Friday, October 15, 2010

Discombobulated Wingnuttery

 © Charles D. Hayes

If you can think of a better description than discombobulated wingnuttery to describe today’s Tea Party politics, I would like to hear it. Their current level of political discourse is so deeply disturbing and so out of tune with our democratic ideals, that at times I have trouble believing my eyes and ears. For more than thirty years I have been engaged in a serious effort of self-education. I’ve studied and continue to study myriad subjects, with the experience being its own reward. But now I find it increasingly the case that the position of ignorance from which I began to study three decades ago has become something of a Tea Party platform: a surplus of Stone Age contempt is aimed at all perceived manifestations of otherness, and the world is divided into every possible avenue of identity to reflect an ethos of us versus them, while reason is overwritten by a form of destructive passion driven by existential anxiety.

The Tea Party platform is in large part a political stance that professes to be proud of our Constitution and our philosophy of “We the people,” but it is motivated to a significant degree by politically contrived hatred for all that we do collectively in the name of government. The exception, of course, is military action, which very often gets enthusiastic support. You see, government-sanctioned war is a means of redirecting existential anxiety—anxiety that could and would dissipate through a serious effort to understand the complexity of our political circumstances at any given time. But in a world existing largely of us and them factions, war is the only thing that really makes sense, so we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people embrace it with enthusiasm. It makes sense because hatred as Eric Hoffer observed is one of the most effective unifying agents available to ideologues.  

It’s difficult to describe the depth of disappointment I feel when people carry signs that depict the president of the United States as Hitler or Stalin. Or of people whose overt racism is so obvious that only psychopaths could fail to detect it. I suspect any well-educated person returning to America today after being absent and out of touch for many years would be stunned at the pervasive level of ignorance being passed off as patriotism and a defense of the Constitution, when it is anything but.

During the past two decades, revelations in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have granted us precious insights into human behavior. We know more than ever before about bias and how it works. We also know why practicing democracy is so incredibly difficult. It’s because our default nature is to act tribally, especially under duress. Only now are we beginning to understand the psychological difficulty of maintaining our reasoning abilities when we discuss hot-button issues. For a couple of centuries we have thought of ourselves primarily as rational creatures. But we most assuredly are not. We default to an emotional level while still feeling that we are being perfectly rational. We imagine ourselves far removed from tribalism, but we practice it daily.

Consider the explosive success in social media with groups such as Facebook and Twitter. We instinctively relate to members of our group, and we are equipped with a hardwired expertise for detecting otherness. We are so good at it that it requires an extraordinary amount of attentive awareness just to catch ourselves doing it. Relating to members with whom we identify is so emotionally satisfying that we tend to regard the process as that of reasoning. In other words, strong emotion, because it is so powerful, feels precisely like reason ensconced in righteousness and thus, this sentiment is an integral part of our identity.

We still relate better to small groups of people than to large ones. Because of our tribal temperament, many of us intuit a tipping point where overt differences begin to bother us. Psychological research clearly demonstrates that dissimilarity past a certain point can become tangled up with our sense of mortality—we can become fearful of too much otherness because it is related to change and, subconsciously, it reminds us of our demise. As a result, many individuals become fanatical about preserving the status quo, present inequities and all, because it feels safer than coping with an uncertain future or with people whose differences make us existentially uncomfortable.

I can find no way to be charitable about the pseudo- conservative political ideology touted by placard-wielding Tea Partiers, and yet I can’t help but feel some sympathy for people who look up to the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin as great leaders. In my view, this amounts to one of the greatest examples of educational failure in America. A person of any political persuasion left, right, or center, who cannot deconstruct the incoherent nonsense of Palin and Beck as being just that—nonsense—cannot be considered to be sufficiently educated to think independently about politics.

The validity of their arguments aside, it’s not uncommon for Beck and Palin to contradict themselves profusely in the space of a few sentences. Neither of these individuals is knowledgeable enough to discuss any subject with any degree of complexity in a public forum, and yet they have become wealthy doing so. Astronomer Phil Plait, who writes for Discover magazine, stated it perfectly in a recent blog when he said that, given Beck’s intellectual capacity, “he shouldn’t even be allowed to rant in public parks to passing squirrels.”

Moreover, Alexander Zaitchik’s book Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance shows that because of his depraved tactics to improve his ratings in talk radio, Beck may very well be one of the most unscrupulous individuals in media, and yet he passes himself off as a person of great virtue. Indeed, his rally in Washington D.C. in August 2010 was supposed to be about rediscovering honor. But how does that work exactly? How does a dishonorable person help others find honor?

