I've been thinking for a while about the fundamental differences between modern liberal and conservative thought -- referred to hereafter as "BlueThink" and "RedThink" -- but recent events have precipitated action.

First, Lisa@2Babes posts the image of a despicable card received by a soldier at Walter Reed Hospital -- triggering a chorus of conservative posters to assume and insist that some anti-war liberal must be behind the act.

Second, Daniel@RavingConservative posts a laundry list of contrasting bullet points which detail his view of the liberal/conservative division. The pattern becomes painfully clear, very quickly. (UPDATE: Daniel has also, sadly, jumped on the Miguel's Card Bandwagon.)

And here we have a fundamental disconnect between two major schools of thought -- schools of thought which, although they do not break down exactly along party lines, can be reasonably identified as predominantly Reep- and Dem-oriented.

To be perfectly clear, one will find signs of BlueThink in Reeps, and of RedThink in Dems. This is also not inherently a liberal-conservative dichotomy. There are many BlueThinking conservatives, and a comparable number of RedThinking liberals. The Red/Blue taxonomy adopted here reflects the fact that the two major parties themselves can reasonably be seen as adhering to their respective schools of thought in their platforms and narratives -- their public communications, which are completely unrelated to policy. In other words, the Reeps cater rhetorically to RedThink, and the Dems cater rhetorically to BlueThink.


BlueThink sees the world as a complex and intricate composite of interconnected systems, a dynamic environment in which a change at any point has the potential to affect the operation of the whole body. This is not a mystical or metaphysical view -- well, okay, it can be -- but one rooted in scientific observation. Just as a transient change in the weather can destroy a city, any disruption of the political, cultural, or environmental balance can have consequences which are far-removed and disproportionate.

RedThink recognizes only two forces at work: Us and Them. The names may change -- either "Us" or "Them" might at any given time be defined as Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, Americans, Russians, Germans, French, Chinese, Christians, Muslims, Nazis, mujaheddin, neocons, war opponents, insurgents, atheists, secularists, Catholics, Communists, Jews, and on and on and on. The labels become unimportant once the pattern becomes clear: "We" are Good and "They" are Evil.

Seeing so many different forces at play, BlueThink recognizes problems -- especially geopolitical matters -- as intricate puzzles requiring complex solutions. Just as you cannot perform surgery with a sledgehammer, the application of overwhelming military force often does more harm than good -- you might accomplish your desired objective, but you will often set other forces in motion which will create even more and bigger problems down the road. BlueThink recognizes that friends can also be rivals, and values institutions which allow for power-sharing and compromise as an alternative to constant struggles for dominance -- BlueThink values a sense of community over the establishment of a pecking order.

The RedThink approach to problem-solving demonstrates no more complexity or depth of thought than you would find in a comic book or professional wrestling plot. The protagonist is a paragon of virtue, sworn to uphold goodness and light against all enemies. The antagonist is invariably blackhearted and villainous, and behaves without regard to any law or logic which can be deciphered by a rational mind. Since any reasoned approach is therefore unworkable, the sledgehammer is always the only solution. Predictably, in the dog-eat-dog world contemplated by RedThink, shows of strength are always important -- as a warning to the next Enemy as well as an answer to the present one -- and the Enemy's total unconditional surrender is the only acceptable outcome to a conflict. Anything less than total domination is considered a sign of weakness.

That being the case, BlueThink aspires to something that RedThink openly despises -- peace.

To BlueThink, the concept of peace represents a sustainable stability, where the myriad dynamic forces at work in the world come to an equitable balance, allowing people to go about their lives. Since artificial forces are at work disrupting the balance, the solutions are often artificial as well. Sometimes peace requires limiting the impact of one influence, or protecting that of another. Often it means compromising with rival powers to gain their cooperation. Almost invariably, it requires that influence and force be applied judiciously, and the outcome is rarely ideal.

As discussed above, RedThink is predicated on the concept of pitting one group of people against another. Without a clearly-defined, open conflict -- a banner to rally around -- RedThinkers are left to muddle through the countless petty rivalries and ambiguities which define life. Many will grow to the task, but most will lose interest and wander off to pursue their own interests. Neither outcome is desirable for those who rely on RedThinkers for support -- televangelists, neocons, propagandists of any stripe -- and so a conflict is always required, a battle always looming. Once again, anything less than total victory, total domination -- which BlueThink recognizes is an impossible goal -- is considered a battle lost, a battle to be fought again someday. By demanding the impossible, the champions of RedThink ensure there is always another battle to be fought. RedThink calls for constant conflict, for perpetual war.

