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Maarten van Swaay / August 25, 2015

Left, Right and Other Loose Words

Terms such as “Left,” “Right,” “liberal” and “conservative” dominate much political discussion. But what do they mean, and to what, if anything, do they refer? “Republican” and “Democrat” do have a well-defined meaning: They refer to the choice citizens make when they register to vote. But that still leaves the question unanswered: What drives that choice? From more than a few good friends I have heard that they ‘do not have time for politics, but of course always vote X.

Too often we hear such loose words in reference to people, rather than to viewpoints. Worse, in that context they are often paired with derogatory epithets, such as loony or rabid. It all suggests not merely separation of an entire population into two classes but also disdain for the “other” class. Surely people are far too nuanced to allow classification into just two antagonistic groups.

It is easy to recognize major issues on which positions range between limits that are clearly opposite, even mutually hostile, and from current discourse it seems almost impossible to find people whose views fall between those extremes. One could argue that constructive dialog and cooperation is achievable only in that middle area. Thus, constructive interaction is frustrated by the (artificial) division into extremes. But this division is precisely what is sharpened by the casual use of the loose words I referred to earlier. That sharpened division tends to overwhelm the reality that our society does have a large common interest: the health and well-being of the country and its citizens.

How might that have come about, and what might we try to do to reverse it? I suspect that few people can give a concise answer to the question what criteria are used to classify ideas, let alone people, as “Left” or “Right.” So quite possibly the very words are escapist: They are used to make distinctions we cannot even define, in the hope that others will not ask us to elaborate.

I submit that it may be possible to evaluate people on a single scale that is intrinsic to all. There is solid evidence that babies are born with a sense of sympathy. Well before they can stand or speak they display sympathy with both adults and infants. In other words, emotion is almost certainly innate, and there is no question that emotion is essential for human beings. But emotion is not sufficient, and must be balanced by another factor: reason. We need emotion to prompt us, and reason to guide us.

Evidence for that is reflected in our language. We say “take a deep breath,” “count to 10,” “sleep over it,” “control your emotion,” etc. All reflect the need to take time to assess emotions and to avoid rash and unbridled response, which could quite possibly have consequences opposite to what the emotion hopes to achieve.

Reason is unlikely to be innate, though the capability to develop reasoning skill probably is. Reasoning has to be developed. I would argue that, without the help of language, reasoning is unthinkable. It is intrinsically sequential. It requires retention of earlier steps, and that in turn implies that those steps must be remembered in some form — one of the crucial capabilities of language. Development of reasoning skill is likely to be an important part of upbringing and growing up, even if it may not be an explicit part.

This argument leads to the expectation that all people will eventually have a measure of both emotion and reason, but that the proportion of those two attributes is likely to vary widely between individuals, even if on average we may expect that reason and emotion are largely balanced within a society.

What predictions can we make from that hypothesis, and how might its validity be assessed? Hypotheses about “human nature” admit little, if any, room for controlled experiments: There are strong moral arguments against experimentation on human beings. But in practice such experimentation does take place, without any controlling experimenter. We can try and make predictions, and then survey societies and their histories to see whether those predictions agree with observation. I will refrain from attempts to analyze despotic societies, on the ground that those should not be considered representative. Nor are they likely to tolerate the free thought and free expression that are a premise for the hypothesis.

It will be convenient to adopt a pair of shorthand notations: E-type and R-type, for people inclined toward emotional action and toward reasoned analysis. Of course this does not mean that anybody’s action could or would be driven exclusively by emotion or by reason. It merely means that one of the two driving forces is somewhat stronger than the other. In contrast to “Left” and “Right,” E-type and R-type can refer to people, because they reflect thought processes rather than viewpoints.

What differences might one expect between E-type and R-type people? Of course one should not expect many people to be guided exclusively by either emotion or reason; most people will be driven by a more or less balanced mix of the two forces. But on the emotional side we may expect less analysis and more “feeling,” and on the reasoning side we may expect less impulsive behavior and more questioning: “Are things really as I think they are?”

