Narrative, Dissent, Taboo, and the Creation of ‘Unknown Knowns’

An excellent discussion of the nature of narratives and dissent.

Also: related, and related.

And: this delicious morsel, from Bret Stephens writing in the Wall Street Journal:

Meanwhile, let’s state clearly what shouldn’t need saying but does: Americans are blessed to have Mexico as our neighbor and Hispanics as our citizens. On this point, disagreement is indecency.

You see how it works? You make an unsupported assertion which you claim to be fact, and then immediately make another unsubstantiated assertion in order to deligitimate any dissent from that position. People who disagree with you are [insert ad hom insult of choice here].

The more I reflect on the way people think, and express their thinking, the more attracted I am to the idea that it is all about the story of the world that they create in their heads, and that what distinguishes good thinking from poor thinking is the ability to reflect on and appraise one’s own story, and realise that it is just one among many.

That’s one part of the story. The next is, how this behaviour, of creating a narrative and then declaring taboo any statements or beliefs which contradict it, affects the world. And for that, I stumbled this week across a perfect example of this. Here is an excerpt from a book that I am currently reading: Burger and Starbird’s The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, pages 88-89:

The right questions clarify your understanding and focus your attention on features that matter. 

“Why do African Americans underperform on math tests?” Billions of dollars and much frustrating effort are spent trying to answer questions such as this. But it’s the wrong question. This question draws our attention to the wrong variable, namely, race, rather than the variables that actually impact the performance of any student of any race. Pertinent variables might include teaching methods, available resources, the amount of constructive help a student receives, the level of encouragement and motivation, study habits and attitudes, time on task, feeling of belonging and confidence during instruction, and the student’s history of success or failure. Questions concerning these themes and their relationship to any student’s success direct our attention in constructive ways. they point our minds toward features of reality that may have an impact on individual student performance, and that can possibly lead to useful interventions directed not at racially profiled populations that include students of all races and ethnicities.

Effective questions expose the real issue. 

Seeking the right question forces you to realize that there are at least two kinds of ignorance: cases in which you know the right question but not the answer, and cases in which you don’t even know which questions to ask.

The irony here is deliciously rich.

The authors are lecturing us of the importance of asking the right questions in order to expose the real issue.

They then give us an example of asking questions about issues that are relatively irrelevant to the problem, in order, at all costs, to avoid mentioning the real issue – the intellectual capacity of students to comprehend mathematics and perform well on mathematics tests – because those who control the narrative in the United States will not allow any questions regarding intelligence quotients to be raised, let alone to be discussed.

Compounding the irony is that everyone involved in the debate knows that the central issue is intelligence quotients. If intelligence quotients weren’t relevant, there wouldn’t be any sensitivity concerning their being raised: they would simply be dismissed on the available evidence, and the discussion would move to another issue. But, given the narrative, it is precisely because intelligence quotients are the main issue, and that everyone knows that they are, that they cannot be raised in the discussion. Because the narrative says that they are irrelevant and, worse, raising them as an issue would be offensive – indecent, if you were to quote the Wall Street Journal – thus, and raising the issue would upset those who have chosen and who control the narrative.

The authors thus, unwittingly and accidentally, reveal a third type of ignorance: cases in which you know the right question and the right answer, but aren’t allowed to ask the question and raise the answer because doing so would dissent from the narrative, which in turn invites a reaction of social exclusion and violence. This is the classic taboo, our modern societies are rife with them, and the effects on the quality of public debate, and thus on public policy and the quality of life (especially of the poorest and most vulnerable), are pernicious.

Textbook example here:

Back in 1982, my Advanced Marketing Models professor in B-School got to talking about predictive systems used by lenders, insurance companies, and the like. Somebody asked if they really work to identify bad risks. Oh, sure, they really worked, he replied. The problem is that the use of truly powerful predictive factors, like race, have been outlawed and the government is leery of the use of approximate factors like zip code. So they don’t work as well as they did a few years ago. This is a quiet way for the white majority to subsidize the black and brown minority in terms of mortgage defaults, insurance rates, etc.

Update: Narrative backfire! ‘Cultural Sensitivitity Training’ causes ‘unknown knowns’ to become known – and how!

The vast majority of Australian Defence Force personnel believes the Muslim religion promotes ­violence and terrorism, despite “cultural sensitivity training” by the ADF to have its soldiers take the view that Islam is a religion of peace.

The bombshell new study sponsored by the army finds that such “anti-Muslim sentiments” are “probably quite widespread” among Australian frontline troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the military’s efforts to reverse this trend are counter-productive.

The study by academic Charles Miller, published yesterday in the Australian Army Journal, was clearly perceived by top military brass as likely to be highly controversial, prompting Chief of Army General Angus Campbell to write a preamble saying his staff “have a number of opposing views on this article’s content”.

The study was financially supported by the ADF’s Army Research Scheme.

Dr Miller, who is a lecturer in Strategic and Defence Studies at the Australian National Univer­sity, writes that “in this study, I use a technique designed to ­elicit frank responses to sensitive questions — the ‘list experiment’ — to examine ADF views on Islam.”

“I find little evidence that the official ‘Islam as a religion of peace’ narrative is widely ­accepted, nor is there evidence that cultural sensitivity training has any effect,” he says.

“The best estimate … for the proportion of soldiers who have received cultural sensitivity training and who believe that the Muslim religion promotes violence and terrorism is 91 per cent.

“The corresponding figure for those who have not had cultural sensitivity training is 17 per cent.”

Dr Miller, who surveyed a sample of 182 soldiers, writes that “there are a number of issues which could arise if anti-Muslim sentiment is widespread within the defence force.

“If Australia’s Muslim community perceives the security services as inherently hostile, this may reduce the flow of intel­ligence on the activities of ­Islamic extremist organisations in Australia,” he says.

“Probably most important at present, hostility to Muslims in general could hamper the effectiveness of the ADF on deployment in the greater Middle East in a number of ways.”

To counter Islamophobic tendencies, the ADF employs cultural sensitivity training that “attempts to familiarise ADF personnel with the main ­attributes of the culture of the ­nations to which they are to be ­deployed”, Dr Miller writes.

He said the “list experiment” aims to “persuade individuals to freely express views which may be deemed socially undesirable or for which they could otherwise be punished.”

Dr Miller said more work should be done by the ADF to get a better understanding of the issue, but the problem was that “the open expression of anti-Muslim sentiment in the ADF can and has led to disciplinary charges and dismissal.”

The problem with drinking your own bathwater: you think that everyone else will enjoy it just as much as you do, when you force them to drink it too.

There is hope yet. All is not yet lost.




About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
This entry was posted in Narrative and Taboo, The Mind & Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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