Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Liberalism and Reasoning

There have been a few books and articles written recently characterising liberalism as a sort of mental illness. I haven't read any of them. I certainly have some sympathy with the idea that there are psychological mechanisms that prevent liberals from seeing some aspects of reality, but mental disorder seems a bit of a reach.

I could cheat and say that my experience arguing with progressives has some similarities to my discussions with the mentally ill, but that would be choosing my data conveniently. In fact, most of us act about the same when confronted with an idea we think is wrong, ill or not. As frustrating as it is to try and get psychotic people to admit the possibility of a different interpretation of reality, it is actually not that different from all rationalization and evasion.

Here's the interesting question: in psychology, we are presented with people who have been told a thousand times their ideas are crazy before they get to our facility. They've been told but they haven't believed the tellers. Our job is to get them to accept, however partially and grudgingly, a set of facts that everyone around them can see (even other psychotic people) without effort.

Play that out in political persuasion. I contend that liberals simply do not understand conservative arguments. They think they do, but they cannot accurately repeat them back. They are usually unable to describe them without caricature. Yet even in an MSM saturated subculture, they must have heard the opposition arguments a hundred times. What prevents the hearing?

No cliches, please, unless you are willing to give some explanation or evidence why the cliche is true.


Kurt said...

What prevents the hearing is, I think, an education deficient in exposure to any conservative thinkers or ideas. I speak as a young 40-something member of "generation x," but what I say is certainly true about members of my generation and those following us. I suspect it is also true of the baby boomers.

When the education system presents the liberal version of history and philosophy as the default and presents liberal goals as desirable, and when most of the mainline protestant churches echo the same liberal ideology, is it any wonder that most contemporary liberals are unable to understand anything about conservative thought? All they've ever learned is caricature, and all they hear of conservatives on news shows is clips and sound bytes. What's more, our education system privileges credentials over knowledge, so people with the "right" credentials (Ivy League degrees, etc.) presume they have more knowledge than everyone else, and so many of them are naturally inclined dismiss the things they never studied or learned as unimportant or as the products of intellectual backwaters.

If you've learned that you don't have to pay attention to something or that you can ridicule it to score points with the educated elites, that is likely to be all you will ever bother to learn about it. That's one reason why liberals are so frustrated when they really engage in conversations with those of us who are "post-liberals" with graduate degrees and elite educations: we can ask them questions which they've never thought about and which they are unable to answer. Rather than admit that they don't know or worse, that they may be wrong, they resort to defense mechanisms and denial, or, more typically, they don't even bother to respond at all.

Kurt said...

To add one more thing to what I wrote earlier, at the risk of repeating a common stereotype, I also think that a certain amount of smugness is an essential element of the worldview of the modern "liberal" (I put the word liberal in scare quotes because I think most contemporary liberals are anything but). When you are convinced that you are one of the best and the brightest and you only know people who think the same way you do, you tend to be dismissive of other views.

An alternative is that many tend to use argument by anecdote as a way of dismissing those views, so that they don't have to pay attention to them. For instance, some of the most outspoken conservatives at my undergraduate alma mater were more than a little odd socially, so it was easy to dismiss them as misfits. Others were children of privilege, so it was easy to dismiss them as spoiled and rude brats.

terri said...

When you are convinced that you are one of the best and the brightest and you only know people who think the same way you do, you tend to be dismissive of other views.

Well...that's true of just about everyone and how people can view their particular perspective.

I think political ideology as "mental illness" could be represented by liberals or conservatives.

Here comes a very elitist-sounding analyzation:

In any movement, liberal, conservative, religious, etc.....there are people who are at the forefront who are the movers and shakers, the thinkers and shapers. In general, I think these people know why they believe what they believe and have spent a long time deciding what they are all about. It doesn't necessarily mean they are right, but they have at least thought through many of their ideas and settled on what they believe.

These people at the top try to communicate their message to the general population in order to get support for their movements. Because communicating with thousands of people does not lend itself to detailed conversation, or philosophical explanations, the ideas and themes of the top people get boiled down to a few basic premises....maybe with a few "real-life" examples that the common man will understand. An effective speaker/leader will find a way to get these people on board even if he/she knows that the people don't understand the complicated reasoning or motivations behind Idea A.

Once Idea A has been communicated in an easy to understand way for the average person, Idea A will take off....asssuming it was presented in a favorable light and in a charismatic way.

At this point the masses begin to have their own conversations about Idea A, sometimes simply repeating by rote what they have been told....others might add in their own arguments for Idea A, or begin to give Idea A a different spin that fits more with their own narrative and world.

Once the masses have convinced themselves that Idea A is "true", persuading them otherwise is a difficult task.

Believing that we know with very fiber of our being that something is true is a very powerful thing. Conceding that we might be wrong isn't just a matter of changing gears and learning to try something else, it becomes a painful process of realizing that if we were so wrong abut Idea A, then what does that mean about what we believe about Idea B?

It's easier to believe that we are right and everyone else is wrong, whether that's taken to the extremes of mental illness, or simply a refusal to hear another side's point of view.

Did I fit enough cliches in there? ;-)

Kurt said...

