The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Reason and Compassion Among the Non-Rationalists

While the human mind is capable of rational thought, humans are, by and large, not rationalistic; rather, we're totemic and associative. We love to think we're reasonable and will go deep into rationalizing why we're right, but to question the foundations of our preconceived notions is going too far for most people most of the time.

Messing with our preconceived ideas messes with our sense of identity, and while ideas can be constructed and reconstructed essentially at will, identities take years, lifetimes, and sometimes many lifetimes, to develop.

The problem this causes Americans in particular is that our political system was developed by self-declared rationalists under the assumption that with the proper training and education, everyone would think just like them.

That is why they put confidence in such concepts as “the marketplace of ideas,” which was supposed to allow reasoned debate that would lead to the best solutions being supported; they trusted in deliberative bodies and in the notion that people would, in the end, elect representatives who were better than they were, more able to govern.

But at the same time, the new nation stripped off a lot of those cultural ghosts that form the traditions, rites, customs, and mores that help define the individual, that help create identity.

On the one hand, this was a great boon: many of those European ways of being were fraught with inequality and oppression, and good riddance to them. But this also created a perpetual crisis in American life: without an ancient culture to tell us who we are, Americans were forced to create new identities with the bits and pieces left behind and the new ways of existence discovered along the way. There is, then, a sort of urgency in the American psyche, a desperation for identity. We can hear it most plaintively in those who call themselves conservatives. Uncomfortable with the need to constantly create anew, they cling to an imagined past wherein these questions were settled. The tone of voice of a Michele Bachmann or a Glenn Beck betrays this desperation: they keen out a world in constant crisis. This crisis is in direct proportion to their discomfort with the American project, which is bricolage, building an identity with what you have, inspired by what you want.

This is also why those who whine most loudly about “freedom” are the very ones who practice it the worst, gravitating toward hierarchical corporate structures, police state practices, walled compounds, and strict religions. This is why “blue” states tend to fare better on measures of quality of life, stable marriages, and productivity. Those who are more familiar with personal ambiguity are less likely to let others fail, less comforted by others' struggles, more likely to support the sort of costs of “finding yourself” through education, small-scale entrepreneurship, personal failure. They've been there themselves, or they've been close enough for it to have scared them into compassion instead of contempt. They've seen how struggle is part of success, not a punishment for some inherent inadequacy.

And this is America at its best, forcing us through our personal crises to think compassionately, to act out of fellow-feeling instead of fear. 

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