Saturday, May 12, 2012
The Evolution of the Republican Brain—In Oklahoma
This morning, at the commencement at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, the keynote speaker was Mr. Jerry Buchanan, a prominent Republican from Tulsa. During his speech, he made reference to “Obama bin Laden.” He then made a perfunctory apology, but due to his gestures (including a grin and putting his thumb to his mouth) I inferred that the apology was not sincere.
I have written recently (see entry for March 20) that the political leaders of Oklahoma act as if they are not really part of the United States. I was hoping that what I then wrote about was an isolated instance, but a pattern appears to be forming, in which Republicans consider Democrats to not be fellow Americans but to be outsiders, even enemies. Throughout human history, our species has drawn lines between insiders, whom we treat with altruism, and outsiders, whom we despise. We have steadily encompassed more and more people, and even other species and the Earth, into the “insider” group. But in Oklahoma it appears that this process is reversing. It hasn’t always been this way. Back when Republicans hated Bill Clinton, they never implied that he was a terrorist, or in other ways spewed the hatred that they now spew toward President Obama. Whether this is because the Republican Party has changed from being the party of right wing activism to being the party of personal animosity toward others, or whether it is because Obama is (part) black and Clinton is white, I cannot say.
And this is exactly what we would expect from the way the “Republican brain” works. This phrase is in the title of Chris Mooney’s new book. Mooney (author of such previous works as The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America) uses recent research into psychology to say that people whose brains have an intolerance of ambiguity tend to join the Republican Party. The process is quite simple. Some people’s brains make them believe that everything is either totally right or totally wrong; and that whatever they happen to believe is totally right; and that anyone who disagrees with them is therefore not only wrong but evil; and that they are right (or blessed by God) whenever they take actions against other people that would, in most circumstances, be considered wrong. That is, when such people are “standing up for their beliefs,” no amount of ridicule or insult or misinformation is too much to heap upon others, and God releases them from moral and legal obligations when they attack others. While this is a perfect description of Republicans, it also describes extreme liberals; however, there just aren’t enough extreme liberals to bother talking about them.
I believe that this was what was happening in the mind of the commencement speaker this morning. Perhaps he believes that he should extend the normal respect of shared citizenship to President Obama, but subconsciously his brain is telling him that the president is related conceptually to terrorism. And I believe that this is also why most of the audience thought it was funny.
I confronted the speaker about this afterward. The speaker had told the graduates that their words should be positive, to create a positive future for themselves and a positive environment for everyone. I told him that his words about “Obama bin Laden” were not positive, but were highly insulting. He agreed. He insisted that it was a Freudian slip. I asked him to write a letter of apology to President Obama, and he promised to do so. I went up to him again and told him that his apology makes a great deal of difference. And that is why I am telling you about it. I will probably never know whether he actually sends an apology, but for the record, he apologized.
It is the Freudian part that I am writing about. I actually believe that Jerry Buchanan just made a mistake. But associating people who disagree with them, especially President Obama, with evil comes naturally and subconsciously to Republicans, and it slips out even when they do not intend it to—even when they do not consciously believe it, or just when they think it is bad publicity to say it. And the laughter of the crowd tells me that Oklahoma is dangerously Red. Dangerous, because they can say all kinds of hostile and inflammatory things before they even realize what they are doing. Will actions follow words? History, even recent history, even recent American history, does not offer us complete assurance that we have nothing to worry about, especially since there are enough guns in Oklahoma to supply an army as large as that of some nations. As long as the Oklahoma House opens its sessions with creationist rants (see March 20) and the people of Oklahoma think that it is funny to associate the name of the president with terrorism, the ground is fertile for real trouble.
Evolution gave us mammalian brains that react instantly to perceived threats. However, evolution has more recently given us advanced human brains that can learn to choose altruism over animosity.
Note: Someone posted a comment on this entry, but when I click on it, my computer goes into an unresponsive mode. I have not read the comment but I suspect that someone has inserted a virus. Beware! Update: The problem was apparently a computer glitch caused by Google. The comment was not a virus.