Sunday, April 06, 2008

Part I: Sophia's Office Window

Sophia has the office next to mine. She is a Christian conservative of slightly different flavor – chocolate chip to my vanilla, perhaps. Her window looks out over the copier, and she has affixed a long list of examples from around the world of what bad things happened to peoples who were not allowed to own guns. It’s been up a few months. I don’t know how many folks have read it.

One of the med students from another unit brought the psychiatrist over to look at it. Neither said a word, the younger just pointed to it and grinned mockingly. How do I know it was mockingly, rather than approvingly? Because our brains are very good at picking up social cues like that. Even the worst of us are pretty good at it. We evolved in groups where such things were important for survival. Tribes enforce their norms via gestures and expressions which are maddeningly difficult to describe. My oft-mentioned A&H tribe is especially good at it. They can pick up the merest changes in tone or eyebrow.

So can I, as I grew up in that tribe.

The psychiatrist likewise grinned in amusement. Some rube had had put up something about gun rights for public display. Here! What a maroon! No words, just the shared chuckle.

It is not merely the point of view, of course, though that in itself can prompt those superior smiles. The placement and tone of the document were also part of their pleasure. Those gun people. They don’t know how they come across. They don’t get that this is ridiculous. We do. We two, and our tribe do. That’s how we know we’re better.

If progressives don't want to be accused of this level of arrogance and rudeness, they should stop doing these things in front of me every few days.

CS Lewis writes about this in The Screwtape Letters. In a comment that stabbed me to the heart when I first read it and stayed ever before me in my long conversion from liberalism to conservatism, the senior demon Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood to encourage some types of humor but not others, in order to deliver the patient out of the hands of The Enemy and safely into Hell, to be food for them.
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.

Lewis is referring more to spiritual than political flippancy, but the point holds. Watch how often people will laugh at something or someone without bothering to make a reasonable argument or give evidence against it. All the cool kids “just know” that it’s ridiculous. The tactic is an enormously powerful social enforcer. Time and again while I was a progressive, I would hear people make such jokes to me. Reagan. (Hahaha.) NASCAR. (Snicker.) Trickle-down. (Ha!) Born-agains. (Stop, you’re killing me!) I now have the opposite response: when someone speaks as if the joke is obvious (sometimes they go so far as to add an urban legend in, like Dan Quayle and studying Latin), I now conclude that it is merely a social cue, an efficient tribal communication devoid of intellectual content.

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