Robert Wright is a former senior editor at The New Republic, and he currently hosts The Wright Show. He’s also the author of several bestselling books on evolution and society. His latest book Is Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.
Behind Bob’s Mindful Resistance Newsletter [0:00]
Tribal tweets and popularity [5:28]
Evaluating Heterodox Academy [16:00]
The Google Memo [21:40]
The intellectual dark web/Evolutionary psychology [25:25]
Bob’s near-term plans [31:45]
Mindfulness and De-Biasing Oneself [37:46]
This is a professional transcript but it may contain errors. Please listen to the full episode to verify its accuracy before quoting this transcript.
Robert Wright: Well, it’s pretty clear. You don’t have to be an academic to know that it’s easier to get a big Twitter following by being part of the problem than being part of the solution. I mean if the problem is tribalism, right? And it’s a very hard temptation to avoid. For one thing, you have to settle for not building up a following very fast. If you’re going to really systematically avoid the temptation to cater to the tribalism and I don’t always succeed. I mean my impulse is always – I have very tribal impulses and I don’t always succeed in transcending them. But it is a real problem in America that for both of the main tribes, if you want to see it as kind of binary, pro-Trump and anti-Trump, the way to attain status within your group is to deepen antagonisms with the other group by and large and that’s a pretty unfortunate incentive structure.
This is a professional transcript but it may contain errors. Please listen to the episode before quoting it.
Chris Martin: Thanks for listening to The Half Hour of Heterodoxy podcast. I’m Chris Martin. My guest today is Robert Wright. He’s a former senior editor at The New Republic and he currently hosts The Wright Show. He’s also the author of several bestselling books on evolution and society. His latest book is Why Buddhism is True. Hi Bob.
Robert Wright: Hi Chris.
Chris Martin: Thanks for joining us on the show. One little bit of trivia is that Bloggingheads and the Wright Show, your show in particular, were partly the inspiration for Half Hour of Heterodoxy.
Robert Wright: Oh, really?
Chris Martin: Yeah, it started out as a video podcast with Skype with two people talking and then we decided after a few episodes to go to audio only. But I’m indebted to you for that.
Robert Wright: And I get royalties too, right?
Chris Martin: Yeah, yeah, royalties should be in the mail.
Robert Wright: Yeah, I will check.
Chris Martin: Yeah. Maybe you could plug your book later and still could get in direct royalties through that.
Robert Wright: OK. We will call it even.
Chris Martin: OK. Anyway, I thought we would start by talking about the Mindful Resistance newsletter because that combines two of your interests, one of which is tribalism and the other is mindfulness. So tell me a bit about this newsletter, what made you think of starting it and how it has worked out so far.
Robert Wright: Yeah. So I guess – I mean first of all, I had written this book. I might as well get the plug out of the way right away. I had written this book called Why Buddhism is True, which is about the kind of naturalistic part of Buddhism, sometimes called the secular part with an emphasis on mindfulness meditation. So I was talking about mindfulness. This is as of like August of last year the book came out and meanwhile, I was reaching the opinion that what’s called the resistance against Trump and Trumpism is sometimes a little bit overwrought and a little too reactive and not reflective enough and sometimes plays into Trump’s hands and it seemed to me that a more mindful approach would be good and by mindful, I mean both mindfulness in the sense of mindfulness meditation.
We can talk about that later, if you want, but also just in the plain English sense of the word “mindful,” in other words proceeding attentively. You know, calmly we do consideration of all relevant factors and so on. It just seemed to me that that wasn’t really happening with the resistance to Trump.
So I wrote a piece for Vox about kind of unveiling the phrase “mindful resistance” and recommending it as an approach. I had actually I guess already started the newsletter at that point. But it didn’t have that big of a following at that point and I’ve been talking about it since then. We’ve been coming up pretty much every week for nine months. We’re taking a little summer break now. But the subscription is growing. We have 8500 email subscribers now and I continue to believe in the cause.
Chris Martin: Yes, I started subscribing to it at about a month and a half ago. So I didn’t get the very early issues. But from the issues I did get, it seems like it’s a dispassionate look at primarily Trump-related scandals. Is that a fair way to put it right now?
