Rants and Raves

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

David Brin's Otherness

I encountered an idea that was to become one of the foundations of my world-view years ago in a short essay by science fiction author David Brin. Like Thomas Sowell's 'A Conflict of Visions', which I will post about anon, after reading it I was never the same again and have been digesting the implications ever since. I am not at all sure that Dr. Brin would like where I've taken this idea, but then if it is in fact a valid insight into reality, that kind of thing happens.

David Brin is a scientist and author with a Ph.D in astrophysics. As a scientist he has worked as a physics professor and a NASA consultant. As an author he is known mainly for his science-fiction novels one of which, The Postman, was made into a movie by Kevin Costner. A few years ago he published a non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, which attracted a lot of attention for its startlingly different approach to the problems of surveillance technology in a free society. In it he postulates that the extension of surveillance of public places and access to data banks by an ever-increasing number of people and institutions, need not be an Orwellian nightmare if there is a corresponding extension of accountability and transparency. This was neatly expressed by the title of one of his articles in Salon, We Will Watch the Watchers. (Which can be accessed from his website - highly recommended.)

Regarding his writing and speaking career, one cannot help but wonder if this is a new model for the career of a public intellectual in the Internet age.

Dr. Brin’s career as a public intellectual is interesting in that he seems to have done an end run around the traditional routes to pundit status. He has never been a journalist, social scientist nor served in government. He started by writing entertaining stories with provocative ideas. In collections of his short stories he included a few essays exploring interesting ideas and began publishing essays and articles in web and print publications[1]. He maintains a busy schedule of speaking engagements and interviews and a web site where his articles are posted and discussion forums provided. http://www.davidbrin.com/

His ideas are characterized by technological optimism, fierce anti-elitism and confidence in the ability of ordinary people to govern themselves. Politically he identifies himself as Libertarian, but is obviously of an atypical kind. He advocates political alliances with Democrats rather than Republicans and extols the self-described Moderate majority of the population as the most sensible.

One of his most provocative ideas is the concept of The Dogma of Otherness and its implications for the issue of unconscious journalistic and academic bias.

The Dogma of Otherness is part of Dr. Brin’s simplified cultural morphology which divides world cultures into five types, 1) feudalism, 2) machismo (characteristic of the Latin and Arabic cultures), 3) paranoia (Russia, with its heritage of on average two incredibly destructive invasions per century), 4) Eastern collectivism (stable and sane – at the cost of the complete unimportance of the individual) and 5) the culture that originated in the West and developed to the most extreme in the United States: Otherness.

In his article, The Dogma of Otherness Dr. Brin describes (in composite form) the genesis of the idea while on a speaking tour. Because he has written about dolphins, questions usually arise concerning dolphin intelligence. He replies that after initial optimism, he was convinced by the evidence that dolphins are not intelligent on anything like a human level. Objections arise, “You can’t know that!” “If we can’t communicate with them it must mean we’re not smart enough!” “But…but there may be other ways of dealing with the world intelligently than those we imagine!” “Those problems the dolphins had to solve were designed by human beings, and may miss the whole point of cetacean thought! In their environment they’re probably as smart as we are in ours!”

Dr. Brin repeats the reasons he became convinced, until he gives up in the face of the absolute refusal of the audience to concede the validity of the evidence. He points out that he gets this reception from every audience of non-scientists and thinks he has realized why, and that it has to do with the core cultural assumptions of American society. Every culture has them, they are socialized into the young of every culture and nation, some call them dogmas, some call the zeitgeists, and we have ours as well. “But I am coming to see that contemporary America is very, very strange in one respect. It just may be the first society in which it is a major reflexive dogma that there must be no dogmas!”

“Think about it, “There’s always another way of looking at things” is a basic assumption of a great many Americans.” Someone replies, “Well isn’t it true? There is always another way!” “Of course there is… or at least I tend to think so. I like to see other viewpoints. But you see, I was brought up in the same culture as you were, so it’s no surprise I share your dogma of otherness.”