To summarize:

The essence of RedThink is persecution. "We" are constantly being pursued, hounded, attacked. "They" are malevolent, irrational, and evil. The only solution is to take the fight to "Them," to destroy "Them" before they destroy "Us." RedThink despises concepts like compromise, refuses to recognize fine distinctions or gray areas. You're either with "Us" or with "Them," and there can be no middle ground.

BlueThink assumes that people generally act rationally, act in their own interests, and will respond to reason. BlueThink acknowledges that people can disagree without coming to blows. The essence of BlueThink is compromise between rivals, less-than-ideal arrangements which are equitable to all parties involved and will maintain a sustainable peace, rather than plunge things into chaos.

The difference is most-starkly reflected in the conspiracy theories pushed by both sides, to wit:

Miguel's Card, according to RedThink: "Must be the work of some leftist!" Why? "Because they hate our troops, and they hate America!" Why? Because they're irrational, villainous, et cetera.

Miguel's Card, according to BlueThink: "Could be a right-winger . . ." Why? "To demonize anti-war activists." Why? To discredit their political opponents.

RedThink's War on Iraq: "War opponents love terrorism!" Why? "They want the terrorists to win!" Why? Because they're irrational, villainous, et cetera.

BlueThink's War on Iraq: "The administration wants to loot Iraq!" Why? "Greed." Why? Because Iraq has lots of mineral wealth.

RedThink's War on Christmas: "Liberals want to destroy Christmas!" Why? "Because they hate Christmas, because they hate Christianity, because they hate Christ!" Why? Because they're irrational, villainous, et cetera.

BlueThink's War on Labor: "Republicans are anti-union!" Why? "Because they're bought off." Why? Because execs and trust-funders give them $millions for favors.

RedThink's Communist Conspiracy: "Democrats want global communism!" Why? "Because they hate freedom!" Why? Because they're irrational, villainous, et cetera.

BlueThink's Imperialist Conspiracy: "Republicans want global imperialism!" Why? "Because it benefits our multinational corporations, at the expense of the Third World!" Why? Because they own stock in those multinationals, and could care less about the Third World.

Over and over, RedThink perceives a battle that must be fought against a foe that has no sane or rational purpose -- "They" are simply evil, and must be destroyed. RedThink refuses to contemplate the possibility that other people might be acting in "Their" own perceived interests, as opposed to attacking "Ours" -- this is considered treasonous thought, giving aid and comfort to the Enemy.

The consequence:

Predictably, with one side willing to compromise and the other side refusing to, the rise of Reep RedThink has seen a steady rightward shift in the debate, with the left giving ground and the right always demanding more. This seems to be a natural consequence of pitting RedThink against BlueThink -- a dangerous tendency toward the aggressor.

More dangerous, however, is the enthusiastic convergence of two conflicting RedThinks -- such as Neoconservatism and Islamofascism -- which has the potential, if left unchecked, to destroy the planet entirely.

Like unsupervised children, or belligerent drunks, two global RedThinks will merrily escalate and escalate and escalate, and will destroy everything in their path, until only one or the other -- or, quite possibly, neither -- remains.

Neither side will back down, and neither side will accept compromise -- cannot accept compromise, since each side is at total war against utter evil.

Total devastation is the purpose of each.


Dan Trabue reminds me to give George Lakoff of the Rockridge Institute credit for laying much of the foundation on which this post rests.

And my friend Angry Chimp points me to a paragraph attributed to HG Wells, from the Open Conspiracy (1928):
All through the later Middle Ages there were great disputes among the schoolmen about the use of words and symbols. There is a queer disposition in the human mind to think that symbols and words and logical deductions are truer than actual experiences, and these great controversies were due to the struggle of the human intelligence against that disposition. On the one side were the Realists, who were so called because they believed, in effect, that names were more real than facts, and on the other side were the Nominalists, who from the first were pervaded by a suspicion about names and words generally; who thought there might be some sort of catch in verbal processes, and who gradually worked their way towards verification by experiment which is the fundamental thing about experimental science -- experimental science which has given our human world all these immense powers and possibilities that tempt and threaten it to-day. These controversies of the schoolmen were of the utmost importance to mankind. The modern world could not begin to come into existence until the human mind had broken away from the narrow-minded verbalist way of thinking which the Realists followed.
It seems we've known for a while that a rousing narrative can be much more influential than empirical evidence. It's a shame that we haven't found a way around that fact yet.


