Language Orthodoxy and Political Correctness

They say language is performative. I get that. I would not contest it.

Over the past month my colleagues and I have been conducting in-depth interviews with Americans of all walks of life. I must say, it has been one of the most interesting professional experiences I have had (quite possibly, this is a feeling I always experience when I do qualitative research). We are so deeply embedded in our own bubbles that sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us that a conversation with someone different can flow almost naturally. As someone who actually struggles at small talk (I claim I am an introverted extrovert), a script helps and sometimes I forget that we have such different lives and backgrounds even though we have limited time and specific topics to cover.

Our project aims to understand polarization in the United States as well as the role identity, otherization, and in-group and out-group dynamics play into this phenomenon (as well as the extent of it). Methodologically, we used cluster segmentation analysis to identify different segments within American society. We have named the groups at the extremes the Progressive Activists (8 per cent of the population) and at the other end the Religious or Christian Conservatives (25 per cent, names are still under review). There are four other groups in the middle, who hold different views (in tone and intensity). As someone who is clearly not American, I have not interviewed the people who most strongly opposed immigration as that could bias the interview, but I have talked to everyone else from the spectrum. I am also lucky that my colleague who has interviewed the Religious Conservatives is extremely brilliant and I can watch his interviews – he is one skilled man at eliciting interesting information.

And wow. Speaking to people of different beliefs generates a sense of empathy and understanding that perhaps only fiction can also engender. Qualitative research entails suspending judgment and letting the interviewee express her views without challenging them and hopefully with full honesty – I’d strongly encourage everyone to do that at least every once in a while.

Don’t get me wrong, I still hold my progressive views, but as time goes by, I am more and more convinced that the way the left in the U.S. (perhaps also in the U.K. and increasingly more in some European countries) goes about it is only fostering more backlash and taking us further and further away from our ideals. This applies in different realms, but today I want to briefly talk about language.

Americans from all segments told us that political correctness is a problem. This included (and I hate hate hate categorizing) black, Hispanic, Asian, and white Americans. Everyone, except a few in the Progressive Activists segment. We must be respectful and mindful when we speak, there are rules of decorum and human decency that we should all follow, but when language orthodoxy gets on the way of people’s ability to ask genuine questions, we have a problem.

There are now many words or things that one is not supposed to say and the list increases at a fast pace. I must admit that I am still trying to figure out how to go about it and I can definitely understand the rationale behind it, yet even as I write these words,  I fear that what I am saying might be perceived as offensive and insensitive (should we really feel like that?). The left too swiftly assumes ill-intent and casts those who stray away from acceptable language as someone to be ostracized, black-listed. In doing so, in a way, we are distancing ourselves from (may I add, essential) ideals of freedom and deliberation.

In a podcast I was recently listening to, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it better. She said that in liberal orthodoxy there are now things that we are not supposed to say and there are now “fiercely leftist crusading well-meaning people” that make those who don’t use the right language feel tainted; people in my “tribe” respond by silencing, not with debate.

More than shutting others down we need to be better equipped to, first (and most importantly) listen with an open mind and an assumption of good will and, second, debate with respect. I am afraid that if we don’t do that, we will push people towards Trump-alikes, not for the love of them but for lack of alternatives that don’t leave them feeling like inferior beings not worthy of conversation.

I’d love to have a conversation about this. Thoughts?

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Reflexiones sobre el caso catalán

Hay múltiples versiones sobre lo que está sucediendo en Cataluña. Mientras los medios de comunicación españoles y catalanes ofrecen sus respectivas versiones, la prensa internacional se hace eco de los eventos con mayor o menor rigor.

Vivimos en un mundo totalmente distópico. La realidad catalana lo demuestra. Mientras algunos en el gobierno español niegan que haya habido referéndum y afirman que los catalanes están atacando a la policía (¿?), algunos en el lado secesionista se aferran a la idea de que este referéndum es válido y que si gana el sí se puede declarar la independencia en 48 horas (digo algunos en ambos casos porque realmente quiero creer que queda gente con dos dedos de frente en todos bandos, aunque se mantengan escondidos).

