Did a Change in Rhetoric Give Rise to Cities?

A peculiar phenomenon in early human history has stumped scientists. After learning to farm and establishing a more plentiful food supply about 10,000 years ago, humans began to congregate in larger groupings. Villages grew from 200 people to a few thousand inhabitants. These mega-villages were significantly larger than anything that came before but they clearly were not as large as the cities that would come later. Then, just a thousand years after they first sprung up, many mega-villages vanished and were abandoned.

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the sudden change. An early frontrunner was climate change, as one of the most excavated sites in Çatalhöyük Turkey underwent local environmental changes. But in English mega-villages experienced a similar dip in population without these exogenous changes, so climate has been ruled out. Another theory was that pestilence depopulated mega-villages. But upon closer inspection, this too seems not to hold weight, especially since villages suffer outbreaks of disease and survive.

The culprit for this drop may in fact be the rigid beliefs systems as this recent article at i09 explains:

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

You can see this set of beliefs reflected in the built environment of Çatalhöyük, where everyone’s house is roughly the same size. Some houses have a lot more stuff in them — more pieces of art, or more ritual objects — but as I said earlier, nobody is living in the Neolithic equivalent of a mansion.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours (even if you don’t like them very much). But once you have a thousand people living together, it’s harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

Immediately, Deirdre McCloskey’s theory of industrial change comes to mind. As she argues, it isn’t society’s technical abilities as Joel Mokyr would suggest, the Protestant ethic of Weber or the property rights of Douglass North that explains the Industrial revolution. No, a change in our rhetoric, our ideology of business, is what made the difference.

She writes,

What changed in Europe, and then the world, was the rhetoric of trade and production and innovation… The bourgeois talk was challenged mainly by appeal to traditional values, aristocratic or religious, developing into nationalism, socialism, and environmentalism. But increasingly, as in Jane Austen, a rhetoric by no means enthusiastic for trade did accept — or at any rate acknowledged with genial amusement — the values of the polite and commercial people. The talk mattered because it affected how economic activity was valued and how governments behaved towards it.

Ideas matter. And in Auntie D’s writings, there is a parallel to the changes in beliefs that likely occurred between mega-villages and cities. Just as a change in rhetoric signaled the break from agrarian society to industrial society, the break from hunter-gatherer society to agrarian society required a similar change. The rhetoric that supported the aristocratic, religious world had to be created, which likely developed during this downward lull.

Between the mega-village and the cities that came later lies the formation of the state. Ultimately, this is the world of stratification buttressed through religion. With it came the creation of differing social groups and distinctions based upon rank or property. Yet, the acceptance of social specialization required a new view of the world, a new rhetoric in the McCloskeyian sense. And once that jump was made, benefits followed. Clustered people allowed for more trade and specialization of work, leading to more wealth, prestige and better equipped armies. While still a brutal world, cities had the potential for stability, but it came at the expense of radical equality.

A Free Society is an Advertising Society, a Rhetorical Society

No small part of why Sam posted Deirdre McCloskey’s video on freedom of speech is because at one point she says, with emphasis, “sweet talk,” and then pauses for effect. Thus providing documented proof that she does, indeed, say the phrase, and out loud!

But I suspect a big part of why Sam posted the video is also because it gets at the core of what Sweet Talk is all about (so much so that I’ve added it to the about page, on Sam H’s suggestion).

As someone who works in advertising, it may be a little self-serving to promote a video which argues that “a free society is an advertising society”. But her point that persuasion is the mechanism of informing one another’s judgment in a free society is an important one. It gets at what makes even the most forward-looking liberal uncomfortable with speech that is radically free—what if people cannot be persuaded to believe the right thing? McCloskey uses the example of the Pythagoras Theorem; you don’t start believing in it because you’ve witnessed unblemished Truth. You start believing in it because someone or someones have persuaded you that you should. As a child or young person perhaps you simply took it as a given; later in life you may be more likely to deliberate more before making such a judgment call.

