Thursday, April 16, 2015

Politics, religion, values and intuition

Other than invective, e.g., idiot, traitor, Fascist or socialist, partisans on opposite sides of the endless left vs. right ideological disputes that dominate ‘political discourse’ usually appear to not understand much of what they are saying to each other. Some acknowledge the misunderstanding and occasionally write a book about it. Rationales or logic and facts that one side relies on for policy choices rarely or never changes the mind of anyone on the opposite side. What is going on?

What is going on is normal human cognition and behavior. To some degree or another, human cognition and belief works about the same in politics, religion and all other areas of human activity. One expert, Johnathan Haidt, calls the human cognition machine “The Righteous Mind” and he relies on current scientific evidence to give a reasonably detailed, objective explanation.[1] Left-right misunderstandings in politics arise from differences in how different people perceive reality or fact and apply intuition and values to both logic and perceptions of reality or fact.  

What does any of this have to do with politics?

This has everything to do with politics. It significantly, but not completely, explains why many or most Americans are so polarized and distrustul of government and each other. It explains why many people, particularly ideologues, are perfectly willing to reject both objectively provable facts and the conclusions that unbiased assessment of, or reasoning about, the facts lead to. When the political left and right are talking to each other, much of what each side says undermines the values and intuitions of the other.

When that happens, no amount of objectively true evidence or fact or flawless reasoning can convince the other side that they have any weaknesses in their own perception of facts or their application of logic or reasoning.[2] The two sides simply talk past each other. In this regard, political ideologues treat their political ideology almost exactly like they treat their religious ideology. Neither can be questioned because both are more or less infallible and perfect, even if defending those beliefs means wholesale denial of unspun fact and rejection of unbiased logic or reason. Defense of one’s values and intuitive “truth” is more important for self-respect than accepting uncomfortable or contradictory fact or logic.

In short, for many people, particularly hard core ideologues, politics is little or no different than religion in its awesome power to distort reality and logic. Values and intuition dictate perceptions far more than logic or reason. No matter how sincerely or vehemently ideologues would deny this characterization of the fundamental basis of left-right politics, the science says otherwise.

Dissident Politics has argued that it takes real moral courage to see unspun fact and unbiased logic for what they are. It takes even more courage to accept them for what they are. This post explains some of the scientific basis for that. Fact and logic are often unsettling or discouraging, to say the least. People can accept or reject that as they wish, but denials do not change the reality of the situation.

1. Haidt argues that humans are mostly intuitive creatures and that logic is almost always applied to support intuition, not the other way around. The evidence of that is compelling. Unfortunately, when intuition is wrong, and it often is for political issues, facts and logic are distorted to support the intuition. That phenomenon is usually subconscious and only rarely do individuals wake up and come to see the damage their intuition and ideology have done to fact and logic.

2. Liberals and conservatives are not exactly the same in all of these regards. It is likely that of the two sides, the right or conservatives, manifest significantly more resistance to fact and logic that undermines their political ideology or values. Mann and Ornstein put it this way: “Today’s Republican Party has little in common even with Ronald Reagan’s GOP, or with earlier versions that believed in government. Instead it has become “an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition … all but declaring war on the government.” Conservatives derisively reject this as liberal slander and lies. Despite that, the sentiment has the ring of truth. It accords with successful RINO hunts that have ideologically cleansed the republican party of dissenting opinion, moderates and liberals; republican ideological tolerance has vanished. It also accords with conservative intransigence in governing. For example, regarding the value of “compromise” in politics, John Boehner’s reluctant response was “I reject the word.” The reasons for his reluctance to say that in public are obvious.

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