Historical Principle: Face It, People Don't Think Abstractly

My favorite Last Man Standing episode is "Renaming Boyd's School." What makes it such a fantastic episode is the reason that Vanessa (Nancy Travis) doesn't want to change the school's name.

The argument: Clark Elementary School is named after Clark of Lewis & Clark, and he owned slaves. The argument against keeping the name is that Clark wasn't the greatest role model when it comes to diversity and understanding the modern world. The argument for retaining the name is that Clark was a product of his past--lots of people (including George Washington) owned slaves--plus changing the name will cost money.

Vanessa Baxter doesn't want the name to change because changing the name could lead to the school painting over the Lewis & Clark mural that she and other parents painted years earlier--it is part of her legacy.

She makes the clever argument that the name "Lewis" should be used instead--which would lead to the mural being preserved. The name is PC because Lewis was gay--or not.

But the real reason for Vanessa's argument is the mural. She's invested in it; she wants something she worked on, her legacy, to survive.

Encapsulated in Vanessa's argument is the reason that Marxism failed: People don't think in the abstract. Ultimately, familial, religious, and local concerns and needs matter more than any amount of "poor people will rise up against their overlords" theorizing.

In the previous Daughter of Time post, I address how Tey's character Grant reduces the War of
the Roses to a local affair. He is wrong (not all of the book's history is accurate). However, while the messiness of brawling royal families hurt everyone from farmers to merchants (the ramifications weren't limited to a group of cliquey aristocrats), the short-term politics of the war had sudden and explosive ramifications for the aristocratic families involved--the ones who invested themselves in one dynasty or another by trying to marry their children into particular families or by backing a particular power-broker. 

Pick the wrong side in modern-day America, and you have to wait four more years. Pick the wrong side then and wave goodbye to your entire family.

The point: people back then (and now) didn't think in philosophical terms or theoretical terms or historical terms. They thought in terms of what the leaders and battles and wars meant to their current needs, wants, goals. As Spike says in Buffy about the vengeful Native American ghost, "You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick."

Bad behavior can result from Spike's mindset, but the underlying reality--people care about stuff--is not inherently greedy or evil. It's normal. And everybody does it, even people who think they are above it all. As I tell my students, "Everybody has a bias because everybody has an invested interest."

Each of us cares about something: reputation, paying the rent, kids, getting funds for this particular program, a house, a car, a garden, a piece of art. Cats. We care about the next ice cream social or the next religious service or the neighbors next door. We care about the coffee shop we want to save or the building we want to preserve, the television show we really love or the traditions that have helped us and our family. We invest in a particular recipe or website or leader or brand. 

Claiming abstract motivations (I want the world to be a better place! I want to save the nation!) sounds good, and the human brain works overtime to make such abstract claims sound good. And I'm not throwing out the possibility that people are motivated by virtues and empathy and bigger pictures (I think they are).

The point is that no amount of abstract belief will wipe out the things and people that humans attach themselves to. As sociological analyses show time and time again, people join causes and religions and political rallies through word-of-mouth and family ties--personal investment--and very rarely through abstract argument.

We are social animals, whether we want to be or not. We are wired to care about what's in front of us, not to robotically (my apologies to robots) unravel the present into relativistic non-being.

There's a reason that philosophers like C.S. Lewis believe that the present, now, is the closest tie to eternity. Imagine the future all you want--the present is where thought and belief and the physical, material world in which we invest ourselves actually come into contact. 


FreeLiveFree said...

Good essay. I'm pretty sure that being concerned for practical values is more important than abstract ones. Putting food on the table trumps someones ideas of social justice.

Joe said...

I think this is related to logical and critical thinking.

I've long observed that most people struggle with more than two logical steps. Politics and religion work because most people either can't or won't take an argument to its logical conclusion (or, if some do so, they redefine the argument. This isn't always done maliciously, but sometimes due to misunderstanding what is being argued. Granted, ofttimes that misunderstanding is really the result of biases, but I do think it also happens because the listener really has lost the thread, so to speak.)

Another factor is what I consider the core difference between what drives people to become liberals versus conservatives; that the former believe intentions matter more than actions, while the latter believe actions matter more. This becomes problematic since intentions are not only hard to pin down for one self, but even harder for others. Thus, regulating speech and thoughts becomes critical and you end up with nonsensical lists of rules, the violations of which are adjudicated completely subjectively. (And you end up with modern University jurisprudence, which is genuinely Orwellian.)

(Taking to the other extreme--where intentions are irrelevant--you end up with cruelty, but at least, arguably, the rules are known. It seems, however, that when societies try to go that far, they still end up fetishizing intentions, often by increasing adding even more laws of increasing trivial nature.)