Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Go Team!

When I first arrived on the internet five years ago, I discovered a most interesting phenomenon. Most people discussing various topics act like they are still in high school.

For example, I used to spend quite a bit of my internet time hanging out over at Huffington Post. One of the folks who posted frequently over there wrote on the topic of evolution. Along the way would come the occasional observation, stated axiomatically, that no one could be a real Christian and accept the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Since this was the moment in the sun for people like Sam Harris, who insisted the religion had never, ever, in any society at any place or time, done any positive thing for humanity, and Richard Dawkins, who rewrote, rather poorly, Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, and Christopher Hitchens, whose atheism is both broad and deep, yet allows him to side with some of the most narrow-minded religious bigots in contemporary American politics, this was a common enough observation.

After reading this line several times, repeated without any reasons or arguments, merely stated as fact, I offered that, as a Christian who also accepts (I do not like "believes in" as a way of describing my adherence to any scientific theory; science is not a matter of belief) biological evolution, his statement as a categorical axiom was wrong. What I got in response was, in its shortest version, that I didn't know what I was talking about.

Along the way, I encountered other sentiments. For example, the idea that religious education was child abuse. Not religious education in some weird cult where kids are taught weird things like sexual precocity and the like. No, just run-of-the-mill religious instruction. The usual case was, again, the dispute between scientists and creationists. Parents who would prefer their children not learn the theory of evolution were, it was reasoned, creating a situation where their children would be deprived of information and understanding that would, in the long run, be detrimental to them. The state has to step in and insist that such practices had to stop, in the name of protecting both the children from harm and promoting the value of scientific education.

Then, of course, there are the various iterations of complaints against the Tea Party - in particular, that it is a political movement akin to fascism, rooted in racism. I dealt with this particular matter a couple weeks ago. It seems, however, that other variations of a kind of disdain for conservatives exist, which include but are not limited to the screeching, "They're gonna put us all in concentration camps!!!" Essentially, it rewards liberals for being so much more intelligent, thoughtful, able to use critical reason than our conservative brothers and sisters. Those who make this claim seem to have some scientific evidence on their side. My guess is the studies linked here are what Jeanine Garofalo refer to in the discussion noted by Bob Somerby.

Please note I say "seem" in the above paragraph. I find many troubling things with the presentation of the studies. The British study does have an abstract available online, which reads in part:
Recent work has shown a correlation between liberalism and conflict-related activity measured by event-related potentials originating in the anterior cingulate cortex [4]. Here we show that this functional correlate of political attitudes has a counterpart in brain structure. In a large sample of young adults, we related self-reported political attitudes to gray matter volume using structural MRI. We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala. These results were replicated in an independent sample of additional participants. Our findings extend previous observations that political attitudes reflect differences in self-regulatory conflict monitoring [4] and recognition of emotional faces [5] by showing that such attitudes are reflected in human brain structure. Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work [4,6] to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes. (italics added)
In other words, there's different stuff going on the brains of self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives. That's all they found. Hardly definitive, at least to me.

Here's the thing - I refuse to reward myself, or others who hold views similar to mine, with any virtue. We liberals aren't better human beings. Conservatives aren't stupid. All this Manichaeism with a scientific veneer is repugnant to me for a variety of reasons. Not the least of these reasons is the simple one that there just isn't one simple, correct answer to the conundrum of human existence. While I certainly have a set of conditions and responses rooted in my life-experience and reflection, I would hardly insist it is, let alone should be, normative. Furthermore, promoting any notion that there is scientific evidence for disparate political ideologies veers far to close to phrenology, which proved that Africans were inferior to Caucasians; to any ideology that purports to show, definitively, that one group of human beings is inherently superior to another.

If we are to find our way out of our duldrums, the first thing we need to surrender is ego - the need to be right. This does not mean pointing out all sorts of errors, either of fact or reason, when we encounter them. It just means not making general observations out of specific instances of inanity and stupidity. Sarah Palin is not representative of conservatives any more than Teddy Kennedy - with his various romps with a variety of women - is representative of liberals.

I don't play for any team, so don't expect me to cheer-lead. The times call for sacrificing adherence to the preference for being right.

Virtual Tin Cup

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