Sunday, May 18, 2008
In the run-up to the Carnival of Elitist Bastards, I naturally got to thinking of the nature of terms of abuse -- why we use them and how they work.
Terms of abuse, like "elitist," are, by their very nature, broad brushes. As we've seen recently, it can be used to describe those who have the temerity to think that science is a good thing and, more importantly, that it should be taught to children as it is actually practiced, while philosophy and theology should be taught as what they really are -- conceptually separate, though potentially valuable in their own right, intellectual exercises.
"Elitist" has also be used to describe politicians -- particularly those who aspire to be statesmen -- who have the curious notion that people who lead great nations should be more educated, more knowledgeable and smarter than the average citizen and might have more valuable uses of their time than hiding that fact from general view.
And, of course, "elitist" can designate truly pernicious concepts, such as the idea that somehow an accident of birth makes one person more valuable or more worthy of respect than another.
The success of any term of abuse depends, of course, on evoking in the listener the bad connotations of the term as a "thought stopper," doing away with the need to expend further effort on considering the position of the abusee.
"Appeaser" is another good recent example and, for the record, it is not one that has been confined to less-than-historically-knowledgeable right wing talk radio hosts. And now, a more elaborate one is being bandied about: "courtier."
As Daniel Dennet pointed out in Freedom Evolves:
As creatures acquire more and more ... behavioral options, however, their worlds become cluttered, and the virtue of tidiness can come to be "appreciated" by natural selection. Many creatures have evolved simple instinctual behaviors for what might be called home improvement, preparing paths, lookouts, hideouts, and other features of their neighborhoods, generally making the local environment easier to get around in, easier to understand. Similarly, when the need arises, creatures evolve instincts for sprucing up their most intimate environments: their own brains, creating paths and landmarks for later use.Conscious agents like ourselves, with at least some volition, magnify the problem:
We have a problem of self-control that is truly hard -- costly -- for us to solve. ... It is the problem exemplified by Ulysses and the Sirens, where the trick is to devise some way of tying yourself to the mast and blocking your sailors' ears with wax so that you can't act on your strongest inclination of the moment. (The trick is to arrange it so that "at time t" your will is ineffective.) Ulysses knows perfectly well the long-term benefits of adopting the policy of avoiding the Sirens when they sing their seductive song, but he also knows he is disposed in many circumstances to overvalue immediate payoffs, so he needs to protect himself from a somewhat misshapen preference structure that he expects will impose itself on him when time t rolls around. He knows himself, and he knows what evolution has provided for him: a slightly second-rate faculty of reason that will cause him to take the immediate payoff ... unless he takes steps now to distribute his decision-making over more favorable times and attitudes.Many of the strategies for stopping your ears with wax rely on emotional self-manipulation. Nonetheless, they can wind up providing a benefit:
[T]he evolutionary beauty of this co-opting of emotion to play such a role in self-control is that it provides at the same time a basis for costly signaling of precisely this triumph: Others get to see that you are one of those emotional folks who can be counted on to care passionately about your commitments; it is not that you are crazy or irrational but that you put an irrationally high price (from the myopic perspective of the critic) on your integrity. You get to wear your heart on your sleeve, and a costly heart it is. The trick to gaining the reputation for being good, a valuable prize indeed, is actually being good."Good," of course, is defined by the group you belong to or aspire to belong to.
In sum, humans are predisposed to building intellectual "crib sheets" that are, in turn, subject to being emotionally manipulated. Enter the term of abuse. Punch an emotional button and reward the person who reacts "appropriately" with positive feedback and the deed is done.
Falling prey to terms of abuse, either by employing them or accepting them in lieu of rational thought, is not necessarily a result of stupidity, though the successful ones always result in ending thought. How gleefully anyone participates, however, says much about how they view that outcome.