Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ice Floes

Today I was pointed towards this column on the effects of climate change in the San Diego Union-Tribune.  More specifically, the comments section, and how decisively conservative they were.

Interestingly, the comments vacillate between denial, and spiteful joy in the possibility that the sea might be rising - "what great fishing opportunities!"  I can't help but think that the former is the same old hand-waving-as-a-smokescreen-for-true-rightwing-perspective found in the latter.  You can't generally come right out and say you don't give a shit about the earth or most of its (brown) people, so you come up with one elaborate ideological scheme after another. 

This sort of callous "political incorrectness" is widespread on the right.  So much so that it seems to go to a more fundamental issue of temperament.  It's an attitude that takes an almost gratuitous pleasure in human frailty.  I work with a woman, for instance, who routinely jokes that the poor, emotionally-damaged children she teaches "ought to be rounded up and shot".  Understand, she has a dark sense of humor, and this is gallows humor at its finest.  But the attitude comes directly from a larger worldview that is often very conservative (she claims to be a moderate, despite her husband's devotion to Rush Limbaugh in the car).  And the right is filled with just this sort of quasi-humorous social-Darwinist commentary.  Tune in to AM radio for an instant and you're thrust right into a cauldron of anger, disgust and open hostility towards the "weak". 

To the extent that conservatives hate liberalism, it seems largely due to liberals' unending devotion to the plight of the "weak".  This is what they cannot stand.  Whether it is blacks, women, gays, Muslims, or owls - this "concern" continually expressed absolutely drives them mad.  Obviously, the implication is that they, due to a lack of expressed empathy, are callous, greedy bastards.  Yet maybe they are?

Of course, there are the polls that find conservatives give at least as much on average to charity as liberals.  And as generally very church-going folk, I have no doubt this is true.  But one cannot help but notice their general air of righteous individualism: "I got mine, get your own - dammit!"  The term "politically correct" itself seems to define a de facto stance of humility and charity in communication that conservatives would simply not abide - at least in all but the most racially offensive situations (a barrier straining at the edges after the Obama presidency).

This is all very ad hominem, I guess.  But it isn't something I take lightly.  I tend to think of myself as generally nauseatingly moderate and wiling to crawl inside the mind of my fellow man.  Yet at the end of the day, I keep returning to the question of liberalism and conservatism as fundamentally character and temperament-based (the former largely learned, the latter not).  Is my character attack on the right simply a principled reaction - that which I feel in my gut?  Why is my accusation of "greedy" or "callous" necessarily different than their principled position of "individualism" and "freedom"?  Conversely, is their accusation of my being a "bleeding heart" or "tree-hugger" necessarily different than my principled position of empathy or naturalism?

We can of course from here concoct elaborate ideological and philosophical arguments for our positions, underpinned with facts and evidence, reasoning and logic, yet how much of the cart is being pushed before the horse?  How much, in the end, are we all just hand-waving in front of deeply-felt and generally intransigent "emotions" (for lack of a better word). 

And maybe a good deal of the problem is just that - our lack of a vocabulary, our lack of a meaning for words to describe.  Neither by neuroscience, nor psychology alone do we have more than a very incomplete picture of what is driving these deep-seated responses to the world.  The tantalizing question remains: how much of our feeling is being driven by ideas, and how many of our ideas are being driven by emotion?  And what is it that we are really feeling?  Anger seems one of the most triumphant emotions in politics, yet does not anger always have a source in another emotion.  What are we afraid of?  What are we mournful of?  What has been offended in us?

Through understanding the roots of our own feelings, the original causes of why we feel the way we do about an aspect of the external world, hopefully we will come to know better why we hold the beliefs we do.  Because what are our beliefs, but the codification of how we have chosen to interpret our response to external events?  All of which is nothing less than humankind's eternal struggle to know itself.  And in this we continue forever onwards.

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