The following is more thoughts on the contrast between Germanic ‘freedom’ and Latin ‘liberty’ (see previous post: Libertarian Authoritarianism). The one is a non-legal construct of a more general culture, whereas the other is specifically a legal construct that was adapted to other ends, from philosophical ideal to spiritual otherworldliness as salvific emancipation. One important point is that liberty is specifically defined as not being a slave according to the law, but freedom is not directly or necessarily about slavery since freedom is more about what you are than what you are not. Though Germanic tribes had slaves, they weren’t fundamentally slave-based societies in the legal sense and economic structure of the Roman Empire.
Furthermore, the distinction is partly that ‘freedom’, as a word and a concept, developed in a pre-literate society of Germanic tribes, from which it was imported into England and carried to the American colonies. This freedom was expressed in informal practices of proto-democracy such as out-of-doors politics where people met on the commons to discuss important matters, a tradition that originated in northern Europe. Latin, on the other hand, was a language of literacy and the Roman Empire was one of the most literate societies in the ancient world. Our understanding of ‘liberty’ is strongly influenced by surviving ancient texts written by the literate elite, but the more common sense of ‘freedom’ was, in the past, mostly passed on by the custom of spoken language.
On a related note, Hanna Arendt was on the mind recently. She spent her early life in Germany, but, as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, she had strong opinions about certain issues. By the time Arendt was growing up in 20th century Germany, I’m not sure how much of the premodern Germanic notion of freedom remained, but maybe the underlying culture persisted. It meant, as noted, belonging to a free people; and that was part of the problem, as the Jews were perceived as not belonging. The old cultural meaning of freedom was not part of formal laws of a large centralized nation-state with a court system. One was either free as being a member or not, as it was defined more by sociocultural relationships and identity.
What was lacking was the complex legalistic and political hierachy of the Roman Empire where there were all kinds of nuances, variations, and complexities involving one’s sociopolitical position. Being a Roman slave or a Roman citizen (or something in between), as a legal status, primarily was defined by one’s relationship to the state. Liberty was also an economic matter that signified one owned oneself, as opposed to being owned by another. The metaphor of ownership was not a defining feature of Germanic freedom.
The problem the Jewish people had with the Nazis was a legal issue. The civil rights they once possessed as German citizens suddenly were gone. The civil rights, Arendt argued, that the government gives could likewise be taken away by the government. Something else was required to guarantee and protect human value and dignity. Maybe that has to do with a culture of trust, what she felt was lacking or something related to it. The Nazis, though, were maybe all about a culture of trust, even if Jews were not in their circle of trust. Mere legalities such as civil rights were secondary as expressions of culture, rather than culture being shaped by a law system as part of legalistic traditions and mindset.
Arendt may never have considered the difference between liberty and freedom. It would’ve been interesting if she could have drawn upon the cultural history of the ancient Germanic tradition of freedom as community membership, which resonates with the older worldview of a commons. Liberty, as originating within a legalistic mindset, has no greater authority to proclaim outside of law, be it actual law (the state) or law as metaphor (natural law). Even invoking natural law, as Stoics did, can be of limited power; but it was used with greater force when wielded by radical-minded revolutionaries to challenge human law.
A deeper understanding of culture is what is missing, both the benefits and the harms. Maybe the Nazis were going by that culture of freedom and the Jews, as a perceived different culture, simply did not belong and so were deemed a threat. In a culture demanding a sense of belonging to a shared identity, difference could not be tolerated and diversity not allowed. Certain kinds of legalistic systems, on the other hand, can incorporate multiculturalism as seen with the Roman Empire and Napoleon’s French Empire, the military of the latter having consisted of soldiers that were primarily non-French. One can legally have citizenship and civil rights without having to share culture.
Also, it might be similar to how different ethnic groups can belong to the same larger Catholic Church, while Protestant traditions have more often been ethnic or nation specific. Catholicism, after all, developed directly out of Roman imperialism. It is true that Catholicism does have more of a legalistic structure to its hierarchy and practices. It was the legalistic view of buying indulgences as an economic contract with the Church as representative of a law-making God that was a major complaint in the Protestant Reformation. Protestants, concentrated in Northwestern Europe, preferred religion to have a more personal and communal expression that was concretely embodied in the congregation, not in a churchly institution of rules and rituals.
Like the Germans, the Scandinavians (and Japanese) have also emphasized the cultural approach. This common culture can allow for effective social democracies but also effective totalitarian regimes. Maybe that is why the American Midwest of Germanic and Scandinavian ancestry was the birthplace of the American Melting Pot, sometimes a cultural assimilation enforced by violent threat and punishment (English only laws, Second Klan, etc); and indeed some early Midwestern literature portrayed the homogenizing force of oppressive conformity. To the Midwestern mind, American identity too often became a hegemony (even making claims upon Standard American English), but at the same time anyone who assimilated (in being allowed to assimilate) was treated as equal. Some have noted that American-style assimilation has allowed immigration to be less of a problem than seen with the more common practice of housing segregation in Europe.
So, it might not be an accident that Southerners always were the most resistant to assimilate to mainstream American culture, while also being resistant to Northerner’s notions of equality. The hierarchical society of the South does to an extent allow populations to maintain their separate cultures and identities, but does so through a long history of enforced segregation and discrimination of racial laws. That is why there is still a separate black culture and Scots-Irish culture of the lower classes, as separate from the Cavalier culture of the ruling class — it’s separate and unequal; i.e. liberty. Assimilation is not an option, even if one wanted to, but the nature of the overall culture disinclines people from wanting it, as seen in how Southerners have continued to self-segregate themselves long after segregation laws ended.
The Southern emphasis on individual liberty is because it’s generally the individual who relates to the state and it’s laws. The communal aspect of life, in the South, is not found in governance so much as in kinship and church. That is the difference in how, particularly in the Midwest, the Northern attitude tends to more closely mix community and governance, as communal is more seen as cutting across all groups that are perceived as belonging (maybe why kinship and church is less central in the Midwest; and related to the emphasis on the nuclear family first promoted by the Quakers from the Scandinavian-settled English Midlands). Ethnic culture in the Midwest has disappeared more quickly than in the South. But this greater communal identity also defines individuality as more cultural than legal.
Legalistic individuality, in the modern world, is very capitalist in nature or otherwise expressed in material forms. Liberty-minded individualism is about self-ownership and the propertied self. To own oneself means to not be owned by another. That is why Thomas Jefferson saw individual freedom in terms of yeoman farming where an individual owned land, as property defined freedom. The more property one has, the more liberty one has as an individual; because one is independent by not being a dependent on others but rather to make others dependent. This relates to how, during the colonial era, the Southern governments gave more land based on their number of dependents (family, indentured servants, and slaves).
That is why a business owner and others in the propertied class have greater individuality in having the resources to act with less constraint, specifically in legal terms as money and power have always gone hand in hand, particularly in the South. A factory owner with hundreds of employees has more liberty-minded individuality, in the way did a plantation aristocrat with hundreds of slaves. Inequality before the legal system of power and privilege is what defines liberty. That explains how liberty has taken on such potent significance, as it has been tightly controlled as a rare commodity. Yet the state of dependence is more closely connected to liberty in general, as even aristocrats were trapped within societal expectations and obligations of social role. Liberty is primarily about one’s legal status and formal position, which can be a highly structured individuality — maybe why Stoics associated the ideal of liberty with the love of fate in denying free will.
As African-American culture was shaped in the South, this legalistic mentality might be why the black movement for freedom emphasized legal changes of civil rights, initially fighting for the negative freedom (i.e., liberty) of not being actively oppressed. They wanted equality before the law, not equality as assimilated cultural membership — besides, whites were more willing to assent to the former than the latter. This same legalistic mentality might go the heart of why Southerners are so offended by what they describe as illegal immigrants, whereas Northerners are more likely to speak of undocumented immigrants. This is typically described as being ideological, conservatism versus liberalism, but maybe it’s more having to do with the regional divide between the legalistic mind and the cultural mind where ideological identities have become shaped by regional cultures.
There is also a divide in the ideological perception of protest culture, a democratic phenomenon more common in the North than the South. To the Southern mind, there is an old fear about totalizing ideologies of the North, whereas their own way of life is thought of as a non-ideological tradition. Liberal rhetoric is more grounded in the culture of freedom as more all-encompassing ideological worldview than coherent ideological system as embodied in Southern legalism. This makes it more acceptable to challenge laws in the North because culture informs the legal system more than the other way around; that is to say, law is secondary (consider the living, as opposed to legalistic, interpretation of the Constitution that has it’s origins in Quaker constitutionalism; a constitution is a living agreement of a living generation, not the dead hand of law). That is maybe why there is the conservative pushback against a perceived cultural force that threatens their sense of liberty, as the culture of freedom is more vague and pervasive in its influence. The conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism is maybe the conservative’s attempt to grasp this liberal-minded culture that feels alien to them.
Liberty and freedom is part of an old Anglo-American dialogue, a creative flux of ideas.To lop off one side would be to cripple American society, and yet the two remain uneasy and unresolved in their relationship. Sadly, it’s typically freedom (i.e., positive freedom and sociocultural freedom) that gets the short shrift in how both the left and right too often became caught up in political battles of legalistic conflicts over civil rights and court cases, even to the point that the democratic process becomes legalistic in design; with the culture of freedom and democracy being cast aside. Consider the power that has grown within the Supreme Court to decide not only political but also economic and social issues, cultural and moral issues (e.g., abortion). As democracy has weakened and legalism further taken hold, we’ve forgotten about how freedom and democracy always were first and foremost about culture with politics being the result, not the cause. The gut-level sense of freedom remains in the larger culture, but the liberty-minded legalism has come to rule the government, as well as the economy. That is why there can be such clashes between police and protesters, as each embodies a separate vision of America; and this is why property damage is always featured in the corporate media’s narrative about protests.
The ideal of freedom has such power over the mind. It harkens back to an earlier way of living, a simpler form of society. Freedom as culture is a shared experience of shared identity, maybe drawing upon faint memories of what Julian Jaynes called the bicameral mind. When the Bronze Age was coming to an end, a new kind of rule-based legalism emerged, including laws literally etched into stone as never before seen. But the mentality that preceded it didn’t entirely disappear. We know of it in ourselves from a sense of loss and nostalgia we have a hard time pinpointing. That is why freedom is such a vague concept, as opposed to liberty’s straightforward definition. We are haunted by the promise of freedom, but without quite knowing what it would mean to be free. Our heavy reliance on systems of liberty is, in a sense, a failure to protect and express some deep longing within us, the simple but undeniable need to belong.
“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationship with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
In this supposed post-fact age dominated by alt-facts, it has come to be questioned how much truth matters. This is hardly a new concern, simply because we have proud ignoramus as president, as Ron Suskind years ago wrote of Karl Rove:
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.”
When ignorance is cynically wielded as a weapon, what power can truth have? The problem of ignorance isn’t only about what we don’t know but what we ignore, sometimes what pretend to not know, sometimes even to ourselves by way of dissociation or else by way of welcoming any comforting lie. There are cognitive biases and failures that we are prone to, as our shared human inheritance, but it has been claimed that some are more prone than others — as I’ve argued in the past (6 years ago):
Research shows that liberals are more willing to challenge authority and so lack the submissive attitude of unquestioning respect toward authority which is common among conservatives. For example, more liberals than conservatives state they’d be willing to slap their own father. ‘Openness’ is the main psychological trait that correlates to liberalism. What ‘openness’ is about is cognitive complexity, capacity for cognitive dissonance, intellectual curiosity, desire to experiment and explore, etc. But ‘openness’ also relates to being less inclined to fall into motivated reasoning (confirmation bias, backfire effect, etc)… on issues related to politics, anyway. I’ll point out the obvious fact that ‘openness’ can’t operate while submitting to authority. […]
Relatively speaking, liberals are more rational than conservatives when it comes to political issues (or so the research shows it to be the case in liberal democracies like the US). This is significant since the political issues that provoke the strongest motivated reasoning are always mired in moral issues, all of politics ultimately being inseparable from morality. In practical terms, this doesn’t necessarily mean liberals are more well informed for that has more to do with education and there are plenty of well educated conservatives; but what it does mean (as shown by research; read Mooney’s book for a helpful summary) is that liberals are less misinformed while conservatives are more misinformed. The odd part is that conservatives are more misinformed to the degree they are informed, what is described as the “smart idiot” effect. This also relates to how conservatives and experts (well educated conservatives fitting both categories) are most prone to the backfire effect which is when challenging info causes someone to become even stronger in their opinions.
Is that true? Does the evidence still support this assessment? That is what I’ll explore.
Let me be clear. One of my favorite hobbies is criticizing and complaining about liberals (e.g., Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures) and increasingly left-wingers as well (e.g., Is there a balance point in a society of extremes?). I end up obsessing more about the political left than the political right and my conclusions are often far from kind, to such an extent that I’ve lost some liberal friends these past couple of years (even my sister-in-law, a good liberal and partisan Democrat, who likes me on a personal level admitted that she blocked me on Facebook because of my political views). I personally know liberalism as someone who is a liberal, having been raised in a liberal church and having spent most of my life in a liberal town. But when I speak of conservatism, I also do so from a personal perspective, having been raised by conservative parents and having spent much of my life in conservative places (even this liberal town is in a rural farm state that is conservative in many ways, the state government presently controlled by right-wing Republicans).
My picking on conservatism isn’t separate from my picking on liberals. One of the main irritations about liberals is how easily, under conditions of stress and cognitive overload, they begin thinking and acting like conservatives. Under those conditions, liberals will share the same tendencies and biases as conservatives. The difference is that it requires pushing liberals out of their preferred mindset to get this response from them. This interests me more, the conditions that create and change ideological mindsets — that isn’t exactly my focus here, but it relates.
