Killer of Sacred Cows
Sunday, October 01, 2006
  Is Reason a Lost Cause?
(Crossposted to My Left Wing and - tomorrow - to Daily Kos.)

One of the recurring themes I find throughout the liberal blogosphere is the ongoing difficulty concerning attempts to reason with the common or garden neoconservative. Things that seem so clear-cut and obvious to those of us on the left are met with reactions ranging from curt dismissal, to snide mockery, to impassioned yet circular reasoning, to outright fury, when presented to neoconservatives. In discussions with neocons, logic and reason continually go by the boards, to be replaced with ideological ranting and religious self-righteousness. It leaves us liberal folks scratching our heads in puzzlement and trying to figure out why their reaction is so strong and so negative to the reasonable, factual statements we make.

Why is reasoning and discussion with neoconservatives so impossible? Why does it continually devolve into the leaps of logic and ad hominem attacks that we're all far too familiar with? The problem is, unfortunately, endemic to neoconservatism. Sadly, the very elements which make up a reasoned and honest debate are not just lacking in neoconservative thought, they are outright demonized and actively rejected by neocons. Things that liberals take for granted, such as openness, honesty, fact-based thinking, the ability to talk about abstract concepts, to stay with one topic until agreement or compromise has been reached, and - perhaps most importantly - to see the connections and similarities and patterns in events and actions: these are central necessities to debate and reason, and they are actively rejected by most, if not all, neoconservatives.

Honesty and Openness
As thereisnospoon has pointed out here:
To a Conservative, APPEARANCES are everything--SUBSTANCE is nothing.

Clinton's great crime, therefore, was NOT having an affair with an intern. To err is human. His crime was getting CAUGHT.

Men having sex with men isn't the problem--being OPEN about having sex with men is the problem. "Do it in your bedroom," they say, "but don't rub it in my face."

That's the cornerstone of the issue. Without openness and honesty, real debate and actual reasoning are impossible. As long as the idea is to keep up appearances, honesty has no place in the discussion.

Fact-Based Thinking
Here's a great divide between the reality-based community and the ideology/faith-based one: If it doesn't fit into your belief system, discard it - the mantra of those who think that a book or a set of economic ideals (neither of which stand up to reasoned scrutiny) is the best guide to living one's life. Challenging the basis of the faith (or ideology) causes neoconservatives such intense cognitive dissonance that they attack the person or situation who provoked it, the same way that a dog will attack a veterinarian who is trying to take a foreign object out of a wound in its leg. They literally can't admit that their ideas might be wrong or flawed (appearances, appearances!); doing that would be akin to a child having to admit that his father, while a very loving man, also had multiple affairs and hurt his wife a lot by doing so. It's too hard to deal with and too scary for them to handle.

Those of us in the reality-based community have no choice but to understand and use abstractions; they're part of real life. Things are never wholly good or wholly bad, and most of us reality-based folks can admit to flaws in our leaders and beliefs while still finding those leaders and beliefs functional and essentially good. Those in the faith-based community can't deal with the cognitive dissonance that such abstractions present to them; their minds are so limited - from years of repetitive, nonreasoning belief or ideology - that they can't deal with a world whose situations come in many shades of grey, instead of black-and-white, clearly cut, easily discernible, concrete, dichotomous choices. Plainly put, logic and reasoning don't work with people who can't think in abstract concepts. I have never yet known a neoconservative who can think in anything but concrete concepts. Implications and long-term consequences are so far off their radar that they might as well be nonexistent.

Sticking With The Topic
For a liberal, the point of debate and reason is to come to an agreement or a compromise - to find the win-win situation. For a neoconservative, the point of argument is to win. As a result, the two groups are coming at this with opposing goals.

This is why neoconservatives, by and large, refuse to stick to the topic at hand. In fact, they appear incapable of it. To them, adding in more and more ammunition/evidence/"evidence," and jumping from point to point in a verbal (and often self-contradictory) blitzkrieg, is perfectly okay, because it puts their opponent off-balance, which to them means that they've won. Winning is the important thing - it doesn't matter if they're right as long as they can shut you up!

In the rare event that you can get a neoconservative to stick to one topic and actually argue it out with you, they will invariably insist that whatever you're talking about is simply an isolated case. No matter how many "isolated cases" you can present them with, they will insist that there's no connection - because to them, there isn't. If the "isolated cases" are not identical down to the smallest detail particular, then there's nothing to say. "Mark Foley's pedophilia is minor! Clinton having an affair is major! There's no similarity there! Foley was just misguided!"

Seeing connections you point out is something they can't or won't do. There are no connections between one event and another for neoconservatives, unless they're connections that they themselves have come up with, which goes back to their goal of "winning." They refuse to acknowledge their opponent's points, because anything which weakens their argument causes them too much cognitive dissonance.

This is how neoconservatives operate in such comfortable oblivion, by refusing to see connections and patterns that are obvious to the rest of us.

Is There A Solution?
Obviously, education is key. Education beyond high school invariably forces students to look at abstractions and deal with them. It's why I'm such a firm advocate of it. Get 'em while they're young, while they can still handle the transition. It's one of the a major reasons why neoconservative parents are afraid of sending their kids to university; being at university almost invariably makes the kids start questioning the faith-based community and opting (after some difficulty) for the reality-based one.

In a conversation with AaronBa on DailyKos (where much of this diary sprang from), he said:
[E]ven the neocons scramble to send their kids to Harvard, Haverford, and all the other "name" schools[...]

In their hearts of hearts, they know that the education at those places is better than at, say, Bob Jones University.

In their hearts of hearts, they know that what they spout each day is nonsense.

That is both the heart of, and a possible key to solving, the problem. Yes, they may know it. but they actively refuse to pay attention to that knowledge. To do so would destroy them utterly, and they have no concept of how to rebuild from that kind of destruction. The fact that rebuilding is not only possible but damn near inevitable escapes them. In their ossified minds, change is The Worst Thing In The World - which is why the people currently in office have so little trouble manipulating them.

These fears of change include the fear of what it means for them to be wrong. Nobody likes having made mistakes, but neoconservatives are pathologically afraid of it, and will go to great lengths to avoid either admitting they made a mistake or having it noticed by others. The anger and despair of Naniboujou's "An Open Letter To My Father underscores this particular point. The loyalty of a neoconservative follower is hard to derail, and the fallout often is not pretty or easy to cope with - because fear is pernicious and hard to shake. And when their fear-based loyalty causes them to make the serious mistake of supporting someone like Bush 43 and the neoconservatives who occupy the halls of Congress, the fallout increases by several orders of magnitude.

So what's the key, then? I think it's fairly obvious.

In order to reason with neoconservatives, we will first have to find ways to reduce their fears and help them realize what they already know - and help them cope with it, as they come to realize that what they already know is not a threat but a promise, a promise of a happier, more fulfilling, calmer life for them, infinitely preferable to the constant fear that currently has them imprisoned. Until we can do that, our efforts at reason may be a pointless throwing of our good seeds upon hardened clay, instead of fertile soil.
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