Sunday, May 8, 2011

Don't Listen to Mama! Be an Iconoclast!

In what seems like a pleasant coincidence, I recently stumbled upon a rare remark made by Edward Said on the American culture, where he laments its "moralization of reductiveness".

And while Said's particular concerns revolve around a certain manifestation of this American penchant, namely what he calls "formulas of what not to do and read and what to consider culture and what not", I will be using it as a starting point for voicing another more general concern, in which the American society is but another society, albeit a one in which the symptoms are more apparent: the human tendency to seek an understanding of what is going on around.

One might be wondering, understandably, what can be of concern here. That will be got into in a bit, but at this point it is most appropriate to introduce the two concepts of Confirmation Bias (which belongs to a larger family of biases termed Cognitive Biases) and Cognitive Dissonance. The former describes the human tendency to seek what affirms one's narratives and views on life, and to ignore what does not, while the latter refers to a feeling of pain caused by holding contradicting ideas in the mind at the same moment.

By the mere act of evocation, a connection between the two phenomena is established, which is best viewed within an evolutionary framework. The human brain, it has been frequently shown, is more of a haphazard collection of heuristics and biases selected for optimal operation in a Savannah like environment, than a centralized logical inference machine designed to deal with the contemporary sweeping pour of data and information insulting its sensory receptors. From this chaotic brain constitution, what had been previously called a natural affinity for narrative construction arises.

The brain handles this aforementioned besiegement by the flux of information through constructing narratives (generalizations and chains of causality, which are not necessarily true), assessing these information against its own narratives, neglecting what do not get along (Confirmation Bias), but if the contradiction was intractable by means of ignoring, then Cognitive Dissonance ensues until the narrative is amended to accommodate or resolve the conflict.

This is a very simplified explanation of how a human brain perceives the world around it, but a one from which serious consequences flow. Most of the time what we perceive as reality is nothing more than a way for our brains to sift through and retain select parts of the world external to the senses.

That said, it does not mean that our understanding of the globe is flawed beyond redemption, but rather that we should always be critical of our own views and narratives as much as we can, challenging them on every possible occasion presented, reviewing our collective and personal pasts constantly and never committing ourselves to any idea or ideology, let alone venerating them.

Failing to do so, history has taught us by countless examples, is a menace, and no where this menace is capable of reaching devastating potentials than through the political agency and its sphere, both of which, alas, have been resting on nonsensical commitments and the emotional mobilization of masses ever since the first polis was formed!


  1. An interesting read Haitham . . . allow me to add something I once told a friend when we were discussing racism and prejudice: we humans fear what we don't know; so, to fend fear off we might tend to form preconceptions about race, gender, nationality, religion . . . etc. it makes us feel a bit more secure, after all, these preconceptions gives us the security of what we may perceive as "knowledge".

    This is where a proper education can make the world a better place!

  2. I hadn't gotten around to blogging on this same topic from TEDxR. Nice post!

  3. Agreed. Both the premise and the conclusion are valid. But I think they need to be taken with a grain of salt. I'll elaborate later, don't feel like doing so right now!

  4. I have made one post in the past about some of the objections that I have about the conclusion that we should not commit to ideas and ideologies. It is called Is Science Justified?. I understand this is not exactly what you are talking about, but my objection to the conclusion is a generalization of that post.

  5. 7irz,

    The brain definitely backfires in the wrong environment :)


    That was the slickest and most enjoyable of all the speeches at TedxRamallah. I too wondered why you did not post about it. But it is never too late. Entertain us :)


    Actually I wrote a paragraph discussing the implications of this shortcoming in science but I took it off.

    It is believed that the very first probabilistic notions in the history of humanity were invoked as a property of truth, in an attempt to get out of the dilemma you discussed in your post.

    In science, I am an adherent of empirical falsification as introduced by Popper. Unfortunately, this philosophy is applicable to natural sciences only. Our daily life experiences are not, so this is why I believe we should not stick to our views on life. But this does not mean we should change them for no reason. It is only that we should contest them every time we are given the chance to :)

  6. I agree with your statement insofar the implication of being critical, challenging, and reviewing ideas and ideologies. But my objection lies that this does not mean that we should not commit to any ideas or ideologies. However, I think our disagreement lies in the interpretation of the use of the word "commit".

    I guess, what I am trying to say is that we need to draw some line between reasonable doubt, and paranoia or plain insanity. There is one saying that goes: "Don't be too open minded, lest your brains fall out!". It's a pejorative saying, but seeing past that, it does hold truth to it.

    I just don't think that being critical or open-minded is a free pass for every conspiracy theorist, nut job, or opportunist to justify their beliefs.

  7. What I mean by "commit" here is more like committing one's self to an idea or ideology blindly without ever questioning it, and more dangerously, to a level where retraction of opinions is not an option even if they were proven wrong.

  8. I agree using that definition. However, the way I see it, joining a political party is a commitment. Writing a post in a blog/magazine/newspaper is a commitment. Reading a book is a commitment. All of these are commitments within the acceptable range.

    But all in all, I agree. I just wanted to point out that "grain of salt", I mentioned earlier.

  9. Will, may be the term "commitment" is a bit misleading here. I should have used instead "attachment" or "irrational attachment".