Monday, April 14, 2014

The Great Sort's Result: The Middle is Dead in Congress. Really Dead.

The "Great Sort" at the local and state level, not the evils of redistricting, has changed our government — and, more importantly, our national discussions on all issues. And I do mean **all** issues, because studies show left / right; progressive / liberal / libertarian / conservative; secular / religious; North / South / East / West; and other ways to group people correlate to music choices, television viewing, trust in government, and much more.

How can we prove that redistricting isn't the villain behind our political discourse? Easily: we look at the Senate, which should represent entire states, not statistically modeled and gerrymandered districts. Yet, the Senate, supposedly the great deliberative body of our government, has become little more than yet another left-right battleground.
The ideological middle is dead in Congress. Really dead.
April 10 at 11:08 am

More intriguing — and harder to explain — is how the middle has dropped out of the Senate, which is not subject to redistricting and, because Senators represent entire states, self-sorting should be less powerful.

Well more than half of the Senate fit between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat in 1982. For the last two years, there has not been a single Republican with a more liberal voting record than any Democrat and not a single Democrat with a more conservative voting record than any Republican. Not one.
Personally, and purely anecdotally, I have experienced the Great Sort. More illustrative, I've been a part of it. The result is that entire regions are growing more homogenous, with islands of urban progressives dotting a nation of conservative rural and libertarian exurb voters. You can draw rings around many cities, with the "beyond" areas socially, fiscally, and internationally conservative. The outer rings are more libertarian, with white-collar workers who are fiscal conservatives, social liberals, and foreign policy isolationists. And then, you have the cities, where progressive ideologies hold sway.

The result is that states are sorting based on which states are rural and which are more urbanized. Red gets redder, blue gets bluer, at least in terms of election results. Even a slight majority of one extreme or the other leads to the election of Senators representing polarized views and depending on voters from their individuals states' majorities. Senators now ignore constituents with moderate views and those unlikely to ever support the Senators' parties.

As Chris Cillizza observes:
Taken together, there are four -- FOUR -- members of the ideological middle out of the 535 members of the House and Senate combined. That comes out to approximately .7 percent of the entire Congress. In 1982, by way of comparison, more than 75 percent of Members of Congress were part of the ideological middle.

So, in the last 30 years, the middle has lost 74 percent of its membership in Congress. And when the middle is represented by less than one percent of the entire Congress, it's not an exaggeration to say the center is gone.
I am a exurban resident. I live in a single-family home, in a limited access (single-entry, no gate) neighborhood, among college-educated white-collar professionals much like my wife and me. We are the muddled middle, unrepresented by the parties, unrepresented at the local, state, or federal levels.

Sorting occurs, naturally, in most ways. We select careers that represent our ideologies. We select workplaces that are comfortable. We choose to live among people at least more like ourselves than unlike us.

I'd be unhappy in a city, and I'd be unhappy in complete isolation. I want my space, my house, my land, but I don't want to be entirely cut-off from the comforts of the suburbs. My ideology also reflects that desire to balance independence and community.

Where I teach, and what I teach, also represent my ideological biases. I teach in a business school, at a university known for technology and research. My workplace reflects my views on work; even the school motto fits my ideology: "My Heart is the Work." That's not an institutional motto most of my colleagues in the liberal arts would embrace with zeal.

How sorted is your life? It might be more sorted than you realize.

Monday, December 30, 2013

When Good Writing is Bad

"This is an engaging read, but can you revise it to sound more academic?"

Most of us want to read writing I describe as demonstrating the Five Cs: clear, concise, compelling, correct, and complete. I tell my students and creative writing seminars to resist overwriting. Avoid affected academic prose, with words you'd never use in a passionate, but professional, conversation with colleagues. Stop trying to adhere to high school writing "rules" that generate more fluff and filler than refined thought.

Imagine my disappointment when a journal editor said, "You should being with, 'In this paper we…' and then outline your points. Frame it, state it, repeat it."

Wow. If ever there was bad writing advice, that would be it. Imagine a novel written with that structure:
In this novel we will follow the actions of Jane Eyre, though childhood to marriage. The themes explored include….
If your writing has to be "framed" beyond basic foreshadowing, you write weak prose. Fix it. Punch up the paragraphs and streamline the sentences. We don't want a world of five-paragraph SAT-ready essays that only impress a handful of English teachers and test scorers.