My own view is more in line with Chris Mooney, as opposed to Jonathan Haidt (I should point out that when I first read about Haidt’s research many years ago I found it quite compelling or at least interesting, but I later changed my mind as I read his book and analyzed his arguments and data more closely). Some see these two thinkers as making the same basic argument. It’s true that they rarely disagree about much (at least, not strongly when the two dialogue in person), and Mooney goes so far as to praise Haidt while sometimes dismissing apparent differences. I understand how their their arguments resonate, as they both started from a liberal position and from there sought to understand the American ideological divide. They share a common goal, to improve understanding and communication. Still, I sense something fundamentally different not just about their views but how they approach and hold those views. Their ultimate conclusions diverge greatly, Mooney leaning to the left and Haidt leaning over backwards toward the right. As I see it, much of what Haidt says is way off the mark. And for this reason, he is an example of the kind of public intellectual that confuses and annoys me, despite his amiable personality and liberal-minded good intentions. Mooney, though also being a fairly standard liberal, has a way of being more direct and so what can seem more honest, calling a spade a spade (The Republican Brain, Kindle Locations 2075-2079):
“You will probably have noted by now that the moral intuition research of Haidt and Ditto is not fully separate from the [cognitive] research covered in the last chapter. It overlaps. For instance, take conservatives’ greater respect for authority, and their stronger loyalty to the in-group, the tribe, the team. Respect for authority, at its extreme, is hard to distinguish from authoritarianism. And viewing the world with a strong distinction between the in-group and the out-group clearly relates to having lower integrative complexity and less tolerance of difference (although it can also, on a more positive note, mean showing loyalty and allegiance to one’s friends, and more patriotism).”
So, Haidt’s view of intuition being greater than reasoning has some truth to it while also containing much speculation. We know that all people are predisposed to motivated reasoning. Yes, such bias can manifest as post hoc rationalizations of our intuited moral values. What Haidt ignores or doesn’t fully acknowledge, intentionally or not, is that not all people are equally predisposed to motivated reasoning in all types of situations. Mooney’s book presents a logical argument based on damning evidence about how conservatives are more predisposed to motivated reasoning when it comes to political issues, and it is clear that political issues are inseparable from moral issues in these cases of motivated reasoning.
A major example of motivated reasoning is the backfire effect. It has been well researched at this point. And the research shows it to be complex and context-dependent, as is presumably true of any cognitive biases. One early result found was that two oddly paired groups were most prone to the backfire effect, conservatives and the highly educated with highly educated conservatives being the worst (I’ll further discuss this finding below).
What can we make of this? As always, it depends. It’s not that conservatives are inherently anti-truth and anti-fact, anti-intellectual and anti-science. If you go back almost a half century ago, conservatives actually had slightly greater trust in science than liberals at the time, the two having switched places over time (the same was true with average IQ, having been higher among Republicans under Reagan but since then having been higher among Democrats, but intriguing piece of data is straying too far afield).
Why is that? Why did this change occur? There might be a simple explanation for it. During the Cold War, scientists were highly respected and science heavily funded by government in the fight against communism. For conservatives, the Cold War was all about an ideological war and a defense of the American Way. A major form that took was a technological competition between the two global superpowers, a space race and a nuclear weapons conflict. Science was a tool of ideology and the ideology in question was in line with an authoritarian vision of establishment power and a socially conservative vision of a status quo social order (an era during which perceived leftist radicals and deviants were the victims of big gov and big biz oppression, targeted by witch-hunts, blackballing, COINTELPRO, etc). Government funding of science and technology was often directly linked to the the military (e.g., R&D that created an early version of the internet as a communication system that would survive a military attack), and hence proof and expression of American greatness as part of the Whiggish view of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. Liberal values were also useful in the fight against communism and, unsurprisingly, during the early Cold War even conservatives like Ike and Nixon would publicly praise liberalism.
Humans in general are swayed by consensus views as an indicator of social norms. But conservatives are particularly motivated, as consensus among authority figures can be useful for conformity within and enforcement of the social order. In the anti-communist mindset back then, science and liberalism were part of the status quo of idealized American greatness as embodied in the American Dream (industrialized technology being commodified and experienced through a growing middle class of citizen-consumers; e.g., “Better living through chemistry”), what supposedly differentiated us from the backward authoritarianism of the Soviet regime (the ‘progressive’ authoritarianism of neocon corporatism is so much better!).
As the USSR weakened and eventually the Cold War ended, that consensus was broken and there was no longer a foreign authoritarian power posing a real threat. Liberalism and science no longer served any ideological purpose for the conservative agenda. So, to the conservative mind, liberalism once again became the enemy and so scientists were treated as liberal elites to be opposed (of course, excluding all of the scientists working for corporations and right-wing think tanks, as the big money of capitalism washes away their sins of intellectual pride; and also conveniently ignoring the sizable proportion of scientists along with engineering and tech field professors in universities who are on the political right).
When the US lost its only major global competitor with the collapse of the Soviet Union, consensus seemed irrelevant. America ruled the world and the Cold War had pushed conservatives into power. Conservatives didn’t need to make any concessions or compromises with the ideological opposition, as decades of persecution had broken the back of the political left. Conservatives no longer felt a need to justify themselves or look for allies. But that is changing now that the American star is on the decline and new global competitors are taking the stage. We have the opportunity to put pressure back on the political right for they are vulnerable to persuasion right now by anyone who will take advantage of it.
This brings me back to some of the research on backfire effect. This pressure seems to work. In Cosmos Magazine, Jeff Glorfeld offers a happy thought: “The added negative effect of conservatism plus high education was completely neutralised through exposure to the fact of scientific agreement around man-made climate change.” Consensus prevails! What this means is that defeating backfire effect requires pulling out the big guns. Repeat, repeat, repeat the facts of consensus. Don’t be shy about it!
More generally, I must admit that the backfire effect research doesn’t allow for simple conclusions. Some of it even seems contradictory, but I suspect this is because of the multiple factors (many of them confounding) involved. There is no single population and single set of conditions and so it’s unsurprising that various studies using different subjects from different backgrounds would come to different results (and we aren’t even talking about the even larger biases and problems of this kind of WEIRD research). Some of what we presently think we know about backfire effect and similar motivated reasoning might turn out to be wrong, misinterpreted, or more nuanced.
Let me give an example. Related to the above discussion about consensus, previous research wasn’t replicated by recent research (see: Wood & Porter’s published The Elusive Backfire Effect; Guess & Coppock’s unpublished The Exception, Not the Rule?). It indicates backfire effect might not be so strong and common, after all (not that the original researchers ever claimed it was ubiquitous and, showing no backfire effect of their own, the original researchers have supported the publishing of this new data). Also, there is no new evidence of any ideological disparity, if anything demonstrating that moderates are the least prone to it (are we to assume moderates are the least ideologically dogmatic in the partisan sense or are they simply the most apathetic with fewer ideological commitments because of intellectual laziness, thoughtlessness, or whatever?). Does this disprove the prior research? Flynn, Nyhand, and Reifler responded with some commentary.
Whatever it might or might not mean, I wouldn’t allow this to comfort you too much. Even though “[t]his finding is contested by other research that finds limited evidence that corrective information contributes to such a ‘backfire effect,'” writes Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich (Truth Decay, p. 83), “even this research suggests that altering preexisting beliefs can be difficult.” One of the authors of the published work, Ethan Porter, admits that what “Our work shows is that people do accept new information, but we have no evidence that this then affects their downstream policy attitudes.”
This latter suspicion was confirmed, at least among certain people. The original researchers collaborated with the challenging researchers. They again couldn’t find backfire effect, which seems to put the original research into doubt, although it is a bit early to come to strong conclusions. What they did find was maybe even more disheartening, as written about in a Vox piece by Brian Resnick — that “facts make an impression. They just don’t matter for our decision-making, which is a conclusion that’s abundant in psychology science.” And this is specifically relevant for the present: “there’s still a big problem: Trump supporters know their candidate lies, but that doesn’t change how they feel about him. Which prompts a scary thought: Is this just a Trump phenomenon? Or can any charismatic politician get away with being called out on lies?” It still doesn’t disprove the backfire effect, since it’s possible that they had already backfired as far back as they could go at this point: “Many of his supporters may have to come to terms with his records of misstatements by the time this study was conducted.” Further research will be required.
If we take this latest research as is, it would simply justify the view of backfire effect being the least of our worries. Backfire effect can only occur after facts are shown to someone and they look at them. But how often do political debates even get to the point where facts get exchanged, much less acknowledged?
“At least it’s nice to know that facts do make an impression, right? On the other hand, we tend to avoid confronting facts that run hostile to our political allegiances. Getting partisans to confront facts might be easy in the context of an online experiment. It’s much harder to do in the real world.”
* * *
Let me make a note. Ideological mindsets are as much social constructs as are races. They are part of a particular social order and cultural worldview. Conservatives and liberals didn’t exist until the Enlightenment. Any such labels are one of many possible ways of grouping diverse potentials and tendencies within human nature.
That might explain why, as research shows (in the American population at least), there is an overlap between conservatism and authoritarianism. But that is just another way of saying all authoritarians, left and right, are socially conservative (the reason why it is sometimes referred to as right-wing authoritarianism, as there is no such thing as socially liberal authoritarianism) — whereas fiscal conservatism has no known positive or negative correlation to authoritarianism (so-called fiscal conservatism simply being an old form of liberalism, i.e., classical liberalism). So, this is the reason authoritarians are mostly found on the political right in countries like the United States and on the political left in countries like Russia (left and liberal not being the same thing, as always depending on what specific ideologies we are talking about).
It depends on context, on definition and perception. There is no singular ‘conservatism’ for its just a general way of speaking about overlapping patterns of ideology, culture, personality, and neurology. The overlap of social conservatism and fiscal conservatism in contemporary American thought might be more of a fluke of historical conditions. Russell Kirk, the godfather of modern American conservatism, actually thought the two were fundamentally incompatible.
A recent study by the Duke Reporters’ Lab shows that, in addition to a partisan difference in the frequency of lying, there is a partisan division over the very idea of fact-checking itself.
The researchers logged 792 statements mentioning fact-checkers and coded them as positive, negative or neutral. While a majority of citations (68 percent) were neutral, they found a dramatic divide in the source of negative comments. The study noted 71 accusations of bias against fact-checkers. Conservative websites were responsible for 97 percent of them.
The study shows that conservative sites take a hostile, negative attitude toward the practice of fact-checking. In some cases the tone is hardly subtle. In one example, they cite Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online, who noted that Hillary Clinton’s record with the truth was far from spotless. “Even PolitiFact, the hackiest and most biased of the fact-checking outfits, which bends over like a Bangkok hooker to defend Democrats, has a long list of her more recent lies.”
Goldberg seems pleased that Politifact has a list of Clinton’s lies, but at the same time he feels compelled to denigrate the fact-checking operation that produced the list. In fact, the Duke study shows that even when conservative sites are happy to reference fact-checks that bolster their ideological perspective, they often still find a way to denigrate their sources.
Other neurological studies seem congruent with Westen’s findings. In the 1980s, pop psychology began to describe people as either left or right brained and suggested that the characteristic determined whether they tended to be more artistic, sensitive, thoughtful, creative, emotional, or analytical, depending on which lobes of the brain dominated their thought processing and behavior. The theory that everyone is either one or the other has been roundly disputed in recent years. Now, however, it appears there may be something to the basic idea after all, and that the unique characteristics of the left and right lobes of the brain may have consequences in political communication.
Journalist and author Chris Mooney has written extensively on how different kinds of political messages are received and processed by different people. Mooney has built on Westen’s research about neurological differences in processing varying kinds of messages. In his 2012 book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, he points to research that finds the predisposition to process stimuli in one lobe of the brain or the other is due to an actual physical difference in the size of the respective lobes.
Some people, says Mooney, actually have a larger right brain lobe, including the limbic system, which supports emotion, behavior, motivation, and long-term memory. Other people, he says, have a larger left brain lobe and tend to process most information through their prefrontal cortex, the lobes that help in reasoning and logical processing.
Mooney suggests that this neurological difference can reflect political tendencies. In The Republican Brain, Mooney describes “a recent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of 90 University College of London students that found on average, political conservatives actually had a larger right lobe, including the amygdalae, while political liberals had more gray matter in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC),” part of the brain’s frontal lobe, with many links to the prefrontal cortex.
This seems consistent with studies conducted in 2013 by Darren Schreiber, a researcher in neuropolitics at the University of Exeter in the UK, and colleagues at the University of California. Their research was described in “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans” in the international online journal PLOS ONE.
The study used data from a previous experiment in which a group of people were asked to play a simple gambling task. Schreiber’s team took the brain activity measurement of eighty-two people and cross-referenced them with the participants’ publicly available political party registration data. They found that Republicans tended to use their right amygdala, the part of the brain associated with the body’s fight-or-flight system, when making risk-taking decisions; Democrats tended to show greater activity in their left insula, an area associated with self and social awareness.
Schreiber claims the insula/amygdala brain function model offers an 82.9 percent accuracy rate in predicting whether a person is a Democrat or Republican. In comparison, the longstanding model using the party affiliation of parents to predict a child’s affiliation is accurate about 69.5 percent of the time. Another model based on the differences in brain structure distinguishes liberals from conservatives with 71.6 percent accuracy.
Mooney cites other academic research findings indicating that people whose limbic system is more involved in processing information are less likely to change their minds. Once they have arrived at a position on an issue that is congruent with their belief system and values, they are unlikely to change their minds even when presented with irrefutable evidence to support a different viewpoint. They will actually reject or discount facts or attempt to discredit the source of facts that conflict with their position.
A series of related behavioral concepts could shed light on why different people seem to react differently to various political messages. One of the best known concepts is motivated reasoning, which is based on research findings, such as that described by Mooney, that some people tend to process most information through the prefrontal cortex of their brains while others tend to receive and process information through the limbic system.
Other research has found that subjects who tend to process information through the prefrontal lobes of the brain tend to be more open to new information, and to be more politically liberal. Those subjects who tend to process information through the emotion-centers in the brain tend to be more politically conservative.
Telling people that a consumer claim is false can make them misremember it as true. In two experiments older adults were especially susceptible to this “illusion of truth” effect. Repeatedly identifying a claim as false helped older adults remember it as false in the short term, but paradoxically made them more likely to remember it as true after a three-day delay. This unintended effect of repetition comes from increased familiarity with the claim itself, but decreased recollection of the claim’s original context. Findings provide insight into susceptibility over time to memory distortions and exploitation via repetition of claims in media and advertising.
