Negative and Positive Content of Political Beliefs

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Gabriel Noah Brahm’s review in the recent Democratiya had me thinking about the following question, are political beliefs/ideologies defined primarily by their positive content or by their opposition(s)?

Here is the relevant section:

Somewhere along the line, the idea took hold that, to be an intellectual, you have to be against it, whatever it is. The intellectual is the negator. Affirmation is not in his or her vocabulary. It was not always so…. [but] For those of us who entered adulthood in the 1960s, to be an intellectual was to be in opposition. [Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, New York: Basic Books, 2003.].

Brahm adds:

That is—so long as ‘it’ refers to American power or anything else regarded as ‘white,’ ‘Western’ or ‘male.’ When, on the other hand ‘it’ refers to something non-white, non-Western, non-male, affirmation is nearly all the intellectual can find in his (or her) vocabulary. In an age of so-called ‘multiculturalism,’ the reverse of Elshtain’s point is equally apposite. It forms the other half of the stupid discursive equation that prevents some—particularly on the ‘left’—from seeing the threats that people like Amis, Hitchens and Bernard-Henri Levy see clearly.

The intellectual historian George Nash describes a similar process at work among American conservative intellectuals in the post-WWII era. These conservatives were united in their opposition to New Deal policies. However, the various schools of conservative thought–traditionalists, libertarians and anti-Communists–lacked a common vision of what they stood for.

After the collapse of the Vital Center, many conservative intellectuals adopted a perspective similar to Whittaker Chambers, where the line from liberal Democrat to democratic socialist to revolutionary communist was a straight one with little deviation or distinction. Similarly, in the post WWII era, just about any anti-Communist regime, no matter how unsavory, was supported by most of these conservative intellectuals. So is this situation of the intellectual as negator really unique to those Brahm terms the “post-left”?

I discussed this matter a few times with Bob specifically regarding the anarcho-left. When I was still involved in the movement there seemed so much more emphasis on what we were against, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, etc. Much less emphasis was placed on what we stood for, a libertarian social revolution and a classless society. This is not unique to anarchists. In the United States, various Marxist/Leninist/Maoist/Trotskyist groups took a similar approach, emphasizing opposition to capitalism and anti-imperialism and downplaying their support for a dictatorship of the proletariat.*

I always thought this was a major problem. I argued people were more likely to support ideologies, organizations, and movements with a positive program than a mostly negative one. Yet recent research conducted by neuroscientists suggests human beings are more animated by feelings of opposition and disgust than by notions of solidarity. To provide one example, Psychologist Mark Lepper showed ten Republican partisans and ten Democratic partisans images of John Kerry and President George W. Bush. When partisans viewed their favored candidate, brain scans revealed no exceptional behavior. When either viewed the object of their indignation, Lepper observed a flurry of activity in two areas of the brain concerned with emotional regulation, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. Partisans also displayed increased activity in the temporal pole and insula. Both are areas of the brain associated with negative emotions that are activated when partisans viewed a photo of the opposing candidate. Shankar Vedantham, writing on the results of the study notes, “Although it seems paradoxical that people would want to make themselves feel poorly…partisans have a strong interest in feeling poorly about the candidate they are not going to vote for as that cements their belief that they are doing the right thing.” Simply stated, we seem more likely to act (and react) in opposition to those we stand against than rally in support of those we stand with.

[*One fairly obvious reason for this approach is the lack of popular support for communism or anarchism among most Americans.]

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