Monday, April 30, 2012

You cannot know a politician's heart

[Let us not forget] that deceit is the basis of all politics. I remember before the Gulf War, I was talking to a Baptist seminarian who couldn't believe that Bush of Arabia had anything but the best interests of the United States at heart in preparing to make war. "I think he's a decent man," he said. On what basis? What we see or hear on television? I'd sooner trust Lynda Carter's endorsements of contact lenses. Yet any vote cast in an election presupposes that the voter has some idea of what kind of person the candidate is. Even when local officials are elected from fairly large communities, voters sometimes think of them as neighbors, and think they know them and can trust them. How often it's just wishful thinking, indeed vanity. How nice it would be to personally know someone important. Not to try to get a job from him. Not to get a favor from him. But merely for the self-deluding frisson of being able to say, "Yeah, I know him. He went to my church. He's a good guy." The desire to believe good of someone is not the Christian virtue of charity. Charity is desiring someone's good. It is never in conflict with truth. Not so the desire to believe good of someone, which normally functions as a reverse filter, letting only muddy thoughts pass through and blocking clear ones. And when the desire becomes the positive act of belief itself — as it so easily does — then have we subverted our rational faculties. It's a vanity to believe something without evidence — as though one's faculties are more penetrating than, in the nature of things, they can be. A little like the vanity of name-dropping. [I]n 1932 the free-market candidate was Franklin Roosevelt. In 1964, the anti-war candidate was Lyndon Johnson. On what basis could people who didn't know [a candidate] claim to know what he would do? What we could be sure of was that issues would emerge, complicated incidents would occur, that the next president would have to address — questions that, in early 1992, we could not imagine. To vote for anyone was nevertheless to claim to have reason to believe that he would do the right thing. And that kind of evidence hardly anyone could ever have, for hardly anyone in the country would ever know any candidate well enough to have that kind of confidence. To imagine that you can know anything about a man from his speeches, the purpose of which is to win your trust, is just cognitive vanity. In real life, we never trust someone on the basis of what he says or does explicitly to win our trust. Only in politics are we expected to be such fools. To believe more than evidence gives us is a temptation like many others. But truth is more important than our vanity. Bad enough that the eternal beatitude of our souls is jeopardized when we corrupt our cognitive faculties in favor of the passing pleasure of vanity. But the temporal, political consequences of our self-deceptions are no small potatoes, either. --Ronn Neff
One of the most famous social science experiments is Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority studies at Yale. Subjects were asked to administer ascending quantities of electrical shock to people each time they answered a question incorrectly. Those receiving the shock were hired actors, not really being shocked, but the subjects didn't know that. The intensity of shock began at 15 volts and rose in 15-volt increments up to 300 volts. The subjects heard screams, pleas to stop, complaints of heart pains and then silence – yet many of them continued to the end. How many? Two-thirds of participants administered the full range of shock, simply because the person in authority – a man with a white coat – would say, "The experiment requires that you continue." This is very scary, of course, but there's more to the story: In a little known but vitally important detail in these experiments, those who witnessed another person refuse to comply with the authority were dramatically more likely to refuse to comply themselves. In this case only 10% obeyed the orders of the authority. The power of a positive example represents a huge potential for good.