Academic writing represents the worst writing a reader must endure. Often pretentious and inefficient, we should leave the formulas behind and break free from the tyranny of "rules" that foster creating complicated compositions with little content. Write with passion and flare. Compel your readers to move from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.

When I tell students to be concise, I explain this does not mean leaving behind a good stylistic twist. A student recently mentioned that I advised parallel construction and repetition, devices other writing instructors warned against. They preferred "variation" of words, so every "said" in an essay became a sighed, yelled, asserted, declared or other action.

"What about Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech?" I asked. "The title phrase appears nine times, with two additional variations. Does that make it bad writing?"

"It breaks the rules," the student asserted.

I explained that some "extra words" and "repetition" strengthen writing. That's why we like rhyming poetry and alliteration as readers, especially as children unaware of artificial rules. Give me Dr. Seuss over most modern free-form poetry any day. Learning when to repeat, and why to repeat, takes practice.

One rule should guide writing, including academic writing: engage the reader. If you fail to engage the reader, nothing else matters. The reader honors you; treat the reader with respect. Drop the annoying academic filler, weak transitions, and empty academese. The "rules" about framing, stating, and summarizing help students reach arbitrary word counts, but they do not encourage good writing.

Academic writing treats readers with condescension and bores them with the routine. Being able to engage in "academic discourse" might earn a student better grades or help a scholar publish research, but it is a lamentable metric by which to measure writing ability.

Yet, I did rewrite the academic paper, because I must. It is now properly dreadful.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Science and Philosophy

English: Karl Popper in the 1980's.
English: Karl Popper in the 1980's. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A student asked me a basic question this week: How can I state that science is philosophical?

Those of us familiar with philosophy know that many of the great scientific minds were (and are) philosophers. Science and philosophy follow different paths to some of the same questions: the how and why of existence and of human nature. For example, neurology, psychology, sociology, economics, and philosophy ask why we make some choices.

No single "philosophy of science" exists; there are complex and stimulating debates about the nature of scientific "meaning" and "truth" that reveal how little we understand ourselves. Science and math give us processes for exploring questions, too. Those methods of observation, instrumentation, measurement, and analysis are value-laden choices. The scientific method shapes our view of how to "properly" analyze phenomena and make judgments.

I have taught philosophy, ethics, technical writing, speech, academic writing, and creative writing. Each of these topics emphasizes communicating with and persuading others of our ideas. Not only are my philosophy courses "philosophical," but so are my other courses. Even when I teach computer programming, I am teaching a "philosophy" of sorts: that problems can and should be solved in a particular manner, shaped by the language designers' biases and ideals.

Young students view the scientific method uncritically. It seems perfect to them, with clear facts and data being revealed through the methodologies of various sciences. The possibility that our approaches today will look simplistic tomorrow is unfathomable. Not only will our knowledge keep expanding exponentially, but we will revise and reshape our methods for understanding.

The essentials in a philosophy of science discussion for undergraduates needs to include Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, but there are dozens of thinkers I'd love my students to read and explore.

A partial list of philosophers of science can be found on Wikipedia:
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Monday, October 28, 2013

Code Switching

Switching from a "normal" (casual) writing or speaking style to a domain-specific style is known as "code-switching" by researchers, scholars, and educators. We practice code-switching when we change our language patterns as we shift from talking to lovers, to friends, to parents, to coworkers, to bosses, to clients…. Each audience expects a different style. Sometimes, we mistakenly over-compensate when we switch to a formal style, and this results in using either an unexpected code or awkwardly mimicking a code we haven't mastered.

We advise students to write more formally than they speak. We repeat this every year of their educational experiences. Many of the best students take this admonishment to be "more formal" to the extreme and over-compensate. The results include verbosity, misused "impressive" words, and strained prose. Yet, this prose receives good grades and praise, and students internalize the idea that inflated language corresponds to being "smart." Standardized tests reinforce odd writing, too.

Sadly, many academics — having been good students — cling to this stilted, artificial code. Reading some academic journals brings both tears and laughter. Not all academics are oblivious to this problem, but even those of us aware that the language has inflated to absurdity acquiesce to the trend because we also want to be taken seriously by our peers. We dare not be heretics.

