lesson
Hello world: underlying realities (if they exist) do not matter. What matters is what we believe when we take an action. We treat that belief as if it was real regardless of “evidence” or what others may believe. The only belief which matters is our own – at that moment (it may change). Colbert called these beliefs “truthies.” Philosophers call them constructions.
In a world of truthies, reality is beside the point.
One year into the Trump presidency and several months into the post-Harvey Weinstein #METOO world, contemporary philosophers are coming to grips with a strange new reality: to understand what is going on in the world (or at least what is reported in the media) philosophy matters. Not that philosophers did not always believe this to be true, but suddenly so does the media. Philosophy has not been this "in" since the days of the Oracle at Delphi.
Without constructions and truthies, there is no way to understand recent phenomena. Harvey Weinstein was all powerful until he wasn't. Al Franken believed he could credibly run for President of the United States until he couldn't. Matt Lauer was king of his fief until it left him to one side. And, the President of the United States says he could kill someone in cold blood on Fifth Avenue in New York, and it would not matter to his supporters. What kind of a reality is this?
Witness President Trump. Many of his "tweets" are attempts to relieve the tension in his mind when confronted by some event of the day. Trump's truths are consistent with his understanding of reality and may have little to do with the information which initially was called to his attention. The inaugural crowd was the biggest because it was the biggest he recalled. He is doing a great job because he genuinely feels he is. What seems true today may be very different from what seemed true only hours before. Different sets of memories got triggered and thus different "truths." Context and physiology play an enormous role in what tweets emerge. But, we all need to remember that the tweet and the actions often differ greatly.
Those who do not share whatever impressions or memories the President is relying upon will see something other than “truth” in his tweets. Those who do share similar thoughts will see a truthie which they will gladly label as truth. Both sides are relying on their mental context to assess what the President has said – but each will claim that that assessment was solely based on the word tokens the President put in his tweet.
What is wrong is not the assessment but the claim. Each side (pro and anti-Trump) has a different set of triggers and a different set of filters through which they see the world. When the President tweets some subset of previously understood meaning gets triggered, but it is highly likely that there is little overlap between the triggered meanings on each side. It is our context which produces the variance. All from the very same tweet.
Think back decades ago:
- “a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest” The Boxer, Simon & Garfunkel (1969)
- “what's too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget” The Way We Were, Barbara Streisand (1973)
- “the things you lean on are the things that don't last … hear the echoes and feel yourself starting to turn … don't know why you should feel that there's something to learn” Time Passages, Al Stewart (1978)
- “what a fool believes he sees, no wise man has the power to reason away” What A Fool Believes, Doobie Brothers (1979)
- “In the beginning was the Word” John 1, King James Version
The Word is the source of our confusion. In the 21st century, we mistakenly think that words have meanings, that those meanings are commonly understood, and that we each make use of the same meaning when we use a word. Words work well when we can rely on those assumptions. But, as the King James Bible tells us, the word was with God, and not with us. The critical assumptions do not hold. The more we claim that the words we use convey particular meanings, the greater the risk of our confusion. Fake news is only “fake” if the meaning an observer derives from encountering it differs from that same reader’s understanding of “reality.” The actual information content of the “news” is less important to the reader than their pre-existing understanding. The reader can only deal with the “news” in a context which consists of that reader’s prior understandings, physical environment, psychological environment, and current objects of attention. Context overrides – unless one is God.
If we were, for example, to believe that every utterance is literal (like some do with regard to the bible), then not only would humor, allegory, and irony be impossible, but we all would discover that subtle differences in meaning can be labeled as lies. The same occurs when we observe language or behavior which lies outside our perceived definitions of a category. Dissonance between the observed behavior and the category definition lead to rejection of the category label. Our social preoccupation with "Fake News" is rooted in this very concept. So too is Al Franken’s downfall.
When Mr. Franken was a comedian, his self-perception included the idea that ridiculous and offensive behaviors could lead to reactions and then laughter. Whether this self-perception was present in his private life only he and his family know, but clearly it was triggered whenever there was an audience gathered. What the pictures and stories about Franken reveal, is that those on the receiving end of the attempted ridiculous and offensive behaviors were not being treated by him as people (with their own values, etc.) but rather as a means to an end – the laughter of the crowd. To Franken, the comedian, such was business as usual. He was quite successful at it.
