Cognitive Defects

In yet another of those annoying, pointless Facebook wrangles, I found myself stating that conservatives don’t know how to think. This concept requires a bit more explication than Facebook’s slim user interface can conveniently handle, so here we are.

I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives never think. The brighter ones often do. The problem is that their thought processes don’t work correctly. Kurt Vonnegut once compared fascism to a clock. The clock, he said, keeps time perfectly for 5 hours and 32 minutes — and then the hands spin wildly as it backs up to 2 hours and 6 minutes earlier. It then runs perfectly for 27 seconds and then jumps ahead by an hour and 41 minutes, after which it runs perfectly for another 3 hours and 14 minutes…. You get the idea. The problem lies in those strange lapses, those moments when the mechanism (of thought or social organization) breaks down.

I see a couple of reasons why this happens.

First, conservatives conspicuously lack compassion. It is a cardinal rule of conservative thought that if you’re suffering, it’s your own fault, and that if you don’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, no one else has any obligation to offer you a hand. Conservatives will sometimes have great compassion for others in their peer group, while actively demonizing those who are not part of their group. It’s not an accident that most racists are conservative: Racist thinking is much like conservative thinking. It’s a deliberate failure to acknowledge the suffering of other people, and a refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions in causing or perpetuating that suffering.

It’s lack of compassion that causes conservatives to love war. The enemy isn’t seen as human. If the enemy isn’t human, the normal strictures of morality don’t apply.

Conservatives are addicted to winning. They will do whatever it takes to win. If that means keeping the content of an important piece of legislation secret, or shutting up witnesses at a hearing, they have no problem with that.

Just as important as the lack of compassion is that conservatism is ideologically based rather than evidence-based. Conservatives typically ignore evidence that’s right in front of them, because to acknowledge the evidence would force them to re-examine their ideology. The economic policies of Republican lawmakers in the United States are a fine example of this. When their policies tank the economy, the solution they propose is generally more of the same.

Those who are in the grip of ideology have Holy Texts, whose content is not to be questioned. The Holy Text could be the Bible, or it could be the novels of Ayn Rand (who was certainly not a fan of the Bible). It doesn’t matter what the text is; what matters is that when anxiety arises over reality’s failure to adhere to your fond expectations, you can take refuge in the Holy Text, which must be right.

In chemical dependency, refusal to confront the evidence is called denial. Projection is a related mental strategy. In projection, you accuse the other person of engaging in the precise behavior that you’re engaging in yourself. I don’t know whether this is a modern manifestation of conservatism, or whether it’s of long standing, but it’s certainly prominent today. If you mention racial injustice or even suggest that some particular injustice might be racially based, you’re accused of being a racist. If you mention that rich people oppress and cheat poor people, you’re the one who is engaged in “class warfare.” If you’re a Christian of a certain stripe, you claim the right to demand that everybody else should adhere to the rules for personal comportment that are espoused by your church — and if they say they’d rather not, you’re the one who is being persecuted.

I don’t think this is always a conscious ploy. I think many conservative Christians really do feel that they’re being persecuted when they’re denied the privilege of persecuting others. Liberals, in contrast, generally understand that we’re living in a pluralistic society, and that we all need to respect one another’s diverse needs and desires, as long as they don’t cause problems for other people.

And of course, if you point out the defects in conservative thinking, you’re the one who is intolerant of opinions different from your own. The conservative position is that if you don’t smile and nod at whatever egregious nonsense they’re peddling, you’re exhibiting intolerance and bias. The widespread and preposterous attempt to paint mainstream media as having a liberal bias is a good example. If a news organization doesn’t toe the most hidebound conservative party line 100%, that’s a liberal bias.

A corollary of the tendency to cling to ideology is that when presented with a rational argument that debunks their ideology, conservatives will change the subject rather than changing their minds. I saw a good example of this a couple of years ago, while discussing gay marriage with a conservative friend. My friend is no dummy — he has a Ph.D. in a technical field. He was also raised Catholic, which may or may not be relevant. For whatever reason, he just couldn’t see the point of legalizing gay marriage.

I asked him why. The purpose of marriage is procreation, he said. Gay couples can’t have babies, so there’s no reason why they should be able to marry.

I pointed out that our laws allow women who are past menopause and men who have had vasectomies to marry. By his logic, that shouldn’t be allowed.

Well, that wasn’t the point, he said. The point was that children should have a mother and a father as role models. I asked him whether that meant that the children of single mothers and single fathers should therefore be taken away from their parents and put up for adoption, so they could grow up in a household with two parents of opposite sexes.

Well, no, that wasn’t what he meant either. What he meant was that marriage had always, traditionally, been defined as between a man and a woman, and there was no reason to change that.

I pointed out to him, first, that traditional marriage in many parts of the world included polygamy, and that in the European tradition until rather recently, divorce was impossible. Traditions, patently, can and do change.

But why do they need to call it marriage, he asked. Aren’t domestic partnerships the same thing? Well, no, I explained. Not in a legal sense. There are many reasons why gay couples may need the legal benefits of marriage — the right to family hospital visits, inheritance law, the right not to testify against a spouse in court, and so on.

Well, all that was beside the point, my friend said. The point of a marriage was to raise a family, and gay couples can’t have kids.

But many gay people do have children, I pointed out. Well, adopted children, he said. No, I said — not just adopted children. Many gay people have already had biological children before coming out as gay. Isn’t it better that those children should be raised in a stable two-parent household?

At this point my friend switched back to one of his earlier talking points. We had gone around in a circle. I had convinced him of nothing. The reason I had failed was that he had already made up his mind (for reasons that were, I’m sure, mostly unconscious) before the discussion started. My demolishing his talking points one by one had no effect at all, because he wasn’t interested in having a rational discussion. He was only attempting to demonstrate his rationality in order to preserve his own good opinion of himself.

So I yelled at him. I called him a fuckin’ bigot and stomped out.

We’re still friends. And he’s probably still a bigot. He probably still doesn’t get it — and he probably still thinks his position is rational. That’s what I mean when I say conservatives don’t know how to think.

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