When an impressive vocabulary represents the authentic you, as it did for William F. Buckley, Jr., William Safire, or H. L. Mencken, the written form seems natural to readers. (We might debate if Buckley seemed authentic or pretentious, but how he wrote paralleled how he spoke, even to friends.) Thankfully, most of us do not speak in a manner requiring our friends and colleagues consult dictionaries.

Academic writing is not business writing. Business writing is not casual writing.

Mastering code-switching requires effort. Though I argue that academics should move closer to business and technical writing, that seems unlikely in the immediate future. Students should learn academic patterns, for the sakes of their grades, and business patterns, for their careers. Yes, one uniform United States "formal English" would be nice.

Even within academic disciplines and business fields, there are distinct codes. Complicating this further, codes vary by context. And we wonder why writing confounds students?

Business writing is legal writing. When a company or organization becomes involved in any regulatory or legal action, documents become part of discovery. That legal standing leads business writing experts to encourage a style that reduces legal risk. If a reader might misunderstand a document, that creates a legal risk. Bryan Garner is a lawyer and a writing scholar. He teaches students to think like lawyers when writing. How would a judge, jury, regulator, or committee misunderstand what is written?

Academics address writings to other academics. Business writers address many audiences, including the potential audience of lawyers. That reality dictates a different linguistic code. Added to this is the reality that business writing addresses external audiences (clients) without expertise. Clarity becomes imperative.
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Monday, September 23, 2013

My Academic Home

This is where I am now teaching and how the institution views itself. It is all about rankings and striving to be number one. It is the most competitive environment I've encountered, extremely focused on measurable outcomes.

I absolutely love where I am teaching. It aligns well with my nature and my interests. I love math, especially statistics. I teach within the undergraduate quantitative economics program. Numbers make sense to me. Statements without data are beliefs — and I don't have faith in those.

Student evaluations of professors are published online for all to see every seven weeks. There is pressure to get the best test scores, best evaluations, most grant monies, and so on. Metrics and more metrics. Comparing how the university operates to current debates among writing (composition and rhetoric) teacher-scholars is fascinating.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Rhetoric without a Home

When I read through the discussion groups and mailing lists for composition and rhetoric scholars, it is impossible to miss the political biases of the major figures and the most vocal members of these communities. The scholarly communities I observe, and sometimes in which I attempt to participate, are focused "social justice" and various "studies" (women's, queer / LGBT, colonialism, minority).

It can require some effort to find research focused on teaching effective writing and communication. The scholars will argue that focusing on inequity and political issues is a form of advocating for new approaches to teaching. But teaching what? My colleagues have a confusing, contradictory history of arguing for "minority dialects" while also trying to teach college composition skills.

As a scholar, I want to focus on how to best communicate complex concepts. I understand we should ask "why" we teach something and what the ethical implications of our practices are, but in the end I want to be the most effective teacher of rhetoric I can be.

I understand that many of my colleagues focus on "social justice" because they feel compelled to do so. They are upper-middle-class revolutionaries, with their doctorate degrees, houses, iPads, iPhones, and double-shot venti mochas. They find themselves protesting the system in which they have found success. Are there problems to address in society? Yes. But maybe the writing or rhetoric classroom isn't the best place to begin the revolution. If you are so compelled to act, then go… take action!

"What about you?" I've been asked. "You're striving to improve the lives of your students."

Yes, I do want to improve the lives of my students and others: by teaching them to write and communicate in the world as it is. If they use those communication skills to become advocates, that's great. If they use those skills to become successful in business, that's fine with me, too. I hope they communicate honestly and ethically, but I don't seek to convert students to my political or philosophical viewpoint. Nor do I hide my views, certainly, since students can find my writings online and in print.

In my classroom, undergraduate economics, statistics, and business majors learn to write and speak more effectively. It is not my job to change business majors seeking to work in finance into Peace Corp volunteers. Not that I don't assign readings that challenge all viewpoints, but I don't view "saving souls" as my role. And yes, that does represent my underlying social philosophy, making it oddly political to be open to all student views on these matters.