Dan Trabue said...

GREAT thoughts! You're definitely on to something there.

Have you seen George Lakoff's writings on the topic?

He describes the difference between the two as the difference between a nurturing parent who wants their child to learn to make wise decisions and to avoid poor decisions versus the strict father who believes that evil must be beat out of the child...or something to that effect. He explains it much better than that.

It's definitely a critical point, this difference in the Left and the Right. After discussions with many of them, I often despair. The generous ones will come to the conclusion, "Well, you're relatively reasonable (but still wrong) but MOST liberals are baby-eating murderer-lovers..." The amount of demonizing that goes on in the blogosphere is amazing to me.

catastrophile said...

I'm familiar with the work of Lakoff, a co-founder of a "frame-tank" called the Rockridge Institute. His insights on framing are valuable, but I'm hoping to move in a decidedly different direction in future RedThink/BlueThink posts.

Lakoff deals in communication, conceptual models and the like. Rockridge works to analyze current events and create frames which help progressives to relate concepts. My concern is that the model which the conservative noise machine has created prevents concepts from being related not only through superior framing -- though they are expert at this -- but by sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of the faithful, so that anything a progressive says is colored by a nagging voice in the back of the listener's head saying, "this guy's crazy. He hates America. He's lying to you."

This is the "frame" being applied explicitly to people like Michael Moore and Howard Dean, and by association to people like Representative Murtha, Scott Ritter, you, and me. It needs to be pointed out, and addressed, and we need to understand how the other guy sees the world if we have any hope of communicating with them.

Daniel Levesque said...

Excellent post. Very well thought out.

I am especially impressed y the fact that you mentioned that many conservatives have some liberal leanings, and that many liberals have some conservative leanings. This is frequently overlooked in the whole conservative/liberal debate. I know I have been guilty of it.

I must differ on one thing (of course).

You claim that blue think is based on rational thought. It is the opinion of red thinkers like myself that this is, for the most part, patently untrue. While some blue think people are very logical and thoughtful when decidin gon their views and stances, most seem to simply react in an emotional way that is devoid of all rational thought. Conservatives pride ourselves, and yes pride is a fault, on being very rational thinkers who weigh the evidence, listen to experts, and make sound judgements based on all available evidence. We consider it one of the primary differences between liberals and conservatives. Rational thought versus emotional thought. Again, there are exceptions to this rule. You and Dan are excellent examples, though Dan does sometimes seem to go more with his compassion than his mind at times.

catastrophile said...

And I must, of course, disagree.

As I pointed out, just as many conservatives and libertarians are BlueThinkers, there are plenty of RedThinkers who throw in with the liberal camp, so what you say is certainly true of many, but:

They were not conservatives who demanded caution, diplomacy, and respect for the UN process before attacking Iraq;

They were not liberals who insisted on invoking 9/11 to support invading Iraq;

They are not liberals who advocate teaching mythology alongside science in schools;

They were not conservatives who stood up to the church when their empirical data contradicted church doctrine;

They are not liberals who cry traitor! every time someone questions the administration;

They are not conservatives who dare to question the motives of those in power.

Certainly, for many liberals a hatred for Bush fuels a sort of blind rage, and the Dems do their share of emotionalizing issues for votes -- gun violence, for example -- but at the core of honest "liberal" philosophy is a desire to embrace reason and move the threshold of knowledge forward, to do the most good for the most people; it is "conservatives" who cling to dogma and tradition, or what is called "values," as if theirs are the only values that matter. Reflexive obedience to authority, whether that authority is a church, a democratic government, or a political party (Republican or Ba'ath), is a trait more prevalent in conservatives than in liberals.

Daniel Levesque said...

"They were not conservatives who demanded caution, diplomacy, and respect for the UN process before attacking Iraq"

Because it had already been tried for over 1o years without success.

