Opinion: The Political Arms Race and Why It Happens
To make it clear from the get-go, I am not a conservative. So, when I was invited to write this op-ed, I was excited to share my viewpoints and observations. I was asked to write about the destructive nature of identity politics and the political divisions between the right and the left, and perhaps my view can be of use to some people, considering I hail from political no-man’s-land. As a libertarian, I have been called both a moral relativist by some conservatives I’ve talked to, as well as been lumped into “the right” by liberals. This is perhaps because of our liberal anti-authority bent, and our conservative support of the free market and anti-redistribution. Libertarians tend as well to have a high concentration of atheists.
The Promethean Script
Greek legend, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. This was symbolic of bestowing the gift of reason to humankind. Before this gift of reason, humans were nigh animals and followed basic drives. However, the gift of reason elevated us above the animals, and from the gift of reason sprang up philosophy, ethics, and democracy. These concepts gave way to individual rights. This is the Promethean script: reason helps us leave behind the basic drives that debase us. We have evolved and thus are no longer held back by primal urges. What comes from this train of thought is that reason is universal. We can reason with each other to get to truth. Reason is the path to truth. This is false.
Cognition and Reason
Where do our opinions come from? They come from deep within, from the realm of feelings, not the realm of logic. If I ask you “Do you think that marriage within your immediate family is morally good?” chances are you’ll say no. If I ask “why?” your brain starts to compute and generate a response. Was it the response or the feeling responsible for the opinion? The response was a justification for your feeling, but you did not think of the reason first and then say, “Upon considering the facts, my opinion is that marriage within your immediate family is wrong.” A law of moral psychology is that reason follows intuition. This is called motivated reasoning.
Your intuition informs your personality, which traits are products of patterns of thinking and behaving, the causes of which are still largely unknown. Openness to experience, a metric on the Big Five Personality Scale, is a major indicator of whether you vote conservatively or liberally. It is still debated on what creates personality, whether it is nature or nurture, but evidence shows it can be both. Brain trauma has caused personality changes, as well as a study that came out in the most recent Psychology Today magazine confirms that personality does mellow out as one ages, that you become more cooperative (increase in agreeableness). The rest of your personality, neuroticism, and extraversion, affect how you function in the world. How you prefer to function using all five traits, creates your sense of ethics. You know the difference between a laid back boss and one that is always on your shoulder. This comes from personality, and it affects how they run the business/team, now extrapolate that to politics.
Since our ancient brains are built for survival, they highlight anomalies in the environment and focus our attention on them. Say you’re walking through a forest alone, and in this forest, you see a neon-colored object in the distance. You will not be able to ignore this because it is out of the ordinary, or out of what is expected. The amygdala, positioned next to the brain stem, is a part of the reptile brain from which our bodies evolved from. This amygdala triggers a fight or flight response. Our pupils dilate, and our heart rates rise. Daniel Kahneman noted that this phenomenon happens when we are asked to solve complex math problems. If the brain decides to give up on the math problem that we cannot figure out, or we are told we no longer have to solve it, our pupils return to normal, and so does our sympathetic nervous system which was preparing for our literal death. This same phenomenon happens when we are confronted with ideas that we disagree with, ideas that threaten our preferred way of existence. Therefore, we subconsciously group ourselves together with those we agree with. This is called association bias. There is safety in numbers, or so we think. Online, we naturally will want to follow accounts that think and talk like us. Then we trap ourselves in echo chambers where the message “our team is good; the other team is bad” dominates. We see posts where our team player, be it a politician or leader, wins, and our brain gets a hit of the pleasure chemical that is instrumental in addictions called dopamine. A study was conducted by Drew Western in which republicans and democrats were shown videos of their candidate being put in a compromising position, seeming to violate their principles. When this happened, the participants were anxious, in denial, and the areas of their brain associated with negative emotion lit up on an fMRI scan (insula, medial PFC, ventral ACC, ventromedial PFC, and posterior cingulate cortex). When a following clip was presented to exonerate them, the participants got a hit of dopamine in the ventral striatum, one of the major reward centers that fires up when we do something important for our survival. This process of winning political points can become addicting. Thus, echo chambers can be a source addiction.
