Witch Hunt 2019 Version: On What Grounds Do You Stand?

“What if everything we are taught in economics 101 is not only wrong, but may even be setting us up for populism, dictatorship or revolution?”

Find this question provoking?

Check out the eye-opening answer of Professor Timur Kuran in an interview with Eric Weinstein on “The Portal” podcast. I don’t think the show notes are exaggerating too much by saying “(t)his could well be the most important economist you’ve never heard of.” This episode is especially relevant given the current political discourse & climate.

Note: For podcast lovers, I highly recommend The Portal – I have found each and every episode thus far to be of consistently high quality. The podcast is thoughtfully named “The Portal”, to refer to different portals (ways) of looking at the world.

The 1st guest on the show was Peter Thiel, who spoke highly of the Mimetic Theory proposed by French philosopher R. Girard. I have written about it in Life is the Ultimate Imitation Game.

Fake Your Ground via “Preference Falsification”

Question: You go to your friend Emma’s birthday party. She greets you at the door with a hug, takes a step back and spins in her green dress with gigantic, yellow polka dots. Emma smiles up at you and asks: “My brother bought this new dress for my birthday! What do you think?” Honestly, you find the dress to be shockingly hideous (or hideously shocking). How do you react?

Multiple Choice: Your response is

(A) Honesty Brutality is the best policy. Say it to Emma’s face that you find this dress to be an utter disgrace, and she should dump it in the bin right now and change before more guests arrive at the party – so as not to embarrass herself.

(B) Be the best lying friend you think you should be. Say it with a forced big smile that you find the dress to be gorgeous.

(C) Bring out your dark human side. You remember Emma told you last Christmas that pair of purple socks with snowman icons were adorable. You wore that to your first date with your crush, and she found it absolutely incredible laughable. It is time for revenge. You tell Emma with the most sincere smile and starry eyes you could put on, and encourage her to wear the dress all the time.

I would wager most people would go for option (B), i.e., what you say is different from what you really prefer. This is what Timur Kuran refers to as preference falsification, i.e., “misrepresenting one’s wants under perceived social pressures“.

Fake Ground Protects You in the Modern “Witch Hunt”

Question: You live in a neighborhood where durian is treated as a sacred food that everyone should love. Durian is everywhere, e.g., durian flavor is the only flavor of ice-cream allowed. However, you secretly find its smell vomiting. One day, a tourist new to town stops you on the street and asks you about what this “durian” thing is, as she has never heard about it before.

Multiple Choice: Your response is

(A) Tell her (in secret) that while everyone else says durian is awesome, you find it disgusting, and she should run away from it.

(B) Exclaim with enthusiasm that durian is the best food out there – just like what all of your community members would say – and recommend her to check out the durian ice-cream shop around the corner.

Before you decide, you weigh your options carefully. If you go with option (A), you are aware of the risks that words get out – if any of your friends know that you whispered slander against durian, they would immediately cut all ties with you. They would unlike all your Instagram pictures, and unfollow all your social media feeds. You risk your date dumping you. You risk your parents signing you up for “durian acceptance” workshops. You risk opening up your mailbox and discovering 10 books on durians, sent from “Durian Anonymous” group.

As Professor Kuran illustrated, a common type of social pressure that leads to “preference falsification” is the presumption of one & only one orthodox preference – and the rejection of the rest as heresy.

Durian is tasty and everyone loves durian. Case closed. You are simply not allowed to have a different preference. By claiming yourself openly as a “hater of durian”, you immediately declare yourself as the “enemy of the people”.

The minute you voice a different preference, you subject yourself to a modern version of the Witch Hunt – and be prepared for “reputational violence” as punishment, if not something more severe. Just like those labelled witches in the Middle Ages, expect yourself to be the outcast in your circle and consider a cold shoulder as the mildest form of sanction you would get.

Preference falsification – applauding the orthodox view in public while rejecting it in private – is a tactic to stay safe in the modern version of witch hunt. A milder tactic is to remain silent – and saves you the pain of the schizophrenic pressure to balance between a fake voice vs. your true self.

