Persons, People, and Public Policy

Ron Cebik, Psychotherapist and Teacher, HuffingtonPost.com, 10/20/2013

Excerpt

Contemplating the confusion of contemporary events happening on both national and international stages, it is easy to pass judgment on whatever actor is portraying the role opposite of our own preference. The truth is that we are all responsible for the confusion and dysfunction. The breakdown of government is not due to the failure of public policy or the conflicting policies of partisan factions in the body politic. It is due, to a great extent, to factors under the radar of both popular media and sophisticated or academic thinking…What I am about to suggest is not often discussed in political discourse in this country. It might be heard on right-wing talk radio or Fox News when reference is made to latte drinking, electric car-driving left-wing elitists. Interestingly enough, this points to what is really happening. There is a flaring up of what has always lain below the consciousness of the American body politic; the presence of a hierarchical psycho-social structure which is denied and suppressed by the myth of the inherent equality of all citizens. This structure is about the development of an individual’s capacity to deal with the self in relation to the culture. The capacity to see beyond black and white responses to threats to one’s personal or group frames of reference requires the addition of internal abilities to tolerate ambivalence and toleration of differences in viewing the world. Too much developmental difference between people interferes in their ability to understand each other’s world views. This is not about intelligence. It is about the ability to manage culturally induced anxiety, the mechanism by which culture balances the need for societal control of the person and the need for personal freedom. The constituents of culture, i.e., economics, religion, technical complexity, etc. determine the level that the average member attains. Regression in psycho-social development occurs when the anxiety within the culture increases. Less tolerance for difference, the organization of self against threat without recourse to contemplation and evaluation, and rigidity of rules lead to conflict with dissent.

The United States is made up of differing cultures and has always been so. There is no common culture and there has never been. Public policy has always been worked out between conflicting cultures. When established cultural patterns are too threatened, anxiety increases, average levels of psycho-social development regress, and more rigidity is introduced into the inter-personal processes of deciding public policies. If our present governmental dysfunction is a product of anxiety diffused through the body politic, what is the antidote?

First, we have to define anxiety. Anxiety is actually preconscious memory of trauma caused by exceeding the boundaries that ensure the safety of the organism. In the beginning this involves dissolving the symbiosis of infant and “mother.” As self and self reliance emerge the boundaries of safety expand as culture teaches the limits beyond which the singular self is at risk. Remaining memories located in the amygdala (that part of the brain where trauma is stored and which triggers quick response to danger, real or imagined) are constantly sending signals to the organism to be vigilant to danger. When danger is attached to an object the body and mind go into the fight/flight mode. Later development opens the availability of options for responding to threats to well being. Acts of compassion and self sacrifice may emerge as the self incorporates increasing complexity in morality and interpersonal concerns. However, culture can also restrict and arrest development at a level that serves the needs of the culture. When this occurs, the discomfort resulting from anxiety can be brought into conscious control by attaching it to an object that can be feared thus giving a semblance of control over the object. I believe this is what is happening to many in our present national culture as they objectify their discomfort at changes taking place as a result of economic and technological changes, the threat of dilution of Caucasian domination of the culture, and seeming loss of control over their future. This arrested development and often regression lead to public policy that speaks to the limitation and restriction of boundaries aimed at self-security over compassion and cultural hegemony over a human community…The objectification of communal angst onto people who are different, be they of color, sexual orientation, religion, values, or willingness to challenge cultural boundaries for their own growth, results in public policy directed at diminishing the effect such people have…Today, the trend in education is to equip students to compete for fewer and fewer jobs requiring greater and greater specialized skills. Economic fears, meanwhile, diminish the values of an education leading to a broader concern for the welfare of the greatest numbers. Meanwhile, politicians through threats to their incumbency or for a desire for greater influence, inflame the forces of regression to levels of primitive rage and fear of anyone or any idea that threatens pre-conceived notions of cultural superiority.

The tragic truth is that an angst-driven minority can dominate a well-meaning progressive majority through threats of disrupting the structures designed to maintain a stable social system. The answer to this threat is enough people to maintain a posture of non-anxious reaction to the chaos engendered by the frightened angry minority. The future of American and global well-being is dependent on raising the level of self-aware conscientious independent citizenry who ultimately consider their highest allegiance to be humanity itself.

