I asked some questions in my post of February 17th about a suggestion that conservative political philosophy needs emotional appeals rather than rational arguments:
The writer [Gorka] makes a vital point that most people who support capitalism miss: we will never win the argument about capitalism being superior to socialism because many voters are only interested in emotions, not arguments. Accordingly they feel that capitalists are mean and socialists are compassionate, concerned about people. The only way to be compassionate is to take from the capitalists and give to them since capitalists got rich by making them poor. Unless and until conservatives can make a compassion appeal they will lose politically more and more. Forget trying to reason with people for whom reason is never a part of their feelings. So far Democrats have won the compassion battle. Republicans have always been out-compassioned. A completely different approach is needed. I think it can be done. Republicans can start by stopping trying to win rational arguments. They don’t win with apolitical voters who vote based on feelings.
I said, “[So,] We should take the Ocasio-Cortez Green New Deal as she suggests… “aspirational”; and respond with our own surreal proposals because we can’t win otherwise? What would that argument look like?”
I was facetious (unicorns and fairy wings were featured) in answer to my own question, but the suggestion we should go full compassion mode is still knocking about in my head, so I will attempt to provide some more serious answers.
Let’s start with defining “emotional argument.”
Politically, propaganda is the first definition that pops into my head. But let me suggest a more neutral definition: Emotional ‘argument’ appeals to deeply held moral intuitions. What those intuitions are matters.
For example, the Left often succeeds by touching instinctive feelings about fairness versus cheating and exploitation. They are successful with this in part by inflaming class envy. “Tax cuts for the rich must be stopped!”
Take the current MSM attack on the Republican tax cuts, “REFUNDS ARE DOWN!”. Well, yes. And that’s to be expected isn’t it?
If you make $30,000 at a tax rate of 10%, your annual taxes would project to be $3,000. Since there are many vagaries in the tax code and life circumstances, you decide to withhold an extra 10% per month, or $25.
If your tax rate is cut to 9%, your taxes would be $2,700, and your contingency 10% extra withholding becomes $22.50 per month.
At the end of the year everything works out perfectly and all your extra withholding – the money you loaned the government – is refunded. In the first case your refund is $300. In the second case it’s $270. Your refund is lower. But you paid $300 less in taxes.
Some people are disappointed that the government let them keep an extra $300 because their refund (money they gave the government they didn’t have to, and irrelevant to the concept of ‘tax cut’) is $30 lower. They could have just given the government an extra $100 a month if the higher refund was so important.
What ‘compassionate’ explanation can be given to people who use payroll taxes as a savings account on which no interest is paid? What ‘conservative’ emotional appeal could possibly apply? Only a rational argument will do.
One compassionate meme we would need is an appeal to individual responsibility – which the Left overwhelmingly ignores because it would blunt their class envy rhetoric. Leftists see fairness as equality of outcome. Anything else is prima facie evidence of oppression.
The Left continually insists the ‘rights’ of this or that victim group are being violated by a dominant group of ‘oppressors,’ and they never talk about their own responsibilities. They’re too busy telling you what your responsibility is to ‘victims.’
I contend the root problem isn’t a perception that conservatives lack compassion. It’s education.
The Millennials can’t remember very much – and they don’t learn very much either. It’s easy being hot for socialism or communism when you actually have a very little idea of what it is and what it did throughout the 20th century. And the Ys have that ignorance in spades; one third of them think that George W Bush killed more people than Stalin and 42 per cent have never heard of Mao – but over 70 per cent agree with Bernie Sanders. Some research suggests that only 15 per cent actually have a correct understanding of socialism… To be fair, that’s not strictly their fault; that attaches itself again to their Boomer grandparents who have been in charge of our failing education systems during this time. Combine the modern indoctrination-cum-dumbification taking place in schools and universities with the attention span-killing impact of information technology and social media, and you have a barely literate cohort, which is simply not equipped with the necessary mental tools to learn about the real world even if they wanted to.
Any surprises that socialism is now nearly synonymous with Gen Y?…
Millennials… are said to be unrealistic and have both the inflated expectations of life and the inflated perceptions of selves. They think the world owes them a living – a good one too – though without necessary too much effort. Things came very easily to them when they were growing up; when that suddenly stops – when the reality finally intrudes – they get angry, frustrated, lost: the world is deeply unfair and is conspiring against them… Having been told their whole lives how special they are, they tend to be over-sensitive and find it difficult to cope with criticism or obstacles…
Socialism is the response of a spoiled child when faced with the world that does not genuflect to its every wish the way their parents did – the world as it is must therefore be evil and has to be changed to something radically different. Gen Y, of course, did not just magically became [sic] the way they are – they were brought up like that…
For a rational approach, I’m going to turn to an educator whose message is attractive to many angry, frustrated, and lost millennials: Professor Jordan Peterson. If Peterson has a single main point, it might be that personal responsibility is the root of meaning in life, lack of which I think is the millennials’ angst.