Robert Wright: I wouldn’t say that, no. I wouldn’t say that. I mean I would say – well, there’s a section at the beginning called “The Week in Trump” and we do feel compelled to at least touch on the most important scandals. But even that section is much more than that and we try to include things that are being kind of overlooked that we think are important.
I mean for example, just last week, we had an item on the election in Italy because that brought to power or the forming of the coalition government in Italy. That brought to power the most kind of Trumpist coalition in Western Europe, the conceivable exception of Austria but this is certainly more important than that in any event and that got a little press. But most people in the so-called resistance were paying a lot more attention to other things including scandals as you put it.
So it’s an attempt – the newsletter, it is supposed to be fairly dispassionate to the extent that’s possible and it’s supposed to get people to focus on things they may be overlooking. Then occasionally – I mean periodically – and I haven’t done enough of this. There’s actual kind of commentary from the – from a mindful point of view on events, how they’re being processed.
I think we want to do more than that and one reason we’re taking some time off in the summer is to kind of recalibrate and figure out what things we can do better and I definitely believe that that’s one of them is to have more kind of overt mindfulness in there.
Chris Martin: I agree with the issue of having some overt mindfulness in our politics. I’ve seen some research. I think it was by Zeynep Tufecki about how social movements nowadays may chase small issues and forget about them and chase another set of small issues based on what’s hot in the new cycle and I was very appreciative of the Mindful Resistance newsletter because I think that – at least a little, it moves us away from that. I know you’ve talked to some people lately about Twitter and how – the way to get a lot of Twitter followers. I believe it was an academic at Yale.
Robert Wright: Yeah.
Chris Martin: About the way to get a lot of Twitter followers is to –
Robert Wright: Well, it’s pretty clear. You don’t have to be an academic to know that it’s easier to get a big Twitter following by being part of the problem and being part of the solution. I mean if the problem is tribalism, right? And it’s a very hard temptation to avoid. For one thing, you have to settle for not building up a following very fast. If you’re going to really systematically avoid the temptation to cater to the tribalism and I don’t always succeed. I mean my impulse is always – I have very tribal impulses and I don’t always succeed in transcending them. But it is a real problem in America that for – you know, for both of the main tribes, if you want to see it as kind of binary, pro-Trump and anti-Trump, the way to attain status within your group is to deepen antagonisms with the other group by and large and that’s a pretty unfortunate incentive structure.
Chris Martin: Yeah. I think maybe the “Never Trump” movement has eroded that to some degree. They do have a lot of admiration for people on the “Never Trump” movement.
Robert Wright: I mean have they really?
Chris Martin: I feel like maybe they have. I mean they’ve taken the risk.
Robert Wright: Would you say that Bill Kristol and David Frum are not tweeting tribally?
Chris Martin: That’s a good question. I mean they are tweeting tribally. Yeah, I guess you’re right.
Robert Wright: Yeah, very, very much, very expertly and they’re building up huge followings.
Chris Martin: That is true. So on your show, on the Wright Show, you interviewed people who were pretty far left and pretty far right. How do you engage with people all across the political spectrum?
Robert Wright: Well, for one thing, I should avoid talking about them the way I just talked about David Frum and Bill Kristol and maybe David won’t come on my show anymore. I didn’t mean to be that – he’s no different than anyone else on Twitter. I’m just saying I don’t see him as a kind of exception.
But anyway, the answer is – I mean first of all, Bloggingheads.tv began in a context of debate. I mean our first – from the beginning and we’ve been around since 2005. You know, we would arrange conversations between bloggers often, but journalists usually in any event.
Often who would criticize one another pretty intensely in print and sometimes had never spoken to each other and one thing we found is that when they had a face to face conversation – I mean actually with the technology we were using in, they couldn’t actually see each other. But they were having a real time kind of phone conversation more or less and we found that that had a civilizing influence, that it’s a lot easier to write nasty things about other people than to say nasty things to their face.
So that has been kind of in our DNA from the beginning. We haven’t consistently done a very robust job of arranging these kinds of out and out debates. But we’ve tried to do it intermittently and I myself, on my how, the Wright Show, I certainly have tried to stay in touch with people from diverse viewpoints and I plan to start trying harder now that tribalism is such a clear problem and such as well-known problem.
