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Tyranny Prevention

May 24, 2017 1 comment
Keynote: Timothy Snyder

Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.
Keynote: Timothy Snyder. CC BY-SA 2.0

Yale University’s Levin Professor of History Timothy Snyder has written a manifesto for democracy titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017). This little volume (128 pages, 6” x 4.5”) packs a wallop. Although he never names anyone as his focal tyrant wannabe, the reader knows that this book is a call for individual action to prevent the inevitable consequence of inaction in the face of power grabbing.

As one action that I will take in response to his words, I have summarized his 20 admonitions for those of you who do not relish reading. That said, I strongly urge you 1) to read this little book, and 2) to find your own way of preventing tyranny. Together, we can.

The bolded introductory statements are Professor Snyder’s wording. The defining examples are my wording, including a couple of his examples.

  1. Do not obey in advance. “Anticipatory obedience” occurs when eager followers desirous of pleasing the leader initiate acts they imagine the leader would encourage, as in the SS killings in 1938 Germany before being commanded to do so.
  2. Defend institutions. Advocate for organizations that are important to you: EPA, NEA…
  3. Beware the one-party state. Fight for the integrity of the electoral process—stand up against efforts to gerrymander districts. Hurrah for yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling against two gerrymandered districts in my home state of North Carolina!
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Czechs wanting nothing to do with Communism posted signs such as “Workers of the world, unite!” thinking authorities would leave them alone, assuming they were of a Communist leaning. Didn’t work. Remove or otherwise eliminate signs or symbols of hate or intolerance.
  5. Remember professional ethnics. Professional associations can make stronger statements than can individuals—while it may be difficult for one lawyer or one doctor to resist a malevolent force, they may appeal to their colleagues to provide ethical force in large numbers. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, one woman couldn’t stop war, but when all women threatened their men with abstinence, war was rethought!
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries. In a democracy, only the acknowledged governments (local, state, federal) have the right to police.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you must carry a firearm, maintain the personal authority to say “No!” to its use as a tool of unjust oppression.
  8. Stand out. Without Winston Churchill’s emergence, England may well have languished. He stood out, and up, to Hitler. Similarly, Gandhi, MLK Jr., and Sally Yates have stood out/up/alone.
  9. Be kind to our language. Tyrants repeat misused words until followers reify them. Resist by keeping your public language fresh and accurate. “The American people” is not the same thing as “my fan base.” Read great novels for ideas on how to speak truth to power.
  10. Believe in truth. No declamation without verification. Insist on knowing sources. Demand verifiable evidence. Check with the fact checkers. Protect the fact checkers. E. O. Wilson in Consilience posits that it is not politics and religion that divides us, but rather cultures that do not respect evidence.

    tyranny.jpg

    Mother with her Dead Son. Kathe Kollwitz. 1993. Berlin. (A memorial to the victims of tyranny.) CC BY 2.0.

  11. Investigate. Develop a nose for sniffing out fake news. Turn a deaf ear to blatant misstatements (“My program is the best possible that could ever be conceived.”) and correct them when and where possible. Before passing along a suspect, outlandish tidbit that stretches reason, check it out on snopes.com. Inform yourself—don’t shy away from reading a longer article when you suspect it has helpful information. Be one of the (hopefully increasing) well-informed electorate. Don’t just follow sources that confirm your biases. Conservatives must watch channels other than Fox News, and Liberals must watch other channels than MSNBC. I intentionally follow Al Jazeera on my iPhone. And the BBC. Look beyond your backyard/border.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk. It is easy to look friends in the eye and chat them up. It typically takes more effort to look strangers in the eye—particular those different from us—and make friendly small talk. Catching the eye of a potentially downtrodden person—or even someone who is visually different than you—and chatting briefly with them will make their day (better) and leave them less fearful.
  13. Practice corporeal politics. Get your bod and brain out into the world and make friends and connections beyond your private circle. On the other hand…
  14. Establish a private life. Protect your privacy and that of others by securing your computer and supporting organizations that advocate for human rights.
  15. Contribute to good causes. Support two or more organizations that advocate for a civil society—dollars add up, so don’t hold back because you could only make a small contribution! Think of autopay of a dollar a month to your good cause(s) as an inoculation against tyranny. When a million others join you, we have budgeted for tyranny prevention.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries. Keep your passport active, maintain relations around the world, and establish new ones. In the worst case, you may need a new home.
  17. Listen for dangerous words. Tyrants are extremists who are under the illusion that they are mainstream—that everyone values their agenda, and they use alarming words to cajole the masses into huddling into their fold: “so-and-so is a liar, so don’t listen to them—listen only to me,” “these are extreme times, so embrace my extreme methods,” “terrorists threaten our democracy, so bear with me as I suspend your liberty to stamp them out,” “emergency conditions require extraordinary responses powers,” “such-and-such is a total failure, so you must embrace my replacement for it,” “circumstances require that we make exceptions to the law,” or “Deutschland über alles.” Prefer “America and Germany and all their co-inhabitants of Mother Earth and the Cosmos.”
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Founding father James Madison identified emergencies as the primary hotbed for tyrants—authoritarians emerge to manage terrorism and exact the price of personal freedoms in return. Their mantra: “I’ll keep you safe if you do all that I say.”
  19. Be a patriot. Pay your taxes. Support our military. Vote. Volunteer. Support our news organizations. Decry bad leaders at home and around the world. Support the values that our country espouses—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
  20. Be as courageous as you can. Be prepared to be demeaned, to be fired, to be imprisoned, or even to die, by insisting on the rule of law and the separation of powers.

