Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Caring Less (or What's at the Top of Mt. Conservatism)

Voting, our most precious right, is also our most important civic duty.  The idea of someone being able to fraudulently vote in an election - effectively nullifying our own vote, is justifiably worrisome.  Why not, then, pass strict requirements - such as a driver's license or state-issued ID - to make sure people are who they say they are?

Because many do not have a state-issued ID, and would thus not make it to the voter booth.  This is an empirical fact, and we have examples of just this sort of thing happening.  A study of Indiana's 2008 general election found that 
 out of the roughly 2.8 million persons who cast ballots during Indiana's 2008 general election, 1,039 arrived at the polls without valid identification and then cast a provisional ballot. Of those 1,039 persons without valid identification who cast a provisional ballot, 137 ultimately had their provisional ballot counted.
So a balance is being struck between lower requirements and higher voter participation, versus higher requirements and lower participation.

The interesting thing to me about the Voter ID debate is that it comes down to one's sympathy for those who would or would not be affected by passage of more stringent requirements. One side says the requirements are reasonable and that if people end up not voting it is their fault. The other says that it is unreasonable and that it is not their fault. 

Which, of course, is the original issue at the core of the left/right divide: what personal responsibility means; how much control each of us has over our lives; what freedom means. 

I sometimes wonder about the chicken or the egg. Does this philosophical position lead one to a political stance, or does a political stance lead one to this philosophical position?  But without knowing the details of one's learning history - or history of reinforcement - it would be hard to know either way.

As I've argued on this blog before here, here, and here, I think the logic of a conservative philosophical position, rooted in a free will notion which views the individual as free to act unless physically restrained, actually pushes one towards less sympathy for those with disadvantage.  This aligns towards ancient patterns of bigotry.

Stereotypes are defined both by an emphasis on a "fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing".  Stereotypes reinforce bigotry when they reinforce that thing being essentialized into an innate trait of the thing (blacks are violent, Mexicans lazy, women dumb, Jews conniving, etc.).  A view that eschews historical social pressures in favor of people acting of their own accord is more susceptible to buying in to a bigoted narrative.  Bigoted stereotypes are incorrect because they take a kernel of truth - a generalized behavioral observation - and justifies a blanket view of a group as possessing some inherent trait.  Modern, civilized people aren't supposed to hold such beliefs.

If one believes group differences are a product of their learning history, then individual stereotypes are at best only an example of one individual's own learning history.  A "dumb" blond is not an example of her gender's inferior intellect, but her lack of socialization and education.  The "truth" of a stereotype (e.g. a supposed pattern of "dumb" blondes), is only evidence of a larger socialization process which is apparently not adequately educating blond women.  The same would be said for Hispanics disproportionately performing menial labor, blacks in prison, or successful Jews.  In other words, you could take any member of the supposed stereotypic class, drop them into the learning history of any other, and they would turn out similarly.  This is the liberal, scientific worldview -rooted in behavioral and social science.

If one discounts this view, and instead believes group differences are a product of individual choices, then individual stereotypes are at best only an example of an individual's own choices.  The "dumb" blonde is choosing to be dumb.  The violent black man is choosing to be violent.  However, what then to make of general stereotypes - patterns of behavior such as repeated encounters with "dumb" blondes?  Since no socialization structure is at fault, and individuals are free to act of their own accord, how to explain this phenomenon?  

It is here, deep, deep, deep into the philosophical weeds of political philosophy, tangles in the vines of intuitions and examinations of human nature, that - in my view - conservatism becomes incoherent.  Two roads must be taken A) soft (liberal) conservatism, and B) hard (right wing) conservatism.  

Soft conservatism concedes the point on human nature to science - we are indeed a product of our environment.  What then to do about obvious disparities and inequities among groups?  It is a moral duty to help, seeing as moral responsibility (duty and obligation to fairness) is now logically forced to acknowledge disparity and privilege, and act.  How, as a society, then, do we do this?  We can't involve the government, as it is (per conservative assumptions) corrupt and inefficient.  Government intervention will only make things worse.  Here welfare is pointed to as promoting poverty - reinforcing it, to use a scientific term.  Instead, the soft conservative must rely on the promotion of faith and family as the source of intervention.  The privileged individual must fulfill his or her own moral obligation by direct contribution to charity.  Whether or not this is the more efficacious intervention becomes at this point wrapped in first assumptions embedded deep in ideology.  Some soft conservatives acknowledge that indeed certain government actions are necessary - such as public education, but draw the line at others, such as food stamps, which foster dependency (how this is true of government charity, and not private charity, I've never understood).  

