A Thunderlad at large

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel

Recently I (Acilius) have posted several long-winded comments on the message board at the Dykes to Watch Out For site.  Topics of my bloviation have included the weaknesses of The Economist; how children think of social class; how much I’d like to have a hamburger dressed with peanut butter; whether it is likely that university faculties will continue to be organized into departments; what it might mean if academic departments were dissolved and faculty members reported directly to administrators; the fact that I had bacon for breakfast Saturday; what the relationship might be between income level, educational level, and political affiliation; the reason why I’ve been posting there so much; and Sean Penn’s voice in the movie Milk. 

UPDATED: I should make it clear that all of these ridiculously ponderous musings of mine have come in response to a single post of hers.  It’s fortunate for me, first, that her fans are so numerous that my ramblings are buried amid hundreds of other comments, and, second, that they are so forebearing as to take kindly notice of the comments they can’t ignore.

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  1. cymast

     /  February 23, 2009

    Wow, you’re DTWOF celebrity!

    “I would suspect that people who earn more than average for people of their educational level tend to identify with the Right, while those who earn less than average for people of their educational level tend to identify with the Left.

    I haven’t seen any numbers on that, so I may be completely wrong. It just seems to fit with the emotional states that I’ve seen people exhibit.”

    Tend to. Tend. Generalizations are not un-non-useful. And they always make me feel like I don’t belong anywhere, not that it doesn’t not bother me, or is not unfalse.

  2. acilius

     /  February 23, 2009

    Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Nowadays lefties often yell at righties for being tools of The Man, and righties often yell at lefties for being fools on command. Even if you want to see the other person as a person and to hear the legitimate concerns that have driven that person to take up the banner of a political movement you can’t stand, the history of confrontation gets in the way, and the yelling starts.

    Now let’s say you do a scientific study. Let’s say that study starts with an hypothesis like the one above, that people who earn more than average for people of their educational level tend to identify with the Right, while those who earn less than average for people of their educational level tend to identify with the Left.

    If that turns out to be the case, then we can follow up by asking what has brought it about. What experiences have people who earn more than average for their income level had that could account for their attachment to the Right? What experiences have people who earn less than average for their income level had that could account for their attachment to the Left?

    You explore that question by asking people to talk about themselves. That gives you an opening to find the legitimate concerns that have driven reasonable people to take stands with which you disagree. Once you’ve found those concerns and shown the otrher person that you take them seriously, you can have a productive conversation.

  3. cymast

     /  February 23, 2009

    That works for people who fit!

  4. acilius

     /  February 23, 2009

    And even better for those who don’t fit, I’d wager.

  5. cymast

     /  February 23, 2009

    You kidding me? You know me, I think. How would that hypothesis work for me?

  6. acilius

     /  February 23, 2009

    Based on what I know of you, I think that you would fit the hypothesis fairly well. I get the impression your income is within the typical range for someone of your educational background, and that you don’t identify strongly with either the Left or the Right in politics. The hypothesis would predict that most people who display one of those characteristics would display the other as well.

    A theory stemming from such an hypothesis would enable a researcher to learn more about the people who don’t fit than about who do. The theory would let a researcher focus his/her questions on a smaller topic.

    Say a quantitative study had validated the hypothesis. You would then conduct a qualitative study, a series of interviews with a representative sample of people in the categories the hypothesis discusses. Through these interviews, you would identify the experiences that inclined the people you’ve talked to identify with the Left or the Right. Instead of questions like “Why are you a Leftie?” or “Why are you a Rightie?” you can ask more concrete questions about particular experiences people have had and what those experiences meant to them.

    Through further research you could develop an hypothesis as to what it was about these experiences that inclined them that way. You could test this hypothesis with another series of interviews. With every stage of research the questions become more specific, more focused on concrete particulars, less likely to trigger a defensive reaction (defensive reactions like yelling “Tool of The Man!” or “Fool on command!”) After you had done all this, you might have a theory explaining the interactions among educational level, income level, and political identification.

    Once you had developed such a theory, you would have a set of questions ready to ask when you encounter someone who is an exception. You could ask that person if s/he had similar experiences to those which led others to the usual spot on the political spectrum. If so, you could ask how s/he responded to those experiences, focusing on the areas where the response was different.