When I mention that I teach "rhetoric of economics" within a business school some of my composition and rhetoric colleagues appear to be horrified. There are many underlying assumptions about what I must teach, namely the assumption that I must be actively promoting greed and some simplistic Ayn Rand social Darwinism. Sorry, but that's not what I teach.

I teach how to write about the math and models that underly economics. These are often statistical models that have nothing to do with profit and loss. I am not teaching my students that greed is good or that life is all about having the most toys.

Economics is a broad field, focused on how models of efficiency and scarcity. Economists might study how to best allocate resources, or they might study how people negotiate within personal relationships. Yes, there are economics behind love and romance: biological efficiency versus psychological efficacy.

My dean studies voting methodologies and sports scheduling. My program director studies climate change and public policy. But, rhetoricians don't understand what economists study. Rhetoric of economics? Composition and rhetoric scholars assume rhetoric of economics must involve labor or class, which is not what "economics" means. Curious that rhetoricians, who constantly defend the word "rhetoric," resist what "economics" means, reflecting the biases of some rhetorical scholars.

A colleague has suggested that I stop trying to submit papers and research to composition and rhetoric journals. Instead, focus on economics journals. Rhetoric of economics doesn't seem to have a place within rhetoric at this moment. It might, but not at the present.

My other interests are also not "trendy" within rhetoric at this moment. If I do explore the rhetoric of fiction or the rhetoric of philosophy in the future, I'll likely have to concentrate on journals that explore creative writing or philosophy, not rhetoric journals or collections. Even the "interdisciplinary" journals and collections don't seem as broadly conceived as I would hope. In the end, they reflect the biases of the scholars within rhetoric.

I already had "homes" as a creative writer. Now, I've found a home as an educator. Next, to find a home as a scholar.

Monday, September 02, 2013

She… Changed: A Complex Economist

The rhetoric text I'm using this semester, The Rhetoric of Economics, was written by Deirdre McCloskey []. The text is probably my favorite rhetoric text, and it isn't a bad philosophy text, either. I can't praise McCloskey's works enough — I enjoy the writing style and the depth she provides.

And yet, because students have located this Google thing, they quickly discover that McCloskey is more complex than they could imagine. McCloskey evolved, from a Western Marxist perspective to a libertarian featured at Cato Institute events. Some students get stuck on that transition. How in the world does a good, proper, academic shift from Marx to Friedman? Those students ask some great questions about politics, philosophy, and economics.

Then there are the students who find, and cannot get beyond, McCloskey's book Crossing: A Memoir. You can read an excerpt of the book on McCloskey's personal website [].

I've worked with two transgender colleagues, both in the field of computer science. I never thought of their computing or mathematics skills as related to their genders. They are the women they are, certainly, but math is math and I don't really need to know much about the author of a great journal article or book. But economics, rhetoric, and philosophy are unlike computer science.

A transgender person confronts gender issues daily, and gender is intertwined with philosophy and politics. Economists study gender inequality, in various forms. McCloskey is, therefore, in a unique position to study and speak on issues of equality, fairness, justice and so on.

This short excerpt captures McCloskey the libertarian and the social activist:
We Americans like telling people what to do, as in Prohibition or the war on drugs. It's not even Blue Cross' money: Over the years I've paid 10, 20 times more in medical insurance than has been paid back to me in expenses. From an actuarial point of view, there's no moral hazard. It's not as if millions of men will step forward to take advantage if gender reassignment and jaw pointing are paid for. The policy is sheer, stupid crossphobia. Sweet land of liberty and of stubborn, self-justifying hatreds.
My students cannot seem to understand choice and liberty might correspond to a reduced government safety net. This was McCloskey, wanting to use her money, to complete a process. She uses her own journey as an example of negative liberties, and as support for her journey from Marxism to Classical Liberalism. She is a religious person, and certainly no anarchist, but she discovered that freedom from government (and corporate) policies was desirable.

Philosophy is shaped by our experiences. The existentialism of Sartre and Camus grew out of World War II. The objectivism of Rand grew out of her experiences under Communism. Critiques of capitalism are often based on living within crony capitalist nations. The loudest critics of Chinese communism are expatriates of that nation. In other words, as we see the world close up, we come to see the flaws of the systems around us. The risk is that we might embrace another philosophy or political viewpoint without appreciating its deep flaws.

