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In times of scandal and public outrage, we're asked to think of our children. Our wives and daughters. It is possible, and even necessary, however, to set our moral compasses with reference to society at large, not just our own families. To fail to do so is to reject reason and abstraction. And to reject reason and abstraction sets us down the path to a new dark age.
Donald Trump had a bad weekend. The release of that 2005 Access Hollywood video cost him the support of many Republicans who were backing him until Friday. In their statements withdrawing support, many of them have cited their love and respect for their wives, daughters and granddaughters as the basis for their disgust at his comments. Jeb Bush premised his condemnation with “as the grandfather of two precious girls …” Mike Pence said “as a husband and father, I was offended …” Mitt Romney said “such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters …” The list goes on and on.
As many have noted in the past two days, the callout to one’s female family members in this context is troubling in that it implies that the speaker might not be outraged at the comments if they didn’t have a wife, daughter or granddaughter. That to them women are, somehow, not worthy of safety and respect unless they know them personally. I agree with that analysis. Sexual assault and misogyny should not be a thing that bothers a person only by virtue of their ability to imagine it happening to a woman they love. If it is, it suggests a catastrophic failure of empathy and morality.
But while this verbal tic cum moral disclaimer is telling with respect to a person’s views on sexism, it’s illustrative of a greater problem in political discourse: the abandonment of ideas, information and abstraction and the increasing dependence on the personal and anecdotal as a means of communicating our values and plotting the course for society.
Humans are animals and all animals respond more quickly and immediately to a smack on the head than anything else. But at some point after leaving the Great Rift Valley we evolved a bit. We started talking and writing and farming and doing math and stuff. While one could point to any given evolutionary development and say that’s what makes us singularly human, they all have something in common: they are the product of our ability to use our intellect, imagination and ability to reason abstractly. Our ability to solve problems without needing that smack on the head or some other direct stimuli giving us immediate positive or negative reinforcement. Our ability to plan and do things by virtue of an idea rather than by simply emulating the Homo Erectus in the next cave over.
In modern times our ability to reason abstractly has given us science, philosophy, art and mathematics. It laid the groundwork for civilized society and advanced culture. It leveraged humanity’s ability to do things that are greater than any one of us could do on our own. On more than one occasion it pulled us out of a dark age during which superstition, fear and ignorance dominated our lives and dictated our fates. It is the very essence of a civilization.
Government, at its most basic level, is about managing the relationships between real people, so it cannot operate entirely on an abstract plain of theories and ideas. Every ideology, no matter how theoretically sound, brings inefficiencies once implemented. As such, our leaders have to take into account how policies affect real people and adjust accordingly. That being said, I believe we have strayed too far from ideas in our political discourse and are increasingly relying on the anecdotal and the personal in steering our nation’s course. We’re relying far more on that smack in the head than we are on confidence in our ideas.
Watch any political speech and, within a few minutes, the speaker will delve into anecdote as a means of justifying their argument. “Last week I met Harvey Peterson from East Alton, Illinois. Mr. Peterson owns a small business and, if this new law goes into effect, he’ll have to lay off his own mother, who has been doing his bookkeeping since 1979!” The State of the Union Address is great for this as there are even odds that Mr. Peterson and is mother will actually be sitting in the front row, waving as the president uses them for an applause line. The political landscape is littered with Mr. Petersons. Or Joe The Plumbers. Or, if we’re being slightly more inclusive, some narrow demographic like “Security Moms” or “Home Depot Dads,” who are identified as such so as to make certain policies relatable to certain specific constituencies.
What we hear less and less of, however, is talk about and credence given to how a given policy will impact the nation as a whole. Harvey Peterson’s mom may get fired if the new law passes, but isn’t that an acceptable cost if it means a hundred other people’s moms get a bump in their social security benefit? The “Home Depot Dads” may benefit greatly from a given a change to the tax code, but what if it does nothing for people without kids who live in apartments? In a nation as large and diverse as this one there will be people who benefit and people who are harmed by almost every act of government. Everything involves a tradeoff of some kind.
Yet our leaders seem to be in denial about this. They are increasingly relying on anecdote instead of reason and data. Focusing on a small number of relatable and, let’s face it, reliably loyal constituents rather than thinking about the greater good. Doing so is obviously politically expedient and obviously serves the best interests of the politician and his core circle of supporters, but it’s an awful way to make and discuss policy. Such an approach is particularly perverse at a time when our nation is becoming less homogenous in every conceivable way.
Our own personal experiences are not the absolute gauge of what’s good and what’s bad for society as a whole. Just as sexual assault, sexism and misogyny are absolute wrongs regardless of whether or not you happen to know a woman who has suffered from them, a piece of policy can be good even if it doesn’t help a particular person and a piece of policy can be bad even if someone you know happens to like it.
While an appeal to Harvey Peterson or “our wives and daughters” may give a politician the appearance of caring about people, it is actually quite the opposite. Indeed, our increasing failure or refusal to acknowledge a problem unless it befalls us or someone we know or to acknowledge a benefit unless it inures to our benefit or the benefit of those in our closest circles is, on a very basic level, a failure of empathy. A failure to appreciate that a world exists beyond our cave and the caves of our closest neighbors.
Empathy for those close to us – our family members and the members of our tribe – is a trait that is selected for, evolutionary speaking, and which likely existed in humanity even when we were living in the Great Rift Valley. Empathy for those outside of our closest circles is not necessarily a natural thing. It is something we learned and developed as a species and, like farming, science and mathematics, it is one of the foundations upon which diverse and complex civilizations are built.
I fear that our reliance on anecdote rather than data and our turning inward toward our tribes while discounting the plight of those we perceive as outsiders is weakening that foundation. At the risk of hyperbole, I fear that it is a symptom of our society’s turning away from enlightenment and its preparation for another dark age.