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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Liberals as "sanctimonious morons" **

General semanticist S.I. Hayakawa, former president of San Francisco State U. and U.S Senator, called it a "blizzard of words."    It refers to when words are swirling around people in such a fury that no coherent message can be discerned.  And even if a somewhat clear message is shouted into the howling winds, it is lost in the cacophony before it reaches any ears. The situation is addressed in the old conundrum "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"   The question is not if the falling tree or shouted message makes a sound; it is if any sound it makes registers on any mind.  It doesn't.  At least not at the moment it happens. 

The matter was suggested last week when former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Sandlin Herseth gave a lecture at SDSU.  During the question-and-answer portion of the lecture, a retired history professor asked her why Democrats were so ineffective at getting the message across to the public that the Republicans are the ones responsible for running up the national deficit when they were in control of the presidency and Congress.  Her reply was that the Democratic Party embraces a more diverse range of people and interests, so it is difficult to co-ordinate a single message that all members of the party recite. Republicans, she pointed out, are more disciplined in the recitation of political cant.  Actually, she did not say the "political cant" part, but she did say the part about being disciplined to say what the party has determined its members should say.  Which is the same thing,

The matter, however, goes far beyond discipline.  And it goes beyond the fact that Republicans and Democrats have differing political viewpoints.  There has developed a growing cultural divide between Republicans and Democrats, which affects the noises they make and how they receive those noises.  The right wing often complains that higher education institutions and the legacy media have a liberal bias.  The bias is not in their political stances as much as it is in the way that the way they regard communication shapes their political stances.

Sally Kohn in The Washington Post frames the differences between liberals and conservatives in social science terms:

Social science research has long dissected the differences between liberals and conservatives. Liberals supposedly have better sex, but conservatives are happier. Liberals are more creative; conservatives more trustworthy. And, since the 1930s, political psychologists have argued that liberals are more tolerant. Specifically, those who hold liberal political views are more likely to be open-minded, flexible and interested in new ideas and experiences, while those who hold conservative political views are more likely to be closed-minded, conformist and resistant to change. As recently as 2008, New York University political psychologist John Jost and his colleagues confirmed statistically significant personality differences connected to political leanings. Brain-imaging studies have even suggested that conservative brains are hard-wired for fear, while the part of the brain that tolerates uncertainty is bigger in liberal heads.
She concludes that the difference has these results:  "... liberals are not willing to defend against the rigid demands of their political opponents, who are emboldened by their own unwavering opinions, their full range of open-minded positions will be destroyed. Liberals are neutered by their own tolerance."  She concludes that:

Tolerance plays by the rules, while intolerance fights dirty. The result is round after round of knockouts against liberals who think they’re high and mighty for being open-minded but who, politically and ideologically, are simply suckers.

Social science, which some of my humanities colleagues persistently call pseudo science, does not take into account the role of  language and how it operates.  Language operates in a cultural context.  The differences between Democrats and Republicans cited by Sally Kohl can also be accounted for by the differences in the level of literacy practiced by liberals and conservatives.  They perceive the values of literacy and education with different objectives in mind.  Liberals want to complete the communication process in which a message is sent, received and registered, and responded to.  Conservatives want to use communication as a means of imposing their will.  The only response they are interested in  is compliance to their commands.  Kohl suggests that liberals need to be less tolerant in their responses to conservative demands.  From the standpoint of communications, liberals need to be more insistent on the integrity and completion of the communication process.

The conservatives may be present in the forest when the tree falls, but they choose not to hear it.  They may hear the voices calling out with messages, but they choose to block them out with contending noise or simply refuse to hear and respond.  If they do respond, it is to take the thread of discussion off message, which technique is consistently and persistently evident in blog discussion threads.

A good case study in this technique is Gov. Walker of Wisconsin.  When he formed a bill to shape Wisconsin's budget, he included cuts in wages and benefits and more contributions from workers to their benefits, but he also included provisions to make the labor unions powerless and ineffective.  The unions gave him the concessions he said he needed to balance the budget, but the unions also asked what union busting had to do with balancing the budget.  He said that the anti-union provisions were simply needed, and then claimed he was not anti-union.  He refused to respond to how breaking the unions contributed to balancing the budget.  Until, he appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  Here is the account of his testimony from Wisconsin's Cap Times:

Your proposal would require unions to hold annual votes to continue representing their own members. Can you please explain to me and members of this committee how much money this provision saves for your state budget?” asked Kucinich.

Walker tried to avoid the question.

Kucinich pressed him. “Did you answer the questions?” the congressman asked. “How much money does it save, Governor?”

A reluctant Walker finally responded: “It doesn’t save any.”

Rep. Kucinich refused to accept a non-response.  He forced an admission that the anti-union measure has nothing to do with balancing the budget and is, therefore, an act of union busting for the purpose of busting unions.  Kucinich's persistence in obtaining an answer revealed Walker's true motives.

The Republicans may be disciplined to hew to the party tactic of evading full communication, as Ms. Herseth Sandlin suggests, but the real factor in the message process is that the messages are not held to adequate scrutiny by either the press or the liberal contingent.

Complete exchanges in sending, receiving, and responding to messages may not have much effect on a larger audience which is so lost in the blizzard of words that it hears nothing but noise.  But for those who want to be told the truth, persistence in messaging is a starting point.  It identifies those who communicate with some integrity and distinguishes them from those who would simply impose power on those they regard as opponents.  The battle lines would be more clearly drawn and the nature of the battle made more apparent.

** The phrase is Pat Robertson's.  Read the Kohl link for the full context. 


larry kurtz said...

Exactly, David; standing up to bullies is a very real act of compassion. Thank you for reminding Democrats that mere "one-click activism" is no longer enough to get Progressives elected.

caheidelberger said...

This essay is among the smartest text I've read all month. Thanks for taking the time to compose this explanation.

I am also heartened to see my man Dennis Kucinich cited as an example of how liberals can challenge on conservative rhetorical strategies.

Erin said...

We need scholarship and thinking like this in the classrooms more than ever. Maybe we should institute a draft to put retirees who are so able back in the classrooms.

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