John Nerst, a self-described Nerstian, created a potential new field of study he calls Erisology. He named this budding discipline after Eris, the Greek goddess of Discord, so he had me from “hello!” Nerst hopes to spotlight the misconceptions surrounding today’s debates as well as the perspectives, assumptions, and worldviews currently hindering our daily discourse. Biases are certainly bogging us down a bit—a recent example? After a 22-month investigation, the Mueller report changed about ten people’s minds across America. Most of us remain either in the full exoneration, or hang ’em from the nearest tree camp. In the interests of bipartisanship, why can’t we do both? Authentic exchanges are exceedingly rare these days, just check out that last sentence. Nerst is proposing some rules of engagement with the hopes of saving the debate and perhaps limit the impact of our increased polarization. On that note, I asked Mr. Nerst to debate me at the next Let’s Hang Trump From The Nearest Tree Meetup Group, but he has yet to FB message me.
Erisology was not something on my radar until a recent Atlantic article, but I like his approach to identifying what is getting in the way of our exchanges by better defining the ground rules surrounding authentic—kidding, we’re screwed. Hey, at least this Nerst fella believes more productive discourse is possible. Hope springs eternal …but today even that’s debatable.
A key component of Erisology is cognitive decoupling, which Sarah Constantin describes as:
“The ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.”
Sorry, in my professional life and in my blogging life I’m a patterns guy, so I live amidst the mega-gestaltier side of Holistic Mountain. My friend and blogvesary Pokey is our resident ‘devil in the details’ guy. Over the years I’ve found the details to be insignificant, yet effective.
For some history, this blog was named, at least in part, due to our country’s response to 9/11 and to the false narratives that sprung from its wake. Amidst the early Bush years two distinct interpretations and solutions emerged from this tragic event. I soon realized these opposing reactions were not outliers, but ingrained political worldviews. Worse, I believed 9/11 would spawn an even more divided and potentially less healthy political reality. If we weren’t careful, polarization would reach levels that would make meaningful debate next to impossible.
Around 2004 Pokey and I floated the idea of starting a podcast, Bridging Gaps, because we both saw the tectonic political plates drifting apart. Boy, were we right! The podcast never happened but our debates raged, but today we’ve chosen our sides and each news cycle only hardens our positions. My comment to end our last mega-thread battle captures today’s scheissgeist:
“With respects to the Mueller report and beyond, I don’t agree with your assessment of what happened, what is happening, or what will happen. And I understand the Spygate chapter least of all, but only because at any point in Trump’s despicable life a FISA warrant was probably justified, perhaps even in utero. But liberal rage is a very real thing today. I believe it was Nietzsche who said if you gaze long enough into the Twitter feed, the Twitter feed will gaze back at you.”
In some ways, perhaps due to his background in philosophy, Pokey maintains this one-topic-at-a-time approach to our debates. Stick to the topic, Zano! It’s true. I’m prone to slip into rants, jokes, historical arguments, and overarching patterns and memes. I’ve received some recent reader criticism for these bad habits. But I need these rants. Rants and craft beers are my main political coping skills. Grognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Researching Erisology helped me to focus on the Discordic delusions haunting our exchanges. In recent years I’ve had the nagging feeling Poke would throw in the towel as we’ve been talking past each forever. Wouldn’t that be ironic? Two good friends, one slightly left and the other slightly right on the political spectrum, predict what’s coming 15 some-odd years ago, so they join forces in an attempt to thwart the growing polarization only to finally succumb to this new bifurcated political landscape. At this rate one day we’ll just give up and wave to each other from those distant political shores…
[Retraction: I would probably moon him.]
Reviewing this Nerstian Manifesto, it dawned on me that, sure, I don’t want to be wrong as much as the next guy, but maybe not for the reasons my blogvesary thinks. I don’t want to give Republicans an inch, because that’s all this aged voting pool needs to stay on their wrongheaded warpath. Reign of Fiber?
Another observation, the wronger they are at any given time the more sure of themselves they become. What’s that all about? I’ve recently compared them to political tardigrades, or space elephants—creatures that need next to no sustenance to make it from the icy blackness of their vacuous ideology all the way to the White House. So I want to hunt down every crumb en route to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and deprive them of it. As the worst stewards of all things meaningful, why not thwart them at every turn? Look at the bar they’ve set. They claim victory because their president is not a full blown traitor? Or, because he was handed a strong economy two years ago and has yet to completely wreck it? Impressive. This bar is not just low, it’s subbasement-of-the-Rathskeller-during-the-limbo-contest low.
Here’s what can happen if we choose the wrong topics to debate: seven meaningless investigations into an embassy bombing in Libya led to an unrelated email server issue that led to the election of a sociopathic president. Small Crumbs Matter! Anything and everything carries such a hefty price at the ballot box and beyond (which is also my favorite houseware retailer).
Whereas I’ve covered the cognitive biases inherent in today’s politique here on the ‘Cord, which is one aspect of Erisology, I’ve certainly ignored some of my own.
“We are making a mistake if we are assuming everyone wants to disagree in a way that result in effective evaluation of ideas.”
—John Nerst, some podcast, after reading Pokey’s comments.
