Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Art in a Time of Outrage

It will take a while to get to the art part, so please bear with me.

A lot of words like “vulnerability,” “openness,” “kindness” even, have lost their sharp edges. They are soft platitudes that we mouth but abandon at the slightest provocation. I'm talking about our culture on the way we conceive and interact with each other in public forums like Facebook and social media. There is an easy virtue to the encouragement of actions by strangers and friends. It has no cost on social media. There is an easy virtue to righteously dumping on someone who steps over the line of propriety or easily defined goodness, all in the name of one’s own virtue. Ask yourself when was the last time you pointed out without calling out a friend who wrote something objectionable on social media or said something objectionable to your face. Until it rises to the level of outrage we give our friends the pass. And then suddenly we dump all over it and them.

I've been a terrible offender, I confess. However, I believe I'm getting better at resisting the addictive pleasure of indulging my biases. When I first encountered some of the recent studies revealing cognitive biases, I was surprised and a bit devastated. I have built a persona for myself since childhood on being able to remember what “really” happened, and to be a repository of true objective memory. Then I read all this literature that reveals to me how much of a delusion that idea really is.


The past is gone. Memory is no more reliable than imagination. The only difference between the two is our internal certainty that one is fact and the other fiction. Studies have shown how much editing goes on in the act of remembering. There is no way to access what really happened. In fact, the more you have gone over an event in your mind, the further and further it has diverged from what really happened. I don't like this idea. Part of me doesn't believe this idea. The other part of me, the part has that has been educated and trained to think a little bit from outside my own psyche and filtered consciousness, that part has shaken me in some of my cord beliefs.

All this reading about biases hasn't completely demoralized me thanks to learning about the two thinking systems in our brain, System 1 and System 2, and that we are capable of seeing past them. The efficient, automatic, effortless System 1 makes snap evaluations and gets it right 70% of the time. This makes navigating through the familiar world a breeze. But as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahnemann wrote, “the mind is prone to systematic error under conditions of uncertainty." The mind that he talking about here is System 1 thinking.

System 2 can deal with uncertainty, with unexpected situations, with statistics and logic much better than System 1. However, System 2 takes so much energy, burning calories at the same rate as intense physical exercise, that we resist using it unless absolutely necessary. “Bias” is another word for the way System 1 handles unfamiliar situations, so that we don't have to turn on System 2 and burn calories. Both systems agree that “done is beautiful,” and that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” The ugly stepsister of a mistaken interpretation is that, once made, we defend the wrongheaded conclusion with every weapon in our thinking arsenal. This is why social interactions can go off the rails and be impossible to save from crashing and burning.

The antidotes for this are imperfect because we have evolved as beings to avoid, whenever possible, turning on System 2 thinking. Education can mitigate this resistance in the world of ideas. But once the emotions are engaged, System 2 cannot effectively challenge System 1 any more. So really, any antidote to System 1 error must have an emotional component, and that component is some form of love. It turns out the Buddha, the Christ, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, MLK: they were all correct. ( As a measure of just how hard such love is, look at how few names from the whole of history we can come up with easily.) Love is the only thing that can free us once our animals minds have taken over.

But love is not enough on its own. It takes an educated understanding to then move in to the terrain that has been demilitarized by love and defuse the land mines so that rapprochement can happen. So that minds can be changed. So that we can move together into a higher social, psychological, and spiritual space.

What role does art having all of this? Many people who want to change the world turn to art as the means to educate. The problem is that telling people their ideas are wrong, or showing people their ideas are wrong, in theatre or film say, backfires. It even has a name, the “backfire effect.” But I believe that art can transform culture. What all of these ideas and studies tell me is that Art needs to lead from the heart.

This is a shift for me. I've always thought that the ideas were most important. And certainly the ideas matter, but only after the door to change has been opened by emotion. By positive emotion. By validation. By love.

Unfortunately we live in a time when acknowledging, loving, validating the despised “other side” will get us pilloried. Pilloried by our own cohort. How are we going to affect change if we can't meet in neutral territory? And neutral territory by definition is common ground. What this says to me is that if you would make art that transforms the culture by bringing sides together, you have to walk into the line of fire and take a hit, or two, or a whole fusillade. Goodness is dangerous. Doing the right thing hurts. It hurts because we must deny our own biases and burn calories that our bodies tell us we should not be burning. It hurts because those we agree with who stand on our side of the divide will attack us when we step toward the other. And it hurts because we might be wrong and do more damage rather than heal existing wounds on the other side because we don't know the other side very well, really, having been fenced off by the cultural divide.


Goodness is dangerous and hard. It means moving out of one's safe space and staying good while out there. Outrage is easier. Violence is easier. Justifying ourselves in righteous victimhood in the face of other people’s criticism or pain is easier. We have plenty of examples and models for these. And so this is what art needs to do. Give us the example for dangerous goodness, for transformative connection, for cultural rebirth.