"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why We Are Unable To Compromise–Brain Chemistry

I have written a number of posts on conspiracy theories, and have cited fifty years of research probing the psychological and sociological reasons behind them (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/conspiracy-theories.html).  Richard Hofstadter, for example, focused on psychology:

The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.

Others turned to social alienation:

A belief in conspiracy theories is more likely to emerge among those who feel powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.

Joseph Burgo, writing in The Atlantic (The Emotional Psychology of a Two-Party System, 3.13.13), reaffirms previous researchers’ conclusions that a need for certainty is behind both phenomena.  In a complex world which we do not fully understand, there is a tendency to simplify, and to make black-and-white distinctions.  Neurologist Robert Burton feels that this is part of an innate, pre-programmed human tendency towards certainty:

Ambiguity or confusion is so difficult for many of us to bear that we instead retreat from it into a feeling of certainty, believing we know something without any doubts, even when we actually don't and often can't know. Those of us who have trouble with such discomfort often resort to black-and-white thinking instead. Rather than feeling uncertain or ambivalent, struggling with areas of gray, we reduce that complexity to either/or.

To create certainty and to consolidate their personal views, true believers and conspiracy theories on both the Left and the Right draw simple conclusions based on little or no factual evidence:

Communist Russia used to be Americans' enemy -- over there, across the Atlantic -- but for a large sector of the public, the enemy has now appeared within our borders: President Obama, who supposedly wants to install a communist regime here in the United States; liberal environmentalists who'll tyrannize over the rest of us if we're not vigilant. America seems to be engaged in yet another war, but in this one, both sides to the conflict are domestic.

This need for certainty is common among more moderate political partisans as well.  For a number of years I have travelled and stayed in the Deep South to better understand this troubled yet important region of the country.  You cannot understand American history, I suggested to my Northern friends, unless you understand the South.  While they accepted this statement in principle, they rejected it out of hand because of their conviction that the South was and always will be a prejudiced, retrograde, and racist society.  The very fact of my going to Mississippi was an act of treason – to the North, to the cause of racial justice, and to the principle of moral rectitude. I shouldn’t go.

Such rhetoric reflects a black-and-white, us-versus-them approach that views each debate over taxation, social policy and the role of government not as a problem in need of a solution but a battle within an ongoing war. During warfare, our aim is of course to vanquish the enemy and emerge victorious; to reach out to your enemy makes you a villainous collaborator, a traitor to your cause. On the right, anyone with the temerity to suggest that Obama and the Democrats have some redeeming qualities is likely to be attacked from within the party. Just ask Chris Christie.

Mississippi is the most politically and socially conservative state in the nation, and certainly the most religious.  When I again tried to present the Southern point of view on Biblical injunction, Evolution, abortion and gay marriage, and guns, I was rebuffed out of hand.  There is no ‘other side’ say my liberal friends.  The South is simply on the wrong side of the moral argument. 

When I offer an explanation as to why the South is still resentful of the North and especially the federal government, tracing the history of Washington’s intervention into Southern affairs from Reconstruction to the civil rights era, it is ignored.  The South was wrong, purely and simply, they say, and there is no punishment harsh enough or long enough to make them suffer for their sins.

My Southern friends have taken an equally obstinate and immovable position on the North.  The anger and rage against the federal government is palpable, and there is more bile and vitriol spewed here against Obama than I have ever heard elsewhere in the country.  There is no way that I can mollify those passions, nor explain the North’s point of view.

The most important conclusion that I and neurologist Burton have come to is that not only are political positions hardened into cement, but that there is not even a way for such radically intemperate people to even consider opposing arguments – i.e. to hold an opinion but to also entertain challenging views.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the "test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Whether it's a question of intelligence, psychological maturity, or emotional capacity, there's little sign of such activity on the current political front. Instead, our parties encourage us to take refuge in one of those two opposing ideas and reject the other. Complex, ambiguous perspectives are shunned in favor of absolute, simplistic and immutable beliefs about right and wrong, good versus evil.