People’s inability to update their memories in light of corrective information may have important public health consequences, as in the case of vaccination choice. In the present study, we compare three potentially effective strategies in vaccine promotion: one contrasting myths vs. facts, one employing fact and icon boxes, and one showing images of non-vaccinated sick children. Beliefs in the autism/vaccines link and in vaccines side effects, along with intention to vaccinate a future child, were evaluated both immediately after the correction intervention and after a 7-day delay to reveal possible backfire effects. Results show that existing strategies to correct vaccine misinformation are ineffective and often backfire, resulting in the unintended opposite effect, reinforcing ill-founded beliefs about vaccination and reducing intentions to vaccinate.
But bursting mythical bubbles can also backfire. The first problem is that people are easily persuaded by things they hear more often. “The mere repetition of a myth leads people to believe it to be more true,” notes Christina Peter, a communication scientist at the Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich.
And unfortunately, our brains don’t remember myths in a very helpful way. “There’s a lot of research that tells us people have a hard time remembering negations,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol in England. We remember myths not as myths, but rather as statements that are additionally tagged as “false.” So instead of remembering “cheese is nothing like crack,” our brains remember “cheese is like crack (false).” As our memories fade, the qualifier on the statement may fade too, leaving us with the false idea that brie really is the next cocaine.
Peter and her colleague Thomas Koch decided to find out how best to combat this backfire effect — our tendency to misremember myths as fact — when confronted with scientific information. They recruited 335 volunteers and asked them to read three newspaper articles. The first and last were decoys. The important one was in the middle, and concerned a new in-home bowel cancer test. The article included eight statements about the new test, with each immediately identified as fact or myth, and with an explanation of why the items were true or false.
The scientists also asked the participants to focus on different things. They asked one group to form an opinion about the articles as they read them. They asked another just to study the language.
After all the groups were done reading, Peter and Koch presented them with the eight statements from the bowel test article, and asked them whether they were true or false. Then the scientists asked the participants those questions again after five days to test what they retained.
Readers who focused just on the language of the articles suffered from the backfire effect. They were more likely to remember false statements as true than to remember true statements as false. This backfire effect got stronger when they saw the statements again five days later, and it influenced what they thought of the bowel test. The articles described the test in a slightly negative light. But if people remembered more of the myths as facts, they ended up with a positive view of the test. Oops.
But the backfire effect changed if participants formed an opinion as they read. Participants who were making up their minds on the fly made errors half as often as those who were reading only for language.
Peter says the results suggest that when presenting readers with new information, “try to avoid repeating false information,” since that may be what remains in people’s minds. And in some situations, Peter says, asking readers for their opinion or getting them to form an opinion as they read might help them distinguish between what is truth and what is myth. Peter and Koch published their results in the January Science Communication.
For me there are two main limitations of this study – the first is that it is difficult to extrapolate from the artificial setting of a psychological study to an emotional discussion around the dinner table (or in the comments to a blog). It seems likely that people are much more willing to be reasonable in the former setting.
Second, we have no idea how persistent the correction effect is. People may immediately correct their belief, but then quickly forget the new information that runs counter to their narrative. That would be consistent with my personal experience, at least some of the time. It seems I can correct someone’s false information, with objective references, but then a month later they repeat their original claim as if the prior conversation never happened. I would love to see some long term follow up to these studies.
So if people do not respond to ideologically inconvenient facts by forming counterarguments and moving away from them (again – that is the backfire effect) then what do they do? The authors discuss a competing hypothesis, that people are fundamentally intellectually lazy. In fact, forming counterarguments is a lot of mental work that people will tend to avoid. It is much easier to just ignore the new facts.
Further there is evidence that to some extent people not only ignore facts, they may think that facts are not important. They may conclude that the specific fact they are being presented is not relevant to their ideological belief. Or they may believe that facts in general are not important.
What that generally means is that they dismiss facts as being biased and subjective. You have your facts, but I have my facts, and everyone is entitled to their opinion – meaning they get to choose which facts to believe.
Of course all of this is exacerbated by the echochamber effect. People overwhelmingly seek out sources of information that are in line with their ideology.
I think it is very important to recognize that the backfire effect is a small or perhaps even nonexistent phenomenon. The problem with belief in the backfire effect is that it portrays people as hopelessly biased, and suggests that attempts at educating people or changing their mind is fruitless. It suggests that the problem of incorrect beliefs is an unfixable inherent problem with human psychology.
Mick West says:
January 4, 2018 at 11:52 am
The primary problem with this study is that it is only measuring the IMMEDIATE effect of corrections. As they say in the final sentence of the discussion, there’s little backfire effect to correcting ideologically biased misinformation “at least for a brief moment”. It tells use nothing about what might happen weeks or months later. In fact the design of the study seems more like a reading comprehension test than about measuring changes in belief.
I’d recommend people have a look at the overview of backfire effects in The Debunking Handbook by Cook & Lewandowsky (free online). They identify three types: Familiarity Backfire, Overkill Backfire, and Worldview Backfire. Worldview backfire (which the Wood & Porter study measures) is more manifest as a disconfirmation bias, something which Wood and Porter dismiss, but don’t measure – not because people are too lazy to come up with alternative explanations, but because the immediate nature of the study does not allow the participants time for any mental gymnastics. The other two forms of backfire are likewise things that happen over time.
So I’d not put too large an asterisk on the backfire effect just yet.
January 4, 2018 at 2:35 pm
I think that the backfire effect is most likely an emotional response. I’m reading “Crucial Conversations” right now and this book describes emotional responses to uncomfortable conversations- attacking someone who disagrees with you (perceived as an adversary) and defending yourself without thinking are a huge portion of this book. This model seems to fits both anecdotal observations of the backfire effect and this new research.
The mechanical turn questions appear to be emotionless and have no cues from an opponent with an opposing view. The corrections were all “neutral data from [cited] governmental sources.”. I’d bet that changing the factual correction to “No it isn’t you asshole! President Obama has deported illegal immigrants at twice the rate of Bush!” (note no source cited, because we rarely remember them in conversations) would elicit some sort of backfire effect that would likely be even larger if delivered emotionally and in person by an “adversary”. Maybe this all means that the key to eliminating any backfire effect is removing emotion from your response and accurately citing neutral sources. Maybe this means that dispassionate real-time fact checking of politicians could actually make a difference. Regardless, this is an interesting addition to the literature and conversation. It restores some of my hope.
January 4, 2018 at 11:37 pm
I’d wager that the reason for this would be in line with the research for motivational interviewing (a therapy technique) as well as the research around stigma, shame and vulnerability. Basically, when people make arguments that appear to be part of the ‘backfire’ effect, they’re actually responding to the feeling of being cornered, the loss of control and power in find found incorrect and the possible sense of alienation they feel about identifying with an ‘incorrect’ belief. If this is correct, it’s likely that these people would, under the right circumstances/ to people they feel safe with, admit that X belief is wrong, but they need adhere to it for other reasons (to belong in a group, to annoy someone they dislike, to avoid losing face).
January 5, 2018 at 3:41 am
From my experience the backfire effect kicks in when folks can’t say “woops, was I wrong on that one”.
Folks only change their minds as long as the subject doesn’t breech their little personal cocoon. And even then it’s often FIFO (first in first out).
Jordan Peterson has attracted a lot of media attention. I have no interest in discussing his views on gender pronouns. And I’m not going to write a hit piece on him. But I was curious to understand where he is coming from. I looked at a bunch of articles and videos about him along with some of his talks and interviews. A few things stood out to me. Here is how he identifies himself:
“Politically, I am a classic British liberal. Temperamentally, I am high in openness, which tilts me to the left, although I am also conscientious, which tilts me to the right. Philosophically I am an individualist, not a collectivist, of the right or the left. Metaphisically, I am an American pragmatist, who has been strongly influenced by the psychoanalytic and clinical thinking of Freud, Jung and the psychotherapists who have followed in their wake.”
This makes me think of a classical liberal like Edmund Burke but not classical liberal like Thomas Paine. In the American tradition, Peterson might be more in line with Russel Kirk, what some would now call paleoconservative, expressing a dislike of libertarians (“chirping sectaries“) and mistrust of laissez faire capitalism — having written the most famous book on American conservatism, Kirk once voted for a socialist candidate for president rather than voting for the imperialists in either of the two main parties (this relates to Kirk’s ‘conservativsm’ having prioritized moral character over political ideology). Burke has been claimed by both the right and the left for he offers much to choose from: politician of the liberal party, anti-corporatist, progressive reformer, willing to challenge established authority, and critic of imperialism; yet also traditionalist of sorts by way of moral imagination, British nationalist, anti-radical, reactionary tendencies, fear of revolution (although initially supported American Revolution), and suspicion toward abstract ideology.
Peterson likewise has much that appeals to people across the political spectrum. But maybe like Burke, he dislikes what he perceives as the extremists at both ends of the spectrum. At the moment, it’s his more conservative-sounding positions that are getting all the media attention. Here is an example from his popular book, 12 Rules for Life (p. 156):
“Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?”
This is the whole focus on individualism and meritocracy, a major strain within classical liberalism that is presently advocated most loudly by conservatives and right-wingers, although much of it still fits within the contemporary liberal worldview (this post began as a comment responding to a Canadian friend who, as a progressive liberal, recommended Peterson to me). He seems to be of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps school of thought, which is a mainstay of American ideology — and even though a Canadian, Peterson admits to being influenced by American thought. Those on the political right eat up that rhetoric of hyper-individualism, as it fits into the ideological worldview of social Darwinism and capitalist realism.
Having recently watched an interview with Johann Hari about his new book on depression, I would note that what Peterson says is the complete opposite message. Hari’s view is based on the idea that there is no way for us to reorder our experience without also reordering our lives, our relationships, our communities, and our society, not to mention maybe also our economy and government. And this might be where Peterson diverges from paleoconservatism which heavily emphasizes the social aspect of social conservatism. Russell Kirk, in this area of thought, would more likely agree with Hari than Peterson. When Peterson calls himself a classical liberal or British liberal, this expresses a turning away from the traditional aspects of social conservatism that put the social before the individual.
I would argue that, as individuals in this society, the worst problems and greatest challenges we are facing are systemic and not individual. There has been worsening inequality, decreasing mobility, and and increasing mental illness (at least in the US) for generations (e.g., higher rates of urbanization has been strongly correlated to higher rates of schizophrenia). I could go on and on about all of that, as I’ve done many times before. The younger generation are experiencing pressure like no generation ever has before and so Peterson’s traditional(-sounding) advice designed from a simpler era is probably not all that helpful in these complex times — for, even if we were to agree that he points to enduring truths, the context of changing conditions would change the significance and applicability of those truths.
Many have noted that Peterson isn’t saying anything new, the comforting familiarity of his message being part of the attraction, but many of the struggles right now are new or else are taking different form and greater severity. Yet if Peterson offers nothing original, then how is he genuinely challenging anyone, either in how we act as individuals or in how we relate as a society. Harkening back to supposed traditional wisdom maybe misses the point, especially when it ends up offering further support for the anti-traditional social order defended by the modern reactionary mind. All that this does is feed into pseudo-nostalgic fantasies, as preached by a professor playing the role of a stern father figure. That is assuming my assessment of his message is correct.
Ignoring that, Peterson is quite liberal in other ways. He supposedly is fine with abortion, supports public healthcare, etc (then again, even American right-libertarians like Charles Murray, infamous for the racist book he co-authored, will support some liberal positions such as basic income). And it seems many on the political left have been drawn to his more academic views on psychology, religion, and such. I kept coming across people, often students and colleagues, who said they agreed with and appreciated much that he has taught and so respected and supported him but thought he went off the rails on issues of gender realism, racialism, genetic determinism, and evolutionary psychology — topics outside of his main area of expertise, clinical psychology.
Those latter issues are why he has gained support from the reactionary alt-right that also supports Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. Peterson distances himself from his alt-right supporters and yet he has done multiple video talks with Stefan Molyneux, an alt-right cult figure (anarcho-capitalist turned white nationalist and well known Trump supporter). Out of curiosity some years back, I spent months watching Molyneux’s videos and debating his followers and so I know what kind of person he is (see here for my posts about him). James Damore who was interviewed by Peterson also did an interview with Molyneux, the initial two interviews he did after being fired by Google.
Peterson apparently has said he would talk to anyone and this includes the bigoted and wacky right (Sargon, Mark Steyn, Laura Southern, etc). That is fine and even maybe admirable, specifically if, as he claims, his goal is to reach out to different audiences. But he sends mixed messages by associating with such people on a regular basis, even moreso when he doesn’t challenge their reactionary beliefs and so could be interpreted as offering them cover. That is no reason by itself to judge him guilty by association, though. Just something to keep in mind, considering there does appear to be a clear pattern of associations, potentially implying an intention or sympathy. It makes my Spidey sense tingle, but others can judge for themselves.
“[Stefan Molyneux] is a maniac, crazy dude who thinks he has all the answers. Still don’t know why Jordan Peterson engages in long interviews with people like Stefan, Sargon, Mark Steyn, The reality call show (tara or something – a racist 22 year old with 11k subscribers) and even Laura Southern. Each and everyone of them is an absolute low life with “racist tendencies” to put it mildly and they have no problem twisting facts and lying.”
“Why does JP engages with these people?”
“Let me answer this JBP question with a JBP reference: The hero returns to resurrect his dead culture.
“It’s not in the Doc’s nature to withhold himself from anyone, particularly these kids who need rescuing from Neverland so badly.
“He’s doing them a service, and you can be sure he’s softened them up and they’ll all mature because of him.
“Would you rather these people go without a compassionate sensible voice to interrupt their radicalization?”
“I was thinking along the same lines but it seems nonsense if you look at how it plays out. JP defended Laura Southern when she was banned by patreon for giving out instructions which endangered refugees. That is absolutely horrible and despicable but JP never said anything about that. JP tweets about patreon and how they are “censoring” her. What??