While I think you make some good points, Terri, it is complicated a bit by the fact that most of the conservatives I know have come to their views over time. Liberalism is certainly promoted using the top-down approach you describe, which is why I referenced education in my first comment. But very few people in contemporary America are educated as conservatives by conservatives. Northern liberals like to entertain themselves with fantasies about the schools in southern states as being backwards places where science is barely taught, etc., but the fact is that even in the deep south, public school teachers and their unions heavily promote the liberal agenda.

With a few exceptions, most conservative intellectuals started out much further to the left and they revised their worldview as life experience taught them to believe otherwise. On the other hand, I can think of very few liberal intellectuals who started out as conservatives, though certainly some say that they grew up in conservative places or attended conservative churches and they embraced liberalism as a reaction against that.

gcotharn said...

These are incomplete thoughts, but, maybe some of what prevents the hearing:

Some or many on the left do not have a life philosophy which coheres. There are gaps, there are things which do not make sense when viewed in light of the overall philosophy being espoused. If your most fundamental understanding of how existence is ordered has gaps, then you become accustomed to living with gaps. Therefore, when your political beliefs have gaps, it seems kind of normal to you; seems to be something which need not be fully investigated and resolved. You throw up your hands: "Oh well." Then you tu quoque yourself to sleep.

Related: many on the left have FAITH that, somewhere, some smart lefty can rebut those insidious lies being promulgated by the right. SOMEONE can put those righties in their place. The left persons just know it's true. It has to be true, and so it is true. The left persons don't know how those righty arguments can be rebutted, but they have faith they can be. Faith. The left are acting on faith that some lefty, somewhere, can articulate a logical and superior rebuttal. This is why leftism resembles a faith based movement as much as anything.

When I was younger, and supported the left, my feeling was: all those famous and smart and super clued in and oh-so-sure-of-themselves persons on the left couldn't POSSIBLY be poseurs, could they? Not ALL of them. That would be incredible, if a huge group of persons were that condescending and cock-sure, yet did not truly understand the full ramifications of what they were so arrogantly advocating. Not possible! They are so cool! They are so beautiful! They are so sure of themselves, so dismissive of those foolish persons on the right who must be troglodytes. I am cool, too! I am smart and beautiful and on the left! I don't really understand everything, but somebody on the left does - in fact most persons on the left do, and someday I will understand, also.

In search of that someday, i.e. in search of that understanding of what seemed illogical, I landed on the right.

Gringo said...

What prevents the hearing?

In part because they believe that any thinking person who has pondered the issue cannot think other than the way a lib does. I once received a Xmas card from a cousin’s wife whom I had seen that year for about the first time in 10 years. As she is an artist, and she had created the Xmas card, the card was both different and beautiful. There was very little personal hand written in the card, but she made sure that she had written by hand what was really on her mind: “I am very sad that Kerry lost the election.”

She had very little to say to me but this political message. She sent me this message under the assumption was that I was one of the right-thinkers (left-thinkers?), another member of the in-group.

I go with AVI’s group identity meme. We are the good people. This is what we believe. Those who do not believe as we do are bad people. Thus opposing points of view get dismissed out of hand.

I find it interesting that I am not the only wingnut who views libs as SMUG and CONDESCENDING. I also view them as self-righteous.

IMHO, there is a stronger need for group identity among many libs, compared to wingnuts. Take the issue of racism. Many libs find it of great importance that their political group is less racist or not racist compared to the other side of the aisle. My opinion is that there are people more racist than me, just as there are people less racist than me. There are libs less racist than me, just as there are libs more racist than me. Similarly, there are wingnuts less racist than me, just as there are wingnuts more racist than me. I don’t care if those who disagree with me are more or less racist than I am. All of us are ethnocentric to a degree, just as all of us are tolerant of differences to a degree.

How many times have I heard libs say they are brighter, better educated, better traveled, more sophisticated, blah blah blah than those wingnuts? Quite often. Similarly, there are people better educated than me and people less educated than me, on both sides of the aisle. Etc.

Group identity is stronger for libs than for wingnuts, and group identity is why they can’t hear the other side.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Kurt: "If you've learned that you don't have to pay attention to something..." is a little different than the usual cliche, and I like your phrasing of it. In my education, I was taught that certain people, or POV's can be ignored. One of the smart people somewhere has looked into it and found them wanting, so we'll save you the time and just believe us.

I don't fully disapprove of this method of education, whether formal or informal. Say someone claims the earth is a flat disc lying on the back of a giant turtle. Standing alone in my back yard, I don't have much of a clue how I would prove that wrong, and the world really round. I can get a lot of indirect information - realising that planes couldn't get where they say they're going in the time it takes if the earth didn't look like a globe (unless there is some enormous conspiracy that has been going on for decades involving millions of people), or otherwise trusting people who explain about rotating bodies. But my direct evidence would be scant. I can maybe see that the earth curves when I look over the ocean, though it is slight enough that people looked at the ocean for years without noticing it; or I can see live TV from Oregon and note that the sun has not set there, though it has in NH; or I can watch an eclipse and sorta see that a round earth is the best explanation.

