The re-emergence of totalitarianism -- and why some extremists prevail

The re-emergence of totalitarianism -- and why some extremists prevail
“News” means two things, what’s happening and what’s surprising. In information theory, it means surprise. It’s not news that you still have air to breathe or that millions live in poverty. More of the same is not news because it’s not surprising.

By information theory’s standard, it’s no surprise that news reporting is all about surprise, shock and the extreme versions of everything. Extremist trolls are surprising and therefore newsworthy, dominating subtler interpretations of what’s going on.


There’s a fundamental human bias toward “trolltalitarianism,” domination by the extreme, trolling version of any idea. There’s a strong bias toward extremism built right into our powers of attention. We ignore what’s subtle, we perk up about what’s extreme. Even when an idea originates as subtle, what makes the headlines won’t be.

Newsmakers play upon the trolltalitarian bias from opposite extremes. Proponents of an idea will be tempted toward extremism in order to cut through the din. Conversely, opponents of the idea will want to paint it extreme as possible to make a salient caricature of it. Shades of gray turn black and white to capture our attention.

Trolltalitarianism is frustrating for those who hold a subtler version of an idea. Religion and spirituality take many subtle forms, but what we hear about are the extreme versions. Likewise, political views get oversimplified toward ideological purity, absolutism and impracticality, because that’s what shocks, sells, emboldens and worse, wins simpler hearts and minds. Extremist loud-mouths capture attention by appealing to people who don’t have the bandwidth to think subtler thoughts – people so harried by everyday life or so education-deprived that they can’t handle subtlety.

It’s easy to point fingers at the extremists we oppose and to claim that our ideas are misunderstood but the problem runs deeper than that. It’s about attention, our extreme of consciousness and how it always shifts toward surprise. Trolltalitarianism isn’t about one extremism or another dominating but about the distracting allure of extremism in general.

Extremism is a relative term: Extreme compared to what? What’s the reference point by which you can claim that some other idea is extreme. Elsewhere, I’ve favored the term absolutism based on its original meaning “dissolved away,” in other words, ideas insulated from all possible challenges. Absolutism is often the means to extremist ends a way of making an idea shocking, new and threatening enough that it turns heads.

The term “extremism” is useful but doesn’t speak to the appetite for it, or its tendency to dominate the news. Hence, we need a term the way extremism prevails, for which I’d suggest trolltalitarianism.

Advances in media technology don’t cause trolltalitarianism; they exacerbate it. The problem originates in how attention works, again, the extreme of consciousness. We're all living in the 21st century, ADHD.

We’re often told that we should be more grateful for what we have, more attentive to what’s already working in our lives. Still, among the things to be grateful for is our inattention to what’s already working. It frees attention to focus on problems yet to be solved, for things that can’t be handled by unconscious habit. Whatever keeps happening we handle unconsciously. Nobel prize-winning decision theorist Herbert Simon called this human trait “satisficing.” We don’t obsess over what’s sufficiently satisfying when there’s a squeaky wheel we grease it just enough to dampen the squeaking and then shift our attention to the next loudest squeaky wheel. We don’t optimize; we satisfice, shifting our attention away from the sufficiently satisfying.

As such, conscious attention is not a computer but something akin to a computer programmer. Anything that stays the same can be handled with unconscious habit, the equivalent of a computer algorithm. What rises to consciousness are matters as yet unsettled, the doubts that arise from surprising events. Consciousness stuffs as much as possible into unconscious habits, in order to free up attention for surprises.

Satisficing is efficient. We should all be grateful for our ingratitude. Still, it has a variety of perilous side-effects, chief among them our rubber-necking toward what information theorists call “surprisal.” Here’s another perilous side-effect.

These days, most of us feel pretty independent. We think we don’t need other people so much. Labor-saving technology means we don’t have to get people to do this, that and the other thing for us. We assume that we could go it alone if we had to.

Actually, we couldn’t. Our false sense of autonomy results from the reliability of our the people and things we depend upon. Lose electricity, the internet or public services during a government shutdown and you’ll soon notice how dependent you really are. When the habits of what service us, serve us reliably, we form unconscious expectations. We accumulate habits of unconscious dependence. We ignore what we depend upon.

The same can happen in a relationship. When your partner is always there for you, you’ll tend to assume them. Ironically then, we notice our dependency most when what we depend upon disappears. We feel most dependent when we’ve lost what we depend upon. As the song says “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.”

Combine these two side effects and you’ll get extremist versions of autonomy, for example, Libertarian and anarchist extremists, loud-mouths proclaiming their absolute independence. They don’t need other people, their burdens and their challenges. What use are fellow citizens who disagree with them? People who disagree with their extreme trolling opinions are dead wood, second class citizens little better than illegals. Liberty is a virtue we all value. Libertarianism extremism ignores liberty’s cost. For anyone to feel independent, what they depend upon must be kept reliable.

Is there a remedy for our innate trolltalitarian tendencies? Is there any way to counter the extremes of consciousness so we can hear the gray within the black and white fray?

Education perhaps which, at its best, cultivates greater tolerance for, and curiosity about ambiguity and subtlety. Or maybe we just have to wait until we get jaded by the din of attention-seeking extremism and tune it all out.

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