Archive for October 17th, 2009

Personality and Politics

Why do we have the views we hold?   I was struck by the way in which it becomes painfully obvious how the right and left view things differently (thanks again to Jon Stewart and the power of satire).

The right claims that the media virtually ignored the “tea party” march on Washington on September 12, which brought 50,000 to 70,000 to DC, with Fox News anchors like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity pumping up the crowd and giving the rally massive coverage.   In fact, that rally was in part a media creation, driven by the radio personalities appealing to the right.   America is waking up and demanding Obama be stopped!

Yet, when 50,000 to 70,000 march in DC for gay rights, Fox hardly mentions the story and certainly doesn’t claim that America is waking up and demanding that discrimination against gays stop.   One commentator boldly claimed that an anti-government rally is news while a gay rights rally isn’t.   I have no idea where that logic comes from.

In fact, if you read blatantly conservative vs. blatantly liberal blogs and newsfeeds, you find two entirely different universes.  In the “conservative” universe there will be a focus on anything anti-Obama, and minor tidbits (quotes from speeches that might be embarrassing, etc.) are trumpeted as something profound and important.  If you read blogs and newsfeeds from the left, you’ll see much different results.   There it will focus on the foibles of the right, and stories that put their own ideology in a positive light.   There are also sub-universes for socialists, gun ‘enthusiasts,’ libertarians, and the like.   They scour the news for stories that fit their perspective; they interpret stories within their ideology.

Since most people tend to read what they agree with already, people believe that their viewpoint is more widely shared than it is.  People literally construct realities that they inhabit, certain that their evidence demolishes the views of the other side.  The other side doesn’t know it because it is populated by a mix of idiots, deceivers, and dangerous ideologues with “agendas” to implement.   In a world with a vast cornucopia of evidence and information, every bit able to be interpreted in a variety of ways, it is possible to support any position, and “demolish” any other position.

The hard part is learning how to get beyond that.  Not to settle into a world view, be comfortable there, defend it, and experience the emotions of righteous rage and self-righteous indignation.  The hard part is to find a way to try to get closer to understand how things really are, even though there always uncertainty in a world as complex as this one, subject to multiple interpretations.

There are ways to do this.   First, learn to understand other perspectives.   For those on the left, understand how fans of Glenn Beck think, why people are drawn to Ann Coulter, or how some with a straight face can slam all liberals as morons and socialists.   It’s not easy.   Glenn Beck, for instance, is entertaining and self-effacing enough to be likable.  He’s also a radio entertainer from the “morning zoo” movement.   His charges, often over the top, are not unlike parallel charges from those on the far left.

On the far left, groups accuse America of being a blood thirsty state controlled by big money lining its own pockets, manipulating and using anyone they can.  They point to the horrors of our wars, the environmental devastation of capitalist over-consumption, and big money’s control over politics and media.   To them American capitalism is dangerous, even evil.  When I hear that, I think, “well, they’re going a bit too far, but they have some good points.  And, gee, maybe they are right, maybe I’m being a bit naive.”

Most on the right, when they hear shock jocks like Coulter, Beck and Hannity react in a similar manner.  The “over the top” stuff is more entertaining than the serious and strident left, so they learn to enjoy it, even if they aren’t absolutely convinced.  As one conservative said, “of course Liberals aren’t all evil, we’re all Americans wanting what’s best, it’s just funny how Rush Limbaugh jerks liberal chains.”   When I think of it that way, they’re reaction is understandable.   And, of course, when they hear the far left, they think the neo-Marxists are as weirdly off the wall dangerously looney as I might consider Limbaugh and Coulter.   So…I start to understand how the ‘other side’ views things, and can navigate their perspective.

I’ll also go to blogs where views are different than my own.  In fact, contrary to the norm, the political blogs I read are almost all from people with whom I disagree.   I challenge them, and some (like Renaissance Guy) takes even rather blunt challenges politely, and responds with reasoned arguments.    I like him, and find myself annoyed by those who call him a racist for criticizing Obama.   Yet other cites will take anything I write and attack me (often not the argument) with intense insults, hoping perhaps to get under my skin (not possible — I know the blog comment game too well going back to the usenet in the 90s), or to make me go away to protect the ‘purity’ of the group.   Yet in both reactions I learn more about how others are thinking, I learn to understand that perspective.

And, of course, there are commentators here, like classicliberal2, who is more to the left, who also has a polite but provocative way of putting forth a perspective that counters those on the right.  I certainly can understand that perspective as well — more easily, since it is closer to my own.

So ultimately step one is to learn to identify with and understand other perspectives.  Step two is to self-critique — do the others have a point, either left or right?   Where might I be in error?  Usually I find faults with the arguments of others, and my own perspective remains the most convincing.  Yet I know that is not because I am right, but because I, like everyone else, has a perspective deeply rooted in core beliefs about the world and how it works, and about both human nature and the nature of humanity.    Then it hits me: the reason so much of the debate can’t be resolved is that we hold our positions not because of conclusions based on the evidence, but who we are deep inside.  In a fundamental way, personality drives political perspective.

This isn’t a new or radical theory.  The Frankfurt School in the middle of the 20th century connected the “authoritarian personality” to the rise of Hitler.   William James thought philosophical differences arose from differences in temperment.  Personality gives us our understanding of the self and our environment.  One who is distrustful, has low self-esteem, and believes the world to be a cruel, nasty place will have views on politics and life which reflect that notion.  One who believes life is a gift, is beautiful, and that others are fundamentally good, will have a perspective reflecting that.   Most of us are somewhere inbetween, but have deep core beliefs and values that are resilient despite ongoing experience.   Indeed, we protect them by interpreting the world through those values.   It doesn’t guarantee “left or right,” but shapes ways in which the political and social world are comprehensible to the individual.

Yet that creates a problem: if political differences reflect personality as much if not more than the “facts of the case,” how do we resolve them?  The answer seems simple and born out in experience: we need a political culture that accepts differences and allows people to tolerate each other and make compromises.   Where we see political cultures like that, we find stable systems of governance.  Where there is rigidity and refusal to accept difference, there is often violence and oppression.   The individual confronts politics in the realm of culture and society.   More to come…