People who are in fact able to consider both sides without judgment are considered only slightly less morally suspect than the enemy.  By simply considering the Southern point of view, I was tarred as a traitor to the Northern cause.  Worse was my position that history has shown us that there are no moral absolutes – that history repeats itself in predictable cycles given uniqueness only because of the differing circumstances which alter events.  Southern racial attitudes do not spring from some genetic coding in anyone born south of the Mason-Dixon line; but result from a trail of history beginning with African tribal slavery to Arab middlemen to European slavers to over-cultivation of tobacco crops in Virginia.  All these events are compounded by differing European origins of Northern and Southern settlers, distinct political philosophies, and different cultural expressions of religion and society. If one considers this entire history, then one is less likely to condemn and be recriminatory. 

This objective, apolitical, and dispassionate approach to history and Southern history in particular is hard to accept:

Black-and-white thinking reflects the psychological process known as splitting. When we feel unable to tolerate the tension aroused by complexity, we "resolve" that complexity by splitting it into two simplified and opposing parts, usually aligning ourselves with one of them and rejecting the other. As a result, we may feel a sort of comfort in believing we know something with absolute certainty; at the same time, we've over-simplified a complex issue.

Most arguments have two sides, and perhaps it is too much to ask of most people to consider both.  If Northern liberals were forced to seriously consider that there is another side to gun ownership, abortion, religious interpretation, and convictions about homosexuality, feminism, and ethnicity, they would likely throw up their hands and – if scientist Burton is right – retreat into the safe, easy corner of certainty. 

I have always been amazed at how liberals who so pride themselves on logical exegesis, disciplined analysis, and rigorous, objective consideration of an argument, and forget their training and instincts and abnegate rational judgment.  In other words, it is easier for me to understand those Southern conservatives who have rarely done careful, objective analysis of a political issue and based their conclusions on an a priori belief than my Northern friends who have built their whole life around study and intellectual honesty.

There is a more insidious side to ‘splitting’:

On the emotional front, splitting comes into play when we feel hostile toward the people we love. Holding onto feelings of love in the presence of anger and even hatred is a difficult thing for most of us to do. Sometimes hatred proves so powerful that it overwhelms and eclipses love, bringing the relationship to an end. More often we repress awareness of our hostile feelings; or we might split them off and direct them elsewhere, away from the people we care about.

In other words, splitting as a psychological defense mechanism resolves emotional ambivalence -- love and hatred toward the same person -- by splitting off one half of those feelings and directing them elsewhere, away from the loved one.

In other words, people who hold one publically intractable position but who harbor inner doubts about it, express their frustration and anger at themselves by lashing out at someone or something else.  Conservative opponents on Obamacare, for example, are nettled at night by the Medicare they are receiving or the dismissive policies of private insurance companies concerning pre-existing positions.  The venom spewed at Obama the person is a result of this conflict:

One of the helpful functions of society is to provide us with outlets for that anger -- to identify places where it's okay to feel and express (split off) aggression, even hatred. Consider the uses of professional sports, for example, where most spectators identify with one team or competitor and wish to crush the opponent. Not only does this provide a needed outlet for competitive urges, it also allows us to channel many aggressive feelings away from our intimate relationships and express them in a safer context.

Unfortunately, for many people locked into hopeless personal and economic situations and who resort to irrational venomous attacks on political figures and institutions, an NFL game just doesn’t do the trick.

None of this is new, of course. Richard Hofstadter long ago identified the "paranoid style" in American politics, tracing it back to the earliest days of the Republic. According to Hofstadter, the politician who speaks from the paranoid perspective "does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish."

Such a Manichean world view is the result of splitting: the gray middle ground gives way to absolute black and white, and hatred toward the other side keeps the split in place. If Hofstadter's description sounds depressingly familiar, it's because the paranoid style is alive and well in America. A hostile fight-to-the-finish mentality holds sways and the capacity for constructive thought has been its primary victim.

With this persistent and ever-increasing phenomenon of insularity and the quest for certainty, how can political civility ever be hoped for let alone achieved?

After fomenting hatred in your supporters, splitting complex reality into simple black and white, how can you possibly ask them to think?

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