The Fear of Not Being Able to Think About It

The Washington Post laid it all out.

They published an analysis done by psychologists on the differences between conservatives and liberals. The physiological analysis indicated that conservatives tend to have larger amygdalae, the structures in the brain responsible for fear; they also indicated that, when put in situations where they felt sure of their own physical safety, conservatives became less conservative. This article has been making the rounds of my social media feed, leading to no small amount of discussion (and, on my part, amusement, because I shared it when it was published, a year before it got popular, and most everyone ignored me).

Part of the discussion included the oversimplification spouted by the article, paraphrased here:

“Wouldn’t everyone just be a conservative then? It’s not like liberals simply don’t feel fear.” And we determined that there was, indeed, more to it than that. The best explanation I heard involved the stimulus of an angry dog. “Is this a threat to me? Both liberals and conservatives are likely to answer yes: it’s growling, it’s posturing, its hackles are raised, it’s straining to reach me. It is probably a threat. And do you feel fear of it? Probably — I mean, at least if you have any common sense.

“But then we have a second question, the one that really draws the line: can I defuse this threat? If you say, ‘Yes, I can sit down with the dog and let him get to know me and see that I’m not a threat to him,’ you’re a liberal. If you say, ‘Nope, the dog’s nature is unknowable and immutable, and there is simply no way I could possibly reaching understanding with him,’ then you are a conservative.”

So fear is described as the definition of the difference between a liberal and a conservative, but the whole discussion also skipped over an entire internal process which has already gone on. Can I solve this problem? If the answer is yes, there is no reason to be scared of it. But if the answer is no, then fear is an understandable response.

But here’s the thing: all of this is actually predicated not on the size of your amygdalae, but rather your facility with problem solving. It has to do with… I don’t even know if there’s a term for it. Let’s call it “intellectual confidence”, or maybe “confidence in your intelligence.” The question is not so much, Can I solve this problem, as it is, Can I solve problems?

And that’s where things start getting interesting.

Let me tell you a little bit about my mother.

My mother was born in Indonesia. She is a Chinese Catholic, and thus was a double minority in Muslim Indonesia — a triple minority, in fact, because, as has happened at other times and in other places in history, the foreign immigrant class in Indonesia were also the ones that had all the money. (And that’s before we address the minority of having no Y chromosome.) My mother described her childhood as physically comfortable, but she hasn’t spoken much about the prejudice she experienced, and I can only imagine it must have been pretty significant.

My mother and her five siblings (Baby Boomers, amiright) all emigrated to America, one by one, between about 1975 and 1985. She was the middle child of four sisters and two brothers, and joined her siblings in sending money back home. Her one remaining brother (the other actually passed away in an auto accident when she was a child) met a fellow Indonesian immigrant here in the States, wed, and had three children. The first child of that new generation, born in 1980, was a son, and my uncle invited over just about everyone he knew to come meet his bouncing baby boy, whom my mother was occasionally called upon to babysit. That’s what she was doing the day that my uncle invited home his coworker, a man with a very similar story to my mother: the middle child of four daughters and two sons (Baby Boomers, amiright), all of whom had emigrated to America between ’75 and ’85 and were now sending money home to their parents (in Hong Kong). This man was my father.

Dad once told me that he and Mom knew they had found their match within about 6 weeks of dating, but that they held off the wedding for 18 months solely to be polite. Whatever the case, I was born eight days before my cousin’s 3rd birthday — the same cousin over whose crib my parents first laid eyes on each other. (And who, apparently, had never heard the story before: when I told him about it, he immediately asked his dad whether it was true!)

Of course, to get married, you need jobs. Both my parents got their undergraduate degrees before emigrating, but my father continued his studies at Berkeley, earning a Master’s in civil engineering. My mother immediately went to work. Today we would call her a developer or a programmer, but at the time the job title was Software Engineer. She worked at a company called AMI on a parcel of land which later housed HP’s headquarters and today is the home of the Apple Spaceship; on that parcel of land, she was one of the very first human beings to use a newfangled computer interface device by Xerox that records two-dimensional hand movements, a peripheral they called a “mouse”. My mother may not have played a large role in the dawn of the Information Age, but she was there; she was part of the events that have shaped the world as we know it today. In between she was also the primary breadwinner for our family (while my father got situated at Arthur Anderson, where he failed to set a record for “fastest promotion to Partner” only because he left to pursue his dream of becoming an architect), and then became a full-time mother to myself and my sister once Dad’s paycheck stabilized. My mother has forgotten more about how computers work than I will ever know.

