Narrative – Thinking Fast and Slow

One of my favorite reads of the last five years, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, documents why our reasoning faculties – which should be protecting us from making bad choices based on emotion or instinct – contain flaws that make them the source of many human errors.

The book title refers to a model developed by Kahneman and his fellow researcher Amos Tversky (both Israelis, BTW) in the 1960s that posited a human mind driven by two processes: one fast, one slow.

The slow process is effortful and gets turned on when we engage in deep contemplation or perform other activities requiring heavy cognitive work (such as solving a mathematical problem, or writing something – like this blog entry).  In contrast, our fast process takes in information from our senses and processes it very rapidly, taking charge of everyday activities like driving a car, or listening to or reading something (again, like this blog entry) spoken or written in a language you already understand.

Because our slow process is rather lazy, it tends to defer to the fast process to do as much work as possible.  This makes sense, given the sheer amount of thinking/processing that must take place to get through a single day.  But deferring to a fast process to make sense of the world comes at a cost.

For example, the fast process performs its sense-making role by looking for patterns and then fitting those patterns into a storyline, one which takes a lot of deliberate (i.e., slow process) work to unlearn.  In many cases, this is not an bad thing.  Unlearning that a loud noise signals danger, for example, might not be such a wise idea (which may explain the evolutionary benefit – and thus origin – of this fast-process/slow process duality).

But flaws in our reasoning, notably the many biases to which all human beings are vulnerable, are a side-product of this brain structure with considerable downside.  For example, Confirmation Bias which leads us to believe information that confirms existing beliefs and reject information that does not, is just one of many cognitive biases that result from letting our fast process take the first cut at story formation.

You see this theory play out in the context of politics all the time.  For what are candidates for office doing when they try to “define” themselves and their opponents if not creating narratives they hope will get taken up by the story-loving fast process of a majority of voters?  Even those endless rows of lawn signs bearing only a candidate’s name (no policy positions, no slogans) can be seen as a means to embed that name into the non-deliberative component of a voter’s brain, hoping it will be top of mind when a majority of them walk into voting booths.

The BDS propaganda campaign is doing something similar with its endless repeating of their beloved “Israel = Apartheid” equation, regardless of how many times that and all their other accusations have been debunked.  Given that many of the constituencies they address (like college students) were not even born during the era when Apartheid South Africa stood, the BDSers’ hope is that their mantra will result in those who know nothing about either Israel or Apartheid building a fast-process connection before any slow-process cognition (i.e., thought) can interfere.

The narratives the BDSers spin for themselves offer an even clearer set of examples of cognitive biases at work.  That’s because many of the manipulative techniques used by Israel-haters (and hyper-partisans of all stripes) are targeted not at opponents but supporters.

Spend a little time on the #BDS Twitter feed (or do some lurking on BDS sites like Mondoweiss and Electronic Intafada, if you can stomach it) to see what I mean.

When the BDSers score a win with a church (like they did with the UCC last week), that is portrayed as the latest example of their unstoppable momentum.  And when they are rejected (as they were by the Episcopalians and Mennonites, also last week) that simply shows that their eventual embrace by every Liberal Protestant denomination (if not the whole world) is just a matter of time.

When a handful of college professors (from a pool of tens of thousands) sign onto an academic boycott campaign, this news is treated as demonstrating wide acceptance of their position within academia.  But when hundreds of college presidents condemn such boycotts, suddenly the BDSers discover the concept of percentages, declaring that these hundreds represent just a fraction of every college president in the country (never mind that they’d be masturbating themselves into unconsciousness if even one such president embraced their cause).

As with many partisan political projects, the trick is to find an angle to fit any news (good or bad) into the storylines already established in the boycotters own heads (which they would like to insert into everyone else’s).  Thus news about financing of anti-BDS efforts is turned into a story about Sheldon Adelson (a Right-leaning macher who gets to play the role of bête noir in their narrative), ignoring the involvement of Left-leaning Israel supporters like Haim Saban in that same effort.  Yet when Hilary Clinton publically trashes the BDS “movement,” Saban is rediscovered but only to the play the role of pro-Israel moneybags pulling Hillary’s strings.

“Look over there!” might be a proper label to slap onto a strategy that involves scouring any news story for an element – no matter how tiny or irrelevant – that might conform to the boycotters view of the world, and then blowing up that detail and screaming that it must be considered the Alpha and Omega of the tale.  If you want to see what I mean, just check out how quickly Mondofada declares “case closed” whenever they can find a members of AIPAC or StandWithUs in the vicinity of a civic organization that has just told them to fuck off.

It’s easy to declare everyone involved in such efforts to be knowingly peddling falsehoods.  But that misses the point that the boycotters should be seen as both pushers and junkies for the dopey lies (or, better, fantasies) they are peddling.

