Dagens ord

Ansvar väger tyngre än frihet - Responsibility trumps liberty

14 juni 2020

More by Moffett: Nationalists and Patriots

About fifteen years ago, as my friend and I walked across the town square, I remember saying:

There's really only one Big Question remaining: People seem to fall into two categories - liberals and conservatives. Why is that? Is it inevitable?

This split seems to me to be the biggest, possibly the only, real obstacle to genuine progress. How should it be addressed? Can it be dissolved?

Since then, I've read a lot. And a lot has happened. If I was asked yesterday to write an essay to answer my own question, it would hopefully have started something like this.

People's outlooks on many pressing social issues betray how these roles [protection vs. provision] are valued differently depending on whether individuals subscribe to patriotism or nationalism. As most psychologists use the words today, these are habits of thought that represent distinct expressions of how people identify with their society. Sometimes lumped together, patriotism and nationalism become plain, and clash with each other, in troubled times. Depending on the person, perspectives shift to more nationalist or more patriotic viewpoints during periods of stress. Yet each individual usually sticks within a narrow range of attitudes over the course of his or her life; the sentiments emerge in childhood under the dual influence of inheritance and upbringing. 
The fundamental difference between nationalism and patriotism is that while individuals with both outlooks are devoted to their society, they relate to it differently. Patriots display pride in their people and a sense of shared identity and particularly of belonging; such a feeling comes naturally to those born in a country but can be acquired by immigrants. With most of their passion directed at their own group, patriots prioritize the needs of its members: making sure they have food, housing, an education, and so on. Nationalists have similar emotions but couch their identity in glorification. Their pride connects with prejudice. As obsessed as patriots can be with caring for the members, nationalists are absorbed with preserving a superior way of life by keeping the society safe and sound and putting their own people prominently on the world stage. 
Where it gets interesting is that patriots and nationalists have divergent ideas of who constitutes "their own people." Indeed, among the aspects of their identity nationalists admire are those that set the trusted majority apart. It's this position they guard. The extreme nationalist ardently protects each detail of that identity to keep the nation firmly associated with the angels. The priorities of nationalists include staunch demonstrations of loyalty, accepting customary rules of order, obeying leaders whom they see as responsible, and maintaining the established social relationships, most clearly between ethnicities and races. All of these values came to the fore as people settled down and began dominating others. Tradition-driven nationalists believe in their country no matter what. They commit to the status quo, at times at odds with those democratic ideals that allow for transformation: their personalities are less open to new experiences and social change. Compare this my country right or wrong stance to the outlook of patriots, who likewise give their country a high standing yet believe it must be earned rather than fought for, allowing that there are possibilities for improvement. 
In their attention to differences between groups, nationalists treat both people of other nations and minority citizens as outsiders, taking a narrow view of who is, at the heart, truly part of the society. They're more comfortable with the majoritarian idea of democracy in which the dominant people should have the primary say in governance. Their perspectives on moral and legal issues reflects this. I believe it fair to say that to a nationalist, a person of another ethnicity, citizen or not, is relatively more foreign
Earlier I called ants extreme nationalists because they stick tight to their colony marker - its scent - as a stamp of their identity. Indeed, though in our species a patriot can become as teary-eyed as any nationalist in displays of allegiance to a flag or anthem, nationalists are supersensitive to those symbols. For them brief exposure to a flag or an idolized leader incites an intense reaction - as does the absence of such an emblem when one is expected. Thus the uproar about gymnast Gabby Douglas not placing a hand over her heart while the American national anthem played in the 2012 Olympics, a lapse that to a nationalist made her gold-medal win too much about herself and not about the United States. The reaction was a sign of the sentiment that societies are entities: people don't compete in the games, countries do. 
Both the nationalist and the patriot perspectives can be logically consistent, with nationalists being more risk averse and on guard against anything that may contaminate their culture. They prefer to err on the side of separatism, erecting boundaries that might alienate those whose interests could differ from their own, while patriots are more sympathetic to opportunities for trade and cooperation with outsiders. 
In short, the nationalist is suspicious of diversity, while patriots often welcome it. Or at least they tolerate it, because even a patriot, no matter how equality-minded, isn't immune to prejudice: the ardor that patriots reserve for fellow society members of their own race or ethnicity still leads to discrimination as they subtly, and unwittingly, treat those like themselves more fairly. 
Why did these differences in patriotic and nationalistic attitudes evolve? The fact is that a clash in perspectives within societies, although at times so extreme as to verge on the dysfunctional, may have always been integral to human survival. Our varied expression of social viewpoints probably connects back to "timeless social concerns," as one research team put it. Each outlook is beneficial in certain contexts. This dimension of our social identity may be an adaption to balancing the needs for protecting and provisioning the society. Even though people with opposing perspectives might not see eye to eye, a society with too few or too many individuals at either end of the spectrum could be open to catastrophes. This promotion of behavioral diversity has parallells in unlikely animal species. Social spiders are most successful when their colonies contain both individuals that retreat from danger but fastidiously tend the nest, and bold ones that put more effort into defense against social parasites, which steal the colony's food; the colonies of certain ant species function most efficiently when they contain a similarly effective mix of personality types. 
For humans, the hazards of a population overly committed to either the nationalist or patriot extreme are manifest. Nationalists see the patriot's greater openness to weak borders and sharing across ethnicities as promoting social dependence and cheating, fears that reflect the competitive nature of groups present across species. Meanwhile, the prevalence of nationalists, convinced their ways are right and prepared to fight for them, means the dangers that nationalists fear can indeed be realized. Still, by readily espousing oppression and aggression, extreme nationalists bring to mind the historian Henry Adam's description of politics as a systematic organization of hatreds. Their outlook feeds on certain facets of psychology. It's intoxicating to fall in line against an enemy, at times at a whiff of trouble. For those swept up in a nationalist perspective, the swell of group emotions and awareness of common purpose gives life a greater meaning. Not just morale, but mental health improve among civilians when nations face conflict. The fact is, trigger-happy societies have long had an edge, with the impulse for war and the fear of attack critical in driving many social and technical innovations and the expansion of states. What's more, nationalists, adhering to a narrow interpretation about what behaviors are proper, have the advantage of being far mor tight-knit and homogeneous than patriots and better able to act together. All this is to say that the patriot's vantage point is and always will be a more onerous path. 
Because of the partiality for their group, displayed by patriots and nationalists in different ways, the troubles our societies face go deep. It's bad enough that a wicked act by one minority person - the Florida nightclub shooting, for example - can set off outrage at an entire minority population. But mistreatment can carry over to ethnicities unconnected to the tragedy. That's an outcome of how stereotypes strip away detailed understanding, making it easy to conflate groups to the point of creating such fuzzy and nonsensical categories as "brown people." Even when no conflation exists, prejudices can be linked, with the denigration of one people associated with the devaluation of others. Persons who fear for their safety, jobs, or way of life indiscriminately lump them together much as ancient societies did with the "barbarians" beyond their borders. The impulse is so strong that when a sample of Americans was asked what they thought of Wisians, nearly 40 percent regarded them poorly and did not want them as neighbors, even though they could have known nothing about them since the researcher had made the name up. 
Societies contain ethnicities and races that stick together despite the members' prejudices about each other. The usual view, voiced by William Sumner more than a century ago, is that friction with outsiders draws a society together. Clearly, that's not always true. The external forces that promote civil peace primarily galvanize the dominant people while often straining their ties to a society's other ethnicities when those groups are regarded as part of the problem. This tension among the members can cause a kind of social autoimmune disease, turning a society against itself. For all these tribulations, we may reasonably ask whether societies are necessary at all.