Full text

Contemplating the confusion of contemporary events happening on both national and international stages, it is easy to pass judgment on whatever actor is portraying the role opposite of our own preference. The truth is that we are all responsible for the confusion and dysfunction. The breakdown of government is not due to the failure of public policy or the conflicting policies of partisan factions in the body politic. It is due, to a great extent, to factors under the radar of both popular media and sophisticated or academic thinking.

Statements by politicians and pundits about the president during the recent series of events involving the use of poison gas in the Syrian conflict point to an overlooked factor in the shaping of opinions and conflicting attitudes. When the president stated there was a line which if crossed there would be military action, the Syrians crossed the line. The decision about military action was handed off to Congress. Then through some diplomatic maneuvering, the situation was resolved without military intervention. The result was a spate of accusations calling the president weak and that he had damaged the reputation of the United States before the world. Others applauded the president’s diplomatic prowess at averting military involvement in a complex war. “Who was right?” is a misleading question in determining the dynamics of the current political climate.

What I am about to suggest is not often discussed in political discourse in this country. It might be heard on right-wing talk radio or Fox News when reference is made to latte drinking, electric car-driving left-wing elitists. Interestingly enough, this points to what is really happening. There is a flaring up of what has always lain below the consciousness of the American body politic; the presence of a hierarchical psycho-social structure which is denied and suppressed by the myth of the inherent equality of all citizens. This structure is about the development of an individual’s capacity to deal with the self in relation to the culture. The capacity to see beyond black and white responses to threats to one’s personal or group frames of reference requires the addition of internal abilities to tolerate ambivalence and toleration of differences in viewing the world. Too much developmental difference between people interferes in their ability to understand each other’s world views. This is not about intelligence. It is about the ability to manage culturally induced anxiety, the mechanism by which culture balances the need for societal control of the person and the need for personal freedom. The constituents of culture, i.e., economics, religion, technical complexity, etc. determine the level that the average member attains. Regression in psycho-social development occurs when the anxiety within the culture increases. Less tolerance for difference, the organization of self against threat without recourse to contemplation and evaluation, and rigidity of rules lead to conflict with dissent.

The United States is made up of differing cultures and has always been so. There is no common culture and there has never been. Public policy has always been worked out between conflicting cultures. When established cultural patterns are too threatened, anxiety increases, average levels of psycho-social development regress, and more rigidity is introduced into the inter-personal processes of deciding public policies. If our present governmental dysfunction is a product of anxiety diffused through the body politic, what is the antidote?

First, we have to define anxiety. Anxiety is actually preconscious memory of trauma caused by exceeding the boundaries that ensure the safety of the organism. In the beginning this involves dissolving the symbiosis of infant and “mother.” As self and self reliance emerge the boundaries of safety expand as culture teaches the limits beyond which the singular self is at risk. Remaining memories located in the amygdala (that part of the brain where trauma is stored and which triggers quick response to danger, real or imagined) are constantly sending signals to the organism to be vigilant to danger. When danger is attached to an object the body and mind go into the fight/flight mode. Later development opens the availability of options for responding to threats to well being. Acts of compassion and self sacrifice may emerge as the self incorporates increasing complexity in morality and interpersonal concerns. However, culture can also restrict and arrest development at a level that serves the needs of the culture. When this occurs, the discomfort resulting from anxiety can be brought into conscious control by attaching it to an object that can be feared thus giving a semblance of control over the object. I believe this is what is happening to many in our present national culture as they objectify their discomfort at changes taking place as a result of economic and technological changes, the threat of dilution of Caucasian domination of the culture, and seeming loss of control over their future. This arrested development and often regression lead to public policy that speaks to the limitation and restriction of boundaries aimed at self-security over compassion and cultural hegemony over a human community.

Anxiety below consciousness is the emotion that is transmitted through human systems to alert the system to a common danger. It is infectious. Alcoholism is often symptomatic of family dysfunction due to anxiety in the system. The alcohol becomes the objectified focus for this underlying incapacity to deal with the boundaries affecting growth and the ensuing risks that transcending boundaries engenders. The same is true for differing cultures within our nation. The objectification of communal angst onto people who are different, be they of color, sexual orientation, religion, values, or willingness to challenge cultural boundaries for their own growth, results in public policy directed at diminishing the effect such people have.

