In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard Chip and Dan Heath describe how the cultural environment – the “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms” (from the definition of morality, here) that are shared by a community – acts as a behavioral autopilot for the members of that community. Their Mike Romano Story (excerpt below) shows how the single most powerful factor that helped drug addicted soldiers returning from Viet Nam kick their habits was the cultural environment of the communities in which they lived upon their return.
People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture – to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in. We all want to wear the right clothes, to say the right things, to frequent the right places. Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious, sometimes in surprising ways.
Imagine that your job was to design an environment that would extinguish drug addiction. You could take drug-addicted U.S soldiers [returning from Viet Nam], drop them into this environment, and feel confident that the forces within it would act powerfully to help them beat their habits. Think of this environment as an antidrug theme park, and assume that you can spend as much as you want to construct it. What would your theme park look like?
It might look a whole lot like Romano’s neighborhood in Milwaukee.
You’d want to surround the former soldiers with people who love them and care about them – and who treat them as the drug-free persons they once were. You’d give them interesting work to do – perhaps designing posters for rock bands – so that their minds would be distracted from the joys of opium. You’d create well-publicized sanctions against drug use. You’d keep the drug economy underground, making the former soldiers sneak around to obtain and use drugs. You’d make sure their girlfriends gave them a hard time about their drug use. You’d set up social taboos so that the soldiers would feel derelict, even pathetic, if they kept using. You’d remove the contagious drug-using behavior from the environment – no more addicted soldiers around – and replace it with contagious drug-free behavior. And you would provide rich environmental cues – sights, songs, food, clothes, and homes – that remind the former soldiers of their prewar, drug-free identities.
The Milwaukee Theme Park: That’s exactly why Mike Romano became a former addict. When Romano relocated to Milwaukee, his environment changed, and the new environment changed him.
As the Romano story shows, one of the subtle ways in which our environment acts on us is by reinforcing (or deterring) our habits.
When we think about habits, most of the time we’re thinking about the bad ones: biting our fingernails, procrastinating, eating sweets when we’re anxious, and so on. But of course we also have plenty of good habits: jogging, praying, brushing our teeth. Why are habits so important? They are, in essence, behavioral autopilot. They allow lots of good behaviors to happen without the Rider taking charge. Remember that the Rider’s self-control is exhaustible, so it’s a huge plus if some positive things can happen “free” on autopilot.
To change yourself or other people, you’ve got to change habits, and what we see with Romano is that his habits shifted when his environment shifted. This makes sense – our habits are essentially stitched into our environment. Research bears this out. According to one study of people making changes in their lives, 36 percent of the successful changes were associated with a move to a new location, and only 13 percent of unsuccessful changes involved a move.
The autopilot that is our cultural environment is not just behavioral, but moral and intellectual as well. It shapes not just how we act, but also how we feel and think about the world. It steers our social intuitions and our reasoning. After all, it’s those things that ultimately cause our behaviors.
The theme park of American popular culture is controlled mainly by three industries: Academia, media, and entertainment.
All three of those industries are owned and operated from deep inside the left wing ideological bubble.
The problems inherent to left wing hegemony in academia, described in the following excerpt from Is Social Science Politically Biased from Scientific America, are also inherent to the similarly liberal-dominated industries of media and entertainment.
How does this political asymmetry corrupt social science? It begins with what subjects are studied and the descriptive language employed. Consider a 2003 paper by social psychologist John Jost, now at New York University, and his colleagues, entitled “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” Conservatives are described as having “uncertainty avoidance,” “needs for order, structure, and closure,” as well as “dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity,” as if these constitute a mental disease that leads to “resistance to change” and “endorsement of inequality.” Yet one could just as easily characterize liberals as suffering from a host of equally malfunctioning cognitive states: a lack of moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naive belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence from behavior genetics that culture and environment exclusively determine one’s lot in life.
Duarte et al. find similar distortive language across the social sciences, where, for instance, certain words are used to suggest pernicious motives when confronting contradictory evidence—“deny,” “legitimize,” “rationalize,” “justify,” “defend,” “trivialize”—with conservatives as examples, as if liberals are always objective and rational. In one test item, for example, the “endorsement of the efficacy of hard work” was interpreted as an example of “rationalization of inequality.” Imagine a study in which conservative values were assumed to be scientific facts and disagreement with them was treated as irrational, the authors conjecture counterfactually. “In this field, scholars might regularly publish studies on … ‘the denial of the benefits of a strong military’ or ‘the denial of the benefits of church attendance.’” The authors present evidence that “embedding any type of ideological values into measures is dangerous to science” and is “much more likely to happen—and to go unchallenged by dissenters—in a politically homogeneous field.”
