Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Life of A Sheep

Sara Palin is coming under fire for promoting herself as an advocate for disability rights, as the mother of a son with down-syndrome, yet positioning herself against state assistance for families of the disabled, much less the just plain needy.  This is nothing new to conservatives, who have often had to actually had to place the word "compassionate" in their titular ideology, in case one got the wrong impression from their policy perspective.

Trying to decipher the personality differences of conservatives vs. liberals is fascinating, if frustratingly difficult.  There are obviously differences, not only in one's temperament itself but in its larger political philosophy implications.

The best, most scientific examination of this is in The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer.  He finds a lot of very interesting correlations between authoritarianism and current right-wing politics.  He writes that right-wing authoritarians are capable of holding very high levels of contradictory thought.  They are frequently religious fundamentalists.  If empathy is based in part on actually experiencing life in another's shoes, any movement that actively limits one's ability to understand the lives not exactly like theirs, or thoughts not exactly like theirs (this is sometimes proudly referred to as "common sense"), would have a net decrease in empathy.

I imagine it as a sheep that only sees its little green pasture, and so when forced to peep its head out of the fence, it has no context for anything else in its world.  The analogy here would be the white, Christian, "American", traditional gender, etc., etc. type who doesn't really understand other people or cultures - either because they haven't been exposed to them or have actively ignored them (I think it is usually both). 

Those of us who live outside this narrow cultural perspective, or at least have spent our lives trying not to - both by reflecting on the political & cultural implications of having that group be so dominant and by learning about other ways of life, are almost liberal by definition.  This relativistic conceit drives us to continually explore history, science, politics, religion, the arts, etc. from an objective and values-neutral position. 

And this is exactly the critique that you get from right wing authoritarians: that we are too "soft"; that we need to see the world as it "really is" (in black and white), that we make up our morals as we go along; that we make excuses for everyone (we call them explanations for behavior); that we are elitists who look down on provincialism (it's hard not to, once you have left the "province"); that we don't believe in individual responsibility (the whole point was that we began to deconstruct what "individual" really means).

This week on Frontline they ran a very interesting story on the fundamentalist Taliban and Mujaheddin, told from the inside by a reporter with special access.  What became clear was how just how insular they were.  The most motivated among them were indeed "true believers".  The sort of pinnacle of excellence was a single-minded devotion to an entirely specific way of life.  The concept of learning about new things and reflecting upon why they were who they were was anathema to their project. 

Yet one could easily see how powerful this mindset is to the success of a cause.  Free thinking and questioning of authority would be a grave threat.  This is a common feature of cults.  One of the first things required of a new cult member is limited communication with the outside world.  Right wing authoritarians, defined as they are by strict obedience to tradition and fear of the outside, would fall perfectly into this category of thought.

A word popular on the left right now is Christianist, describing just this sort of fundamentalist Christian thinking.  Sarah Palin, along with most of the current Republican leadership, falls directly into this category.  The Tea Party movement, while not specifically religious at all, is of an ideological kin to Christianism.  There is certainly some friction between the two groups in that a good portion of the Tea Partiers are staunchly secular libertarians who want not of the Christianist preaching.  It will be interesting to see how they come to terms with their common ground of angry white nativism, anti-government and pro-traditionalism.

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