But persuasion is persuasion. And the discomfort with relying on it alone is not unfounded—consider the anti-vaccine community, who have persuaded themselves and others to take a stance which actively puts other people at risk. Moreover, it provides a path for tyrants who haven’t enough strength to simply stage a coup—if you can persuade enough people that the headaches and gridlock of democracy ought to give way to decisive actions directed by one man, and that you are just the man for the job. (I can hear Evan Jenkins chiming in here with “you know who else persuaded people that he was the man for that job?”)

McCloskey’s remarks are highly clarifying—you can measure the extent of freedom in a society by how restricted persuasion’s importance is. For in the USSR persuasion was extremely important—within the party bureaucracy. Even Stalin had to cobble together coalitions to maintain his power, and the people at the top of those coalitions had to persuade the people at the next level down that they ought to be followed, and so on. It’s true that the threat of being disappeared often trumped rhetoric where Stalin was concerned—but this was only possible because of someone who Stalin could get to do his dirty work. And it is worth noting that Stalin always found it important to publicly smear the image of the ones he exiled or murdered, as if leaving a hint of good reputation was dangerous.

But the point is not really to look at the extent of persuasion’s importance within Stalin’s regime—the point is that for the rest of Soviet society, persuasion was essentially off the table. It wasn’t an option. In as much as black markets emerged and it was impossible for the center to completely regulate the reality on the ground, rhetoric could surface in the daily life of the typical Soviet citizen. But anything outside of some very narrow lines came with very high personal risks.

We now know even better than we did at the time the problems that come with such a national-level monoculture of politics, production, and persuasion. This is something that needs to be brought up again and again; it is a necessary foundation of the rhetoric supporting a free society.

Still, this does not mean we should get comfortable living our relatively free lives. The dangers of what persuasion can bring about are very real. It’s for that reason that we must consider ethics and rhetoric as deeply interconnected.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men be unpersuasive.

Ivanhoe, Israel, Virtue, and Vanity

It’s been several years since I’ve read clear through Sir Walter Scott’s subversive little ode to Medieval fantasy, Ivanhoe. I seem to recall as I worked my way through the glad-of-met hail-fair-warrior celebration of Armored Manliness that it had much more of a Dungeons and Dragons flavor to it than the libra verite sensation I suspect it engendered. Bold knights were bold, delicate damsels were delicate.

Cunning Jews were cunning.

What I didn’t do was think about how the novel fit in against its natural backdrop of Enlightenment virtues. By the time 1820 rolls around, the civilizing effects of doux commerce have tamed the savage English countryside, and the Glorious Revolution have long since made the British Parliament one of the most powerful organizations in Europe, if not on Earth. By 1820, Bentham had made his mark—prudence was ascendant, and though it’s hard to gauge from here, I’ve a suspicion that readers may have felt a twang of nostalgia for (relatively) ignored courage, or for self-satisfying myths of martial honor. 

I think I read it wrong. I think the characters were meant to be allegorical. And the character of Isaac of York was meant to represent the ascendant bourgeois affection towards commerce. 

There are a couple of ways to go with this interpretation, depending on how generous you want to be towards Scott. The portrayal of Isaac isn’t entirely unsympathetic. He has his moments of courage and honor, just like the Saxon characters have their moments of disrepute and cowardice. But the question of what Scott intended is less interesting to me than what his contemporary audience might have interpreted. Is it plausible that a typical reader might have gotten through the tale and said “hey! I have Saxon blood, and these dudes are pretty cool” while at the same time thinking, “golly, that Isaac sure is a calculating mercenary, what with hiring help to get his daughter back instead of strapping on a sword and doing it himself—what a coward.”