I want to – I tried to have a number of Trump supporters on but I haven’t had [0:10:00] enough and I want to have more and more people from more and more perspectives.
As for how you do it – was that part of your question? Like –
Chris Martin: Yeah, just how do you maintain connections with people across the spectrum and –
Robert Wright: Well, I mean we treat them respectfully. You know, and sometimes if you help them promote their books, that helps and I had them on when they’ve got books that come out. They appreciate that. But I find if you treat them honestly and respectfully and don’t obscure your disagreements with them, but don’t engage them at an honest and intellectual level. Don’t – if you don’t spend the conversation trying to arrange got-you moments and do effective talking points but actually engage with the core of their arguments, I find that people are usually appreciative of that.
Not that I always succeed at that. Yeah, I have the same temptation to prevail and debate as anyone else and often the way you prevail and debate is cheaply, right? I mean in terms of just carrying the audience, a lot of times the way to do that is to not engage at the deepest intellectual level.
Chris Martin: Well, you can see that on television.
Robert Wright: Oh, totally, and you see it when you’re in front of a live audience where there are partisans in the audience on one or both sides. It can be very frustrating. I mean I had – I mean why not name names? I did a live event with Lawrence Krauss. I have a history of disagreements with the new atheists, not over the theism question, but over other questions.
It was in New York and it was – he had a lot of fans in the crowd and it was very frustrating because – and I kind of lost my cool. If anybody wants to go with that, it’s there on MeaningofLife.tv which is the sister site of Bloggingheads.tv and there’s also a YouTube channel.
So if you Google our names and find – I kind of probably didn’t handle myself that well because it was so frustrating because I was really trying to have a serious argument with him about this argument of his. But having that argument was not the way for him to maximize the amount of positive reinforcement he got from the crowd.
Chris Martin: So what sort of things was he saying?
Robert Wright: Oh, just his standard – I don’t remember that clearly. People can go watch it but certainly it included the standard dismissals of – I don’t want to characterize it. It’s – or for one thing I mean it seemed to me he was kind of filibustering a little because it was going well for him because he was in front of a home crowd. But anyway, people want to see me arguably lose my cool in a regrettable way. It’s out there and – but, you know, I – I’m sure if I had been in front of a bunch of people who were just really ardently on my side in an emotional way, I might have succumbed to the temptation too, to just do talking points.
But that’s the environment we’re all in now. Talking points work on Twitter.
Chris Martin: Right. Well, if you’re trying to monetize your Twitter feed or monetize –
Robert Wright: Or just maximize your following, which we all would like to do, right? We would all like to build a big following and all the incentives are just to do cheap talking points. I mean I don’t want to overgeneralize there but – make it sound any worse than this, but certainly a tried and true formula is to do cheap talking points.
Chris Martin: Yeah. Maybe more people should take up stand-up comedy as a hobby, so they can get that out of their system on a stage.
Robert Wright: Yeah.
Chris Martin: Be more serious when they do shows or interviews. But the reason I bring this up is that I struggle with the issue of both sides. I only struggle with the issue of lies and how to deal with the fact that people are telling lies now.
My podcast has only been running for a short amount of time. So this has nothing to do with the podcast and the guests I have. But when it comes to political debate, I feel like there’s propaganda out there and sometimes you directly need to say that’s propaganda or those are false heads and they were constructed by someone. But it’s very hard to respectfully say to someone, “Look, I know you’re lying.”
Robert Wright: Well, you know what? I almost always avoid the word “lie” because for one thing, it’s almost impossible to confirm that someone is lying. I mean to lie means to knowingly and intentionally deceive and like even with Donald Trump.
I mean I honestly don’t know what’s going on in his head. I don’t know how often he is consciously aware at the moment he’s saying something untrue, that it’s untrue. It’s a mystery to me. In any event, it’s hard to confirm with certainty.
So I avoid that term and in fact one of my critiques of the resistance is how loosely it has used the term “lie” because I think that just galvanizes his base, becomes a grievance of his.
So anyway, I know that’s kind of a digression. But I think you should certainly call out things that are demonstrably untrue and say they’re demonstrably untrue.
