Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Contextualizing Politics

There's a section from The Well-Dressed Ape that stands out to me as particularly insightful about politics. The idea is so much bigger than politics and I love considering all the different ways it informs interpersonal dynamics, but this post is going to be all about how contextualists and absolutists seem to fall into liberal and conservative camps. I first shared the following quote here.

Humans don't divide neatly into liberals and conservatives, they concluded. Rather, some of us are "contextualists," who tend to be empathetic and tolerant of others, who consider the context before punishing those selfish wolverines, who are suspicious of certainty when they encounter it in others, and who question authority and inequality. Others of us are "absolutists," who prefer a strong group unity with clear leaders, appreciate strict and forceful punishment systems, distrust human nature and outsiders, and are not distressed by inequality. Each of us leans one way or the other, regardless of reason, and these leanings color our behavior.

A lot has been written about how good conservatives have become at framing the issues, controlling the metaphors and vocabulary we use in our debates, having amazing across-the-board unity in their talking points, and the like, while liberals seem to accept the terms or offer a confusing muddle of "we need to listen to each other" and "it's complicated" and such.* Liberals lack a talking point or frame because we like to contextualize things, so we resist predefining situations until we can consider each one and its unique context instead of forcing it to fit our preexisting views.

I feel like I do have a simple frame that can be adapted as a talking point, though, as it seems to be my starting point for considering each issue and directs how I react. It's that we're social beings, we're all in this together, and things are better when we learn to share and play nice. If you want the one-word approach: sharing. More from Holmes:

The behavior of sharing is so fundamental to human interaction that we do it from dawn till dusk without noticing. Every group of humans that forms a culture forges rules of conduct, then conforms to them, more or less. (More when someone's watching, less when unobserved.) . . .

We can't not share, and--as much as I do fight for my individual rights and the ability to be self-determining--it seems over-insistence on individual responsibility is a denial of this fact that undermines it in unproductive and harmful ways. George Lakoff describes liberal fundamentals in a way that seems to emphasize the sharing:

Empathy — citizens caring for each other, both social and personal responsibility—acting on that care, and an ethic of excellence. From these, our freedoms and our way of life follow, as does the role of government: to protect and empower everyone equally. Protection includes safety, health, the environment, pensions and empowerment starts with education and infrastructure. No one can be free without these, and without a commitment to care and act on that care by one’s fellow citizens.

He then considers conservatives in a way that sounds suspiciously like the absolutists described by Holmes:

Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don’t think government should help its citizens. That is, they don’t think citizens should help each other. The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility. . . .

The way to understand the conservative moral system is to consider a strict father family. The father is The Decider, the ultimate moral authority in the family. His authority must not be challenged. His job is to protect the family, to support the family (by winning competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by disciplining them physically when they do wrong. The use of force is necessary and required. Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become moral beings. And only with such discipline will they be able to prosper. And what of people who are not prosperous? They don’t have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty. The good people are hence the prosperous people. Helping others takes away their discipline, and hence makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.

The market itself is seen in this way. The slogan, “Let the market decide” assumes the market itself is The Decider. . . .

Fathers and husbands should have control over reproduction; hence, parental and spousal notification laws and opposition to abortion. In conservative religion, God is seen as the strict father . . .

Above all, the authority of conservatism itself must be maintained. The country should be ruled by conservative values, and progressive values are seen as evil. Science should NOT have authority over the market, and so the science of global warming and evolution must be denied. Facts that are inconsistent with the authority of conservatism must be ignored or denied or explained away. . . .

Freedom is defined as being your own strict father — with individual not social responsibility, and without any government authority telling you what you can and cannot do. To defend that freedom as an individual, you will of course need a gun. . . .

To use the current issues in Wisconsin as an example, the dynamics Lakoff describes come out like this:

"Use live ammunition."

From my own Twitter account, I confronted the user, JCCentCom. He tweeted back that the demonstrators were "political enemies" and "thugs" who were "physically threatening legally elected officials." In response to such behavior, he said, "You're damned right I advocate deadly force." He later called me a "typical leftist," adding, "liberals hate police."

Only later did we realize that JCCentCom was a deputy attorney general for the state of Indiana. . . .

If someone challenges the father-figure's authority, they are a threat and need to be dealt with as aggressively as possible. The absolute authority is the most important thing and must be preserved at all costs.

The issues aren't really the issue, because the ultimate fight driving both sides is whether our approach to governing will be more contextual or absolute. Paul Krugman nails it:

What’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side. . . .

In this situation, it makes sense to call for shared sacrifice, including monetary concessions from state workers. And union leaders have signaled that they are, in fact, willing to make such concessions.

But Mr. Walker isn’t interested in making a deal. . . .

Why bust the unions? . . . it’s not about the budget; it’s about the power. . . .

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans . . .

And to go back to Lakoff's metaphor, middle- and working-class Americans who don't want to do as their government tells them are like rebellious teenagers not taking Dad's discipline to work harder and make it on their own as individuals.

Even though a majority of conservatives are Christian, it's hard to justify these policy details in light of biblical teachings. While not using the absolute vs. contextual or power dynamics as a frame, Jim Wallis captures the apparent contradictions well in considering What Would Jesus Cut?

