The mathematics of politics: US is always greater than THEM

I would like to preface this post by noting that some of the people who know me in person might suspect that this was inspired by a recent very emotional conversation that followed a similar thread (well, to the extent that it followed any threads at all given my state at the time). In fact I began writing this post weeks ago, though the recent conversation did inspire me to try to actually finish pulling my thoughts together. This is, however, still a very general set of ideas I’m trying to flesh out, not a response to any one particular conversation, comment, or experience.

Ah, it’s time for another presidential election, and with it come my least favorite parts of politics: the name calling, the self-satisfied claims of superiority, the rancor. No, I’m not talking about the political ads, though there’s enough of all of the above coming from the various campaigns to fuel its own rant. I’m talking about the mudslinging done by ordinary citizens toward anyone who doesn’t believe the same things they do. It’s no secret that I’m extremely liberal so you might assume that I’m specifically talking about the trash-talking done by conservatives. But I’m not. I’m talking about the hate that spews from liberals and conservatives alike. I am simply sick to death of hearing how one side is so much better than the other. How anyone who votes for the other candidate is either stupid or just plain evil. I’m going to talk here specifically about the things I hear from fellow liberals. This is not because I necessarily believe that liberals are worse about their mudslinging but because as a liberal who travels in pretty liberal social circles (both in the flesh and online) I hear a lot of things that make me sad, angry, and a little sick.

I will be the first to agree that a lot of political decisions are made with too little information, or information that is just plain wrong. But let’s be clear that just because one is ill-informed or poorly educated does not make one stupid. Many liberals are quick to paint broad swathes of the country with the stupid brush. I’ll admit that when you watch the various cherry-picked videos of idiocy on youtube it’s very easy to think that perhaps stupidity is the explanation for all the nation’s woes. Of course since the formulation is generally put forth in the form that some THEM out THERE is STUPID, it does leave one wondering a bit about how stupidity became so geographically concentrated. Perhaps the non-fluoridated rural water is to blame?

Formulating the problem as ignorance manages to side-step the question of how some sort of inherent stupidity might have such a dramatic geographic component (without even having to throw in words like “in-bred,” which yes, I have heard at least once this fall). Pointing to THEM and saying THEY are IGNORANT allows the blame to be spread to culture, to education, to the environment that surrounds THEM. To a certain extent I am willing to accept an argument about the perils of an ignorant population. What I’m not willing to accept is the formulation that suggests that WE are knowledgeable while THEY are ignorant. The skills involved in weighing evidence and using it to come to logical conclusions are not easily learned, nor are they the focus in much of the education system. If you want to argue that politics are negatively influenced by the state of our education system I’ll gladly agree with you, as long as you recognize that the problem doesn’t just affect the people who vote differently from you.

There are those, though, who do not think that ignorance and inability to reason is an affliction that crosses demographic or political lines. And it is with them that I take issue. The form that comments about ignorance take varies. In some cases it’s just a substitution for “THEY are STUPID.” For others it takes the form of “THEY would agree with US if only THEY knew what WE know,” which is, at its core, an assertion that everyone would believe the same thing if only they had the same basic facts. It’s related to the forms of charity that involve entering a community and telling people what to do because WE know what’s good for THEM.

And this brings us to the final common formulation, that THEY are willfully ignorant, not only do they not know things, but they don’t want to know. The stereotype is that THEY are anti-intellectuals and hate US for our education. This is a complicated stereotype to argue against, in part because it’s true if interpreted in a certain way. I grew up in a place where education wasn’t valued all that highly. Neither was knowledge for its own sake. On the other hand, I also grew up in a place where there wasn’t really access to quality education. To be a bit overly glib, if education was what I got in high school then I’m not entirely sure it has much value either (note that this does not apply to the entire curriculum, but large parts of it). I think that the trend toward anti-intellectualism is a feedback loop of sorts. Imagine for a moment that you live in a culture where widgets are extremely useful, and having one makes your life a lot better. Picture then a system whereby some proportion of the population has easy access to widgets. In this part of society parents already own a set of widgets when their children are born and they know where to send their children to acquire their own widgets. Now imagine that the rest of the population has only sporadic access to widgets. Their parents may possess a widget but it’s of such low quality that it isn’t really that much help. Parents may want their children to grow up to own better widgets, but they don’t necessarily know how one goes about doing that. Under those circumstances it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that the non-widget-having class might develop a notion that widgets aren’t really that important. For one thing, the widgets they see in their daily lives really aren’t all that useful and psychologically it’s probably best not to continue to believe that widgets are the key to a happy life if you’re in a position where your chances of acquiring a quality widget are tiny.