But I try to avoid the word “lie” and that partly reflects just kind of cynical view of the human mind. I think we very often do mislead ourselves in order to mislead others better. I think often we deceive people tactically and yet not consciously.
Chris Martin: I think that’s true. I think some of Jonathan Haidt’s research really shows that. Anyway, I also wanted to talk about – speaking of Jon Haidt, I wanted to talk about Heterodox Academy. I don’t know much you know about Heterodox Academy. I know you work with Glenn Loury who’s a member and he has been on the show and you recently interviewed Musa Al-Gharbi, who is one of the researchers who works for us as well.
So there are some connections there. But based on what you’ve heard, what’s your opinion of the work we’re doing?
Robert Wright: I don’t know that much and I need to get a better sense of it because when I first heard about it, it seemed like pretty much a right-wing endeavor.
I mean, you know, at least in the sense that its declared enemy seemed to be social justice warriors and they’re on the left. I think both Glenn and Musa – I don’t have an exhaustive understanding of their ideologies. But both of them probably complicate that picture in one sense or another. So I’m still trying to get a fix on it.
I mean I’m sure it’s – I know it’s declared ideology. It’s not conservatism. It is – I gather. You tell me. But free unbridled speech without fear of censorship or physical assault, all of which I’m in favor of.
Chris Martin: The way I would put it is that we’re trying to introduce – well, we’re trying to increase the degree to which people respectfully engage with people across the political spectrum and the religious and cultural spectrum and I think we definitely gave people the impression that we were right-leaning when we started out because we were – especially at our first year quite critical of social justice warrior types. I don’t really like that term but people who are engaging in protests and lately we’ve been more – well, we’ve been spending more time working on resources, so just promoting schools that are doing a good job of promoting viewpoint diversity and promoting healthy dialogue and that sort of thing.
Robert Wright: I mean I will tell you. One thing early on that gave me the impression it was right wing and – I wish I could remember exactly what this was. It was a semi-official blog post, OK? It was definitely by someone associated with Heterodox Academy and it listed specific issues that should – the discussion of which should not be constrained. One of them was IQ and race or the genetics of IQ and race. There was no mention of gender differences, which struck me as odd because from a Darwinian point of view, there’s much more clear-cut reason to expect specific gender differences, especially in their own sexual psychology than there is to expect any particular specific racial differences that would have a genetic difference.
So I thought that was odd and reinforced my initial impression that it was right wing.
Chris Martin: Yeah. I don’t recall the specific blog post in question. I know we did have a page called “The Problem”. We still have that – we have new information there now where we talked about some orthodoxies that are difficult to question.
So in one version of that page, we may have mentioned that. Yeah, I think if there’s a reason we didn’t talk about sex and IQ or gender and IQ is that most of the recent research suggests that the averages are pretty much the same. It’s the variances that defer. So I don’t really know of anyone right now.
Robert Wright: Oh, no. But no, in certain realms, that’s – I think any evolutionary – I mean I think you’re talking about things like aptitude scores in math or [0:20:00] English. I’m talking about sexual psychology, nature of jealousy, mate choice. The differences you would predict – by mate choice, I don’t mean the gender of the mate. I mean more subtle things.
But there are very clear-cut predictions from Darwinian Theory that seemed to be borne out by the evidence.
Chris Martin: Right. Well, after the James Damore debacle, we did publish a couple of posts revealing the research on a few cognitive differences or lack thereof. We never really published anything about mate choice. I mean that’s a really interesting field. I think we certainly have quite a few members who do evolutionary psychology because they’ve had to deal with the issue of being criticized for – they get criticized for being not sufficiently feminist or redefining gender differences that are socially – allegedly socially constructed.
So I think we’ve continuously attracted people who do evolutionary psychology. Maybe I should interview someone on the show in the near future talk about what we currently know about differences and similarities.
Robert Wright: Well, you probably have some members who are – I mean are Leda Cosmides and John Tooby in the Heterodox Academy? Maybe not, maybe not.
Chris Martin: I think Leda is a member. I’m not sure about John Tooby. David Buss is a member. I think some of the people who have worked in his labs are – or his lab rather are members.
