Challenge Extremism by Raising the Bell Curve

Hi Pascal and friends!

This post is a set-up for the following one which will be a challenge to atheists, christians and everyone in between.

I often mention my desire to make the bell curve taller. Some may understand that intuitively while others may benefit from a bit of an explanation. I’ll try not to let this get too dry for too long. 🙂

A bell curve is a statistical model that can be representative of most sets of sufficient complexity and size, be it a set of heights in a population, grades on a mid-term in English class, or political ideologies. If you’ve had statistical training you’ll be thinking of standard deviations from the mean, but the specifics of that terminology are more advanced than we need for this illustration. What we’re focusing on is the ends of the curve (at the tails or the poles – “polarization”) which represent the less common entities in the set being modeled – the outliers, the extremes. When we talk about extremism, this is literally what we mean. Here’s an example of a bell curve…

bell_curve

The existence of extremes is a statistical certainty in most types of data of sufficient size. In things like height or grades, there’s little or no harm to the population as a whole due to the presence of the extremes. In things like world-views, political ideologies, or most germane to this topic, religious ideologies where a percentage of the population believes a divine agent wants them to act a certain way towards the general population – extremism can be very bad for humanity. It can quickly lead to impassioned conflict, loss of dignity, injustice, inequality, violence, war, and death. Gone are the days when the most harm a person with extreme views could do is the actions he or she could perform under his or her own power. Today we have unlocked many powers in nature (biological and atomic to name a few) that can greatly augment an extremist’s ability to affect a wide percentage of the population as their views dictate. This is one of the greatest threats to humanity today and in the foreseeable future.

But aren’t differences in opinion inevitable? Yes, but there is a difference between a disagreement and an extreme disagreement. That’s when those standard deviations from the mean are relevant. I’ll skip that and just say that some topics lead to wider bell-curves than others. Consider legalizing marijuana vs abortion rights. Also, in reality the threshold between healthy argument and extreme disagreement is often much more fuzzy when it comes to ideological issues.

So who decides what’s an “extreme view”? We each do. We believe things that, given our experience and way of reasoning, we think are most rational. Therefore, when we evaluate the beliefs of others, we tend to place ourselves in the middle of the bell curve and place their views somewhere in relationship to ours at the middle. What I see as extreme, you may not, and vice versa.

Sometimes this tendency to compare other’s beliefs to our own “right ones” leads us to place theirs at a wrong place on the curve. For example, if you’re an LGBT-equality proponent and you hear that Pascal is a Christian from the south, that may lead you to wrongly assume he’s anti-LGBT rights (thus holding a potentially extreme view in your opinion). Similarly, if you’re a believer, there may be some beliefs you think I hold that, to you, may border on extreme. If I admit that I’m an atheist you may naturally think I believe that God does not exist (I do not think that). That assumption may force you, consciously or subconsciously, to place me into an area of the bell curve concerning “how we got here” or “why we exist” that is “extreme” in your view (given Romans 1:19-21). Such cases are often the result of a misunderstanding based on the frequent reliance upon assumptions when information is lacking. Assumptions are often necessary, but we should remember to recognize assumptions and hold them in low confidence, since they can easily be false – driving a wedge between us unnecessarily.

The further tendency to draw lines around those we see as different from us in some vital way and then to view them as less (less logical, rational, moral, compassionate, educated, etc. – less fully human) is really an “us vs them” survival mechanism to help us justify using means we normally object to (e.g. hatred and/or violence) to dominate what we rationalize as a “lesser being.” Seeing others as sub-human is how we justify wars and every other injustice. There is a tool we can use to fight these tendencies, and Pascal wields it well.

So what can we do? We can follow Pascal’s example of making an effort to understand our opponents. Pascal and I have long realized and embraced the lesson from Ender’s Game that knowing your enemies makes them your enemies no more (knowledge often turns into compassion and love). I tend to think in sweeping mathematical abstractions, so I summarize all this as “making the bell curve taller” or “raising the bell curve.”