En teoría del juego este sería un caso de no ganadores o de “lose-lose situation”. No tenía por qué serlo, pero la ineptitud de los líderes políticos nos ha hecho llegar a este extremo. No cabe duda de que el gobierno español tiene la ley de su lado, aunque quizás no la legitimidad. Operamos en un ordenamiento jurídico que – acordémonos – puede y debería ser cambiado según evoluciona la sociedad. No se puede negar que el gobierno catalán ha transgredido ese marco legal.

El Gobierno Catalán tenía la superioridad moral. Al principio, querían negociar (2012), y cuando el gobierno español se negó a dialogar, querían votar. Siempre, sin excepciones, el gobierno catalán ha rechazado el uso de la fuerza.

Cuando el gobierno catalán decidió saltarse leyes españolas y reglamentos catalanes, y cuando el lado independentista acosa e insulta a aquellos que osan cuestionar las garantías del referéndum, los independentistas pierden la superioridad moral, la legitimidad.

El gobierno español, no obstante, se ha superado con creces y ha transgredido varias líneas rojas. Nos ha llevado a un mundo completamente Orwelliano. Mientras representantes del gobierno español niegan que se ha celebrado un referéndum, el gobierno central llama a hacer uso de la fuerza contra los que intentan votar. Repito: fuerza en contra de una papeleta.

Que las instituciones españolas se han ido deteriorando a un paso alarmante parece incuestionable (si eran sólidas y legitimas en primer lugar, es una cuestión que felizmente podemos discutir otro día), pero lo que se ha visto en los últimos diez días – detenciones de opositores políticos, violencia por votar, y cantos que devuelven recuerdos de los momentos más oscuros de la dictadura – es devastador. Lo que no es, es sorprendente.

El sr. Rajoy tenía hoy una oportunidad única. No quiso negociar en su momento, no ha querido oír a hablar de secesión o referéndum. En España, todos esperábamos esta respuesta. Por lo tanto, tenía la capacidad de sorprendernos: se podría haber mantenido dentro del marco de la ley evitando ciertas prácticas y permitiendo una votación en la que seguramente habría ganado el no y que habría sido nula (por extra-legal). Nos habría sorprendido a muchas y calmado a una comunidad internacional que empieza a mirarnos con preocupación. Por desgracia, escogió no sorprendernos. Rajoy lo mejor que podría hacer es dimitir y convocar elecciones generales. Nada, ni siquiera violar leyes sobre referéndums en cumplimiento de la constitución (ja!) justifica la violencia.

No sé cómo va a acabar todo esto. Lo que sé es que hemos embarcado en un camino que quizás no tenga retorno. Quizás es lo mejor. Quizás esto marque el inicio de la desaparición de una democracia frágil para construir una más sólida. Quizás esto nos recuerde que los problemas políticos necesitan soluciones políticas. Que el poder judicial no debería meterse en política. Que la separación de poderes era una gran idea (lo es). Quizás abra las puertas a un dialogo que permita reescribir la constitución y permita a las leyes servir su mayor propósito – avanzar la sociedad hacia un tipo ideal, no reprimir la disidencia. Son muchos quizás, y mientras esperamos respuestas, mi corazón llora ante las imágenes de policías atacando a civiles inocentes.

Eso sí, catalanes y españoles tenemos algo en común: nuestro sentido del humor. Solo en España (vale, y quizás en Italia y Macondo) se hospedaría a la policía en barcos de los Looney Tunes.

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Eso es todo amigos!

An attempt to write a balanced account of what is happening in Catalonia

Photo via eldiario.es

There are multiple accounts of what is happening in Catalonia. While Spanish media and politicians spread different versions of what is occurring, international media report the events with more or less accuracy.

