Societal Observations

I have spent too much time observing human behavior, especially on social media platforms, and here are my takeaways at this moment in time:

That resisting medicine is heroism, but so too is embracing it; that freedom of religion means deciding how others should practice theirs; that the goal of a vocation is to someday not have one; that one’s freedom of speech is to defend one’s right to avoid thinking.

That righteousness is determined by the admiration of others; that education is to avoid the uncomfortableness of inconvenient truths; that entitlement is the issue, unless you’re the beneficiary.

That to be a patriot is to be unreflective to the point of resisting change; and that to be woke is to be engrossed with change to the point of being outraged by the shortcomings of others—both in the name of freedom. This is what I have seen, and I laughed.

This was inspired by the observations of Soren Kierkegaard during his time:

“When I was young, I forgot how to laugh in the cave of Trophonius; when I was older, I opened my eyes and beheld reality, at which I began to laugh, and since then, I have not stopped laughing. I saw that the meaning of life was to secure a livelihood, and that its goal was to attain a high position; that love’s rich dream was marriage with an heiress; that friendship’s blessing was help in financial difficulties; that wisdom was what the majority assumed it to be; that enthusiasm consisted in making a speech; that it was courage to risk the loss of ten dollars; that kindness consisted in saying, “You are welcome,” at the dinner table; that piety consisted in going to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.”

An Analysis: The Logic of Social Media

In today’s essay, I will analyze the logic of our modern-day discourse, particularly through the virtual public square that has become such an influential part in both our individual and collective lives.

If you are interested in what position I hold regarding specific current debates, then I am afraid you will be disappointed. After years of studying language, logic, and psychology in mostly academic realms, I have sought to someday utilize these tools in such a way that would help unify people.

However, in recent years, I have become increasingly aware of the futility of this endeavor. The reasons behind this change in heart is not due to adopting a pessimistic outlook of life or vilifying those who harbor different views than mine; rather, it has been through the realization that the deck is stacked against anyone trying to unify people—to be clear, I am not implying there is a secret cabal exerting control, at least for the purpose of what I am saying in this context because I equally can never rule out that there isn’t some secret cabal that I am unaware of (i.e., it’s not falsifiable).

Rather, I focus on what I can observe, analyze, and hypothesize about, which inevitability leads me back to examining language and how we use language, both with its content but also with its rules.

When you think of the rules of language, you likely think of grammar, since that is nearly the exact definition; however, that is not what I am focused on when contemplating the dynamics of the intensifying social media debates. If you spend time reading the comments on social media postings, such as Instagram pictures, Facebook news articles, Tweets, etc., you do not usually see people arguing about the appropriate application of grammar within these contexts.

This is the first way the deck is stacked: Social media discourse is governed by linguistic and social rules that are, novel, rapidly evolving, and vary depending on platforms. While there are still features of language that remain, these aspects are not determining features when people are arguing on these platforms.

Instead, the uniting feature of these social media interactions is the users appeal to logic. Although these interactions usually devolve due to the abundance of logical fallacies, the interesting part is that both parties want to use logic, albeit in a biased self-serving manner, but this is nevertheless a point of common ground. We must cling to whatever vestiges of common linguistic territory that we Americans still have left, before completely severing ties among ourselves due to our private beliefs.

I say private beliefs because whether beliefs are amplified to the scale of the collective or remain at the order of the individual makes no difference to where the beliefs reside, at least from the individual’s point of view. The main, and central, difference that does arise from scaling up to the collective level is the individual’s private beliefs now provide them with a sense of belonging, satisfying a core human need; moreover, the collection of individuals now can access and enter into groupthink (which has bad connotations but has its places in life).

However, with the public square transcending to the realm of the virtual where social media are [is] now the platforms to engage in various forms of social interactions, beliefs that were once held privately, even secretly to oneself, can now be voiced to a host of other “nodes” within this social system.

Not only is this option now available and easily accessible to the individual, but the nature of the internet being transcendental, as in not grounded in the physical (at least in a way understandable to the average person). This transcendental property of the internet and the platforms it hosts provides implicit validation of beliefs sharing transcendental elements given that the medium of the internet inherently extends beyond the physical; moreover, the acceptance of these types of beliefs by other entities (bots and people) further reinforce these same beliefs through explicit social validation.

While the details mentioned above can be further explored, the important takeaway is the notion that transcendental beliefs (those extending beyond the physical) have increased in their general acceptance among users on these platforms, even through the mere exposure effect of having been made aware of beliefs of this kind with their different varieties. Furthermore, within the groups whose social cohesion is clustered around beliefs that are transcendental produce a secondary effect in how members within these groups use logic.

