Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Because it's not "what you think." It's how you feel.

First of all, this post makes an essentially inferential/anecdotal argument, so don't bother attacking me on that ground; I concede the point. And I feel compelled to say at the outset that I "have no dog in this race" (the race being the current Israel/Hezbollah conflict), though I'd also have to say my emotional sympathies lay more with Israel. Which makes for a perfect segue here.

If intellect is what really decides what we "think" on any given issue...then shouldn't you expect to see an equal number of Jews writing and arguing on each side of the current issue?* That is, some favoring Israel and some favoring Hezbollah? And shouldn't the same be true of people of Arab extraction? But that's not what you see. The Jewish columnists and letter writers all write in strong defense of Israel. The Arab-sounding names all write in defense of Hezbollah (albeit a softer, more qualifed defense, because in today's America anyone with a name like Mustafa who writes an all-out defense of Hezbollah would be branded an anti-Semite and probably also put on some terrorist watch list). For that matter, shouldn't you expect to see an equal number of Americans supporting bin Laden and Al Qaeda? (And with that question, I probably just put myself on some watch list.) It's a fair question. If the mind is such a wonderfully analytical instrument--if its activities and decisions are truly objective and logical, which is to say, they're not governed by something far more visceral and inchoate--then why do even the most intelligent people come down on the expected side (the self-interest side) of every issue with a strong emotional pull?

Worth pondering.

* assuming, that is, that none of us knows what "universal truth" is. Though a lot of us pretend to such knowledge.


Rodger Johnson said...


You recent blog post, "Because it's not "what you think." It's how you feel" is a very interesting topic -- one I'm studying extensively in graduate school.

Cogntive linguists and social psychologists have found that we are not as rational as we think. This research says that we make decisions based on what we value. These are core, cultural and religious values that have tremendous emotional attachments.

If we look at Hitler and the rise of Nazism, then we have a prime example of how this works -- albeit for the darker side of humanity. Studying the 2000 elections is another example -- Americans overwhelmingly voted for Bush, when in fact the more intelligent candidate -- Al Gore -- was a better choice. In a survey, respondents said that Bush communicated his values better than Gore, and that those Bush communicated resonated with the values of the American voting electorate. That same survey found that a majority of Americans understood Gore to be the wiser and more skilled -- having more presidential experience.

Arab-American supporting Hezbolleh do so because the leaders and clerics have done an exceelent job communicating that Jews are the scum of the earth. Some JEws and Americans obviously have a different perspective.

There is also a supernatural force that is involved too. The exile from Eden and the killing of Abel by Cain is also another point of separation. The Good Book says that the Almight cursed Cain and his decendents. Bible scholars thing the the Arabs -- Hamas and Hezbolleh included -- are part of this curse.

Regardless, you pose an interesting question...

If I have time over the weekend, I might post a more substantial comment.

Steve Salerno said...

Without prejudicing the discussion--and I make that remark optimistically, hoping there will BE one--let me say for now that I have long believed, based really on nothing (except some work in Chomsky and and Mandelbrot [when he wasn't talking about fractals] and readings in philosophy) that the human mind spends much of its time finding convenient rationalizations for what has already been "decided" at a much deeper level. Apropos of that, I'd be VERY interested to hear the rest of what you have to say on that score, Rodg. And I'd love to have feedback from anyone else as well, of course.

Steve Salerno said...

Incidentally, the implications here for self-help are profound.

Cosmic Connie said...

Rodg gives some excellent examples of humans behaving irrationally, and I too look forward to seeing the rest of what he has to say. As for me...well, with the exception of a brief period following my discovery of the skeptical/secular humanist community, I have rarely deluded myself that I am all that rational. In fact when I do have rational moments, they take me quite by surprise. (I did, however, vote AGAINST Bush in 2000 and 2004 -- and this was not purely an emotional decision. Further, although I do not for a moment advocate terrorism, I also do not believe that the terrorist fanatics or anyone else hates the US because we are beautiful. Their hatred may be fueled by emotions, but envy is almost certainly not one of them.)

Yes, Steve, the implications of all of this for self-help are profound. As discussed in a previous post on this blog, there may actually come a day when we can prove beyond a doubt that biochemistry is destiny. Even so, we do seem to have a certain amount of free choice in choosing our delusions. That's *my* delusion, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. :-)

lauren c. said...

I'm commenting two days in a row now; I can hardly believe it myself. You hinted at these subjects in class, Steve. Very interesting. I'm eager to see what others come up with, then I'll give my two cents. Perhaps three cents, even, if I'm feeling ambitious. ;-)

Cosmic Connie said...

