Possibilities and Necessities

In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post (Liberals and conservatives don’t just vote differently. They think differently.), Chris Mooney addressed some of the reasons the differences between liberals and conservatives have become so acrimonious over the past few election cycles. According to Mooney, “There’s now a large body of evidence showing that those who opt for the political left and those who opt for the political right tend to process information in divergent ways and to differ on any number of psychological traits.” Liberals, it seems, are more open to new experiences and accepting of differences than conservatives are. Conservatives are also more likely to have a high need for “cognitive closure,” for deciding what’s true “for all time.”

As I thought about Mooney’s article, what came to mind were the NLP observations about modal operators and the Conduct Metaprogram. Modal operators of necessity (such as can’t, won’t, have to, must, must not, need, should, shouldn’t, if … then) tend to coincide with the “Rule Following” aspect of the Conduct Metaprogram. Modal operators of possibility (such as can, could, will, want, hope, it’s possible) indicate options and choice. In brief, conservatives have faith in the “tried and true,” while liberals desire to find a better way.

The cognitive differences underlying the current political divide were previously explored by George Lakoff in Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think, in which he argued that conservatives had a “strict father” model of the world as opposed to the “nurturant parent” model of liberals. The strict father believes in self-reliance, self-responsibility, and firm discipline and punishment for “sins.” The nurturing parent, on the other hand, promotes exploration, discovery, and forgiveness.

Given these differences, it is easy to see why the political conversation in the U.S. (and perhaps elsewhere) becomes acrimonious from time to time. And this seems to be one of those times. Given the core nature of the conflict, what has been called the “War on Women” is easy to understand. Many cultures (perhaps most) have myths in which women bring trouble into the world, with the best known being Eve of Judeo-Christian thought and Pandora of Greek mythology. A strict father is required to keep the family on the “straight and narrow,” and punishment for “transgressions” is the only way to do that. Women in general, and women’s sexuality in particular, need to be controlled to prevent social degeneration and a new Sodom and Gomorrah. The conservative vision is that we are on a slippery slope of licentiousness leading to perdition, which helps explain the desire to limit (or eliminate) birth control and abortion, both of which seem to promote sin without punishment.

Given the liberal desire for individuals to be “free to choose,” the language used in Republican “talking points” makes sense. The Conservative perspective is that Obama can’t be a “strict father” because he is viewed as “other;” he is not a member of “our tribe” and may be a Socialist Muslim. His “reckless agenda” and “failed,” “job-killing” policies will lead us to perdition.

It is hard to say, of course, to what degree leaders of the Republican Party believe their own talking points, as they would need to discount a lot of hard evidence to maintain those beliefs. While they have their own set of beliefs that contradict reality, most Democrats are liberals, and liberals tend to explore more options. Conservatives tend to march in formation. Liberals all march to the beats of different drummers. In NLP terms, Conservatives are in favor of strict rules guidelines: My rules for me; my rules for you; my rules for everyone. Liberals, on the other hand, favor a looser interpretation: My rules for me; your rules for you; others follow their own rules. That’s why Conservatives basically agree that abortion should always be illegal, while Liberals think that “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.”

Given the number and significance of the differences between Conservatives and Liberals, finding common ground is difficult. Chris Mooney ends his article by saying, “[T]here only is one reality—and we don’t get to discount it forever.” In some sense, however, denial of reality is an ongoing process. Yesterday’s truth is today’s fiction. The more we learn, the more we discover that our ancestors who thought they understood science, history, and cultural dynamics were wrong. In the Grand Scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that well-eductated people held a geocentric view of the universe. As much as they cherished freedom, many of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. owned slaves. At this point in history, most people in most cultures believe that slavery is immoral.

Things change. That’s one of the reasons I believe it is important to be open to new experiences and the possibilities of new discoveries. It’s also the reason that, in spite of agreeing with much conservative thought, I am basically a Liberal who believes in the concept of progress and the need for change.

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