A: I’mma let you finish, but can I just interject a thought here?
A: Just think for a minute about what’s been happening on social media in the past few weeks, in the aftermath of the Colorado Springs and San Bernardino shootings. One group lines up and shouts that these things would never happen if we had stricter gun laws, as though terrorists give a rat’s ass about gun laws; another group lines up opposite them and shouts that these things would never happen if we had a properly armed citizenry, as though mutually assured destruction were equal to social peace. None of of these people are considering, reflecting, thinking; they’re just reacting and emoting. Some of them can’t even grasp the moral difference between those who murder and those who are murdered. The very thought of allowing these people a vote — a voice in the shaping of society — appalls me. They’re simply incapable of rational thought.
B. Your description of the behavior of many people — most people? — is depressingly accurate. A few years ago there was an active Tumblr called These Tragic Events Only Prove My Politics, and I expect that the person who made it stopped updating it because it would have been beating a dead horse. There’s more evidence of the thesis every single day.
That said, we may have reached the point in this conversation where you and I most fundamentally differ. While I agree with your description of each side’s position, and while I agree that both sides are being thoroughly and depressingly irrational, I don’t agree that these people are incapable of rationality. After all, the great majority of them navigate their way through life, through work and marriage and child-rearing and all sorts of other things, without catastrophic error.
A. Well, I don’t —
B. Before you say something like Look at the divorce rate or Look at the anti-vaccination weirdos, stop and ask yourself whether the meritocratic elite you want to put in charge do any better in these areas. Remember, it’s among that elite that Soylent is a thing.
A. You may have a point there.
B. Yeah. But even if I don’t, it’s still my turn. And here’s my chief point: we have a paradox to explain. That paradox is that it’s easy to find people who have long personal histories of behaving fairly rationally – not perfectly so, but fairly so – who are nevertheless bizarrely irrational in their political opinions and their voting. So, as I read the evidence, the problem cannot be that “these people are simply incapable of rational thought.” The problem must lie within the structures of our political system.
Now, you and I agree that the current political system is messed up, but you attribute that mess to a failing or a limitation in the nature of most human beings, who in your view amount to little more than the higher cattle – as Nietzsche says, who envy the cow his unreflective “unhistorical” existence. But –
A. I really don’t want to say that. Perhaps my frustration with the pointlessness of recent political discourse, especially on social media, led me to formulate my thoughts a little too crassly. Let me, briefly, try again: Most people are not irrational per se, but their lack of interest in the actual problems and issues of governance, their preference for other activities, a preference that they disguise from themselves by uttering strong political opinions, disqualifies them from governing themselves. They will be happier and the world will run better if –
B. If running the world is left to the experts?
A. Yes. Treating expertise as though it’s frightening or absurd or impossible is one of the pathologies that we need to get over.
B. Okay. Your amendment is a good one. But it doesn’t alter my case, the making of which I shall now resume. You’re not saying that most people are irrational, but you are saying that they are congenitally unlikely to take sufficient interest in actual politics to learn what they need to know to vote wisely and well; and therefore will, perhaps not at first but eventually, be relieved to have political decisions taken out of their hands and given over to people who are qualified (by temperament, ability, and training) to make them and for whom the making of such decisions will be a full-time job.
A. Close enough.
B. What I would say, by contrast, is that people are interested in and even knowledgable about politics – but politics only on a human scale, a scale appropriate to the range of their experience and interests. Many, perhaps most, of the pathologies of our current political order are products of inhuman scale, what one of our best poets called “the long numbers that rocket the mind.” Consider this: people in Boston will consider themselves invested in what happens in San Bernardino in ways they absolutely are not in what happens in, say, Dublin – and yet San Bernardino and Dublin are pretty much equidistant from Boston. People in Boston can’t alter events in San Bernardino any more than they can alter events in Dublin, and yet the ideology of the modern nation-state makes them feel that they can and should have some say in what happens 3,000 miles away, as long as that distant place is in the same country. In one sense, of course, as Terence reminds us, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto; but in another sense 3,000 miles of separation stretches the possibilities of genuine understanding beyond their natural capacity, and social media and video don’t change that situation.
And this takes me back to my earlier comment about your emphasis on “exit not voice”: the exit-only option might make sense if I dislike life in Waco and decide to try a more congenial environment in Austin; it will make less sense if I live in Topeka and decide that the whole American social order is so flawed that I need to move to Toronto. Exit-not-voice is great if you have either (a) tons of money or (b) a human scale. But then, if you consider matters on a genuinely human scale, the whole question of voice looks very different. Because just leaving Topeka may not seem such a rational option, even though I despise the whole American social order, if my mom lives there.