McCloskey might or might not be right in her economic and philosophical views. I tend to agree with her more than I disagree. But, I have to remind myself that like everyone, she is a product of lived experiences.

My students need to appreciate that, too.
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Monday, August 26, 2013

Rhetorical Economist, Economics Rhetorician

English: Image of Deirdre McCloskey "for ...
English: Image of Deirdre McCloskey "for Public Use" as stated on her website (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Deirdre McCloskey [] might be the "rhetorician" I've most enjoyed reading. She's decidedly libertarian, often addressing the supposed "moral failings" of the philosophy. Though her degrees are in economics (Harvard grad, but we forgive her), she understands rhetoric better than many elite professors in that discipline. Her dry wit alone makes her books worth the time to read.

If I could suggest some books, as I do for my students:
McCloskey has written fourteen books and more articles than I could count. Her attention to detail without getting lost in minutiae is a rare gift among academics.

She dares to critique the big names in rhetoric and philosophy, doing so deftly. She also pays homage to one of my favorite scholars, Wayne C. Booth, in many of her works. Booth's study of the "Rhetoric of Fiction" (and a book of the same name) is foundational for those of us interested in how narratives shape the audience experience. To apply Booth to economics? That thrills me.

While McCloskey is, first and most quantitatively, an economics wonder, I call her a rhetorician with the utmost respect. She is a rhetorical economist.

I am not an economist, though I do often wish I had the degree. Instead, I am a rhetorician deeply passionate about economics. I devour economics texts, histories, biographies, and even Federal Reserve white papers. The math is fascinating, the models wondrous… if deeply flawed. And that is why I don't mind being a rhetorician of economics. If I can help explain economics, especially "conservative" and "libertarian" economic theories, using any of my writing skills, that would be rewarding.

Fiction often promotes, critiques, or outright attacks economic theories. It is no secret that most of my colleagues in the humanities are politically and economically to the left. Their writings and the readings they select for courses are often unabashedly anti-capitalist. I wish to be the voice of the other side.

As I have written, libertarianism is often attacked and mocked without any concern for the actual philosophy. Shout "Ayn Rand!" and the debate is over. Libertarians are soulless creatures with faith only in the free market. McCloskey offers an alternate narrative. While she doesn't embrace the Austrian School in economics (she is decidedly Chicago), she does not mock (too often) the experiences and ideals of the great Austrian proponents.

McCloskey reveals a great many weaknesses in the Keynesian rhetoric (and models). She reminds us that quantitative analysis can be "right" and still miss a great many variables. Or, it can be "right" for no good reason. Good math doesn't always equate to good theory or good policy.
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Monday, August 19, 2013

First World Problems

Dunkin Donuts logo
Dunkin Donuts logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
First World Problem.

Until this summer, I had no idea that "First World Problem" was a new catch phrase to describe the somewhat silly things we ponder while much of the world just wants to survive from day-to-day.

In rhetoric and writing studies, these are the "big issues" that I cannot take seriously. I know it offends my colleagues, but they don't seem to recognize how incredibly detached from the reality of most other humans they can seem. You spend your life finding First World Problems, you start to be a caricature of humanities scholars.

Real issues: Women's rights. Marriage equality. Inequality of opportunity. Crony capitalism (and crony anything in any system, too). Poverty. War. Violence in culture.

But real issues get sliced and diced until rhetoricians and other scholars spend years studying, seriously studying, little splinters that miss the big picture. When you care passionately about something, you can lose yourself. And many of my colleagues do just that.

One colleague used to complain, as she held her venti double whatever-it-was, that the logo for Starbuck's Coffee was sexist and she was going to stop going there any day now. I suggested Dunkin' Donuts, but there were other social sins at that store. She decided Starbuck was less evil than DD. (I love Dunkin' Donuts, and their deep-fried rings of sin.)

A colleague recently complained, passionately, that she couldn't find any good female characters in fiction: in words or on screen. I offered several, but she dismissed them for an endless variety of reasons. She couldn't even enjoy Jane Austen's women, because they were "patriarchal" in the end. My argument was that Austen was nudging the social edge, pushing limits. Not good enough, I was told.