Our Knowledge of Averages is Below Average!

In 1954 Darrell Huff published How to Lie with Statistics. It is still in print (W. W. Norton). No lie!

One reason this book has legs is that Huff made everyday statistical concepts come alive and understandable through clever examples and illustrations. Over the years I have enjoyed using this (obviously dated) cartoon from his book to illustrate the concept of “average”:

Averages

A naïve couple selecting the ideal location for their first home might pick Oklahoma City for the average temperature of 60.2 degrees Fahrenheit (about 16 Celsius). Expecting daily, chilly weather that grew neither cold nor hot, they would be in for a shock when they shivered in -17° F (-27° C) during February and staggered in 113° F (45° C) later in August!

The lesson: Be not fooled by the “Flaw” of Averages. Over the past few weeks, a slew of queries have come my way prompted by a recent meta-analysis led by Tinca J. C. Polderman of Vrije Universiteit (or VU—Free University) of Amsterdam. Professor Polderman’s team covered 2,748 individual research reports that included nature/nurture estimates on 17,804 traits. Note: In my world, a “trait” refers to a behavioral personality disposition, such as extraversion or ambition, but in Dr. Polderman’s world a “trait” is used far more inclusively—not only dispositions, but skin quality, height, intelligence, and disease-proneness. For convenience of reporting, these thousands of traits were clustered into 28 groups. The groups ranged from social values to metabolism rates and included behavioral traits, mental abilities, skin condition, and aging patterns. In other words, they covered the whole person. Their findings: Across all traits—or aspects of the person, 49% of our personality is inherited, while 51% is acquired through the influence of environment. Or, nurture wins by a hair over nurture.

BUT!!! Beware the Flaw of Averages. Some of the 28 groups show extremely high heritability (neurological, cardiovascular, personality disorders, structure of the eyeball, etc.) while others show much lower heritability (activities, alcohol-related disorders, height, weight, etc.). While it is true that every one of the 28 groups had a significant genetic component, the degree of heritability ranged from very low to very high. So to say that personality is half nature and half nurture is to ignore the importance of extreme variation in heritability of elements within this meta-analysis. To say that everything about us is half learned implies that everything about us is reasonably easy to unlearn, or change. That is not the case, however, as some parts of our person are far more resistant to change because of their hard-wired nature. Change advocates risk creating frustration and guilt by encouraging folks to undergo changes in parts of their personality without taking into account the specific heritabilities of those parts.

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, where we are in the business of personality assessment, we focus primarily on the Five-Factor Model of personality, or the Big Five. Across the Big Five supertraits and their constituent subtraits, on “average” about 60% of one’s level of the traits is inherited. However, that 60% “average” masks a higher heritability for Extraversion than for Accommodation/Agreeableness. And within each of the five supertraits (Need for Stability, Extraversion, Originality/Openness, Accommodation/Agreeableness, and Consolidation/Conscientiousness), the subtraits that comprise them show a wide range of heritability, such that E2: Sociability/Gregariousness shows greater heritability than E3: Activity Level. For example, growing up in a physical culture environment (early morning yoga, a 10-mile run, ending with a dip in a mountain lake) could turn someone who otherwise might have turned out to be a couch potato into a physically active worker who doesn’t sit still for long.

And, to further complicate the notion of “average,” even a specific subtrait such as “sociability” comprises dozens if not hundreds of specific correlated behaviors, such as preference for loud/quiet environments, memory for names, ease of talking, preference for reading/writing, comfort with solitude, demonstrativeness, ease of making conversation, level of tact, level of humility, sense of humor, and so forth. And, some of these behaviors (e.g., preference for loud/quiet) have higher heritabilities than others (e.g., level of tact).

So why do we even bother to estimate the level of heritability of the various elements of personality? For me, the importance of knowing that every aspect of personality has some genetic basis is that it helps me and others to avoid two major mistakes of the 20th century. First is the mistake of Adolf Hitler, who acted on the assumption that personality is 100% inherited and therefore not changeable. And second,  the mistake of behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner, who reacted to Hitler by assuming that they could train anyone to be anything, given the proper resources.

mendel chart

Today, the more reasonable outlook is interactionist—our inheritance provides a starting point, and we build on it for a lifetime. When we attempt to change a behavior and experience strong resistance, either we are fighting a losing battle with our genes, or our methods are wrong. I suppose that we will never give up looking for better methods to change people, but I urge my colleagues to focus those efforts on how to change disabling qualities such as addiction, rather than on how to change our basic, inborn temperaments that simply make us interestingly different from one another. Don’t try to increase your sociability score—rather, build a satisfying life around your comfort with relative solitude!

John Milton once said something to the effect that we are free not to sin. That is also true with our personalities—we are free to accept who we are, to not try to change. But when who we are runs afoul of the law or our associates, we are free to figure out how we need to change or remain the same.

I cannot stop without mentioning a profound ethical dilemma for the 21st century. As scientists discover specific genes that are associated with specific personality elements, other scientists will attempt to devise methods to manipulate personality elements by modifying or otherwise affecting those genes. We need guidelines for reasonable use of this genetic knowledge. Is surgery to make one more sociable to be permitted?