Which is why I’m always a bit concerned when she telephones me to ask why she can’t turn the volume up on her laptop.

“I don’t know what I’m doing!,” is always her explanation. To which I always protest, “I don’t know what I’m doing either!” Which is true. But she replies, “But you can figure it out,” which is also true. I’ve been working with Macs since I was 6 — my grade school was one of several across the country that received large infusions of hardware from Apple — and DOS not long after, plus the inevitable transition to Windows later. I own an Android phone, but I work at a company that makes smartphone games, and every such company starts with iOS (because that’s where the money is). I have plenty of experience with computers, across basically every operating system you could ask for; I’ve even, through MacBook terminal commands, started to learn some Linux! (I did a git push the other day and almost went mad with power.) Even when I don’t know what problem my mom is having, I feel confident in my ability to just go muck around in Settings and figure things out.

What goes unspoken in these conversations is that my mother, too, could go figure it out. She’s both intellectually and physically capable of clicking around in the Control Panel, of reading the buttons there, of using logic to determine which parts of it are relevant to her issues. She could figure it out. But she doesn’t believe she could figure it out. It’s the only difference… And it’s the only difference that matters.

My mother is not a conservative voter. But she is definitely conservative about technology.

Now, all of this is only so relevant to the current political situation. The Baby Boomers are on their way out, and their lack of ability to grapple with the problems of today will not limit the nation forever. But the thing is that there is another set of people who need to learn to grapple with problems, who need to learn the confidence to just stride into a situation and press buttons and flip switches until they figure out which one solves the problem they are trying to solve.

Who? Well, as you may recall, my mother is now a grandmother. My son is, or presumably will be, the middle child of his generation (I have five cousins, of which two have yet to breed), much like his grandparents were, much like I am. And what I learned, I must teach him.

I also want to take a moment to discuss psychology, because I spent a ton of money on that BS degree and I might as well get some use out of it.

I’m sure a lot of people have heard of the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator. I personally prefer the Enneagram of Personality, which is not any more scientific but in my opinion wiser. The point is that neither of them are based in any honest or genuine research; they’re both just hypotheses, as yet unproven. The only personality sorter that’s based in research is the Big Five. I’m not going to bore anyone with the math, but the short of it is that researchers asked about a gazillion English speakers to fill out about a gazillion correlation surveys: “If a person is organized, would you say they are also punctual?” “If a person is organized, would you say they are also distracted?” “If a person is organized, would you say they are also chartreuse?” By combining the results of these surveys, the researchers found that most adjectives clustered together in five super-traits. These are the Big Five, and they describe an OCEAN of possibility, though you can use a different acronym if that doesn’t float your CANOE. The Big Five are:

  • Openness to Experience. Do you like novelty or are you a creature of habit?
  • Conscientiousness. Are you aware of your obligations to others, and do you plan to do a good job of discharging them?
  • Extraversion. Not just how much company do you like: what is your overall energy level? (The neurological underpinnings of extraversion lie in your brain’s optimum state of arousal. You remember how cars used to have that line on their speedometers that indicated their engines worked most efficiently at 55 MPH? Our brains have one too. The higher it is, the more extraverted you are.)
  • Agreeableness. Do you tend to be kind and empathetic, or do you see life as a competition?
  • Neuroticism. How prone are you to negative ideation? Are you self-conscious, shy and prone to bad moods? (Note that this has nothing to do with positive ideation. Someone who is low on neuroticism has nerves of steel, but optimism comes from Extraversion, and someone who is low on both is calm but stoic.)

I bring this up because there are some problems with the Five Factor Model. The first was, hopefully, obvious to you from my description: It was constructed using English, and therefore its validity in other languages is questionable. It’s also missing a number of traits: religiosity, sex-positivity, manipulativeness, and more. (A competing proposal, HEXACO, adds “Honesty / Humility” to the above and replaces Openness with Emotionality.) The math itself has been disputed: the original analysis showed there were twenty-something factors before being refined further. And finally — and this is the part pertinent to our discussion — there’s a troubling correlation.

“Openness To Experience” correlates directly with not only “IQ,” the so-called general intelligence, but with liberalism.

Psychologists don’t like stereotyping people. We’re also trained to be suspicious of our own motives and biases. Some of us may want to get up on the rooftops and shout, “Research proves that only stupid people are conservative,” but the mere fact of wanting to do it is enough to make us question whether we misinterpreted the data. Besides, what scientific or theoretical framework could possibly explain this direct correlation? (Not emotional reasoning, but, y’know, reason reasoning.)

The answer is the thing we’re talking about. The answer is, “intellectual confidence.”