Robert Wright: Yeah. The Google Memo thing was interesting. When you call it a debacle, you mean in what sense? From?
Chris Martin: Well, I think in the sense that – I mean from a PR perspective, I think what Google did made sense. But I think it was a debacle because Google repeated the falsehood that the latest science shows there are no meaningful sex differences. I feel like that was implied in some of their response and maybe from a PR perspective, he had to do that.
But I feel like they didn’t necessarily have to fire James Damore. I mean I don’t think Damore was – you know, put things in the most polite way, should have expressed what he was trying to express differently. But at the same time, I think it could have been a “teachable” moment for Google and they could have had some evolutionary psychologist come and talk about what we know about gender differences and gender similarities.
Robert Wright: Yeah. But see, one thing that bothered me about the way the whole thing played out is the way evolutionary psychology was associated with it. When in fact the kinds of gender differences he was talk about in the memo, at least many of them, they may have an empirical grounding. I don’t know. I mean I haven’t looked up the data. But they are not particularly predicted by Darwinian Theory.
So when he said things like, you know – I mean you tell me. Did he? I think he said things like, you know, women are more about people and men are more about things. There were a number of things he said that – that may be true but they’re not like clear-cut predictions from evolutionary theory and yet he – like I know David Brooks wrote about him and mentioned it, how evolutionary psychology confirms, you know, and the reason this bothers me is because evolutionary psychology is always getting accused of telling just so stories, right?
They see any kind of data and they come up with a story that would explain it in Darwinian terms and that’s the stereotype of evolutionary psychology and it seemed to me that – and, you know, I had even seen some evolutionary psychologists kind of embrace his memo in a way that I think leads to some of the confusion I’m talking about, because as I understand the things he said in the memo, these again are not, partly because they’re not primarily in the realm of sexual psychology.
A lot of them are not particularly predicted by Darwinian Theory. So that was my own personal reaction to some of that is that I just want people to not – I mean although I’ve just said that there are some gender differences that evolutionary psychology predicts, I want to be clear that it doesn’t clearly predict all the ones that survey data may seem to indicate.
Chris Martin: That’s true. I don’t think he was approaching it necessarily from an evolutionary point of view. I don’t know if there was anything in the memo about evolution per se.
Robert Wright: I think he – I believe he mentioned the term or maybe if not in the memo, subsequently. But in any event, it definitely came to be kind of associated with the memo and he was embraced I think by some evolutionary psychologists in part I think because they had taken flack when talking about certain gender differences that are more central to evolutionary psychology, which is an interesting dynamic, the whole – like the enemy of my enemy is my friend thing. You’re seeing that play out in a lot of ways now.
Chris Martin: Definitely.
Robert Wright: The intellectual dark web thing is a fascinating thing to observe.
Chris Martin: What’s your theory about the intellectual dark web? Do you think that’s even an appropriate term?
Robert Wright: Well, two words you can ask about – intellectual and dark. Dark is inappropriate because I don’t think many of them were having trouble getting a lot of attention. When you’re going on Joe Rogan’s podcast, you’re not exactly being marginalized.
Chris Martin: Yeah, that’s was my equivalent with the term too is that it’s not really dark in any way.
Robert Wright: They are to varying degrees intellectuals, I guess, the people that were listed in that piece. The – I actually had a couple of – I’ve had a couple of conversations on Bloggingheads with Bret Weinstein who is of course listed in that group and he’s an interesting case because he comes from the left. He’s a Bernie Sanders supporter. But he had a run-in with the group sometimes known as the social justice warriors at this college and so he has come to be allied in a certain sense with a number of people who aren’t in the left.
I mean most of the people listed as being in the intellectual dark web I would say are on the right. They make the case and Bret makes the case that there actually is no ideology characterizing the intellectual dark web. But I think there are reasons – it’s understandable that people on the left see it as basically a right-winged thing. I mean I can elaborate if you want. But that’s not a surprising reaction, especially in light of who it was who brought them the publicity, someone who clearly is on the right, Bari Weiss of New York Times, and you seem to want to highlight and mobilize this group.
