Friday, September 30, 2016

Double Standards and Phase Change

Double standards are always in play, but really ramp up at election time.  Accusations of double standards become even more strident: If they had done that to a white person…if you said that about a black person…if the Republicans had nominated someone who…if the press challenged a Democrat in that way… Sometimes these escalate to ridiculous heights, where it is patently obvious that the person making the claim is scrounging for every possible accusation they think they can reword and twist, with no regard to whether it is fair. The extreme example is from an old Texas politician – perhaps an apocryphal story – who accused his opponent of having sex with a pig.  “You can’t prove he had sex with a pig!” said a shocked aide.  “I don’t want to prove it,” he countered, “I want him to deny it.”

We’re not all that far from that attitude these days, it seems. I admit I don’t understand it.  I’m just not wired that way.  When I am unfair and biased, I have at least arrived there honestly.  I imagine an argument could be made that this is spiritually worse.  We can’t repent of sins we don’t even see, and that may be what Jesus is talking about when he mentions the Unforgiveable Sin. When the Holy Spirit has revealed to us what is right, but we have so consistently walked away from that and rationalized it away that we no longer have power to even see it confess it, that may be unforgiveable. Matthew 13:15.

Back on task.  As the rhetoric escalates, I increasingly shake my head and think Are you even listening to yourself here? You have nothing in your frontal lobe that said “Hey, we just crossed a major line with that one”? Apparently the answer is “No.”

There are people who have enough education to know that we all have inherent biases, or have picked up that information along the way because they are bright. They know that philosophers disagree, and attitudes about art and literature vary widely. They may have even been following all the interesting brain studies about emotional reactions and automatic responses, or the thoughtful essays about differing word choices among conservatives and liberals. They understand that double-standards are real, but the accusations about them get out of hand.

Or do they? They act no better.  On my FB feed, they are notably worse.  There is almost certainly an element of  selection bias on my part in this – people who are sometimes interesting and informative stay on my feed, while people who don’t bring such things even on their best days get unfollowed quickly. Still, it’s worth noting that such people exist, bright, sociable, witty bigots.  Lots of them. They will filter things by style, because they are generally deeply aware of what is socially acceptable.  But content, not so much. Double standards and accusations of double standards are excellent evidence that this is all quite tribal, not logical, and the escalation when resources and prestige are on the line makes this even more obvious. 

There is an additional piece that I picked up from the book Mistakes Were Made. Tavris and Aronson use 19th C obstetricians as an example of refusing to see the obvious because of the psychological expense. Once Ignaz Semmelweis proposed and gave evidence for the idea that hand-washing between infant deliveries reduced mortality, one would think that physicians would jump on the idea. Simple intervention, big results. Were they not compassionate men, concerned for the safety and well-being of their patients? In general, yes. Other advances they accepted willingly and sought out new information.  But in the case or puerperal fever, accepting the idea that hand-washing was necessary meant also accepting the idea that they had killed some of their previous patients. They had not merely been present at tragedy and regrettably helpless, which doctors know is their lot when they sign on to that job.  They had caused some deaths directly, which is harder to swallow.  So they instead denied that Semmelweis was correct, refusing to accept his theory.

Something similar happens in the giving and receiving of political insult. When I challenge a statement as insulting or an unfair accusation I encounter resistance.  That is hardly surprising, as none of us likes to be called out, and there is some loss of face involved. Yet I have always thought the resistance disproportionate. If the suggestion is delivered gently and politely, then it is not noticed and falls beneath the waves. But if I ratchet up to the threshold where my challenge must be dealt with, people are very much insulted, thinking themselves ill-used when they meant no harm. You have seen this at work or in families as well – the person who reports a problem is suddenly defined as the real problem.

No middle ground for most people.  There is a phase-change at the threshold. They either refuse to notice or get more annoyed than you’d think.  It is because it is not just about doing better moving forward, it is about admitting what has happened in the past. That was just my normal way of talking…that’s just how my friends and I talk about other people all the time… that’s not really calling people names… If that is offensive then I have been offending people for years.

Therefore, it can’t be offensive.  They deserved it…  They’re oversensitive… This country is in crisis and people have to take a stand… I’m just trying to point out a very real danger… It’s very hard for nice people to admit that they’re not nice, and it’s not an accident.

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