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Mistakes Were Made, Tavris, Aronson, 3rd ed. (2020)

Study notes for a favorite read this year, a book on cognitive dissonance theory (the rest of the title: But Not By Me) – something all of us will recognize once explained; applications to past and recent history (mostly omitted below); and more rewarding strategies. We live in a world that often seems chaotic and unordered, particularly when it comes to living and dealing with others; an insight like this helps us see order in the chaos, makes it appear less random, and empowers us to contemplate change.

Cognitive Dissonance

There are two kinds of lies, one conscious, where the liar sees the lie for what it is, a deliberate distortion of truth; and the other, made noble through self-justification, so that the lie ceases to become one. The second kind is the result of cognitive dissonance: when someone holds two contradictory views – usually a self-concept, such as “I am a sensible, competent person”, vs a piece of new information, such as “I just spent a lot of time on something worthless and silly”. Because it hurts so much to change our view of ourselves, we resort to ego-preservation, and change the other view instead, and suddenly, the worthless and silly thing rises in our estimation – we justify it by distorting it in some way – actually, it was meaningful to me and I’m glad I did it. Dissonance theory predicts that we ask ourselves: is the new information consonant with my belief?

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Violence Culture

Like much of the connected world, this month became an extended media binge for me. The packaging of violence as entertainment is something, once drawn to my attention years ago, I’ve tried to be more conscious of, especially the last few weeks. Fictional violence is escapist and thrilling, inevitable and commonplace, and something I increasingly have mixed feelings about.

Violence is in our DNA, central to our myth: this country was forged in the crucible of conflict, and the Second Amendment enshrines the right to bear arms in a way that few other nations do. It bathes our history with wars won, numerous and major, just and improper, that place us in world preeminence and shape a sense of destiny, but also smaller wars, individual and domestic, chronicled and private, that fracture cohesion and make us more fragile. We fetishize violence by worshiping its tools and trivializing it in culture, depicting it indiscriminately across our screens for entertainment, where nonsensical body counts minimize death and render it inconsequential and irrelevant, demeaning actual tragedy and suffering. While violence in nature is wielded in primal, small scale struggle for survival, whether hunting for prey, defending the group, or competing for a mate, today’s firearms embrace an unnatural, rapacious capacity for destruction and effortless carnage that the founding fathers could never have foreseen. 

And yet, violence between humans has been decreasing; deaths due to armed conflict have been replaced by deaths in civilian hospital beds, with the military death rate falling tenfold in the last fifty years. We’ve decided we want less of its destabilizing and traumatic effects, and more education, economic growth, and higher living standards instead; the intentional homicide rate in the US almost halved in the last twenty years alone, while around the world, literacy rates quadrupled last century. We might feel differently about our virtual reality, but we desire less violence IRL, not more. Yes, humans are designed to survive in the natural world, and aggression is part of our physical and mental make-up, but putative proxies such as sports do exist in modern times (with even the idea of sportsmanship to accommodate civility in competition). Much has been written about these trends and why we should be optimistic about the future, and it seems safe to say much of the world is on a general trajectory towards greater peace, with a bias to broadening justice by lessening inequity and unnecessary suffering: witness the recognition of gender, racial, and LGBTQ equality over the last century, and the growing awareness of animal rights – the untold collateral suffering that our tidy supermarket packaging obscures – within the rise of the plant-based food movement. We’ll see if this continues, but the direction of recent history is difficult to dispute: less is more when it comes to violence.

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Winners Take All , Anand Giridharadas (2018)

Subtitled The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas eloquently explores the belief system and myths the elite class uses to justify the status quo; through reporting, anecdote, surveying what others have written, and personal experience, he argues that the path forward lies in fixing our democracy and strengthening our political institutions. This was a favorite read last year on a topic I hadn’t thought about much before, and it helped crystallize and shape into words the vague unease I’d had about the genre of self-improvement and pop-psych books, TED talks, and other things of a similar nature; brief chapter highlights follow.

A very much-related but broader cultural take is Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap.

But How is the World Changed?

It often seems that the only way to change the world is to become part of the system that the rich and powerful have built, and employ the problem-solving techniques that the system espouses, which drive its worldview: measure, analyze, optimize, solve. Giridharadas calls this MarketWorld, a prized new phrase of mine: the “enlightened” elite that aims to do good while still profiting from the status quo and free market, and includes the network and community of so-called thought leaders, the Goldman Sachs, McKinsey-ites and others of their ilk.

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The Meritocracy Trap (2019), Daniel Markovits

I read Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All over the holidays, which I enjoyed immensely. This led me to Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap in the new year, which delves in the same broad pasture, but adopts a more academic bent and broader brush, surveying history, social science and economics. I’ve tried to summarize what I think the main ideas are, mingling a paraphrasing of the book with a few of my own thoughts, along with some ideas from the first book. Both are well worth your time, imho.

I was recently thinking about why I do what I do, and inevitably, the idea of money crossed my mind. Money incentivizes activity, all kinds of activity – it motivates us collectively and as individuals, to move and then stay in motion. Perhaps much of this activity is not broadly meaningful, but a small percentage probably is, and that is enough to move civilization forward, step by step or large leaps at a time – inventions, ideas, scientific discoveries, processes, systems. As a catalyst for progress at scale, it’s hard to beat. Money is the reason that capitalism, an economic system where production exists to generate profit for the owners of capital, and the basis for the most powerful economy on earth, can exist – it establishes a direct conduit between incentives, action, and reward.

Capitalism in turn, drives the culture of meritocracy that is the foundation for so much of our economy today. My reading of meritocracy: a culture where individuals are explicitly compensated according to actual “value”, or impact on a firm’s bottom line. In a capitalist system based on production, it is contribution to profit and productivity that ultimately accrues the highest rewards, and this explains the extravagant pay of CEOs compared to other employees, made possible by how much technology has amplified the leverage of management within a company. Technology enables scale in many facets of production, and when used with capitalist intent, becomes a key component of today’s meritocracy and an enabler for wealth concentration. In my view, capitalism (money as incentive), technology (and education), and the meritocratic culture amplify and feed each other, a “virtuous” cycle of sorts.