Chris Martin: Right. I actually just interviewed Heather Heying for this show. In fact the next episode that we release is going to be her episode. She will be coming on a couple of weeks. She’s Bret Weinstein’s wife and –
Robert Wright: Right.
Chris Martin: I would definitely say given her concern with economic and equality, which is one of the things we talk about on the show, I would place her pretty squarely on the left as well. So I feel like sometimes it’s just hard to classify people because you can be tempted to use yourself as a reference and say, well, I defined the center. So if someone appears to be at the right of me or again there’s the enemy of the enemy is my friend issue where if you hear someone criticizing someone on the left, it just almost seems like there’s a system one processor or really an intuitive process in your head below the level of consciousness where you almost immediately want to classify any critique of the left as being on the right and vice versa.
Robert Wright: But also there is the dynamic where they can actually move to the right as a result of the conflict they’re having with the left because they are drawn in to an alliance that is largely on the right. I mean that can actually happen and it can happen in reverse too. It’s just an interesting dynamic of polarization.
Chris Martin: Well, that is. So jumping back to evolutionary psychology, when you were writing extensively about evolutionary psychology, did you ever get into trouble for saying anything about gender differences and – or anything related to that?
Robert Wright: Yeah, I did. I mean this was – my book The Moral Animal came out in the 1990s and 1994 and yeah, I got into trouble. But oddly, I think if I said exactly the same things now, I would get into even more trouble.
Chris Martin: Why do you think that thought?
Robert Wright: Because I think in some of these cases – you know, again, basic things about sexual psychology, mate choice, male heterosexuals being in a certain sense more indiscriminate about sex partners, more indiscriminately attracted and more aroused by sheerly visual cues even in the absence of kind of psychological context and so on. These things are pretty clearly predicted, these and other things. They’re borne out by the evidence and yet I think you – you know, you get into more trouble on the left now for saying them than you did in the ‘90s. Yeah, I mean I guess that’s what it’s a product of.
Chris Martin: Well, don’t you think that’s actually less surprising, given polarization in the country?
Robert Wright: [0:30:00] Yeah, I guess I – maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
Chris Martin: I mean I guess in one way it is surprising because there are more evolutionary psychologists now. There’s a good chance if you’re a 20-year-old in college, you will take into psych and there will be a chapter on evolutionary psychology in your book. So in a way, we are more informed about it but also more scandalized by it.
Robert Wright: Right. But this is also why I don’t want to see evolutionary psychology identified with the right and I see that a little bit of that happening as a result of some of the things I just discussed. I mean it becomes associated with the Google memo. The Google memo gets blowback from the left and so on.
Again, it doesn’t make sense for evolutionary psychology to be associated with all aspects of the Google memo. But I would rather – Peter Singer wrote a book, a short book arguing that there could and should be and to some extent is a Darwinian left and that’s my wife. I’m left to center in the Darwinian. So I am a little troubled by some of these – by some of the – because I feel I’ve worked pretty hard to exonerate Darwinism of charges that it was inherently right-wing.
Chris Martin: Yeah, and I can see the temptation to conflate the two things because of the naturalistic fallacy.
Robert Wright: That’s a big reason, yeah.
Chris Martin: So are you planning to write any more about evolution or are you planning to focus on tribalism and mindfulness in the near future?
Robert Wright: I want to focus on the tribalism problem in the near term because it afflicts so many things. I mean it afflicts American domestic politics. I think it has played a big role in more or less completely corrupting American foreign policy, which as far as I can tell is just an unmitigated disaster at this point.
Chris Martin: Do you feel like that’s because of tribalism or more specifically because of Donald Trump?
Robert Wright: Oh, I think it has been a disaster for much longer than Trump. I mean I would certainly take Obama over Trump. I would take some of the things Trump said during the campaign over what he has actually done in foreign policy. You know, he was talking a pretty non-interventionist line. But our foreign policy continues to be dominated by a kind of good-evil narrative. We decide who the evil person is and then we have to do whatever it takes to cause them maximum harm. If we decide however many years ago that Assad is evil and tyranny is bad, we arm a bunch of rebels, we and our allies, and turn what would have been a brutally suppressed insurrection and of course it’s regrettable that it would have been brutally suppressed. But it’s not as regrettable as what happened, which is hundreds of thousands of dead because we turned it into a civil war and millions of refugees and Donald Trump getting elected.
