It should be a bygone conclusion for most that discussing politics is about the least effective way to change someone’s mind about politics. Have you ever wondered why that is? As someone who, among other things, is in the business of making ideas more persuasive, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about it.
Today, we’re going to look at why that is, and more importantly, what to do about it.
The point of this piece is not about politics, but politics make the point the best because it’s something that people constantly debate with little to no useful result produced. You can imagine the many unpleasant Thanksgiving dinners that divided households have each year as a mental aid if that point isn’t clear enough.
There are studies to suggest a correlation between personality traits and political beliefs, and to some degree these are heritable. However, everyone can imagine the rebellious, protest-oriented college students (high trait Openness) who reject their parents’ orthodoxy (high trait Conscientiousness, low trait Openness), and similarly, the inverse for the responsible kid who is the opposite of their parent’s chaotic hippy lifestyles. The traits are heritable, but only somewhat.
Biology and environment interact to produce us, our beliefs are somewhat predisposed and somewhat shaped. Nature and nurture, not or. Biology is downstream from physics, and physics is downstream from the structure of reality itself.
I have a diagram I’ve been developing as a concept for a few years that demonstrates how I think these things all flow together, and my theory is that if you can understand the structure of our minds and the way ideas are formed, you can better understand how to make ideas complete, coherent, and convincing:
The first three nodes (Reality, Physics, and Biology) are grayed-out, both to preserve our patented-candy-cane shape and to demonstrate that we have little to no control over these. If we were to have control over them, we’re more likely to get control over Biology than Physics, or Physics than Reality itself, so you can see that the vertical axis is a spectrum between Concrete and Abstract. Politics, on the right, is also concrete, because by the time you get through the process, those ideas are basically emergent consequences of everything else in the chain.
Let’s dive in.
First, we have Reality. Reality is whatever it is, and our opinions about it may affect us, but they do not affect Reality in a meaningful way as far as we know. My father likes to say “Wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up first,” and I think that serves as a good testament to the functional truth of the claim. In a perfect world, we’d live in perfect agreement with Reality, but for reasons that are both myriad and profound, we don’t do that. Our ability to understand reality is asymptotic and potentially even a Red Queen scenario. We can get closer, but the nature of subjective consciousness is such that getting closer produces more complicated questions to answer, so functionally, we’re always going to lack perfect understanding.
Maybe monks get it, but even if someone understood reality perfectly, they could not simply explain it to an average bystander because reality is both subjective and objective: knowing a fact does not equal understanding an experience. I can say “the sky is blue” to a colorblind person, and their knowledge that that is correct does not impart the experience of the color no matter how factually accurate the statement is.
We’ll skim past Physics and Biology here because I’m neither a physicist nor a biologist, but you can imagine that the physical laws of nature and the laws of life can have some impact on our experience and perception of reality. If there were no light, or we didn’t have eyes, the story of the 5 Blind Men and the Elephant wouldn’t make much sense.
Now we’re into the Candy-Cane proper. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, and it’s concerned with how we know, what knowledge is, and other such fun abstract topics. For our purposes, we’ll use Epistemology I to talk about who and what we are. I typically use it as a stand-in for self-knowledge and the exploration of that topic.
Imagine you’re a baby, or perhaps just imagine a baby.
Children come into reality because of physical and biological laws, and they take in information via the senses and process that information within themselves. During the process of growth and development, they form opinions about the world: “I’m safe, loved, and can explore,” “I’m insecure, in danger, and alone,” and other things like this. These impressions inform their concept of what the world is: “Life is fundamentally good,” or “this is a hellish dog-eat-dog world,” and they apply these beliefs to themselves.
When kids get positive feedback from the world and the people in their lives, they build self-esteem, when they get negative feedback, they assume it’s their fault and that there’s something wrong with them. Kids don’t understand “Daddy is mean because he’s a drunk,” so they internalize the way they’re treated as the way they are and the way reality is.
Our beliefs about what reality is constitute our Metaphysics. There’s a quote from Fight Club that really sums this up neatly:
“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? Listen to me! You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you.”
The relationship between the child and its parents (or the lack thereof) is the microcosm of reality as a whole that informs the perception (Epistemology I), world-concept (Metaphysics), and relationship of self-to-world (Epistemology II) for the child.
Let’s simplify this down a bit.
The earlier sections of the Candy-Cane are formed earlier in a person’s life, and they represent (1.) who we are, (2.) where we are, and (3.) how we fit in where we are. Epistemology II is where we connect our model of the world back to ourselves, and what that means is something like “(1.) I am a good and happy person (2.) in a good world (3.) who has a purpose in life” or “(1.) I am a bad person (2.) in a dangerous and malicious world (3.) who has no purpose in life.”
Once we’ve laid the groundwork, we form concepts about what we want, which in my idiosyncratic and unorthodox usage, I call Aesthetics. The most basic level of this is that we want pleasure and don’t want pain, which we abstract out to further degrees like wanting good instead of bad, wanting beautiful instead of ugly, wanting tasty instead of disgusting, and so on. In my usage, Aesthetics is the field concerned with what we value and want, and this is downstream from what we think about the world and ourselves.