We’ll take a brief look at his common sense (at least it used to be) insight into the benefits of individual responsibility and a peek at the biological basis for moral intuitions of fairness.
This clip starts at 32:25. Be sure to watch until at least 35:06, but just after that there a Q&A which starts with a question about rights.
“Now, you’ve got something to sell to young people. You can sell them freedom of speech, and you can sell them responsibility.” We could try. We could start in our educational system by eliminating participation trophies in Kindergarten, and ‘Identity Studies’ and safe spaces in Universities.
I do not know how these ideas can be turned into 30 second ‘branding messages,’ but you could start with (from the Q&A at about 40:39) “Your capacity for speech is divine. It’s the thing that generates order from chaos… Nothing brings a better world into being than the stated truth.” It’s worth it to just keep watching after that.
That isn’t an empirical defense of free speech. It might even be called an emotional appeal, but here is Peterson’s rational defense of free speech:
Interviewer (Cathy Newman, hostile): Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?
Peterson: Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. I mean, look at the conversation we’re having right now. You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable. […] You’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell is going on. And that is what you should do. But you’re exercising your freedom of speech to certainly risk offending me, and that’s fine. More power to you, as far as I’m concerned.
… a few seconds pass…
Peterson: (chuckling kindly): Ha. Gotcha.
Interviewer: You have got me. You have got me. I’m trying to work that through my head. It took awhile. It took awhile. It took awhile.
It will take awhile to fix academia. It took a long time to break it.
That excerpt is from a highly recommended interview which ran on Britain’s Channel 4, which I will describe as a half hour tour de force of rational argumentation demolishing Leftwing knee-jerk compassion. If you haven’t seen it, go here. Fourteen million people already have. I think the vast majority of those were interested in the rational points about fairness.
Now, what can the origins of the moral intuition of fairness tell us? The clip below starts with Peterson describing experiments observing rats at play. Watch at least up to about 20:20, where he begins to talk about chimpanzees and then postmodernism. (That is well worth a listen, too, and it relates to this post, but the rats segment is sufficient to the question of human moral intuition about fair play.)
“Rules across the set of all games,” is a vital observation. People who know children will have observed how a 2 or 3 year old reacts to losing a game, or even a roll of dice; anger, tears, withdrawal. If a child hasn’t internalized the concept of “the set of games” by the time they’re 4, it’s likely they never will. Other children will not want to play with them, because they are poor sports. And adults will find them unpleasant to be around, because such children have never abandoned the idea of zero-sum interactions. I suspect this is at least a partial explanation for the existence of SJW’s, because their brand includes participation trophies, safe spaces, and unearned self esteem.
It is, therefore, a yuge problem for Donald Trump that he brands things as zero-sum: He wins; “They” lose. His trade policy is perhaps the best example, but hardly the only one. This doesn’t excuse his opponents’ excesses, but it makes it far easier for them to portray him as an ‘evil’ conservative. And to portray conservatism as compassionless. (One could argue the emotional appeal we really need is that “compassionless” is what we should want from government, but that’s another post.) Trump’s default emotional appeal is to something other than fairness, and his past business conduct simply cements the meme.
For social animals, success is more about being invited to play than winning every game. This deeply held moral intuition starts with biology and spreads to culturally enforced norms. It is not, as postmodernists would have it, solely about dominance and submission carving us into identity groups. The idea that power is everything informs much of the Left’s claims that they’re compassionate, even though when put into practice their ideas inevitably result in misery. They have seized the high ground on “good intentions.” Compassion and good intentions are not at all the same thing.
Jordan Peterson’s ideas are very popular among millions of young people immersed in the nihilist orthodoxy spewing from our institutions of higher education. They have excellent attention spans for solutions to their angst. They like Peterson precisely because his dozens of academic online lectures each offer a couple of hours of rational arguments about pursuing meaning in life, in spite of the suffering inherent in being alive. The Left cannot compete.
Maybe it isn’t overtly emotional appeals we need to enable rational discussion, maybe it’s rational discussion we need to rouse appropriate emotion. There is an audience.
Peterson’s rational ideas are emotionally compelling for those seeking meaningful lives. You only have to read a few of the letters he’s received to understand the desperate need for substance, not branding. This is not to say he’s convincing the committed Leftists (far from it, they despise him), or that he’s reached universal pop-cultural awareness, but people are bringing their own need for meaning to him. In droves. Maybe a way to combat the fantasies of Ocasio-Cortez is to support Peterson.
To close, another source for an appeal to moral intuition comes from a man considered of the left while he lived. How much times have changed will be clear if you read Kurt Vonnegut’s quite short story Harrison Bergeron.
This story examines what happens when everyone is MADE to be equal in the cause of ‘fairness’. Maybe the Koch brothers can be persuaded to finance re-releasing the 1995 movie based on the story. Some of our budding socialists might get a clue that good intentions have to be aligned with good results.