In my previous process writing essay, I termed Tripartite Flow to describe a sequence of events flowing in a logical progression. The full description of the term is not necessary for what I wish to illustrate in this essay. However, I will continue by using the analogy of a neuron’s action potential (also, outlined in more detail in my last essay).

When I first learned about action potentials, it seemed straightforward: (a) strong stimulus -> (b) triggers action potential -> (c) transmission of information. Stripping away the neuroscience jargon, this is a simple chain of causality flowing from some initial thing (a) to some effect from (a) producing (b) leading to end effect (c).

There are countless examples to illustrate this point; moreover, this is one of many examples of how we operate within the framework of logic personally, relationally, even transcendentally, whether we are aware of this framework or not.

Enter my frustration: putting aside the content and emotional charge to all the matters we find ourselves arguing about, what remains is crudely formed attempts to wield logic on platforms that are not conducive to even handling such an interaction.

Nevertheless, we enter the virtual arena once more believing we might be able to help someone see the “truth” behind a given issue. Still, the medium through which we are engaging others is already biased toward short exchanges rather than lengthy, well-crafted arguments, in addition, we are bound by the inherent limitations of using the tool of written language.

One of the effects of operating on a virtual function that transcends the physical reality, especially when validated by in-group members’ support, is that we believe ourselves experts in a variety of fields and a multitude of topics. Having access to an abundance of information, we can easily succumb to an illusion of intellectual grandiosity that functions to help us feel more in control of life than we actually are.

However, when interlocked with another user on some social media platform arguing positions of some given issue, we often end up violating laws of logic due to either an indifference toward them or an ignorance of them.

The most common forms of logical fallacies I have observed through studying sparing matches in the virtual arena are false dilemmas (false dichotomies) and fallacies of causation. False dilemmas essentially restrict the range of potential options to a choice between only two options; for example, you either like ice cream or cookies (first example that came to mind)—if the other person responds to the question framed this way, then it is already setup on an illogical foundation and will continue to produce subsequent arguments because there could exist a third option or the initial choice is not a true dilemma. In the dessert example, engaging with this question overlooks the possibility of liking both ice cream and cookies since they can coexist without violating the law of contradiction.

Regarding fallacies of causation or causal fallacies, this is a category of logical fallacies that has numerous types of how it manifests, but the common feature of all these fallacies is misunderstandings of what causes or reasons are producing what effects or conclusions. Determining causality is an essential part of human reasoning and has serious effects on our lives; however, it can be quite difficult, and I believe it is important to have enough intellectual humility to acknowledge our blind spots or mistakes when utilizing human reasoning. One common example of a fallacy of causation is known as the Post hoc fallacy. It is useful to translate the Latin of Post hoc to understand the meaning of this fallacy; in Latin, this means to the effect of “after this, therefore because of that.” It is the idea that because an event happens after another event, there must be a causal connection between the two events. This is not always true because, again, discerning causation is an incredibly difficult endeavor, which is the task of many academics and researchers.

However, the internet and social media have produced something of a levelling effect where any user believes their posts and views are as credible as those who hold credentials on the matter. In part, it might be because everyone looks the same on these profiles, despite the blue check next to one’s name or the academic/professional credentials, people can discount these aspects; moreover, it seems that people tend to give more credence to user’s opinions who have many followers, though this too is a string of digits representing some abstraction that is often entirely arbitrary to the content of the discussion.

Nevertheless, social media is having an increasingly significant effect on people’s choices, and the stakes are incredibly high. However, I have learned that social media allows for members to find a sense of belonging, but it is that sense of belonging that fortifies the individual’s beliefs. Consequently, my goal of possibly changing other’s minds has shifted, and I hope to move forward with subsequent posts about reasoning and helping to increase understanding of logic and the serious consequences of operating from faulty reasoning.

Unprecedented

While the markets closed with another one-day record high, it is important to think about the last few weeks, as well as place it in a historical context.

Within the last two weeks, we have witnessed multiple one-day record highs and lows. Simply looking at this past week, Monday started with a record one-day low, the worst drop since the crash of 1987, and then the markets set another record one-day high the Friday of this same week (Friday 13th, 2020). The week before last there had been days with record lows followed by record highs the very next day. This is market volatility on a different level.

For example, during the historic drop on Monday, the markets tripped the “circuit breaker,” a mechanism that automatically halts trading for a period of time when markets drop too sharply. This was the first time this mechanism was tripped since 1997; moreover, the circuit breaker was tripped two more times within this last week, due largely to the coronavirus fears.