Making the bell curve taller (a buffer against extremism and a bridge to understanding and love)

raise_the_bell_curve

What does it mean to make the bell curve taller? It allows actual information directly from another person to supplant the often faulty assumptions we’ve made. It also lets people connect, relate to one another, empathize, de-propagandize, and generally care about another person, which makes them seem less extreme to you and you to them. It humanizes our opponents and breaks down the stereotypes our monkey-brain erects for our protection. It involves individuals investing time and interest into the concerns of other individuals with whom they have a fundamental disagreement, to the point that they can understand that person deeply enough that they respect them, despite their differing opinions.

The more often this happens in the society, the fewer people on average are assumed to belong (and over time, the fewer actually do belong) in the extreme ends, or tails, of the bell curve. As people see their former ideological enemies as fellow humans worthy of respect, the society begins to move in towards the mean (the center, tall part of the curve) but the number of people under the curve doesn’t change. As a results, the curve gets narrower and taller. That’s raising the bell curve (see the image I just made above).

It’s depolarizing humanity (at least the ideological extremes of humanity) to safer levels that are more conducive to peace and shared concern. It’s “bearing one another’s burdens,” “knowing them by their fruits,” “loving your neighbor as yourself,” and other such commands, but it transcends religious ties.

Question

It’s likely that there are many specific ways to raise the bell curves in our respective cultures. Do you have any suggestions we can try which will unite hearts across spanning ideological distances?

I want to highlight one approach to honor Pascal’s efforts with me which led to the eventual formation of this blog. I’ll do that in the form of a direct challenge to myself and to you in my next post. Stay tuned…

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

16 comments

  1. Semantics, I think, is an issue. We concern ourselves more with the words people use than with the meaning behind them. If I refuse to talk to you because you use words like “faith” and “religion” and I prefer words like “confidence” and “spirituality,” we may miss the fact that at the heart of us we’re talking about similar things in different ways (not always, but more often than we realize). Also, in the opposite direction, when we gentrify racism by calling it “racialism” or “race relations,” or homophobia by calling it “gender politics,” we numb ourselves to the reality of what’s actually being said.

    We have to learn to hear people, not words. Much as “I says what I means and I means what I says” is a catchy line, it’s very rarely the case, I find.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I think you’re right, Vance. I was listening to someone talk about politics the other day and they pointed out how often we talk about ideology and how little we talk about actual policy. I knew this, but having someone state it so plainly was excellent.

      Politics, religion, whatever, I’ve always found that people are much more similar when we start talking about day to day realities than whenever we talk about our labels or ideologies. At the edges of the bell curve, we are dehumanizing ‘others’.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. A quote from one of my favorite Buddhists, Thich Nhat Hanh:

        When we hate someone, we are angry at him because we do not understand him or his environment. By practicing deep looking, we realize that is we grew up like him, in his set of circumstances and having lived in his environment, we would be just like him. That kind of understanding removes your anger, removes your discrimination, and suddenly that person is no longer your enemy.

        Imagine where our politics would be (or our religion, or society, or whatever) if we could figure that one out…

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m replying from the last day of our trip. We’re in Jerusalem. Just five days ago I was on the Golan Heights when the rapport of a shell caught my attention and a cloud of smoke rose from the Syrian town visible a few miles across the border. I mention that because you tagged ISIS in the post and I know how much it moves you.

    Russell — this is you. This sentiment to respect, not tolerate, the other is you. I want to continue working with you on this well articulated goal of raising the curve. I know that our love for each other is a choice and one we make freely and with joy. Our friendship, however, is more difficult as we are wired very differently. Thank you for writing in my language in this post. We agree on something.

    Keep writing — I look forward to part two. I have much digesting to do before I’m ready to share or even realize what I’ve learned. Our readers who follow Christ need the topography of this post and your thoughts to start laying down assumptions.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I continue to struggle with this simplistic “Bell Curve” because historically we only need go back 70 years to see that many extremes become mainstream because they appeal to emotional and ideological need. Hitler, Stalin, Amin, Sadam, Gadaffi I could list many more through history.
    It is not a simple question with a moderate response. I recently watched part of the Enders Game; the premise begins in the wrong place for it to be more than a total leap of faith. Extremist views are not resolved by all becoming tolerant and understanding, nor are they resolved by Governments – by labeling extreme views the individual immediately offers reasons for not following therefore the respect you call for isn’t possible.
    Knowledge and understanding do not remove fear or prejudice in some cases they heighten the lengths people are prepared to go to in fighting those views.
    We need to begin with – see the person, the individual and look at it from how would I like them to treat me – I’ll treat them that way first! Profound ideology underpinning society limits potential nurturing grounds for extremes.
    Sorry to disagree however I did really enjoy the read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome trotter387!