But then Al Franken switch careers and, in effect, identities. Senators do not play crowds for laughs at the expense of the humanness of others. People are people not objects for some selfish end. The prior ridiculous and offensive behaviors are no longer part and parcel of the present identity. What Franken the comedian could have apologized for as being “boorish” was not within the category definition of Franken the “Senator.” Each identity was “fake” to the other. Franken could have survived if he had confronted the duality head on – what seemed acceptable as a means of getting a laugh then is simply unacceptable in my present role, and present-day comedians need to learn this lesson too. Instead, he did not remember or "remembered differently" and failed to acknowledge that there was a difference between the two Als. The dissonance took over. His resignation was the result.
If we end the story there, we will have missed its learning opportunity – the very place where philosophy matters. So let’s delve a little deeper.
The importance of context
The decline of the "long-form" story in the media, the shortening of attention spans, and our reluctance to read have combined to downplay and discourage explications of context as we seek to understand those who are presenting points of view different from our own. Our contemporary education system – teaching to tests and making the student "customers" happy – fails greatly in what it teaches about context. Instead, it teaches that meanings are fixed, to be found and learned from some kind of "look-up" table and that these looked-up meanings hold "true" regardless of context. If we had an omniscient view of context, i.e., if we were the God of the King James Bible, then the meaning of words in context to their observer (the reader or listener encountering them) would be obvious to both speaker and third-parties. That omniscience is lacking, and we must compensate. One strategy is to ignore the context of the listener and insist on "objectivity" -- the idea that there is some fixed truth. Computers need this kind of definition to work efficiently. We are not computers, and efficiency is seldom our goal.
In effect we are blinded by the success of the reasoning tools given us by those philosophers deemed acceptable in North America (yes, surprise, the list is different elsewhere). The tools suggest that Americans agree on matters of fact, debates are to be guided by a commitment to truth and reason, and that we can uncover the truth through inquiry and dialogue. These statements, in turn, rely on the idea that there is a singular “truth” to be revealed. Our personal histories should be of no effect; all that matters is the information itself. Even if we cannot "know" that truth, we can approach it, and the closest approach should, by definition, "win." We call this idea "science." We dismiss those who do not accept the wisdom of this overarching idea and call them "unscientific," "fabulists," and "post-modern."
Contemporary philosophy makes available a different set of tools, however. This second set relies on the distinction between information at hand and meanings which get triggered in our heads as we encounter that same information in context. Kant told us we can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. When we claim we assert “facts,” we do so from within a then present context that in turn influences how we perceive, interpret and judge the world. Our brains demand that we simplify both information and context in order to have the confidence we need on which to base actions. The “truth” is thus not some static item awaiting our discovery, but instead an ever-shifting form of ‘as-if’ – where we act as if the truthie of the moment was truth itself. The key lesson here is to recognize that we are asserting “as-ifs.”
Al Franken's mistake was to assert that there existed one and only one Al Franken. In his mind, that may be true, but most observers would grant him some leeway – there was Al the comedian and Al the Senator. The roles differ. The expectations differ. The very meaning of the phrase "Al Franken" differs. One is thought of in the context of Saturday Night Live; the other in the context of Washington politics. Yet, at the same time, Senator Franken cannot be perceived any longer as if he was merely comedian Franken. His story is not some set of singular dimensions but instead is filled with many interwoven interactions.
We live in a complex world filled with other people and uncountable interactions. The vast majority of the things, meanings, behaviors, etcetera, we encounter in this world are incapable of being completely represented by five or fewer variables. At the same time, we are cognitively limited beings, and science has shown that for the vast majority of us our brains are not equipped to handle more than five unrelated things simultaneously in either our short-term memory or in our decision-making arenas. Together, these two observations imply that very few things we encounter in the world are capable of being completely represented in our heads. We are forced by the combination of the world’s complexity and our cognitive limits to pay attention to only some aspects of that with which we are dealing. Our representations (the meanings we play with in our mind) are thus, by definition, incomplete and at any given moment a by-product of the choices made regarding what we pay attention to.
As we encounter something we need to interact with, we choose (consciously or subconsciously) some aspects of the situation to attend to, and we ignore (for now) the rest. What we choose will be some combination of the thing explicitly presented to us and our context at the time. We then seek to assign meaning to what we are attending to. The corpus of potential meanings available to a human includes all the impressions of past experiences, the derived learnings from the experiences of others, and the physiological impressions of the environmental context at hand when the request to "make sense" is being triggered. What meaning gets triggered by any given cue is determined by the context at hand both mental and environmental.
What we pay attention to is a matter of choice – some of it conscious and some of it subconscious. When we are presented with a situation to react to, a decision to be made or explicit information to be dealt with we begin with conscious choice. We pay attention to some set of signs, symbols, representations, and behaviors that seem to define the situation, decision or information. Those items which we are conscious of we can articulate that we are observing and attending to (paying attention to). For example, when we read an article the words on the page are part of that conscious choice. For some of us, the source of the article (author or medium) will also be articulable and thus a conscious choice.