--- Moffett, M.W. (2019), The Human Swarm, pp. 340-343

I am eager to read the concluding chapters of Moffett's book. Twenty or so pages remaining.

Just for the record: The fact that 40 percent of Americans shun Wisians isn't primarily attributable to individual nationalist tendencies, but to ignorance - which in turn isn't primarily attributable to individual personality traits, but to engineered anti-enlightenment. Any reasonable system of governance would, over time, not only steer the U.S. towards liberalism - in a broad sense - but would simultaneously narrow the divide between liberals and conservatives. (So conservatives would move more rapidly towards liberal values, even as the gap remains.)

13 juni 2020

Inventing foreigners

The disbanding of a society is a time of reinvention. Any reading of history suggests society breakups mirror the breakup of a marriage. When one can't turn back from a split, years of repressed opinions come pouring out that may express the opposite of what had been professed a month, if not the day, before. As pressures to conform to social norms shift, diminish, or vanish entirely, people on both sides gain the latitude to explore ways of interacting that had been out of favor or considered heretical. Previously unacceptable acts can leap to the forefront, helping each group distance itself from those who are now other, reimagined as outsiders, such that they come to appear ever more foreign.

The evidence indicates that many of the modifications of daughter societies - their character displacement, to borrow again a term from biology - occur in the initial years after they go their separate ways. Their newfound freedom of expression may be a reason why. That's when language - and no doubt many other, less studied aspects of identity - undergoes the fastest rate of change, before settling into a relative stasis thereafter. Indeed, distinctions between societies, often enough, are an outcome not of their ignorance of each other due to geographical separation, but of their awareness of and interaction with each other. This would be conspicuously true after societies split up. The opportunities for independent thought and invention afforded by a newly minted society, leading to a convergence of perceptions around themes the members can celebrate as their own, can make its formative years a golden age. For example, the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution remain the reference points that Americans turn to for guidance when questions about the nation's governance arise. Based on what is known about modifications in identity, I believe this would have been the case over the course of our evolution as it is now.

Yet there would be a deeper psychological impetus for a reworking of identity to bloom right after a division. The sense of being adrift, their fates severed from the meaning and purpose the larger society once provided, would heighten the urgency of the people's search for a strong identity, and essence, that stands apart. Moreover, their identification with each other must actually matter. Certain groups, such as people experiencing homelessness or those who are obese, may be marginalized but don't create societies with identities of their own. Neither do sick or disabled chimps or elephants, even when others treat them as outcasts. These outliers fail to bond since they do not see others with their condition in a good light. They lack what psychologists describe as positive distinctiveness.