Note: There are two concepts related to preference falsification – chilling effect (i.e., self-censoring for fear of backlash) and strategic silence (i.e., purposefully silencing others or information, usually with the intent to control the narrative). I’ve written about these concepts in What Silence Quietly Says: On The Chilling Effect & Strategic Silence. In this case, the chilling effect is in sharp contrast to preference falsification – the former keeps silent, the latter shouts out loud though in a “fake” voice.

And speaking of being open-minded to different opinions, I took a stab at what the word “open-mind” means in this article (that features delicious pictures of ice-cream & durian): “Are you open to durian ice-cream” & an Open-Minded look at Open-Mindedness.

The Witch Hunt in the Middle Ages scarred communities – people lived in fear and dialogues were stifled. Likewise, the modern version of Witch Hunt has its negative consequences. When a large percentage of society practices preference falsification, our political system could produce an outcome that “very few people actually want”:

You open up the possibility that because people are not openly expressing what’s on their mind, the system of knowledge production & knowledge development…(the system) of solving problems…that gets corrupted.

Eric Weinstein

When preference falsification is prevalent, you end up with the weird scenario where everyone in the room wears a pink shirt, although the majority actually prefers the blue one. The irony here is everyone thinks they are wearing pink because everyone around them prefers pink. Hence you are stuck in this weird lose-lose “equilibrium” where as if the collective solved for the wrong problem (or opted for the wrong solution) of how to “minimize utility”. We end up with a schizophrenic world where everyone struggles with the conflicts between their private preferences vs. public preferences.

Middle Ground = Underground?

The two extremes, both are playing this game of “you are with us or against us”, reinforcing each other. They are completely agreed on that.
* * *
There is no middle position. And having a middle position, having the media pay attention to people in the middle, would hurt them (the extremes) both.

Timur Kuran

In this “Economy of Deception” littered by falsified preferences, the middle ground – a nuanced and open-minded stance – has to seek shelter underground. As Professor Kuran points out above, the extreme ends on either side of the spectrum do not want to entertain the possibility of a 3rd option, i.e., seeking compromise and resolution.

Eric Weinstein calls this a “black market (in the marketplace) of ideas“, i.e., underground concepts, ideas, fears that “can’t be discussed in a curated market managed by institutions“. Going back to the durian-lover-community example, think of this as forming a secret club that meets discreetly underground every month to discuss your shared detest for durian.

Occasionally, you have seen brave friends who declare their distaste for durian in the open and advocate for plurality-of-fruit-choices. You admire their bravery, and you relate deeply to this quote:

“We are dependent on people of integrity who risked everything, when it was least popular to do it. We could hold these people in reserve, so that when the madness becomes too great, we could turn to them.”

Eric Weinstein

Where We Go From Here

I leave you with this excerpt from the preface in Professor Kuran’s book Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference:

(D)espotic government is not the only source of fear the only obstacle to overt and candid discourse. A more basic factor is public opinion. For one thing, despotism is unsustainable without at least the tacit consent of public opinion. For another, public opinion is itself a determinant of people’s willingness to reveal their innermost selves.

To be sure, time and again the courts have ruled that unpopular views, no matter how outrageous, are protected by the law. Yet a person may be free under the law to enunciate despised views without enjoying the same esteem, in the eyes of others, as people with widely accepted views. However strictly enforced, freedom of speech does not insulate people’s reputations from their expressed opinions.

My preoccupation with the darker side of human nature was not without reward. I became more sensitized to the independent streak in the human character, to the spirit that gives on the courage to say ‘no’ when the pressures of the moment demand a ‘yes.’ With a heightened appreciation for the complexity of the human personality, for the tensions we all endure in trying to mediate between our needs for social approval and those for self-assertion, I gained more respect for the nonconformist, the pioneer, the innovator, the dissident, even the misfit. It is my hope that the reader will come to share in this appreciation.

It is also my hope that the reader – you – will come to share in this appreciation. The consistency in aligning one’s public preferences with one’s private ones. The audacity in listening to one’s innermost self and reach peace with the outer world.

May we all have a mindful journey.

What are some good materials you’ve come across on public discourse? I’d love to hear from you – please reach me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn

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