At the same time, there is significant meaning which is cued in our mind by the process and context in which we are involved. For example, the meaning we attribute to a yellow line will differ depending if we encounter it in the middle of a road (do not cross), the side of the road (do not park), at the bottom of a document (sign here), or across other text (highlighted please pay attention). On the road, our minds will cue into two kinds of "do not" while on the paper those same minds will instead cue into two kinds of "do." The context and the process trigger or cue the meaning. In all cases, the explicit symbol is simply a yellow line. It is the implicit and the tacit which differ. This extra meaning is a product of our personal histories (what philosophers and psychologists would call entailments) and some cues in the present context which trigger a story, label, emotion (or combination thereof) we already hold.
Al Franken the comedian and Al Franken the Senator gave rise to different sets of triggered meaning – both to the person Al Franken and to those he interacted with. A tawdry joke from one is perceived as offensive by the other. Yet, at face value, he is simply Al Franken.
There is no face value – which means truthies dominate.
We filter our immediate encounters through the meanings that get cued or triggered from amongst the vast corpus of ideas, "facts," labels, categories, beliefs, impressions, stories, etcetera we carry around in our minds. Context is critical. Our subconscious reaction to context is to prime some subset of these items to be "at the hand" for us to pay attention to should we need to. Encountering Al Franken the Senator with all its gravitas on the stage at Saturday Night Live will thus trigger dissonance. So too would seeing Senator Franken acting out a comedy skit on the floor of the US Senate. We react to the dissonance by asserting a truthie – whatever feels right at that moment we treat as-if it were true.
Truthies may be convenient and dissonance resolving, but they can act to filter out valuable input which might matter. Reliance on felt truth leaves one unprepared for new information and thus unprepared to react to unexpected or emergent situations. The major problem with cell phones and distracted driving is one of triggers and filters. When our mind is focused on the content of a text, it is NOT priming us to be aware of the contextual changes on the road around us which may imperil our or others safety. Many of us have had experiences of safely driving and talking or driving and texting. We may falsely attribute such harmless experiences to our innate skill at multi-tasking. Instead, what occurred (and most often occurs) is that the environment around us at that moment did not pose a contextual challenge in need of a response. We, thus, overlook the simple fact that we were not paying much attention to the road at that time. We filtered the experience and our memory of it. We then rely on a “fake” understanding - potentially to our detriment and certainly putting others at risk.
The debates this past year about the Confederate flag and Confederate war heroes was a debate about whose meaning triggers were going to determine the composition of the environment for all of us. For decades, the meaning triggers which be summed up as the "southern saga" were allowed to dominate – the representations were about the "glory" of being rebellious and the "importance" of standing up for belief. The very idea that these same representations triggered different meaning for others was ignored, discounted, or simply rejected by those who had the power to effectuate change. It took an external (to the discussion) event, and its resulting meaning triggers for a change to occur – moral disgust at the senseless shooting of X people by someone wrapped in Confederate images. That disgust changed the equation (at least for a brief moment) and thus changed the meaning which the powers that be perceived. The flag was deemed to create a coercive context. That in turn, lead to further protests about confederate civil war heroes. The media portrayed all this as a reaction to symbols of slavery -- which is limiting the analysis to the level explicit symbol. What they missed was the psychological level – the presence of the flags, statues, paintings, names, etcetera communicated a tolerance of hostility (at worst) and indifference (at best) which itself was coercive. The representations fell because of the meanings they triggered in those observing them and not because of the information the symbols supposedly conveyed.
Which brings us to Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein. The ability of these men to abuse and harass their victims was also highly dependent upon a very special context -- one created by the power differential and its imposition of an uncertainty on the victim which was not present for the perp. As each encounter with a victim took place, the victim needed to process not only the explicit information demands of the perp but also the implicit uncertainty regarding the consequences of saying no. Sometimes, it is alleged, the tradeoffs were made explicit – do this or I will do x to you or your career. But, far more often the tradeoffs were unstated and uncertain. What “might” happen hung in the air as a set of implicit threats. Their very implicitness allowed the perp to maintain the illusion that what happened was “consensual.”
