The Fallacy of Shame

You are educated and politically aware. You check your social media accounts several times  a day. You “keep score” by unconsciously tallying the number of headlines that reinforce your political views. You see a headline calling out those you disagree with for being inconsistent or hypocritical. In your mental tally, this counts as a “win”. It makes you feel that the enemy has suffered some form of defeat.

The trouble is that your enemy couldn’t care less.

This is a common scenario: A politician makes a statement critical of the opposition, and some commentator points out that the politician is criticizing behavior they’ve indulged in themselves. This makes the reader feel good because there’s an unspoken assumption that the politician, having been identified as a hypocrite, will feel shame and walk back their statement or modify their behavior in some other way. This is based on the idea that politicians will feel shame if their integrity is called into question. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

Politicians may feel shame, but not because they get caught in lies, or accused of unethical behavior, or even implicated in illegal activities. Politicians really only feel ashamed of one thing: losing.

Most politicians are incredibly competitive people. Why else would you subject yourself to the grueling ordeal of political campaigns, the endless grind of fundraising, and the interminable meetings with colleagues? They go through all that because it’s the only way to win, and winning is the most important thing in their lives.

Every politician talks about moral principles. The specific flavor of morality changes depending on the constituency the politician needs to win over. Winning over conservatives usually entails appealing to some combination of nationalism, free-market economics, and traditionalist religiosity. Liberals respond better to messages valuing inclusiveness, fairness, and compassion. In any case, the politician makes those appeals because they are shown to work. If at any time a different appeal seems likely to be more effective, most politicians will adopt it.

Moral principles are just another weapon in the politician’s arsenal. They don’t guide political strategy, and they certainly don’t act as a behavioral restraint on the politician’s actions. Accordingly, expecting a politician to modify their behavior out of shame when they appear to violate their supposed principles is deeply foolish.

Next time you see a social media post decrying a politician’s hypocrisy, ask yourself, “What impact will this post have this politician’s behavior?” If the answer is something other than “none at all”, you should go away and think again. If you want to impact a politician’s behavior, threaten their ability to win their next campaign. That will get their attention nice and quick.

Mechanisms of Inaction

Photo Credit: Petr Pavlicek/IAEA, used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License

(Taking a break from cryptic fiction fragments to try organize some troubling thoughts.)

Lots of us are frustrated now with the many failures of our government. We see multiple crises looming, any one of which will cause massive upheaval and destruction if left unchecked. We see evidence piled to the ceiling that climate change is happening. We are reminded daily that police and intelligence forces are more inclined to control and contain, not protect and serve, the public. We are increasingly aware that a wealthy oligarchy has taken command of our economy, our media, and our government.

We see these threats, and we know that scientists and expert observers see them too. We feel the rising concern and anger in our communities as the inadequacies of our current system become clearer. We even hear government spokespeople pay lip service to these problems and suggest possible solutions.

But then come the difficult questions: “When?” and “How?”. That’s when the taps are open wide and the endless stream of sidestepping and excuse-making starts pouring down our throats.

“How?” is a simple question to avoid. The trick is, you don’t offer a single plan for solving a problem. You offer three, or five, or ten, and let their proponents fight it out among themselves. Because people who run for office are commonly alpha predators, they’re more than willing to vie aggressively for their little piece of policy turf. Believers in this form of ‘debate’ state confidently that out of this competitive squabbling, the best policy will surely emerge, like the hungriest shark at a feeding frenzy. Problem is, the sharks are all really good at escaping each other’s teeth, and the frenzy becomes an interminable slow-motion dance of avoidance.

“When?” is pretty easily dismissed too. It was once understood that outside of election season, politicians could find common ground on certain issues and agree on concrete action. But because of the nature of the contemporary election cycle, politicians no longer have that time of productive truce. They must be at each other’s throats at all times to avoid “looking weak”, which in past times was viewed as “behaving like an adult”.

The current dynamic, at best, results in weak and temporary solutions to most problems. At worst, it exacerbates problems by creating a false sense that a solution has already been implemented, like the way painting over cracks in plaster allows us to ignore them until they come back bigger and more unstable. Sooner rather than later, probably, chunks of ceiling are going to start coming down around our heads.

These are well-known weaknesses of our political system, but the will to repair them is not present. In fact, the current state of things is preferable to many to a process that fosters rapid, significant change. One might reasonably ask why anyone would find that desirable. I’ll address “Why?” in the next post.

More Than Rain

Heavy Rain, by Pridatko Oleksandr, via Wikimedia Commons

Much as I like these big thunderstorms we’ve been getting lately, they are a dramatic reminder that climate change is really happening. At least in my part of the world, that means things are changing for the worse. Warmer and wetter weather is expected to increase over the coming years, making it easier for harmful insects and waterborne diseases to spread.

You might think that a heavily agricultural area would be glad of more rain and a longer growing season, but the rain in particular can cause serious problems. Since a lot of that heavy rainfall is happing in the spring, it’s much harder for farmers to get their equipment out into the fields. So even though it’s getting warm earlier, a lot of the planting is actually behind schedule. Late planting often means lower yields and less profits.

My part of the world may have a climate like the deep south by the end of the century. Flooding, severe storms, and heat waves all look to be part of our future. We could even see insect-borne diseases like malaria becoming common.

We’re resilient people, we’ll probably adjust. But things are not going to be as pleasant around here as we’re used to.