23 July 2017

Romanticism

I've been saying for a while that Triratna, like many modern Buddhist organisations, is as much a Romantic organisation as it is a Buddhist one. A lot of people have no problem with that. Romanticism is seen as a way to the "Truth". The Romantic poets, especially—despite being a bunch of degenerates—are seen to express some kind of "higher" truth in their poems. There is a religious belief in a "higher reality", a "transcendental reality", over and above the reality we normally interact with. And Buddhists are supposed to seek this reality.

Romanticism values emotion over intellect. As an ideology and methodology, it seeks truth and reality in feelings and imagination, rather than in reason and analysis. Reason and analytical modes of thought are suspect at best. Intellectuals are suspect, except where they embrace mysticism.

I've been listening to a documentary on truth on the BBC Radio 4, and this occurs to me... President Trump is the apotheosis of the Romantic valorization of emotion over intellect. He has become the god of Romanticism. That's the problem with Romanticism in a nutshell. We live in an age where the manipulation of emotions is achieved with precision (ironically) on a vast scale that the despots of earlier centuries could only dream of. The masses feel what they are *told* to feel by the media, and what they think follows.

Because there is a deeper irony. Reason itself depends on emotion. While we assess the accuracy of facts using rationality, the value placed on facts is encoded as emotional responses. We decide on the basis of the strongest emotions. But then having decided, we use the reasoning part of our brains to produce reasons to support our decision. It is always this way around for everyone.

Thus, the way to take over is not to have the best facts or the most facts. It is to sway the emotions of the people. Once swayed, they will produce their own justifications. One doesn't need to give reasons.

Some may doubt this, but I would say look at big budget advertising. In my lifetime these ads have gone from information rich to information poor. Advertising a car, for example, is all about *image* now. It's all about how the consumer feels about the product. Ads seek to manipulate how we feel about products. Because if we feel disposed, we will produce our own reasons.

Those of us working with old models of rationality, look on and scratch out heads. How can someone who is an obvious liar and cheat take the top job? The facts are all against him. He was helped by his opponent also being incredibly unpopular and widely perceived to be a liar. But Trump, quite consciously I believe, used his knowledge of the US electorate to manipulate how they felt about him. He did not need to supply reasons to vote for him. Having decided, on the basis of feelings, how to vote, voters come up with their own rationalisations.

Ironically, it is conservatives who have embraced this new understanding and manage to exploit it most successfully. Liberals still tend to believe that arguments are won by people with the best facts. So politically, it is conservatives who are aligned with Romanticism, and liberals who are the rationalists. I'm not sure why this is.

In the battle for hearts and minds, we can safely ignore the minds. We just have to win hearts, because of the way they work together. Where hearts go, minds follow. And the opposite doesn't work.

It goes against the grain for me, because I value rationality very highly. But I've watched so many rationalists utterly fail to win arguments, that I have to accept the truth of this proposition. Until liberal politicians get this, they'll always be weak compared to conservatives. And people like Trump will worm their way into positions of power.

We all need a radical shift in perspective on how these things work. A rationalist utopia will never exist. But a Romantic nightmare, like we have now, is not inevitable.

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