The accusations of willful ignorance also handily forgets to specify willful ignorance of what. None of us (or them) know everything there is to be known about everything. I don’t buy the book smart vs. common sense categorization of intellect. But I do think it’s important to recognize that certain realms of knowledge get valued in different ways, and ultimately there’s a tension about whose knowledge counts. We live in a world where the division of labor makes it very possible for people to develop very specific areas of knowledge while outsourcing all concern about many others. Living in an urban area with a sewer hookup means I don’t need to know anything about waste-water treatment. Probably the people in charge of making sure sewage doesn’t contaminate the environment aren’t experts in demography. I don’t think that makes either me or them lesser people. It’s a trivial example and may not even seem relevant but in essence the accusation of ignorance is akin to berating mechanics, janitors, bus drivers and so forth for not understanding complicated macro-economics, or the history of politics in foreign countries. When it comes right down to it I’ll confess to willfull ignorance. I can’t rebuild the engine on my car. I don’t care to figure out what’s necessary to build a fence that will hold up against years of Santa Ana winds. And you can bet that I have zero interest in learning how to replace a roof. Those things aren’t important in my life and I get by in my ignorance (by paying other people to know those things and be willfully ignorant of others). And for lots of people there are lots of things that are simply too complicated to make the payoff of trying to understand them worthwhile. Sure you can argue that when it comes to politics people shouldn’t vote unless they’re willing to make the effort to really understand the issues. But when it comes to a presidential election I’d counter that argument with a simple question: how much do you really deeply and completely understand about the important issues and policies this election? I’ll let you start throwing stones once you demonstrate that you can rebuild a transmission, reroof my house, and design a workable middle-east peace agreement. My point is simply that I’m not comfortable directing hateful words in the direction of people who have made different life choices than I have. I chose to follow a path of education in the standard academic world. This has worked well for me in part because I also chose to leave the area I grew up in. I’m not entirely sure that I’d be able to make much practical use of my education if I still lived in the rural area my parents are in. I’m sure being smart and curious would mean that I could find some way of earning money but I’m betting I’d be really hard pressed to find the kind of data analysis work that I love. My education has brought me joy aside from its practical implications, of course, but getting it entailed a lot of pain that I probably would not have been willing to endure were it not for the fact that the process brought me both joy and provided me with better ways to bring in a paycheck. For people who don’t get much joy out of the standard academic fare I have a hard time blaming them for turning to more practical matters.

Of course let’s not forget that in any given two-party race you have two people with a fair amount of knowledge in the specific realm of the contested office. Generally those two people don’t agree, not because one is an idiot or lacks knowledge, but because they have drawn different conclusions. Take the current presidential election. Clearly Obama and McCain disagree on a lot of things (you’ll note that the debates brought up a number of “fundamental” differences between them). If you seriously believe that either one of them is stupid the you’re using a very strange and skewed definition of intelligence. No matter who you are and what you stand for there are a lot of people out there who are going to vote for people and things you don’t agree with. Calling swathes of the population ignorant or stupid doesn’t change the fact that even the well-informed disagree.

At the very core my passion about this issue is personal. Don’t call the people I grew up with, people who helped shape who I am, stupid and expect me not to be angry. But there’s also a really practical tactical message I’m trying to get across here. Don’t call people stupid and then expect them agree with you. And don’t assume that next time you come around that they’ll have forgotten you called them stupid.

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