Thursday, February 02, 2006

The dialectical hedgehog

This is the third post in the series. You can find the prior posts here and here.

OK. So we talked about the fact that the world seems to be divided into hedgehogs, who attempt to explain everything as the workings of a grand system, and the foxes that don't really try to come up with a Grand Unified Theory, but focus on reality and reacting to the "facts on the ground".

We talked about the fact that in the sphere of politics and ideology, a hedgehog can really cause a lot of death and destruction in the service of an (often flawed) idea. See Communism, Fascism, and many other -isms that have arisen in history. In my heart I feel like not only are these manifestations of political fanaticism dangerous, they are often misguided or corrupt. This is especially evident in retrospect.

However, without trying to sound like a hypocrite, I do think that there is one process that seems to be a pattern in history, almost a system that I would subscribe to as being the most likely to recurr. It is kind of a variation of the Dialectic. Except, whereas in a more traditional understanding of the dialectical process, the anti-thesis is an external force, in my version it comes from within. It is more of a corruption of the original idea.

In other words, whatever idea some hedgehog comes up with, if it gains enough steam to become popular, it will attract enough people that either don't really understand it, or think they understand it but really understand it completely differently than it was meant to be understood, or lastly, and more nefariously, people that twist the idea to serve their own ends. And ultimately, the idea, even if it had merit, becomes a twisted and corrupted reflection of itself.


Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

That's interesting... But why do you suppose it works that way?

February 02, 2006 10:37 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Human nature I suppose. For every idealist there are 1000 opportunists.

Although there is also there is a philosophical aspect to this transformation of ideas. As people are exposed to a new idea and try to understand it, they inevitably see it in terms that they are familiar with, and so they may often mis-understand, and consequently pervert the original idea.

A good example is when Christian missionaries arrived in India and tried to explain the idea of G-d in the body of a man. The Indians were like - "Yeah, we totally get it; we have the same idea called avatars". And the Christians had to back off and say - "No you don't get it at all; you just think you do. They are similar ideas at a very high level, but there are very significant differences that are more important than the similarities."

February 03, 2006 9:33 AM  
Blogger Tobie said...

This is true, and quite scary. But, unfortunately, I think that I could probably say the same thing for the Civil Rights Movement- started by a few idealists and followed by a whole lot of people who just thought it was cool. What is it that differentiates between this and, say, communism. Or is it simply a matter of liking the results of one and not the other?

February 03, 2006 1:42 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

The same thing can also be true of the foxes. The Civil War was as bad as it was because for the last 100 years people were seeking to delay the problem and didn't see that eventually there was an underlying problem which needed to be dealt with. The Missouri Compromise and all those other deals were made by people who didn't care about the ultimate consequences only the delaying of the problem.

February 03, 2006 1:46 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

I agree that becoming committed to one idea to the exclusion of all others is part of human nature. Perhaps it’s just one of the things which allows us to form strong group associations – an vital element of happiness, and sometimes even survival. I also agree that the “hedgehog” tendency to not tolerate and have empathy for the opinions of others – be they religious, political or national – has often tragic consequences.

February 04, 2006 10:39 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Interesting. Both Tobie and Mike commented about the Civil Rights/slavery situation within 5 minutes of one another.

You both have good points and I have to think about them in a little more depth. Some preliminary thoughts:


I think that the difference between the civil rights movement and communism is that the civil rights movement never really gained enough steam to affect the political power structure enough for some of the negative effects of "hedgehog-dom" to really show. I mean it certainly was significant for minorities but nowhere on the scale of what happened say in Russia or China in terms of political turmoil and power struggles.

You also have a good point, although I am not sure that the Civil War really solved that much in terms of civil rights. Sure, it abolished outright slavery, but obviously didn't really solve most of the civil rights problems of the minorities. So you can say that my point about a good idea was actually demonstrated by the unfolding of events.(started by northern abolitionists, gets taken over by more and more people, who are probably less interested in civil rights and abolition of slavery than they are about the political and social consequences of the division of the Union, and ultimately with the reconstruction winds up backsliding on most of the supposed goals of emancipation.)

I guess my overall point is not necessarily that the hedgehog paradigm is inherently bad, but more the point is that it is flawed and yet its flaws are not easily recognized by the hedgehogs.

I definitely agree with your point. People that belong to a group based on ideology often feel euphoric. The feeling of dedication and purpose is very strong. Of course these feelings are often manipulated by the unscrupulous.

February 04, 2006 11:30 PM  

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