I don’t think conservatives are stupid. I think conservatives are trained to believe they’re stupid. I think conservatives are taught that they should not have faith in their own mental faculties: “Don’t think, kid, you aren’t equipped for it.” And what happens then? They perceive themselves as having low intelligence… and they avoid situations they aren’t equipped for. If you can’t think your way out of a paper bag, you steer clear of paper bags.

Now, this is another reason why we maybe shouldn’t go shouting “conservatives are dumb” from the rooftops. Openness To Experience can be taught. And, ideally, it should be taught, both in schools and in life. It isn’t being taught… because the modern Republican party has become the party of Power, Not People. They’re not the first; every aspiring dictatorship suppresses education so that nobody has the intellectual confidence to challenge them. Republicans may be that party right now, but that doesn’t mean they will be in three hundred years when the rot of corruption within the Democrats finally breaks free of containment. The side that doesn’t want its voters to think is the side that devalues education; their “political” alignment of liberalism vs. conservatism is an afterthought. (And, as we’ve already discussed, neither liberalism nor conservatism has a unique link to fascism.)

We started with conservatives. And there we must return, because the scope of this problem is much larger than just the next generation.

This lack of intellectual confidence: it’s becoming systemic. It happens to almost everyone today. It used to happen to me! When I was a teenager, I lacked critical thinking skills; I literally had to train myself to do it, mostly by spelling out my thought processes to those friends of mine who already possessed the faculty, and letting them correct me. I can’t recall any of my school teachers attempting to teach it to me (though I was an oblivious little idiot as a child, so it may simply have passed me by). And I know from Mara that increasing numbers of children are showing up unable to do it.

What is this systemic failure? Whence this surplus of individuals who not only believe that they do not know things, but that they cannot know things?

You can lay a lot of it at the feet of liberal policy: the insistence that each child be treated like a genius whether they are or not; the dumbing-down of educational standards to accommodate the lowest common denominator. You can lay a lot of it at the feet of conservative policy: the insistence, coming from religious influences, that there are many matters incomprehensible to the mere mind of man; the subtle emphasis on under-education because dumb people are easier to steal from. You can lay a lot of it at the feet of capitalist policy: the insistence that anything which cannot turn you a profit is worthless, and the resulting underfunding (not to mention monetization) of education. It’s a big melting pot, but it all results in one indigestible lump: most people don’t think learning is fun. They also don’t think school is fun, but I don’t care about that. I care about whether they think learning is fun.

How do you convince an entire population that learning is fun? Especially a population that is beginning to take refuge in their own ignorance, a population that treats their lack of intellectual confidence as a point of pride? To be frank, I don’t know. My wife, a trained educator, might have some ideas… but I asked her and she doesn’t either. This is a big problem, one larger than the two of us. But it needs to be solved, if the modern strain fascism is to be defused.

Now, to be clear: I don’t propose that all conservatism needs to be defeated. Conservatism, at least if practiced in the same manner, is based on a simple idea: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If you think that this philosophy is a bad one, you are an ignorant fool.

But “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is not the rallying cry of the Trumpian conservative. On the contrary. Their philosophy is encapsulated in two different sentences. The first is the one revealed by the Washington Post: “We don’t know if we can live in a world that has changed, because doing so requires a level of thinking that we’ve been told, and we believe, we are incapable of achieving.” The other is the even more damning sentence: “The fix resulted in us losing part of the Zero Sum pie, so we want to re-break it. Progress represents an existential threat to us, and thus progress must be halted.”

This second sentence is so insidious that a lot of conservatives don’t know they think it — and even fewer are willing to admit they think it. So it’s hard to pin down exactly what drives it. Some of it can be attributed to simple selfishness. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is, after all, the mantra of the conservative… And the truth is that the system isn’t broke, for certain people. If those people don’t see any need to change it, that’s a reasonable (if horribly unsympathetic) conclusion to arrive at. But part of it is the other thing we’ve been talking about: the lack of intellectual confidence. “We don’t know how to live in a world without white / male / rich privilege: nobody’s ever taught us. But we also can’t learn to live in a world without privilege, because… nobody’s ever taught us.” And thus the lack of education foisted on our country by our fascist party is revealed to be one of the pillars that holds it up.

So how do we educate an entire generation of people to trust in their own brain cells? Not just white men, not just men, not just the rich — everyone. Because this shit is getting foisted on every single child in America’s education system, right now.

I wish I knew the answer. I’m not a teacher; I’m not trained in pedagogy. The best I can do for now is ask the question.

And I think it’s a question that needs to be asked.