Great modern women of fiction? I'd argue a great deal of pop fiction has good female characters. But if the character dares to love a man, this colleague dismissed the woman as yet another subservient female. I'm sorry, but you can't call Hermione Granger subservient to anyone. (But, as I was reminded, the books are about Harry Potter, not Hermione.) What about the women detectives in current fiction? Nope, at least in the books most of them are married and/or parents.

The horror! The women have children! Why, they can't be good role models, then. Only single women or lesbians need apply. And yes, this colleague made the argument that only lesbians are truly free women. So much for biology.

In the mindset of some rhetoricians I meet, science does not matter when it comes to human nature or human biology. Women who have children and then decide to raise those children? That's disgusting. The government should raise the children, one colleague told me. I suppose she hasn't read Brave New World in a few years. Yes, how could letting government take over family duties go wrong?

When you spend your days and nights performing "feminist critiques" of literature and film (and everything else), you are immersed in First World Problems. It is a FWP that you can't accept how many women post pictures of their children to Facebook. Seriously? That's a big issue in your world? My wife and I use images of our cats — we love them and care about them. The argument that women "subvert themselves, surrendering their identity to that of their children" was too silly for me not to call it total garbage.

You know what? I wish I had children. They would be my avatars. I'd be that annoying friend with constant updates about my children. Nothing would mean more to me — to my identity — than being a parent.

You have to be pretty self-absorbed to complain that parents are "victims" of their children and society. Get real. In most of the world, they'd be thrilled to have healthy, happy children involved in a half dozen activities. Whining that your female "friends" post pictures of children instead of themselves? You're the one out of touch with what matters to most adult humans: their families.

You read the "scholarly" article and presentation titles and can't help but sense that professors aren't living amongst the rest of us. And I'm a professor. Then again, I've moved from teaching within the humanities to teaching in a school of business. That sums up how alienated from my discipline I have become. I like my academic home. It's happier than my old home.

Ah, but business is evil!

One former colleague sees "class warfare" in everything. He can't enjoy anything, at least I've never heard him say anything positive about any form of modern entertainment. All media are part of the corporate plan to brainwash the working class. He can offer a Marxist critique of almost every film in existence, including films that I thought were made to critique capitalism and promotion socialism. Silly me, even the most radical filmmakers are really part of the system. We're all part of the system. We're all doomed by the "One Percent" that will crush us.

When he critiqued my beloved Warner Bros. cartoons, I knew he had lost touch with anything close to normal reality. Yes, the cartoons are artifacts of their times. There is racism, sexism, classism, and so on. And I still love them. Bugs Bunny did not make me a libertarian. How many cartoons or movies feature the "rich guy" or the corporation as a hero? Other than Iron Man and Batman, we are far more likely to encounter the evil corporation in our pop culture. Even in cartoons, Mr. Plotz is "bad" while the Animaniacs counter his focus on money. Mr. Plotz fired his own father in the cartoon to save some money.

This colleague has said he never wants to marry or have children, since the world is so horrible.

Really? Your world, teaching full-time at a major university, is too horrendous to share with another human? Wow. That must be a lousy job, then. Maybe it's as bad as coal mining or factory work? There must be something else you can do, then. I'd suggest becoming a monk or something, but this colleague also hates all religion, even those that aren't part of Western hegemony.

I haven't met many content, much less happy, colleagues in rhetoric or the other humanities. Why is that? Probably because they cannot accept how good their lives are. Mention their success and comfortable existences and you risk triggering a tirade of guilt. Life's not fair, et cetera.

When you get to spend your time being upset about capitalism hidden in cartoons, the sexism in Jane Austen, and so on, you don't have much in common with other people.

Not that I don't have FWPs, too. If the cable goes out, if I lose my Internet connection, it's a major catastrophe. Of course, after I reflect on the situation, I turn to old-fashioned paper. My life is really great. I have a wonderful wife, great cats, nice house, and more. I've worked hard for what I have, but also had the luck to be born in a relatively decent location compared to much of the populated world.

Should we always aim to improve society? Sure. We can argue for marriage equality in the United States without forgetting the state of the world, a world in which supporting "gay marriage" is heresy. A world in which being the wrong sect within a faith can be deadly. That world doesn't care that Jane Austen's women aren't radical enough.