Tropes feed prejudices feed tropes. More viciously (or virtuously if we’re lucky enough, I guess) if the trope ends up embedded in a popular work. And Ivanhoe was (and is) popular, make no mistake. I’m comfortable claiming without citation that Soctt’s work probably bears the lion’s share of credit for propagating the myth of the noble knight and for the dreary longevity of the weird, sanitized version of the chivalric code that still plagues ordinary folks’ misunderstanding of Medieval society even unto this very day. Dragged along with that, digging its heels in the mud is the transplanted, fish-out-of-water, Merchant-of-Venice (and yes, the trope, like so many others, is hardly original to The Bard) depiction of the Craven Jew. Even though it was probably just for literary purposes, consider the possibility that real flesh-and-blood Jews suffered for it.

Tragically, this was at a time when the historically Jewish virtues of thrift, euvoluntary exchange, merchant honor, and prudence were now becoming commonplace. It’s understandable (if still unforgivable) that pre-Enlightenment folks could have heaped scorn upon the virtues displayed by career merchants (read: Jews), but for folks that have already begun to adopt those very virtues? That’s savage tragedy right there, people. Life exceeds art.

And we’re still paying the price. It has come to my attention recently that here and now, in 20-frigging-14 there are still people out there citing shit from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and making blood libel claims and spewing other bewilderingly benighted anti-Semitic rubbish. Surely Scott isn’t all to blame for this, not by a long shot, but this is strong—nay—very strong evidence in support of the claim that rhetoric matters… a whole lot.

The Rhetoric of Policy Levers

In the end, policymakers face a complicated calculus. How much of an increase in total smoking are they willing to accept in exchange for some of that smoking to come from lower-risk e-cigarettes? Regulation of e-cigarettes (i.e. restricting their use in the same way as is common for traditional cigarettes) is likely to mitigate any possible increase in demand, but it may also limit the number of smokers switching from traditional cigarettes. The health risks are murky, the demand effects are murky, and even if both were known, the right policy decisions would not be clear.

-Emily Oster, What Do We Really Know About the Safety of E-Cigarettes?

I draw your attention to this quote not to debate the merit of e-cigarette regulation, or to criticize the quality of Oster’s article. It’s well researched and well written. I quote the concluding paragraph because I was struck by how Oster decided to frame the question.

Some things to note:

  • She did not ask whether people ought to be allowed to assess these risks for themselves.
  • Her implied audience is not made up of people trying to decide whether or not they should start using e-cigarettes.
  • She does not imply that her audience ought to advise their loved ones and acquaintances for or against the use of e-cigarettes.

Oster instead addresses “policymakers”, though the way she addresses them implies to me that she does not believe most of her actual audience is constituted of such people.

And her framing of the risk analysis of e-cigarettes is entirely in terms of reducing things like overall smoking rates and bad health outcomes, regardless of whether smoking rates reflect personal preferences and health outcomes come about from reasonably informed personal choices. In fact, she talks specifically about attempting to “mitigate any possible increase in demand” should e-cigarettes reduce the cost of smoking, as if an “increase in demand” were something like the rotation of the planets, rather than the adding up of freely made individual human choices.

Of course, my analysis of her rhetoric is dripping in a rhetoric of my own. But I’d like to leave it at this for now; it really is her framing, more than any substantive point she made, that I wanted to draw attention to.

twss

Flattery will get you everywhere, my dear. Besides, I think I’ve spilled quite enough ink this week kvetching about the embarrassing politics of wayward children.

I still recall the moment it happened, my charming darlings. No, not the time when the America of my youth hucked aside its pretentious dalliance with painful sincerity, but the moment I finally grasped that it was never there to begin with. There has never in the history of civilization as I hazily understand it been a period characterized by anything even remotely approaching genuine sincerity. Quite the opposite, since even primates exhibit evidence of strategic deception.