It is well-established that the markets do not like uncertainty, however, that is exactly the situation that coronavirus is causing. During the 2008 financial crisis, the main issue was the popping of the housing market bubble that led the U.S. Federal Reserve to slash interest rates to zero and the government to approve the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act—a $700 billion bailout to buy mortgage-backed securities. Moreover, while the exact cause of the 1987 crash is subject to some debate, it involved investors’ growing concerns of an impending bear-market, the novelty of beginning to use computer systems on Wall Street, and issues surrounding the role the Chairman of Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, had in the matter. While both these cases resulted in significant economic effects and the loss of jobs for many, the current situation is quite different.

In general, people use the past as a model to predict the future and help inform decision-making. There is a slew of cognitive biases that effect this process; however, when it comes to Wall Street and the stock markets, it seems that there are some foundational assumptions that blind people from the notion that the future is novel. For example, The Black Swan Theory highlights the fact that people tend to have biases that blind them to the potential for rare and unexpected future events that may have significant effects. Nowhere is this more true than the stock market, which is literally based on decision theory—a fixed model of outcomes that ignores and/or minimizes the impact of events that are considered “outliers” or outcomes outside of the basic model.

Unfortunately, this is not how life unfolds, as we can look back on historic events that were quite rare, though having a significant impact. This is the reason for the recent headlines of articles featuring economists stating that “This time is different.” One notable economist sounding the alarm on this issue is Economist David Rosenberg. He was serving as the chief economist for Merrill Lynch during the 2008 financial crisis. However, in a recent article, he clearly delineates the 2008 crisis from the economic crisis currently happening when he states:

“In the financial crisis, air travel didn’t come to a halt, borders weren’t being closed, we weren’t talking about quarantines and self-isolation. In the financial crisis, people weren’t scared to leave their homes. We’re talking about palpable fear and when people get fearful, they withdraw from economic activity…. The reality is the financial crisis did not come with a mortality rate.”

The effects of the coronavirus have already led to unprecedented cancellations of events, activities, etc. These effects have already prompted The Federal Reserve to take action. Most recently, this action was in the form of $1.5 trillion in short-term loans to banks in order to “address [the] highly unusual disruptions in Treasury financing markets associated with the coronavirus outbreak,” The Federal Reserve remarked Thursday, March 12th. The response by the Federal Reserve is detailed and not limited to simply this one action. This plan will be implemented over the course of weeks, in addition to the possibility of cutting interest rates more (a move they already did a few weeks ago).

However, despite these moves by The Federal Reserve attempting to prevent an economic collapse, some like Christopher Whalen, investment banker and founder of Whalen Global Advisors, do not think The Federal Reserve will be able to stop what is coming. Whalen highlights the fact that the financial system was not healthy to begin with and states that “The virus was the catalyst but it’s not the cause. Both bonds and equities were inflated rather dramatically by our friends at the Fed. You’re seeing the end game for monetary policy here, which is at a certain point you have to stop. Otherwise you get grotesque asset bubbles like we saw, and the engine just runs out of fuel.” Whalen is pointing to a sickness in the symptoms that predated this coronavirus outbreak. Moreover, David Rosenberg wrote in detail about some of these issues in a Financial Post article dated February 7th, 2020. In this article, Rosenberg writes “Fed policy, the trajectory of GDP growth and global economic fundamentals in general all tell a cautionary tale. Both bonds and stocks can’t be right at this moment in time…the equity market no longer seems to trade off the economic fundamentals. Never before has there been such a loose relationship to economic growth.” He wrote this article before the coronavirus started having its significant effects; additionally, he never mentions the virus in the article. What Rosenberg was critiquing was the framework of the current economic system and the dysfunctions that existed, such as discrepancies between market values and asset values.

Taken in sum, these points that I have laid out indicate that the economic effects stemming from this virus were not limited to the coronavirus alone. Instead, the virus served as the catalyst that is now testing the economic foundation of the system itself. After all, this event is one that impacts all aspects of the economy, since it impacts daily life and social activities. This event has released a cascade of events that cannot be walked back; moreover, the temporal extent and the economic/societal impact of this outbreak are entirely uncertain. The only certainty is that the coupling of a pandemic—that has not reached its peak yet—with an economy that has been built using the most advanced technologies in human history and relies on mass, sustained and fast-paced consumerism, will produce an outcome that is entirely novel from the status quo we are accustomed to.

References

https://business.financialpost.com/news/economy/recession-feature

https://www.vox.com/2020/3/12/21176567/us-stock-markets-shut-down-trading-coronavirus-massive-sell-off-circuit-breaker

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fed-to-inject-1-5-trillion-in-bid-to-prevent-unusual-disruptions-in-markets-11584033537

https://business.financialpost.com/investing/investing-pro/david-rosenberg-this-turbocharged-debt-cycle-will-end-miserably-its-just-a-matter-of-when