“He is only empowering these people. I never heard him directly challenging the idea’s of them in their interviews. He is definitely doing them a service. A legit professor is talking to them? One of the most popular guys on the biggest podcast in the world is obviously doing a service to them by coming on their show and talking about “western civilization”. JP isn’t interrupting them, he is empowering them. They will use what they need from him and move on.”
“They never dare bring up that shit around him. Talking to them is not a service. He’ll talk to anyone and that’s part of his reputation.”
When I first came upon the argument that “culture is a racial construct” last year, I was pretty horrified. I saw this as a re-gurgitated Nazi talking point that was clearly unfactual.
But like other longtime taboo topics such as HBD, eugenics, and White identity, I’ve seen this theory pop up over the past year in some shocking places. First, a scientific magazine revealed that orcas genetics’ are affected by culture and vice versa. Then, I started seeing normies discuss this talking point in comment sections in the Wall Street Journal and even NY Times.
Finally, a liberal academic has thrown himself into the discussion. Bret Weinsten, a Jewish Leftist who most people here know as the targeted professor of the Marxist insanity at Evergreen University, posted this tweet yesterday: “Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. Culture is biological,” and then this one today: “Culture is as adaptive, evolutionary and biological as genes. You’re unlikely to accept it. But if you did you’d see people with 10X clarity.”
This is a pretty remarkable assertion coming from someone like Bret Weinstein. I wonder if the dam will eventually break and rather than being seen as incredibly taboo, this theory will be commonly accepted. If so, it’s probably the best talking point you have for America to prioritize its demographics.
What is so shocking?
This line of thought, taken broadly, has been developing and taking hold in the mainstream for more than a century. Social constructionism was popularized and spread by the anthropologist Franz Boaz. I don’t think this guy grasps what this theory means nor its implications. That “culture is a racial construct” goes hand in hand with race being a cultural construct, which is to say we understand the world and our own humanity through the lens of ideology, in the sense used by Louis Althusser. As applied to the ideology of pseudo-scientific race realism and gender realism, claims of linear determinism of singular and isolated causal factors are meaningless because research has shown that all aspects are intertwined factors in how we develop and who we become.
Bret Weinstein makes three assertions: “Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. Culture is biological.” I don’t know what is his ideological position. But he sounds like a genetic determinist, although this is not clear since he also claims that his assertions have nothing to do with group selection (a standard reductionist approach). Anyway, to make these statements accurate, other statements would need to be added — such as that, biology is epigenetics, epigenetics is environment, and environment is culture. We’d have to throw in other things as well, from biome to linguistic relativism. To interpret Weinstein generously and not taking his use of ‘is’ too literally: Many things are many other things or rather closely related, if by that we mean that multiple factors can’t be reduced to one another in that they influence each other in multiple directions and through multiple pathways.
Recent research has taken this even further in showing that neither sex nor gender is binary *, as genetics and its relationship to environment, epigenetics, and culture is more complex than was previously realized. It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA. It has to do with diverse interlinking and overlapping causal relationships. We aren’t all that certain at this point what ultimately determines the precise process of conditions, factors, and influences in how and why any given gene expresses or not and how and why it expresses in a particular way. Most of the genetics in human DNA is entirely unknown in its purpose or maybe lack of purpose, although the Junk DNA theory has become highly contested. And most genetics in the human body is non-human: bacteria, viruses, symbiotes, and parasites. The point is that, scientifically speaking, causation is a lot harder to prove than many would like to admit.
The second claim by Weinstein is even more interesting: “Culture is as adaptive, evolutionary and biological as genes.” That easily could be interpreted in alignment with Richard Dawkins theory of memetics. That argument is that there are cultural elements that act and spread similarly to genes, like a virus replicating. With the growing research on epigenetics, microbiome, parasites, and such, the mechanisms for such a thing become more plausible. We are treading in unexplored territory when we combine memetics not just with culture but also with extended mind and extended phenotype. Linguistic relativism, for example, has proven that cultural influences can operate through non-biological causes — in that bilingual individuals with the same genetics will think, perceive, and act differently depending on which language they are using. Yes, culture is adaptive, whether or not in the way Weinstein believes.
The problems in this area only occur when one demands a reductionist conclusion. The simplistic thinking of reductionism appeals to the limits of the human mind. But reality has no compulsion to comform to the human mind. Reality is irreducible. And so we need a scientific understanding that deals with, rather than dismisses, complexity. Indeed, the tide is turning.
Intersex people have been treated in different ways by different cultures. Whether or not they were socially tolerated or accepted by any particular culture, the existence of intersex people was known to many ancient and pre-modern cultures and legal systems, and numerous historical accounts exist.
In different cultures, a third or fourth gender may represent very different things. To Native Hawaiians and Tahitians, Māhū is an intermediate state between man and woman, or a “person of indeterminate gender”. The traditional Diné of the Southwestern US acknowledge four genders: feminine woman, masculine woman, feminine man, masculine man. The term “third gender” has also been used to describe hijras of India who have gained legal identity, fa’afafine of Polynesia, and sworn virgins of Albania.
Whether or not they were socially tolerated or accepted by any particular culture, the existence of intersex people was known to many ancient and pre-modern cultures. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote of “hermaphroditus” in the first century BCE that Hermaphroditus “is born with a physical body which is a combination of that of a man and that of a woman”, and with supernatural properties.
In European societies, Roman law, post-classical canon law, and later common law, referred to a person’s sex as male, female or hermaphrodite, with legal rights as male or female depending on the characteristics that appeared most dominant. The 12th-century Decretum Gratiani states that “Whether an hermaphrodite may witness a testament, depends on which sex prevails”. The foundation of common law, the 17th Century Institutes of the Lawes of England described how a hermaphrodite could inherit “either as male or female, according to that kind of sexe which doth prevaile.” Legal cases have been described in canon law and elsewhere over the centuries.
In some non-European societies, sex or gender systems with more than two categories may have allowed for other forms of inclusion of both intersex and transgender people. Such societies have been characterized as “primitive”, while Morgan Holmes states that subsequent analysis has been simplistic or romanticized, failing to take account of the ways that subjects of all categories are treated.
During the Victorian era, medical authors introduced the terms “true hermaphrodite” for an individual who has both ovarian and testicular tissue, “male pseudo-hermaphrodite” for a person with testicular tissue, but either female or ambiguous sexual anatomy, and “female pseudo-hermaphrodite” for a person with ovarian tissue, but either male or ambiguous sexual anatomy. Some later shifts in terminology have reflected advances in genetics, while other shifts are suggested to be due to pejorative associations.
So when and why did doctors move from one sex to two? Many scholars set the change during a time known as the “long 18th century”: 1688-1815. This time period covers the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and the period of political revolution that followed. It was during this time that many ideas about man’s inalienable rights were conceived.
Before the long 18th century, Western societies operated under feudalism, which presupposes that people are born unequal. Kings were better than lords who were better than peasants, and this sense of betterness extended to their physical bodies. “Aristocrats have better bodies, bodies are racialized,” says Laqueur, summing up the idea. “The body is open and fluid and the consequence of a hierarchy in heaven.” Specifics of this corruptible flesh are of less consequence than our souls. We were all servants in the Kingdom of Heaven, which set the hierarchy on earth.
This idea of a natural hierarchy was challenged by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. We see it in the Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal. But it was also understood that women and people of color couldn’t possibly have been created equal. Therefore, it became necessary to conceive of innate biological differences between men and women, white and black. “As political theorists were increasingly invoking a potentially egalitarian language of natural rights in the 18th century, ‘woman’ had to be defined as qualitatively different from men in order that political power would be kept out of women’s reach,” writes Karen Harvey in Cambridge University Press’s Historical Journal.
Sexual difference becomes much more explicit in medical texts once women’s anatomy gets its own words. […] What follows in the long 18th century and into the Victorian era is a solidifying of masculine and feminine as diametrically opposed. When doctors followed humoral system, it was understood that everyone was a little hot, a little cold, a little country, a little rock and roll. Women were frequently represented as hornier than men. But once everyone has to be shunted into a binary, women are rendered passive and disinclined to sex. “Historically, women had been perceived as lascivious and lustful creatures,” writes Ruth Perry in the amazingly titled academic paper “Colonizing the Breast.” “[B]y the middle of the eighteenth century they were increasingly reimagined as belonging to another order of being: loving but without sexual needs.” Men are horny, therefore women must be the opposite of horny.
Nonbinary and genderfluid people of the 21st century can gain some comfort from the notion that sex and gender divisions weren’t always so rigid. But that understanding is nevertheless tinged with the knowledge that the sexes, fluid though they were, were still ranked. Someone was still coming out a winner, and yet again it was whoever was most masculine.
Several studies have been conducted looking at the gender roles of intersex children.
One such study looked at female infants with adrenal hyperplasia, and who had excess male hormone levels, but were thought to be females and raised as such by their parents. These girls were more likely to express masculine traits.
Another study looked at 18 infants with the intersex condition 5-alpha reductase deficiency, and XY chromosomes, assigned female at birth. At adult age only one individual maintained a female role, all the others being stereotypically male.
In a third study, 14 male children born with cloacal exstrophy and assigned female at birth, including through intersex medical interventions. Upon follow-up between the ages of 5 to 12, eight of them identified as boys, and all of the subjects had at least moderately male-typical attitudes and interests.
Dr. Sandra Lipsitz Bem is a psychologist who developed the gender schema theory, based on the combination of aspects of the social learning theory and the cognitive-development theory of sex role acquisition, to explain how individuals come to use gender as an organizing category in all aspects of their life. In 1971, she created the Bem Sex-Role Inventory to measure how well an individual conformed to a traditional gender role, characterizing those tested as having masculine, feminine, androgynous, or undifferentiated personality. She believed that through gender-schematic processing, a person spontaneously sorts attributes and behaviors into masculine and feminine categories, and that therefore individuals processes information and regulate their behavior based on whatever definitions of femininity and masculinity their culture provides.
While there are differences in average capabilities of various kinds (E.g. better average balance in females or greater average physical size and endurance in males) between the sexes the capabilities of some members of one sex will fall within the range of capabilities needed for tasks conventionally assigned to the other sex. Eve Shapiro, author of Gender Circuits, explains that “gender, like other social categories, is both a personal identity and a culture set of behaviors, beliefs and values.” […]
Ideas of appropriate behavior according to gender vary among cultures and era, although some aspects receive more widespread attention than others. R.W. Connell in Men, Masculinities and Feminism claims:
There are cultures where it has been normal, not exceptional, for men to have homosexual relations. There have been periods in ‘Western’ history when the modern convention that men suppress displays of emotion did not apply at all, when men were demonstrative about their feeling for their friends. Mateship in the Australian outback last century is a case in point.
There are huge areal differences in attitudes towards appropriate gender roles. In the World Values Survey, responders were asked if they thought that wage work should be restricted to only men in the case of shortage in jobs: in Iceland the proportion that agreed with the proposition was 3.6%; while in Egypt it was 94.9%.
Attitudes have also varied historically, for example, in Europe, during the Middle Ages, women were commonly associated with roles related to medicine and healing. Because of the rise of witch-hunts across Europe and the institutionalization of medicine, these roles became exclusively associated with men but in the last few decades these roles have become largely gender-neutral in Western society.
Sex and gender are much more complex and nuanced than people have long believed. Defining sex as a binary treats it like a light switch: on or off. But it’s actually more similar to a dimmer switch, with many people sitting somewhere in between male and female genetically, physiologically, and/or mentally. To reflect this, scientists now describe sex as a spectrum.
The more we have learned about human genetics, the more complicated it has revealed itself to be. Because of this, the idea of binary gender has become less and less tenable. As Claire Ainsworth summarizes in an article for Nature, recent discoveries “have pointed to a complex process of sex determination, in which the identity of the gonad emerges from a contest between two opposing networks of gene activity. Changes in the activity … can tip the balance towards or away from the sex seemingly spelled out by the chromosomes.”
Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD2.
When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person’s anatomical or physiological sex. What’s more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. “I think there’s much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can’t easily define themselves within the binary structure,” says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London’s Institute of Child Health.
These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological sex, and a person’s legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced by whether their birth certificate says male or female.
“The main problem with a strong dichotomy is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females,” says Arthur Arnold at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies biological sex differences. “And that’s often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined a number of ways.”
Many of us learned in high school biology that sex chromosomes determine a baby’s sex, full stop: XX means it’s a girl; XY means it’s a boy. But on occasion, XX and XY don’t tell the whole story.
Today we know that the various elements of what we consider “male” and “female” don’t always line up neatly, with all the XXs—complete with ovaries, vagina, estrogen, female gender identity, and feminine behavior—on one side and all the XYs—testes, penis, testosterone, male gender identity, and masculine behavior—on the other. It’s possible to be XX and mostly male in terms of anatomy, physiology, and psychology, just as it’s possible to be XY and mostly female.
Each embryo starts out with a pair of primitive organs, the proto-gonads, that develop into male or female gonads at about six to eight weeks. Sex differentiation is usually set in motion by a gene on the Y chromosome, the SRY gene, that makes the proto-gonads turn into testes. The testes then secrete testosterone and other male hormones (collectively called androgens), and the fetus develops a prostate, scrotum, and penis. Without the SRY gene, the proto-gonads become ovaries that secrete estrogen, and the fetus develops female anatomy (uterus, vagina, and clitoris).
But the SRY gene’s function isn’t always straightforward. The gene might be missing or dysfunctional, leading to an XY embryo that fails to develop male anatomy and is identified at birth as a girl. Or it might show up on the X chromosome, leading to an XX embryo that does develop male anatomy and is identified at birth as a boy.
Genetic variations can occur that are unrelated to the SRY gene, such as complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS), in which an XY embryo’s cells respond minimally, if at all, to the signals of male hormones. Even though the proto-gonads become testes and the fetus produces androgens, male genitals don’t develop. The baby looks female, with a clitoris and vagina, and in most cases will grow up feeling herself to be a girl.