A case in point is the current seemingly prevailing view that The Key to Trump is Authoritarianism. This view sees the speck of authoritarianism in the eye of the political right, but is completely oblivious to the log of authoritarianism in the eye of its own thoughts and actions.
Jonathan Rauch pointed the authoritarianism inherent to left-wing thinking more than twenty years ago in his book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition (emphasis added):
This book will try to establish the following points. First, there are not two great liberal social and political systems but three. One is democracy—political liberalism—by which we decide who is entitled to use force; another is capitalism—economic liberalism—by which we decide how to allocate resources. The third is liberal science, by which we decide who is right.
Second, the third system has been astoundingly successful, not merely as a producer of technology but also, far more important, as a peacemaker and builder of social bridges. Its great advantages as a social system for raising and settling differences of opinion are inherent, not incidental. However, its disadvantages—it causes pain and suffering, it creates legions of losers and outsiders, it is disorienting and unsettling, it allows and even thrives on prejudice and bias—are also inherent. And today it is once again under attack.
Third, the attackers seek to undermine the two social rules which make liberal science possible. (I’ll outline them in the next chapter and elaborate them in the rest of the book.) For the system to function, people must try to follow those rules even if they would prefer not to. Unfortunately, many people are forgetting them, ignoring them, or carving out exemptions.
That trend must be fought, because, fourth, the alternatives to liberal science lead straight to authoritarianism. And intellectual authoritarianism, although once the province of the religious and the political right in America, is now flourishing among the secular and the political left.
Fifth, behind the new authoritarian push are three idealistic impulses: Fundamentalists want to protect the truth. Egalitarians want to help the oppressed and let in the excluded. Humanitarians want to stop verbal violence and the pain it causes. The three impulses are now working in concert.
Sixth, fundamentalism, properly understood, is not about religion. It is about the inability to seriously entertain the possibility that one might be wrong. In individuals such fundamentalism is natural and, within reason, desirable. But when it becomes the foundation for an intellectual system, it is inherently a threat to freedom of thought.
Seventh, there is no way to advance knowledge peacefully and productively by adhering to the principles advocated by egalitarians and humanitarians. Their principles are poisonous to liberal science and ultimately to peace and freedom.
Eighth, no social principle in the world is more foolish and dangerous than the rapidly rising notion that hurtful words and ideas are a form of violence or torture (e.g., “harassment&rdquoand that their perpetrators should be treated accordingly. That notion leads to the criminalization of criticism and the empowerment of authorities to regulate it. The new sensitivity is the old authoritarianism in disguise, and it is just as noxious
Elsewhere in the same book Rauch says:
In English we have a word for the empanelment of tribunals—public or private, but in any case prestigious and powerful—to identify and penalize false and socially dangerous opinions. The word applies reasonably well to a system in which a university student is informed against, and then summoned to a hearing and punished, for making incorrect and hurtful remarks during a conversation late at night. The word has been out of general circulation for many years. It is “inquisition.””
If Rauch makes a mistake it is that he understates the severity of the problem. Authoritarianism has been a defining trait of left wing thought, morality, and behavior for centuries. From The Terror and genocide of the French Revolution, to Russian, Chinese, Cambodian, and Cuban communism, to the thought police of today with their mini Kristallnact riots and modern day inquisitions through disinvitations, microaggressions, safe spaces, anti-cultural appropriation, and bias response teams, the political left is now and has always been the preeminent purveyor of authoritarianism in Western culture.
But because of the strong leftward tilt of popular American culture not only is the pervasiveness of left wing authoritarianism as invisible to most current analysts as water is to fish, in a textbook case of the pot calling the kettle black, the left wing fish of academia, media, and entertainment actually believe that it’s Trump and Brexit voters who are the authoritarians.
The left wing behavioral, intellectual, and moral autopilot of American popular culture creates a conventional wisdom – an entrenched yet questionable orthodoxy – about the social world that is upside down from reality.