The Psychology of Political Fighting
Question: Dr. Uebersax, you’re a psychologist. Can you please explain why there is so much political fighting now? It seems like that’s all people do these days? Perplexed in Peoria.
Answer: Dear Perplexed. Thank you for your question. No doubt many people are asking the same thing.
The subject of today’s political acrimony is a terribly important one. There are many dimensions to the problem, and an exhaustive treatment would take a book-length response. In lieu of that, let’s see if we can outline or simply list some of the most relevant contributory factors, drawing upon the whole range of available psychological theories and paradigms.
Imitation. Imitation is one of the strongest determinants of behavior. Our species has survived partly due to our ability to learn quickly by imitation. For one thing, this is how innovations disseminate rapidly in a culture. Unfortunately, imitation is a two-edged sword. We not only imitate good behaviors, but bad ones. This is related to the phenomenon of conformity. In any case, social attitudes and behavior disseminate in a nonlinear way. They can change very rapidly. Once a critical mass of “convention” is reached, there is a strong pressure on everyone to conform. Today, unfortunately, the convention has become one of approaching politics in terms of anger, hatred and demonization of opponents.
Instigation. The situation is not helped by the presence of active forces which seek to perpetuate the spirit of conflict. News media are prime culprits here, and banks and corporations benefit immensely from maintaining the present situation. As long as people are angry, they are unable to effect any meaningful change to society or government. Moreover, anger unleashes a cascading sequence of negative emotions that support materialism. We eat, drink, smoke, and buy things that aren’t necessary, and often harm us, because of being dominated by disorderly passions.
Stress. Stress reduces our good judgment – by which we ought to be able to see that constant fighting is hurting everybody. It also makes us irritable and eager to find scapegoats.
Ignorance. People today are pervasively ignorant in five relevant respects. First, they are ignorant of the issues; they reduce all issues to black-and-white, all-or-none thinking. Second, they are ignorant of the motives and rationale of their opponents (i.e., those who support political policies they oppose). Third, they are (and this is surprising) ignorant of how the established power interests actively manipulate public opinion in an obvious divide-and-conquer strategy. Fourth, they are largely ignorant of critical thinking skills. Fifth, our culture has reached a remarkable degree of functional illiteracy, such that many more people would prefer to read inflammatory headlines than to immerse their minds in deep reading and books that convey sound, positive ideas.
Laziness. This is perhaps too harsh a word, but in any case people today exercise insufficient initiative. Partly this is due to stress and fear.
Lack of good examples. This is self-explanatory. Because people are naturally inclined to seek good, all it would take is a few good examples to offset many bad ones. Unfortunately, there are few good examples today of how to engage in social issues in a positive, constructive way.
False opinion. By this we mean the near universal tendency of people to confuse opinion with fact. Due to the complexity of life and the urgency of its demands, we feel that we must have an opinion on everything to guide our actions. Thus, there is a pressure to form beliefs prematurely. At first we hatch these as provisional, tentative beliefs. But before long (and especially if our opinion is attacked by others), we start to act as though our opinions are established facts. Ultimately no distinction is made between our opinions and proven facts. In various ways, the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance supports this unfortunate tendency.
Recognition of false opinion as a basic problem in human nature goes all the way back to Socrates. (Indeed, the parallel between the politically chaotic Athens of Socrates’ time and our country today are quite relevant). From Socrates we also learn the solution. Socrates claimed that if he were wise (as many claimed), it was only in the recognition of his own ignorance. That is, Socrates was able to say simply, “I don’t know.” The better part of his career, as it has been recorded and handed down to us, consisted in trying to help free others from false opinion – largely by asking questions. By asking questions the spirit of argument is replaced with one of interest and enjoyment of discovery and learning new ideas and principles.
Schematizing. In a related way, there is a basic tendency in human cognition to schematize the world. This means that we formulate theories, patterns and structures in our own mind before perception. We see the world in the ways we have already decided to perceive it. If we approach another person expecting to find them holding disagreeable or threatening opinions, we will usually do so. We could also see numerous good things about the same person, had we formed that schema beforehand.
Identity. One reason people cling to false opinion so tenaciously is because human beings feel a strong need to have a personal and social identity. If you want to get someone really mad, don’t call them names, and don’t even threaten them with physical harm; rather, a threat to the sense of identity will unleash the most angry and violent responses. People panic when their sense of identity is threatened.