For me, the eye-opening event was the 1989 release of Faith No More’s album The Real Thing. The music video for their still-occasionally-played radio hit Epic was making the rounds. Here, give it a listen:


See what I mean? Patton takes great pains to growl out lyrics of great portent, howling as only he can do, challenging your flippant notions of your own masculinity with a guttural sneer. But the contents of the lyrics? Perfectly vapid. He’s taking the piss out of pretentious hair metal bands a few years before Kurt Cobain achieved international acclaim by doing the exact same thing, only with a bit more Pacific Northwestern melancholy (and those unforgettable anarchy cheerleaders). For me, that was the day sincerity died. Not with a bang, but with a fish flopping around as Roddy Bottum played a wee tinkling dirge to its demise.

Is that any different from Kurosawa and Mifune’s Yojimbo taking the piss out of the preposterous bowdlerization of the WWII-era Samurai aesthetic? Or to Mozart’s impish antics deflating self-important Italian opera? Irony suffuses human history, and many of the best works that have survived the ages (seriously you guys, re-read the Iliad and tell me it’s not 99.9% tongue-in-cheek) tends very heavily to the side of pricking the vanity of the self-indulgent psychopomp.

But as in all else, temperance is a virtue. I think what Peej wants from me is a steely eye gazing an an unseemly excess of not just irony, but the Hieronymous Bosch-flavoured animatronic grotesquery of recursive meta-irony. She fancies herself a 140-character Helen and I her pied Paris to cross deadly waters.

Challenge accepted.

Using game theory, it’s pretty easy to model a sincerity dilemma. With probability p, your interlocutor is being sincere (therefore, with probability 1-p, she is being insincere). Since you know the payoffs to the actions you can take, you have all the parameters you need to guide your response. As you vary p, your behavior should change. Easy peasy chicken sneezy.

Or is it? Not so fast, because what if p isn’t a parameter, but a variable? What if your behavior in this round influences the probability that others will either be sincere or act as if there were sincere in the next round? Go ahead and get all recursive with that. Take a moment and see if you can’t land on an equilibrium where every player is privately insincere but publicly sincere. If you were a naive observer, would you be able to distinguish between that world and one where everyone was actually legit sincere?

Take your time thinking carefully about that question before pondering this one:

What if foreign cultures have this same equilibrium? What if part of the cognitive dissonance expats experience a few months living abroad is the uncomfortable realization that their cozy adopted culture is just another gaggle of brooding hypocrites not all that different from the ones left behind?

The Age of Irony may as well be named The Age of Always. Adjust or perish as you see fit.

And the best way to slay the beast of tiresome meta-irony is to starve the damnable thing. Irony appeals to many of our ugliest human instincts. The virtuous wanderer acknowledges that these nasty urges exist, accepts them, and strives for excellence regardless. #Arete, young lady. #Phronesis.

 

It’s hard, but satisfying.

 

The Virtue of Pickup Artists

In a recent discussion on whether moral philosophy can be useful, redditor Minutenewt had the following to say:

Do you wish to get rich? Do you wish to obtain the best looking women? Do you wish to lead a life of indolence punctuated by greed and rapacity? Then no, moral philosophy will only hold you back.

I think this gets it backwards. In my experience, my most successful friends are also some of the kindest and most conscientious people I know. Meanwhile, my loser friends take flagrant short cuts, and seem willing to expend all their social capital on short-term gains.

That’s not a successful strategy for the 21st century economy, where reputation sticks, and automation is driving up the premia on humanity’s remaining comparative advantage: sociability. Likewise, in the mating market, women seem to value confidence and extroversion, not being an anti-social jerk contrary to popular wisdom.

Take the writer Neil Strauss as a case study. To be perfectly clear, Strauss is a bald, nerdy looking guy who, when he laughs, makes weird chortle noises through his nose. Nonetheless, he is also an expert “pickup artist,” and author of The Game.

Now, while The Game was destined to become a kind of bible for rapacious creeps, I think of Neil Strauss as being in some sense maximally virtuous. That is, he uses an applied understanding of human nature and a high degree of meta-rationality to calibrate virtuous behaviours (self control, discipline, courage) toward — at least one definition of — flourishing.