Is more effective communication/debate via this new framework even possible? Erisology is not really a new concept, but a more global approach to identifying and eliminating the snap judgment by blocking out the context and the experiential white noise through this decoupling of all of the irrelevant baggage. I remain cautiously pessimistic. A certain Kansas album comes to mind. Anyone who supports Trump on anything isn’t playing the devil’s advocate, they’re playing the deplorable’s surrogate. Likewise my blogvesary will seize on this principle, but only in the hopes of catching more space crumbs for their long journey between factoids.
On that note, here are my two concerns with the Erisoltic method:
1. The political right will use the endless debate as a delay tactic to avoid the solution phase of any given problem:
Climate change is the best example of this. When a Republican says: “Let’s have that debate!“ that’s your cue to check their lobbyist and follow the dirty money south. It’s synonymous with, “Yeah, we already lost that debate, so now we’re trying to delay this shit in the hopes of covering our assets.” How can Erisology help when the debate itself is the gimmick, which, in this case, is used to keep ignoring and polluting? The impacts of climate change are already daily news, but this hasn’t budged the view of our space elephants.
Did you catch AOC’s recent town hall, wherein an audience member called a GOP lawmaker and climate denier “a moron”? AOC took the highroad stating, “Let’s debate, not debase.” Whereas this was a classy political move, she’s actually wrong on this point. The debate is over. Sure, we don’t exactly know the details of our demise, or how bad things will get and when, but we can no longer deny it’s happening.
Climate deniers employ the same tactics. Why support people who are never wrong when mankind’s survival hangs in the balance? Bad Idea Jeans?
Here’s how it works:
Scientists predicted 3cm of sea level rise and it’s only 2cm. Ignore.
Ice is disappearing at the north pole, but increasing at the south pole. Ignore.
In the last century the planet warmed by 0.9° Celsius and scientists predicted 1.2.° Ignore.
Any serious conversation on the matter needs to start with: we’re not discussing if it’s happening anymore, but rather what can be done about it. Where does Erisology fit into that model? Let’s have a debate on what’s open to debate…
2. Debating as a tool to perpetuate and distract from real issues:
Similarly, the debate on more minor subjects abound in today’s news cycles. This is the primary tactic of Fox News, AM radio and even my blogvesary who somehow still feeds into this nonsense. The most recent example of this is Russiagate v Spygate. Over and over we see right-wing attempts to shift the focus away from our president’s criminality, to debate some perceived liberal wrongdoing from the late Billaryozoic Era.
Post Trump I’ve covered hundreds of examples damaging to both our president and to the conservative ideology as a .whole, But if we let the debate be hijacked we’ll lose the thread of reality. For some wild ballpark figures, let’s say I’ve made 150 serious charges/allegations against the GOP in that period, and let’s say four or five turn out to be inaccurate. My friend will harp on those four or five that I got wrong, to the exclusion of the 146 or so that proved damning. Let’s not talk about collusion and corruption, let’s talk about that debunked dossier.
And the reverse is also true, the right-wingers will remain focused on the handful of Republican criticisms of Democrats, most of which will eventually be proven false or unfounded. All this while never acknowledging that the four or five “scandal” focus points from last year ended up ranging from bullshit to trivial. Before Trump, none of their Obama scandals were worth the blog they were posted on. This has been the trend for a long, long time. It doesn’t matter if last year’s accusations proved false as long as we have more unfounded shit for tonight’s segment of Hannity. This is the heart of my Zenwrongness Theory, which is an effective way to be forever wrong yet remain relevant. Good work if you can get it.
“Stay focused on the attack, no matter how meaningless, unfounded or trivial.”
—John Q. Republican
If used incorrectly Erisology could be an invitation to exacerbate this current disparity of facts. Unless the hierarchy of our country’s problems aren’t agreed upon first, and prioritized accordingly, I fear we will only succeed in having a more effective debate on the likes of Pizzagate. Regardless of the conclusion of this important sex trafficking ring—you know, that accused Hillary Clinton of coordinating a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t actually have a basement—such a debate will only aid the political tardigrade agenda.
Republicans have realized that if they’re right about something, they’re right, and if they’re wrong about something, they’re still right. It’s all in the spin. Fox & Frauds have simplified the views of nearly half of our country, crystalizing them into rigid political constructs that have proven to be wholly impervious to reality. Admittedly the left is now following suit (see: Maddow’s McClatchyesque coverage of Russiagate). Can fixing the debate really change this trend?
To give my blogvesary some credit, he gained some understanding of the dangers of George W. Bush and can admit to some of his party’s faults, but then why hasn’t he embraced my main suggestion, namely, to renounce the GOP and help birth something grounded in principles? Our president is a pathological liar, yet if the media mischaracterizes one of Trump’s lies, this gives conservatives permission to focus on that to the exclusion of all else. There’s a difference between occasionally being wrong and always being wrong. The Republican brain is irreparably broken at this point and all the new Roberts-style rules of engagement/debate strategies are not going to change that fact. And, as counterintuitive as this may sound, it may actually make matters worse.
On the flipside, as for my own soul searching, I will concede this much: I guess I don’t really care about authentic dialogue anymore, only because nothing good seems to be coming from it. That’s an astoundingly depressing statement, yet this is the scheissgiest of 2019. Debating the trivial or the fictional, correctly or not, avails us nothing. Will Erisology, if employed, be immediately hijacked by our right-wing friends? I am afraid that one side is looking for tools to keep digging and the other is gullible enough to hand them a shovel.