This is the seventh essay in Lorenzo from Oz’s series on the strange and disorienting times in which we live. His response to comments on essay six is here.
The latter piece is of particular use in clarifying the intellectual problems with collapsing post-enlightenment-progressivism (“Wokery”) into Marxism. Wokery copies Marx’s method, but few of his ideas.
Meanwhile, Arnold Kling has some helpful commentary on essay five here.
This piece can be adumbrated thusly: modern prestige media is no longer about what happened but what to believe, especially in the United States. Those media-endorsed beliefs mark you out as being one of the smart-and-good, but impose costs on you if you’re poor.
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In-group, prestige and luxury beliefs
People often line up behind various in-group beliefs. This sort of cognitive tribalism has long been a feature of human societies. It’s a propensity religions have both used and fostered.
We live in an age swamped with information from a vast array of sources. It is convenient to be able to reduce the cognitive load from this information flood. That is most easily done through the provision of congenial ways to frame information.
Hence, there is great demand for media services that inform about happenings in ways that can be comfortably incorporated within a preferred set of in-group beliefs. This has created what philosopher Dan Williams rather nicely calls the marketplace for rationalisations. This facilitates the ability to rationalise beliefs one finds congenial to have—to buttress personal identity or to signal socially—for reasons other than their accuracy. The demand is for congenial, even protective, simulacra of informed reasoning.
It is even better if such congenial framings also provide a sense of status, of being one of the smart and good. Hence we get prestige opinions: opinions that are presented and accepted as marking one as being of the smart and the good.
As I’ve noted in earlier essays, this encourages a certain censoriousness. If belief X marks one as being of the smart and the good, then the belief not-X must mark one as of the wicked/stupid/ignorant. As being deplorable, perhaps.
Media outlets that pander to a sense of status are thus strongly motivated to provide news in a way that grades their preferred viewers or readers as people of higher moral and intellectual status, and those who disagree as being wilfully or maliciously ignorant folk of lower moral and intellectual status.
One can see from whence current obsessions with mis-information and dis-information come.
The prestige-opinions game works much better if journalists play it themselves: they’re both more motivated and more persuasive as purveyors of prestige opinions and associated rationalising. In these circumstances, the efficient level of self-deception—a level of self-deception that is both motivating and persuasive—becomes notable. That is, the costs of error about how things are, as long as such errors do not involve negative consequences for the individual, are low.
Any gains from such self-deception can be quite large. The bigger such a mutual-status-support network is within a social milieu, the greater the benefit of belonging and the worse the potential cost of not belonging. A classic network monopoly effect. One that—along with the internal cognitive cost of admitting that one has publicly invested in error—raises the costs of defecting from the affirmation of beliefs that mark one as being of the smart and good.
We have watched in real time as “quality” media across the Western world increasingly adopts the Pravda (“approved truth”) model of information provision. Media that does not (inconveniently) inform you, but does tell you what is currently acceptable to say to be of the smart and good, along with approved talking points and supporting rhetoric. A Pravda model of media that has developed from Pravda models of activist scholarship.
Still, the recitation of prestige opinions is a game that anyone can play, if they wish. Prestige opinions lack sufficient barriers to entry to be an optimal status strategy.
Psychologist Rob Henderson has, however, spotted how to generate such barriers to entry: luxury beliefs. These are:
ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes.
The barrier to entry being that either folk down the socio-economic scale will reject them as unworkable or, if they adopt them, bad consequences will sort people downwards anyway. This is especially so if they live in social milieus which have more people with weak executive function—given that executive function is entirely heritable and socially sorted downwards.
Executive function being:
supervisory cognitive processes that monitor, coordinate, and control the execution of other cognitive operations necessary for learning and everyday functioning.
(Engelhardt et al.)
“Defund the police” is a classic luxury belief.
Another key barrier to entry for prestige opinions is the creation of an ever-shifting language of ostentatious concern with associated linguistic traps. Given that working-class language in particular tends to be coarse, vulgar and blunt, complex linguistic prolixity complete with delicate euphemisms modelling ostentatious concern can be an excellent way to elevate the status of the highly educated while deprecating, discounting, even de-legitimising, any language that “the lower orders” may use to express their concerns.
As prestige opinions in general, and luxury beliefs in particular—with their associated linguistic taboos—are held for status reasons, and status is a very strong motivator of human behaviour, demands to rationalise beliefs that have reasons to be adopted other than their accuracy are particularly intense.
Remembering, these are beliefs that often have some small kernel of truth to them, thereby making them more persuasive. We live in an age where mountains of bullshit are built on molehills of truth: bullshit in the technical sense of things advanced for rhetorical effect, regardless of accuracy.