Which is this baby, then? Is she the girl she believes herself to be? Or, because of her XY chromosomes—not to mention the testes in her abdomen—is she “really” male? […]
In terms of biology, some scientists think it might be traced to the syncopated pacing of fetal development. “Sexual differentiation of the genitals takes place in the first two months of pregnancy,” wrote Dick Swaab, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam, “and sexual differentiation of the brain starts during the second half of pregnancy.” Genitals and brains are thus subjected to different environments of “hormones, nutrients, medication, and other chemical substances,” several weeks apart in the womb, that affect sexual differentiation.
This doesn’t mean there’s such a thing as a “male” or “female” brain, exactly. But at least a few brain characteristics, such as density of the gray matter or size of the hypothalamus, do tend to differ between genders. It turns out transgender people’s brains may more closely resemble brains of their self-identified gender than those of the gender assigned at birth. In one study, for example, Swaab and his colleagues found that in one region of the brain, transgender women, like other women, have fewer cells associated with the regulator hormone somatostatin than men. In another study scientists from Spain conducted brain scans on transgender men and found that their white matter was neither typically male nor typically female, but somewhere in between.
These studies have several problems. They are often small, involving as few as half a dozen transgender individuals. And they sometimes include people who already have started taking hormones to transition to the opposite gender, meaning that observed brain differences might be the result of, rather than the explanation for, a subject’s transgender identity.
Still, one finding in transgender research has been robust: a connection between gender nonconformity and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to John Strang, a pediatric neuropsychologist with the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Gender and Sexuality Development Program at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., children and adolescents on the autism spectrum are seven times more likely than other young people to be gender nonconforming. And, conversely, children and adolescents at gender clinics are six to 15 times more likely than other young people to have ASD.
Ideological labels are used in an odd way on the political right. They are wielded more as weapons of rhetoric than as accurate descriptions. This relates to Corey Robin’s analysis of the reactionary mind. One of the most interesting things that distinguishes the reactionary from the traditionalist is how easily the reactionary co-opts from the political left.
This is particularly central to American society. The reactionary mind, like fundamentalism, is the product of modernity. And the American experience was born out of modernity, beginning with post-feudal colonial imperialism. The social order and social identity fell into disarray and so political ideology became ever more primary. The reactionary mind is dynamically adaptive, for it shifts according toward which it is reacting. It thrives in instability and will promote instability, even as it scapegoats its enemies for this very same instability that it requires.
Reactionaries are tough opponents. They feel no moral obligation to fight fairly. Nor will they ever state their true intentions. The mindset and worldview precludes it, at the level of consciousness. The reactionary mind is not just a set of tactics but a way of being in the world, a permanent survival mode of mistrust and deception. Labels in themselves mean nothing to the reactionary. They are like crabs, in camouflaging themselves, that attach things to their shells — pieces of coral, anemones, etc. There is a hodge-podge quality to their stated views, a little bit of this and a little bit of that with no need for principled consistency.
The earliest example of this is the fight over Federalism. The war of rhetoric was won by those fighting for centralized power. They didn’t actually want Federalism. What they were attempting to create, as Corey Robin explains so well, was a new form of hierarchy and ruling elite involving the same old pattern of concentrated wealth and power. They were as much attacking the traditional ancien régime (old order) as they were attacking the revolutionary movement. They co-opted from both of their enemies, but over time as traditionalism declined they increasingly focused on co-opting from the political left. This is the reason conservatives today, as reactionary as ever, use rhetoric far to the left of liberals of centuries past.
The first great victory of American reactionaries was in falsely claiming to be Federalists. They did this by co-opting the revolution itself and, by way of the Constitutional Convention, redirecting it toward counter-revolution. This forced their opponents into the position of being called Anti-Federalists, even though their opponents were the strongest defenders of Federalism. The winners not only get to write the history books but also get to do the labeling. The enemies of Federalism defeated Federalism by adopting the word and making it meaningless. It’s a genius subterfuge, a masterful tactic.
This is how a society like ours, founded on liberalism, quickly had its radical liberalism defanged. Thomas Paine, in a short period of time, went from revolutionary hero to social pariah and political outcast. He didn’t fit into the reactionary scheme of the new centralized establishment. Even to this day, the political right goes on trying to co-opt the label of liberalism, despite the absurdity in calling themselves classical liberals. Now a radical progressive and social democrat like Paine was a classical liberal, but he was largely written out of the history books for almost two centuries.
This pattern has repeated throughout Anglo-American history (and I’m sure elsewhere as well). The capitalists originally were strong liberals with a clear progressive bent. Paine, for example, was for free markets. And like Paine, Adam Smith saw high economic inequality as a direct threat to a free society. Yet the reactionaries took over free market rhetoric to promote the inevitable authoritarianism and paternalism of a high inequality society. Because of this, it has become harder and harder to take seriously the rhetoric of free markets — in its being falsely used to defend crony capitalism, plutocratic corporatism, soft fascism, inverted totalitarianism, neoliberal globalization, market fetishism, and crude (pseudo-)libertarianism. There is nothing free, much less classically liberal, about this capitalist realism.
There are more examples. Consider right-wing libertarians and right-wing anarchists (e.g., anarcho-capitalists). Both varieties of right-wingers typically defend the legacy of inequality and injustice. Their labeling themselves as libertarian and anarchist would have been absurd a century ago. Both libertarians and anarchists arose out of the left-wing workers movement in Europe (Property is Theft: So is the Right’s Use of ‘Libertarian’).
This was admitted by the infamous right-winger Murray Rothbard: One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy. ‘Libertarians’ had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over.” (The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 83). Yet here we are with the political right having successfully co-opted the label of libertarianism and are in the process of co-opting the label of anarchism.
There is nothing they can’t co-opt, once they set their mind to it. This is true even for labels that involve race issues. The theory and label of human biodiversity has become popular among the political right, specifically among alt-righters, the Dark Enlightenment, and other similar types. They use it to promote the cynical worldview of genetic determinism and race realism. The sad part is that the originator of human biodiversity, Jonathan Marks, created the theory specifically to disprove these right-wing claims. The story of this appropriation is told by Angela Saini, in describing Steve Sailer’s email list from the 1990s:
“Others joined in their dozens. By the summer of 1999, Sailer’s roster of members was astounding. Along with prominent anthropologists such as Marks, there was psychologist Steven Pinker, political scientist Francis Fukuyama, and economist Paul Krugman. In hindsight, the large number of economists in the group might have been a warning. There in the mix, too, was the controversial author of The Bell Curve, political scientist Charles Murray. That should have been another red flag. […]
“What intrigued him especially was that Sailer happened to be brandishing Marks’s own neologism, calling his list the Human Biodiversity Discussion Group. […] That school of racism was long dead, he assumed. Yet her on this email list, something strange was happening. Observing the conversations that Sailer steered through the group, Marks noticed the term “human biodiversity” being used differently from the way he had originally intended. Members were using it to refer to deep differences between human population groups. […] When Sailer talked about human biodiversity, he didn’t appear to be using the phrase in a politically neutral way, but as a euphemism. He had spun the language used by liberal antiracists to celebrate human cultural diversity to build a new and ostensibly more acceptable language around racism.
“For those sucked into Sailer’s electronic arena for the intellectual discussion of race, his email list was just a taste of the virulent racism that would later be seen far more often in the shadowy areas of the internet, then more openly on social media and right-wing websites, and finally in mainstream political discourse. Many more soon took hold of the phrase “human biodiversity,” giving it a life of its own online. Today it’s nothing short of a mantra among self-styled race realists. […]
“To be fair, few could have guessed that the email list was a precursor to something bigger. But as the group slowly went defunct, Steve Sailer’s political convictions became increasingly obvious. He and other members of the list went on to become prominent conservative bloggers, writing frequently on race, genetics, and intelligence. […]
“But it all came as a more of a surprise to academics like Jonathan Marks. “I was working on the assumption that these guys were the lunatic fringe. If you had told me twenty years later that they would be part of a political mainstream wave, I would have said you are absolutely crazy. These guys are antiscience. These guys are positioning themselves against the empirical study of human variation and they are clearly ideologues for whom empirical evidence isn’t important,” he says with a laugh. “But I think they were a lot cleverer than us professors” “ (Superior: The Return of Race Science, pp. 88-92).
About his legacy as a scholar, Marks writes: “For me, it increasingly seems as though my lasting contribution will be to have coined the phrase “human biodiversity” in my 1994 book of that name. Unfortunately it has come to mean the opposite of what I meant, due to the distortions of internet racists. In fact, they have even abbreviated “human biodiversity” as a meme for the semi-literate, HBD. […] To have provided racists with a scientific-sounding cover for their odious ideas is not something to be particularly proud of, but I can’t take it back. All I can do is disavow it” (I coined the phrase “Human Biodiversity”. Racists stole it.). That is sad. Yet more of the ideological battleground is ceded to the political right.
With almost fatalistic resignation, the political left accepts defeat too easily. Once again, here we are with the political right having so thoroughly co-opted a label that its very origins is forgotten. It’s a theft not just of a label but the destruction of meaning. It makes genuine debate impossible, and that is the entire point. Reactionaries are constantly seeking to muddy the water. They do everything in their power to control the terms of debate. Their opponents are left in a state of disorientation and constantly on the defense. This is easy for reactionaries to do because they have nothing specific to defend or rather that they keep well hidden what they are defending by way of obfuscation.
Think about that. The New York Times is what goes for the far left of the supposedly liberal MSM. This is how the corporate media and corporatist politicians, across the narrow ‘spectrum’ of elite opinion, have managed to push the Overton window so far to the extreme right, beyond the bounds of the radical progressivism of the silenced majority (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism; & American People Keep Going Further Left). The reactionaries aren’t limited to the overtly authoritarian right-wingers and the crazed alt-right. The entire system of concentrated wealth and elite power, including the privileged liberal class, is reactionary. What they are reacting to is not merely the revolutionary left for, more importantly, they are reacting to the threat of the American public.
We on the political left struggle against enforced ignorance and amnesia. This wouldn’t necessarily mean much if these were isolated incidents but that is not the case. The consistent pattern of rhetorical manipulation and ideological game-playing can be seen across the centuries and it has a lasting impact on the entire society, distorting everything and destroying any hope of a free and healthy society. It’s clearly significant in what it says about the modern political right and the consequences it has for the political left. The lesson is this. Never take them at their word. And never fight on their terms. Labels do matter. In language, there is immense power, to be used for good or ill.
Possibly, upwards of a third of Americans are a wild card on polling and voting. These people are some combination of politically misinformed, ideologically inconsistent, anti-intellectually reactionary, mentally unstable, disconnected from reality, lacking self-awareness, socially unconcerned, apathetically indifferent, distractedly careless, cynically trollish, frustratedly outraged, generally irritated, etc. They are unable or unwilling to fully participate in the demands of democracy. Or else they don’t believe we have a functioning democracy to participate in.
Any crazy belief or crazy politician that only gets consistent support from a third or less of the public can be set aside, albeit not dismissed, at least in terms of understanding what is the actual motivation and intention. Even most Trump voters admitted that they didn’t like him nor trusted him to do what they wanted him to do. They voted out of protest, or else for shits and giggles; either way, it’s a clear ‘fuck you’ (maybe ‘fuck you, fuck me, fuck us all’, ‘just fuck it’, ‘who gives a fuck’, or something along those lines). Such people don’t form a monolithic demographic of opinion and values. And for damn sure they aren’t representative of any larger pattern in society, any larger trend among the public… beyond how screwed up it has all become.
Across the entire population, there is more than enough ideological confusion and inconsistency to go around. This largely has to do with how labels are used, or rather misused and abused. Liberals label their positions moderate, the very positions that the political and media elite think of as liberal. Either liberals really are more moderate or the elite aren’t as liberal as they think, although I suspect both are true. That leaves conservatives holding positions that these same elites consider liberal, while conservatives don’t see them as liberal, which questions the very concept of conservatism. There are more conflicted conservatives than consistent conservatives, something not found among liberals. To the degree that liberals are conflicted, it is because they mis-label their views right-ward.
Anyway, the average person probably doesn’t give much thought to how they answer polls and vote in elections. Most people have busy lives. Besides, it’s not as if the education system and news media does a great job of informing the public and explaining the issues. And that is on top of the low quality of options typically given. We also can’t forget the constant bullshit, spin, propaganda, psyops, etc. Framing alone sometimes will completely reverse what people state as supporting. When a combative frame is used, most Americans support harsh punishment of criminals. But when a public health frame is used, most Americans support rehabilitation. So, which is the real majority? Well, both are or neither is.
Here is a major point to be understood and emphasized. As data shows, most people who hold liberal positions don’t identify as liberal. And most people who identify as liberal don’t identify many of their own positions as liberal, instead identifying them as moderate. Also interesting is the fact that self-identified conservatives, many being conflicted conservatives holding liberal positions, tend to identify their liberal and moderate positions as conservative. So, every demographic labels their views to the right of where their views actually are on the spectrum, at least for most major issues. This is partly because of the political and media elite who claim to be moderate and centrist while in many ways being to the right of the general public. The narrative of public opinion and the political spectrum is being defined by a disconnected elite that is heavily biased to the right.
Considering this, maybe it’s unsurprising that the crazification factor is so large. This explains all the noise in public polling. And this probably explains why so many Americans don’t even bother voting. Their views aren’t being represented. In fact, the views of most Americans simply make no sense within the dominant paradigm that controls the political system.
Crazification factor (alternatively known as the “Keyes constant”) is a neologism coined by blogger John Rogers to refer to the portion of the electorate comprising the nuttiest of the wingnuts and the batshit crazy.
In popular usage, it is an application of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, in which you only call attention to data supporting your proposition: you will find endless examples of people online crying “Crazification factor!” when 20-30% of people do something — anything — the speaker doesn’t like, or are even polled as holding an opinion they don’t like.
Rogers later stressed that the phrase was a joke, not some serious statistical proposition.
These errors were things that we lumped into something we called “response style” (psychologists call it response bias). It’s very very hard to observe response style. But I’d say we can make a pretty good guess that Americans – and possibly everyone – do a lot of random responding when it comes to these sorts of surveys.