In family therapy as in other system approaches to increasing the functioning of human organizations, the object is to increase a non-anxious presence in the system. This is done by identifying persons capable of dealing with their own anxiety and who show a capacity to grow beyond the restrictive rules governing relationships in the group. This suggests the importance of putting the focus on the development of leadership based on the ability to transcend norms and boundaries that preserve the safety of sameness and venture into the space that encompasses the richness of diversity. This may mean making a place for education for personal development amidst an academia more attuned to skill training as an economic tool.

Today, the trend in education is to equip students to compete for fewer and fewer jobs requiring greater and greater specialized skills. Economic fears, meanwhile, diminish the values of an education leading to a broader concern for the welfare of the greatest numbers. Meanwhile, politicians through threats to their incumbency or for a desire for greater influence, inflame the forces of regression to levels of primitive rage and fear of anyone or any idea that threatens pre-conceived notions of cultural superiority.

The tragic truth is that an angst-driven minority can dominate a well-meaning progressive majority through threats of disrupting the structures designed to maintain a stable social system. The answer to this threat is enough people to maintain a posture of non-anxious reaction to the chaos engendered by the frightened angry minority. The future of American and global well-being is dependent on raising the level of self-aware conscientious independent citizenry who ultimately consider their highest allegiance to be humanity itself.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ron-cebik/persons-people-and-public_b_4133393.html

Prince of Darkness Denies Own Existence

by Dana Milbank, Washington Post, February 20, 2009

Listening to neoconservative mastermind Richard Perle at the Nixon Center yesterday, there was a sense of falling down the rabbit hole.

In real life, Perle was the ideological architect of the Iraq war and of the Bush doctrine of preemptive attack. But at yesterday’s forum of foreign policy intellectuals, he created a fantastic world in which:

1. Perle is not a neoconservative.

2. Neoconservatives do not exist.

3. Even if neoconservatives did exist, they certainly couldn’t be blamed for the disasters of the past eight years.

“There is no such thing as a neoconservative foreign policy,” Perle informed the gathering, hosted by National Interest magazine. “It is a left critique of what is believed by the commentator to be a right-wing policy.”

So what about the 1996 report he co-authored that is widely seen as the cornerstone of neoconservative foreign policy? “My name was on it because I signed up for the study group,” Perle explained. “I didn’t approve it. I didn’t read it.”

Mm-hmm. And the two letters to the president, signed by Perle, giving a “moral” basis to Middle East policy and demanding military means to remove Saddam Hussein? “I don’t have the letters in front of me,” Perle replied.

Right. And the Bush administration National Security Strategy, enshrining the neoconservative themes of preemptive war and using American power to spread freedom? “I don’t know whether President Bush ever read any of those statements,” Perle maintained. “My guess is he didn’t.”

The Prince of Darkness — so dubbed during his days opposing arms control in the Reagan Pentagon — was not about to let details get in the way of his argument that “50 million conspiracy theorists have it wrong,” as the subtitle of his article for National Interest put it. “I see a number of people here who believe and have expressed themselves abundantly that there is a neoconservative foreign policy and it was the policy that dominated the Bush administration, and they ascribe to it responsibility for the deplorable state of the world,” Perle told the foreign policy luminaries at yesterday’s lunch. “None of that is true, of course.”

Of course.

He had been a leading cheerleader for the Iraq war, predicting that the effort would take few troops and last only a few days, and that Iraq would pay for its own reconstruction. Perle was chairman of Bush’s Defense Policy Board — and the president clearly took the advice of Perle and his fellow neocons. And Perle, in turn, said back then that Bush “knows exactly what he’s doing.”

Yesterday, however, Perle said Bush’s foreign policy had “no philosophical underpinnings and certainly nothing like the demonic influence of neoconservatives that is alleged.” He also took issue with the common view that neocons favored using American might to spread democratic values. “There’s no documentation!” he argued. “I can’t find a single example of a neoconservative supposed to have influence over the Bush administration arguing that we should impose democracy by force.”

