Wednesday, July 16, 2014

#169 - Maybe We Can All Get Along — Or Not

“Right and wrong - do you know the difference / Right and wrong - do you know the difference /
'Tween the right and the left and the east and the west / What you know and the things that you'll never see”
Joe Jackson “Right and Wrong”

According to a new paper published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences and discussed in numerous articles, including this one in Mother Jones, our political beliefs – whether we identify as liberal or conservative – may not be so much a product of how we are raised as it is a product of our physiological and genetic makeup. That’s right, political beliefs may be different because we are different physiologically and genetically.

According to the study by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, political conservatives “have a ‘negativity bias,’ meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments.” These included things such as the image of a dazed person with a bloodied face. As the Mother Jones article puts it, ”the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets—centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns—would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.”

What to me is equally interesting is that the paper’s main premise found almost overwhelming agreement among the 26 researchers invited to comment, with roughly 90% of them accepting the general idea of a conservative negativity bias. On the other hand, it also appears from this and other papers that conservatives tend to be happier and more satisfied with the lives than are their more liberal counterparts.

At first glance, Hibbing’s paper might appear to suggest that there is no hope for ever bridging the gap between the left and the right enough to accomplish much politically. The current situation in Washington would seem to support such a pessimistic view which would then call into question the bottom line usefulness of what Hibbing and his colleagues have written. The Mother Jones article, however, concludes on a more hopeful note:
All of this matters, of course, because we still operate in politics and in media as if minds can be changed by the best honed arguments, the most compelling facts. And yet if our political opponents are simply perceiving the world differently, that idea starts to crumble. Out of the rubble just might arise a better way of acting in politics that leads to less dysfunction and less gridlock…thanks to science.
If I had stopped reading there, I might have allowed myself a hopeful feeling about the future politically. Unfortunately, I then read some of the comments on the  Mother Jones website and comments and responses such as the following:
“Assimilation is certainly more of a liberal trait.”

“Liberal trait? That's funny. It's always conservatives that insist people follow their religious dictates, their ideas about what marriage is, what a legitimate relationship is, how women should be treated (always by their own tightly bound rules)...conservatives are the ones that want everyone to be the same, that get nervous when everyone isn't just like them. They are hardly accepting differences in others.”

“Wrong. Liberals I've met are far more in lockstep on all issues from abortion to gay marriage to gun control. But you wouldn't call them in lockstep if they are right, right?"’In lockstep’ likely because they're more open-minded, or liberal, on those issues. And I don't discount your personal experiences, but you need to look beyond them.”

“I know more liberals than conservatives. From my experience, the conservatives are more diverse in their views (libertarians, objectivists, tea party advocates, laissez faire capitalists, isolationists, nation builders, etc.)”

“Describing the difference between conservatives 'groups' like trying to argue the substantial difference between swiss chocolate ice cream, dutch chocolate ice cream, and plain chocolate ice cream...”
After reading several dozen comments in the same vein, I am forced to conclude that while Hibbing may be correct in his thesis that political ideology may be at least partly genetic in nature, the optimism set out by the Mother Jones author appears to be premature. Based on comments such as those quoted above, dysfunction and gridlock will continue to be the order of the day for some time.

Some liberals accuse some conservatives (and vice versa) of having their heads in the sand with regard to various issues (insert favorite hot button topic here). Based on the comments I read after the Mother Jones article, keeping my head in the sand doesn’t sound so bad. It certainly seems a friendly and safer place to be these days than either Washington, DC or the internet. *sigh*

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