I don’t think he would get elected if we and our allies had not turned that into a civil war by arming the opposition. Even today, if you say what I just said, which could be wrong of course. I could be – it could turn out my analysis is wrong. But the point is that’s not the blowback you have to worry about if you say what I just said. You have to worry about people saying, “Oh, you’re an Assad apologist. Are you in favor of chemical weapons and stuff like that?”
That’s just tribal thinking. Psychologically that’s exactly what people in Heterodox Academy complained about receiving from the left.
Chris Martin: So do you think things truly were better in the 1970s and 1980s?
Robert Wright: Well, the Cold War was such a different context. I mean Vietnam was itself an epic blunder. So I’m not here to defend the American foreign policy in the early ‘70s.
You know, I mean we’ve – I think our foreign policy is – I think the foreign policy of countries in general has tended to exaggerate threats and over-respond to them. I think we did that then and we’re certainly doing it now. But I do think – I think our foreign policy is less – I think there are fewer realists in the foreign policy sense of that term in the foreign policy establishment than there used to be and I think that’s a bad thing. I mean you probably don’t want to get into what foreign policy realism is.
But it is – it’s among other things relatively un-swayed by emotional appeals.
Chris Martin: I was asking about foreign policy in the ’70s and ‘80s partly because I think of the ‘80s and the proxy wars and how that was a very polarizing issue. I didn’t live in the US then but from what I’ve read, it was a really – a very polarizing issue.
Robert Wright: Yeah, and that was an example of overreacting to a threat. You know, like as if some Central American country is going to – poses some grave threat to America.
Chris Martin: Yeah. So are you planning to do any research or any writing or like book length writing on tribalism?
Robert Wright: Not in the near term. Actually an editor I really respect some years ago suggested that I should write a book about foreign policy from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology. I would enjoy that. But in the short term, I do want to try to develop both this newsletter, the Mindful Resistance newsletter and the Bloggingheads.tv thing and my own show, the Wright Show, on that and the sister channel MeaningofLife.tv.
To some extent – I mean not exclusively but use these things to try to address the problem of tribalism.
Chris Martin: When you were doing the Mindful Resistance newsletter, did you get any feedback from guests about whether they were – whether they found it was helpful in being more mindful about those?
Robert Wright: You mean guests on –?
Chris Martin: I mean from readers.
Robert Wright: Oh, from readers?
Chris Martin: Yeah.
Robert Wright: It’s funny. We just did a poll. Because we’re taking a little time off in the summer, we just asked people to take a five-question survey and about 400 readers have taken it and I think there’s a feeling that I share that – well, a number of people have said they were – they did appreciate times when I kind of got into mindfulness or the problem of tribalism or the psychology of tribalism and there’s a feeling that we haven’t been doing that enough in the newsletter and we’ve been spending too much time doing other things.
So that may be one way, one direction we move in when the new and improved version emerges.
Chris Martin: Yeah, looking forward to that. So that’s coming back in about three months?
Robert Wright: It will probably be that long. It could come back sooner. We will put out a few issues in the meanwhile sporadically. But as far as weekly, it will probably be right after Labor Day that we resume on a weekly basis.
Chris Martin: OK. Yeah, I think bringing mindfulness to this is interesting because a lot of the psychological work has been more about cognitive biases and recognizing confirmation bias and availability bias and several other biases you have. Undoubtedly that’s related to mindfulness in theory. At least if you’re more mindful, you should be more connected with the reality and less biased. But there haven’t been many psychologists who have taken a look at partisanship and said, “Among people who practice mindfulness, do you find less partisanship or less hatred?”
Robert Wright: Yeah, and it would be a tough thing to study and I’m not aware of any evidence either. But I think the key link to examine – I don’t know if this is easy to examine empirically. But I think the key link is the one between feeling affect and cognitive bias.
I think a theme of increasing prominence in psychology is how finely intertwined cognition and affect are and that’s a longstanding theme in Buddhist psychology and you pay attention. Like on social media, when you are exhibiting confirmation bias, like if you see some tweet that confirms your opinion that Donald Trump is horrible and you retweet it without really examining its validity, if you pay attention to what you’re doing, you’re driven by feeling, right?