Those in the room were skeptical of Perle’s efforts to recast himself as a pragmatist.

Richard Burt, who clashed with Perle in the Reagan administration, took issue with “this argument that neoconservatism maybe actually doesn’t exist.” He reminded Perle of the longtime rift between foreign policy realists and neoconservative interventionists. “You’ve got to kind of acknowledge there is a neoconservative school of thought,” Burt challenged.

“I don’t accept the approach, not at all,” the Prince of Darkness replied.

Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest asked Perle to square his newfound realism with the rather idealistic title of his book, “An End to Evil.”

“We had a publisher who chose the title,” Perle claimed, adding: “There’s hardly an ideology in that book.” (An excerpt: “There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust. This book is a manual for victory.”)

Regardless of the title, Heilbrunn pursued, how could so many people — including lapsed neoconservative Francis Fukuyama — all be so wrong about what neoconservatives represent?

“It’s not surprising that a lot of people get something wrong,” Perle reasoned.

At times, the Prince of Darkness turned on his questioners. Fielding a question from the Financial Times, he said that the newspaper “propagated this myth of neoconservative influence.” He informed Stefan Halper of Cambridge University that “you have contributed significantly to this mythology.”

“There are some 5,000 footnotes,” Halper replied. “Documents that you’ve signed.”

But documents did not deter denials. “I’ve never advocated attacking Iran,” he said, to a few chuckles. “Regime change does not imply military force, at least not when I use the term,” he said, to raised eyebrows. Accusations that neoconservatives manipulated intelligence on Iraq? “There’s no truth to it.” At one point, he argued that the word “neoconservative” has been used as an anti-Semitic slur, just moments after complaining that prominent figures such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — Christians both — had been grouped in with the neoconservatives.

“I don’t know that I persuaded anyone,” Perle speculated when the session ended.

No worries, said the moderator. “You certainly kept us all entertained.”

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

Fiscal Cliff Fictions: Let’s All Agree to Pretend the GOP Isn’t Full of It

by Michael Grunwald. TIME Swampland, Nov. 30, 2012

Excerpts

It’s really amazing to see political reporters dutifully passing along Republican complaints that President Obama’s opening offer in the fiscal cliff talks is just a recycled version of his old plan, when those same reporters spent the last year dutifully passing along Republican complaints that Obama had no plan. It’s even more amazing to see them pass along Republican outrage that Obama isn’t cutting Medicare enough, in the same matter-of-fact tone they used during the campaign to pass along Republican outrage that Obama was cutting Medicare.

This isn’t just cognitive dissonance. It’s irresponsible reporting. Mainstream media outlets don’t want to look partisan, so they ignore the BS hidden in plain sight, the hypocrisy and dishonesty that defines the modern Republican Party….

I’ve written a lot about the GOP’s defiance of reality–its denial of climate science, its simultaneous denunciations of Medicare cuts and government health care, its insistence that debt-exploding tax cuts will somehow reduce the debt—so I often get accused of partisanship. But it’s simply a fact that Republicans controlled Washington during the fiscally irresponsible era when President Clinton’s budget surpluses were transformed into the trillion-dollar deficit that President Bush bequeathed to President Obama. (The deficit is now shrinking.) It’s simply a fact that the fiscal cliff was created in response to GOP threats to force the U.S. government to default on its obligations. The press can’t figure out how to weave those facts into the current narrative without sounding like it’s taking sides, so it simply pretends that yesterday never happened….

Whatever. I realize that the GOP’s up-is-downism puts news reporters in an awkward position. It would seem tendentious to point out Republican hypocrisy on deficits and Medicare and stimulus every time it comes up, because these days it comes up almost every time a Republican leader opens his mouth. But we’re not supposed to be stenographers. As long as the media let an entire political party invent a new reality every day, it will keep on doing it. Every day.

Full text

It’s really amazing to see political reporters dutifully passing along Republican complaints that President Obama’s opening offer in the fiscal cliff talks is just a recycled version of his old plan, when those same reporters spent the last year dutifully passing along Republican complaints that Obama had no plan. It’s even more amazing to see them pass along Republican outrage that Obama isn’t cutting Medicare enough, in the same matter-of-fact tone they used during the campaign to pass along Republican outrage that Obama was cutting Medicare.

