Cognitive and Affective Reasons for ‘Deficit of Information’ “Activist” Crap – or “The scraped knee theory of #climate doom”

“CARDIAC” – geddit? Not my most forced backronym ever, but close.

So, why do we get stuck in describing problems – like, I dunno, the imminent collapse of the ecosystems that make human civilisation possible, to choose an example entirely at random – endlessly, rather talking about the solutions?

Blah blah, yes, belling the cat. Yes, yes, avoiding spelling out solutions allows you not to talk about power and so mark yourself as a potential trouble-maker/not a safe pair of hands and so commit some career-limiting faux pas. Vulgar Marxian/Weberian stuff about self-censorship being necessary for progression in capitalist/bureaucratic structures As soon as you start talking about solutions, you risk fracturing whatever fragile coalition you are part of (don’t be a pro-nuke environmentalist, for example. Or a pro-regulation Conservative) Blah blah. I have seen me type that a thousand times. And maybe I already typed what comes next, but if I did I have forgotten it.

Cognitive reasons

It is hard to see viable solutions. It is hard mental intellectual whatever work. The world is messy, complex, with all sorts of feedback mechanisms, homeodynamic structures, perverse incentives, rakes you can step on, etc etc. Super-wicked problems, irreducible complexity blah blah.

And when something is really hard, we shy away from it, no?

Of course, there are Dunning-Kruger types out there in abundance (our political structures seem to select for them, no?). “The best lack all conviction…” as that nice Mr Yeats poeted one time.

So far, so mundane

Affective

And of course, those who play the game of information deficit activism tend to be those who prospered in school, who were able to show off their memory, their verbal dexterity, their facility for statistics, “facts” etc. And they feel good when they do that, so they keep doing it.

And when the solutions we can think of are clearly inadequate, we feel embarrassed and fear we will be held up to ridicule. So steer clear of solutions which might get you ridiculed. Obvs.

But today, it occurred to me (for the first time? Again?) just how much comfort there is in describing the problem (as you see it, with whatever level of nuance and sophistication).

And here is the rub. I think it is because it lets us regress.

I think it’s like that moment when you are six or nine or whatever, and you have fallen out of a tree or headbutted something in the playground, and you show your mum or dad that you’ve scratched your arm or scraped your knee, your scalp whatever and you’re bleeding.

And there is that moment, where although it hurts, you know that the Parent is gonna kiss it and pat you on the head and do a magic thing with a band-aid and some disinfectant and maybe you will get a special treat for having been brave. All you have to do is point to the problem. And someone else will make it better.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve got for you (actually, me) today.

Banal doesn’t-need-saying postscript.

There ain’t no adults. We were the ones we were supposed to be waiting for. Nobody is coming to save us. But that makes it even more likely we will stay regressed, stay in the scraped knee stage.

Two great comments scraped from Facebook

“The problem is that the scraped knee has been festering for 30+ years and is infected. We have had this conversation for so long but the powers that be do not want to listen to us. Is it a scraped knee, or is the mess swept under the rug? There is no parent to kiss it and make it better, just a load of politicians and corporations pretending it doesn’t exist.”

and

“This is brilliant.

I think the information deficit model is also linked to the hegemonic liberal way of explaining change through raising awareness and “educating” people. As an investment in knowledge capital (for the plebs) and as a form of technological change for the commanding system. In other words it’s a deeply political stance masquerading as just the facts m’am.

And yes it allows us to pretend there’s no conflict and allows for professionals in the field to gain their own academic capital by following the rules and not being awkward”

And from Twitter

“I think you’re missing a significant reason – which is simply conflict exhaustion. It’s very tiring to constantly be at odds with people or manage their negative feelings about difficult solutions, so if you’re a ‘climate person’ sometimes you just don’t want to do that bit / ‘there are certainly some people who consistently refuse to talk solutions’ but I suspect there are more activists who just vary in their energy/will, or who only talk solutions if they’re confident that they’re talking to someone who will take seriously what they’re saying.”

And also from Twitter

As you say, those prone to deficit campaigning “prospered in school” – school rewards you for being correct, it rarely prompts you to think about an effective way to persuade others to act on your correct answer. Being right was enough at school

And ALSO from Twitter

Here are a couple of thoughts. People who really understand how entropy underwrites environmentalist arguments also understand that ultimately there’s no such thing as a sustainable society. So that ultimately there isn’t a permanent solution to our predicament. Interesting remarks by Herman Daly:

Meanwhile, the entirety of academe is shaped by the fundamental ontology of modern science which holds that, as Pascal put it, the human race is one immortal being, continually increasing its knowledge: it is founded on an unquestioned belief that we will live forever:

I mean by that here that there is a tremendous bias in favour of imagining deep continuity.

and also from Twitter

Thanks Mark. I hadn’t thought about the magic bandaids but i often see campaigners/academics who, having found evidence of a problem, call out for a school teacher/referee/other-power-figure to step in and adjudicate ‘fair play’…its hard for some to see that there is no umpire

[This one reminds me of what a housemate in Bristol used to say, 25 years ago ‘there’s no justice, there’s just us’ – or what a friend says “you get exactly as much justice as you can compel.”]

Further thought – it’s a bit like “magic apologies” isn’t it – there’s a nice scene in Bojack Horseman (I only saw a few episodes) where he apologies for having been an asshole, and is then all “but everything is supposed to go back to the way it was before” and his ex (? or female friend?) has to explain that this is not how actual apologies work. For one thing, it is up to the other person whether they accept it, and even if they do, that doesn’t mean no lasting damage has been done etc et).

One thought on “Cognitive and Affective Reasons for ‘Deficit of Information’ “Activist” Crap – or “The scraped knee theory of #climate doom”

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  1. Makes sense to me. Patterns of calling out to the parent as a good knowledgeable child, finding the parent cruel or absent, but still calling again.

    The whole field is riven with subliminal desires and the parent child thing seems fundamental. For example, individual behaviour change patterns:
    Child – there’s shit everywhere! I.e climate breakdown. Authority figure – you can wipe your own arse now little one. Child – wiping my own arse is what is wanted of me.

    Or child realises from this answer that the parent doesn’t really care, so either doing what I like is what is wanted from me (parent doesn’t care so nor do I), or else the response is more like Greta T (not just her obviously, but the fact she as a child became such a figurehead is relevant here too) , the parent doesn’t care! Care parent! Care! Don’t you see how bad it is?! This latter was your example.

    The other common pattern is
    Child – look, climate crisis shit!
    Parent – oh we’ll fix it with net zero, carbon capture or whatever.
    Child – great thanks see you!

    Your point at the end is to say the parent does not exist (there ain’t no adults you say, although note the ambiguity of ain’t no). That’s close to the point of a lot info deficit campaigning, which highlights the absence of an effective parent, but whereas you say there is no parent, for many it’s about trying to call this parent into being.

    Regression dynamics are inevitable I guess.

    Thanks for posting.

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