We may expect E-types to be more ready than R-types to expound on their feelings: they are likely to be less restrained by self-questioning. And we may expect R-types to be somewhat reluctant to expound on their views; they would tend to retain some persistent self-scrutiny. “The voice of reason will rarely shout.” But shouting, and slogans, can be very effective to sway the opinion of E-types, especially if the slogans aim to suppress thought, i.e., if they have a flavor of propaganda and appeal to emotion.

Perhaps it is revealing that, especially in the U.S., elections have become enormously expensive. One could interpret that as evidence that candidates, and their supporters, expect the voting public to be quite susceptible to propaganda, i.e., to thought-suppressing slogans. Such slogans would have to be broadcast loudly and persistently, i.e., by expensive media campaigns. Emotions must be maintained: They are unlikely to persist without refreshing. Ironically, such campaigns are likely to drown precisely the reasoned arguments that could enhance the probability of election of candidates whose actions are driven by careful logic.

Could there be a correlation between the media world and the emotion/reason scale, and if so, in which direction? One might expect that the media world appeals to those who wish to “make themselves heard.” That predilection would fit better with E-types than with R-types. E-types would tend to be less restrained in their emotions because they may not have a strong urge to analyze them. Hence they may tend to be more confident of their viewpoints than is reasonable. That confidence, in turn, could make E-types more disposed than R-types to broadcast their views, and they may well be predisposed to attract an audience by pulling on their heartstrings, i.e. to cast their words in terms of feelings.

If this idea of selective appeal to join the media holds up, it could explain a long-recognized tilt of the media, without any need to invoke intent or conspiracy. In other words, the media world would not need to be populated by people with any sinister intent — it would naturally be more appealing to E-types than to R-types, and a congregation of E-types is likely to develop a conforming set of (emotional) views. The same reasoning may apply to, e.g., the teaching profession.

Finally, one could readily expect that emotional appeals have a far larger probability of drawing a large following than careful reasoning that takes time to present, and may require considerable effort to follow. Thus we may want to moan, or rejoice, at 'media bias’ or academic bias, but we should not be surprised.

One may expect that E-types will tend to be less inclined than R-types to assess their emotions. But something more invidious can play a role as well. If E-types tend to be more confident of their views, they may also be less inclined to recognize, or even admit, reasoning that challenges those views. That could make the views of E-types both brittle and weak: brittle because reasoned justification has not been developed, and weak because they may rest — even if unintentionally — on little more than whim. An emotional view can then acquire the flavor of faith, in the sense that it is unlikely to allow external challenge. Surprisingly, this effect may also tend to create a perception of religious and moral strength as threatening, because moral strength will challenge uninspected feeling.

Emotionally driven views, and actions, ultimately serve to create “good feelings” that are intrinsically aimed inward: The effects of the action are far less significant than the good feelings that accrue to those who initiate the action. That can make an invidious chain: the good feeling can be sustained only by expanding action, without regard for effect. To justify that expanding action, the perceived need for the action has to be preserved. In other words, the action that produces the good feeling must not be effective, because that would remove the means to sustain the good feeling. A good example of such a chain is the steadily growing string of words and phrases that are declared “inappropriate”: they are indispensable to those who want to “feel good about themselves” for making such declarations.

Similar reasoning may also explain the incongruous appeal of “victimhood.” In a society that leans toward E-type, victims, whether real or made up, can expect to be the beneficiaries of the urge of an E-type elite to distribute largesse to them. Economics would dictate that dilution of real needs by made-up demands will decrease assistance to those who really need help. The fifty-year costs of the “war on poverty” have been estimated at 22 trillion in constant 2012 dollars (about $27,000 per poor three-person household in 2013), but the endeavor has not achieved a significant reduction of poverty. Revealingly, the poverty rate had been declining significantly before President Johnson declared the “war on poverty” in 1964, from almost 35% in the late 1940s to less than 20% in 1964. Ever since, the rate has been stuck between 12 and 15%, with ups and downs in step with the economy.

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