This isn’t just cognitive dissonance. It’s irresponsible reporting. Mainstream media outlets don’t want to look partisan, so they ignore the BS hidden in plain sight, the hypocrisy and dishonesty that defines the modern Republican Party. I’m old enough to remember when Republicans insisted that anyone who said they wanted to cut Medicare was a demagogue, because I’m more than three weeks old.

I’ve written a lot about the GOP’s defiance of reality–its denial of climate science, its simultaneous denunciations of Medicare cuts and government health care, its insistence that debt-exploding tax cuts will somehow reduce the debt—so I often get accused of partisanship. But it’s simply a fact that Republicans controlled Washington during the fiscally irresponsible era when President Clinton’s budget surpluses were transformed into the trillion-dollar deficit that President Bush bequeathed to President Obama. (The deficit is now shrinking.) It’s simply a fact that the fiscal cliff was created in response to GOP threats to force the U.S. government to default on its obligations. The press can’t figure out how to weave those facts into the current narrative without sounding like it’s taking sides, so it simply pretends that yesterday never happened.

The next fight is likely to involve the $200 billion worth of stimulus that Obama included in his recycled fiscal cliff plan that somehow didn’t exist before Election Day. I’ve taken a rather keen interest in the topic of stimulus, so I’ll be interested to see how this is covered. Keynesian stimulus used to be uncontroversial in Washington; every 2008 presidential candidate had a stimulus plan, and Mitt Romney’s was the largest. But in early 2009, when Obama began pushing his $787 billion stimulus plan, the GOP began describing stimulus as an assault on free enterprise—even though House Republicans  (including Paul Ryan) voted for a $715 billion stimulus alternative that was virtually indistinguishable from Obama’s socialist version. The current Republican position seems to be that the fiscal cliff’s instant austerity would destroy the economy, which is odd after four years of Republican clamoring for austerity, and that the cliff’s military spending cuts in particular would kill jobs, which is even odder after four years of Republican insistence that government spending can’t create jobs.

I guess it’s finally true that we all are Keynesians now. Republicans don’t even seem to be arguing that more stimulus wouldn’t boost the economy; they’ve suggested that Obama needs to give up “goodies” like extending unemployment insurance (which benefits laid-off workers) and payroll tax cuts (which benefit everyone) to show that he’s negotiating in good faith. At the same time, though, they also want Obama to propose bigger Medicare cuts, even though they spent the last campaign slamming Obama’s Medicare cuts and denying their interest in Medicare cuts. I live in Florida, so I had the pleasure of hearing a radio ad from Allen West, hero of the Tea Party, vowing to protect Medicare.

Whatever. I realize that the GOP’s up-is-downism puts news reporters in an awkward position. It would seem tendentious to point out Republican hypocrisy on deficits and Medicare and stimulus every time it comes up, because these days it comes up almost every time a Republican leader opens his mouth. But we’re not supposed to be stenographers. As long as the media let an entire political party invent a new reality every day, it will keep on doing it. Every day.
Read more: http://swampland.time.com/2012/11/30/fiscal-cliff-fictions-lets-all-agree-to-pretend-the-gop-isnt-full-of-it/#ixzz2DuCXBUyL

The Conservative Psyche: How Ordinary People Come to Embrace the Cruelty of Paul Ryan and Other Right-Wingers

By Joshua Holland [2] AlterNet [1]  August 14, 2012  |  

Earlier this year, Democratic operatives looking for the best way to define Mitt Romney discovered something interesting about Paul Ryan’s budget. The New York Times reported that when the details of his proposals were run past focus groups, they found that the plan is so cruel that voters [3]simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.”

In addition to phasing out the Earned Income Tax Credit that keeps millions of American families above the poverty line and cutting funding for children’s healthcare in half, Jonathan Cohn described [4] the “America that Paul Ryan envisions” like this:

Many millions of working-age Americans would lose health insurance. Senior citizens would anguish over whether to pay their rent or their medical bills, in a way they haven’t since the 1960s. Government would be so starved of resources that, by 2050, it wouldn’t have enough money for core functions like food inspections and highway maintenance.