[M]aybe people just don’t think very hard about how they answer these questions. Maybe some people are confused by the questions. Maybe some are trolling.
Whatever the cause, it seems like you can get 20 to 25 percent of Americans to say any ridiculous thing imaginable. “Do you think eating raccoon poop reduces the risk of brain cancer?” “23 percent of Americans say yes!” “Would you be willing to cut your toes off with a rotary saw if it meant your neighbor had to do the same?” “17 percent of Americans say they would!” Etc.
It makes no sense at all…unless you can get ~20 percent of Americans to say pretty much any ridiculous thing on a survey.
I call this the margin of stupid. Unlike the margin of error, it’s not even a roughly symmetric error — because you can’t have less than 0% of people give a certain answer on a survey, the margin of stupid always biases surveys toward showing some non-negligible amount of support for any crazy or stupid or horrible position.
Whenever you read a survey like this, you must take the margin of stupid into account. Yes, there are Americans who believe crazy, stupid, and horrible things. But dammit, there aren’t that many. Next time you see some poll breathlessly claiming that 21 percent of Americans support executing anyone whose name starts with “G”, or that 18 percent of Millennials believe themselves to be the reincarnation of Kublai Khan, take it with a grain of salt. It’s a lot easier to give a stupid answer on a survey than to actually truly hold a nuts belief.
Sadly, the margin of stupid also probably applies to voting.
This led screenwriter John Rodgers and a friend to coin the term Crazification Factor–an unpredictable and shifting yet relatively consistent bottom, like the silt at the bottom of a pond: “Half just have worldviews which lead them to disagree with what you consider rationality even though they arrive at their positions through rational means, and the other half are the core of the Crazification – either genuinely crazy; or so woefully misinformed about how the world works, the bases for their decision making is so flawed they may as well be crazy.”
“Crazification” seems not just unkind but simplistic, though I don’t deny a certain baseline: I’d add ironic voting, protest votes–a vote for Alan Keyes is a resonant protest vote–and even people who want to make a spectacle worse. But it still seems to be a useful theory, in the sense that when I see Donald Trump polling really well (26 percent!), or birthers continuing to emit a low hum (27 percent!), I’m no longer shocked: oh, that’s just the Keyes Constant.
Public Policy Polling’s recent poll on conspiracy theories mostly showed up on my Facebook feed as “Four percent of Americans believe lizardmen are running the Earth”.
(of note, an additional 7% of Americans are “not sure” whether lizardmen are running the Earth or not.)
Imagine the situation. You’re at home, eating dinner. You get a call from someone who says “Hello, this is Public Policy Polling. Would you mind answering some questions for us?” You say “Sure”. An extremely dignified sounding voice says – and this is the exact wording of the question – “Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our society, or not?” Then it urges you to press 1 if yes, press 2 if no, press 3 if not sure.
So first we get the people who think “Wait, was 1 the one for if I did believe in lizardmen, or if I didn’t? I’ll just press 1 and move on to the next question.”
Then we get the people who are like “I never heard it before, but if this nice pollster thinks it’s true, I might as well go along with them.”
Then we get the people who are all “F#&k you, polling company, I don’t want people calling me when I’m at dinner. You screw with me, I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell you I believe lizard people are running the planet.”
And then we get the people who put “Martian” as their nationality in psychology experiments. Because some men just want to watch the world burn.
Do these three groups total 4% of the US population? Seems plausible.
I really wish polls like these would include a control question, something utterly implausible even by lizard-people standards, something like “Do you believe Barack Obama is a hippopotamus?” Whatever percent of people answer yes to the hippo question get subtracted out from the other questions.
Poll Answers As Attire
Alas, not all weird poll answers can be explained that easily. On the same poll, 13% of Americans claimed to believe Barack Obama was the Anti-Christ. Subtracting our Lizardman’s Constant of 4%, that leaves 9% of Americans who apparently gave this answer with something approaching sincerity.
(a friend on Facebook pointed out that 5% of Obama voters claimed to believe that Obama was the Anti-Christ, which seems to be another piece of evidence in favor of a Lizardman’s Constant of 4-5%. On the other hand, I do enjoy picturing someone standing in a voting booth, thinking to themselves “Well, on the one hand, Obama is the Anti-Christ. On the other, do I really want four years of Romney?”)
Some pollsters are starting to consider these sorts of things symptomatic of what they term symbolic belief, which seems to be kind of what the Less Wrong sequences call Professing and Cheering or Belief As Attire. Basically, people are being emotivists rather than realists about belief. “Obama is the Anti-Christ” is another way of just saying “Boo Obama!”, rather than expressing some sort of proposition about the world.
And the same is true of “Obama is a Muslim” or “Obama was not born in America”.
The classic case of a “symbolic belief” is what Orwell dubbed “doublethink”: propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe you believe, even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better, so that the false belief doesn’t actually get you into practical trouble. Pseudobeliefs may serve any number of functions; I’m using the phrase “symbolic belief” for the ones that either work as a public expression of some associated attitude, or play some role in defining the holder’s self-conception. In a post from last week, a commenter pointed out that there really are vegetarians and vegans, especially in certain punk scenes, who purport to believe that animals are not only morally equal to, but perhaps even morally superior to human beings. As he also pointed out, though, none of them really act as though they believe anything of the sort. Now, you might say that we already have a word for this: Hypocrisy. But I think it’s worth preserving a separate term here, because we usually use that term for people who specifically promote standards of behavior that they either consciously don’t really hold or do hold but are just incapable of adhering to (from weakness of will or whatever), and conceal this inability out of shame or fear. Symbolic beliefs, as I’m conceiving of them, are “sincere”—in that the person holding them probably isn’t consciously or reflexively aware that they’re false, but also shallow, insofar as a subconscious lack of commitment to the truth of the belief renders it behaviorally inert. For those who aren’t hardcore birthers, I’d hazard that the real meaning of professing either uncertainty or positive disbelief in the claim that he was born in the U.S. is something like: “I consider Obama phony, dishonest, and un-American.” It’s not, I hasten to say, that they really believe, deep-down, that Obama was born in Hawaii. It’s more that—as with H.G. Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit”—the literal truth or falsity of the proposition is a matter of indifference; it’s not really the point.
Over the last several decades, scholars have noted a strengthening link between ideology and party identification among the public, but the causal direction of this phenomenon remains contested. The ideological realignment thesis holds that ideology now strongly influences party identification, but this position conflicts with literature suggesting that party identification remains the primary causal force behind most important political attitudes. This study examines the causal forces at work between ideology and party identification by focusing on the distinction between symbolic and operational ideology. The methodology involves the use of panel data that span several decades, and structural equation modeling. The findings indicate that between 1982 and 1997, symbolic ideology had a strong influence party identification, but operational ideology had little effect on party identification. The results suggest an important revision to the ideological realignment thesis, as the evidence indicates that symbolic ideology has been the primary force driving realignment.
Looked at this way, almost 30 percent of Americans are “consistent liberals” — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics. Only 15 percent are “consistent conservatives” — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics. Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views. The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only.
This raises the question: why are so many people identifying as conservative while simultaneously preferring more government? For some conservatives, it is because they associate the label with religion, culture or lifestyle. In essence, when they identify as “conservative,” they are thinking about conservatism in terms of family structure, raising children, or interpreting the Bible. Conservatism is about their personal lives, not their politics.
But other self-identified conservatives, though, are conservative in terms of neither religion and culture nor the size of government. These are the truly “conflicted conservatives,” say Ellis and Stimson, who locate their origins in a different factor: how conservatives and liberals have traditionally talked about politics. Conservatives, they argue, talk about politics in terms of symbols and the general value of “conservatism” — and news coverage, they find, usually frames the label “conservative” in positive terms. Liberals talk about policy in terms of the goals it will serve — a cleaner environment, a stronger safety net, and so on — which are also good things for many people. As a result, some people internalize both messages and end up calling themselves conservative but having liberal views on policy.
Ideology has two faces: the labels people choose and the actual content of their beliefs. For liberals, these are mostly aligned. For conservatives, they are not.
Polls have generally showed self-identified conservatives outnumbering liberals, with a recent slight increase in the number of liberals. I have often speculated that this is largely due to the success the right wing noise machine has had in demonizing the word liberal. Americans come out more liberal than would be expected by these poll findings when we look at individual issues.
While the pendulum swings both ways, the trend has been toward more liberal policies over the years. Most people wouldn’t think of returning to the days of child labor. Medicare and Social Security are deeply entrenched, to the point that even when Republicans vote for ending Medicare as we know it they realize they have to hide what they are doing. Recent polls show increases in the number of people who support legalization of same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana. A majority even supports the individual components of Obamacare when asked without identifying the policy as Obamacare. […]
This idea that nearly 30 percent of self-identified conservative are really liberals would explain the increased support for liberal positions despite a majority identifying themselves as conservatives.
[…] The general pattern is not surprising. Symbolic ideology is correlated with the most commonly chosen label for issue positions.
A closer look shows important asymmetries. Across all issues, symbolic conservatives are always more likely to label their positions as conservative than anything else, even when an analyst would label many of those issue positions liberal or moderate. Moreover, symbolic conservatives use the conservative label for their issue positions far more frequently than symbolic liberals use the liberal label for theirs. For symbolic liberals, the moderate label is chosen by a plurality on 10 of the 13 issues. On only one issue, support for gay marriage, does a clear majority of liberals label their position as liberal.
The pattern of labeled issue positions among symbolic liberals is not consistent
with the Ellis-Stimson narrative. In that account, liberals’ unconflicted liberals’
ideological commitments and ideological sophistication allow them to apply the liberal label with ease. In fact, while liberals apply the general label to themselves, they do not embrace the term for many of their issue positions and instead more often choose the moderate label.
As one would expect, a plurality of symbolic moderates used the moderate label to describe their policy preferences—with the exception of social security, where slightly more described their position as “none of these.” For eight of the 13 issues, more moderates described their positions as conservative than liberal. The “none of these” option was chosen by 20-30 percent of moderates across the 13 issues. These results are consistent with research that describes moderates, on average, as less political than liberals or conservatives.
Plainly, the mismatch between symbolic ideology and issue position labels is common and is not limited to conservatives. In fact, the avoidance of the liberal label extends to symbolic liberals, which is consistent with the long-standing argument that the label has negative connotations. It may illustrate that the importance of the framing pathway described by Ellis and Stimson and, in doing so, raises a question of about how much framing accounts for conflicted conservatives for whom Ellis and Stimson emphasize the extra-political sources of ideological identity.
Mismatches between Issue Positions and Their Labels
For some of the most popular causes—such as spending on education—positions (and symbolic ideology) show a weak relationship to issue position labels. In the case of education spending, nearly half of symbolic conservatives considered opposing a cut in education spending to be a conservative position. More than ninety percent of liberals opposed this same cut in education spending, but only about one-third call this view liberal, with most liberals calling it a moderate position.
Mismatches are most common for issues on which there is a consensus view. In fact, across the 13 issues, there is an important correlation between the size of the issue position plurality and the frequency of mismatches between issue positions and issue position labels. For symbolic conservatives, the correlation is -0.81—more popular causes create more mismatches (liberal positions labeled conservative) for conservatives. For symbolic liberals, the size of the plurality and labeling liberal positions as conservative has a correlation of -0.71.
Consistent with findings about mismatches between symbolic ideology and issue positions, we find that mismatches for issue positions and their labels occur more often in the form of labeling liberal positions conservative than in labeling conservative positions liberal. More than 30 percent of labeling responses associated the conservative label with liberal positions, while only about 20 percent associated the liberal label with conservative positions.
Pew had a poll from a couple years ago that I missed. If you look at the broad public opinion, it looks like the same old same old. Most Americans have a more favorable opinion of capitalism than socialism. They also have a more favorable opinion of conservatism than liberalism. But it’s always in the details where it gets interesting. The cracks are beginning to show in the Cold War edifice.
More Americans have a positive opinion of progressivism, significantly more than their opinion of conservatism. As many have noted, progressivism has basically become the label for those who like liberalism but are afraid of the negative connotations of the word itself. There isn’t a vast difference between what liberals support and what progressives support.
Even most Republicans give a positive response toward progressivism. This probably relates as well to why many people who self-identify as conservatives will support many traditionally liberal positions. These positions back in the Progressive Era used to be called progressive. Americans strongly support them. That is the true Silent Majority or rather Silenced Majority.
So, if most Americans are actually conservative and the Democratic Party is actually liberal, then why does the Democratic Party have higher positive ratings than the Republican Party for more than a decade? Either Americans aren’t so conservative or the Democratic Party isn’t so liberal. I’d argue it’s both.
If Americans are so conservative, then why do they have a decently positive feeling rating toward what they perceive as ‘liberals’? The positive feelings for liberals hasn’t dropped below 50 in several decades. That ain’t too shabby for a supposedly conservative population. […]
The key values of the ideological divide are the basis of the key issues of society and politics. As such, determining the key issues is important in distinguishing liberalism vs conservatism in the American population. Key issues are important because they are the wedge issues that decide elections. What is telling to my mind is that it’s specifically the key issues of American politics that have been strongly moving leftward. I would conclude two things. First, the majority of Americans are definitely not right-leaning in any clear sense and there isn’t any evidence that the center of public opinion is shifting rightward. Second, however one might add up all the various issues, the majority of Americans are progressively liberal or becoming more progressively liberal on many if not most of the key issues.
According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.
This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.
It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist. In fact, the socialist label gets more favorable opinion than the Tea Party label, although libertarianism is gaining favor.
Young Americans are the most liberal of any age demographic, in terms of their politics. They are more liberal than even the supposed liberal class, despite the young not self-identifying as liberal. They are so liberal as to be leaning leftist.
Conservatives are mistaken when they put too much stock in ideological labels and too little stock in substance of views. Their confusion is understandable. Many pollsters have had a hard time keeping up with changing labels, not initially realizing they needed to offer choices beyond the standard binary of liberal or conservative.
