Monday, May 30, 2011

Pocketbooks and Chicken-Butts: Political Pejoratives

I finished reading Quirk.  One of the chapters I found particularly interesting was the section on "Liberalism."

I've been called a "liberal."  And a "progressive."  (And other things too, but I'll let that pass.)  Each time it has happened, I've had a brief brain-glitch.

I realize that the person is hurling the term at me as a pejorative label that is supposed to call attention to my political biases (or moral failures) and make me feel bad about them. 

I know that, though, only because I've seen the terms applied to others and it's clear that the ones using them really don't like the ideas and attitudes espoused and articulated by the others.

The brain-glitch I experience when I hear myself called "liberal" always stems from the fact that I can't quite comprehend how "liberal" is a negative term or an insult. 

I apply butter and jam to my toast very liberally; I'm also quite liberal when I serve food and drink to my guests.  So, I'm liberal in my thoughts and my opinions.  These are all good things, I think.

"Liber" in Latin means "book."  There's just no way I'm not going to like that word.  I'm even a Libra, for heaven's sake--it's totally different, of course, but it sounds sort of similar.

Likewise, calling me "progressive" makes me happy.  It appears I'm making "progress" somehow and I apparently give others the impression of moving something forward on a somewhat regular basis. 

This seems good, particularly when I realize that I may in fact have spent an entire day staring at the wall and eating Smartfood.

No worries: I'm "progressive."  Other people have told me so.

At the same time, I really like the term "conservative," and I think I'd be kind of pleased to hear myself called that too at some point. 

Who doesn't want to "conserve"?  Conservationists rock. 

People who are "conservative" are steady and reliable and careful.  They have savings accounts.  They don't squander their energy or their resources, and they don't chase after the latest fad.  They know what works and they stick to it: nothing wrong with that.

"Moderates."  Well, that's also quite nice.  I wouldn't mind that one either.  "Moderation in all things," we're always told.  A little too much here but a little less there, and voila, you'll break even.  Moderates keep things on an even keel: gotta like that.

"Green."  Okay, that's actually my favorite color.  So how awesome and accurate is that?

So you see my dilemma.

When I look at political blogs and social network pages and see people "insulting" one another with these kinds of political labels, I have two reactions: 1) What's your point? and 2) Why is this an insult?

The first time someone called me a "liberal" in an email, I had to sit and think for a bit about how I should respond.   All I could think was, "Yes... and...?."  I was clearly supposed to be hurt and angered, but all I could think was, 1) "What's your point?" and 2) "Why is this an insult?" (see above).

And this is still my reaction.  When I see someone calling someone else "conservative" or "progressive" or whatever, I still can't quite understand why the accused gets so angry or why the accuser feels so vindicated. 

I mean, so a person expresses "conservative" or "progressive" opinions--so what?  At the end of the day, it's just an opinion.  They're entitled to it.  We don't have to agree with it or like it. 

And they don't have to agree with or like my opinions, either.

I'm reminded of the time when I was babysitting a six-year-old boy and he told me that he didn't like one of his little neighbors. 

When I asked why, he announced (in an embarrassed and deeply wounded tone of voice), "She called me a pocketbook."

When I suggested that "maybe she was just joking," he said, "Yeah, well, it isn't funny."  His brother quickly acknowledged his pain by agreeing, "Yeah, it's not.  Don't worry: we're totally gonna get her for that."

On the other hand, when the two brothers were displeased with one another, they used to call each other "chicken-butt"--and there were never any lingering hard feelings about it afterward.

In Quirk, Holmes notes that there really isn't any scientific brain research out there on political propensities or biases, since political affiliations aren't classified as brain diseases. 

So although the posts and comments that appear on YouTube or as links on The White House Facebook page or The Tea Party Page or The Coffee Party Page or all the other politically-oriented pages out there repeatedly assert otherwise, a person's political affiliation is NOT a sign of damaged neurons or overall brain-rot.  (Or even low intelligence, actually.)

Instead, a person with a high component of "liberalism" in his or her personality seems to be, on average, a bit more comfortable tolerating ambiguity.  A person with a lower component of "liberalism" in his or her personality (someone who might be identified as "conservative") is a bit more comfortable with stability.

How can you tell?  Well, you can take one of the various personality tests out there: The Big Five Personality Test or The Jung and Briggs Meyers Typology are two options.

Biologically, a more "liberal" personality is no better than a more "conservative" one.  Each has its advantages. 

As Holmes points out, "liberal" personalities who enjoy ambiguity engage in "the mental equivalent of dithering around in the open field, just begging to be attacked by a predator.  In many ways, it's safer to commit to a course of action than to linger for days, debating the merits of every possibility" (218).

"Conservative" personalities, on the other hand, are notable for their conscientiousness and sense of order, but this may mean that they are less comfortable exploring new options necessary for survival.  They take notice of ambiguity, but they opt to respond to it only in ways that are tried-and-true.

Holmes also points out that "Conservatives also tend to rank high on something called 'death anxiety'" (218).  For some people, the very idea of death triggers acute anxiety. 

I've actually seen this reaction in people's responses to my post last year about my mother's and father's deaths.  I have been told that what I wrote was disturbing and unnecessary, that there was no point remembering and writing about such experiences.

Others, however, appreciated the post and spent time telling me their thoughts about it and about the phenomenon of death in general.  It didn't bother them at all-- or at least not in any way that they couldn't tolerate.

As Holmes notes, "Some studies suggest that death anxiety reflects a fear that life itself has no meaning.  For someone who doesn't enjoy ambiguity, that could be a pretty distressing possibility" (218). 

I think for anyone out there, it's a pretty distressing possibility, and it's interesting to think that some personality types are simply better able to live with that distress.  Currently, researchers "speculate that a brain sensitive to danger might be more inclined to support policies that are 'protective'" (220).

If you're becoming increasingly worried as you read this that I'm neither "liberal" nor "conservative" but simply "off my rocker" and "out of my gourd," you can check out the links at the end of this post for further reading on this subject.

And in the meantime, if someone calls you a pocketbook or a chicken-butt, I say, just shake it off.

Gerber, A., et al. 2009 "Personality traits and the dimensions of political ideology."  Social Science Research Network.

Kapogiannis, D., et. al. 2009 "Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief."  Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences 106 (12): 4876-81

Kossowska, M., et al. 2003.  "The relationship between need for closure and conservative beliefs in Western and Eastern Europe."  Political Psychology 24 (3): 501-18

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."