  7. cymast

     /  February 23, 2009

    middle education = middle income = middle politics?

    Not to mention “middle” is a pretty large group . .

  8. cymast

     /  February 23, 2009

    I wonder if my political views will shift once I become a multi-billionaire . .

  9. acilius

     /  February 23, 2009

    The beauty of the hypothesis, if I may describe it so immodestly, is that it doesn’t require any information about the particular opinions of the people involved. The only question about you’d have to ask people about politics is whether they identify strongly with the Left, with the Right, or with neither. Of course you’d have to look into that particular question in some depth. If the hypothesis holds, then you’d expect most people whose income level is very different from what their education level would predict to identify strongly with one or the other end of the political spectrum, and most of those whose income is about what their education level would predict to identify with labels like “moderate,” “centrist,” “independent,” “middle of the road,” etc.

  10. acilius

     /  February 23, 2009

    I’m eager to find out!

  11. cymast

     /  February 23, 2009

    Yes, I’m quite eager to find out too!

    2 questions:

    Is Bill Gates an extreme right wing nut job?

    According to your hypothesis, shouldn’t you be a solid centrist instead of a solid liberal?

  12. acilius

     /  February 24, 2009

    Bill Gates used to be a nonpartisan sort, buying politicians of both parties equally. Then the Clinton administration brought an antitrust suit asgainst Microsoft, and he swung decisively to the Right.

    No, the average income for people who’ve completed as much schooling as I have is almost three times what I in fact make. So if my hypothesis is true, most people like me would identify passionately with the political Left.

  13. cymast

     /  February 24, 2009

    So your hypothesis is indebted to the Clinton administration.

    And if your income increases (as it should), I guess your political leanings will sway from the left to the center, at least . .

  14. acilius

     /  February 24, 2009

    If my hypothesis were true, then I would probably identify less strongly with an ideological pole as my income approached the average for people of my educational level. Not certainly, since there are other factors at work as well, but prabably.

    It really is true that when I was promoted from part-time to full time here and my income doubled, I began paying a good deal more attention to unorthodox right wing voices like those published in THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE and CHRONICLES. So maybe I’m more typical than I’d thought.

  15. cymast

     /  February 24, 2009

    What a depressing thread.

  16. acilius

     /  February 25, 2009

    Really? It seems pretty cheery to me. Surely, the more people know about their own motivations and the motivations of those who disagree with them the better the chance that they will be able to interact with each other as people and not merely as symbols of opposing camps.

  17. cymast

     /  February 25, 2009

    It’s depressing in that it exposes people as so predictable. Like programmed robots.

  18. acilius

     /  February 25, 2009

    Wouldn’t it be more depressing if people weren’t predictable? Terrifying, even, if they were utterly unpredictable. And doesn’t exposing a predictable pattern often give us the power to transcend that pattern? If there’s any area of life where unhealthy patterns of behavior have cost us all dearly, it would be the way people construct their political identities and interact with people who disagree with them. So if researchers were to validate my hypothesis and articulate it into a body of theory, we might have taken a step towards helping people disagree with each other fruitfully.

  19. cymast

     /  February 25, 2009

    I know, but my mind once again extrapolates and delves into the question of free will. Does it exist? All signs point to NO. Right down to the inevitability of me typing that last sentence . . and this sentence.

  20. acilius

     /  February 26, 2009

    Well, “free will” is usually posited as the opposite of “determinism.” Yet there are many forms of determinism. Since Newton formulated the laws of classical mechanics, the most popular has been mechanical determinism, the idea that every action can be wholly explained as a reaction to previous events. This was not a view to which Newton himself was committed, nor is it a view that science has much use for today. But you still hear a lot of it, and it seems to be the idea that keeps the debate heated.

    Prior to Newton, there wasn’t much of a debate about “free will” or “determinism,” because virtually every thinker was a determinist. They were not mechanical determinists, but ethical determinists. The prevailing idea in the West (Europe and the Muslim world) before the modern era was that there was such a thing as moral truth, and that our actions followed from our knowledge or ignorance of that truth. So, if you really know what’s right, you’ll have no choice but to do what’s right. If you don’t know what’s right, you’ll have no choice but to flounder around in conditions created by your ignorance.