Most Americans are surprisingly far to the left of the plutocratic and kleptocratic establishment. Most Americans support left-wing healthcare reform (single payer or public option), maintaining the Roe vs Wade decision, stronger gun regulations (including among most NRA members), more emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment of criminals, drug legalization or decriminalization, etc. They are definitely to the left of Clinton New Democrats with their corporatist alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Hillary Clinton, for example, has long had ties to heavily polluting big energy corporations.
Maybe it’s unsurprising to learn that the American public, both left and right, is also to the left on the issue of climate change and global warming. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up issue of environmentalism and public opinion. Labels don’t mean what they used to, which adds to the confusion. But when you dig down into the actual issues themselves, public opinion becomes irrefutably clear. Even though few look closely at polls and surveys, the awareness of this is slowly trickling out. We might be finally reaching a breaking point in this emerging awareness. The most politicized issues of our time show that the American public supports leftist policies. This includes maybe the most politicized of all issues, climate change and global warming.
Yet as the American public steadily marches to the left, the Republican establishment uses big money to push the ‘mainstream’ toward right-wing extremism and the Democrats pretend that their conservatism represents moderate centrism. The tension can’t be maintained without ripping the country apart. We can only hope that recent events will prove to have been a wake up call, that maybe the majority of Americans are finally realizing they are the majority, not just silent but silenced.
[…] from the book Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff (pp. 252-253): […]
It is not that positions on issues don’t matter. They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves. For example, if you identify yourself essentially as the mother or father in a strict father family, you may well be threatened by gay marriage, which is inconsistent with a strict father morality . For this reason, someone in the Midwest who has never even met anyone gay could have his or her deepest identity threatened by gay marriage. The issue is symbolic, not literal, and symbolism is powerful in politics.
Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).
[…] The conservative elites, or at least their advisors, fully understood decades ago that most Americans didn’t agree with them on the issues. Nonetheless, most Americans continue to identify as conservative when given a forced choice (i.e., when ‘moderate’ or ‘independent’ aren’t given as an option).
It makes one wonder what exactly “symbolic conservatism” represents or what people think it represents. Reagan often stood in front of patriotic symbols during speeches and photo-ops. Look back at images of Reagan and you’ll find in the background such things as flags and the Statue of Liberty. Ignoring the issue of “true conservatism”, this symbolic conservatism seems to have little in the way of tangible substance, heavy on the signifier while being light on the signified.
[…] To look at the issues is to consider how values are expressed in the real world. What does it mean that many Americans agree with the symbolic values of conservatism while disagreeing with the actual enactment of those values in policies? What are Americans perceiving in the patriotic and pseudo-libertarian jingoism of the GOP or whatever it is? And why is that this perception appears to be so disconnected from reality on the ground, disconnected the reality of Americans’ daily lives and their communities?
[…] Most importantly, take note that the American public isn’t actually polarized, not even between the North and South — as Bob Moser explained in Blue Dixie (Kindle Locations 126-136):
[…] But the widespread notion that the South is one-party territory ignores some powerful evidence to the contrary. For one thing, more Southerners identify as Democrats than Republicans. For another: more Democrats win state and local elections in the South than Republicans. The parity between the parties was neatly symbolized by the total numbers of state legislators in the former Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Republicans, 891 Democrats. The South is many things, not all of them flattering. But it is not politically “solid.”
[…] So, yes, there is something weird going on here with the American public. Is this confusion artificially created? Is the public being manipulated by politicians who know the American public better than the American public knows themselves? Apparently not, as Alex Preen explained on Salon.com:
According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are.
The research found that this was as true for Democratic politicians. All politicians across the board were equally clueless about and disconnected from those they claim to represent. This is why it isn’t a partisan issue. It is a bipartisan ignorance.
In reality, most Americans agree more about most issues than they disagree. But it depends on how you frame it.
If you make Americans choose between the labels of liberal and conservative, most people of course will pick one of them and the public will be divided. You can use that to frame questions and so prime people to give polarized answers. But the fact of the matter is that if you give people another option such as independent, most won’t choose either liberal or conservative.
If you only give Americans two viable political party choices, many will consistently choose candidates of the same party from election to election. But most Americans identify as independents and would prefer having other choices. Consider the fact that some of the voters that helped Republican Trump win were supporters of Democratic Sanders. Few people are ideological partisans. That is because few people think in ideological terms.
Consider specific issues.
If you give people a forced choice question about whether they are for or against tough-on-crime policies, polarization in public opinion is the inevitable result. But if you ask people about crime prevention and rehabilitation, most would prefer that. The thing is few polls ever give people the full, accurate info about the available choices. The framing of the questions leads people to answer in a particular way.
That is because those asking the questions are typically more polarized and so they have an self-interest in finding polarized answers (in order to confirm their own biases and worldview), even if their motivations are unconscious. The corporate media also likes to frame everything in polarized terms, even when it isn’t the best framing, because it offers a simplistic narrative (i.e., entertainment news) that sells advertising.
If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support pro-choice or pro-life, you will get a polarized response from the public. But if you ask people if they are for both women’s rights and abortion limits, you’ll find most Americans support both simultaneously. And if you ask people if they want to decrease abortions, you’ll find almost everyone wants to decrease abortions. It’s just people see different ways of decreasing abortions.
Most pro-choicers aren’t for increasing abortions (i.e., killing babies). And most pro-lifers aren’t for taking women’s rights away (i.e., theocratic authoritarianism). It’s just they see different policies as being more effective in achieving what pro-lifers claim to support. The two sides at worst disagree about methods, not goals or necessarily even fundamental values. Isn’t it interesting that so many pro-lifers support a women’s right to choose, depending on how the question is framed?
If you give people a forced choice question about whether or not they support same sex marriage, you get an almost evenly divided polarization of public opinion, with an ever so sleight majority toward support. But if polling is done differently, it is shown that the vast majority is tolerant of or indifferent toward this issue. People simply don’t care who marries whom, unless you intentionally frame it as a liberal agenda to use the government to promote gay marriage and force it onto the public. Framed as an issue of personal right of choice, most Americans are perfectly fine with individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. Even the average conservative doesn’t want to force their political views onto others, no matter what is asserted by the polarized GOP establishment and partisans who are reactionaries, authoritarians and social dominance orientation types.
If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support gun rights or gun regulations, you will get what appears to be polarization. But if you give them a third choice of supporting both stronger gun rights and more effective gun regulations, most will take that third option. That is even true with NRA members who disagree with ideologically polarized NRA leadership. And it is also true of liberals, a demographic shown to have surprisingly high rates of guns in the household.
In the 2005 Pew poll, the demographic was just called ‘Liberals’. In this 2011 Pew poll, the demographic is called ‘Solid Liberals’. So, I don’t know if it is speaking about the exact same demographic segment of the population. Pew changes the demographic groupings as the data changes. In the new ‘Solid Liberals’ demographic there is only 23% Independents whereas in the previous ‘Liberals’ demographic there was almost 1/2 Independents. Of those Indpendents, they didn’t ask how many self-identified as liberal or something else. Among ‘Solid Liberals’ in general, only 60% self-identified as ‘liberal’ while 31% self-identified as ‘moderate’ and 9% self-identified as ‘conservative’.
What does ‘liberal’ even mean when slightly less than 1/2 of supposed ‘liberals’ don’t self-identify as ‘liberal’? This goes to the heart of the American public’s confusion about ideologies and labels. Given a choice between the two, most Americans self-identify as ‘conservative’. However, when asked about specific issues, most Americans support many liberal positions on key issues. […]
“But the Gallup survey of self-identification of ideology shows that more Americans self-identify as moderates and liberals than as conservatives. Most Americans do not self-identify as conservatives.”
Given a choice between the three, the data I’ve seen shows most Americans self-identify as moderates. So, what is a moderate? They are essentially those who tend toward centrism or at least away from the extreme wings. Considering that, where is the center in American politics? […]
I was looking further at the Pew data. There is another interesting group: Post-Moderns. They are considered Independents and they are the only group to have the majority self-identify as moderates. One would assume, therefore, that they wouldn’t have any bias toward either party. But one would be wrong in that assumption.
Post-Moderns are 62% Independents, 26% Democrats and 2% Republicans. Of the Independents, 19% has no lean, 58% lean to the Democratic Party and 23% lean to the Republican Party. They favor Democrats over Republicans on almost every question, including reelecting Obama. Also, they listen to Fox News less than the average Democrat and listen to NPR at almost the same rate as the average Democrat. They are second only to Solid Liberals in their reading of The New York Times and their watching the Daily Show. They generally seem closest to Solid Liberals on most issues. They are strongly socially liberal. They have the strongest, although qualified, support of the government. They’d prefer it to be smaller, but they see a role for government in many social issues.
Post-Moderns are the only demographic with a majority of moderates which means they are the clearest indicator we have about where the center is right now in US politics. These moderates are more liberal than not. So, the majority of Post-Moderns identifies as moderate even as the majority also supports many liberal positions and policies.
– – –
Here is the reason why the Democratic Party has never been controlled by liberals and especially not by left-wingers.
“The Pew Research poll notes a fundamental difference between “solid Liberals” and the other two groups that lean Democratic — “Hard-pressed Democrats” and “New coalition Democrats”: “both of these last two groups are highly religious and socially conservative.” To the extent that cultural issues — such as abortion and homosexuality — dominate political discourse, these groups can be peeled away from the Democratic bloc to vote Republican. In his classic, What’s the Matter With Kansas? journalist Tom Frank detailed how Republicans redirect economic discontent to explosive cultural issues. In 2012, “moral purity” will be a major Republican theme — particularly if messianic Texas Governor Rick Perry becomes the GOP candidate. The Liberal challenge is to ensure that jobs and economic fairness become the dominant political themes, not “How can we make the US a Christian nation?””
– – –
Here is some data from 2004 which I suspect might be even more true in 2011. The article notes that in 2000 the Independents were evenly split between the two parties but by 2004 they were leaning Democratic and liberal. If this is a trend that fits the other leftward trends, this will continue into the near future as OWS seems to demonstrate.
“The bad news for conservatives is that a majority of independents line up on the liberal-to-moderate side of the ideological spectrum. Twenty-one percent of independents in the Zogby poll described themselves as liberal or progressive, while 37 percent called themselves moderates. In contrast, 30 percent of independents describe their politics as conservative, with only 4 percent calling themselves “very conservative” or libertarian.
“Zogby asserts that the polls indicate independents are trending more liberal in this election year as opposed to 2000. For example, fully 70 percent of independents believe the federal government should play a major role in protecting the environment, a traditionally Democratic concern. “The environment is a Democratic ace in the hole this year,” Zogby says.
“Meanwhile, 82 percent of independents want the federal government to play a major role in protecting individual freedom, suggesting a backlash against the Patriot Act and other attempts by the Bush administration to change the traditional balance between national security and individual liberty. Sixty-two percent feel the government should help ensure that all citizens have economic opportunities, while 60 percent want a dominant role by the federal government in providing social programs to help the needy.
“The liberal bias of independents contrasts sharply with the other elections in which their vote has proved critical. In the 1980 election, blue-collar workers deserted Jimmy Carter and the Democrats to vote Ronald Reagan into office. And in the 1990s, Bill Clinton infuriated traditional liberals but won the presidency twice by appealing to the socially moderate, fiscally conservative instincts of suburban soccer moms. Third party candidates – John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000 – attracted disaffected voters who saw no real difference between Republicans and Democrats.” […]
Considering all of this, it blows my mind that 9% of so-called ‘Solid Liberals’ self-identify as ‘conservative’. Pew defines ‘Solid Liberals’ as being liberal across the board, fiscally and socially liberal on most if not all issues. Essentially, ‘Solid Liberals’ are as liberal as you can be without becoming an outright communist.
How on God’s green earth could such a person ever be so confused as to think they are a conservative? What do these 9% of conservative ‘Solid Liberals’ think that ‘conservative’ means? What kind of conservatism can include liberalism to such an extent? What could possibly be subjectively experienced as conservative despite appearing liberal by all objective measures?
Consider the seemingly opposite Pew demographic which is labeled ‘Staunch Conservatives’ (basically, conservative across the board). Are there 9% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ who self-identify as ‘liberal’? Of course not, although interestingly 3% do.
Compare also how many self-identify as ‘moderate’: 31% of ‘Solid Liberals’ identify as moderate and only 8% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ identify as moderate. ‘Staunch Conservatives’ are as partisan as they come with %100 that lean Republican (0% that lean Democratic, 0% with no lean). On the other hand, ‘Solid Liberals’ have 1% who lean Republican and 3% with no lean; that might seem like minor percentages but that means 1 in 100 ‘Solid Liberals’ are drawn toward the Republican Party and 3 in 100 are genuinely independent.
“That decadence is a cumulative thing. Certainly, it is nurtured both by dogma and nihilism. Only a sceptical meaningfulness can push forward in a creative way.”
~ Paul Adkin, Decadence & Stagnation
Many liberals in the United States have become or always were rather conservative in personality and/or ideology. This is an old complaint made by many further to the left, myself included.
Quite a few liberals maybe would have identified as conservatives at a different time or in a different society. The US political spectrum is shifted so far right that moderate conservatives appear as liberals and typically portray themselves as liberals, but even these moderate conservatives long to push society further right into neoliberal corporatism and neocon authoritarianism. That is how so much of the political left gets excluded from mainstream respectability and legitimacy for, in big biz media and plutocratic politics, even a moderate liberal gets portrayed as a radical.
But the other thing about our society is how reactionary it is, not merely right-wing in the way seen a century ago. This forces the entire political left into an oppositional position that gets defined by what it isn’t and so leftists are forced into a narrow corner of the dominant paradigm. This causes many left-wingers to be constantly on the defensive or to be overly preoccupied with the other side.
And it is so easy to become more like what is opposed. There is a surprising number of left-wingers who become right-wingers or otherwise fall into reactionary thinking, who become obsessed with fringe ideologies and movements that feed into authoritarianism or get lost in dark fantasies of dystopia and apocalypse. Many others on the political left simply lose hope, becoming cynical and apathetic.
