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‘Personhood’, Environmentalism, and Hypocrisy. The disconnect between what we say and what we believe.

         You listen in on a conversation among your conservative friends.

“You know what I HATE,” says Rick.  “I hate the government telling me what to do. I hate them telling me I have to go buy health insurance or what light bulbs I can buy.”

“And I hate government telling businesses what they have to do,” says Michelle. “Government has gotten in and made it almost impossible to create a profit anymore.”

Ron adds “It’s just outrageous that government thinks it knows best how parents are supposed to raise their kids and undermining the family.”

Newt adds, ”And they’ve got no place defining marriage either. Marriage is between a man and woman period. That predates the Constitution. Moral questions like that are none of the government’s business.”

         You ask “So you must not want the government to butt in and tell us that life and ‘personhood’ begins at conception, which would deny us the freedom to choose an abortion, like laws proposed in Mississippi and Florida and Ohio would do. I mean, talk about government butting into our private lives, right?”

         “Well, that’s DIFFERENT” they all say, in unison. “We’re all for that!”

         You listen in on another conversation, this one among your more liberal friends.

Al says “We need to get rid of fossil fuels. The local air pollution kills people and the CO2 causes climate change. We need more renewables.”

“Yeah,” Bill adds. “Solar, and wind. And electric vehicles.”

“And biomass, like from the parts of plants that we normally throw away, or sawdust from lumber mills,” adds Rachel.

Gareth says “And we should build a smart grid, a new transmission system that can carry electricity more efficiently. With smart meters on every home, that can control how much electricity we all demand, so we only generate what we need.”

         You ask “So you must really like the new transmission lines that a major power company wants to build to carry all that wind and hydro and biomass power from Canada down to New Hampshire….that Northern Pass project they’re talking about.”

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“Well, that’s DIFFERENT”, they all say in unison. “We’re totally opposed to that.”

     Doesn’t the hypocrisy, on the right and the left, seem unbearable sometimes? It seems so dishonest, anti-government types who change their tune and support government when it suits their underlying worldviews. Or liberals who say they want clean energy, unless it means something has to be built, especially if building it helps some rich corporation get richer. It’s so common, the conflict between what people say they believe, and what their actions reveal about what they really believe. What does this dishonesty do to the way we argue out the contentious issues of the day? And how can we get to solutions if what we say, and what we really feel, are such different things?

       One first step would be to understand where this intellectually inconsistent behavior come from. It comes from someplace deeper than the conscious brain we think we’re using when we argue our positions. Subconscious forces exert primal influence on this process, and, no matter what the facts may say, produce views and opinions that agree with those with whom we most strongly identify. What matters more than an open-minded objective analysis of the evidence…about climate change or abortion or gun control…is that our view agrees with the fellow members of our group. This is really important to us. If everybody in the group is on the same page, our group’s view is more likely to dominate in society, and if our view agrees with the group view, we’ll be welcomed as a member in good standing. And both aspects of social cohesion are critical for the health and safety of social animals like us.

     This process is known as Cultural Cognition, a field of research championed by Dan Kahan and Don Braman and Paul Slovic and others. They have found that we fall into a few key groups in terms of how we feel society should operate: one group – Individualists – would like a society that mostly leaves the individual alone, and another group – Communitarians –  prefers a ‘we’re all in it together’ kind of society. A third group – Hierarchists – prefers order and structure and rigid predictable social and economic class and hierarchy, while a fourth group – Egalitarians – prefers a society that is more flexibility and fair with less rigid class structures. Egalitarians and Communitarians tend to take ‘liberal’ positions. Individualists and Hierarchists tend to be more conservative.

     There is a lot more detail about Cultural Cognition in earlier posts (The Lightbulb Issue. Illuminating the Risk of Ideology) and at the project’s website). Please read those and learn more. The point here is not to describe it, but to note Cultural Cognition’s dangers. This underlying drive to hold views that agree with those around us is a significant contributor to the inconsistency between what we say we believe, and what we actually believe. Cultural Cognition helps explain the hypocrisy of Individualists and Hierarchical conservatives who say they abhor big government, but want to use government to impose their ethical view that the single cell formed between sperm and egg is a person, and therefore make aborting that zygote or the fetus that follows a felony. It helps explain the hypocrisy of environmentalist Communitarian/Egalitarian liberals who say they are for clean energy, until that clean energy is nuclear or requires cutting down some trees to put up a windmill or installing solar panels in the desert that can turn sunlight into electricity but might kill some cacti.

         The hypocrisy isn’t a problem in and of itself. If people want to be intellectually inconsistent, let them. But this inconsistency is a product of Cultural Cognition, which causes us not just to pick views that agree with our group but to argue our positions so fiercely and to villainize anyone who disagrees with us so readily, since our well being is directly dependent on the well being and dominance of our tribe…so other tribal views are a direct threat. And that is a problem, a huge problem, because tribal warfare over ideas precludes compromise and progress.

       So criticizing this hypocrisy, and understand where it comes from, may help. Knowing how Cultural Cognition leads to our views may at least let us look at ourselves with open eyes, and be just a little more honest about how – and why – we sometimes say one thing while we actually believe something else. And that might contribute to a bit more honesty as we thrash out our disagreements over issues of the day. Which might contribute to more productive conversations, rather than the polarized tribal gridlock we’re stuck in now on so many issues, that does nobody any good.


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