Ryan’s “roadmap” may be the least serious budget plan [5][5]ever to emerge in Washington, but it is reflective of how far to the right the GOP has moved in recent years. According to a recent study of public attitudes conducted by the Pew Research Center, in 1987, 62 percent of Republicans said “the government should take care of people who cannot take care of themselves,” but that number has now dropped to just 40 percent (PDF [6]). That attitude was on display during a GOP primary debate last fall when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul what fate should befall a healthy person without health insurance who finds himself suddenly facing a catastrophic illness. “Congressman,” Blitzer pressed after Paul sidestepped the question, “are you saying that society should just let him die?” Before Paul had a chance to respond, the audience erupted in cheers [7], with some shouting, “yeah!”

Ryan’s motives aren’t purely ideological; he’s been a magnet for dollars from big GOP donors for years (the $5.4 million [8] in his House campaign account is among the largest war-chests for any representative this cycle). But what about the ordinary people who embrace this kind of ‘screw ‘em, I got mine’ ideology? How can presumably decent people on the Right – people who care about their families and their communities – appear to be so cruel? Don’t they grasp the devastating real-world consequences of what it means for a society to just “let him die”?

While some answers to that question are relatively straightforward, even intuitive, research into the interplay between cognition and ideology offers a deeper understanding of what appears on its face to be an extraordinary deficit of basic human empathy.

Drilling Down

The simplest explanation for this apparent disconnect is the increasing polarization of our media consumption. People on the right tend to consume conservative media, and if you get your news from Fox and listen to Limbaugh, you too would think that Ryan’s roadmap is simply a “serious” proposal to cut the deficit (never mind that it would cut taxes at the top by so much that the budget wouldn’t be balanced for decades to come).

But it goes a bit deeper than that. The contempt a good number of Americans hold for the social welfare state has long been understood through the prism of race. In his classic book, Why Americans Hate Welfare [9], Martin Gilens found that while significant majorities of Americans told pollsters that they wanted more public spending to fight poverty, many were opposed to welfare programs because of widespread “perceptions that welfare recipients are undeserving and blacks are lazy.”

That finding has been confirmed in a number of studies since then. But more recently, psychological research – and some neurobiological studies – have found something else: Liberals and conservatives don’t just differ in their opinions, they have fundamentally different ways of processing information, which in turn leads them to hold markedly divergent sets of facts.

Even more frustrating for those who view politics as a rational pursuit of one’s self-interest, facts don’t actually matter that much. We begin evaluating policies emotionally, according to a deeply ingrained moral framework, and then our brains often work backward, filling in – or inventing — “facts” that conform to that framework.



Dueling Morality Tales



It’s long been understood that people evaluate policy ideas through partisan and ideological lenses. That’s how, for example, a set of conservative, market-oriented healthcare reforms cooked up at the Heritage Foundation and pushed by Republicans for years can suddenly become a Maoist plot when embraced by a Democratic administration.



But according to George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley, one has to look beyond mere partisanship to really get the differences in how we process information. Lakoff describes what might be called a hierarchy of understanding, beginning with our conceptions of morality and then evaluating the details through that lens.

In The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic [10], Lakoff and co-author Elisabeth Wehling explain that the human “brain is structured in terms of what are called ‘cascades.’”



A cascade is a network of neurons that links many brain circuits. All of the linked circuits must be active at once to produce a given understanding.

Simply put, the brain does not handle single ideas as separate entities: bigger context, a logical construct within which the idea is defined, is evoked in order to grasp its meaning.

Cascades are central to political understanding, because they characterize the logic that structures that understanding.


While liberals and conservatives often see their counterparts as horrible people these days, the reality, according to Lakoff, is that they’re processing information through very different, and often diametrically opposed moral frameworks.



In a recent interview [11] with AlterNet, Lakoff said, “Conservatives have a very different view of democracy, which follows their moral system.”



