User:Woozle/2005-09-09 More Thoughts on the Divide

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When I first wrote this, I was pretty sure I was onto something, but I wasn't sure about the details. I'm still not sure about the details (for example: will any American actually admit, when cornered, to believing that truth can only come from authority? I'm trying to find that out), but the more I think about the overall pattern, the more I start to see it shaping people's behaviors – both in the news and in my personal direct experience.

It explains, for example, why bullies seemed to be not only tolerated but almost slyly encouraged at the somewhat conservative-leaning school I went to in 2nd through 8th grades. Someone who dominates someone else through a show of force is simply practicing skills they will need in order to become a valuable leader later in life.

If it's more important to work as a group than as individuals, then it follows that individuals who don't act in concert with the group are liabilities to the group. It therefore makes sense to criticize those who even appear to stand out from the group, as this means they are not making much effort to work with the group -- to be "team players". Thus anyone who violates (for example) the corporate dress code is clearly not "with the program", and is to be viewed with great suspicion. People who look different, for whatever reason, are subject to the same reasoning -- even if they didn't choose to look different, the fact is that they probably come from a different culture (or subculture) and thus will not necessarily behave the same as the rest of us, and thus will be a liability. Furthermore, other people will see that we have these different-looking people in our group, and will think that we are weak (in part perhaps because they assume we cannot find enough "normal" people to complete our team) -- which will hamper our ability to lead and dominate.

Compromise is generally not an option, to this way of thinking. If we cannot dominate, we will be dominated, and we will suffer and those under us (our families, for example) will suffer. What is to be gained by being in control if you do not take full advantage of it? And of course if we dominate, we not only save ourselves from this fate, we gain the benefit of doing the same to our competition -- so it is doubly important that we are the ones who dominate, not them. Anyone who weakens us, by not working in unison, by being different, by criticizing our goals or the means we use to execute those goals, threatens our unity and therefore increases our chances of losing. They become as bad as the enemy -- or worse, because they are one of us, and are not just fighting us but betraying us.

The reasoning, if you accept the premise, seems very clear indeed. Calling anti-war demonstrators "traitors to America" suddenly makes sense, if you look at it this way.

Some other things are less clear.

To start with, is there any clear dividing line between the two sides? Is it an absolute measure of "placing the individual above/below the group", where the importance of each can be measured and there is some point at which both are held equal? Or is it a continuum, and the best we can do is to say that certain groups are definitely one side or the other (red or blue, individualistic or authoritarianism)? Is the disagreement, perhaps, mainly about where the middle is?

Secondly, are there any questions we can ask people which would make it clear where in the spectrum their beliefs fall? Are there patterns of response to such questions which might correlate to a person's stance on certain very divisive issues, such as George W. Bush, the Iraq War, or abortion?


One fundamental premise (perhaps the fundamental premise?) which seems to define conservatives and Red America is this:

  • People are basically bad and self-centered, and they need strong rules enforced from the outside in order to behave themselves.
* Idea Ejection

This is a kind of shorthand for "dismissing the idea completely and marking the speaker as someone to be regarded with suspicion" – all on a fairly unthinking, almost autonomic level. I had no awareness that I was doing this until I started investigating this whole split thing, and realized that it led back to this idea of people being innately bad, and started to remember where I had heard that argument before.

|} I had often heard people say things to this effect and always, I think, instantly ejected the idea* both because it was highly inimical to my sense of identity (more about this in a minute) and because it seemed so completely wrong.

Thinking about this, I had this little dialog with myself:

  • Q: So, how is it wrong?
  • A: I don't do "right" things because rules force me to. If I do a "right" thing, I do it because I want good things to happen. If I do something wrong, it's because I made a mistake in judgement.
  • Q: How do you know what is the "right" thing? Who decides?
  • A: Well, I decide. If you want to look for outside influences, look at my friends – I know they wouldn't respect me if I did things that were unfair or unreasonable.
  • Q: So your friends decide for you – you depend on them for moral guidance. You're depending on external forces to keep you "good", just like everyone else.
  • A: Perhaps... but I pick my friends because I like their values. By choosing the friends that I choose, I help myself to enforce my own moral code. So in a way, we all decide together.
  • Q: But what's to stop you and your friends from doing favors for each other and saying to hell with the rest of the world? (...if one or more of you got into a position of power, for instance.)
  • A: Well, I know my friends wouldn't respect me if I did favors for them that hurt other people. I chose them because of that, among other things. And they chose me because they know I feel the same way.

I was going to talk about how the assumption of inherent badness was threatening to my sense of identity. To start with, if I am only doing good because I will be punished if I don't, then do I really deserve credit for doing good?*

*Conversely, does this explain why parents so often coerce their children into obeying the rules at the expense of their principles? Rather than trying to find a way for the child to act which neither betrays her/his principles nor breaks the spirit of the rules, or trying to explain why the rules are right and the principle doesn't apply here, or in any way respecting the child's ability to self-govern, or at least to learn how to self govern.

Let's follow that chain of reasoning for a bit.

If I'm only doing good under threat of punishment, then I'm I'm Pavlov's dog – a trained beast, performing for tricks. My judgement cannot be trusted, because I will always choose what immediately benefits me, regardless of the cost to others.

I've known too many people whose sense of worth depended on making other people happy to ever think that human nature is basically evil. On the other hand, I've also known people who didn't give a flying burrito for anyone else.

So maybe some people need the Firm Hand, while others are self-guiding. (Should this be such a big surprise?) If we start from this premise, then some conclusions become obvious:

  • Conservatives and fundamentalists have a right to live by the rules they want to live by
  • The rest of us have a similar right
  • Conservatives and fundamentalists do not have the right to make us live the way we do; it would destroy us
  • Neither do we have the right to tell conservatives and fundamentalists that they should lighten up; they need the walls of safety they build around themselves

Still editing: every time I start to work on this essay, I get interrupted again. I don't know if I will ever finish, but at least I am going to save what I've written and hopefully come back to it soon. --Woozle 20:08, 2 Dec 2005 (CST)


Just now, while I was typing that up (which really was more or less what came into my mind in the shower just now), the argument tried to go in a slightly different direction:

  • A: Well, I decide...
  • Q: Who are you to decide what's right and wrong? Your actions affect other people. How can you know what is best for them?
  • A: Well, because I talk with them, and we work things out. When there's conflict, we come to compromises. I don't act unilaterally.

Unfortunately, by the time I started typing it up, the force was gone from Q's argument and I don't remember where it was going. Maybe it will come back to me.