      Thank you for the comment. I’m very interested in any potential disagreement so I can learn and improve my approach. Fortunately, I didn’t see anything in your comment that actually disagrees with the way I think. Your concerns seem to be legitimate but focused on fears about ideas I might be promoting rather than what I’m actually intending to promote. I believe this is due to my quickly and poorly written post that didn’t spell out enough details to assuage your fears here. I’ll try to quickly address the ones you outlined here (playing with my little girls so this will be quick – please forgive typos). 🙂

      I continue to struggle with this simplistic “Bell Curve” because historically we only need go back 70 years to see that many extremes become mainstream because they appeal to emotional and ideological need. Hitler, Stalin, Amin, Sadam, Gadaffi I could list many more through history.

      Excellent points and I agree. Yes, the bell curve idea is overly simplistic when I try to explain it like this (my first attempt). I pointed out that I tend to think in mathematical abstractions so the bell curve is just an idea that comes to mind that I thought was worth explaining since I’ve mentioned “raising the bell curve” before. As you point out here extremes do sometimes become mainstream. This is not something I haven’t considered and it isn’t a concern, as I see it, to the “raising the bell curve” analogy. Raising the curve doesn’t address a “shifting” of the overall curve in one direction or that other, which is what your talking about. That is very much relevant with intra-set or intra-culture relationships. With progress, however, I believe the curves tend to shift to a more “just” direction in the long run on average with most cultures (making the differences between them less), but they do shift. Yes, a culture can shift towards extremism as viewed by another culture (extreme – as we see it – religious doctrine undergirding a culture is one example) and I gave a nod to that when describing that we all decide what is extreme. There are many common threads in humanity at large, though, and those tend to be a moderating force on most cultures over time (though there are ideological needs that pull against them which we both acknowledge).

      It is not a simple question with a moderate response.

      Of course, I agree. The question is not whether a moderate response will solve “all” problems, but whether or not we fear things we don’t understand (we do), and whether or not getting to know someone in an earnest attempt to connect with and understand them will help, on average, with dispelling at least some of those fears (it will).

      I recently watched part of the Enders Game; the premise begins in the wrong place for it to be more than a total leap of faith.

      I was talking about an in-Ender’s-head narration in the book that did not occur in the movie. In the next book (and all future books in the series that follows Ender) you’ll find an individual who greatly struggled with his action because he forced to fight someone he loved – without his knowledge since he believed he was fighting a simulation of the real battle rather than the actual battle (they set it up that way, and the book was about children partially so the warriors wouldn’t hold back due to how they felt about the enemy, because they wouldn’t know it was real). This whole underlying theme of “knowledge of what you fear potentially turning into love when you understand it” seemed somewhat central to the storyline but it was left out of the movie altogether. So that point in my post was less clear than it should have been. 🙂

      Extremist views are not resolved by all becoming tolerant and understanding,

      We agree that “all” and possibly even “most” extremist views are not likely to be resolved that way. And I think you probably understand that I wasn’t implying such. If you look at the bell curve image I sketched you see that the taller one still has tails. It still has extremes, but just fewer people in them. It will help make “some” people becoming more tolerant and understanding.

      nor are they resolved by Governments – by labeling extreme views the individual immediately offers reasons for not following therefore the respect you call for isn’t possible.

      Governments are a collection of individuals, but labels do often make things harder. But they can also give us something to focus our attention on in a positive way. I do think respect is possible for those who are labeled extreme for the precise reason that is very well summed up in the quote Toad commented above. That monk and I came to the same conclusion independently, and I believe many others have as well. We can respect people who disagree, even when they have what we see as extreme views, because we can realize that if we were born in their circumstances (environment and DNA), we have no compelling reason to believe that our views would be any different than theirs. We would want respect and want people to understand us if we were them. And to them, we do seem extreme, but still we want them to get to know us and understand why our “extreme-sounding views” (to them) are, nonetheless, rational and legitimate to us, and worthy of respect in some sense even though they disagree. If they believe you hold extreme views (due to the space between the two of you on the bell curve), yet managed to see you as a different version of their potential self due to something they couldn’t control (their birth environment), then they may still be able to get to know you and respect you. My point is that it’s likely, on average, that if they did get to know and understand you with the right heart then wouldn’t be so feared – so “less” and so worthy of extreme prejudice and unworthy of respect. It’s natural to fear and diminish our ideological opponents because it helps us increase our confidence in the rightness our our worldview and our own ego. It’s unnatural to recognize that and willingly push it aside in order to build relationships that help all of humanity by embracing someone who seems, at first, to be an enemy. Then we often find we aren’t enemies, but different harmonic strands of the human experience who share the same fears, desires and responses to those emotions in most cases.

