Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rejecting the Cause After Its Effect

Peter J. Boyer, in a New Yorker article on the effects of Roger Ailes’ acquisition of the local newspaper for the Hudson town of Philipstown, makes one comment toward the end of the piece that strikes me as especially insightful.

“Ailes plainly wished to provide for his family a particular vision of small-town America, one shaped by nostalgic vision, which is not without irony. He regrets the sway of the local environmentalists, but it was their influence that made the area a sort of place where Roger Ailes would wish to live. Without them, the view from the Aileses’ Hudson aerie would include a Con Edison hydroelectric plant.”

To my mind, this observation, though not stressed anywhere else in the article in which it appeared, speaks to a broadly relevant issue of the well-meaning hypocrisy often underlying people’s worldviews, particularly conservative ones. It is something that I’ve recently noted with such aggressive disdain that my mind runs immediately to other examples of the same trend, which go on pricking at my brain and need to be acknowledged for the consistent logical failings that they are.

Some people, often very vocal ones, have a tendency to laud certain virtues of society, environment, economy, etc., while almost simultaneously attacking the trends or institutions that can be credited with creating those circumstances. I recall a clip of Glenn Beck deriding a new food safety bill by pointing out that the United States has the safest food in the world. For Beck, that fact evidently serves as proof that the bill is effectively redundant, and it never seems to cross his mind that bills of that sort are the very things that create and maintain the safety of American food. I think also of the anti-vaccine movement, which sometimes reasons that there is no cause for widespread vaccination because serious infections are not widespread in American society. In fact, that basic mode of thinking is something that I can find lurking in a wide variety of conspiracy theory. There is confusion about or neglect of the cause for an imposed effect, so the paranoiac concludes that there must be some sinister alternative rationale for a social program or act of legislation, or what have you.

I acknowledge that it is an easy error to make. That is, it is an easy error to make if you don’t reflect on it much. We are used to causality being very easy to observe, especially in its base forms. “I hit you, you fall down.” But there is suddenly a higher demand for analysis when the cause has already happened and the effect lingers. It requires understanding not only what is occurring, but what has occurred, and may even call for deduction to work out the particulars. “You are on the ground; something must have hit you; I wonder what it was.”

I don’t for a moment think this is a fallacy peculiar to conservatives or conspiracy theorists. It is the trapping of any social or political myopia, wherein we draw conclusions based on what is observed presently and believed constantly, rather than on a farther-reaching analysis. It may well be only because of my own liberal leanings, which make it natural for me to scrutinize the flawed reasoning of the opposition, but it does seem to me as if this sort of misunderstanding of causality is, in socio-political contexts, most common among certain columns of conservativism, namely those who harshly criticize social programs, environmental campaigns, and the like primarily for the reason that their worth to society is not immediately obvious, because their effects are subtle, occasional, and best understood only in retrospect.

So this is a breaking point that I’m hoping for now: When people take a long look at their own values and begin to reevaluate their ideologies if they should find that their criticism of something like environmental activism stands in contradiction to their admiration for something else, like the unspoiled beauty surrounding one’s own $6.2 million property. It is vitally important that we understand as best we can the full circumstances surrounding the situations that we observe, but for far too many people, all need for inquiry breaks apart in the face of ideology.

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