Hence the insights of psychologists suggest that the members of a start-up society will toil to distinguish themselves favorably. To achieve this, they improvise cherished attributes or express old ones in a special way. The process is analogous to the development of traits that biologists studying the divergence of species call isolating mechanisms. Whatever commonalities remain with the other society can be denied or ignored. Like divorcees not on speaking terms, the societies can break off contact, which would mean any shared history would be eschewed or forgotten. Regardless, no matter how alike the newbie societies might seem to outside eyes, reunification would quickly be impossible.

From: Moffett, The Human Swarm, pp. 261-262

10 juni 2020


There was nothing in the near-infinite compendium of EU rules and trade protocols of the customs union that prevented a member state from reversing the circulation of its finances. That did not quite represent permission. Or did it? It was a defining principle of an open society that everything was lawful until there was a law against it. Beyond Europe’s eastern borders, in Russia, China and all the totalitarian states of the world, everything was illegal unless the state sanctioned it. In the corridors of the EU, no one had ever thought of excluding the reverse flow of money from acceptable practice because no one had ever heard of the idea. Even if someone had, it would have been difficult to define the legal or philosophical principles by which it should be illegal. An appeal to basics would not have helped. Everyone knew that in every single law of physics, except one, there was no logical reason why the phenomena described could not run backwards as well as forwards. The famous exception was the second law of thermodynamics. In that beautiful construct, time was bound to run in one direction only. The Reversalism was a special case of the second law and therefore in breach of it! Or was it? This question was hotly debated in the Strasbourg Parliament right up until the morning the members had to decamp to Brussels, as they frequently had to. By the time they had arrived and unpacked and enjoyed a decent lunch, everyone had lost the thread, even when a theoretical physicist came specially from the CERN laboratories to set everything straight in less than three hours with some interesting equations. Besides, the next day a further question arose. Would what the scientist said remain true if he’d said it in reverse?

— McEwan, The Cockroach

2 juni 2020

GPT-3: Filtrering eller resonemang?

Kilchers beskrivning känns uppenbart riktig, snudd på trivial. Att artikelförfattarna överdriver hur mycket, och vilken typ av ’resonerande’ som försiggår är förvånande och närmast pinsamt.

Visst finns det mycket som är imponerande, eller åtminstone anmärkningsvärt kraftfullt. (Wow-faktorn minskar ju i proportion till hur mycket tid och plats modellen och träningen har fått.)

Och visst kan det få stora, och eventuellt negativa konsekvenser om det blir riktigt lätt att generera hyfsat kontextkänsliga och åtminstone hyfsat ’unika’ texter vars artificiella upphov inte alltid lätt går att upptäcka.

Och visst kan man tänka sig att detta blir särskilt pikant om och när det kombineras med mer avancerat resonerande.

Men att påstå att den här mekanismen utför något mer än just det Kilcher säger - det verkar bara dumt.

Sen kan man ju alltid fråga sig var gränsen går mellan plagiat och ’försteåelse’, ’kunskap’, ’kompetens’... Om en elev/student får i uppgift att, säg, skriva en resonerande uppsats och lämnar in en kopia av en befintlig text, så är det ett uppenbart plagiat och inget bevis på egen förståelse. Om eleven läser och klipper och klistrar från flera olika texter på ämnet så är risken fortfarande stor att inlämningen flaggas i Urkund.

Men, bortsett från det verkligt originella, är det inte detta alla gör - och uppmanas att göra! - både för att lära sig och för att uppvisa bevis på att lärande har skett? Åtminstone om vi låter mängden lästa och ’plagierade’ texter och textsnuttar växa tillräckligt mycket. Och hur många uppsatser, skrivna ’med egna ord’, ärligt uppsåt och vad vi skulle erkänna som genuin förståelse, kunskap och kompetens, skulle godkännas om vi uppgraderade Urkund till GPT3? (Beroende på hur vi ställer in och tolkar granularitet och känslighet.)

Detta gäller förstås - hittills - bara i specifika typer av uppgifter, som egentligen inte kräver mer flexibilitet än vad GPT3 uppvisar. Men de är ju faktiskt väldigt vanliga i verkligheten. (Om än inte tillräckliga.)

Det mest intressanta var väl det om ’explicability’. Det verkar ju faktiskt vara ganska straightforward i just denna typ av fall. Och det går säkert att generalisera. Men troligen kommer förklaringarna att kännas mer otillfredsställande, ju svårare uppgiften hade varit för en människa att, i princip, utföra. Förklaringen finns där, men (den oreducerbara) komplexiteten och/eller den upplevda irrelevansen (i förhållande till mänskliga kognitiva begränsningar eller tankekulturer) kommer troligtvis att motverka den nytta som man hoppas få.