Why do some people like ugly art? (If you’re going to make the claim that there’s no such thing as ugly art, then I’ll let you know now that we have disagreements all the way up and down the Candy-Cane and that my writing is absolutely not for you.) The list of reasons is probably endless and I won’t attempt an exhaustive approach, but let’s take what we’ve learned and explore it. If someone thinks reality is bad or they’re fundamentally bad, they’re more likely to internally resent or even hate concepts like the beautiful and the good, because they will have internalized the idea that they themselves are neither beautiful nor good.
Here’s a salient point: most of the people who spout off about loving the beautiful and the good also hate the people that they think hate the beautiful and the good, but when you understand the chain of events that lead to the formation of beliefs like that, it’s ultimately an opportunity to be compassionate. We can imagine that a perfectly healthy human in a perfectly healthy world would be naturally inclined towards the beautiful and the good, and we can also imagine that an orientation away from the beautiful and the good is indicative of pain, trauma, and having been hurt or unloved. If our goal is a beautiful and good world, that’s something that needs to be addressed, not demonized.
Okay, so we’ve established (1) Who we are, (2) Where we think we are, (3) What our relationship to the world is, and (4) What we want, which brings us to Ethics.
I usually define Ethics as “How to act to achieve your goals,” because ethics are innately tied to action. Good action creates good results, meaning good ethics achieve good aesthetics, and that chain continues recursively up the Candy-Cane and can change your perception of your role in the world, your perception of the world itself, and ultimately, your concept of who you are as a person.
Our ethical concepts are applied both to ourselves and applied by ourselves to others, hence the perennial “judge not lest ye be judged.” The standards we hold others to (Politics, which we’re almost at) are the same standards that we will consciously or subconsciously hold ourselves to, and when we have a disconnect between the two, we create cognitive dissonance which will gradually tear us apart or cause dysfunction through our maladaptive coping mechanisms (re: personality disorders, psychoses, etc.)
More simply, ethics relate to how we achieve our goals and act in the world. For example, in my work, essentially all of my clients are referred to me from prior clients of mine. If I act in a way that isn’t thrilling for the people I work with, they won’t give me referrals, and I will starve to death. Because I value not starving to death and living in a world where I can continue to do good, beautiful, and meaningful work, I am required as a consequence to operate and behave in a certain way.
Ethics are very closely related to Politics, and conversationally, I’ll usually say “Ethics are how you get what you want, and Politics are how you get what you want without fucking other people up in the process.” More politely, Ethics concern the actions of individuals and Politics concern the actions of individuals interacting at scale. An individual person who cuts down 50 trees to build a house can debate the ethics of doing so (maybe they live in a 50-tree town, maybe they live in a huge forest,) but as soon as you have multiple people chasing their values, we encounter political problems.
You can see the downstream relationship between Ethics and Politics pretty easily when you look at the difference between arguments between the Left and the Right about basically any topic- the Left will say the Right is heartless (an ethical judgment) for not enacting policy X for group Y (a political position,) and the moral judgment of their ethic precedes the suggested group action of their politics.
Now that we’ve laid out the theory, what does this mean in practice?
The higher up the Candy-Cane your claim, concept, theory, or argument is able to correctly operate, the more effective it will be in changing action and beliefs in a meaningful way. You basically cannot change a concept at the same level it operates at. (There’s a famous likely-misquote that says something to this effect that’s often attributed to Einstein [as many misquotes are, i.e. “...and that kid’s name was Albert Einstein.”] that goes like:
“The world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level as the level we created them at,"
although the high likelihood is that this is a Ram Dass quote.
You can’t beat a political argument with a political argument (a contrasting position), you have to beat it with an ethical argument (a superior moral action).
“Hey, I understand you think this political position is good, but here’s where it’s not morally right.”
You can’t beat an ethical argument with an ethical argument, you beat it with a vision of a better outcome (a superior aesthetic argument.)
“Hey, I understand you think this is ethical and a good way to achieve your value, but here’s a better value that we can achieve that can’t be accessed with the actions you have in mind.”
You can’t beat an aesthetic argument with an aesthetic argument, you beat it with something that changes the relationship between the speaker and the world (a superior Epistemology II argument).
“Hey, I understand you think this is a good outcome to value, but here’s a perspective that will change the way you see how you fit into the world, and that will make you better able to function in reality.”
You can’t beat an epistemology II with an epistemology II argument, you beat it with something that changes the way they see the world itself (a superior metaphysical claim).
“Hey, I understand you think this is how you fit into the world, but here’s a better way to see the world as a whole that will change how you see your role in it.”
Finally, you can’t beat a metaphysical argument with a metaphysical argument, you beat it with something that changes the way the individual sees themself, all the way at the bottom.