The basic idea in terms of economics is that democracy gives people the liberty to seek their self interest and their own well-being without worrying or being responsible for the well-being or interest of anybody else. Therefore they say everybody has individual responsibility, not social responsibility, therefore you’re on your own. If you make it that’s wonderful. That’s what the market is about. If you don’t make it, that’s your problem.



But it’s not just about the moral imperative to be self-sufficient – that’s always been central to the right’s moral worldview. But beginning in the early 1960s, with the advent of the Right’s deeply flawed “culture of poverty” narrative [12]*, a defining morality tale about the public sector has been about how it does nothing but foster “dependency.” This, according to today’s conservatives, makes virtually every form of government intervention in the economy profoundly immoral, as it keeps a segment of the population mired in poverty for generations.



This powerful story has only become more deeply entrenched in the conservative worldview with the growing influence of Ayn Rand. Randwasn’t only a schlock novelist, she was also the progenitor of a sweeping “moral philosophy” that justifies the privilege of the wealthy and demonizes not only the slothful, undeserving poor but the lackluster middle-classes as well. Her books provided wide-ranging parables of a world made up of “parasites,” “looters” and “moochers” using the levers of government to steal the fruits of her heroes’ labor.

While Ryan recently disavowed [13] Rand’s philosophy, he’s on the record saying that Rand “makes the best case for the morality of democratic capitalism.” On another occasion, he said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” 


This philosophy is constantly reinforced. According to Lakoff, most people have both liberal and conservative moralities that vie for prominence as our brains process information. One “neural circuit is in mutual opposition to another neural circuit” he told AlterNet, and “each of those two inhibit each other.”

For the Fox News crowd, the circuitry of conservative moralism is charged again and again every day. “When one of those circuits is activated over and over, more than the other, the stronger it gets and the weaker the inactive one gets,” said Lakoff. “The stronger one of these circuits gets, the more influence it’s going to have over various issues.”



Shutting Down the Thinking Brain



Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman refined earlier theories about how the brain functions on two levels – one instinctive and very quick, the other slower and more deliberate. He described the first as intuitive processing, or “system one cognition,” and the other as a process of reasoning, or “system two cognition.”



And the key point here is it appears that when system one is active, system two shuts down. Or, to put it another way, when we perceive an issue in emotional terms (system one), we make a quick judgment in which we don’t think much about the details. This is common in our daily lives, but takes on real signifigance in our political culture, and while this tendency isn’t limited to a particular ideology, some research suggests that political conservatives are more likely to rely [14] on the kind of snap judgments associated with system one cognition than liberals.



(In his book, The Republican Brain [15], Chris Mooney suggests that there may be powerful evolutionary benefits for having an instinctive, knee-jerk process take over at times. If you were an early human wandering on the savanna and heard a rustling noise in the brush, it was to your advantage to instantly assume there’s a lion coming and have your fight-or-flight instinct kick in. If you paused to weigh the evidence of whether or not it might be a lion, there would be a good chance that you wouldn’t pass your genes onto future generations.) 



Given the cascade of cognition – from a broad moral frame, to the way a specific issue is framed in our discourse and finally to the nitty-gritty details that most people ignore – and given how the fast, instinctive processing can overwhelm our more deliberative, reasoned cognitive process, it’s easy to understand how so many people on the right could be immune to the real-world consequences of doing things like cutting healthcare for poor children. It simply follows – from the overarching moral frame of dependency — that this kind of “tough love,” while perhaps painful in the near term, is ultimately beneficial for those feeling that pain.

Isn’t That a Contradiction?



It is a contradiction in one sense. But researchers have long observed that humans have an excellent capacity to hold contradictory beliefs. A recent study [16] at the University of Kent, for example, found that those who believe Princess Diana was murdered are also more likely than most to think her death was faked.



A number of researchers have posited that we stave off painful cognitive dissonance by a process called “motivated reasoning,” whereby we seek out plausible explanations for complex phenomena in order to make things fit into our previously held belief systems.

Drew Westen, Pavel S. Blagov, Keith Harenski, Clint Kilts, and Stephan Hamann at Emory University describe ([17]) motivated reasoning as a process by which, “people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.” This, say the researchers, results in “a form of implicit emotion regulation.”



