Wednesday, September 1, 2010
It appears that nearly all of us are wired to register moral outrage, but we have very different on and off buttons. The same event can turn us all into avenging angels of God, but for entirely different reasons. A conservative, for instance, might want to kick a beggar. A liberal would kick the person who kicked the beggar.
Yes, environmental factors loom large, but a 2005 NY Times article brought attention to a Virginia Commonwealth University survey of a large sample of identical and fraternal twins on such divisive issues as taxes, labor unions, and x-rated movies. It turned out the identical twin pairs showed much greater concordance on political and social issues than did their more fractious (and apparently less) fraternal counterparts.
We have decades of research to back the proposition that our genetic makeup contributes mightily to our gut-level reactions to all manner of things that go off in the world around us. That same body of research also indicates that our pretenses at reasoned discourse are little more than elaborate justifications for our thoughtless emotional reactions.
In his excellent book, "How We Decide," science writer Jonah Lehrer cites an analysis that found that only 16 percent of voters with "strong party allegiances" during the 1976 US Presidential campaign were persuaded to vote for the other party. In a more recent study, political partisans had their brains scanned as they were read out the on-the-record inconsistencies of George W Bush and John Kerry. Predictably, the prefrontal cortices - the seat of reason - were recruited, which should have been a good sign.
For instance, if exposed to the fact that while on the same day George Bush promised "to provide the best care for all veterans" his administration cut medical benefits to 164,000 veterans, you might expect a Republican to seriously question his or her cherished beliefs. Or at least register some level of primal disgust.
Instead, the Republicans (and Democrats, too, when exposed to stupid Kerry tricks) felt a rush of pleasurable emotion. What seemed to be happening was that the thinking regions of the brain were activated - not to dispassionately weigh the facts and formulate some kind of rational response - but to fabricate a favorable interpretation of the facts, no matter how unpleasant those facts happened to be.
Thus, when the thinking brain had successfully arrived at "mission accomplished" - that is, a palpably absurd conclusion - the lower regions of the brain slobbered like a dog gorging on red meat.
As Lehrer contends, these and many more studies force us to rethink the long-held notion that reason, judiciously applied, overcomes ignorance and blind instinct. Adolph Hitler proved us all wrong on that count.
Now I know why I regard engaging in any kind of dialogue with a Republican as a total waste of time. I came to this unfortunate conclusion back in the nineties, but it wasn't always this way. Before that, I actually cultivated conservative friends. I also worked in a field (financial journalism) which involved total immersion in conservative opinion.
These individuals had a strong influence in my moderating many of my core beliefs and turning me around completely on my more flaky ones. Likewise, I like to think that I exercised a similarly beneficial influence. But in today's highly divisive political climate - the worst in my estimation since the Vietnam era - that simply is not possible. Heaven help if I were to point out to a Republican that Clinton actually turned federal deficits into federal surpluses.
I'm sure Republicans can make similar complaints, but how can I take them seriously when they cite Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck with approval? Hopefully, we can eventually restore reason to the dialogue. In the meantime - forgive me for my attitude - I have to go along with my friend: Republicanism is a diagnosis.
More to come ...