We live in a dystopian world. The Catalan case evinces this reality. While some in the Spanish government claim that no referendum is taking place and Catalans are attacking the police (?), some on the secessionist side cling onto the idea that this referendum has validity and if the result comes positive independence can be declared in 48h (I say some on both cases because I really really really want to believe that there are sensible people – if perhaps hidden – on all sides).

In game theory this would be a case of no-win or a lose-lose situation. It needen’t be, but all parties have brought this situation on us. It is undeniable that the Spanish government had the law on its side, if perhaps not the legitimacy. We operate within a predetermined legal framework that – let’s remember – can and should be adapted as societies evolve. There is no denying that the Catalan government went beyond that legal framework.

The Catalan government had the moral high ground. They wanted first to negotiate (2012) and when the Spanish government refused to dialogue, to vote, and have always – without exceptions – rejected the use of force.

When the Catalan government decided to more than questionably bypass Spanish laws and Catalan rulings in the Catalan government, and when the Catalan side thwarts the voices of those who dare question the guarantees of the referendum, it loses the moral high ground.

The Spanish government, however, has taken it several steps further and led us to a completely Orwellian world. While representatives of the Spanish government deny the existence of the referendum, the government has called for force to be used against those that try to cast a vote. I repeat, violence for voting.

That Spanish institutions have been deteriorating at an incredible pace is unquestionable (if they were very solid and legit in the first place, that is another issue that I am more than willing to discuss another day) but what we have witnessed in the past ten days –arrests of political opponents, violence for voting, and chants that bring back memories of the worst years of the dictatorship – is  devastating, if not surprising or unheard of.

Mr. Rajoy had a unique opportunity. He did not want to negotiate years ago, he did not want to hear any talk about secession or a referendum. In Spain we all expected the current response. He thus had the ability to surprise us: to remain within the scope of the law by refraining to engage in certain practices and allowing a vote that would have probably come out negative and would have been null (as it is extra-legal). He would have surprised lots of us and reinforced an international community that is finally looking with concern. Unfortunately, he chose not to surprises us. The best thing he could do is to resign and call for general elections. Nothing, not even the violation of a referendum law enshrined in the constitution, calls for violence.

I don’t know where this will lead. What I do know is that we have embarked on a dangerous journey that we might not be able to undo. Perhaps this is for the best. Perhaps this will mark the beginning of the undoing of a fragile democracy to build a stronger one. Perhaps this will remind us that political problems need political solutions. That the judiciary should not meddle in politics and separation of powers was a great idea (it was). Perhaps this will open a dialogue that allows for the Constitution to be redrawn and laws to serve their ultimate purpose – to advance an ideal type of society, not to constrain dissidence. These are lots of perhaps, and while we wait for answers, my heart is crying in the face of pictures of police officers attacking innocent civilians.

At least one thing that will keep us united – Spanish or Catalan, we all have a good sense of humor. Some things can only be branded as #madeinspain (okay, maybe Italy and Macondo as well). This is were the extra police that was deployed in Catalonia has been staying.

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That’s all, folks!

 

 

 

How We Process Information: Why Politicians Can Overtly Lie and People Still Believe Them

Why do people still believe him if there is so much evidence that proves he is lying?

Over the past few months I heard this sentence (or different iterations of it) on multiple occasions. Whether applied to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Nigel Farage, Álvaro Uribe, Nana Akufo-Ado or John Dramani Mahama, the outrage was always the same. Behavioral economics can actually help in answering this question. By learning how we process information and what we do with it, we can better understand how the media gets to play the role it does and why sometimes it doesn’t help in disproving overtly false statements.

It is commonly believed that the vast amounts of information nowadays available and the way people share information should make it easier to separate falsehood from facts, yet as we saw in the latest American elections, this is usually not the case. Instead of identifying falsehoods, the multiplicity of opinions simply created a cacophony of errors that only after the elections started to be dispelled. Why does this happen?

In the era of internet and information, errors can be propagated and amplified. Combined with belief polarization and one’s likelihood to question news that contradict our prior beliefs (defined below), the likelihood of “liars” being discredited is extremely reduced.