You may not like his aims, but in the abstract Strauss is simply an expert in human persuasion. He picks up women by using euvoluntary techniques that make the women in question want to pick up him:

If there was anything I’d learned, it’s that the man never chooses the woman. All he can do is give her an opportunity to choose him.

Ethical argumentation works on the same principal. As Hume showed, prescriptive rhetoric lacks access to an ultimate “moral ought” to give itself foundation. And yet, it still has sway over human action. This can only be because effective arguments hit on the right moral aesthetics, encouraging a shift in perspective and motivation.

As further evidence that Strauss is a virtue ethicist in disguise, in a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast he was asked to name the one book he loves so much that he gives copies away. His response: On the Shortness of Life by the infamous stoic Seneca the Younger. What does stoicism have to do with picking up women? Evidently, quite a lot.

pickupartist

Continue reading “The Virtue of Pickup Artists”

“Against Method” is Rhetorically Destructive

All modern philosophy starts by acknowledging a basic anti-Cartesian premise: that the universe lacks an ‘all seeing eye of god’, that ultimate arbiter of Truth, method, or the thing-in-itself, for humans to access. Only this was not a new realization in 1975, when Feyerabend’s Against Method was first published. So what did Feyerabend add?

Feyerabend’s main contribution was to couch a political program within the anti-Cartesian premise. By undermining the one scientific method to rule them all, he deflated the authority of science in order to raise the relative status of other types of truth seeking, including mysticism, religion and the occult. This effort must be seen within the anti-imperialist zeitgeist of the 70s, with so many minds awakening to the failures of neo-colonialism through the tyranny of experts. But it was also a cause that appealed to Feyeraband as a practitioner of alternative medicine.

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In other words, Feyeraband’s contribution was rhetorical: He leveraged a technical philosophical position (epistemological anti-foundationalism) into a political posture against the hierarchical institutions of science, like the state or ivory tower, in order for them to be replaced by an “epistemological anarchism” which demanded our scientific “authorities” be devolved to a democratic system of popular vote.

By harnessing rhetoric Feyerabend was simply living out his own view of how science progressed: Scientific paradigms rise in part on their empirical merits but mostly on how persuasively they’re marketed. This extends the scientific enterprise far beyond the conjecture-refutation dyad of Karl Popper into the realms of rhetoric and aesthetics. For instance, Feyerabend famously argued that Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system succeeded not due to some empirical eureka moment or triumph of reason, but due to Galileo being “one of the greatest propagandists of ideas in the history of science“.

So while it is impossible to dispute the anti-Cartesian premise or the role of rhetoric in science, whether you are a fan or enemy of Feyerabend’s work will depend on your mood affiliations. Think of it as an “if-by-whiskey” contra Descartes. If Against Method is but one way to rhetorically frame our anti-Cartesian condition, the question you should ask is whether it is the best way — That is, if denigrating science and scientists, as such, was a very useful end.

I believe we increasingly live in Feyerabend’s preferred world, where suspicion of experts and the conflation of science with power reins supreme on both ends of the political spectrum. My sense is that this represents a major step backwards in our ability to reach honest agreement. Ironically, without the authority of science we will lose one of the strongest rhetorical wedges we have to hold the powerful accountable.

To see the alternative, contrast the rhetoric of Against Method with the writing of C.S. Peirce. Peirce started with the same anti-Cartesian premise, and yet developed a philosophy of science that re-conceptualized method pragmatically, without demoting science’s status in society. Peirce viewed scientists like blind monks feeling an elephant, who then build theory through a “community of inquiry“. While no method is “ultimately” better than another, our conceptions of reality have practical consequences, so different methods ought to lead to similar conclusion in the long run.

So here we have two attacks on epistemological foundationalism. Using one type of rhetoric, Feyerabend pushed an anti-colonial relativism, giving “equal rights” to creationists and trained biologists alike to claim the scientific credo. Using different rhetoric, C.S. Peirce raised the status of science while at the same time pointing out its fallibility. In Peirce’s own words:

To an earlier age knowledge was power — merely that and nothing more; to us it is life and the summum bonum — the highest good.