99% of our advanced knowledge is indirect, dependent on others who have studied these things, often building on each other for generations. It is often a major function of education to eliminate answers: it's not turtles, son.

But the potential house-of-cards nature of this knowledge is immediately apparent. If there is a weakness at any point, then every card stacked on top of that one is unreliable.

The problem of education that impinges on politics or religion is that this eliminationist method works only part of the time. There really are screwy ideas and screwy people left, right, and lord-knows-what. Worse, there are a lot of ideas and people that are only somewhat screwy. Educators pretty much have to steer students away from those as well, for efficiency if nothing else. This gets them in the habit of cheating a bit, rejecting whole realms of opinion.

At this point our prejudices come in, but we don't realise it. And if we mostly hang out with folks with the same prejudices, they reinforce. We get so we just know there's nothing worth checking out in a particular area. And we can keep re-proving it to ourselves, because we keep encountering knuckleheads teaching crap. If you are a nonreligious person, there is always an ample supply of religious knuckleheads who reify your belief that it's all bunk. If you teach at Concord Christian, you can always find Catholics or Episcopalians who don't show much obvious evangelical passion, so you can re-prove to yourself that those denominations have nothing to offer.

My objection to your reasonable assumption, terri, is that I no longer believe the leaders of liberal persuasion actually have thought things through that much. They do seem to think some things through, or think part way. But when you poke at the philosophical structure, you find a lot of things in the top few rows that no one has really thought through, plus some things further down that are not as solid as supposed.

It is absolutely fair to say that there are prominent conservatives who fit that description as well. If they were in educational ascendancy or ran all the newspapers I would likely rail at them more. If I lived in a place or attended a church where they were in the ascendancy or ran the media, I am sure I would wrestle with them. In fact, I do, whenever I get caught up with fundamentalists or the somewhat paranoid version of libertarians we get up here.

lelia said...

I do not know how to answer your question. What I do know is that when I read conservative writing, I could not understand what was said. It seemed to me that when they weren't frothing about communists, they were saying that you cannot change anything, so therefore you should not try (especially in regards to race relations). I also remember as a teen reading competing columns by Muskie and Buckley. It annoyed me terribly because Buckley usually made sense and Muskie did not.
I adored Jimmy Carter and cheered all his speeches that upheld human rights around the world. I did not see til much later that human rights decreased during his term.
It took me becoming a homeschooler and watching the Mondale nomination to make me think harder. I met people who should have been evil adopting handicapped and/or other race kids. I heard speeches that explained clearly why the Democrats were trying to put me in jail. I kept hearing how racist we homeschoolers were, but a huge proportion of us had mixed race families. The light dawned. I became a republican, and my dad is still mad at me for it.

Oh, I read in Science Digest some months ago about how when someone hears something that does not accord with their previous information, the hippocampus does not activate, and so the new information is not learned.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

lelia is clearly about the same age as I, and her evolution traced a similar course.

Your comment about the hippocampus may be an important direction. It may be that one has to actively try to understand something that does not fit one's schema. It does not just happen, no matter how persuasively put.

terri said...

That hippocampus idea thingy intuitively feels right!


It does seem to take a lot of effort to understand an opposing viewpoint, or to override a previously held belief.

Kurt said...

Well, I also liked what gcothcarn had to say about ideas hanging together. It reminded me of the "coherence" theory of knowledge which I learned about when I studied epistemology. To some extent, coherence theory was an attempt to explain how there could be knowledge in a relativized world with no absolutes, but it always made me uneasy because it ultimately relied on faith in the idea of coherence, even though it tried to claim that faith was unnecessary.

Regarding AVI's response to Terri that the liberal leaders haven't thought through things that much, I'd have to say that has also been my experience. I first realized it during the Clinton years when I was teaching at a college and heard the dumb arguments that my faculty colleagues made in response to the Lewinski scandal. Prior to that point, when I was still in graduate school, I had naively assumed that most faculty were well-informed and knew what they were talking about. Ever since then, my encounters with so-called liberal leaders--academics, activists, writers, politicians--has only showed me how many gaps there are in their views, just as gcothcarn described.

DW said...

Ten O'Clock Scholar had an essay last September concerning moral adolescence and leftism. He supposes that left-leaning individuals concentrate so narrowly on fairness and caring that they don't develop mature perspectives concerning other morally important characteristics such as purity, authority and loyalty.

He explains it much better than I could so I recommend searching for and reading his excellent post.

Carl said...

I'll post my reactions on NOfP soon.

Anonymous said...

I work in a public policy job and deal with politicians of both parties. I don't even try to explain any more at work, or even in my private life. In fact I've given up on discussing just about any policy issues with liberals. They don't want to hear it no matter what the argument is (including "we tried it your way, recently, and got terrible results.") You can't argue people out of a position they weren't argued into to begin with, and you only get angry trying.

They get burned badly enough, maybe they'll turn their brains on and start doing some critical thinking, other than the gender/race/postcolonial studies type. Until then I'd just as soon not even argue with them; it's like batting practice against a pitcher who won't throw the ball; a complete waste of my time - and generally, the more misguided they are, the stronger they are in their convictions and the more impervious to logic. No mas.