Friday, November 30, 2007

Understanding Motives and Ideology

I'm a bit late on this, but Tyler Cowen's post pleading for an "Anthropology of Ideology" really struck me. Not because it was some paradigm-shifting statement, but because it gets to the core of why civil discourse is increasingly a thing of the past.

Money quote:

Anytime a writer or blogger talks about what The Right or The Left (or some subset thereof) really wants or means, I'd like them to list their personal anthropological experience with the subjects under consideration.

Cowen is referring, of course, to the shrill tendency of partisans on all sides to assume they know the motives and goals of any political opponent. Based on these assumptions, partisans are able to adopt a tone of certitude when it comes to what motivates their opponents, and what their opponents are actually trying to do, despite any statements to the contrary. If someone calls for a tax cut, then those on the Left frequently resort to the same old argument that the Right just wants to cut taxes for the rich in order to take from the poor. Of course, they have little or no evidence of this, and certainly not for the majority of people in favor of a given tax cut. Similarly, those on the Right love to make the argument that people who oppose the war in Iraq "hate America" or "don't support the troops." Again, they have no evidence of this, and certainly not for the majority of those opposed to the war in Iraq.

Fact is that you can never really know what someone's motivations are since you don't actually live in their head; you can only hope that they are telling you the truth about those motivations. Of course, you can doubt what they tell you. But what you can't do is assume to know their motivations.

What is worse, though, is when you assume to know the motivations of an entire group of people, and thus discredit any arguments they may make in favor or against a particular policy on the basis that they are lying about their motives. Indeed, when the group making such assumptions is particularly small, we typically (and correctly) dismiss their attacks as whacky conspiracy theories; yet when such assumptions are made by someone in the political mainstream, we tend to give them a free pass. Point being: claims to know the motives and goals of your political opponents without some direct, personal or (as Cowen says) anthropological evidence are nothing more than conspiracy theories with a false appearance of legitimacy.

It is certainly difficult to avoid making such assumptions, but it is also extremely important to do what you can to do so. Whenever you do make such assumptions, and make them with that tone of certitude, you are claiming to know that which is far beyond your knowledge. What's more, you're also avoiding any discussion of the substance of your opponent's political position by making your assumption about their motive dispositive of your opponent's credibility.

The logic behind such assumptions is also clearly circular:
"I know my opponent wants to screw the people of the state of Ignorance because my opponent wants to raise taxes."

And why does your opponent want to raise taxes?

"Because he wants to screw the people of the state of Ignorance."

The logic works beautifully- your opponent can never challenge either of your points, and you've managed to avoid any discussion as to why the advocated policy would have the effect of screwing the people of the state of Ignorance. Also, you get to imply that your opponent intends all sorts of consequences which are by definition "unintended consequences."

Cowen's (admittedly unrealistic) proposal is to interrupt this circle by demanding some sort of evidence that the opponent's goal is in fact to screw the State of Ignorance before you make the first part of the circular argument.

I guess I'm just a sucker for call to civility like this (even though everyone veers off course some times).