Feyerabend’s ideas belong to that earlier age; indeed, the core ideas in Feyerabend were not original. Rather, his legacy is the disrepute of scientific authority. But at what cost?

Rhetoric and Non-ergodicity Management

My latest at EE is a stab at a Schumpeter-Knight-Kirzner-North synthesis. Boiled down, I find it useful to distinguish risk, uncertainty, and non-ergodicity as zones in a function of decreasing knowledge of possible outcomes. Risk describes well-governed, well-understood probability functions. Uncertainty describes well-governed, but poorly understood probability functions, and non-ergodicity describes wild probability functions. Another way to think about it that risk is a threat to an individual, uncertainty is a threat to a firm, and non-ergodicity is a threat to society. I’m not sure if the way I parse these ideas are capital-T True, but to me this is useful. At the risk of immodesty, that’s good enough for me.

Protection against the unknown satisfies deep atavistic cravings common to many species. In humans, this desire is strong enough to divert many billions of dollars into insurance schemes of one sort or another. A, if not the, function of the finance industry (or at least the vibrant, robust derivatives markets) is to allow people to pool and trade risk (even when what they’re actually trading is uncertainty), easing tensions about the obscure future, permitting long-term planning and investment. Read through a 10-K sometime and you’ll see that quite a bit of the fluff is devoted to talk about how the firm devotes resources to contingency planning and how well diversified they are. One of the big reasons many economists flog the virtues of a stable rule of law is that the productive capacity of the many industries of the nation suffer when the threat of capricious expropriation looms. 

I submit to you that the hedge we enjoy against big social upheaval (by this, I mean developments that destroy entire industries, change the political process, or result in mass migrations) is rhetoric. If citizens are comfortable with the decline of patterns of production and exchange, they will be naturally less prone to petitioning the legislature for redress. A civilization that tolerates dynamism, that accepts the destruction part of creative destruction will more aptly resist ossification. The civilization that yields to truculent Ludditism will waste precious resources on protecting incumbents, shielding defunct industry, and perpetuating inefficiency. A society, in other words, of untempered backwards-looking faith is one that will mire itself in the treacle of the past.

Our best hedge against non-ergodicity is to learn to stop worrying and love what truly matters in life.

The Storyteller’s Obligation

In my previous post I linked to a study on how children were inspired to virtuous action by the role model of George Washington, who told his own father he cut down the cherry tree and was rewarded for honesty.

This is a useful thing to know, both as a parent and also more generally as someone who would like to inspire virtue in a broad range of people. However, it makes me think about a particular consequence of storytelling, and how aspirational stories can lead to tragedies.

Garret Jones recently stated that “There are few horrors of the last century that can’t be blamed on an excessive concern for justice.”, and I believe that’s entirely right. The 20th century’s communist revolutions that led the greatest string of tragedies the human race has yet seen were based on a story about justice and fair distribution of wealth. They told a story about how human society could pass through a socialist phase and into a communist phase where material wealth and prosperity was available to everyone and no one would enjoy power and status over another. It would be Utopia.

Of course it turned out these stories were wrong. Marx was wrong. Communism doesn’t work. The entire exercise was doomed to failure from before it started. 

This is the danger of stories. They can inspire people, but they can also lead them to folly. If we only tell people the good half of stories, or (worse) tell people stories about the way we wish the world were, we lead them astray. 

And this isn’t limited to grand tragedies like the Great Leap Forward, but also in small ways and individual lives. A young person may spend money on a degree whose prospects are not what they were told, or engage in relationships with unrealistic expectations of how love and friendship actually works. This causes heartache, lost money and effort, and also comes back to bite the storyteller as a teller of lies (however well meaning they were at the time).

Don’t do this. Only tell stories that are true. Inspire, but also be wise. Be like Shakespeare, and Homer.