He describes what follows in the discussion, he talks about how unique this orientation is in the history of the world. Someone accuses him of cultural chauvinism, “What’s so special about our culture?” “You’re doing it again!” he cries. He points out that there may indeed be something to be learned from other points of view, but then again that could just be a bias imposed by our cultural conditioning.

Further objections follow, “All right, so that’s just our way of looking at things. But you can’t say it’s actually better than any other way… Other peoples have their own cultural assumptions, of equal value.” Further discussion ensues leading to the core contradiction: Otherness holds that all points of view may be valid for the culture (or even the individual) that holds them, other cultures think that this belief is self-evidently insane and/or evil. They cannot both be true, one or the other must be and recognizing this involves making a judgment (at least implicitly) about which is better, more true or more worthy to prevail.

To elaborate further would involve quoting the entire (admirably succinct) essay – and by this time the academic reader is probably nodding his head in recognition. The attitude is most noticeable in the doctrine of cultural relativism in the social sciences: all cultures are equally valuable and worthy to survive and to suggest otherwise is bigotry and racism. [2]

Dr. Brin suggests that this attitude evolved in our culture of immigrants. America has become a mix of more peoples and cultures than probably any other in the history of the world – with none that had a strong claim to right of precedence, and that to get along peacefully we had to develop tolerance to a degree beyond any other previous civilization. He does not claim that everyone everywhere in America possesses this attitude in the same degree, or that it is possessed only in America, simply that it is characteristic of American culture to a degree beyond any other place at present.

“The Dogma of Otherness is a worldview that actually encourages an appetite for newness. A hunger for diversity. An eagerness for change. Tolerance, naturally, plays a major role in the legends spread by this culture. (Look at the underlying message contained in most episodes of situation comedies!) A second pervasive thread, seen in the vast majority of our films and novels, is suspicion of authority…

“What we can say, nevertheless, is that Otherness has become powerful in the official morality of most western societies. Look at the vocabulary used in most debates on issues concerning the public. So-called 'political correctness' can be seen in ironic light, as a rather pushy patriotism in favor of the tolerance meme! But even the other side often wraps itself in phrases like "freedom," or "color blindness," or "individual rights." ”Even more important, though, is the fact that millions accept the deeply utopian notion that our institutions must be improvable, and that active criticism is one of the best ways to elicit change.” (The Meme Wars http://www.davidbrin.com/newmemewar1.html)

The irony of this is that American culture socializes its members into an attitude that each of us and a few like-minded others are unique in possessing this attitude of tolerance and suspicion of authority.

“It is a smug cliché -- that you alone (or perhaps with a few friends) -- happen to see through the conditioning that has turned all the rest into passively obedient sheep. …

“Ah, but here is the ironic twist. Look around yourself. I'll bet you cannot name, offhand, a single popular film of the last forty years that actually preached homogeneity, submission, or repression of the individual spirit. ”That's a clue! In fact, the most persistent and inarguably incessant propaganda campaign, appearing in countless movies, novels, myths and TV shows, preaches quite the opposite! A singular and unswerving theme so persistent and ubiquitous that most people hardly notice or mention it. And yet, when I say it aloud, you will nod your heads in instant recognition. ”That theme is suspicion of authority -- often accompanied by its sidekick/partner: tolerance. ”Indeed, try to come up with even one example of a recent film you enjoyed in which the hero did not bond with the audience in the first ten minutes by resisting or sticking-it to some authority figure….

“This theme is so prevalent, and so obvious, that even though you can see where I am going with it -- and hate the inevitable conclusion -- you aren't going to dispute the core fact. You have to sit there and accept one of the most galling things that a bunch of dedicated individualists can ever realize -- that you were trained to be individualists by the most relentless campaign of public indoctrination in history, suckling your love of rebellion and eccentricity from a society that -- evidently, at some level -- wants you to be that way!” [3] (The Matrix: Tomorrow Might Be Different, David Brin http://www.davidbrin.com/matrixarticle.html)

I believe that Dr. Brin is on to something here. The idea is hard to grasp for some, but once grasped anyone can test it for themselves by observing the culture around them, for example by trying that experiment with movies, TV shows and popular literature. This may be one of the most important insights into understanding our own culture in recent years.