    This view was often challenged in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The most famous challenge was Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he claims that his knowledge of the Law actually seemed to corrupt him, and that only the Holy Spirit could make him good. Despite the opposition of so eminent a figure, Christians and Muslims continued to hold to ethical determinism for centuries. Notice, Paul opposed ethical determinism in the name of another, more complex form of determinism. Free will is not his primary focus.

    Christians for a long time debated about the relative importance of human action and divine intervention in achieving salvation. Sometimes these debates are presented in textbooks as struggles over free will. That’s not what you find when you read the texts, however. Ethical determinism tends to prevail. The main question that is agitated is the relative strength of human will, as determined by ethical knowledge, and original sin, a consequence of invincible ignorance. Paul’s view that it is possible to know what is right and still to do what is wrong, or even to do what is wrong as a perverse consequence of knowing what is right, does not get much consideration in this literature.

    Not until Duns Scotus and his followers set to work in the 13th century was a systematic attempt made to construct a theory that would support Paul’s view and oppose ethical determinism. While Scotism has been influential in recent centuries, it was at the time decidedly a minority view. Scotus’ opponent Thomas Aquinas, one of the most thoroughgoing ethical determinists of all time, prevailed in their contest and has been for centuries virtually the official philosopher of the Roman Catholic church. Determinism was not depressing or anxiety-inducing to him, or to the millions who have followed him.

    So, the free will vs determinism debate seems to be a relatively recent thing. The alternative “believe in free will or succumb to despair” also seems recent, and to assume that the alternative to free will is a particular form of determinism.

  21. cymast

     /  February 26, 2009

    Thanks for the information!

    When I question free will I don’t even think of religion or of any gods (imagine that!) I either work backward to the “Big Bang” or start with the BB and work forward. Or course there’s a lot of editing involved- a stupendously huge amount of editing . . And morality doesn’t enter into my reasoning either. Same with good/evil, knowledge/ignorance, and any other human construct. I guess I find Newton’s mechanical determinism the most likely framework. I am not fond of determinism, but it certainly is the simplest way of explaining everything. Every action, every word, every thought, every emotion- down to every nanoparticle. The reason I find that depressing is it strips away *SELF*- particularly self-power. Trying to “break free” of determinism in action or thought is an illusion- that would be pre-destined too.

  22. acilius

     /  February 26, 2009

    I wonder if there as many varieties of libertarianism (that is, belief in free will, not political libertarianism) as there are of determinism.

    “Down to every nanoparticle”- I don’t know anything about quantum mechanics, but people who do tell me that it isn’t a deterministic system. The quanta don’t have free will, either. There’s just an element of unpredictability that is inherent to the system. So maybe we’ll find that neither libertarianism nor determinism is true. Maybe reality is something altogether different.

  23. cymast

     /  February 26, 2009

    “There’s just an element of unpredictability that is inherent to the system.”

    “Unpredictability” or “something not understood”?

    “So maybe we’ll find that neither libertarianism nor determinism is true. Maybe reality is something altogether different.”

    I would LOVE that to be true.

  24. acilius

     /  February 26, 2009

    ““Unpredictability” or “something not understood”?”

    Unpredictability- according to quantum theory, some aspects of the behavior of quanta are in principle unpredictable.

  25. cymast

     /  February 26, 2009

    Yes, I wonder if that theory will change, as so many have before it.

  26. acilius

     /  February 26, 2009

    Quantum theory probably will change. Quantum theory and general relativity, say physicists, are incompatible with each other, and will likely be superseded by some new theory.

  27. cymast

     /  February 26, 2009

    I’m reminded of my eccentric, rotund, high school chemistry teacher discussing quantum theory and using the word “fudge” here and there in her descriptions. Subsequently, whenever I used the word “fudge” in an answer to a quantum theory question on a quiz or test, I alway got full credit.

  28. acilius

     /  February 26, 2009

    I also had an eccentric high school chemistry teacher. He wasn’t rotund though. Quite the opposite, he looked like he had probably been an athlete when he was younger (he was well into his 60s, maybe over 70.) He liked to talk about how much money the state was wasting by building roads incorrectly.

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