Sunday, April 17, 2011

Signaling support

This is based on a comment I made here.

Xavier Marquez has a great post on the role of cult of personalities in signaling support for a dictator. The basic idea is that adhering to the cult of personality is a way to signal support by engaging in costly activity (public endorsement and engagement of overblown praise).

This is a very plausible, indeed powerful, analysis. There may also be a further element, one general to propaganda in totalitarian societies in particular: crowding out. Part of the purpose is to literally leave no public space for critical views. So, not only are you signaling support by the rituals of the cult of personality, it excludes alternatives.

In the original post, commenter AC offered the following:
Thought experiment: suppose that instead of a single dictator, there is an elite class, which has general control over most cultural organs and elite institutions but whose political ascendancy is somewhat tenuous. Like the dictator, it will want signals of loyalty (both for determining loyalties and because of general ingroup/outgroup dynamics.) But because it’s not a single dictator, the signal can’t just be “the Generalissimo is awesome.” Instead, the shibboleth would be particular statements, or articles of faith, that are known to be supported by the ruling class.

Of course, making the shibboleth a mathematical axiom would be pointless; if nothing else, non-loyal mathematicians would be misperceived as loyal elites. The signal must be costly. So the articles of faith must be faintly ridiculous; easily challengeable on the facts, so that only people really devoted would at first make those claims. (Of course they can’t be obviously false either, else the integrity of the ruling class would also be called into question.)

Like cults of personality, there is a ratchet effect. As the elite becomes more entrenched, the shibboleths, while never changing in form (too costly to coordinate), will ever increase in intensity and audaciousness. And the enforcement of the party line will be strongest in educational institutions where the future members of the elite class are trained. It would be considered a matter of proper education – like the finishing schools of old – when “politically incorrect” thoughts in these institutions are mercilessly squelched.
Continuing AC's analysis of political correctness, one notes the rhetorical viciousness with which people who are critical of said markers of virtue are often treated. The point being to preserve said markers as signs of virtue (which clearly they are not if merely contestable opinion: so having "wrong" opinions clearly has to be a character defect) as well as punishing, and seek to crowd out, dissent.

Continuing the extension of Xavier Marquez's original analysis, political correctness often involves overblown, or even contradictory, positions. (e.g. being in favour of high migration while being against new dams, power stations or releasing land for housing). Such signaling virtue by adherence to one-sided, overblown or even contradictory positions works in a similar way to the way cults of personalities work in Xavier Marquez’s analysis: by taking on the implicit cost one signals one’s membership of “Club Virtue”. Taking on AC’s point, it is also why one gets particularly intense forms of political correctness in certain milieus (e.g. academic departments). Not only is more effort, more cost, have to be taken on to differentiate and so to signal one’s virtue, the lack of internal challenge allows various considerations to be ignored: hence the intensifying effect.

So, instead of status through conspicuous consumption, you get status through conspicuous compassion or other forms of conspicuous virtue. It is not what one spends in money which counts, but what one accepts and undertakes in cognitive intensity: including willingness to discount contrary evidence and disparage those who offer it or otherwise have contrary perspectives.

(Partly related, Arnold Kling offers a comparison of two status systems -- it is obvious which one would be more prone to the above pattern.)

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