Perversity. So far we have considered the obvious reasons for rampant political discord. These ones are not very threatening. Most people can probably agree that they exist. But now we need to take the gloves off and delve in to deeper, less obvious, and perhaps somewhat more challenging issues. The first of these is the perverse side of human nature. Many writers over the ages have noted a strange yet basic tendency in human nature to resist what is good. Freud, for example, posited the existence of a “death wish” present in all human beings, which counters the vital, life-affirming energy. Death wish is probably not the best way of looking at this thing, but it will serve adequately for our present purpose. In short,. the premise is that death wish, or something like it, causes people to unconsciously do what is harmful. The current political discord is extremely harmful, and can be partly explained on this basis.
Concupiscence. If we delve even more deeply, we can detect a connection between the above-mentioned principle of perverse self-harm, and concupiscence – which we may define as an over-attachment to sensory pleasure (pleasure of sex and of the palate being perhaps the two most common examples). To the extent that one’s personality is dominated by attachment to pleasure, one will gravitate towards behaviors that are unruly and disruptive of the social order. The principle here is that a concupiscent person seeks to avoid the dictates of conscience. And that is promoted by anything that disturbs the clear vision of Reason. By keeping one’s life in a constant state of agitation and turmoil (which political fighting clearly does), one has a ‘green light’ to keep indulging in any and all sensual pleasures, and to any degree.
Collective selfishness. From the preceding point we easily move to seeing how this can operate on a societal level. We are today, arguably, a whole society of people fixating on material and sensual pleasures. To that extent, it is in the tacit best interests of everybody to keep society confused. If we weren’t so confused and agitated as a society, people might start ‘coming to their senses’ and realize that there are natural limits placed on how much, and in what way, various sensual pleasures should be indulged. Thus, ironically, while Democrats and Republicans are busy vilifying each other in public, subconsciously they may wink and congratulate each other that they are effectively cooperating to resist any serious threat to the status quo.
Question: That’s more than I bargained for! With all these factors involved, it seems almost hopeless? How can we straighten out something this complex?
Answer: It’s true that, in some respects, the problem is complex, especially as each of the factors above tends to interact with the others. If we tried to address each of these issues individually, it might not be possible. Fortunately, there is a short cut solution. So far we’ve adopted a mainly cognitive perspective. But there is another dimension to the human person: that of ethics and moral nature. In short, if we effect an ethical solution, it will straighten out all these other problems at once.
The ethical solution means a re-ordering of one’s ethical structure. All this amounts to is a shift in emphasis. Instead of focusing first on ones material pleasure, one should focus on the delights associated with moral excellence. These delights include the pleasures of knowledge, insight, love, friendship, piety, charity, etc. In short, it means seeking the finer things. This is the path of egolessness, which draws us closer to our true selves, each other, Nature, and the Supreme Being, all at once.
Question: Great! So how do we get other people to do that?
Answer: The first and most important thing is to worry less about reforming others, and to focus that energy on reforming yourself.
The first reason for this is because that will benefit you far, far more than any change of behavior you might effect in others.
Second, your first duty toward others should not be to change their opinions, but to help them with their needs and difficulties. A doctor in a hospital doesn’t check a patient’s political party before helping him or her. If you wish to rise to your full stature as a person, act like such a doctor, putting aside your own ego-impositions.
Third, if indeed there is some genuine value in your influencing the other person to change their opinion or behavior, the example of your behavior is the most potent force available for accomplishing it. Indeed, if you are really serious about changing others, you will change yourself; any effort directed to improving others, without regard to changing yourself, is ineffective, and a sign that you are not serious.
Question: And how is that done? Surely this is more complicated than just wishing for it?
Answer: One sure way to fail is to try to do this all on your own (for that will only serve to further develop and entrench egoistic tendencies.) Rather, the correct path is to seek a traditional path of ethical and moral improvement, whether it be religion or ancient philosophy. The Westerner will find much of value in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Some Westerners may also find traditions like Buddhism and Vedanta helpful – but in this case one must be wary of the more “popularized” (i.e., intellectually non-intensive) forms. A genuine path must, of necessity, challenge and build your “intellectual muscles”. In terms of Western philosophies, those of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics are most commendable. The discerning Christian, however, will learn that much of what is useful in these philosophical traditions has been incorporated into Christianity.
Written by John Uebersax
February 20, 2012 at 8:18 pm