As data consumers, generally, we do not collect dispersed information, contrast (or better yet, triangulate it) and reach a conclusion as to what is the “truth.” On the contrary, we usually fall into information cocoons or information segregation. Basically, we tend to just receive information that aligns or is biased in favor of our previous beliefs. As data consumers, we do not tend to read or watch the news in media outlets that follow a different editorial line. In other words, we are ideologically segregated (this phenomenon can also help explain why we can be convinced that there is a majority when there isn’t, we interact only with those who think like us).

In a surprising 2011 study, Gentzkown and Shapiro found that ideological segregation is even higher in face-to-face interactions than in online interactions. This makes sense insofar, at the end of the day, our friends tend to be somewhat similar to us (people we like). What about Facebook? Our Facebook feed might be representative of our face-to-face interactions, thus being highly segregated as well. The posts we see will not tend to discredit our opinions or the posts that we share ourselves.

As a direct consequence, we obtain one-sided views and enter – as professor Cass Sunstein says – into information cocoons and echo chambers which are, on the first place, a real problem for any democracy, but also a place where amplification of errors, hidden profiles, cascade effects and polarization are inevitable.

The situation becomes a bit more complicated if we add what is called belief polarization into the mix. We have what behavioral economist call “priors”, our beliefs without any information. The “posterior” is our updated belief once we have received information. We tend to think that when presented with the same information, our beliefs will converge. In many instances, this is not the case. We care directly about our beliefs (we are attached to them, we don’t want to relinquish them!) and thus we try to maintain them. Put simply, there are things we want to believe thus we do – we also discard the information that contradicts these beliefs (this is known as motivated belief bias and confirmatory bias).

If a media outlet reports that a certain politician that I dislike in my country is allegedly corrupt, I will probably believe it. But, if it comes out that Emma Watson was involved in the Panama papers scandal, I will probably question it or try to justify it (not that this happened…).

In a famous 1979 study, Lord, Ross, and Lepper conducted an experiment that demonstrated how people examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner. In the study, people holding different beliefs on the capital punishment were presented with two studies, one that seemingly confirmed their prior and one that seemingly contradicted it. The subjects rated the study that contradicted their prior beliefs as less reliable and became more convinced of the veracity of their prior opinions, that is, the subjects, instead of converging into a shared position (or closer position), became more extreme. In other words, belief polarization ensued.

Hypothetically, if I were a Trump supporter and a media outlet presents me with information about the feasibility of building a wall (and Mexicans paying for it) and another media outlet proves that this is almost impossible, I will take the former at face value and discard the latter. In reality though, due to ideological segregation and information cocoons, it is possible that I will not even consume the information that contradicts my prior.

In sum, people believe that they are unbiased information processors, but the reality is that we tend to be recipients of one-sided information, we process information in a biased manner, and even when we receive contradictory information, we become more polarized instead of converge towards one position.

This way of processing data has a direct impact on how media outlets can operate.  If we are not going to discredit media outlets for reporting dubious information, they can care less about their reputation or the veracity of the news they publish (and can rush into publishing without conducting a thorough fact-check first). If they report false news, people who want to believe them will still believe them because they want to do so. Reporting quality, despite the availability of vast information, is then much lower. In fact, as we have seen, some studies suggest that an outlet will be perceived as more truthful if it confirms our priors.

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Sources for this article and reading recommendations:

Gentzkow, Mathew and Jesse M. Shapiro. “Competition and Truth in the Market for News.Journal of Economic Perspectives 22 (2008): 133 – 154.

Lord, Charles G., Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper. “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequantly Considered Evidence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 (1979): 2098 – 21-9.

Sunstein, Cass. Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)

 

[Disclaimer: for this article, I drew heavily from what I studied in my Behavioral Economics class at the Yale School of Management with Prof. Florian Ederer and Prof. Shane Frederick ]