      Knowledge and understanding do not remove fear or prejudice in some cases they heighten the lengths people are prepared to go to in fighting those views.

      It depends on the knowledge and understanding you’re talking about. My argument is all focused on genuinely getting to know someone by spending time just with them, and doing so with the right heart. Much of today’s “knowledge” comes from sources that are not “the person with extreme views you’re trying to learn about.” If we learn about people and their views from media, for example, who’s goal is unfortunately through history, often to propagandize in order to justify an otherwise unjust action towards those with extreme views, then our fears and prejudices “will” be heightened. However, if we genuinely want to understand someone and see ourselves in them (as we want them to do with us) and meet with them to develop and friendship and eventually a genuine understanding of their views and why they came to them (rationally to them), I argue that we will, on average, drop more fears and prejudices than we pick up. I suspect you agree. That’s all I mean by raising the curve.

      We need to begin with – see the person, the individual and look at it from how would I like them to treat me – I’ll treat them that way first! Profound ideology underpinning society limits potential nurturing grounds for extremes.

      Exactly! And that’s what I’m promoting when I suggested meeting with individuals with whom we strongly disagree with this heart in mind. It’s also why I mentioned some Bible lessons that underpin all this, as you say. I said it transcends religions because its in the enlightened self-interest of any society to actively moderate the extremes contained in its borders. Some of this may be cleared up a bit more when I list the specific challenge in the next post. I wrote it before I wrote the last one and I’ll post it this weekend.

      Sorry to disagree however I did really enjoy the read.

      I don’t really sense any disagreements between us on this, more than misunderstandings of my intent due to my incomplete or poor writing. But I hope you’ll illuminate any perspective you hold that is still in opposition.

      Thank you, again, for your comment! Time to play…

      Gentleness and respect,
      –Russell

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for the comprehensive response and agreed there was a misunderstanding because we start at different places. My background includes hard economics and social economics but theological economics is an interesting concept creating a methodology that measures variables against a constant is the logical process of conversion and developing faith. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

        Liked by 3 people

  4. This post perfectly expresses the main reason I don’t care about deconverting others, but do care about destigmatizing atheism and protecting religious freedom that genuinely extends to all religions (and forms of non-religion). I’m never going to get everyone to agree with me, but I can make the middle of the bell curve a safer place to be. These days the most extreme voices tend to be the loudest, which can make people in the center feel attacked on all sides. Sometimes it is comforting to be on the fringe, where it feels like at least somebody is solidly, passionately on your team. Moderation, cooperation and reason can be harder to rally behind, which is one of the reasons this blog is so important.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. How to raise the Bell curve: communication as action. Direct communication actions of talking listening, doing, performing, creating to express our values as tangible actions and dynamics within our environments. A simple conversation is a practice of exchanging ideas, opinion and interpretations of values that allows to negotiate a common understanding leading to engaged and shared (or communal) problem solving and prevents misunderstandings arising leading to conflicts (or polarisation) Art is a dynamic language which facilitates such communication. Communication for which we are so incredibly equipped with our 5 senses of vision, smell, taste, touch and hearing we can perceive and through how we express the experience- shape a communal understanding (not knowledge-but understanding) which embraces diversity and uniqueness as the energy driving life. Communication of ‘care’ as an active language focusing on providing and keeping others safe, and placing more value on helping others than ‘taking’ for oneself can be encouraged and practiced by everyone in the smallest gesture..the ripple effects tune into the energy of possibility through diversity of expressions and increase and raise the Bell curve…
    a la ‘first law of thermodynamics: the law of conservation of energy: energy can neither be created or destroyed only converted…

    Liked by 2 people

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