It is obviously going to be unsettling to some. It supports the idea of American, and Western exceptionalism – which contradicts the basic vision of Otherness itself! This kind of condition is of course, the primary causative factor in Cognitive Dissonance theory.

There is no doubt about whose side Dr. Brin is on. He holds with a society where progress is achieved through openness and constant criticism. In The Postman he has the main character tell a story about the Americans, who used to accuse themselves of all kinds of terrible crimes – but that this was only their way of making themselves better.

I believe that Dr. Brin’s model is well worth considering, with some caveats.

Our core cultural assumptions, as everyone’s do, lead us to look at the world from a certain perspective, but also have their own unique blind spots, which we must make a serious effort to see around.

At present, America is attempting to do something that has never been achieved before – with no historical examples to indicate whether or not it will continue to succeed in the long run. We have a republican form of government with a population of heterogeneous origins now at 300 million and continually growing through immigration and a birthrate far healthier than Europe's. Prior to the US Constitution, political philosophers such as Montesque believed that a republican government must necessarily be on a small scale. Surely we are going to need the feedback of constant self-criticism if we are to chart a course into an unknown and uncertain future.

There is indeed a lot of self-criticism in our society, but much of it is neither legitimate nor productive of any real self-examination. Dr. Brin has not to my knowledge dealt with what might be called xenophilia, the hallmark of many radicals who hold that the good society is found elsewhere. Usually in some truly awful tyranny, which they strangely never seem to immigrate to, or even bother to visit in most cases. Xenophilia is not respect for other ways, but a positive loathing of one’s own, and is manifestly quite common among the very classes which have most benefited from American society. Obviously our culture is productive of some discontents that affect its most privileged members that we only dimly understand.

(See my posts on 'Western Civilization and its Discontents' and 'Aeyrheads'.)

At an extreme, the respect-for-all-cultures vision that Otherness promotes leads to a reluctance to evaluate others for fear of seeming “judgmental” (a capital offence in the social sciences). The problems with this attitude include:

1) One cannot avoid making judgments, it’s part of our basic cognitive processes. If one tries then the judgments made will be unconscious and thus difficult to deal with rationally.

2) If we are unwilling to consider that our culture has achieved something uniquely valuable, we will be unable to examine rationally exactly what it is we are doing right, how it might apply to others and how it might be improved further.

3) Contrariwise, if we are unwilling to honestly criticize the failures and shortcomings of others, how will we learn from them?

These extremes of the Dogma of Otherness do not necessarily represent fatal flaws in the concept. But it does seem possible that most people may not have the insight necessary to appreciate the difference between being objective but evaluative, and being judgmental and biased – and this is rather an elitist point of view, which is of course contradictory to the Dogma of Otherness itself.

Dr. Brin makes an excellent case for the Dogma of Otherness being among the core assumptions of American, and increasingly Western Civilization and shows how unique this is among other civilizations both contemporary and historical. This worldview is undoubtedly being spread throughout our culture by our academic establishment, our news and entertainment media and throughout Western culture by American media hegemony.

The above caveats and reservations about Otherness lead to one important question. Though the assumptions of Otherness may be necessary to maintaining a society as large and as heterogeneous as our own, might this not also lead to something analogous to a breakdown of our society’s immune system - something like a case of cultural AIDS? If we do not consider our own society as in some way unique, worthy and better than any alternative, from where will come the will to defend it against those that would attack and destroy it from within or without?

Whether the contradictions in our core cultural assumptions will ultimately tear apart our culture remains to be seen. This has happened to many other cultures throughout history and perhaps we are not so special after all.