Both Palin and Beck have achieved their fame and notoriety, not by expressing a sound political philosophy, but by pushing people’s hot buttons. Indeed, they have perfected the technique of tribal relating to such degree that their very presence makes reasoned discourse unnecessary. They have become relational icons for a sector of society suffering a deeply disturbing form of existential anxiety. In an appearance on C-Span2’s Book TV, Zaitchik described Tea Party discourse as being sub-rational, which is precisely what it is. So, how do we get beyond discombobulated wingnuttery? How do we educate so that relational nonsense doesn’t substitute for democracy?

Elsewhere I’ve written extensively about the need of every citizen for an existential education—based in part on the premise of being familiar enough with literature and the humanities to be able to cope with one’s own existential anxiety without becoming so unnerved as to lose the ability to use one’s reasoning faculties effectively. When that happens, the default position is to find someone to blame for one’s own misfortune regardless of the cause. I advocate existential education fully aware that our emotional self and our reasoning self are one and the same; they are so interconnected that treating them as separate and independent functions is a deceptive oversimplification.

In The Happiness Hypotheses, Jonathan Haidt describes the human psyche as being made up of reason and emotion—expressed metaphorically as rider and elephant. Reason, as the rider, can ride the elephant, but never completely control it. The elephant has a mind of its own, the larger part of which exists as the subconscious—inaccessible to the rider. An existential education can make a crucial difference because it can enable us to get better and better at influencing the elephant as we age. Moreover, it helps us to understand that the human race is made up completely of riders and elephants. If we know we don’t have total control over our own emotions, then why must we feel it necessary to characterize everything we can’t agree with or relate to as evil?

Civilization requires that we explore and negotiate methods to keep our political dialog on a rider-to-rider basis. Our elephants can relate to one another emotionally when provided with some guidance from the riders, but there is no avenue open to resolving emotional differences with emotion alone except violence. The slippery default that occurs when we encounter people with whom we disagree is that if we view them as the other, we don’t even hear their reasoned arguments when they speak, we simply tune them out. Research in neuroscience reveals that unless we are very careful when our hot buttons are pushed, we misrelate by flooding our minds with emotion, essentially blocking our ability to reason effectively.  
Democracy is undoubtedly an idealistic aspiration. But if you buy into the idea that democracy is a legitimate method of governing, then our reasoning abilities must take precedence over our tendency for tribally motivated relating. Otherwise the actual practice of democracy is a misguided objective. This is not rocket science. It is, instead, a commonsense notion that seems to totally escape the Tea Partiers because the movement at its core is an extreme example of tribalism: you are with us or against us. And thus, it comes down not to democratic differences about governing but to a battle of good versus evil. When our relating becomes overly tribal, we leave the discussion to the elephants and the best they can do is stampede or trample our best intentions.

Emotion is an essential part of our humanity and a vital ingredient of reason itself, but when we let our emotions dominate, our democratic aspirations are moot—there is nothing to negotiate because our reasoning ability becomes inaccessible. The result is anger, rage, and outright hatred. We have to be very careful when it comes to politics, or our elephants will take control of the conversation. When this happens there is little to do except butt heads and trumpet. People ignorant of this reality grow angry at one another with ever-increasing fury; educated people—existentially educated people, that is—are able to calm themselves down, keep their emotions under control and talk, rider to rider. Otherwise, when elephants run wild and attempt to turn all that is political into emotion, the result is discombobulated wingnuttery and it leads us ever closer to the abyss.

The sad but profound truth seldom discussed for fear of offending a significant percentage of our population is straightforward but so politically incorrect that it’s nearly unthinkable to mention. Still, it needs to be said. If a person is uneducated to such a degree that articulating their political views rationally and coherently is not possible, then emotion is all they can bring to the table. If a person knows little of history and little of the dynamics of human behavior and politics, then any and all arguments that they don’t fully understand are perceived as an assault on their identity. When this is the case, the only avenue they have for a defense is to demonstrate their loyalty to their kind by showing contempt and anger toward those who are viewed as the other.

Thus, without an educated citizenry, democracy is untenable and we are stuck with discombobulated wingnuttery. Citizens politically left, right, and center must care more about discerning the better argument and be willing to reason it into existence, or democracy is doomed to the ash heap of dead ideas.

My latest books:

September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life

Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher

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