Conservatives vs. liberals

I’ve been forwarded or seen a bunch of different websites from liberals bemoaning the results of the election, from JesusLand, to Fuck the South, to Sorry Everybody. I particularly liked the rant at Urban Archipelago, because it tied in with some ideas that had been percolating through my head. And even though those ideas are still in a somewhat disconnected form, I figured I would write up what I have and see what other people think. Warning – this is long and rambles around quite a bit. Hopefully I can figure out how to refine it later.

Part of what got me started was that in light of my recent post about coping and my decision to at least attempt to understand the other side, when I happened across a conservative site a couple days ago, I stuck around and read a bunch of it. This “discussion” about why the Left hates Bush is a good example. The editor of the site invites two liberals and two conservatives to have a discussion, and then joins up with the conservatives in beating on the liberals in a Crossfire-esque way. The “moderator” started the discussion with this statement:

The Bush administration has liberated 50 million human beings from two of the most barbarian, vicious and sadistic regimes of our modern time (Saddam and the Taliban). President Bush is leading the force of democracy and freedom against religious fanatics that persecute women, homosexuals and all other democratic rights that are at the core – supposedly – of leftist ideology. Yet the Left clearly sees Bush as a far greater evil than anything that Al Qeada and Islamic fundamentalism represent in the War on Terror and has taken the side of the enemy. What explains this bizarre phenomenon?

After reading that, I knew I was probably going to get really angry by reading more. And I did. I’m actually surprised with how patient the liberal representatives were, considering they were told they must support death camps and Stalin based on their support of the Left. The accusations and ad hominem attacks from the conservatives were bizarre, to say the least.

But reading the discussion made me realize a few things about why conservatives think what they do. One is that, like many of us, they believe what they are told (I commented to a friend today that a disturbing thing about America is that since the average American’s critical thinking skills are minimal, they have no way to distinguish between real science and pseudo-science – both are the inscrutable pronouncements by experts). And the pundits at conservative foundations and think tanks have done a good job of coordinating their message over the last couple decades so that the average person hears something enough times to believe that it must be true (I have a whole other post lined up about how the conservative movement has appropriated the tools developed by the Academic Left such as the distributed authorship and deconstructionism of postmodernism as well as the concept of cultural relativism as it relates to facts and truth. I’ll try to get to that one soon). The other is that because they surround themselves in media which reinforces that message (e.g. Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News), they have no way of knowing that anybody thinks differently.

To a large extent, members of the left suffer from the same problem. I was talking to a friend before the election, and while talking about our disbelief in the looming re-election of Bush, he asked, “Do you know any Republicans? Because I don’t.” And after thinking about it, I had to admit that of all the people that I consider friends, and that I interact with enough to know their political leanings, I’m not sure I know a single person that supported Bush. Not one. I have a bit more experience with the conservative mindset than many liberals because I grew up in a town and county that was 95% Republican (home district of Dennis Hastert, current Speaker of the House), but since I left for college, I’ve lived in bastions of liberalism. We listen to NPR, read the New York Times or Salon, and send each other links like Fuck the South.

So both sides need cognitive tools to help understand the others’ perspective. Otherwise, we are forced to treat them the way we treat anybody that is delusional – we declare them insane. Insanity is society’s way of saying “Your way of viewing the world is not valid.” When somebody says that space aliens are talking to them, necessitating an aluminum foil hat, we don’t give credence to their thoughts, even if they are lucid in all other ways. When a conservative claims that “We had to invade Iraq to keep its WMDs out of the hands of Al-Qaeda!”, a liberal often dismisses them in a similar fashion as the aluminum-hatted gentleman. I’m not sure what such cognitive tools for understanding look like. But they are clearly necessary as we drift further and further apart in our basic assumptions about how the world works.

I’ve also been thinking about the science of networks, as described in Six Degrees. One of the key parameters of a network is the balance between clustering (the likelihood that one of your connections knows your other connections) and long links (links between radically separated parts of the network, e.g. me knowing somebody that lives in Kansas City – the separation can be physical or ideological – knowing a conservative in this case would be a good example). I need to go back and read a bit more carefully, but I believe that it’s safe to say that if there are too few long links, the network is prone to breaking into large chunks. It loses its cohesion. The analogy to our political situation is obvious.

I feel like that when links are few and non-diverse, the network consists of tight clusters widely separated from each other. Taking this back to the real world, what does that mean? It means that people who have minimal experience of the world, and of people different than themselves, are more likely to clump together into such clusters. To take a real-life example, when I went back to my high school reunion a few years ago, I was shocked to realize that the vast majority of my classmates had graduated from high school, gone to college in state, and returned to live and work within 30 miles of where we grew up in an identical cookie-cutter white upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. It’s no wonder they were all Republicans – they had lived in a Republican culture all of their life and probably had no idea that another mode of thinking even existed.

