Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Listenomics: A Moral Case For Skepticism and Cynicism

We can't be universally open-minded, so why pretend?

Around these parts I’m told that skepticism is a virtue but cynicism is a vice. I think that’s wrong and here I’ll explain why, starting with the relationship between open-, and closed-mindedness.

To counter the dangerous human tendency toward fundamentalism’s extreme closed-mindedness, some of us treat open-mindedness as a pure and absolute virtue saying in effect that one should never stop listening to anyone. Fundamentalists shut people out. They engage in what could be called memocide—an attempt to exterminate ideas that don’t conform to their fundamentalism.   It never works and it always causes horrible crimes. To stop them we should all just open our minds to everything.

However when we embrace open-mindedness as a pure virtue, we create new sneaky new ways to justify closed-mindedness. For example:

Being wholier-than-thou:  People can say,“Open-mindedness is good; closed-mindedness is bad. I understand this, so obviously I’m always open-minded, which means that if we find ourselves in conflict obviously it’s because you’re closed-minded and therefore bad.  I embrace the whole picture.  You don’t.  You’re small-minded. You’re just not seeing the whole picture like I am.”

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Saying “You don’t know that for sure”:  We’re all tuned into the effects of mudslinging, when opponents go negative on each other. Equally or more effective since it looks more high-minded is going uncertain, expressing skepticism about your opponent’s arguments. Climate change deniers and tobacco companies have turned this into a high art form, now the topic of psychological research in “agnotology” the study of cultivated agnosticism. Going uncertain looks more high minded because of what I’ve called defaulty logic, the faulty logic by which I closed-mindedly claim that if your argument is doubtful, mine by default must be a sure thing.

Skepticism and Cynicism originate as schools of moral philosophy.  Skepticism was founded by Pyrrho of Elis, (360-275 BCE) and from the start was less about our inability to know what’s true than about wishful thinking’s need to keep hope alive.  Pyrrho and his followers sold skepticism as a way of saying, “you don’t know that for sure” in response to discouraging news. If you’re a skeptic, then a cancer diagnoses doesn’t mean you’re in trouble. “Why worry or even try to treat it? Anything can happen!” The climate change deniers are practicing skepticism the way Pyrrho meant to be practiced. Rather than facing real risks and dealing with them, they’re saying “you don’t know that for sure.”  Skepticism is not a pure virtue. 

Antisthenes (445-365 BCE) founded Cynicism claiming that we should pursue virtue in agreement with nature, not culture, which meant disciplining oneself to ignore social convention.  The word cynicism comes from canine, in part because, from the mainstream citizen’s perspective, the cynics lived like wild dogs, feral in their efforts to break from society.  Cynics deliberately chose not to listen to social convention, to work out truth for themselves instead.

Calling those who disagree with us wild dogs parallels calling them barbarians, a word that originally meant “the people who say bah bah bah.”  A foreign language, like a foreign belief system may be incomprehensible to us, sounding like the nonsense of a wild dog’s bark, but that doesn’t mean it’s just “bah bah bah.”  Just because people aren’t domesticated to the same things you are, doesn’t mean they’re feral. Both mainstream society and the cynics might claim they’re trying to see the whole picture and their opposition is insufficiently open-minded.

In truth no one sees the whole picture and no one is really feral.  We are domesticated to different commitments. The cynics were very actively cultivating self-discipline, just not conventional self-discipline in the service of gaining social status.

Cynicism has come to be synonymous with nihilism, complete abandonment of virtue, based on the false assumption that humanity sucks, so why bother trying? That’s not what in originally meant. It meant cultivating inattentiveness to popular conventional ideas.

In general, loaded moral terms like skeptical, cynical, open-minded and closed-minded are dangerous when they stand alone.  “Always be open-minded” is as vacuous as “Always throw.” The question we should be dealing with is what to be open-minded about.

Call it Listenomics, the economics of listening. If economics is, as it’s sometimes defined, the allocation of finite resources in a world of infinite demand, then listenomics is the allocation of finite listening attention in a world of infinite demand.

There are lots of ideas out there. Memocide doesn’t work. Ideas can’t be killed.  We will never live in the fundamentalists’ dream world where only their chosen ideas exist the rest rendered extinct by their jihads and crusades. That means we each as individuals are stuck allocating our finite attention in a world of infinite demand with the proponents of ideas beckoning from all sides, demanding our attention, saying “You’re not seeing the whole picture. You’re being closed-minded. Listen instead to me.”

Whether we admit it or not we are all fundamentalist about some ideas, skeptical about other ideas, and cynical about still others. There are some ideas we embrace closed-mindedly.  People who closed-mindedly deny their closed-mindedness are kidding themselves.  We can’t help but be closed minded about some things.  Closed mindedness is essential to personal effectiveness. You focus effectively on some things because you are closed-mindedly not focusing elsewhere.  Just try being effective when every morning you wake up open to all possibilities. Just try cultivating daily, chronic open-mindedness to changing your partner, your career, your lifestyle and see how far it gets you. 

I hold some ideas with great certainty even though I know I could be wrong. I’ve had to come up with an acronym that expresses the absolute certainty I do allow myself: YATOM: Yes Absolutely, Though Obviously Maybe.

There are other ideas we’d consider though with a skeptical ear. And then there are other ideas we’re done considering. We’re not going back to them at least unless a whole lot changes about us or the world.  We don’t heed them any more. We’re closed-minded, cynical about those ideas.

The question for us all is what to heed and what not to heed, and there are things and people demanding your attention, even with dog-eyed pleas for your tolerant open-mindedness who you should simply ignore.

I’ve got some just now.  Rove, Romney, and Ryan would like me to hear them out some more as they pull out the rhetorical stops, telling me that I’m closed-minded for not listening to them, that I should be more self-doubting and skeptical, that I’m not seeing the whole picture the way they are.

Thing is, if I were a fiction author ten years ago writing a scenario for the take-over of the US economy by plutocrats, and had to create fictional characters to lead the plutocratic charge, I couldn’t have come up with better caricatures than these guys. If they aren’t plutocrats I can’t imagine who would be. To my ears they’re obviously false prophets true only to their personal profit. 

So I’ve stopped listening to their supposedly reasoned arguments and accusations that I’m a liberal fundamentalist.  I am contentedly cynical about them—that is, unheedingly closed-minded to their particular arguments. I practiced skepticism for a while.  I read their theories with skeptical ears. I’ve listened to libertarian friends make their case. By now I’m satisfied. I’ve heard enough.

Am I certain that I need not listen to them anymore?  YATOM.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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