“Hey, I understand you think this is what the world is, but here’s a better way to see yourself that will help you see reality more clearly because your self-concept is getting in the way of that.”
This is much easier said than done, but let’s walk through this as best we can.
Political concepts are policies.
A purely political concept doesn’t inherently have a comprehensive worldview attached to it without supplying extra context, and you can imagine this as something like “we petition to change the parliamentary procedure from version A to version B.” There’s a loose ethical implication here that there may be an ethical motivation to propose this in the first place, but I tried to pick the most boring possible example to demonstrate the point that politics alone is simply policy.
Ethical concepts are morals.
All moral arguments, loosely or otherwise, imply a downstream political argument, and this is how most people arrive at their political views. “Compassionate people vote Progressive,” “Smart business people vote Conservative,” both of these vague generalizations are ethical identity-concepts that lead to the natural political positions that people filter into.
Aesthetic concepts are visions.
You can imagine how much easier the political process would go if some politician went up to give a speech and physically painted a picture of what they were trying to achieve: “Here’s a solarpunk, multicultural utopia that’s urban, green, and sleek with no cars, renewable energy, and social support for people replaced by automation,” or “Here’s a neoclassical aristocratic state with triumphant, sacred architecture and uplifting realist art where everyone wears togas and discusses the nature of quantum physics and virtue ethics in marble palaces.”
An aesthetic argument implies ethics in that you can imagine what would be required to do as a set of actions to achieve the aesthetic vision. To get the solarpunk utopia, you’d need to want to engineer renewable energy, to get the neoclassical utopia, you’d need to spend time working on stonemasonry and probably a toga factory. You get the point. They also imply political positions, the solarpunk utopia is probably some kind of communal or syndicalist, technocratic state, the neoclassical one is probably monarchic or at least very hierarchical and competence-based.
Epistemology II concepts are roles.
Roles supplied to the listener can be something like “you can be the commune poet” or “you’ll finally be recognized as the engineer-turned-god-emperor” or some such nonsense. You give the person a vocation, which literally means “what you’re called to do,” and that changes what they value as a result. A calling leads you to an outcome like a mission leads to a vision.
Metaphysical arguments are revelations.
You can think of this like a prophet preaching, a guru talking about the nature of being, a motivational speaker or philosopher reframing your worldview, or anything else that legitimately changes someone’s entrenched beliefs about what reality itself is. This is typically the kind of thing that people are able to have at inflection points in their life, like teenagers reading Marx or Nietzsche, or mid-life crisis-havers who become exceptionally trad or eat-pray-love around the world.
Finally, Epistemology I concepts are enlightenment-experiences.
This is the kind of thing that changes your actual self-concept, and this can look like breakthroughs after years of therapy, deep meditation leading to insight into the nature of the Self, metanoia (a religious conversion or the experience of being saved; repentance; grace), a high-grade psychedelic experience that induces ego death, and so on. This is not the same as changing someone’s role, which is their position in the world, this is a meaningful change to the raw self, itself.
It should be obvious that part of the reason people focus on politics is because thinking about and articulating progressively earlier levels of the Candy-Cane gets harder and harder. There are basically three-plus-one things that address the entire candy cane, and those are religions, philosophies, and ideologies; the plus-one is science because science doesn’t necessarily address the subjective in the same way as the other three.
You can imagine a comprehensive world-concept (which is different in each instance because the self-experience of every person is different and even with memetic tools like dogma to enforce conformity of belief, there will still be differences in how the concepts are perceived, received, and integrated) as something that supplies arguments about reality, how the world works physically, what life is, who the individual is, what the world is like, what the individual’s role in the world is, what is good/beautiful/meaningful, how to get it, and how to get it without hurting others.
This is why religions spend so much time on theology, dogma, social roles, and morality, because they’re supplying an integrated picture of the world that limits the amount of divergence between individuals and attempts to help society function. In this context, the concept of God (in the abstract) is a representation of the supreme metaphysical concept or law; more simply, reality itself.
We’ve functionally (if not completely) replaced religions with ideologies in the modern world, but most ideologies replace a God-concept with a central concept (a meme). Scientism (an ideology as opposed to Science, a process of discovery) replaces God with rationality, “Woke” ideology replaces God with intersectionality, Capitalism (the ideology, rather than the abstract economic system) replaces God with profit, and so on.
My prediction for the future is that a new religion that effectively integrates and subordinates the tremendous value of Science (the process) with the meaningful things that only come from the subjective, the narrative, and the numinous will have to arise if we’re going to move past this phase of social conflict. Science does many things, but it does not and cannot supply meaning, only the subjective can do that, and the subjective is always and ever outside of the grasp of the purely rational.
We’ll see if I’m right or not.
For now, remember that the more complete your idea is with regards to the more abstract parts of the Candy-Cane, the more likely it is to convince, convert, and lead to genuine change in the lives of those that receive it.
Use this knowledge wisely and with compassion.