Saturday, September 27, 2008

Third-party identification

D'y'know what I was only just thinking about? Charity and identification. Is it possible that through identification we have that Machiavellian justification for "loving [one's] neighbor as [one's] self?" This especially is the case in terms of that "outside perspective" that we talking about in Brian's class the other day; by identifying with some group, their success becomes your success in the eyes of the outside perspective. For example, if I'm thinking of myself primarily as Mormon (or, say, Catholic) I can justify voting for Mitt Romney (or JFK) exclusively because he's Mormon (Catholic). As the outsiders see Mitt as a successful and/or powerful and/or intelligent individual, the introductions to me as the Mormon become less derogatory. This is probably why all Mormons have "The List" of successful Mormons (Did you know that the Used are Mormon? Did you know Aaron Eckhart went to BYU?) to whip out to convince themselves, and their friends, that they aren't crazy polygamists.

[This is why I, personally, can wish all of you the best in your careers, suddenly, instead of feeling intense competition for those few PhD spots--if I can help you to be successful, especially in my own field, my academic credence with rise.]

But returning to my original quote. You'll notice that when Jesus gave the injunction to love one's neighbor, he was immediately asked to qualify that statement. The "in-group" was supposed to be Jews. In telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was either intending on doing one of two things:

(1) including Samaritans into the "in-group" of people who should identify themselves with Jews and, implicitly, Jews into identifying themselves as Samaritans in order to suggest a more unified front against Roman occupation. (I think this is dubious--just because two groups were included in the story doesn't mean that the story couldn't have been repeated as the Good Roman. For narrative consistency, it could only include one jilted group into the circle of "love[d] as [one's own] self." Also, the relationship with the Romans was vastly unequal between Jews and Samaritans and a gain for Samaritans in this political identification would have been a loss for the Jews.--which is always why we are loath to acknowledge crazy and/or deviant Mormons in our List.) I think it's more likely that Jesus was

(2) creating a circle of identification among the "good." Because of the self-serving bias principle, the lawyer who had only just thought up a sneaky way to trick the Son of God had no problem identifying himself with the decent person in the story. In fact, very few people hearing this story identifying with one of the punks who left a dying man in the road; we'd like to think we're not that type. The grounds for identification then shift from race (just identifying with the Jews) to merit (identifying with the goodies). This new definition would help the Early Church Fathers in being able to spread the gospel to other, gentile nations because the unifying qualification has become moral principles of charity and compassion.

Which brings me far away from my initial assertion that in politics, people can wish for the best for those people whom a third party identifies as co-equivalents (my word, probably redundant) because any benefit for one benefits the other. What Jesus has suggested is that the merits of the group become the only distinction of identification. All the " black and white, bond and free, male and female, and [...] heathen" lose their bias towards their own type and unite together as the good (or, possibly, separate out as the morally reprehensible). This is the ideal of American identification politics: decent people voting for other decent people in the hope that we can all be more decent in the eyes of some third party (baddies in America or decent people in other countries, for example).

Unfortunately, this ideal is shaken not only because of the dirty-mean ad campaigns of most of the candidates (ain-McCay) but also because many Americans are comfortable with the mudslinging campaigns because they identify primarily not as goodies, but as members of a political party, for whom any amount of unpleasantness is acceptable as long as it is directed at the other guys. As long as voters see themselves in terms of political alignment (through some of the political expectations--eg all unionists are Democrats, or your example of all Mormons are Republican), they will only want the best for that party, as it justifies them to some third party. But then the question arises: what third party? Even independent parties align themselves in categories of Liberal or Conservative and most people aren't unaffiliated. As our society moves more towards homogeneity in political interactions (Studies show that liberals move into neighborhoods with other liberals and conservatives move into neighborhoods with other conservatives. There are entirely one-party neighborhoods in Maryland (D) and Virginia (R) surrounding D.C.) we are only congratulating ourselves on all being inside of our chosen identification circle instead of appealing to the third party. This means instead of the altruism within our circle (wishing Neil LaButte and Stephanie Myers and Harry Reid all the best), our "insider identification" casts suspicion on those on the fringes of our identification circles (is McCain conservative enough, or do we need Palin as a running mate to be a conservatives conservative? Does Obama have enough Democratic street cred or does he need a running mate who has the Irish-American and working class background and a 80% "liberal" record?). This "inside looking out" viewpoint, in other words, creates competition (who's the most TRULY liberal? Or, to be bipartisan, the candidate who REALLY loves his country more?) instead of the cooperation that the "concern for the third party" identification circle invokes (and this can come from both expanding the circle to include the successful who are marginally identified with your group--"Aaron Eckhart is still, technically, a Mormon"--as well as preaching the questionable success of those definitely in your group--"Yes, Orson Scott Card's most successful book was written years and years ago, but he still revolutionized the science fiction world.").

