The Blind Men and the Elephant

The blind men and the elephant
(see the poem below)

Good news this morning… I think.

President Obama and the Democrats will have another four years  in office. Thank goodness!

But the race was very close, and both the popular vote and the electoral college votes reveal just how divided the country remains. Why did so many choose to vote Republican? Are issues of race and religion that significant, was it economics, was it Romney himself?

How could millions of people… in my humble opinion… get it so wrong?

The  “strict father… nurturant parent” model suggested by George Lakoff and the “Moral Foundations Theory” of Jonathan Haidt (both of which I discussed in yesterday’s blog) are helpful in understanding the difference.

This article (by Sasha Issenberg from New York magazine) reports on a 2006 paper titled “The End of the End of Ideology ” by NYU psychologist John Jost.

Haidt’s ideas are convincing, but Jost goes further to explain  that there is a significant genetic component and that political choice and allegiance are an expression of  “biological determinism”.

To those immersed in the science, moral concerns have seemed to exhibit the strongest hereditary influence and to manifest themselves earliest in life. They are the most stable over a lifetime and the least susceptible to persuasion. That may explain why the most angry, permanent divisions in modern American politics have surrounded “God, guns, and gays” and why an intra-Republican truce on such cultural issues strikes nearly everyone as particularly fanciful. What if positions on these issues evoke the most primal responses because, in animal terms, they are most primal?

Such thinking would threaten the pieties of both left and right. Conservatives might have to adjust to a world in which few human failings could be fully blamed on cultural decline. At the same time, the liberal mind would be forced to rethink its posture toward ­cultural backwardness, and decide whether it ought to treat illiberal attributes like intolerance and racism as part of human nature. Would those who oppose discrimination against gays on the basis that sexuality is no choice still feel empowered to hate the right wing if they knew homophobes, too, were just born that way?

The question leads straight back, through behavior and heritability, to our DNA.

The theory is too interesting and too complex for me to summarize it further… read the article, with its studies and examples, arguments for and against, and interpretations of how the theory, if proven and accepted, could change the election process. It is long and detailed, but certainly worth your time if you are also puzzled about Republican success.

Nature versus nurture… and do any of us really have free will? Can rational thinking and persuasion alter our responses? To what extent are our choices in life influenced by genetic predisposition?

If this is not bogus, it is immensely important. Imagine the political scenarios and dystopian societal consequences!

An election season’s arrival quickly sweeps away any such sense of political fatalism. Every four years, we treat our presidential campaign as an exercise in Tocquevillean political free will, 200 million Americans questioning their individual beliefs and national priorities unencumbered by lineage or patrimony. We rearrange our civic life around the cult of the ideologically unmoored voter—once called ticket-splitters, then swing voters, now just independents. But daily shifts in Biden’s language or Romney’s policy positions or the imagery of super-PAC ads are only worth the attention we lavish on them if they’re being judged by a perfectly open-­minded electorate.

“You can be the best campaign, but if someone is genetically predisposed against being affected by it, you’re not going to make much of a difference,” says Fordham political scientist Costas Panagopoulos, former editor-in-chief of the trade magazine Campaigns & Elections. Even if the genetic studies don’t suggest that votes are truly automatic, efforts to get conservative Catholic union members to vote for Obama or liberal stockbrokers for Mitt Romney may be more doomed than we want to believe. Of course, we have long appreciated the role played by one biological predictor: the gender gap, which has become the most popular way to explain Obama’s lead over Romney as we head into the fall campaign.

For now, I am going to use the theory to mitigate my confusion and disbelief about the Republican show of strength. They can’t help it… they were born this way!

Here is the poem about the blind men and the elephant. As usual, there is much wisdom in simple fables and children’s stories… what if we are all wrong?

The Blind Men and the Elephant
John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
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