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27 July 2018

A Problem of Scale: Why Civility, Kindness, and Politeness Can Never Save the World

There is a lot of talk these days about the state of civil and political discourse in the United States. The basic claim of many in varying ways is that we must return to civility, that kindness will save us all. It's generally a centerist claim. These are people who claim to be moderates or independents. I think they are fundamentally wrong. Let me elaborate.

Let's start with Emergence Theory. Basically, Emergence Theory says that phenomena emerge from complexity. I think the best example is our own intelligence. We used to think that intelligence was a brute force kind of thing, that having lots and lots of neurons in our brains made us smart in the same way that a computer chip with lots and lots of transistors was more powerful. Cognitive science and computer science are both coming to the same conclusion, though, that it's not the number of neurons but the overwhelming number of connections between those neurons out of which intelligence (and maybe even consciousness, whatever that is) emerges unpredictably out of the complexity of those interconnections. Physics has its own version of this in which the characteristics of the material world at our macro material world emerge out of the complexity of things at the micro or quantum level. Though sociologists and other social scientists rarely use the term, we do have our own version of Emergence Theory. It's what many of us spend the first week of intro-level courses trying to convince undergraduates of, namely that we cannot understand social structure simply by understanding individuals. In other words, society is more than the sum total of the agency of countless individuals.

What does any of this have to do with being civil or kind? Well, if I understand the centerists' argument, it essentially claims that good behavior at the individual level will trickle up to good institutions and structures. For example, if I, a white man, am courteous, polite, and even kind to a black man, this will somehow solve racism. The political version goes something along the lines of, if the Democrat and the Republican family members are able to have a civil conversation at the Thanksgiving table, this will somehow lead to Congress being functional and productive. All of this is, of course, bullshit. It is oversimplification--at best. We would all be better to embrace complexity. It may not be as reassuring as the simplistic centerist understanding, but it's the path to improvement.

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