Voting - Part IIB: Bad Reasons
(I tried not to be tedious. I failed. It isn't in me, perhaps. Too long, too many references.)
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt , in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, clearly, emphatically stated that one of his objectives was to convince Democrats and liberals how to use his principles to win elections. There is a website derived from the book, and today's blogpost by Haidt is "How Democrats Can Use Moral Foundations Theory Against Trump." Why then would a clear, emphatic postliberal like myself want to talk about him so much and give him so many precious pixels? Because he is simply right about some core issues of bias, persuasion, memory, and moral understanding. I continue to have disagreements about major points, but he is doing work that no one else seems to want to touch. I must have written about him twenty times over the years, including one as recently as yesterday.
Our imaginative picture of ourselves is of a stalwart, decisive individual, considering competing ideas, weighing alternatives, and rationally deciding. We might allow, with a shrug, that we have some foibles which cause us to be a touch emotional rather than fully rational about some topics. That is a quite new picture of human beings. The ancients (up through the Enlightenment) thought differently, and used the mixed image of a strong rider, reason, mastering an unruly horse, emotion. Haidt reverses this progression entirely, and claims that our decision-making is more like a (rational) rider on an (intuitive) elephant, having some effect but no control. We know this to be true about those who disagree with us yet exempt ourselves, and certainly exempt those who sound most rational of our tribesmen and allies. Surely, someone, somewhere, has thought this out and we have been wise enough or lucky enough to have discovered them and listened to them, and are at least mostly independent deciders and Have Got It Mostly Right, because, well, just look at those idiots over there.
Haidt's not just making this up, ivory tower. He is concluding this from evidence he was very uncomfortable with at first. Me too. We want to think that free will means we are 90% in control, not 10%. That's not looking promising at present. Some brief Jonathan Haidt quotes. "The First Rule of Moral Psychology: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second." "We are emotional actors! We are highly intuitive beings who act first, and justify later. Our beliefs, convictions, and values are far less “rational” than we imagine."
So, Jonathan Haidt. Books, TED talks, magazine articles, published scholarly underpinnings that he has already pushed into replication studies. I found a new author for you to absorb who will modify your views on many things. Excitement!
Six years ago I did an extended series May WeBelieve Our Thoughts? which also came out to about twenty essays. These covered psychiatric conditions, personal memories, religious and political opinions, and social influences. Those interested in only the political parts will find them in #6, #9, #11, Opinions, #15-16, Self-Observation, and sorta #8 and Dunning-Kruger.
There's plenty of other readings on the subject. I've got more, if anyone's interested. For openers, the NPR series of a few years ago, the NY Times series of a few years ago, and the book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me).
I write all this introduction defensively, because the upshot is that Haidt is saying very nicely, with a positive spin, that which I think is darker: you hold your opinions for bad reasons. You aligned yourself years ago with some tribe you either come from or wanted to become part of, for largely selfish reasons, and have been selectively editing subsequent information according to confirmation bias ever since. It is very unlikely that you have examined your motives for this in anything more than a cursory way. Well, that's cheery, eh?
Hahahaha. It gets worse.
Let me assure you that this doesn't get any better as an election comes around. You are thus on the verge of making your most biased, least rational decision of the year, with your full focus on how it's those other guys who are being dangerously evil. There may be good, rational, reasons for voting for Candidate A or against Candidate B, but those aren't your reasons, Charlotte. Those are later rationalisations you tacked on.
And worse still (Jeezum crow, doesn't this guy ever let up?) It's really hard to fix. However, for the intellectually curious, I do have something fun coming up.
Here is a place where I am repeatedly puzzled. I reflexively wonder about my motivations for what I do all the time, have done it for years. I can't imagine anything differtent. All those spots in CS Lewis (Screwtape, The Great Divorce, A Grief Observed, Till We Have Faces, God In The Dock...) where this self-examination shows up were not anything new to me, but clarifications and explanations of what I already knew. I continually default to the idea that others must do this too - not so much as I, perhaps, but a lot. I think of it as the natural mode of thought - to ask, as an actor does "What's my motivation here?" Or What am I getting back from this? Am I just virtue signaling? Is this an automatic response borrowed from my main peer group? Is this just a 20th-21st C idea that we've swallowed whole for no reason? Could the opposite be true? What would Frodo advise? What would Ransom say? What Would Jesus Do?
Yeah, you're right, not many people do that. It sounds exhausting. Most moral obligations are.
So, your vote doesn't count, it's mostly irrational, and you really should fix that. The last bad part is that you can't make a dent in that this election season. There are just too many button-pushers around. The moment you think that staying home or leaving a slot blank is the only way to sanity, some joker will cross your path to tell you that you just don't hate Trump/Hillary enough, so let me tell you one more bad exaggerated thing about him/her, and you are off to the races again. Hell, even without them, you will push the buttons all by yourself at this point. You will get yourself stirred up. Every four years I watch a new version of Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" play out again.
Get a grip. Let me tell you about elections in Romania sometime. Or better still, here is the exercise that will bring calm. Consider past elections. Now that you know what came after, and how your hero or enemy exceeded or fell below expectations, don't things look different?. It's kinda fun, actually. It's not just "In retrospect, would you vote for Bill Clinton in 1996, Bush 41 in 1988, John Anderson in 1980..." but looking at yourself, voting, in that slot. Did you predict wrongly what he would be like? Did the SOB change? Did you think the world worked in a certain way then, but you think now that it works somewhat differently? Were you just posing for the camera to the people you worked with, or a girl you were trying to impress? Were you, in fact, a complete dink who should not have been allowed to vote? Whether you have Strange New Respect for the villain of 1984 or greater irritation for your hero of 2004 is not the point. The point is you. Elections are report cards about your personal growth.
You can't answer that sort of question about yourself while you are in the heat of an election. Even obsessives like me have a hard time with it. But you will find it not only possible, but wryly entertaining when you cast eye backward. It's not really painful at all after the first few times, and it is very instructive and amusing. Go backward, skipping 2012, which is still too close. How do 2008 and 2004 look now? What about Ross Perot and what you said about him then? What do you think Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon actually did right, did wrong, compared to what you asserted so confidently then? Take a drive or a long walk.
For pity's sake, don't write any of your bad motives and jerk ideas down, where others can possibly discover them and hold them against you. If you can't remember details, write them in some shorthand or code. And criminy, don't tell your wife or husband or anything. Do the exercise back to your childhood, but don't tell anyone for a few years. Let's not get crazy here. This is not an area where those closest to you are the safest.
If you don't learn something, then really, don't bother to try and think hard again. You might hurt yourself. The second benefit is that after you've finished you will be less insufferable in 2020, and the country will be less divided.
This is the secular version. I have additional comments for Christians in an upcoming post, which don't apply to the rest of you so I will leave out. If someone wants to warm up for those, I have a few short things to get you started. Virtue Signalling.Preparing for Elections