Correspondence bias and communism

Reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right I was struck by this relatively banal observation:

In its brief but bloody career, Marxism has involved a hideous amount of violence. Both Stalin and Mao Zedong were mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale… But what of the crimes of capitalism? What of the atrocious bloodbath known as the First World War, in which the clash of imperial nations hungry for territory sent working-class soldiers to a futile death? The history of capitalism is among other things a story of global warfare, colonial exploitation, genocide and avoidable famines.

Superficially, this looks like dialectical what-about-ism. Whose mass murder was worse? But it occurred to me that there is something here that needs explanation: Given that communism and capitalism both have long charge sheets in the court of history, how can the association with atrocity and tyranny serve so broadly as a knock-down argument against communism?

It made me think of correspondence bias, the psychological tendency of people to interpret their own behaviour as situation-dependent — I didn’t do the reading for the seminar because I had a family crisis and I was exhausted — while someone else’s behaviour is seen as representing their essential nature — too lazy or inconsiderate to do the reading. This also works between groups, as when, for instance, a man’s failure to successfully lead a research team shows that he’s not cut out for that sort of responsibility (or not yet ready for it) while a woman’s failure shows that women aren’t suited to leadership.

So it is with economic systems: Stalin reveals the fundamental nature of communism, its core evil revealed by the Ukrainian famine and the Great Purge; but but Hitler and Pinochet are only incidentally capitalists, and the explanation of their crimes must be found outside the economic sphere. The Great Irish Famine has nothing to do with capitalist ideology, even while merchants were exporting food from starving Ireland to British markets, and American slavery and the Native American genocide are particular historical events that cannot tell us anything about the general implications of capitalism.

Increasingly, climate change makes capitalism look like a global suicide pact.

There is a similar bias at work in the judgement of religious communities: Many Christians attribute violence and brutality to Islam as an essential quality of the religion, proved by selective quotes from the Koran, while dismissing Christian-motivated atrocities to “not real Christians” or special circumstances of people long ago or far away. (We Jews are in an awkward position relative to this: On the one hand, our communal experience does not incline us to trust the good faith of Christians any more than of Muslims or druids or Satanists; on the other hand, Jews have become a particular target of Muslim rage, while many of us are well assimilated in majority-Christian nations. Some are happy to repay the recent good treatment by echoing the local prejudices.)

Overqualified

On the BBC website there was this article about increasing dissatisfaction among university students in the UK, as measured by their response to a survey question about whether their studies provided “good value for money”, and questions about their happiness and wellbeing. I was struck by this sentence:

Young women and gay students at university are particularly likely to feel unhappy.

Why “young women” and not simply “women”? I’m willing to bet that they are not basing this on a distinction in reported happiness between younger and older female students. Those who are gay are referred to simply as “students”. Most students are, in a general sense, young, but why is this emphasised for the women? Why are the women not referred to as students? I feel like there is some invidious stereotyping going on here, but I can’t quite put my finger on what is irritating me.

Stranger than fiction

Over the many decades when a female president had become conceivable but not yet real, fictional representations purveyed all kinds of notions — some silly, some serious, some sexist — of the first female president. (Jokes about the closet space in the White House were, as I recall, a staple.) But I can’t recall that anyone supposed that the first presidential campaign to feature a woman candidate would have her up against an opponent who bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, or that we would have the following exchange between her opponent and the sitting vice president:

Biden said of Trump on Saturday: “The press always asks me, don’t I wish I was debating him? No, I wish we were in high school and I could take him behind the gym. That’s what I wish.”

Casting scorn on Biden’s physical strength, Trump said, “Mr Tough Guy, you know he’s Mr Tough Guy, you know when he’s Mr Tough Guy? When he’s standing behind a microphone by himself.” Trump added: “He wants to bring me to the back of the barn? Oooooooooh. Some things in life you could really love doing.”

A fiction writer would hardly have dared to imagine the campaign to feature such a running parody of male pathology. It would have been ridiculed as insular feminist propaganda.

Maybe it will come out next that Trump has been scrawling Clinton’s telephone number on bathroom walls.

Not helping

Donald Trump Jr. says

I’ve had conversations like that with plenty of people where people use language off color. They’re talking, two guys, amongst themselves. I’ve seen it time and time again. I think it makes him a human. I think it makes him a normal person not a political robot. He hasn’t spent his whole life waiting for this moment to run for the presidency.

I wonder if he realises that he is the worst possible messenger for this defense. The fact that Trump’s son believes that his misogynist speech and sexual harassment is perfectly normal really does not support the campaign’s other defense, that “this is not who he is.”

4 digits of separation

Conspiracy theorists are working overtime to discredit all the women who report having been molested by Donald Trump. (Trump’s near-legendary non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses in all contracts, which pretty much exclude reports from any woman who ever worked for him — and even campaign volunteers — are the only thing keeping the numbers reasonably manageable.) The “pussy” video that kicked this all off was released as part of a joint plot by international Zionists and the gnomes of Zurich. And the woman who was groped while sitting next to Trump on a plane was lying (because supposedly first-class armrests in 1980s planes didn’t go up) and was an agent of the Clinton Foundation, since her telephone number (a convenient excuse for exposing her private information) is identical to one for a staff member at the foundation. Except,

While the article Delauzon’s tweet linked to claims that Leeds shared a phone number with the Clinton Foundation, the two phone numbers differed by several digits.

But obviously the story doesn’t end there. Granted, she was not actually working for the Clinton Foundation. You have to ask yourself, what are the odds that someone who was supposedly not connected at all with that organisation would happen to have a telephone number that was so similar. The question answers itself.