Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Towards A New Sociology

George Will weighs in on the Tucson shootings, and points the way towards a new method of sociological analysis:

It would be merciful if, when tragedies such as Tucson’s occur, there were a moratorium on sociology. But respites from half-baked explanations, often serving political opportunism, are impossible because of a timeless human craving and a characteristic of many modern minds.

The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience. Time was, the gods were useful. What is thunder? The gods are angry. Polytheism was explanatory. People postulated causations.

And still do. Hence: The Tucson shooter was (pick your verb) provoked, triggered, unhinged by today’s (pick your noun) rhetoric, vitriol, extremism, “climate of hate.”

Demystification of the world opened the way for real science, including the social sciences. And for a modern characteristic. And for charlatans.

A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment. From which flows a political doctrine: Given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected. This supposedly is the path to progress. It actually is the crux of progressivism. And it is why there is a reflex to blame conservatives first.

I’m not aware of many people who think that all human behavior can be traced to its social environment. I’m not positive about this, but I think most social scientists — as well as most laymen — would argue that the human psyche is formed by both nature and nurture. It’s not exclusively the product of one or the other. But even so, could such an idea properly be called a superstition, no different than believing thunder is caused by the gods? There is no evidence that Thor causes thunder; there is evidence that a person’s surroundings influence their personality development. One is an unwarranted assumption with no basis in fact. The other is a scientific theory that can be tested and evaluated.

For example, what would happen if you took the son of a successful philosophy professor, gave him a privileged upbringing, and then sent him to Oxford and Princeton for some clever social engineering? There’s reason to believe that he’d become a pompous conservative intellectual with a seething hatred of the poor, the working class, and liberals in general. I can think of one prominent example right off the top of my head.

Having grown up in such soft, secure circumstances where his future was assured and he would never know the pain of labor, debt or anxiety, it would be easy for him to conclude that the world is a basically well-ordered place. From which flows a political philosophy. It is actually the crux of conservatism. Since the world is basically fine, those who would seek to change it are a potentially dangerous menace. They are, at best, naive do-gooders. At worse, they are wicked levelers driven by a sense of envy and failure. It’s not his fault they lacked the prenatal foresight to be born into a prosperous family. Nor is he responsible for their inability to succeed in this, the best of all possible worlds. Regardless, if they get their way, it might screw up what for him and other conservatives is a pretty good gig. And it is why there is a reflex to blame progressives first.

Conservatism is little more than a smug, elaborate rationalization for established privilege. If the barefoot serfs in the tea party don’t recognize this and realize they are being played for suckers, that’s a pity. They are the products of a bad environment, and that bad environment is itself the product of a predatory and dishonest political philosophy.

George Will is right about one thing, though. Bad social science does open the door for charlatans and political opportunists who, in the guise of experts, can shrewdly deceive the ignorant. Take this example, written in 2008 as a response to then candidate Obama’s comment that some bitter Americans “cling to guns or religion” in tough times:

The iconic public intellectual of liberal condescension was Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970 but whose spirit still permeated that school when Obama matriculated there in 1981. Hofstadter pioneered the rhetorical tactic that Obama has revived with his diagnosis of working-class Democrats as victims — the indispensable category in liberal theory. The tactic is to dismiss rather than refute those with whom you disagree.

Obama’s dismissal is: Americans, especially working-class conservatives, are unable, because of their false consciousness, to deconstruct their social context and embrace the liberal program. Today that program is to elect Obama, thereby making his wife at long last proud of America.

Hofstadter dismissed conservatives as victims of character flaws and psychological disorders — a “paranoid style” of politics rooted in “status anxiety,” etc. Conservatism rose on a tide of votes cast by people irritated by the liberalism of condescension.

Obama voiced such liberalism with his “bitterness” remarks to an audience of affluent San Franciscans. Perfect.

Here, clearly, is a half-baked explanation serving political opportunism. There’s no evidence that Obama has ever read Richard Hofstadter. Maybe he has, maybe he hasn’t. Maybe Obama’s liberalism —such as it is — came from some other source entirely. Maybe it’s just a consequence of the random and the inexplicable in human experience. We simply don’t know. How can you seriously suggest that a comment Obama made in 2008 is the direct result of his having somehow imbibed the ‘spirit’ of a dead historian?

And where did Obama’s embrace of Wall Street come from? Milton Friedman, who earned his PhD from Columbia University? Surely Dr. Friedman must have left some residue behind for Obama to absorb as well?

That’s what you get when you go postulating causations! The writer of that piece should have known better, because the writer of that piece was, after all, George Will. But you already knew that.

So I guess the first principle of a non-charlatan based sociology is this: Environment doesn’t effect behavior except when it does, and it usually only does so if it suits George Will’s biases. Perfect. All else is but a misguided attempt to banish “randomness and the inexplicable from human experience,” the foolish hobgoblin of many modern minds.

So, if Sarah Palin exhorts her groupies not to retreat, but reload, or if Sharon Angle blathers on about Second Amendment solutions, or if Glenn Beck openly fantasizes about killing Michael Moore, it’s not likely to influence some gun nut’s behavior. It’s all good in the hood.

On the other hand, the spirit of Richard Hofstadter, which mysteriously permeates the halls of Columbia University — the restless Ghost of Liberal Condescension Past — had a direct, traceable influence Obama’s conduct in 2008. Perfect.

There is no such thing as a “climate of hate” that can influence behavior. There is a climate of liberal condescension that can. Got it.

I can’t wait for lesson number two in Willian sociology, although I already know what it is: The virtues of the ad hominem argument; or, it’s not called hypocrisy when conservatives do it.

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