Note: the essays containing the elaboration of the idea of The Dogma of Otherness can be found in:

Otherness, David Brin, 1994 Bantam Spectra Books,
The Dogma of Otherness
The Commonwealth of Wonder

And on David Brin’s website, as cited above.

[1] Sometimes for free just to have a forum to address a specific audience. I have published in one of the same magazines as Dr. Brin and can testify that they do not pay and sometimes edit at their whim.

[2] If this characterization seems extreme, I'd note that during my studies in Anthropology on more than one occasion I brought up the question of Thugee. Thugee (origin of the English word thug) was a Hindu cult that worshipped the goddess Kali. Their religious devotion took the form of joining parties of travelers on the road, making friends with them and at a given signal, strangling them with silk scarves and robbing their corpses. These were not simple brigands but a fully developed culture with customs, rituals, rites of passage for their children and an elaborate taboo structure. When the British discovered their existence in the 19th century an estimated 40,000 people were disappearing on the roads in India.

In the name of objectivity and being non-judgmental , more than one Anthropology professor defended their right to practice their culture unmolested by British imperialism. None considered the possibility that this attitude was inherently racist, holding the lives of Indians as insignificant compared to upholding the right of a predatory culture to exist. I have repeated the experiment many times and found that Western social scientists will almost always either frantically avoid making a judgment or come down on the side of defending a moral obscenity.

[3] I used this theme at a presentation at the 11th American Studies Conference in Minsk, Belarus with the example of MAD magazine as one of the means of acculturating American youth into an attitude of tolerance and suspicion of authority through even-handed satire.


  • At 4:48 PM, Blogger Doug_S said…

    Idon't see where cultural relativism had any role in the UIntied States for its first 200 years. The last 25 years of decline, however, is another matter.

  • At 7:41 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    My memory goes back to the 50's and in retrospect, I can see it gaining steam then. I'll cite MAD and Rocky and Bullwinkle in a future post. More to the point, when doing that experiment (finding a movie that extolled the virtue of respect for authority) the latest example I could think of was 'Sands of Iwo Jima'.

    And, in the religious sphere the 'live and let live' attitude is pretty firmly established in England by the 17th century.

    Decline? We shall see. Most assuredly we shall see.

  • At 8:43 AM, Blogger Brian said…

    What I find very fascinating about this cultural dogma is that unlike most others, it appears to incorporate self-correcting mechanisms. In short, as any “rebellion” against a previous “authority” gains momentum, it becomes the new authority against which a new rebellion naturally arises. In a cycle bizarrely reminiscent of Marx’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis, any strain of thought that is successful must itself be later countered, torn apart, and tossed aside. Last year’s/decade’s/generation’s most cherished subversions find themselves as the first with their backs to the wall when the new revolution comes.

    You can see this happening now. Last century’s political correctness gave rise to “rebels” like Dinesh D’Souza. But the champion rebel of the late 80’s is now behind the curve, and when he tries to couch the current conflict of radical Islam versus the West into the liberal versus conservative model of those times, he finds he’s now the “old way” that must be rebelled against. Today, the new rebel voices heard most clearly are comedic, giving rise to such things as “South Park Republicans” who rail against a culture that tries to water everything down to a safe blandness, washing away difference and ignoring conflict. (I suspect this is why South Park is such a generational phenomenon. My father finds it abusive and crude. I have to admit, the show makes me wince as often as I bust a gut laughing. But then, I was watching cartoons during that decade when Popeye went from a smoking, two-fisted fighting man who took on Japs and Krauts with patriotic fervor, to a Bluto-hugging pusher of leafy vegetables and clean living. I watched the new Mommy culture wrap its tendrils around us and start to squeeze. My father, who I don’t think has ever worn a helmet while riding a bike, simply can’t understand what the big deal is.)

