On Politics

What is "politics", anyway?

the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power

It's all about which group of people has the power and authority to conduct the policy, actions, and affairs of a state, and β€” crucially β€” make or change the laws that control the lives of all law-abiding citizens.


Let's break this down from a psychological perspective. The political spectrum is often placed on the liberal/conservative axis (at least in the U.S.), but that's too simplistic. Personally, I think about these two axes:

When it comes to psychology, no one factor is completely disconnected from others, but I think looking at these two is useful. Note that these are not value judgments, only a description of one's psychological tendencies due to upbringing, and the cultural, societal and biological backgrounds.

SELFLESSNESS. This is about the priority one places on themselves vs. everyone else: do I consider my own happiness and success more important than that of others? I would say most people are on the selfish side, due to natural self-preservation, but the extremes reach far in both directions, from asshole billionaries to volunteers helping at homeless shelters. This is not about accumulating wealth, though; that is more of a side effect. The core is empathy: how much time a person spends thinking about and acting on the needs and comforts of others, and how much are they willing to tolerate discomfort and inconvenience for the benefit of others. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

RATIONALITY. The tendency to make decisions based on logic and reason. It is predicated on having facts to base decisions on. The opposite is nonrationality: acting on emotion and intuition, without going through a logical thought process. Everyone does both of these, or a combination thereof, but the question is where one falls on the axis β€” which side has more weight in any given situation. A highly rational person likely has more facts at their disposal, although there is no guarantee those facts have any basis in reality.

(Of course, there are also many other axes, for instance authoritativeness: how much you seek to have power and control over others.)

Keeping in mind that there are only soft gradients here without clear divisions, let's examine where some commonly held political views fall on these axes.

Rational empathetic

This is the archetypal community-oriented liberal who advocates for policies that benefit society as a whole: higher taxes are good as they finance public education, health care, and social safety nets. Decision-making is based on evidence, statistics, metrics, and unbiased studies and surveys. Change is seen as invigorating and exciting instead of threatening, because it elevates society as a whole.

Rational selfish

These are the fiscal conservative types, company owners and other capitalists, who dislike the notion that their labor benefits anyone but themselves: cut all taxes and provide essential services needed by society via companies that compete on the Free Market. Your place in society should be measured by the value you personally contribute, and that is objectively measured with money. After all, thinking through it rationally, a system like this could work? If only everyone wasn't looking to maximize their own profits and wealth.

Emotional empathetic

Nationalists and xenophobes. They consider the in-group to be a substantial part of one's identity, and act on emotion β€” feelings of national pride and unity, fear of strangers and people who are different. Hostility toward a member of the group is a personal affront to you as well, and you may take aggressive defensive actions even though you were not personally involved. Belonging to a group gives you comfort and a sense of place in a world full of dangers and aggressors seeking to disrupt your way of life. Religious people belong in this category also: religion is heavily nonrational (i.e., taking things on faith) and is typically strongly oriented toward group behaviors.

Emotional selfish

To these people, everything is inconsequential until it affects themselves directly. This is the heart of conservatism: resisting any idea or change that causes oneself to have negative emotions. I also place free speech advocates in this category, although they are closer to neutral on rationality. They have a set of principles and rules, which is rational, but instead of logic the motivations seem to be based on egalitarianism and justice. To free speech advocates, the freedom to express oneself without limitations is paramount, with no regard for the consequences: hence, high on the selfishness. "The solution to bad speech is more speech", as if the subsequent additional speech would heal the damage already incurred. It's a recipe for vicious escalation.


What kind of conclusions should we draw from this?

Firstly, much of our behavior is driven by our innate psychological characteristics, so trying to influence the political behavior of others is difficult or even futile. I believe this is why political discourse is often distasteful: challenging the mental models and world views that are based on a person's character and values can feel offensive. Is political activism really about trying to make the world a better place, or more about getting to express one's own views, attempting to validate them by convincing others?

Secondly, human behavior is messy and complex, and trying to put broad labels on it is reductive. Unfortunately, labels and simplifications is how we manage to cope with the infinite complexity of the universe, so the best we can strive for here is to not get stuck on a single way of looking at the world. Everything isn't about "left" or "right".

And thirdly, lack of self-awareness leads into gullibility and to being vulnerable to political predators. It's valuable to analyze one's own thinking and value system and recognize that they are different from those of others. Sadly, not all have the opportunity or capacity to ponder these things.

Given all this, I posit that the only effective way to produce political change is not through radical activism and discourse, but through two things: understanding others' views, and teaching the "correct" mindset and cognitive tools to the next generation, that is, your own children (or students). True progress is generational as we tend to get ossified in our thinking. This is a process that everyone needs to take personal responsibility of, lest the Rupert Murdochs of the world take care of it for us.

πŸ“… 2022-05-05

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