However, in practice this position results in large-scale abandonment of millions of underprivileged groups.  Private charities are nowhere near up to the task of interventions required to actually rectify inequalities that allow individuals to live up to their full potential, much less acquire basic minimum income, health insurance, job training, neighborhood safety, etc.  In fact, they would claim, government intervention (financed by taxation) actively stands in the way of the most powerful intervention of personal fulfillment: jobs created by business.  The fact that enormous sectors of the economy are dependent on disenfranchised, low-skilled populations to work for poverty wages.  I'm not sure how a soft conservative squares this inevitably Darwinian aspect of capitalism with his view that inequality is a product of social forces.  Is there some magical capitalism in which all low-skill labor is undertaken only by teenagers on summer jobs while preparing for lucrative careers after colleges or trade apprenticeships?  That's a lot of dishes washed, boxes loaded, lettuce picked and asses wiped.  Here, I fear, is the logical end-point of soft conservatism so shrouded in an airy, high-altitude mist that few will ever dare to ever climb.

Rather, I imagine many soft conservatives, sensing dangerous contradiction, adopt a useful version of hard conservatism, in which an appeal to individual choice and free will is leaned on in times of rhetorical necessity, i.e. "Well, it is true that he is a product of his environment, but he should have known better.  There is still some aspect of freedom in all of us. This accounts for his ultimate personal responsibility for his actions.  I don't care if he grew up poor, in a single household, dropped out, fell in with a gang... he made a choice."  This is a clever technique, but unfortunately a rhetorical fallacy known as "ignoratio elenchi"
....presenting an argument that may or may not be logically valid, but fails nonetheless to address the issue in question. More colloquially, it is also known as missing the point.
The soft conservative is forced to make this error because his larger conservative ideology of limited government clashes with his acceptance of the science of deterministic human behavior.  I'm also curious as to what role a basic temperamental aversion to norm-breaking might play in him resisting the notion of individual responsibility and wanting to continue to place blame on the individual.  It has been argued that authoritarian tendencies, as well as sensitivity to disgust are correlated with conservatism.  These could be genetic, or even epigenetically latent in each of us, but brought out by some form of conditioning.  Regardless, the ignoratio elenchi simply appeals to a non-scientific viewpoint, which is the foundation of hard conservatism.

Hard (right wing) conservatism refuses to accept the science on human nature, and instead appeals to a mentalistic notion of causality as existing within the individual.  We are all free to make choices, and thus are ultimately responsible for our own actions.  However unscientific (the most parsimonious evidence overwhelmingly favors human behavior as a product of the interaction between genetic (phylogenic) and environmental (ontogenic) processes), hard conservatism dovetails perfectly with an ideology of limited government and  personal responsibility.  Because we are free to make choices, no government (or even charitable) interventions are morally required, as individuals are responsible for their lot in life.

At first glance, hard conservatism would not seem especially susceptible to stereotypes.  If people are free to act of their own accord, individual "dumb" blondes, or violent black men have no relation to their relative group.  However, what to make of stereotypic patterns of behavior among groups?  One "dumb" blond is understandable, but what to make of a larger pattern?  What to make of a disproportionate number of black men committing violent crimes?  Now, it appears, we are back at square one: what causes these behaviors? If we all have free choice, wouldn't every group engage in patterns of behavior at roughly the same rates.  Wouldn't there be as many wealthy Jews as Mexican immigrants?  Why aren't there more female physicists?

Remember: as hard conservatives we aren't allowed to appeal to social structures and environmental learning (we especially don't want to because that might lead to our own moral culpability, which could be aversive).  So what is a hard conservative to do?  Either accept some of the evidence of social learning, and soften your conservatism, or double down, and assume some essential aspect of the group that would explain why the individual might be more likely to engage in certain behaviors, i.e. racism and bigotry.

It is no coincidence that bigoted ideology is correlated with right wing politics.  Groups classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center are overwhelmingly conservative.  Of course, it is perfectly possible to be a liberal and be a racist.  If I view blacks as inferior, I may want to have more active government trying to control them (ironically, some conservatives indeed favor an active role of government when it comes to oppressing gays).  But, to the point of this article, one can accept the scientific view of human behavior as genetically and socially determined, as well as the idea that some groups are genetically superior to others.  But these people are the overwhelming minority, likely because once you begin accepting the science, you are already down the road to a more objective epistemology, and have been reinforced by the process of becoming open to new ideas.

But isn't all of this stuff rather high-level?  These may be the metaphysical assumptions upon which our ideologies are built, but how many of us ever examine them so deeply?  Rather, the average citizen simply has beliefs, attitudes and behaviors towards others.  Political positions are taken, stances adopted, feelings felt and then explained accordingly.  As noted, the vast majority of citizens identify as non-racists, as non-bigots.  Heck - even avowed racists sometimes deny being racist.  Instead, they merely identify as pro-white, pro-separation.  Instead, it is attitudes and actions that we must examine.

In my last blog post, I described a process in which we can identify as non-bigots, yet actively engage in practices, through our language and actions that indeed privilege certain groups over others.  Someone says - believes - they are not racist, and yet crosses the street to avoid an unknown black man on the street.  Someone is irritated by the slang or enunciation of a minority, yet fails to recognize their own (i.e. critiques a black girl for saying "axe" instead of ask, but themself says "appointmeh" instead of appointment, or "Immanah" instead of I'm going to).  Instances of these types of failure to treat everyone fairly, to offer the same sort of compassion and understanding to some groups than you might your own, are myriad.  They are difficult to identify and quantify, and thus to properly point out.  It thus becomes difficult to argue their existence, or that someone has engaged in them, especially when what they indicate is bigotry, maybe the most socially unacceptable behavior one can be accused of engaging in.