    As to doug_s’ point, I have to respectfully disagree. The very Revolution was just such an act. In the midst of the Age of Reason, the founding fathers rejected the modern and vigorously embraced an ideal past in their conception of republican Rome. Their very modern and rational attempt to fashion a new nation from whole cloth was predicated on a misty-eyed romanticism for a golden age of citizen involvement and patriotism. The fact that their ideal Rome never really existed didn’t stop them from adopting so many of that ancient society’s trappings, from the now ubiquitous eagle to the pillars-and-domes architecture that defined both our public buildings and their private homes. Their great blind spot was their inability to escape the limited suffrage and slave-owning of their model society. Our modern error has taken the very ideas that they used to found this nation dangerously close to their illogical extreme. However, I have every faith that very same rebellious reflex will curb our current, Icarus-like trajectory.

  • At 3:55 PM, Blogger Gilmoure said…

    The xeniphilia you mentioned, and an almost self hatred of American culture is very weird. It's like the 60's rejection of the suburban life that enabled kids to have the means to reject it, only carried to an extreme. Rather than focus on what has been improved in the U.S. and figuring out ways to keep improving, everything U.S. is labeled shit. Have to wonder if such people have any sense of history or how rough other cultures can be on the individual.

  • At 4:46 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I've dealt some with this in 'Western Civilization and its Discontents'. I think a lot of this comes from the feeling that everything great to accomplish has already been done, as Lincoln pointed out.

    And... when I hear Americans going on about "We live in a police state!" what I hear is what the religious call "cheap grace". That is, shaking your fist at a power that is largely indifferent to you and strutting like you're a hero. "Look at me, I'm shaking my fist at the greatest power on earth!"

    I have friends who do this, and at least one friend less after I said something to the effect of, don't bullshit me - I know real heroes in Serbia and Belarus.

  • At 4:46 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 5:15 AM, Blogger Brian Dunbar said…

    The last 25 years of decline, however, is another matter.

    Decline? Doug you are in good company - every year since 1776 we've been a decadent civilization.

    I don't see it. Things are different, s'all, and our culture is about change.

    Static society and perfection .. that's not the game we're playing here.

    I think a lot of this comes from the feeling that everything great to accomplish has already been done, as Lincoln pointed out.

    Bah. We're still doing great things. How people can be alive and not see this is beyond me.

  • At 7:54 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I see it very well - every SciFi geek does.

    The things our civilization has done in science and engineering are staggering. Starting with the Panama Canal, through the space program to whatever the future has in store in the way of nanotechnology, bioengineering, AI or whatever.

    Point is, the "public intellectuals" of our civilization are overwhelmingly neither scientists, engineers nor soldiers - they are educated in the social sciences and humanities. They contribute essentially nothing to scientific/ technical/ military endeavors, and though many of them are talented writers and observers of the social scene, there isn't much opportunity for really ground-breaking advances in these fields.

    What seems to fascinate "progressive" intellectuals is the conquest of human nature - a quest that aims at utopia but much experience the past century assures us is the road to hell.

  • At 4:44 AM, Blogger Eduardo said…


    Thanks for giving me something to think about... again!

  • At 6:42 PM, Blogger Doug_S said…

    I didn;t realize my use of "decline" caused other comments.

    I see more and more political, economic, and just plain brut, power accrediting to the political process. The reason politics is repidly becoming a blood sport in America is because more and more things are being determined by political process.

    In Iraq the only industry is oil and oil is owned by the state, so running the state is the be all and end all of everything. It is worth blowing up children because it is not only advantage it is survival (in the gas chambers honerable people climbed over women and children for a gasp of non-poisened air).

    In the US one gneration ago Bill Gates could become very rich and hence very powerful through totally private voluntary agreement and action. Today, I don;t know. Everything is subject to Washington which no longer even makes a pretext before dictating.

    Maybe you do not see it that way. Now to enter politics as an honest person risks a pergery jail sentence because the stakes are everything - riches - protedction - even survival outside a prison.


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