Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Another Liberal Losing His Bearings

This is shaping up as a day for observing sensible liberals saying insensible things. I’ve already discussed Peter Beinart’s efforts to reduce illiberal popular sentiment about Islam to a psycho-pathology.   Reflecting on the road we’ve traveled since 9/11 and Obama's bleak political prospects, George Packer does him one better by identifying opposition to Obama with opposition to reason itself (my emphasis):
“The noble mission to make the world safe for democracy ended inconclusively, and its aftermath has curdled into an atmosphere more like that of the Palmer raids and the second coming of the Klan. This is why Obama seems less and less able to speak to and for our times. He’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia.”
The funny thing is that Packer isn't joking.  From all appearances, he thinks calling Obama's opponents not just wrong, but irrational, is a matter of pointing candidly to a fact that's too obvious to require a defense.   This is a textbook example of a rationality-inhibiting ideological reflex that I discussed before when practically no one was reading this blog.  That's my excuse for repeating myself.  I apologize in advance for taking a while to get to the point.

Generally speaking, seeing is believing. The way things look is usually pretty reliable evidence of the way they really are. Yet we’re all familiar enough with optical illusions to resist the testimony of our lying eyes occasionally. We don’t believe in disappearing lakes, for instance, just because we see bodies of water off in the distance on a stretch of desert highway that vanish as we approach them. We know a mirage when we see one.

Yet, even as we acknowledge their unreality, we still see mirages. We’re not taken in by the sight of them for at least two reasons. First, we know in advance that desert vistas present optical conditions under which our eyes are likely to lead us astray. Second, we usually don’t care enough about the water we see off in the distance to be susceptible to wishful thinking about its reality. Someone dying of thirst, or anxious to make a scientific reputation with a cutting edge theory about disappearing lakes, might be more gullible.

Ideology generates illusions of its own. Every ideologue has to contend with political opponents whom she thinks are systematically wrong about pressing issues of political morality and public policy. She can’t help but notice that they’re unaware of, or unmoved by, “facts” staring her in the face. Moreover, she sees that, most of the time, her opponents disregard evidence against their positions not because they’ve rendered a considered judgment about its unreality or insignificance, but simply because it’s politically incorrect in their circle to pay it any mind. From her vantage point, this looks a lot like irrationality. Yet, on the occasions when she engages opponents on ideologically neutral ground, the specter of irrationality usually vanishes without a trace.

It’s not surprising that we “see” ideological mirages. Rationality is, among other things, the disposition to deliberate in a manner that maximizes one’s chances of being right under a given set of deliberative circumstances. So it’s perfectly natural to think that someone we see having a propensity for being wrong is irrational. We conclude, for example, that a student we see getting 100 per cent of the answers right on math tests is more mathematically rational than someone getting 60 per cent of them right. That’s what math tests are for. Ideologues apply their own litmus tests for sound political thinking to opponents in roughly the same way.

The puzzling thing about ideological mirages isn’t that we see them, then, but that we’re so bad at seeing through them. It doesn’t take very much self-consciousness to appreciate that the appearance of political opponents’ irrationality is as likely to mislead us as the sight of a distant lake in the desert. We’re entitled to infer that other people are irrational from our perception of their being wrong only when we and they acknowledge roughly the same standards of rightness. That’s why math exams test mathematical rationality. Bad students are trying, less successfully, to live up to the same mathematical standards as good ones.

When people disagree not just about their political conclusions, but about the normative standards properly invoked in reaching them, one’s perception of another’s mistakes says next to nothing about their comparative rationality. That happens routinely in any society like ours with a culture rich enough to present its members with a plurality of traditions having inconsistent political implications. In that context, the application of ideological litmus tests to political opponents usually says more about the rationality of the people applying them than the rationality of those to whom they’re applied.

Upon reflection, of course, must of us can figure out that we look as irrational to our ideological opponents as they look to us. What keeps us from reassessing ourselves, our ideological comrades and our opponents in that light? Wishful thinking is the largest part of the answer. No one can acknowledge the rationality of political opponents without contemplating the possibility that some of one’s deepest convictions are just the expression of parochialism, prejudice or simple error. That’s not a pleasant realization for anyone, especially for someone whose self-conception is bound up with a political project.

An ideologue could take the appearance of reasonable opponents as a rationality-enhancing challenge to find better reasons for his political convictions that resonate among a wider circle of people. Becoming more objective, however, is usually hard work. Wishful thinking is always easy. When the perception of reasonable political opposition threatens an ideologue’s equanimity, the least taxing response is simply to ignore evidence of its rationality.

Every ideologue’s psychological inclination to repress dissonant perceptions is reinforced by social pressures exerted by his ideological community. The appearance of his opponents’ irrationality invites him to bask with comrades in mutually gratifying solidarity. Declining the invitation deprives him not only of that gratification, but of the comradeship he needs to situate himself intellectually in the political arena. Why should anybody strive for a point of view general enough to accommodate people with different values when he and his comrades persuade themselves that other people reject their values out of stupidity and bad faith?

Packer apparently thinks that Obama’s being “the voice of reason incarnate,” and his opponents' being the incarnation of unreason is too obvious to require an explanation.  Who here is being irrational?


Dave said...

It doesn't help matters any that there are inevitably ample examples of people who truly ARE irrational in their political beliefs -- and worse, that such people tend to be the most visible and outspoken. This makes it all too easy to point out the worst such offenders and mutter to yourself: "See? This is what I'm talking about. They're all idiots."

I am surprised, however, by how often a professional political journalist falls into this trap. The "wishful thinking" position is presumably one's first, unconsidered, knee-jerk defense; but when it's actually your job to really research and break down an issue, then I would have expected that clear thinking would win out over wishful thinking every time, and in a rout.

Anonymous said...

Agreed with commenter Dave. It astounds me that journalists fall into this trap. Sometimes I wonder if it is the case that because they have to write something everyday, they get lazy. I've heard heretofore respectable journalists say things like 'Obama is too smart to be understood.' Now Packer says Obama is too sane to be heard. Do they realize what they are saying?

KenB said...

No one can acknowledge the rationality of political opponents without contemplating the possibility that some of one’s deepest convictions are just the expression of parochialism, prejudice or simple error.

I remember the day when, for whatever reason, I suddenly realized, not just abstractly but in my gut, that all my "core convictions" were ultimately based on nothing solid at all, just lessons and traditions and feelings. It was deeply unsettling and had me reeling for a couple of days. I completely understand why people's egos try to protect them from such realizations, even as I continue to be amazed at our limitless capacity for self-deception.