Increasingly, one does not read newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Guardian, or listen to or watch public broadcasting, to be broadly informed. Such outlets are too committed to various forms of not noticing, so of siloing off inconvenient facts and opinions.
One uses them to learn what it is acceptable to say. To be informed of what the current prestige opinions and luxury beliefs are. As conveyed by one’s preferred, higher status, media players in the marketplace for rationalisations. Thus do they become a network of progressive Pravda: providing up-to-date presentations of what it is acceptable to say.
Fact-checking has come to serve two roles beyond—and increasingly in contradiction to—the improvement of accuracy. One is simple consumption status: I consume media that is fact-checked.
The second is narrative enforcement: confirming that these prestige opinions are, in fact, markers of being of the smart and the good. The more thoroughly mainstream media has adopted the Pravda model, the more “fact-checking” has become about protecting the purveyed prestige opinions and about narrative enforcement.
Analyst Martin Gurri has pointed out another advantage: systematic censoriousness is an excellent mechanism for elite dominance.
If social media mobs, serving their own sense of righteousness, hunt down those who dissent—if they can impose serious negative consequences (loss of job, career, business, reputation) on dissenters—then elite agendas can be pursued much more readily.
Especially when shared status strategies, magnified by social media, provide such strong signalling techniques, inducing herd behaviour. The combination of benefits of being inside the status networks, and the costs of being outside them, plus effective signalling, generate herd dynamics. Hence all those “I support the Current Thing” and “NPC” jokes.
There may be, at times, stratospheric levels of self-deception involved but, as long as the consequences of error do not fall onto those engaged in such rationalisation, then stratospheric levels of self-deception will be achievable. Though, of course, at increasing social cost: the efficient level of self-deception is efficient for the individual, not society.
The authority to speak
The resulting censoriousness is not only a protector of status-through belief, it is also a status-play in its own right via a shared sense of moral entitlement to censoriousness. A status-strategy that reinforces coordinating action through signalling, if enough people are engaged in the same this-is-how-to-be-of-the-smart-and-the-good status games.
Freedom of speech and thought is not about the power of words, but about the authority of people. It is about having the freedom to speak, to consider in public, because you have the presumptive authority to do so.
To censor is to dominate; it is to deny and strip people of the authority to speak, to consider in public. They don’t have that authority to so speak, but you have the authority to prevent them from speaking. Elite control is served by having the capacity to strip others of such authority.
The classic restrictions on freedom of speech are defamation and incitement to violence. The former threatens someone’s capacity to interact with others, the latter threatens someone’s person.
In both cases it is one person attacking another specific person or persons in a clearly specified way. Such restrictions deny that anyone has the authority to so act. Your authority to speak, to consider in public, does not extend to so trespass against another.
Nor does such authority to speak extend to breaking legally-protected confidences. Hence civil law restrictions as commercial-in-confidence, and professional-in-confidence.
National security is a rather fuzzier version of that, as it wanders into much more general notions of who is harmed. This is why it’s so easily abused. Nevertheless, a restriction to harm or betrayal of specific individuals keeps restrictions on freedom of speech and thought within bounds.
Hate speech and its derivatives, such as being offensive, are a different matter. They take the fuzziness about who is harmed and how—entailed in restrictions of speech on the grounds of national security, say—and make them much, much fuzzier. If your speech evidences the wrong emotions, or is considered to engender the wrong emotions in others, you are stripped of the authority to speak in such a way, to publicly consider in such a way. Which is a great way to enforce various not noticings.
Obviously, this is a form of heckler’s veto. Equally obviously, it grades you as a person and degrades your presumptive authority as a person, as a member of a community, as a citizen.
It’s also a form of aggression that’s naturally self-deceptive.
Physical aggression is, by its nature, very overt. Indeed, that enables it to be more effective.
Conversely, attacking someone’s reputation, their standing, their connection to others, works much better if one is not signalling one’s aggression. Notably by being expressed as moral or social concern. Such concern is more persuasive, and more readily engaged in, if one is not carrying the cognitive load that goes with conscious deception. Lying is hard. You need a good memory, for starters.
All this fits well with the politics of the transformational future. After all, the resisting dross opposed to the glorious social justice future is not entitled to publicly participate in directing society. Giving sacred authority to the marginalised—under the guise of making acceptance compulsory—allows them to control how folk talk about them.
