The other day while speaking to a political rally, John McCain tried to point out that, despite their differences, Barack Obama was a decent person, and there was no reason to fear an Obama presidency. Unfortunately, a good portion of the crowd booed him for his effort.
That happened at least twice during the political rally. The first time it happened was when McCain responded to a new father who expressed his fear of an Obama presidency. McCain said:
“First of all, I want to be president of the United States and obviously do not want Senator Obama to be. But I have to tell you — I have to tell you — he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.”
That’s the reasonable statement on McCain’s part that first got him booed.
The question I have is whether the folks who booed McCain were merely unwilling or actually incapable of listening to reason?
The question interests me because I have for some time concerned myself with the human tendency to arbitrarily disregard truths. It puzzles me why our species is not more truthful — more realistic — than it is. As I see it, McCain was telling the crowd a simple truth — that Obama is a decent person who need not be irrationally feared. Apparently, some of the crowd could accept that truth and move on. But many couldn’t and felt a need to deny it by booing. Why is that?
Were they merely unwilling to accept the truth when it was presented to them? Or were they mentally or emotionally incapable of accepting it? I’d like to know the answer to those questions. The answer might help me understand why our species is not more realistic than it is.
If the people who booed McCain were merely unwilling to accept the truth, then they have a moral problem. They lack honesty — specifically, intellectual honesty — which is a virtue. That solves the mystery. For to say someone is merely unwilling implies they have a choice in the matter, and must take moral responsibility for their choices.
On the other hand, if the people who booed McCain were mentally or emotionally incapable of accepting the truth, then perhaps we should ask how that could be the case? What causes, or at least explains, their disability?
This afternoon, I can think of only three factors which might explain how someone could lack the intellectual discipline to accept a truth.
The first, and most obvious, factor is simple confusion. People become confused for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps many of the people booing McCain have been so propagandized in recent weeks they honestly believe Barack Obama is a dire threat to them, their country, or their way of life. “Garbage in, garbage out”.
That one might not only be the most obvious factor, but also the most likely factor. The one weakness in proposing it as an explanation for someone’s behavior might be it doesn’t explain how someone could be so non-discriminating as to believe the “garbage in” in the first place.
The second factor requires a moment’s explanation. It happens that the human brain is born scarce half made up, and that we spend our early years developing our brains to their full adult abilities. That is, our brains are not completely developed until around the age of 22 or so. But what happens if something goes wrong with some part of our development and, consequently, some of our abilities are disabled?
If I can recall, people are born with an ability to see the world only in black and white, either/or terms. It’s typically around the ages of 13 to 15 that our brains develop an ability to see the world in more complex, nuanced, and realistic terms. So, for instance, an 11 year old usually lacks an ability to think or feel that other people are a mix of both good and bad traits. Instead, an 11 year old usually can only think or feel that other people are essentially only good or only bad.
A few years later, however, most people’s brains have developed the mental and emotional capacity to see other people more realistically — as, perhaps, a mix of virtues and vices. Yet, suppose someone is afflicted with one or another disorders — such as a Borderline Personality Disorder — and thus their brain never fully develops an ability to see the world in complex, nuanced terms? Or suppose someone is raised in an environment where the message the world is black and white, either/or, gets heavily reinforced, and the person is never challenged to grow their brain around the concept the world is more complex and nuanced than that? Wouldn’t such people — even as adults — struggle to grasp the otherwise simple notion that Barack Obama is a decent person who nevertheless ought not, for whatever reasons, to be president?
I think it’s quite possible some of the folks who booed McCain’s suggestion Obama is a decent person were people mentally and emotionally incapable of grasping the concept someone can be both a decent person and a person they nevertheless oppose for reasons having nothing to do with that person’s decency.
The third and last factor also requires a moment’s explanation. The other day, I was reading an article, written from a conservative point of view, on the alleged across the board decline in morals in our society. For the most part, I disagreed with the author, but he did say at least one thing that struck me as profoundly true.
At some point, he noted that people who lack a sense of purpose in their lives quite often substitute dramas for the missing purpose. (I apologize I’m unable to cite the article — I foolishly neglected to bookmark it.) Now, he left it open whether such people willingly choose to create and maintain dramas, or are in some way compelled to create dramas by the absence in their lives of genuine purpose and meaning. I tend to think the latter is the more likely explanation because I have seen how widespread and apparently spontaneous that behavior is. In my opinion, too many people do it for it to be something that’s entirely a matter of choice.
Yet, whatever the cause — choice or something deeper — the fact remains many people thrive on creating and maintaining dramas in their life. Moreover, it requires no great effort to see how such people would flock to a battle royale between “the forces of good and the forces of evil”; nor does it require much effort to see how such people might interpret the political battle between McCain and Obama in those dramatic terms for the sake of heightening and intensifying the drama they crave as a substitute for genuine purpose and meaning.
If the above happens to be true, then I suppose when McCain reminded the crowd that Obama was a decent person, he threatened some of them with the destruction of their ersatz sense of purpose or meaning. Consequently, they refused to accept the truth of McCain’s statements and instead booed him.
Those, then, are the few paltry ideas I can come up with this lazy afternoon to explain how some of the crowd McCain spoke to the other day booed him for speaking the truth. Regardless of whether I’ve hit any nails on the head today, the larger question remains: Why does our species have such a strong tendency to arbitrarily and irrationally disregard truths? For me, that question is one of pure fascination.