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Sunday, July 10, 2011

The brain behind Republican strategy

Danville Advocate-Messenger

When I listen to the bickering in Congress over raising the debt ceiling, I’m tempted to succumb to “misology.” In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates warned us not to “become misologues … There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.”

The GOP has stubbornly committed to policies that are proven failures over three decades. As conservative columnist David Brooks said recently, Republicans “have no economic theory worthy of the name.”

What tempts me to misology is the continuing failure of reasonable discourse, of established facts and logic, to influence most politicians and voters.

Republicans threaten to make our country default on its financial obligations and precipitate an economic crisis. They are, as Brooks put it, “willing to stain their nation’s honor” rather than accept the slightest tax increase on wealthy Americans.

Democrats lack the courage to forcefully denounce the GOP agenda. Their complaints seem like passionless invocations of values they and their president are willing to abandon, as long as the surrender is gradual.

American voters seem caught up in the irrationality of the moment, resigned to letting politicians damage their nation’s future. There is a great paradox here, one that reflects a dangerous aspect of human nature.

The recent history of our species is full of reasonable discourse that has led to great scientific and technological prowess.

But it is also a history of massive violence and cruelty, global warfare and genocide.

Human moral and political progress lags far behind that of science and technology.

Why can’t reasonable discourse prevail there too? After all, we’re the only rational animals, right? Some nonhuman animals can use very rudimentary tools, and some can communicate in ways that resemble language. Yet there is such a chasm between them and us! Consider our art, our cityscapes and gleaming technological civilization.

Five million years ago, there was an ancestral species common to us and apes.

But the hairier and smaller-brained hominid species linking us to this ancestor are extinct. So we see ourselves at a great remove from apes, as if we were spirits shoe-horned into animal bodies.

But our minds really are embodied in mammalian brains. That’s why the faces of kittens and puppies as well as human infants arouse nurturing feelings in us.

As the early mammalian brain evolved in a human direction, nature didn’t discard behaviors and strategies that helped our ancestral species survive. Instead, it refined them by giving the brain further capacities, such as language and thought.

The older mammalian strategies and behaviors are still there, wired into the tissues that make up what brain science calls the limbic system — a part of our brain heavily involved in emotional experience and behavior.

That’s why we so often talk about what we do in dead metaphors for fighting/fleeing, eating/drinking and sex.

Why else do we “eat up” everything a con artist says, “run away” from problems, “hunger and thirst” for justice, “give birth” to ideas, “kick butt” in debates and “taste” the victory?

These metaphors are “dead” in the sense that we’re no longer conscious of how their meaning is being extended. We don’t advert to the fact that victory doesn’t literally have a flavor and debates are not won by kicking.

The metaphors may be dead, but the link between our higher-level, distinctively human behaviors and the more primitive drives programmed into our limbic systems is alive and strong. This link can be good or bad depending on how it affects our activity.

Our society would be better off if we all pursued justice like starving people wanting food. But we shouldn’t try to win a debate in a way that resembles kicking an opponent.

You can “win” a debate by outshouting or intimidating your adversary, or by deceiving the audience. But if these tactics become the norm, society will be deprived of important truths and necessary information. The primitive desire to fight and win can lead to degraded, irrational public discourse.

This primitive desire was on display when Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mc-Connell freely admitted last October that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Our primitive fight/flight response leads what psychologists call the “backfire effect.” When people are confronted with information from a reliable source that contradicts a cherished belief, that belief often gets stronger.

We react to the contradictory information as if it were a threat that we must flee or fight, all the while clinging protectively to our belief. For instance, Republicans repeatedly claim that spending cuts are our only hope for creating jobs and economic growth.

(Warning: what follows may be distressing.) The Congressional Budget Office and Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, have demonstrated that direct spending by the federal government is much more effective for economic and job growth than tax cuts. (Google: stimulus bang for the buck zandi cbo.)

Brian Cooney is emeritus professor of philosophy at Centre College.


Brian Cooney

Contributing Columnist