It is hardly a coincidence that hate speech was originally a Soviet concept aimed at undermining freedom of thought and speech. Which it does very well. The politics of the transformational future—on which the Soviet Union was built—with its moral grandiosity combined with the need for de-legitimisation of the resisting social dross, is built for such elite dominance games.
Hate speech laws give enormous authority to those who want to grade your emotions, or invoke their own, or invoke a claim on behalf of some group N—as entitled to veto emotions over what you have to say. The authority, and sense of entitlement, that engenders is clearly attractive to many, even intoxicating.
It is also utterly incompatible with freedom of speech and thought, for it strips people of the presumptive authority required for such freedom. Worse, it is also ultimately incompatible with a scientific culture, literary culture, or democracy itself.
Without sufficient freedom to explore, neither science nor any literary endeavour worth the name can be carried on. Without the capacity to talk to itself, a democratic polity—“government by discussion” as British Labour leader and Prime Minister Clement Attlee called democracy—is impossible.
Moreover, if your emotions can be graded and you de-legitimised on that basis, how can your vote and your political activity not be? Once again, we see the working through of the transformational future assessing people as resisting dross who are not legitimate participants in any public square.
Tolerance v Acceptance
This demand for trumping authority shows in the shift from getting-along tolerance to a far more arrogant insistence on acceptance, on endorsement and approval. Acceptance is also a demand to police public emotion, to strip people of the authority to express and to feel “wrong” emotions. To require active endorsement, in the creepy “you must love Big Brother” sense. It goes with a “silence is violence” demand for compulsory agreement.
The acceptance demand for a right to control how other people speak or write about you, how they think and feel about you, was first made (if not quite in that language) by activists within the Jewish lobby, particularly the ADL. It has since spread to other identity activisms while, paradoxically, being denied to Jews. Such a demand for acceptance, a demand to control how others speak or write of you, is also utterly inconsistent with freedom of thought and speech, and of any literature worth the name.
Any ideology that regards folk, not as citizens to serve, but as human clay to be moulded, is going to be deeply hostile to freedom of speech and thought because human clay cannot have the authority to so speak and to so think. All versions of the politics of the transformational future—once they get any sort of authority—attack freedom of thought and speech, and do so quite profoundly, systematically and with enormous righteousness. The grand vision of the transformational future requires no less.
This is so built for elite dominance, we are now witnessing the ludicrous spectacle of those at the pinnacle of society endorsing notions of righteousness-through-subversion. Claiming, for example, that the cultural and institutional heritage of the society of which they are at the peak is illegitimate. Mind you, denigration of the cultural heritage of the dominated is a classic attitude of any imperial, colonising authority towards those it dominates.
Those steeped in postcolonial theory endorsing classic colonising, imperialist patterns is yet another indicator of the stratospheric levels of self-deception involved in all this.
In the next essay, I’ll take a deeper look at how we Homo sapiens cogitate and the function and limitations of being conscious and being self-conscious, with the essay after that exploring how we have evolved to be so good at gaming our own consciousness.
Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public And The Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, 2014.
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, Oxford University Press, 2018.
Will Storr, The Status Game: On Social Position And How We Use It, HarperCollins, 2022.
Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books, , 2013.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Laura E. Engelhardt, Daniel A. Briley, Frank D. Mann, K. Paige Harden Tucker-Drob, ‘Genes Unite Executive Functions in Childhood,’ Psychological Science, 2015 August, 26(8), 1151–1163.
Harry G. Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit,’ Raritan Quarterly Review, 6 (2): 81–100. Fall 1986.
Jo Freeman, ‘Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,’ Ms magazine, April 1976, pp. 49-51, 92-98.
Ryan Grim, ‘The Elephant in the Zoom,’ The Intercept, June 14 2022.
Martin Gurri, ‘The Fifth Wave: Twittermania,’ Discourse Magazine, January 18, 2023.
Rob Henderson, ‘Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class—A Status Update,’ Quillette, 16 Nov 2019.
Josh Slocum, Disaffected Podcast.
Manvir Singh, Richard Wrangham & Luke Glowacki, ‘Self-Interest and the Design of Rules,’ Human Nature, August 2017.
Daniel Williams, ‘The marketplace of rationalizations,’ Economics & Philosophy (2022), 1–25.
Thanks for this. The elites seem to want to separate consumers into two groups, the ‘clever’ people like themselves, and the rest of us who they see as little more than beasts. Here’s my take In reference to the UK’s stunningly censorious Online Safety Bill. Hope you don’t mind me linking it here. https://open.substack.com/pub/lowstatus/p/the-online-safety-bill-is-a-cannibal?r=evzeq&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
This is SO good. I've boosted Lorenzo before, and I'll be boosting this one.