But, you may argue, where does one constantly find a third party? That, of course, returns me to the theological example. The best chance we have for "citizen of the earth" big circle identification of charity is to someone outside the spectrum. In, as they used to say, the eyes of God.


Day said...

This is extremely interesting to me.

I have a couple of loosely related thoughts that I'll try to organize into readability.

1) I watched a TED talk the other day that said there seem, across cultures, to be five criteria for morality;

c)obedience to authority
d)in-group loyalty

Apparently liberals have very high values on (a) and (b), with the other three trailing far behind--and conservative values tend to be far more equally distributed.

The point of the talk is that we need to recognize the virtue of the other side's moral structure to find common ground.

It's hard to do that, though, when you strongly feel your side is morally superior. Conservative morality supports stability, and there's a lot to be gained from that. To me, though, stability hardly holds a candle to what Camus would call "not being on the side of the executioners."

Where does one draw the line between attempting to understand the other side and staying true to the values one is sure of? We have many historical examples of times when in-group loyalty and obedience have become moral nightmares; where does one (where do I) ask conservatives to draw the line so as to ensure that doesn't repeat? How do I come to better understand why other people are willing to take those risks?

Liberalism is a fascinating example of how an "outside perspective" can become yet another inside perspective, and leaves open the question of exactly what one should do about it.

I think the TED talk--while I really hate some of the things it says--offers interesting insight into how we identify the good and why that identification isn't globablized as you suggest it should be. Here's the link.

2) I think the single member electorate or "winner take all" system in the US encourages in-group mentalities.

That's all. Thanks for indulging the monster post. :)

Lobbie said...

Mary I love this post. A few of the minor details I have a few variations of opinion, but overall I totally agree. My family and I are getting increasingly worried that politics is more about 2 parties creating an "us vs. them" mentality and killing anyone outside that arena (as we've seen with Nader and a host of other "3rd party" hopefuls.)

What scares me is along the lines of what you said-the goal no longer is about what is best for the country (the real good,) but what is best for the party, and the actual citizens get overlooked in the process of trying to have a stronger party that gets to do more of what it wants than the other guy. The 3rd party you're looking for might be...the citizens.

Harsh said...

Well, it's well known that human nature forces us to form groups. Our primal nature urges us to do this because it affords greater protection in numbers against dangers. People will always end up making sub cliches because it makes them feel better to have something to play against. Also combine that with a competetive spin and you can see why it does become "us vs them" for a lot of things. And that kind of strife is very easy to exploit in large groups. This is why agitated people participate in riots & such even though there is a high chance for getting injured! Generally natural elimination would take care of such things, but not so much anymore =) You should rent "Idiocracy" that shows what happens (it's a comedy by the same guy who did Office Space) when you take this idea to it's comedic focus point.

Day said...

Hmn. . .

Maybe this is just one more example of "but I don't have human nature like all the rest of y'all," but I actually think my reasons for wanting to participate in riots have everything to do with harm/care and justice/reciprocity, and little or nothing to do with in-group loyalty and competition.

My brother tells me that some of the people who are into revolutionary politics are like that--that it's all about being part of something and being an adrenaline junkie. . on that last one, at least, I'm sure it's not me. . .

Day said...

or put otherwise, I think sometimes people participate in riots--even though it's very dangerous--because they believe it's The Right Thing To Do.