I try to understand the perspective of my colleagues, but I can't. Life is short, and then you die. In the meantime, try to enjoy life a bit. Share whatever joy you can with others.
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Monday, July 29, 2013

Name Calling: Republican Sociopaths? Democratic Narcissists?

The following examples of "political discourse" in the United States are troubling and offensive to someone like me who works with individuals facing neuro-psychological challenges.
The Conservative March Toward a Society of Sociopaths 
...Stan is a sociopath.

He's a white male, strongly opposed to most other races and immigrants. Believes every single far right-wing economic theory imaginable and actually cited Argentina as a "beacon for true capitalism." He has no remorse for others, seems to live in a world where he's the focal point but he presents himself as extremely charming and personable when you first meet him. He has no problem ignoring social ethics or morals if it benefits his self interest. He's told my friend that people should only worry about themselves, and not care about the struggles of others. That in life, self interests should trump everything else.

Then, and I kid you not, he apparently followed his "only worry about your own self interest" speech by pressing my friend on why he's not more involved in church.

See, Stan is exactly the kind of person Republicans want to create.
No, Stan is not a sociopath. First, you shouldn't make a medical diagnosis based on such a shallow, second-hand review of traits. Second, a sociopath lacks the ability to form moral judgments. A sociopath not only doesn't care about what others consider right and wrong, the sociopath often cannot accurately analyze what is right in a cultural context. More importantly, the sociopath doesn't care. He or she doesn't care if a community considers his or her choices "wrong" or "sinful" or "evil." To the sociopath, the only ethical system that matters is internalized: my system is the only system that applies to my life.

I've never met a religious sociopath, because that means adhering to an external system. And yes, I have met sociopaths while working with individuals with mental health issues. They are cold, calculating, intelligent, and scary.

Confessions of a Sociopath
Posted May 19, 2013
Of course, the left and right describe "the other" as mentally disturbed using diagnostic terminology. This supposedly adds credibility to their arguments by making dislike of other views logical and defensible. Of course we don't want to agree with mentally ill people!

Sociopaths don't (usually) volunteer at charities, yet we know religious conservatives do give higher percentages of their wealth and income to charity. We also know that many religious conservatives have an emotional, measurable, response to issues like abortion. In fact, psychologists have found that conservatives have deeply ingrained ideals of fairness and rigid moral systems. That's not sociopathy, not even close.

Since I'm not religious, I cannot understand such adherence to doctrine, but I can observe it across many faiths. A sociopath would reject such controls on his or her impulses.

From the conservative side, we get this misuse of narcissism:
The Narcissistic Style in Liberal Politics 
August 2, 2012 
Those immersed in the narcissistic institutions of the left would be expected to have difficulty appreciating points of view that differ from their own, or that challenge their ingrained sense of superiority. And, if they become politically active, they would have difficulty recognizing any moral limits on their tactics because they are, in their own minds, intellectually and morally superior to their opponents. The battle cry of the pampered campus radicals of the 1960s — "by any means necessary" -- echoes through the left's institutions today.

If our analysis is correct, then there is no need to look for deep psychological processes such as paranoid projection in order to understand the left's distorted view of grassroots conservatism; the left's accusations would be rooted more in their culture of narcissism than in paranoia. After all, paranoid individuals believe their delusions; narcissists just lie in order to get their way.
Seriously? I don't care if you have "Ph.D" (in psychology, nonetheless) after your name, you don't get to apply mental health diagnoses to entire groups or to political ideologies. That is the worst form of rhetorical appeal, an appeal to pathos and fear. Really, a psychologist should know better.

Narcissism is not merely wanting attention or feeling entitled to something. A true narcissist is as dangerous as a sociopath. A narcissist blames others for his or her failings. A narcissist might seek revenge for perceived slights, feeling entitled to justice and a restoration of order.

Narcissism and sociopathy are neurological conditions. We can study brain scans and see the differences in neural activity among these groups. That's what makes invoking mental health terms such a powerful (and dangerous) rhetorical move. Calling the other side "sick" is rather extreme. And it makes hating them, fearing them, easier.

We should argue political, economic, and social theory, not that our opponents are mentally ill.
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