Sunday, March 11, 2012
Appealing to the Basest Instincts
What is human nature? This is one of the most basic evolutionary questions. The liberal idea of previous decades, that the human mind is a blank slate upon which human nature is written by childhood experiences, has been largely discarded even by liberals. It is clear to about half of the people in America that human nature is the product of evolution. The other half of the people think it is the product of a joint venture between God and Satan: God created the good part, and for some inexplicable reason allowed Satan to create the bad part. And that bad part will get us sent to hell unless we assent to certain doctrinal beliefs.
What kind of human nature has evolution left us with? It is a complex mixture. A lot of human nature is altruistic—we have a deep emotional urge to help others, even sacrificially. And a lot of human nature is hateful—a desire to defeat, even to kill, those whom we view as a threat. The mixture is not so hard to understand. We feel altruism toward members of our group, and to hate members outside of our group. Although human nature has not changed during history, we have learned to gradually move the dividing line outward, so as to include and love more and more people in our group. The Christian ideal is to include all of humankind in the group that we love; and some parts of the Bible imply that we should love all of the living world.
But however much we have extended our boundaries of altruism, hatred remains a basic, and base, instinct. It is always going to be stronger than altruism. Here is why. Hatred is a quick and pervasive way of arousing the human body to respond to deadly conflict. If you perceive a danger, rage will allow you to respond to it quickly; if you wait and think, you might be dead. The consequences of attacking something or someone that or who turns out to not be a threat (Type II error, in statistical terminology) are far less than the consequences of failing to respond to a real threat (Type I error). This is why, throughout the animal kingdom, rage circumvents conscious thought, while altruism incorporates it. It is quite normal, though horrible, for people to respond to hatred more than to love.
Any public figure who appeals to the base instinct of hatred is going to get more unquestioning support than someone who appeals to love and reason. The altruist may get more reasoned support, but cannot win the battle for unquestioning support. And today in America, it is the conservatives who appeal to the base instinct of hatred. Probably the best example is Rush Limbaugh, who became infamous recently for his statements about a female college student (Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke). He called her a slut, and said, first, that she had so much sex that it was surprising that she could walk, and second, that Americans should have access to videos of her sexual encounters so that we could see what we were getting for our money. These statements were so outrageous that advertisers began pulling their support from Limbaugh’s radio show; and Limbaugh later issued a perfunctory apology, which was clearly not repentance.
But what response did the Republican presidential candidates have? As of this writing, Mitt Romney has avoided any criticism of Rush Limbaugh. And Rick Santorum has even praised Rush Limbaugh. On a March 10 visit to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Limbaugh’s hometown, Santorum said, “It’s good to be in the hometown of Rush Limbaugh, which some people see as a trip to Mecca.” He was careful to say “some people,” but he was clearly including himself in that statement. He considers himself a Christian, yet (according to his own words) reveres Limbaugh with the same intensity that Muslims revere Mohammed.
Some politicians appeal to reason. This includes many Democrats, and a few Republicans (my favorite reasonable Republican is Mickey Edwards). Other politicians appeal to anger. This appears to include most Republicans, and some liberals. The angry liberals may be just as outrageous as Rush Limbaugh, but clearly their audience is much smaller than his. (My favorite example of an unreasonable liberal was Lynn Samuels, who died last December. Whenever I ran across her on liberal talk radio, my skin would crawl.) This is the generalization that emerges: Republicans use propaganda to appeal to the base instinct of hatred, while Democrats use reasoning to appeal to the higher instinct of altruism. This is strange, since most Republicans do not accept evolution, and believe that hatred was created by Satan.
This essay will soon appear on my website. Please post comments in the comment box.