Writing in the New York Times [18], David Redlawsk, a political scientist atRutgers, explains that “we are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested.



We often ignore new contradictory information, actively argue against it or discount its source, all in an effort to maintain existing evaluations. Reasoning away contradictions this way is psychologically easier than revising our feelings. In this sense, our emotions color how we perceive “facts.”



Everyone does this, but some research suggests [19] that political conservatives, perhaps because they are more set in their views, and more averse to cognitive dissonance, tend to display more motivated reasoning than liberals.



When you hear someone like Paul Ryan proposing, for example, to shift $4,700 [20] in health costs onto the backs of seniors living at the poverty level by 2022, it’s important to understand that the consequences of those actions – the factual, real-world results of these policies – are often inconsequential to like-minded people on the Right not because they’re (necessarily) bad people, but for the simple reason that the consequences don’t register. 


While a half-dozen analyses paint a sharp picture of the cruelty inherent in the Ryan plan, it is this process of motivated reasoning that allows conservatives to simply block out any details that contradict their ideas about the need to avoid fostering a “culture of dependency.”

And here, one of the apparent differences between conservative and liberal cognitive styles comes into play: the “backfire effect.” The term was coined by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, who found that when conservatives’ erroneous beliefs were confronted by factual rebuttals, they tended to double-down on those beliefs. The same dynamic wasn’t observed with liberals (they weren’t entirely swayed by the facts, but didn’t show the same tendency to believe false information more strongly after being presented with them).

This is not to suggest that Ryan’s plan – now effectively Romney’s as well, despite some efforts to distance himself from it — won’t prove toxic to most people when they get a sense of what it does. That’s because, as Lakoff notes, there are very few people who hold a primarily conservative or liberal moral framework – most have a bit of both. But it does help explain why seemingly ordinary citizens can embrace such such cruel public policies. It also suggests that Ryan’s vision can’t be attacked with facts and figures alone; it has to be challenged with a progressive moral vision of a society that values fairness and understands that in a modern economy, the public sector serves and sustains the private.

* Cultural explanations for why some groups do better than others go back a long way, but the modern iteration of the “culture of poverty” narrative originated with sociologist Oscar Lewis’s 1961 book, The Children of Sanchez.


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/election-2012/conservative-psyche-how-ordinary-people-come-embrace-cruelty-paul-ryan-and-other-right

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/joshua-holland
[3] http://digbysblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/they-refused-to-believe-any-politician.html
[4] http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/106029/ryan-romney-vp-budget-cuts-medicare-medicaid-voucher-tax-cut
[5] http://maddowblog.msnbc.com/_news/2012/03/20/10780200-the-opposite-of-seriousness
[6] http://www.people-press.org/files/legacy-pdf/06-04-12%20Values%20Release.pdf
[7] http://www.mediaite.com/tv/cnntea-party-debate-audience-cheers-letting-uninsured-comatose-man-die/
[8] http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/summary.php?cid=N00004357
[9] http://www.powells.com/partner/32513/biblio/9780226293646
[10] http://www.amazon.com/The-Little-Blue-Book-Democratic/dp/147670001X
[11] http://www.alternet.org/module/printversion/156057
[12] http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/151830/debunking_the_big_lie_right-wingers_use_to_justify_black_poverty_and_unemployment_/
[13] http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2012/04/26/ryan-now-rejects-ayn-rand-will-the-real-paul-ryan-please-come-forward/
[14] http://www.alternet.org/story/155210/why_is_the_conservative_brain_more_fearful_the_alternate_reality_right-wingers_inhabit_is_terrifying
[15] http://www.amazon.com/The-Republican-Brain-Science-Science/dp/1118094514
[16] http://kent.academia.edu/RobbieSutton/Papers/1275313/Dead_and_alive_Beliefs_in_contradictory_conspiracy_theories
[17] http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1947
[18] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/04/21/barack-obama-and-the-psychology-of-the-birther-myth/a-matter-of-motivated-reasoning
[19] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/14/AR2008091402375_pf.html
[20] http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3473

http://www.alternet.org/print/election-2012/conservative-psyche-how-ordinary-people-come-embrace-cruelty-paul-ryan-and-other-right