When We Are Angry, We Think Well, and Other Jokes You Can Tell Yourself
In a heightened emotional state, we are acting in survival mode. Our intuitions are serving to fight to keep us alive. Because of this, our reason does the same and follows our intuition. We are not in the search for truth, we are in search of survival. Here are some cognitive distortions that mess up the way we think:
Dichotomous thinking: I am fully right, and they are fully wrong.
Overgeneralizing: “they are all like that”
Mind-reading: assuming intentions
Emotional Reasoning: letting your emotions control you, not inform you
Catastrophizing: thinking of the worst possible outcome and acting as if it will happen guaranteed
Labeling: assigning overgeneralized narratives “I am a bad person”
Negative filtering: highlighting faults or wrongs
Discounting positives: not giving credit where credit is due
Blaming: using the other person as the source for your negative feelings such as saying, “My parents caused all my problems”
These can prevent us from thinking clearly and rely on a less intellectually demanding form of information processing known as heuristic processing. Heuristics are mental shortcuts our brain uses to make decisions on what to think about something that is very complex. It is from this that we form stereotypes. Stereotypes are like movie characters we create for people or groups that allow our brains to shortcut the mental story we are simulating right before we make a decision. The dilemma is that we must make decisions, and often the time we have is too short to process everything. By doing this, a form of stereotype must be placed in a story to decide on something. For example, if someone is walking towards you with a menacing stare and a baseball bat at the local mall, you will make a statistical judgment that they might hit you. Are you sure? Maybe that is their resting face, and they need to ask you where the bathroom is, and they just happened to buy that bat from the sports store, but your brain doesn’t care. It goes into defense mode and prepares to defend or flee. Limited time and previous knowledge of the variables forced it into a corner. The other side of the problem is that you could be wrong. Always try to seek out more information whenever possible. When your unconscious bias (and yes it does exist) creeps into your mind, acknowledge it, then say to yourself, “now what if I’m wrong, let’s be curious.” This is called disconfirmation questioning and is instrumental in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Identity Politics: Creating Policies to Benefit Your Team
Identity politics makes the objective of any political action to benefit your team. When you engage in the psychology of teams, you for better or for worse, circle around something the team considers to be sacred. Conservatives do so around stability and liberals do so around the victims created by the rule structures used to keep society afloat. Both have their part to play. As each of the two sides’ players purify their party to only trusting in those loyal to their objectives, they become more authoritarian in nature. They then see politics as a win or lose game, and compromise is a betrayal to their purpose. Religious conservatives may see this as giving in to satanic forces of corruption, and liberals, particularly secular ones, may see it as closing the doors on societal progress. Political sportsmanship vanishes, one no longer wants to form friendships with those that disagree with them because they violate their sacred values, or for fear of punishment by their team’s players. Humans need connection to function, and they will go at great lengths to get it, even to the point of suppressing themselves to be accepted. For example, the LGBTQ+ persons not revealing their feelings to their peers or parents because of how they hear them talking about them, with mockery, or even contempt. As well, there is the conservative in a liberal school who says the politically correct answer so they can continue to be treated as part of the class. Our drive for acceptance is powerful.
Our personality is indicative of our patterns of interpreting information and acting in the world. What forms our patterns of thought and behavior is largely unknown, but brain injury can cause personality changes, and personality can predict what politics you have later in life if even as a child. Thus, logic is not standard among all people, it is shaped by your desires and personality. Working with those who disagree with you is hard because team dynamics make it difficult to act friendly with the other team. When this is engaged, you lock yourself in an echo chamber, and then you become more extreme, only hearing evidence for your team and negative things about the other one. This fuels cognitive biases and stunts intellectual growth. Then policies are made by teams who are able to force their views into the law in a zero-sum game. Authoritarians of both sides will then fight for control, rather than cooperation. You cannot have a stable society, or a growing society, without accepting you will not get everything you want accepted into law. Unless you think that the ends of your ideology winning on all fronts is worth the intellectual arms race awarding authoritarianism which could lead to a societal collapse. Act as though everyone is your friend, learn more, learn the weaknesses of your ideology, which come largely from your personality. Unless you think your personality and solutions are without flaw.
Writer: Luke Harmuth
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author.
The Cougar Chronicle is an independent student-run newspaper and is not affiliated with Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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