Sunday, November 11, 2012

2012 Election Port-Mortem Rant #1


Here’s my first official 2012 Election Post-Mortem Rant. Yes, there will probably be more.

This is my attempt at explaining what gets under my skin about the way many, many people discuss politics. I tend to get more annoyed when it comes from Republican types, but that’s just because I tend to disagree with them more; what I’m about to describe also exists in many left-leaning people.

These people basically see all political discourse as a game. It’s a hobby for them. They themselves call it things like ‘intellectual debate’ and ‘free exchange of ideas’. (Please understand that I am not accusing all people who are fond of these terms of having this mindset; I am only saying that many people who have this mindset justify it using these terms.)

The key thing to remember about this mindset is that, deep down, these people see the topics of political debate as pure abstraction. They get emotional about politics for the same reason that people get emotional about sporting events (all human beings are programmed to support their teams). But there’s a level deep in their brains that doesn’t believe this stuff is real. And by arguing with them, you are implicitly agreeing to play by the same rules as them: they assume you don’t really believe this stuff is real either. It’s all just a game. Here are some specifics:

Firstly, everything in the debate exists only at the level of abstraction. If I advocate a playing strategy in a computer game that would inadvertently lead to the deaths of innocent virtual people, I would expect you not to waste your mental energy caring too much about them. They’re not real. In a shockingly similar way, though, if I advocate politics that could kill uninsured people / Pakistani villagers / people trying to immigrate illegally / other people in the virtual world of politics, and you act like you’re sad about that, then I assume you’re just employing a ‘faux outrage’ tactic and I am grateful to you that you are allowing me to be the rational one in this debate.

I’ve seen my wife argue universal health care plenty of times with Libertarian sorts who see the whole thing as an abstraction. And I always get the feeling that if they knew my wife really and truly believes that people without health care are real people and anecdotes about the travails of the uninsured are real stories that really happened in real life, they would grow very worried and perhaps commit her to a psychiatric ward somewhere.

(If I appear to pick on my wife a lot, it's because she's much less non-confrontational and more prone to discussing issues than I am. But it's not because she 'enjoys intellectual debate', it's because she thinks these things are real and cares about them.)

Secondly, supporting characters in politics like Shirley Sherrod and Sandra Fluke are public-domain fictional characters like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and therefore no objectively true information about them can exist. If I don’t like some aspect of how the Easter Bunny is portrayed in popular culture and go around saying that these facts about the Easter Bunny are objectively wrong because the real Easter Bunny isn’t like that, well, people would think I was crazy. The same goes for supporting characters in politics.

If (according to this mindset) you say that Sandra Fluke demanded that American taxpayers pay for her birth control so she could get laid more often, and I say that she said no such thing, then there’s no sense in appealing to any sort of objective reality to sort out who’s right. It would be like arguing over whether Santa Claus’s belt buckle is black or brown. And what’s more (according to this mindset) if I take issue with something that somebody says online about Sandra Fluke, then I am willingly participating in the game. That’s because people with this mindset are incapable of understanding that there are human beings who don’t share it.

On her own blog, my wife recently wrote about the patronising attitude that others took with her when she used her own life as an example when discussing social politics:

And what I got told was that none of this was true: that if I didn't want to go to a known dangerous neighborhood then I was clearly racist, that I could go on my lunch hour to a "nearby" clinic, that I couldn't possibly have moved abroad in part because I wanted socialized health insurance, that I could have bought cheap OTC birth control at Wal-Mart (there was no Wal-Mart near me, thankfully, but I took his meaning to be 'a pharmacy'), that I was lying about how difficult/impossible it was to go to a clinic, that my story of "bad side effects" from OTC birth control was a "lie", and that America clearly has the best health care in the world, and that abortion was a non-issue because "we have Roe v. Wade" so, basically, quit yer whinin'. 
That right there is what I mean - this commenter was telling me what my life was like - despite not living my life, and not even knowing me. He was telling me what my options should be, what my choices are, what I could do, rather than listening to me when I told him what my life was actually like, and listening to the statistics on how accessible abortion really is to women across the country, despite Roe v. Wade. It was condescending, it was mansplaining (the commenter was male and thought he knew better than me what my own experience was), it was holier-than-thou, and it was not listening.

Of course, because what my wife posted wasn’t real to them. As far as they were concerned her story was a fiction, and a fiction that was written without regard to consistency with the story that they followed, which was also fiction but in their minds was more canonical.

In fictional universes which are densely populated with stories in different media by different authors, such as the Star Trek universe, some stories are considered more ‘real’ than others. The stories occupying the highest level of reality are considered ‘canon’, and in the case of Star Trek they include the TV shows and movies. Professionally published novels set in the same universe are considered less ‘canonical’; if there is an inconsistency between the two, the more canonical work wins out. Fanfic occupies the lowest rung on the ladder.

My wife’s mistake was to post social issues fanfic that was not sufficiently consistent with the established canon. That’s why it got torn to pieces.

You’re welcome to respond to me by saying that this is all nonsense. What I say doesn’t even make sense. Of course people who talk about politics believe politics is real.

Maybe, but it does explain a lot frighteningly well. It explains why people seem to think there is no such thing as objective reality, and can debate about issue X with such apparent passion while not actually caring about how issue X manifests itself in the real world with real people. If my model matches the way people behave better than one that actually makes sense, then we have a problem.

4 comments:

Jenna Cody said...

It didn't get torn to pieces, actually...that comment on that article was targeted, but in the end the guy shut up and went away when I and several other commenters pointed out what he was doing.

Just to point out (I know you know this but other readers may not), I argue these issues not because I'm just interested in intellectual debate. As you correctly mentioned, I care because this is real life and these issues affect real people. Sometimes not me personally, but another person is also a person and just as important as me.

Mike Fagan said...

"The key thing to remember about this mindset is that, deep down, these people see the topics of political debate as pure abstraction... But there’s a level deep in their brains that doesn’t believe this stuff is real."

The conclusion doesn't follow from the premise. Not only that, but you're simply wrong anyway; I use abstraction AND I am entirely aware that there are real people at the sharp end of it (being one of those real people myself, you see).

So my objection to something like socialized healthcare does not arise from the thought that certain people or their experiences "aren't real" in that fantasist sense you ascribe to me, it arises from the belief that other people aren't your fucking property.

Brendan said...


"Not only that, but you're simply wrong anyway; I use abstraction AND I am entirely aware that there are real people at the sharp end of it"

"in the fantasist sense you ascribe to me"


After you wrote that, I altered the title of my post from "Mike Fagan, You Are A Sociopath" to what it is now so it is no longer about you. There.

Now that we've got that out of the way, you appear to mistakingly think I'm criticizing people with certain politics. Actually, I'm describing a thought process that I see behind a huge amount of political discourse, a not-insubstantial amount of which is deployed in support of positions I agree with.

If I pick on Libertarians, it is because I am not one, and shoddy thinking (and sociopathological mindsets) are easier to perceive in opinions you don't approve of.

Mike Fagan said...

I'm not the one waving the gun around; that person is your wife and others like her.