Dawn Breaks On Marble Head

I experienced an epiphany this weekend, a bleated epiphany, and not the liturgical-kalendar type. I saw at a glance how the social discursive physics effects a Gresham’s Law of reasoned argument on controversial topics.

I had been wondering how prominence in media (and in arrant defiance of Jeneane’s strictures, I’ll say both MSM and Blogarian media) (by the way, our prayers and best wishes are with you and George and Jenna today, Jeneane) correlates to genuine agreement. That is, do people who associate with/apparently approve of/link to (with positive vote links) Extreme Representatives really hold to everything the spokesperson advocates?

Well, in short, no.

Let’s say we have two parties. I could call them “Cyan” and “Orange,” but readers would eventually make them out to be liberals and conservatives anyway, so I’ll just tag them Left and Right, and add that nothing I am about to say amounts to an unambiguous attribution of characteristics to anyone. I’m working something out, and just at the beginning.

Now, let’s say I belong (roughly) to the Left side of an argument, but that I see some of the wisdom behind a Right way of looking at the problem. The hard-core Lefties have an interest in masking my respectful dissent (it might lend aid and comfort, and it might erode the univocity of Left support), so while they may acknowledge my conclusions — “He’s one of us” — they have a definite reason to ignore my arguments. Likewise, the hard-core Right has reason to ignore my arguments, since if I can appreciate their premises and still arrive at Left conclusions, I might persuade some otherwise loyal Rightists to change their minds. The same applies, backwards, to the Rightists; both parties benefit from the appearance of unanimity, regardless of the realities behind the appearances.

Moreover, each partisan center benefits from eliding the differences among their opposite numbers, to the extent that the more monolithic the opponents seem, the more important unanimity and solidarity on “our” side of the problem become. Again, this helps account for the over-simplification of controversial discourse: the more vigilantly a partisan stays on message (“inclusiveness” or “no gay agenda” or whatever), the less the risk that any of the possible divisions, nuances, disagreements within the partisan bloc will distract ardent supporters.

So, for instance, if I were to lambaste the Left for a repetitive, shallow, anti-intellectual institutional practice that sacrifices depth of reasoning in order to maintain a comfortably superficial, appealing message of “inclusiveness,” — whereas all too often the Right actually mounts awkward things like arguments to ground their case — neither Left nor Right could afford to notice the critique.

(Now, it’s always quite likely that I’m just a clanging gong unworthy of attention; that’s not by any means ruled out. For the purposes of argument, though, I’m supposing that the criticism in question rests on some sound evidence.)

By the same token, if I were to call to attention some problems on the Right’s side, or propose ways forward that don’t play into the all-or-nothing will-to-power games of who wins and who loses, we should not expect Extreme Spokespeople to attend. They’re already affirmed by their own (carefully groomed) constituencies, and they’re awfully busy. Who has time to wrangle details when so much is at stake, and when the people with good sense have already endorsed the urgency of Our Side’s struggle?

So I no longer expect anyone to pay much attention when I point out the loose threads in various sides’ positions.

4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. RickW: Although I would probably identify myself as orange/Right/moderately-conservative/Beetelgeusian most of the time… I was impressed by your insight(s).

    Serious question. To what extent might your apparent preference for “postmodern”/deconstructionist(?) ways of reasoning mean you do *not* start with the same premises as the “Right”? Notice the qualification: “might”.

  2. Interesting post, AKMA.

    I suspect that there is less overt or conscious concern for the appearance of unanimity than you may think. I think that we’ve heard concerns about “the other side” being more united (complaints about “circular firing squads” and the like for “our side”), but I suspect these are artifacts of reasoning backwards from our feelings.

    Arguments that conflict with the emotional content of certain beliefs create negative emotions, and those feelings are what prompt calls for unanimity or solidarity, often worse. They don’t ignore your arguments because they threaten unanimity, but because they make them feel uncomfortable. Since our primary orientation appears to be directed outwardly, rather than respond with an interior investigation into the basis of the negative emotions, we respond outwardly through criticism or justification.

    The Extreme Spokespeople of both sides are authorities, and it is in their interest to preserve those core beliefs; and they do so in no small measure by reinforcing the emotional content of those beliefs, which is what keeps the members of the group responding in a habituated, conditioned fashion. They will attend to you to the extent that you can be used in some fashion to reinforce those beliefs. If you’re opposed to them, they will be sensitive to the kind of attention you are receiving. If you are receiving little attention, of either kind,from other members of the group then they will ignore you as well. If you are receiving positive attention, then they will attempt to direct a greater amount of negative attention to you. If you are already receiving negative attention, then they will exploit that by calling attention to the negative attention. Naturally, if you are not opposed to them, they may choose to call attention to you as further justification for their own positions, and through the act of calling attention, reinforce their role as an authority.As long as you don’t appear to pose a threat to their own position.

    For better or worse, arguments are less about finding a solution to a dilemma, or developing some common understanding of a particular issue; but are more about trying to control and manipulate attention and beliefs in order to preserve the position of the authorities.

    Trying to appeal to people by calling attention to this isn’t very effective.

    Just my opinion. I’m an authority on nothing.

  3. I agree–and it explains the radical subjugation of the Middle. I find myself in the Middle both politically and theologically but people rarely notice. Instead I get blasted for being Left *and* for being Right based on the situation.

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