Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dog Men

Andrew Gelman points to findings from sociologist Jay Livingston that, contrary to recent news, partisan Tea Partiers aren't actually all that that happy.

When I was younger, I used to listen to a lot of AM radio conservatives for the thrill.  What struck me more than anything, aside form the mendacity and childishness, was the constant sense of outrage and anger at the smallest things.  "Road rage" was all the talk then, but these people seemed in the grips of a sort of "life rage".   Resentments were directed at every little inconvenience in life.  From video store clerks, to bicyclists, to ATM machines, to women with "clipped hair", their ire extended even beyond things that actually affected their life in any way, to the mere presence of people who were different from them.  All of it, however, was an affront.

Much of this was group kvetching, no doubt.  One wonders how many of these people sustain such levels of anger and intolerance on a daily basis.  Yet I've met more than one person who seems perpetually pissed off at a world they feel is constantly slighting them.  True, they are sometimes left wing.  But my lunch rooms over the years have held more than one borderline Republican spouting off about damn  wetbacks or the need to round up gang-bangers and shoot them.

For some, I think, the anger is simply dispositional; they're going to find a way to put their belligerence into political thought.  Yet for others, ideology is a convenient narrative that provides a ready-made answer for life's dilemmas.   This can have quite a balming effect, whether or not it encourages free thought.

The problem with modern partisan conservatism however, is that the narrative is built upon a kind of utopian view of human nature that is largely superstitious and inevitably leads to resentment.  They believe, along with everyone else, that people ought to do "the right thing".  However, instead of seeing human behavior in terms of a dynamic interplay of complex social structures and nuanced choices, they tend to see things in black and white.  Everyone is assumed to have, at every second, a clear choice between doing right and doing wrong.  People are either smart, or they are "idiots".  

The problem with this worldview is that there is no explanation for human behavior.  There is therefore a constant sense of astonishment and lack of understanding.  How could he have done that?  What an idiot!  And because the answers are always clear - whether from the bible, tradition, common sense (their favorite kind of sense), there is no point in trying to explain oneself or God forbid understand someone else. 

Discipline is the order of the day!  Punishment arises directly from this sort of thinking as it treats human behavior as so simple as to need only threat of punishment to function properly.  If the bad choice is associated with discomfort, then the good choice will easily be chosen.  In  a subtle way, their view of humans is as quite primitive, almost dog-like.

As long as everything is going well, I imagine the modern conservative to be quite content.  The problem is that he must live with the rest of us idiots.

An original Pavlov dog, mounted (Pavlov Museum Ryazan, Russia)

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