We need to be paying attention to what we are paying attention to.
One of the reasons people die in building fires is because, when faced with an emergency, their behaviour in public situations carries on being constrained by the social norms that they are used to in non-emergency situations. People carry on saying “after you”, “no after you”. People carry on behaving just as if the building was not on fire. (I’m not making this up. Have a look at the article I’ve linked below from the American Psychological Association.)
Fighting fire with psychology
In 9/11's wake, researchers across fields are drawing on behavioral science to better understand people's reactions…
I think there is a similar thing happening in politics at the moment. Fascists in the UK, USA and Russia (and other places) are essentially burning down the institutions of good governance, and liberals are responding (as they did in the United Kingdom House of Commons on Wednesday night) by filing along like cattle to the slaughter.
So how should we respond? What principles do we have to guide ourselves by?
(1) Be aware that we are in uncharted territory and facing a problem which we are not familiar with. Consequently we should be expecting to find ourselves acting in ways that we are also not familiar with.
(2) We need to be paying more attention than usual. Because of our lack of familiarity with fascist coups, our ready-worked-out ability to immediately recognise what is happening is not going to be working. Situations may very often not be what they seem to be.
(3) We need to develop new skills. Skills are fundamentally a function of having experienced “feedback” in response to actions we have taken in pursuing particular objectives. In other words I tried to do something and I learnt something from trying. Possibly I did something and it gave me a result I was looking for, or I did something and didn’t get quite the result I was looking for, or I did something and all kinds of bad things happened. But however it turned out, any of these trials, any of these attempts, any of my interacting with others and the world in which I’m acting is giving me information about better and worse ways of achieving my objectives. (Hopefully these trials can be kept low-cost.)
Very often this information is “sub-cognitive”, ie. things I practically know how to do (I can in fact balance on a bicycle) without conceptually knowing how I do that (in the sense that I can’t explicit say how it is that I do it). For example, imagine asking an expert artist how he is able to capture the light in the sky at sunset.
I have written a lot more about Skills and why they matter here:
A phenomenology of effective problem-solving
In what follows I attempt an initial sketch of a phenomenology of effective problem-solving and the motivation for…
(4) We will probably need to be thinking things through more than usual. Because we don’t have ready-worked out responses to familiar problems (for us westerners at least, this is a distinctly new problem), in order to have the best chance of good outcomes happening, we need to be using our powers of foresight and insight to the maximum. Co-incidentally, I also happen to have written an article about that. :-)
One possible source of effective action is thinking-in-the-world
In this article I start by saying why thinking-in-the-world can be more effective than thinking in our heads (because…
(5) What do you think? What are your best ideas? What are your strategies? Please do share your best in the comments below.
(1) Jordan Peterson talks about “territory” we are familiar with as opposed to territory we are not familiar with.
(2) The Gorilla Attention experiment. (We need to be paying attention to what we are paying attention to.)