Chris Martin: Right.
Robert Wright: You like the information. You feel an urge to share it. It’s like gratifying to share it. These are all feelings and you are attracted to information that confirms your preexisting views. It feels good to embrace the information and mindfulness, when it works, gives you a more – a little bit of critical distance from your feelings. It doesn’t mean you don’t have them. But it means you’re more aware of them and you may have a greater chance of deciding whether to follow their guidance rather than just [0:40:00] follow it reactively.
So I think that’s the dynamic that – through which mindfulness can be helpful in kind of combatting tribalism. I think it has to do with the fact that what we call cognitive biases tend to be actually mediated by affect, by feeling.
Chris Martin: Yeah. I used to teach a course on happiness at Emory University. I might teach it again at Georgia Tech where I am now and we had a section on alleviating suffering and one of the parts was mindfulness. It’s just interesting. You can take these two perspectives. One is suffering is the result of not seeing the world clearly, maybe not seeing how your emotions are fleeting things that don’t have as much substance as you think they have and you can just sit back and observe them.
But we have alleviating suffering as to find values. It’s part of acceptance on commitment therapy, which is – some people label it a third generation cognitive therapy. It follows from the cognitive therapy of the ‘50s, but also involves actually finding values and engaging with those values. I don’t really talk about the contradiction. I just teach one topic and then I teach the next. But it is interesting that we talk about mindfulness as a certain sense of detachment and then you talk about values as really not having detachment, which just – really being committed to these values and this duality there.
Robert Wright: Yeah. I mean detachment is a controversial word in this context because there’s an irony about mindfulness that it’s when you really experience the feelings closely and carefully that you get the critical distance. So it is and isn’t a detachment. It’s a non-attachment in the sense that you are not being slavishly carried along by the time. But it’s hard to convey exactly how it changes your relationship to feelings. It certainly doesn’t eliminate them.
Chris Martin: Right.
Robert Wright: It does give you what can be called critical distance from there.
Chris Martin: Anyway, I think it’s about time to wrap things up. Is there anything you would like to say in closing?
Robert Wright: Oh, I don’t think so. I guess I would – I mean the interesting question is – I ask this of Bret Weinstein with respect to the intellectual dark web. But – and it might apply to the Heterodox Academy. Are there people in the Heterodox Academy who are protesting against speech code police on the right?
Chris Martin: There are.
Robert Wright: There are? Do you know what the examples are that they’re citing as speech code police on the right?
Chris Martin: Well, Jonathan Haidt I would say is the person who has been tweeting this. I mean he’s officially not our executive director anymore, but he’s still a Heterodox Academy person and he’s still in our leadership. He tweets about – tweets and retweets articles showing that it actually appears to be quite a big problem on the right too. I think the right strategy is different.
The right, it’s more of an online mob rather than an in-person mob strategy. So rather than have a Middlebury type incident where you have a live mob showing up, you out a professor online and you portray their work a little misleadingly to begin with and then you get thousands of people to email them and send them death threats. So he has tweeted articles about that. I don’t know if we’ve had any blog posts specifically about the right. I think we’ve had some blog posts showing some symmetry and left and right intolerance for speech.
We had one about four or five weeks ago by Sean Stevens about the symmetry.
Robert Wright: I will Google it.
Chris Martin: Yeah.
Robert Wright: Sean Stevens. OK. Well, no, I can’t think of anything else. I’ve plugged my stuff. I tweet at “@robertwrighter” and thanks for having me on.
Chris Martin: Well, thank you for joining us.
Robert Wright: My pleasure.
Chris Martin: As Bob mentioned you can find him on Twitter @robertwrighter. He also hosts the Wright Show which you can find on bloggingheads.tv/programs/wrightshow. It’s a video show but it’s also available on podcast. And Robert describes it as conversations with a series of people who have nothing in common except that program host Robert Wright is curious about what they’re thinking. Bret Weinstein was his guest on May 18 and Musa Al-Gharbi of Heterodox Academy was his guest on May 7.
Transcription by Prexie Magallanes as Trans-Expert at Fiverr.com