But they do exist, and represent real barriers for members of these groups.  They certainly aren't as bad as institutionally codifying strictures which in the past explicitly discriminated against disadvantaged groups.  But they can, individually be just as damaging.  A boss who discounts his female employee's intelligence, a landlord who favors white tenants, a teacher who disciplines his Hispanic student more harshly - all have very direct consequences.

The process is unconscious.  Studies show over and over how subtle they creep into our thoughts and actions.  This is the nature of bias, and it is a quite natural process.  We are each of us biased in ways that are values-neutral.  We might be biased towards certain types of movies, music or foods.  We might be biased towards certain types of personalities, or even interest groups - such as readers, hunters, or church-goers.  It's generally a useful and benign behavior.  Scientifically, it is how we function in the world.  Certain behaviors such as hunting or reading Jane Austen bring us pleasure, and thus reinforce the behavior of hunting or reading.  We then associate those activities with pleasure, and can now be considered to have a "bias", in that we will be more likely to engage in those activities in the future.  Likewise, we can eat a rotten banana, or watch a certain type of film, and experience displeasure.  The action of banana-eating or watching that kind of movie has been punished, and we will be less likely to engage in it in the future, or be biased against them.

The process takes place whether we are "conscious" of it or not.  We can learn to become conscious of the process, by experiencing pleasure after (or being reinforced by) the behavior of thinking about our experiences.  But most of our biases go unexamined, for good reason.  We wouldn't want to have to constantly be aware of our preference for every little thing we do.  Fortunately, we can "turn it off".

Yet if we don't know that we are doing it, it can come as a shock to have it pointed out.  We may not want to admit it, if clashes with our values of fairness and justice.  Furthermore, it can be difficult to account for.  Because so much of our daily behavior occurs without us actively, explicitly being aware of it, when we rely upon our memory of past behavior, we are highly unreliably.  In some ways, we can be the best authority on our past behaviors, as we are at least always "within our skin" (as Skinner liked to put it).  But we are only as good as our memory, and few of us has a very clear record of how have behaved in the past.  At best, we have fragments of experiences, lacking in great portions of the experience as it actually was at the time.

Others can often times be much better authorities of our past behaviors.  They may recall words and actions we engaged in that we ourselves may not recall, or even misremember.  They may be more attuned to certain of our behaviors that we were never even aware of at all.  We have all had the experience of identifying ways in which others are biased in ways they themselves are not aware of.  We are probably also aware of times in which, when we confronted them with examples of their biases, they refused to believe.  Indeed, if one's image of oneself is dependent on not acting in certain ways, evidence of such actions can be quite aversive.

Conservatism, whether hard or soft, inevitably faces the dilemma of what to make of apparent patterns of behavior among groups that must be explained, or at least reacted to.  As an ideology, it is ill-equipped to deal with the moral component.  The duty to respond, according to the scientific view of human nature, requires a personal duty to intervention that limited government and emphasis on others' personal responsibility can't abide.  As such, it is forced into advocation of policy positions that inevitably devalue the experience of the disadvantaged; to the extent that the unfairness of the position of the disadvantaged is lessened, the moral duty of the conservative is lessened.

If the plight of the hurricane refugee is lessened, so to need be the conservative response.  If the plight of the teenage parent is lessened, so to the response.  So to the immigrant, the gay, the drug addict, the homeless, etc.  Conservatism can almost be defined by a continued assault on the moral obligation we might owe the disadvantaged by continued assault on the disadvantage itself, whether by the actual lived experience or who is to blame for the disadvantage: it isn't really so bad, or they brought it on themselves.

In this light, so much conservative rhetoric can be seen as simple moral deflection.  Recently, conservative Bill O'Reilly gave a crisp example.  After Michelle Obama invoked the moral historicity of her lived experience,
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
O'Reilly, clearly defending himself (and fellow whites) from any implied historical moral culpability, felt the need to point out that the slaves were indeed
"well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government."
Other notable examples of this conservative tendency are simply too many to list.  But one would be forgiven for getting the feeling from listening to conservatives that they are constantly under attack for holding unpopular beliefs.  In fact, this is true.  Their beliefs are incompatible with scientific notions of human nature, which establishes a case for a moral culpability that the rest of us share, and that they deny.  They are thus defensive, perceiving (correctly) to be immoral actors.  In order to remain consistent with a self-conception as being in favor of fairness and justice, they spend much of their time trying to demonstrate that they are not immoral by either arguing against the existence of the disadvantage, or explaining how it is the fault of the victim of disadvantage, for which they bear no personal responsibility. 

Is it any wonder then, that a law that seeks to compensate for the disadvantage in ability to vote experienced by some groups would be argued against by conservatives, especially when said groups tend not to be conservatives specifically because of conservatives' inherent aversion to feeling moral obligation to helping disadvantaged groups?  

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