House Republicans announced a plan yesterday to cut $43 billion in domestic spending and international aid, while increasing spending for military and defense by another $8 billion. This proposal comes just months after billions of dollars were added to the deficit with an extension of tax cuts to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. House Republicans focused in on only 12 percent of federal spending, and targeted things like education, the environment, food safety, law enforcement, infrastructure, and transportation — programs that benefit or protect most Americans. They also proposed cutting funding for programs that benefit the most vulnerable members of our society, such as nutrition programs for our poorest women and children. We don’t yet know all the cuts Republicans are targeting in their proposals, but it’s good to finally know what their priorities are. . . .

Taking the cutting knife to programs that benefit low-income people, while refusing to scrutinize the much larger blank checks we keep giving to defense contractors and corporate executives, is hypocritical and cruel. I’ll go even further and say that such a twisted moral calculus for the nation’s fiscal policy is simply not fair, and not right. It is not only bad economics, but also bad religion. The priorities we are now seeing are not consistent with Christian, Jewish, or Muslim values. And if the super-rich and their representatives in Congress persist in this fight against the poor, they will be picking a fight with all of us.

That's because it's not really about Christian, Jewish, or Muslim values, but an instinctive need to have everything defined in rigid absolutist terms that demand clear power and individual responsibility at the expense of mutuality and sharing.

If we all want to share in solving our problems, for instance, adults in Wisconsin would only have to contribute $32 each to address the state's current budget crisis that has led to so many issues:

Of course, as Wallis's article implies and the ones by Lakoff and Krugman state right out, it's not about the $32 that everyone could afford, the budget, spending, or taxes for conservatives; those are just weapons in the fight to reform the world in the image of their absolutist natures. Sharing goes against that nature and they will do anything they can to fight it. At least, that's the way it sure seems to contextual me, but then I guess I'm programmed to think that way and can't help myself . . .


*Later in Lakoff's article: Democrats also help conservatives by what a friend has called Democratic Communication Disorder. Republican conservatives have constructed a vast and effective communication system, with think tanks, framing experts, training institutes, a system of trained speakers, vast holdings of media, and booking agents. Eighty percent of the talking heads on tv are conservatives. Talk matters because language heard over and over changes brains. If you want some background into what he means in that last sentence, I included it in the middle of a previous post.


I'll also add an abridged version of a related post I considered writing about six months ago. Not so much about defining ourselves into opposing contextual vs. absolutist camps, but how those camps view the proper use of governmental power.

It started with this article that referenced a blogger making the case that tea partiers and hippies have the same values and share the same space on the political spectrum.

The actual blog post explains how both groups accept that human nature is innate (not socially constructed) and value independence, individualism, and self-sufficiency above all else. Being neither a hippy nor a tea partier I won't fuss about whether the comparison is accurate, but I've already said above I think we are social beings who are not independent individuals living on our own but members of cooperative societies who need to learn sharing to get along most happily.

So the thing I wanted to focus on was a view of human nature as necessarily greedy and corrupt. There's a video embedded in the middle of the post in which a tea party spokesman explains why they think government needs to be limited and small:

Now, many modern people see this belief that we have — that human nature is fundamentally flawed and selfish, and essentially unchangeable — as cynical and pessimistic. On the contrary. It is this belief that generates a society with the checks and balances against the natural human bastardliness that basically wants to tell other people what to do.

These checks and balances prevent the accumulation of too much power in the hands of too few people. And that defiance of these checks and balances by the current political class, of both parties, is the real threat that the Tea Party movement is a response to.

So people are essentially going to do the greedy thing if left unchecked, and the more power you have the more harm you can do. So far, so good. I'm absolutely on board with that. Where we veer 180 degrees is the role of government in all of this. They seem to think that governments have all the power and are thus the greatest potential for evil. I believe a democratic government of and by the people is the greatest potential for limiting individual power and evil. Left to our own natures with no social constraints or rules, we'll compete for power and some individuals will come out ahead. I like to shorthand them as "big money," "Wall Street," "corporations," or "the rich." They will greedily take from the rest of us for their own benefits as much as they possibly can unless someone has the power to stop them. The only one with enough power to do so is all of us as a collective in the form of our representative government. I know reality shows government can be as corrupt as any other power, but I still feel on principal it is the right approach to take for battling our innate selfishness. It is the approach that is based on sharing instead of individuality. It is us all coming together to look out for each other and to make sure no one has the power to oppress us.

There's more I could say about this, expanding on the ideas and my beliefs, a strong biblical basis for it, and etc., but this is the abridged version and I want to do something today besides write so I'll stop now.


Update: I think there's more than a little connection to something I wrote a while back, Which Do You Fear More: Lazy-Selfishness or Greedy-Selfishness? . . . I see two different fears dividing people in the health care and economic debates: fear of lazy, undeserving people taking what we have earned and fear of greedy, undeserving people hoarding what we have a right to. . . .


At 2/23/2011 3:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are sooo on-target! Great analysis and synthesis!

At 2/25/2011 8:29 PM, Blogger Degolar said...


At 3/01/2011 9:02 AM, Blogger CDL said...

About power, yes, and then the fear of losing power once you have it. Greed must be involved, more is better, but I think it's more fear. They know the power and money place is better, but what if it goes away. One way to maintain that is to accumulate more, but also arrange it so others have less.
The absolutist attitude (was going to say feelings ;) ) feeds into this. If I am right and powerful and made it to this place, I am good and wise and so on. If it goes away, then I am are the opposite.
Could be the way you define terms - which terms, descriptions you see as right and wrong, good or bad, absolutely. And that they don't see some terms, characteristics as compatible or able to coexist.
This was fun to read and think about . . ..


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