Context here matters greatly. The truthies of sexual predation amongst Hollywood, journalists and the like was that such behavior was “expected” and “part of the game.” Not only were Lauer’s colleagues aware of his behavior, they apparently roasted it as “sport” in 2008. The triggers that that tolerance/endorsement creates in the mind of a potential victim is coercive. The many rumors concerning Weinstein’s propensity for “revenge” acted in a similarly coercive manner. Behavior is not just the result of a weighted consideration of articulated and explicit information – context and meaning triggers play huge roles in our decision-making. A key to changing the culture which seemingly “allows” harassment and abuse of this kind is to change the triggers regarding implicit uncertainty which both victim and perp face. The perp relies on the idea that he is in control. If the environment were to create uncertainty for the perp, behavior is likely to change.
This is the key takeaway – if we want behavior to change, we need to change the context. Information, exposes, public shaming, corporate pledges, etcetera are all good, but, in the end, they are insufficient to get behavior to change. Changing behavior requires changing contexts.
#METOO #TIMESUP #VICTIMSSTORIESMATTER
Hollywood’s TIMESUP initiative announced on January 1 represents the beginning of such a change. What TIMESUP does is let victims and prospective victims know that there exist resources to help overcome the power imbalance between victim and perp. It is the power imbalance which makes implicit intimidation all too easy. Perps have the money and the resources. Now their victims have access to TIMESUP – which promises to provide both a legal defense fund and a set of positive efforts to combat predation.
Sexual harassment and sexual assaults are not, however, just a Hollywood problem. Millions of Americans have been victims -- at all ages, both genders, and across far too many industries. Hollywood, journalism, venture capital, and politics have seen nearly 100 powerful figures exposed and shamed as accused perps. The shaming may out the perp and stop repeats by that particular person – but that is not its major effect. What the shaming does is change the context: the powerful too can be taken down, silence cannot be permanently coerced, you Ms. (or Mr.) Victim your story matters. The resulting story telling has been eye-opening. Yet is it enough?
The New York Times report on sexual harassment at a Ford Motors plant (December 19) sadly suggests that the answer is no. Storytelling, public shaming, and dedicated resources have a strong enemy to fight: the cultural and mental meaning triggers that tell a perp the unacceptable is okay, the coerced is consensual, and the behavior is just boys being boys. These same factors are at work on America’s college campuses where there is no evidence that affirmative consent programs and mandatory education have actually changed behavior beyond increasing awareness amongst those who are unlikely to be perps. At college, the power imbalance seems to be created by greek life and sports teams. Outside of those forums, power imbalances are rare. Americans outside of college tell a different story. At work, power imbalances are the norm. If we are to create meaningful change regarding sexual predation, we need to tackle the mental triggers which those power imbalances create and which perps exploit.
TIMESUP is a start. It will provide resources to victims and change the perception that the perp holds all the cards. Every industry needs its own TIMESUP movement. But, that may be too much to ask. Hollywood has powerful women and a group of concerned powerful men. Other industries lack the critical mass to get a TIMESUP off the ground (and a failed TIMESUP movement would create a set of mental triggers which would only set the cause back – challenges to power imbalances are only liberating when they succeed).
TIMESUP will serve as an inspiration and an experiment. It is not alone. The organization I am the director of, Empowering Victims, has spent the past three years developing apps designed to help victims deal with the pernicious effects and mental triggers of the power imbalances they face. One of our projects involves an app which ensures that victims’ stories are recorded, preserved, and, on the victims’ terms, told. If everyone in a community, organization, or group has this app on their phone, no perp can be assured that silence can be coerced. Uncertainty is no longer just the purgatory of the victim, but an ever-present danger to any prospective perp. Like TIMESUP, our project is but a beginning.
All these projects need educational outreach – outreach focused on something more than the public shaming of powerful people who abuse their positions and others. We need outreach focused on what is right as much as on what is wrong. The Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace headed by Anita Hill is one such effort. The Affirmative Consent Project aimed at college students is another. They too are but beginnings.
We need to create change so that the youth of today do not share their parents’ and grandparents resigned view that workplace power imbalances mean that sexual harassment and abuse are just part of life. As April Rai, the executive director of the National Organizations for Youth Safety puts it: “Educating and empowering youth is critical as we address strategies that shape cultural norms. Tomorrow’s leadership has to learn what right looks like – today.”
Context matters. Power imbalances are not going away. Yet, we can affect what being in one triggers in both the mind of a potential perp and the mind of a potential victim. Together we can work to help shape a context which no longer makes sexual predation seem easy. We need your help.
Note: Michael Lissack is the Executive Director of EmpoweringVictims, the social action arm of ISCE.edu (a 501(c)(3) educational research organization). EmpoweringVictims offers free apps to help victims and prospective victims deal with sexual assault, domestic violence, and bullying. See http://empoweringvictims.org