In a society like this, it’s very difficult to remain solidly on the political left while maintaining balance. One hopes there is a sweet spot between what goes for liberalism and the far left, these two in themselves forming extremes on a spectrum.
The danger on the political right is far different. Conservative, right-wing, and reactionary have all become conflated into an ideological confusion that is held together by an authoritarian streak. This is a vague set of overlapping visons involving dominance and oppression, fear and anxiety, righteousness and resentment, nostalgia and pseudo-realism, theocracy and nationalism, crude libertarianism and fascist-like futurism.
This scattered political left and mixed-up political right is what goes for American politics.
How does an individual as a member of the public gain enough distance from the very social order that dominates the public mind and frames public debate, manages public perception and manipulates public behavior? And where does one find solid ground to make a stand?
* * *
Let me add some thoughts.
We Americans live in an authoritarian society. There is a long history of authoritarianism: genocide, slavery, land theft, population displacement, reservations, internment camps, re-enslavement through chain gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, race wars, redlining, eugenics, human medical testing, tough-on-crime laws, war on drugs, war on the poor, racial profiling, mass incarceration, police brutality, military-industrial complex, near continuous war-mongering, anti-democratic covert operations (foreign and domestic), intelligence-security state, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, etc.
In America, there were openly stated racist laws on the books for several centuries. Of course, we inherited this authoritarian tradition from Britain and Europe. They have their own long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, pogroms, Holocaust, eugenics, ghettoization, exploitation, oppression, prejudice, violence, state terrorism, wars of aggression, world war, and on and on. We can’t rationalize this as being just human nature, as not all humans have acted this way. There are societies like the Piraha that wouldn’t even understand authoritarianism, much less be prone to it. But even among modern nation-states, not all of them have an extensive past of conquering and dominating other people.
Anyway, what other societies do is a moot issue, as far as dealing with one’s own society and one’s own culpability and complicity. So you say that you’re an anti-authoritarian. Well, good for you. What does that mean?
Our lives are ruled over by authoritarianism. But it’s not just something that comes from above for it is built into every aspect of our society and economy. On a daily basis, we act out scripts of authoritarianism and play by its rules. Our lives are dependent on the internalized benefits of externalized costs, the latter being mostly paid by the worst victims of authoritarianism, typically poor dark-skinned people in distant countries. The cheap gas and cheap products you consume were paid for by the blood and suffering of untold others who remain unseen and unheard.
Even to embrace anti-authoritarianism is to remain captured within the gravity of authoritarianism’s pull. The challenge is that maybe authoritarianism can’t ever be directly opposed because opposition is part of the language of authoritarianism. Opposition can always be co-opted, subverted, or redirected. There is either authoritarianism or there is not. For it to end, something entirely new would have to take its place.
This is where radical imagination comes in. We need entirely different thinking made possible through a paradigm shift, a revolution of the mind. We aren’t going to debate or analyze, petition or vote our way out of authoritarianism. That puts us in a tricky spot, for those of us dissatisfied with the options being forced upon us.
Someone questioned me about what is radical imagination. I wasn’t sure if they were being merely disingenuous in playing Devil’s advocate as an intellectual pose. An intellectual debate about the issue wouldn’t have brought either of us closer to understanding.
Anyone who has ever had their mind shook loose by seeing in a new way knows the power of radical imagination, whether or not they could explain it. Radical means that which goes to the root. As such, radical imagination is what has the capacity to shake us to our foundation or send us tumbling down unexplored caverns.
The intellectual who was interrogating me seems more attracted to the dark imagination than to the radical imagination, not that the two are mutually exclusive. He considers himself a radical and yet he apparently has a hard time imagining what exists outside of the iron prison. I get the sense that he has come to romanticize dystopia and apocalypse, which he rationalizes as his seeking to understand. The danger is that it can lead to a mirror image of the dogmatic utopian, exchanging one absolutist fantasy for another.
I’m not dismissing this motivation to bleakly stare down ugly truths. Some of my favorite writers leaned heavily in this direction. There is a dark bent to Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, etc; but their speculations didn’t end in mere gloomy cynicism. They were always looking beyond. Even a perverse and pessimistic visionary like William S. Burroughs sought to creatively portray alternative societies and other ways of being.
In my own sense of radical imagination, what drives my thinking is a profound epistemological dissatisfaction and ideological disloyalty, not just toward the status quo but also toward much of what opposes it. I’ve grown tired of predictable conflicts that endlessly repeat, like some cosmic tragicomedy. Each side reinforces the other, making victory for either side impossible. Radical imagination, however, seeks to escape this trap.
No amount of studying the hegemonic order will necessarily help one to see the hidden aporia and lacuna, the gaps in the structure. Negative capability is only useful to the degree that it opens the mind to negative space as creative void and a passageway through. The darkness can paralyze us in blind immobility or it can shift our perception into other senses.
The stakes are high. And the consequences all too personal. It goes far beyond any social order. This touches upon our humanity, the psychological reality of our being.
We stand in a hallway of doors, not knowing what is behind them. The entire social reality we live within is that hallway. We stand there in that tight place, the crowd shuffling back and forth. Groups form taking up different positions along the hallway and sometimes fight with the other groups. A few curious souls notice the doors themselves, but the doors remain unopened. That hallway is warm and safe. We are surrounded by the familiar and we have no fear of loneliness.
But what if some of the doors were cracked open, allowing one to barely glimpse something else? What then? Radical imagination is that inability to ignore the light coming through the crack, the temptation to press against the door, the curiosity about what is on the other side.
The following passages from two books help to explain what is social construction. As society has headed in a particular direction of development, abstract thought has become increasingly dominant.
But for us modern people who take abstractions for granted, we often don’t even recognize abstractions for what they are. Many abstractions simply become reality as we know it. They are ‘looped’ into existence, as race realism, capitalist realism, etc.
Ideological abstractions become so pervasive and systemic that we lose the capacity to think outside of them. They form our reality tunnel.
Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity:
A Unified Approach by Elisa J. Sobo Kindle Locations 94-104)
Until now, many biocultural anthropologists have focused mainly on the ‘bio’ half of the equation, using ‘biocultural’ generically, like biology, to refer to genetic, anatomical, physiological, and related features of the human body that vary across cultural groups. The number of scholars with a more sophisticated approach is on the upswing, but they often write only for super-educated expert audiences. Accordingly, although introductory biocultural anthropology texts make some attempt to acknowledge the role of culture, most still treat culture as an external variable— as an add-on to an essentially biological system. Most fail to present a model of biocultural diversity that gives adequate weight to the cultural side of things.
Note that I said most, not all: happily, things are changing. A movement is afoot to take anthropology’s claim of holism more seriously by doing more to connect— or reconnect— perspectives from both sides of the fence. Ironically, prior to the industrial revolution and the rise of the modern university, most thinkers took a very comprehensive view of the human condition. It was only afterward that fragmented, factorial, compartmental thinking began to undermine our ability to understand ourselves and our place in— and connection with— the world. Today, the leading edge of science recognizes the links and interdependencies that such thinking keeps falsely hidden.
Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference:
Race in Early Modern Philosophy by Justin E. H. Smith pp. 9-10
The connection to the problem of race should be obvious: kinds of people are to no small extent administered into being, brought into existence through record keeping, census taking, and, indeed, bills of sale. A census form asks whether a citizen is “white,” and the possibility of answering this question affirmatively helps to bring into being a subkind of the human species that is by no means simply there and given, ready to be picked out, prior to the emergence of social practices such as the census. Censuses, in part, bring white people into existence, but once they are in existence they easily come to appear as if they had been there all along. This is in part what Hacking means by “looping”: human kinds, in contrast with properly natural kinds such as helium or water, come to be what they are in large part as a result of the human act of identifying them as this or that. Two millennia ago no one thought of themselves as neurotic, or straight, or white, and nothing has changed in human biology in the meantime that could explain how these categories came into being on their own. This is not to say that no one is melancholic, neurotic, straight, white, and so on, but only that how that person got to be that way cannot be accounted for in the same way as, say, how birds evolved the ability to fly, or how iron oxidizes.
In some cases, such as the diagnosis of mental illness, kinds of people are looped into existence out of a desire, successful or not, to help them. Racial categories seem to have been looped into existence, by contrast, for the facilitation of the systematic exploitation of certain groups of people by others. Again, the categories facilitate the exploitation in large part because of the way moral status flows from legal status. Why can the one man be enslaved, and the other not? Because the one belongs to the natural-seeming kind of people that is suitable for enslavement. This reasoning is tautological from the outside, yet self-evident from within. Edward Long, as we have seen, provides a vivid illustration of it in his defense of plantation labor in Jamaica. But again, categories cannot be made to stick on the slightest whim of their would-be coiner. They must build upon habits of thinking that are already somewhat in place. And this is where the history of natural science becomes crucial for understanding the history of modern racial thinking, for the latter built directly upon innovations in the former. Modern racial thinking could not have taken the form it did if it had not been able to piggyback, so to speak, on conceptual innovations in the way science was beginning to approach the diversity of the natural world, and in particular of the living world.
This much ought to be obvious: racial thinking could not have been biologized if there were no emerging science of biology. It may be worthwhile to dwell on this obvious point, however, and to see what more unexpected insights might be drawn out of it. What might not be so obvious, or what seems to be ever in need of renewed pointing out, is a point that ought to be of importance for our understanding of the differing, yet ideally parallel, scope and aims of the natural and social sciences: the emergence of racial categories, of categories of kinds of humans, may in large part be understood as an overextension of the project of biological classification that was proving so successful in the same period. We might go further, and suggest that all of the subsequent kinds of people that would emerge over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the kinds of central interest to Foucault and Hacking, amount to a further reaching still, an unprecedented, peculiarly modern ambition to make sense of the slightest variations within the human species as if these were themselves species differentia. Thus for example Foucault’s well-known argument that until the nineteenth century there was no such thing as “the homosexual,” but only people whose desires could impel them to do various things at various times. But the last two centuries have witnessed a proliferation of purportedly natural kinds of humans, a typology of “extroverts,” “depressives,” and so on, whose objects are generally spoken of as if on an ontological par with elephants and slime molds. Things were not always this way. In fact, as we will see, they were not yet this way throughout much of the early part of the period we call “modern.”
Humans perplex me. We are complicated creatures. We not only know not what we do but know not what we are.
The politicians in both parties are so obviously full of shit, such that their rhetoric has no resemblance to reality. If liberals and conservatives actually believed what they claim to believe, none of them could vote for either major political party. In that case, we’d have a far different kind of political system, even if it required a revolution to create it for nothing could stop us from acting on what we truly believed.
It’s not just mainstream politics, of course. Libertarians for damn sure rarely act according to any genuine principle of liberty, often promoting a supposed free market capitalism that ends up being as authoritarian and bureaucratic as so much else. As for left-wingers in the US, they are saved from having to face the implications and consequences of their own beliefs because they have no power within the political system, but the history of communist statism doesn’t offer much hope.
The same basic thing goes for religion. For example, you’d be hard put finding many Christians who live according to Jesus’ teachings and example, since anyone who attempted such a thing would likely be deemed crazy in our society. Could you imagine Christians giving all their wealth away, letting the dead bury the dead, turning the other cheek, and relying upon God as do the birds in the field? They would end up impoverished, homeless, and wouldn’t likely have long lives. Their reward might be in heaven, but they would get no reward in this world. If most Christians of all varieties actually believed they were to meet a God when they die, they would live in utter terror of the horrific actions they’ve committed and been complicit in, as God would know their every sin.
This applies to other religions. Maybe only the simplest of religions, such as Buddhism, might be exempt from this fatal human flaw for the reason that Buddhism doesn’t require much in the way of belief, making it harder fall short of an ideal. But in reality Buddhists are like anyone else and have beliefs that they no doubt never live up to.
In general, the only way religion can avoid hypocrisy is by lowering the standard of morality, as in theologically rationalizing away one’s failure or somehow making it impersonal such as with original sin or karma. Religion easily serves the purpose of giving people a way of escaping responsibility with arguments that failure is inevitable or to be blamed on outside forces. But is a belief in failed belief, a faith in excuse-making really all that much of a comfort? Even that seems like an avoidance of what is actually believed, whatever it is.
It’s clear that very few, if any, people act according to their stated beliefs and ideological identities. This indicates that their self-awareness and self-knowledge doesn’t amount to much. Most people don’t consciously know what they actually believe, what they actually support and value, what they actually desire and fear. But you can easily determine their genuine commitments and certitudes by observing their behavior. In making such observations, what people do prioritize tends to be more basic than ideological principles and beliefs, such as: social identities and position, comforts and privileges, basic sense of control and normalcy, avoidance of the awareness of mortality and other endless distractions, etc. All the rest is mostly stories we tell ourselves.
This assessment includes me. I don’t claim to have everything figured out. In fact, realizing how people are typically so clueless and oblivious and ignorant, I must assume that I’m probably the exact same way. Like anyone else, I surely deceive myself and make up convincing rationalizations. But I at least have the advantage of acknowledging this sad state of affairs, for whatever good that does. I’d like to think that, in knowing that I’m in a trap of my own making, it might allow me some semblance of hope in escaping it or at least in coming to terms with what it means.
If nothing else, I don’t want to lie to myself, assuming that is possible. The kind of hypocrisy that endlessly promotes harm and suffering in the world is a fate worse than death. I’d like to at the very least not embrace hypocrisy. I despise hypocrisy. We should be as honest with ourselves as we are capable. The only evil that is real is what is to be found in our hearts, when we allow our minds to be ruled by darkness. Multiply that evil by the number of people on the planet. That is why the world is so utterly fucked up. And it is this reality that we are constantly trying to escape and in the process we make it worse. We can’t escape ourselves, as our haunted psyches travel with us.
This is a simple insight. It’s not an ideology, not a belief system, not even all that profound. It’s just humbling to be reminded of. If we aren’t what we think we are, then what are we? If people can be judged by their actions, what do our individual and collective actions say about us, in the kind of world we have created and are creating? Just some thoughts to consider as we hurtle into the future with a world war, climate change, or who knows what looming on the horizon. Whether or not we claim it, it will claim us.