October 4, 2012

When the Good Guys Lie

I’ve been ruminating about this video for a couple of weeks, since it was pimped by Neil Gaiman on Facebook. It’s about a town library that was in danger of closure unless residents voted in favor of a minor tax increase. Tea Party forces mobilized to oppose the tax and looked to carry the day. Then, this:

I mean, the good guys won, right? And, in the end, the pro-library folks came clean and everybody knew what was up before the vote happened. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that, in my gut, the pro-library folks were lying. The entire outlandish possibility of a book burning was a complete work of fiction, and not even one with a connection to reality, either. If the library closed down, it’s most likely that its collection would be sold off to help close the financial hole. My local library sells used books every year as part of the West Virginia Book Festival (coming next weekend!). They don’t burn the excess parts of the collection.

However, as political lies go, it’s fairly harmless, but if making shit up to get people to vote your way is kosher, where does it end? What about organized campaigns to warn of Obama’s double secret atheist Muslim agenda to impose Sharia law in a second term or how Romney is really a Mormon Manchurian Candidate who will force us all to give up caffeine and wear magic underwear if he’s elected? Where do we draw the line?

Perhaps the problem is that I’m a bit irked that it’s the “good guys” who took this route. They had the better argument and should have won the day via force of rhetoric. Or am I just naïve to think that reason wins the day when it comes to politics?

Maybe I am.

Over at the New York Times philosophy blog (yes, there is a such a thing), Michael Lynch examines whether reasoning leads us inexorably to the value judgments we make (and political decisions are nothing if not value judgments), or just the opposite – does reasoning just provide justifications for conclusions we reach for more emotional reasons. Research shows the latter:
Recently, however, some social scientists, most notably the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, have upped the cynical ante. In Haidtt’s view, the philosophers’ dream of reason isn’t just naïve, it is radically unfounded, the product of what he calls ‘the rationalist delusion.’ As he puts it, ‘Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason. We all need to take a cold, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.’

* * *

According to Haidt, not only are value judgments less often a product of rational deliberation than we’d like to think, that is how we are supposed to function. That it is how we are hardwired by evolution. In the neuroscientist Drew Westen’s words, the political brain is the emotional brain.
Lynch argues hopefully against this conclusion, but I’m not completely convinced. The example he uses as a long-term change in attitude – the acceptance of homosexuals – I think supports Haidt’s hypothesis. I don’t think people generally decided they didn’t have a problem with homosexuals on a rational level. I think it was more down to the increased visibility of actual gay people and the realization that they’re aren’t actually the monsters they had been made out to be. In other words, people became OK with the idea emotionally, not rationally.

At the end of the day, though, I think I side with Lynch:
Giving up on the idea that reason matters is not only premature from a scientific point of view; it throws in the towel on an essential democratic hope. Politics needn’t always be war by other means; democracies can, and should be places where the exchange of reasons is encouraged. This hope is not a delusion; it is an ideal — and in our countdown to November, one still worth striving for.
But maybe that’s just because I want it that way.

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