Friday, July 07, 2006

Of Gadflies and Gore

In his interview with Al Gore last week, Jon Stewart asked why people get angry when one brings up global warming. One would expect anger -- anger at the destruction of the earth, anger at the impending loss of life and property, anger at the greed and uncaring attitude. But that wasn't the anger he meant; Stewart was talking about the "shoot the messenger" type of anger from those who resent having their heads pulled out of the sand. A rational person would expect that once folks matured, they would stop beating up the kid at recess who reminded the teacher that she forgot to collect the homework (I'm sorry, already. O.k.? What more do you want from me?!). But sadly, no.

In a very interesting op-ed in the L.A. Times, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert laments "If only gay sex caused global warming". It is a wonderful editorial that sets out an evolutionary psychological explanation for our misguided degree of fear of unlikely, but immediate threats and our misguided lack of concern for very likely threats whose day of reckoning are in the offing. A similar discussion occurs in a striking passage of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, where he discusses the plowing under of government mandated wind breaks after the regulation expired. These were dust bowl farmers who had been on the verge of losing their homes, their family land, their livelihoods because wind storms took their top soil. Every single one of these people knew folks whose lives had been destroyed by the wind, whose property now belonged to the bank. To protect them, the government decreed that trees be planted around fields to break wind (go ahead, have your Beavis and Butthead moment) in order to save the soil. As long as the law was there, the windbreaks stayed, but as soon as the law expired the farmers got rid of the trees to use that border area to farm again. All after seeing how their lives could be irreversibly altered by not having the trees. Leopold marveled at the shortsightedness of human beings.

But Gilbert and Leopold only account for the lack of concern. One would expect that when a reminder is provided, you would get a light-bulb over the head/"I could have had a V-8" reaction followed by sheepish gratitude for the reminder. But what you get is the opposite: sneering, sarcastic resentment. What's up with that?

A colleague of mine who is the single kindest, wisest, most wonderful human being to have ever walked the face of this planet talks about the time she had a class turn on her. She was showing clips of Disney films and pointing out the morally problematic assumptions underneath them. They got nasty -- not because her analysis was wrong, to the contrary, because it was right. It was attacking the normal. Ethics is what we use to criticize someone else. It can't be used against us, we're just doing what everyone else is doing. We have two masters: morality and normality...and sometimes they disagree.

The word "right" has many meanings. An act may be morally right, legally right, socially right, theologically right,... All of these are distinct. But we often conflate them, assuming them all to be the same. But they aren't. The most powerful of these is the social. Alfred Adler said, "To be human is to be insecure." Most people work very hard to make sure they are normal. Partly because of insecurities, partly because social norms are strongly enforced. Anyone (else) who was a nerd or a weirdo knows this well. Children taunt the strange kid mercilessly. You can look at a group of kids for a matter of seconds and know perfectly well who the bully bait is. We are socialized from a very young age to be afraid of being different and to look down on those who are. (For an interesting discussion of this point in the media/political arena, check out BKriplur's new blog Scriptorium). A study a few years back from Michigan State showed that student drinking patterns were connected with beliefs about how much most students drink. These beliefs were false -- the common belief was that the average student drank more and more often than s/he, in fact, did. After a value neutral campaign that did not try to encourage or discourage alcohol use, but merely informed the student population about the true statistics, drinking rates fell. People changed their behavior when they changed their picture of normal.

With the power behind the enforcement of social mores, if someone then goes on to point out where normal is not moral it gives rise to an inner conflict in most people, a conflict that the person was previously able to keep from thinking about. But when confronted, he has to choose. But the choice is a "damned if you do/damned if you don't" deal because of the psychological factors discussed by Gilbert and the social factors here and the person making the moral point seems to be the dealer in this crooked game. We want to do the right thing, but not if it makes us like the people who get picked on (especially if we were complicit in it). Al Gore faces anger, not because he is making people think of something unpleasant, but because after thinking about it, they will have to act in a way that deviates from the norm.

Of course, this is nothing new. This is why they killed Socrates, after all. The gadfly gets shooed away if he's wrong; he gets swatted if he's right. But this is something that all progressives need to think deeply about. It is not merely a question of being right, of seeing change where change really needs to happen, of having well-crafted policy proposals to deal with the issues. One always needs to confront the fact that we are challenging the norm and for this, we need to be ever aware of how to do it smartly. Funny helps. But we need to work hard, not only at questions of framing and delivery, but in how we weave a strategy for facing this resentment in everything we do.