Go ahead and post now, Lauren...two cents, three cents or however many cents you want. It looks like we're going to have to wait till the weekend for Rodg, and I don't have much cents at all. :-)

Rodger Johnson said...

September 11 ushered in a new, more violent human era that cries – Immortal God! What a century do I see beginning – as Erasmus decried to Guillaume Bude in 1517. Not only did Americans loose site of reason, we lost site of our wit – allowed emotion to govern our decisions. Entitlement and pre-emptive sticks have rule our private and public life. We live by a new Golden Rule – do unto others before they do unto us. Which has been the guiding sentiment of the Middle East for centuries. Barring the Almighty’s influence and cruse that theologians explain as a cruse on Cain’s desendent – researchers have found our reason is tied less to logic and facts and more to values. What is significant -- intrinsically?

Traditionally, if you’re the literary type, our high school literature teachers taught us metaphors are matters of words rather than thought and action – a garnish. Not so. It’s pervasive in everyday life. Cognitive linguists have found metaphors are, in fact, the very tool we use to communicate and explain our thoughts. They well from our subconscious and governed by generalized notions. I’m unaware of the deep political notions that preside over Arabs their Islamic faith and their deep hatred for Jews, but I can comment on the American political root-metaphors, which will give you a sense of the divide in the Middle East and, I fear, the divide splitting America apart.

These metaphors – their technical term is root-metaphors – organize our environment into a reality we understand consciously – intentionally. Our conscious “intends or is always directed toward objects,” wrote Berger and Luckmann in their treatise “The Social Construction of Reality.” So in America after the Enron meltdown, our culture obsessed over morality – accountability. We wanted to keep the moral books balanced, on the one hand. But we also tend to view well-being with monetary understanding – wealth and health. Increases in well-being are “gain,” decreases are “losses” a “cost” that hopefully is avoided.

Whenever we are not talking literally about money, and we ask whether a course of action is “worth it,” we are using this financial metaphor to treat the resulting well-being or harm as if they were money and to see if the course of action is sufficiently “profitable.” It allows us to think about using something qualitative (well-being) in terms of something quantitative (money).
Let’s say you tell a friend, “That concert gave me a headache.” The Well-Being As Wealth root-metaphor allows us to see an effect that helps us as a gain and one that harms us as a loss. Because we naturally wasn’t to live healthy, moral action is seen as action intended to (provide a gain) and an immoral action as action intended to harm (provide a loss). The headache is painful (a loss), ergo attending the concert deducted pleasure from attending the musical event, ergo, next time we’ll think twice about attending a concert.

The same root-metaphor governs our political senses too. Since Papa Bush took office, the phrase “tax relief” has gained tremendous strength in the American vernacular. We now think of taxes – a good thing that supports infrastructure, education and a host of other social programs – as painful (a loss.) A deduction from the moral accounting books And the less we pay, the more we have in our paycheck at the end of the week (a gain). Ah, the accounting book balances in our favor – morally comforting. The problem with this reality can been seen in K-12 education, and social problems plaguing our culture. We fail to pony-up resources, and our infrastructure is crumbling before our every eyes, yet most of us like that extra money.

This is one of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of root-metaphors governing our lives – our choices. As we watch the American education system lag further and further behind other countries, we do nothing but choose leaders that continue to dismantle its foundation. The implications of this – and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface (that’s an interesting metaphor) – are far reaching for SHAM and Shiite – Sunni’s too. But you’ll have to wait for my thesis to learn more. It’s focus is on using metaphors influence social movements. The guiding principle is how revolutions are instigated.

Cosmic Connie said...

Now you've gone and done it, Rodg...made me actually have to THINK. And on a weekend, no less. (Well, actually it's Monday now, but I read your post on the weekend.)
This is all too much. But it's a very good post nonetheless, and an interesting way of looking at things. I can see how our lives are indeed governed by metaphors -- notwithstanding the comment Jack Nicholson's character makes in one of the restaurant scenes in the movie, "As Good As It Gets". (I won't quote it here, but those who don't know it can look it up! :-))

Steve Salerno said...

Oh geez, CosCon, don't encourage him....

Seriously, I too thought this was one of Rodg's best, most insightful comments to date. If I speak of him irreverently, it's only because we shared a classroom several times during what I affectionately refer to as my "IU period." When Rodg says he hasn't "even begun to scratch the surface," he's not kidding; the germs of a half-dozen theses are present in his comment.

But you know, the one thing it almost pains me to point out is the "root" similarity between much of what Rodg is arguing here, and what Tony Robbins argues in NLP-inspired seminar work: I.e., what you call something defines how you feel about it; thus, changing one's lens on life is a simple matter of changing the semantics of one's daily living. Clearly there's something to that. But then, as Rodg hints, there was also something to Goebbels' Big Lie.