The BDS fantasist, after all, must continually build and reinforce their self-image as noble knights and warriors, the vanguard of a new world order, owners of the Left end of the political spectrum, battling dark forces that represent evil incarnate.  How can they continue to chant “Free Gaza” as Gaza descends into a murderous hell hole and the rest of the Middle East goes up in flames? Because the slow process that might have once had the power to revise the storyline making up their primary identity has atrophied from long disuse.

All of us, by virtue of being human beings, routinely fall prey to Confirmation Bias and other frailties of reasoning (something you’ll see on display quite a bit next election cycle).  But under normal circumstances, competing aspects of our identity (represented by competing storylines in our own heads) allow us to occasionally engage Mr. Slow Process to impose some reality onto our view of ourselves and the world.

Failing that, most of us are surrounded by other people who are likely to have other narratives floating around in their fast processes, creating a check on any one falsehood or fantasy dominating a group or society.  But what happens when large groups of people (perhaps an entire self-declared “movement”) has decided to not just stop using its slow process entirely, but surround themselves only with people who have performed a similar self-lobotomy?

Rhetoric – Association

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Language

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s surprise best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow describes the human mind as separated into a lazy but powerful slow half that processes information deliberately, and a much-more-frequently-used fast half that spends much of its time associating one thing with another.

You can read more about his arguments here, but for purposes of this discussion our fast, associative processor is why hearing any song we’ve not listened to in a while will immediately trigger memories of the last time we heard it, the first time we heard it, the embrace of someone we danced to it with, and these memories will trigger further associations without any conscious choice on our part to think about these subjects.  Similarly, if I simply say the seemingly arbitrary words “banana” and “vomit,” a host of images will flood your brain, triggering actual physical sensation (such as queasiness and a bad taste in your mouth).

The power of association is one of the reasons why it plays such a huge role in human discourse, especially the kind of persuasive discourse you find in politics.  For example, we are endlessly trying to associate our causes with words and people who possess positive connotations while simultaneously implying negative associations to our adversaries.

This is why we live under a government, while they live under a regime.  It is also why during a BDS battle, the fight is often over who gets to be the “grassroots movement working together with a network of partner organizations worldwide” vs. “a group of single-minded partisans taking orders from people with no connection to the community.”

This phenomenon also explains the desire to attach one’s own cause with unassailable individuals (the fight between pro- and anti-Israel activists over the legacy of Martin Luther King being the best example readers of this blog will recognize).  For whoever can convince an audience that they (and not the other guy) represents the traditions of King or Nelson Mandela or Gandhi, the more likely they can associate that aura of virtue to their own agenda.

Another associative rhetorical device is the Association Fallacy, more commonly known as “guilt by association.”  This is where the (usually negative) qualities of one thing are implied to be inherent in another associated thing.  For example: “My opponent is in favor of tight monetary policy.  The Nazis were also in favor of right monetary policy.  Therefore, my opponent is just like Hitler.”

Usually, guilt by association is a bit more subtle than this (although association with Nazism became so commonplace in the age of Internet debate that it ended up popularizing a less-known fallacy called Reductio ad Hiterism).  But it is one of the most commonplace rhetorical techniques you see applied by (among others) BDS activists to avoid confronting topics they’d rather not discuss.  This is why attempts to counter this or that BDS point so frequently end in an accusation of “sounding just like a right winger” or “Likudnik,” especially in front of an audience that perceives itself on the left end of US or Israeli public opinion.   The hope is that if they can associate their opponents with someone the audience doesn’t like, this frees them from having to answer any genuine questions or challenges.

There is a final example of associative rhetoric that, while not unique to the BDS movement, is so integral to that effort that it needs to be highlighted. For, if you think about it, the entire BDS project is built around trying to associate the boycott and divestment cause with the positive brand of a respected institution (such as a major university or centuries-old church).  In fact, without such associations the BDSers can claim to represent nothing more than themselves (which is why they fight so feverishly to bring one or more of these groups over to their cause – by any means necessary).

This desire to speak in the name of others is also why groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (to take my favorite general example of practitioners of rhetorical excess) spend so much time putting their own opinions between quote marks (usually associated with rabbis or third parties not necessarily directly connected to their organization).   The (accurate) assumption behind such a move is that such words would have less power if delivered in the name of a partisan group.  But if they can come out of the mouth of someone outside of their group (or someone with a title – such as rabbi – which implies authority and connectivity to ancient legacies and traditions), they will sound more neutral and, thus, objective.

As with so many rhetorical techniques, devices that leverage our uncontrollable tendency to associate are most effective when harnessed to logical arguments based on accurate facts.  But problems arise when they are used in place of logic and fact (which they so often are when coming out of the mouth of BDS champions).  While such verbal tricks can work for a while (and may be effective with certain audiences), they tend to come off as manipulative and dishonest when an underlying lack of logic or honesty is exposed.

Our desire to think the best of people can easily turn to outrage when it becomes clear that someone is trying to play us for suckers.  Which may explain why, after more than a decade of effort, BDS (like “banana” coupled with “vomit”) has done little more than leave a bad taste in the mouth of everyone who has encountered it.

Next… Avoidance