Gather the Sheep for Shearing

January 30, 2017

Healing November's election wounds will take time.
Both sides made comments ranging from irresponsible to vicious. Painted their opponents as unintelligent. Criminal. Violent. Fascistic. Communist. Dishonest. Inauthentic. Dangerous. Among a host of other needlessly vile accusations.
Truth be told? Republicans and Democrats oft acted like children throughout the election. Vicious little brats with nothing more intelligent to say than to denigrate their opponents with each news cycle.

Of course, we do that for which we are rewarded. So shame on us for allowing the candidates to think that their free-flowing insults were acceptable.
Many will continue to lick their wounds. Delivering fresh daily insults to political rivals throughout their social networks. Calling them names. Demeaning their choices. Casting aspersions that few truly deserve. Whatever happened to Do unto others... ?
Have we stopped practicing what we preach? Social psychologist Dr. Dan Batson may know.
Batson's research has long focused on pro-social and anti-social behaviors among humans (bio and sources here). Specifically looking at how traights like empathy, altruism, religion and personal values serve as motives for the means by which we treat each other.
Batson spent years conducting research on the means by which humans treat each other in various situations. Observing how people could behave in ways that most observers would consider less than acceptable, and yet manage to justify their behavior.
Batson eventually coined a term to describe such behavior. Moral Hypocrisy. Explaining how subjects that, while appearing to be moral individuals, regularly behaved in ways that were anything but. Even learning to use environmental cues or characteristics of those with whom they interact so as to justify their own unseemly behavior.
Batson also discovered that such hypocrites may hardly be the exception, but the norm.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is the Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business. His academic specialization is the psychology of morality and the moral emotions. Haidt also happens to believe that all humans, to one degree or another, are self-righteous hypocrites.
Over thousands of years, humans evolved to a state that relegates us into natural patterns of polarization and alienation. Haidt has observed that our "righteous minds" use moral reasoning to justify and defend our inclinations and actions post hoc. Which is to say that our natural moral reasoning comes fast on the heels of pre-existent inclinations and intuitions. Regardless of how questionable or degenerate those inclinations may be. The more educated we become? The more complex and prolific are our self-defense rationalizations.
Haidt summarizes the condition as follows:
"If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you'll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill humans evolved to further our social agendas - to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to - then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don't take people's moral arguments at face value. They're mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives." [J. Haidt, The Righteous Mind]
In other words, after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, the human condition has developed a talent for defending everything we do. Regardless of how mean, unseemly or bizarre the behavior.
Social psychologists have long considered such behavioral patterns. Among the most famous research efforts related to these behaviors was The Stanford Prison Experiment. In fact, this experiment drew so much attention that a documentary was made. Eventually, it was turned into a Hollywood movie.
A landmark 1971 psychological study by Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted to analyze the human response to forced captivity. Specifically, to the real world circumstances of prison life. More specifically, student subjects volunteered to participate in an incarceration study for which they would be paid fifteen dollars per day. Once they registered, the students were randomly assigned to play the role of either "prisoner" or "guard."
Days later, as the act of having volunteered for the experiment receded in importance, they were unexpectedly picked up and brought to the prison. Once there, those picked as prisoners were stripped down, searched, deloused, sprayed off and forced into jump suits. Heads were shaven. And their right ankles were fit with a large, obtrusive chain and lock. They were humiliated. And so began their prison terms.
Conversely, those chosen as guards were given no training. They were given identical khaki uniforms which included mirrored sun glasses, a whistle and a Billy Club. Warned of the dangers being undertaken. As real-world guards would have been. Told that they were free, within limits, to do whatever was necessary to maintain law and order. The guards made up their own set of rules, and implemented them under the supervision of the warden, a Stanford undergrad.
Nine guards. Nine prisoners. What followed provided endless fodder for the psychological research community.