Meanwhile, among my friends, most of us have travelled internationally, or at least have lived in several parts of the US. We have a diverse group of friends, including people from different countries, different races, different cultural traditions, etc. We live in cities or college towns, which support a variety of experience that is unseen by most of the country. We are true members of the Urban Archipelago. And I think that this diversity of experience is the basis for our liberal values.

When you live in a city, you can’t help but be confronted with people different than you. Even in a place like the Bay Area, where even the Democrats are considered conservative, there are people from all over the country and world who offer very different perspectives. That diversity of viewpoint is one of the strengths of the left, and is one of the reasons why the innovative people that I know are all liberal. To create new ideas requires being able to see things from different perspectives. And that is not something that the conservatives can ever understand. Their movement is based on seeing the world in black and white, good and evil, no alternatives.

As a side note, I think the liberal movement often takes it too far. We’re so open to alternative viewpoints that we can’t agree on anything, and are hopelessly disorganized when it comes to actual political action. But that’s another story (yes, that’s a foreshadowing of yet another post I have kicking around my brain).

The other danger of having a limited perspective, besides lowering innovation, is that it makes one more susceptible to manipulation. Among my friends, any new idea is often immediately attacked. But it’s not attacked in the rabid way that conservatives would attack an idea, as evidence that one has gone insane. It’s a probing of the idea, with questions asked about its validity and its scope. It’s an attempt at understanding. We kick the idea around, figure out its strengths and weaknesses, and collectively come to a better understanding. This freedom of thought is one of my most cherished memories of MIT, where we’d spend hours just kicking ideas around, arguing late into the night. I believe that such an attitude harks back to the Enlightenment, where it was believed that reason would be able to answer all of our questions. As most of my friends are scientists and engineers, it’s not surprising that we think that logic and reason can answer most questions in the world.

The conservatives come from a different perspective. Lakoff’s Moral Politics goes into more detail, but one of the things that ties the conservative movement together, from the business end to the military to the evangelicals, is a belief in hierarchy. There are authorities, and they should be listened to and obeyed. An idea is not open to be questioned by anybody. It is handed down, like the Ten Commandments. Obey or be expelled. This quashes the natural impulse of humans to question everything, an impulse which is evident in children who ask “Why?” about, well, pretty much everything. This can lead to spectacular screwups when the leaders make a poor decision and everybody else falls into line. I think the invasion of Iraq is a prime example, of course.

Okay, one more tangent and then I’m wrapping this up. One of the main ideas I wanted to express when I started was that I think that monocultures are dangerous. Agricultural monocultures are particularly vulnerable to disease and the Microsoft monoculture has demonstrated its vulnerability to viruses. In a similar fashion, I believe that the conservative areas of this country are vulnerable to memetic infection, due to their lack of diversity. Because they do not have a broad range of experience to draw on, often having lived in the same area or culture their entire life, and because they are part of a hierarchical culture, with its attitude of not questioning experts, they can be easily influenced. Obviously, I’m trying to find a way to rationalize the fact that 40 percent of America believes Saddam Hussein was directly involved in 9/11, and that Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs when we invaded.

In a broader cultural sense, I think that diversity of experience is valuable in promoting liberal values. When you’ve interacted with people from a variety of backgrounds, it’s harder to dismiss whole groups of people with stereotypes. You realize that gays or blacks or Indians or pick-your-group-to-be-demonized are really just people, like yourself, trying to make it through this complicated world of ours. And it opens your eyes. It certainly did mine. As mentioned earlier, I lived a sheltered childhood in a white upper-middle-class suburb. And it showed in some of my prejudices. Then I got to MIT, and TEP, where I lived with blacks and gays and all sorts of other weirdos, and realized they were all just people. I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t do the same for others.

So, promote the Urban Archipelago. Promote diversity of experience. Offer exchange student programs for kids in the suburbs and rural areas to come live in the city for a term. I guarantee it’ll open their eyes, and hopefully their minds. Bring people together, and have them see each other as people, rather than demonizing the other side as ivory-tower communist liberal elites, or gun-totin’ Bible-thumpin’ redneck conservative hicks. Let’s see where that takes us.

P.S. Man, re-reading this after finishing makes me realize how many loose threads I leave hanging around. I have so many ideas to pick up on and expand upon. Argh. Must. Write. More.

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