Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Politics Is Stupid. Er, I Mean, Politics Makes Us Stupid.

OMG, there are defensible reasons why Sean Hannity says the things he does!?

In the "I already knew that, sort of, but I didn't know why I knew that" department, understanding why all the bozos who listen to Rush Limbaugh actually believe the nonsense he spouts daily generally eluded me. I thought, "They're just stupid," or "They're a mean-spirited bunch that would rather shoot me than agree with me."

I had it right for all the wrong reasons, which actually means that dittoheads don't have to be stupid to buy into what Rushbo is selling. They only need a reason to belong to his tribe. (Okay, some of them are stupid, making it really, really easy to belong to his tribe. But then that's my reasoned take on it.)

Ezra Klein had a lengthy exposition on the subject on his new website,, just a couple of days ago, and upon discovering it, the world -- at least the world of public policy and public-policy pontification -- suddenly made sense. There's a reason, in other words, why Sean Hannity appears to believe what he says:
Imagine what would happen to, say, Sean Hannity if he decided tomorrow that climate change was the central threat facing the planet. Initially, his viewers would think he was joking. But soon, they’d begin calling in furiously. Some would organize boycotts of his program. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of professional climate skeptics would begin angrily refuting Hannity’s new crusade. Many of Hannity’s friends in the conservative media world would back away from him, and some would seek advantage by denouncing him. Some of the politicians he respects would be furious at his betrayal of the cause. He would lose friendships, viewers, and money. He could ultimately lose his job. And along the way he would cause himself immense personal pain as he systematically alienated his closest political and professional allies. The world would have to update its understanding of who Sean Hannity is and what he believes, and so too would Sean Hannity. And changing your identity is a psychologically brutal process.
Kahan doesn’t find it strange that we react to threatening information by mobilizing our intellectual artillery to destroy it. He thinks it’s strange that we would expect rational people to do anything else. "Nothing any ordinary member of the public personally believes about the existence, causes, or likely consequences of global warming will affect the risk that climate changes poses to her, or to anyone or anything she cares about," Kahan writes. "However, if she forms the wrong position on climate change relative to the one that people with whom she has a close affinity — and on whose high regard and support she depends on in myriad ways in her daily life — she could suffer extremely unpleasant consequences, from shunning to the loss of employment."
Wow. There's a strong correlation between what we believe and the set of beliefs we need to believe in order to maintain our relationship with the tribe that gives us what we need to butter our bread. Confronting this and maintaining any confidence that we're not also a tool or that we're the "ones who are right" is a bit daunting. It requires a very close self-examination, or, at the very least, an investment in the creation of a new test for the belief structure that underpins who we are, or think we are:
Kahan calls this theory Identity-Protective Cognition: "As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values." Elsewhere, he puts it even more pithily: "What we believe about the facts," he writes, "tells us who we are." And the most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are, and our relationships with the people we trust and love.
This is a lot to chew on. I take solace in the fact that a number of my most loved friends and family members think highly of me even though they've made it clear that they don't like the part of me that says, "Anyone who's ever taken a good look at the subject will discover that ________ (insert your favorite principle or belief that will become my target of contempt unless you agree with me)." I've grown to understand that the individual I become at such moments is a strident asshole, and it's no wonder people might take offense. I can take heart that my assholery at such times reveals I'm willing to risk love and respect to stand on my principles, that I'm willing to take on my tribe.

Or maybe I'm just an arrogant snot, who knows? In any event, it's comforting to know why we say what we say. To the extent that ours is actually a reasoned opinion based on something resembling a defensible position, so much the better. Otherwise, many of us whose world view is based on how smart or diligent we are might as well just slit our wrists and get it over with. Thanks, Ezra, for ruining my day.

Ezra Klein: An utterly arrogant, know-it-all snot who's not in my tribe anymore.

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