The experiment was suppose to last for two weeks. But from the outset, every passing hour saw the participants acclimate more and more to their roles. The guards became increasingly abusive. Exposing the prisoners to alarmingly higher levels of trauma. Especially at night, when they felt they were not being watched by the research team.
Simultaneously, the prisoners became ever more detached. Going so far as to rat out fellow inmates they considered "troublemakers."
Eventually, the two week experiment was concluded after five days when the research team began to worry about their subjects incurring permanent, life-changing psychological trauma.
What most amazed the Stanford researchers was the speed and ease by which the subjects adopted to their characters. The emotional commitment. And the level of degradation and humiliation that all test subjects - prisoners and guards - were willing to enact upon each other. Which they justified by the need to do their jobs. And the need to "punish," "keep in line" or "coexist with" the "criminals" in their midst.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (more here) emphatically revealed the depths to which the human mind can plumb while continuing to morally justify behavior. Ranging from trivial acts of hypocrisy to more heinous acts involving malicious intent, moral hypocrisy enables humans justify and live with such behavior.
Which brings us to the recent election cycle.
Democrats and Republicans. Conservative and liberals. Trump supporters and Hillary supporters. All pitted against each other in a vitriol fest that would shame the muckrakers of old.
Even after the election, social media has been flush with images of one side punching the other. Throwing bottles. Batteries. Setting fires. Stealing or vandalizing private property. In the name of one's alleged political beliefs.
Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher, poet and the father of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance would be ashamed.
Americans on both sides of the political spectrum have become too comfortable with acts of verbal and -- on occasion -- physical aggression against their political opposites. Have our identities really become so entangled with a couple of political parties and the platforms by which they often don't even abide? Do we really lack so much respect for the democratic process that we commit to protesting the will of the people when an election is finished? Do we lack the critical thinking abilities to determine which topics are important to us and leave the rest for those who care?
Our political duopoly, Democrats and Republicans, demand blind fealty from the followers who choose to label themselves as such. Accordingly, in a world where we may only agree with half of the party's platform, we are constantly forced to rely on traits like moral hypocrisy to make ourselves feel better about that for which we stand. Even when we really don't stand for all of the things we claim we do.
Which, unfortunately, leads us to call our opponents names. To demean their beliefs. Behaviors. Colleagues. Families and friends. All in the name of rationalizing our own actions and beliefs. And so propping up our own (often poor) behavior. For the benefit of our fragile egos.
Can we think for ourselves? Respect the thoughts of others?
Today, individuals label themselves in every definable way. Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, middle class, liberal, conservative, Catholic, Jew, atheist, wonk, labor, patriot, radical, professional, realist, opportunist, fat, pacifist, hawk, debutant, thin, et al. Preferring the comfortable, collective anonymity these monikers can provide, people hide behind them in order to avoid having to step out and personally confront issues that matter.
Eventually, our individuality becomes compromised. The price of being tied to so many groups, labels and pigeon holes. Over time, it becomes easier to walk in lockstep with the herd. To consign oneself to the mediocrity of the comfortable collective. Where you are never right nor wrong. Brave nor weak. Simply, one of many.
The cost of forgoing our individuality? Of deferring on the gifts of free will and free thought? The need to numb ourselves to the bland, largely mindless road ahead. So we allocate our free time to whatever mindless, unthinking entertainment we can find: Xbox, The Real Housewives, Jersey Shore, NBA, NFL, NCAA, MLB, MMA, NBC, ABC, CBS, ESPN, pills, booze, etc.
What is the price of being spoon fed one's opinions over an extended period? We no longer write the codes by which our lives are run. We simply receive the occasional systems upgrade from those to whom we've entrusted the navigational systems of our daily lives.
The consequence? A society incapable of introspection. Of thinking their way through the day's issues. A society replete with pandering, pliable pools of play dough. A society prone to manipulation by every corporation, marketing campaign, politician, pollster, wonk and carnival barker.
Eventually, such a society forfeits its individual gifts, talents, beauties, warts, differences and dreams. Allowing the vapid glow of identity politics to light a dim path down into a darkened cave. Where all the sheep gather to get sheared.

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