Friday, October 13, 2006

Over-Determined Conservative 'Hypocrisy'

Glenn Greenwald has posted yet another of his typically thorough critiques of current conservative nonsense, "Peggy Noonan's poetic love of dissent, civility and grace", in which he gives Noonan's claim that left is more intolerant of free speech than the right the old reality-based treatment, citing academic examples (targetting Juan Cole and Ward Churchill), media exmples (Donald Wildmon & the American Family Association, Noonan herself) and--in the update section, the Bush Administration itself (here and here).

But for all his sharp-eyed criticism of the woeful imbalance between censorious inclinations on the right and the left, Greenwald says nothing about the why of it--or the why of Noonan's pot/kettle/black accusations. By now, it's high time that we started focusing attention on the deeper cogntive/motivational level, as well as the calling-them-on-their-BS level.

One source of insight comes from Robert Altemeyer's decades of research into Rightwing Authoritarianism (RWA). It bears repeating that RWA =/= "conservative." There is a definite correlation between conservatism and RWA in the US and other Western democracies, but RWA is a social psychological measure--in the former Soviet Union, it is hardline Communists who were high-RWAs. Furthermore, the correlation is relatively weak among ordinary citizens. However, it grows increasingly stronger as the level of political involvement increases, and since political rhetoric is usually crafted, or at least vetted and propagated by those working at the highest levels, we should not be surprised to find that descriptions of RWA are strongly correlated with how conservative elites and hard-core activists comport themselves.

Among his findings, Altemeyer discovered a constellation of different specifics that can readily be grouped under "Hostility Toward Outgroups." RWAs are more likely to:
    * Weaken constitutional guarantees of liberty such as the Bill of Rights.
    * Severely punish ‘common’ criminals in a role-playing situation.
    * Admit they obtain personal pleasure from punishing such people.
    * Be prejudiced against racial, ethnic, nationalistic, and linguistic minorities.
    * Be hostile toward homosexuals.
    * Volunteer to help the government persecute almost anyone.
    * Be mean-spirited toward those who have made mistakes and suffered.
It is, of course, perfectly consistent to suppress the speech of such outgoups. Indeed, one of Altemeyer's research projects specifically examined campus-based "politically correctness," and found that it was the more conservative RWAs who were the most likely to advocate suppressing free speech.

Other findings by Altemeyer can be categorized under "Faulty reasoning" — RWAs are more likely to:
    * Make many incorrect inferences from evidence.
    * Hold contradictory ideas leading them to ‘speak out of both sides of their mouths.’
    * Uncritically accept that many problems are ‘our most serious problem.’
    * Uncritically accept insufficient evidence that supports their beliefs.
    * Uncritically trust people who tell them what they want to hear.
    * Use many double standards in their thinking and judgements.
This readily explains how the few feeble examples that Noonan provides can convince many conservatives that it is liberals who do all the things that conservatives actually do far more often, and far more systematically.

Furthermore, there's a more general finding that RWAs are more fearful in general--which is part of why they are so inclined to scapegoat outgroups, as well as why they are more likely to "Uncritically accept that many problems are ‘our most serious problem.’" This is consistent with their feeling that they are being persecuted by attempts to censor them that are far in excess of the actual incidents.

RWA is just one source of insight into the conservative mindset, but it is a powerful one that helps illuminate a good deal of what's behind the sorts of claims that Noonan's latest hissy fit exemplifies.

An entirely distinct attitudinal influence is Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), which revolves specifically around the promotion of group dominance of one group over all others. SDO is particularly noteworthy, because it is associated with the propagation of what are called "hierarchy enhancing legitimating myths"--which function in part to justify the use of double standards, which is why it's not really "hypocrisy" when conservatives employ double standards. They really do believe that different standards should apply to them than apply to everyone else.

There are other influences that are not attitudinal in nature, but that have to do with levels of cognitive awareness and complexity. Much of this is covered and analyzed in the 2003 paper, "Conservatism As Motivated Social Cognition" (PDF). While there is significantly less information from some of these other areas--including some not covered in the paper--tying them back to political orientations, the data we do have is all consistent with the broad thesis that conservatives are less self-conscious, less aware of their own failings, and less capable of making impartial judgements about the world.

These are statistical findings, meaning that there are abundant individual exceptions on both sides. But given the documented example of RWA, it seems highly plausible that in other cases as well, the realm of political elites, operatives and activists is disproportionately affected by these factors--particularly since widely-circulated narratives have the effect of reinforcing all the of attitudinal biases and cognitive deficits associated with conservatism in a broad statistical manner.

In conclusion, there is ample evidence out there that the sort of behavior evidenced by Noonan is over-determined (the result of multiple, reinforcing causes) in at least five different ways:

(1) As seen in the listing of factors associated with RWA, there are mutliple factors both tending toward outgroup demonization--a natural concomitant of suppression free speech--and those tending toward faulty reasoning. Thus, both tendencies are likely to be over-determined by RWA and its consequences. (To be absolutely sure, one would have to design tests to remove the influence of RWA, and study those of its associated factors by themselves.)

(2) The interaction of faulting reasoning and outgroup stigmatization represents a higher level of over-determination. Faulty reasoning facilitates and justifies outgroup stigmatization, while outgroup stigmatization often drives faulty reasoning.

(3) RWA and SDO have been shown to be co-determinants of group prejudice as well as other social attitudes. Thus, they work together to over-determine the well-springs of Noonan's acting out.

(4) Non-attitudinal factors, such as levels of cognitive complexity, reinforce the codetermined effects of RWA and SDO. In general, conservatives are less introspective, less likely to ponder their own inclinations toward projection and other ego defense mechanisms. Indeed, introspection is a decided liberal value, which is often mocked in culture wars discourse.

(5) The propagation of conservative narratives, combined with repetetive demonizaiton of "liberals" enhances the statistical differences underlying all of the above.

This is actually just a brief of sketch of what we're up against. It should help to explain why the sort of analysis that Glenn presents is not likely to have much of an impact on the behavior of conservate activists. The value of what he is doing--as well as countless others who are doing similar work--is that it is creating a record, documenting patterns of behavior that can become grist for the mill of critical re-examination, and the reformation of our political, and broader intellectual cultural.