"They were not liberals who insisted on invoking 9/11 to support invading Iraq"

But there are liberals who say it was actually the US government that brought down the WTC and not terrorists.

"They are not liberals who advocate teaching mythology alongside science in schools"

Really? You'd be surprised at how much of evolution is pure mythology. This is according to scientists, not theologians.

"They were not conservatives who stood up to the church when their empirical data contradicted church doctrine"

Patently false. But I will admit they were disturbingly few.

"They are not liberals who cry traitor! every time someone questions the administration"

No. But it is because they are the ones accusing adminstration itself of commiting treasonous acts. Conservatives are not actively seeking to undermne a wartime government and making atatements that encourage our enemies.

"They are not conservatives who dare to question the motives of those in power."

Bullcrap. I'm a conservative, and I do all the time. I just do it privately and think it through before I say anything, and even then I restrain myself from saying anything if I thik it could harm the war effort or encourage our enemies. Liberals, apparently, are not doing this.

As for your last paragraph, I will conceed your point that conservatives are more likely to follow the current leadership without question than liberals are, but it's only because we put that leadership there because we think it reflects our values and mindset. We were full of questioning during the Clinton administartion while liberals were generally quiet in their criticism. This one is determined by the leadership more than the nature of the people.

Dan Trabue said...

Daniel, I'd challenge you to present any case I've made based upon emotion. I'm not saying I haven't, but I can't think of too many. I try to keep logic central to my arguments, as I agree with Cat that this is one of the differences between us and them.

I know that it is a very common Myth amongst conservatives that liberal arguments are based upon emotion, but I've not seen much evidence of it.

There certainly are some rank and file liberals who are mooshy on thinking ("but it might hurt their feelings!") but this is not the case with most of the great progressive thinker/writers.

And so, I'd be very interested if you could show me examples of what you consider emotional reasoning from me or Catastrophe or of folk like Chernus, John Dear, MLK, Chomsky, Arundhati, etc: The serious thinkers, not the comedians like Moore, Franken, etc who I like and agree with but who are not always making serious commentary.

As to your thought, Daniel, that liberals weren't criticizing Clinton, perhaps that's because you were listening only to the MSM that didn't always publish the tirades of those on the Left who were often criticizing Clinton?

catastrophile said...

"Because [UN-led disarmament] had already been tried for over 10 years without success."

As everybody now grudgingly acknowledges, the inspections and sanctions did, in fact, work. What they didn't accomplish -- weren't intended to accomplish -- was removing Saddam from power. And the administration played on RedThink -- specifically, the crusader idealism and fear instincts -- to accomplish that goal.

It was BlueThinkers who resisted open war, who insisted on adhering to an appropriate (and successful) process to move toward the administration's stated goal of disarming Iraq.

"But there are liberals who say it was actually the US government that brought down the WTC and not terrorists."

Because we don't shy from poking holes in a story just because that story comes from our government, and we don't deem it impossible that our "leaders" are capable of such an act. Governments have done such things in the past, and there's plenty about the official story that doesn't hold together.

"You'd be surprised at how much of evolution is pure mythology. This is according to scientists, not theologians."

There are gaps in evolutionary theory, but one thing makes it infinitely more scientific than creationism: evolutionary theories can be tested. Science can no more prove or disprove the existence of a Creator than an ant in a bottle can know who made the bottle.

"We were full of questioning during the Clinton administartion while liberals were generally quiet in their criticism."

When it came to Lewinsky, the Dem RedThinkers came out in force, because they saw a political tactic for what it was. When it came to Kosovo, terrorism, and other such matters, I saw a significant degree of dissent among liberals. At the same time, the major right-wing criticism of Clinton was championed from within the government, by top Reeps in Congress. When liberals saw fit to criticize Clinton, we were led by . . .

uh . . .

Ralph Nader?

Hardly an authoritative leader.

Son of Lilith said...

You should get this essay published.

Daniel Levesque said...

Well, I had rather hoped the discussion would widen out here when I encouraged my readers to read and deate this article. Dissappointing. Maybe I should have used a hyperlink.

Dan Trabue said...

So, Daniel, CAN you provide instances of liberal "emotional" logic? It's not even so much that I'm doubting it happens, but more that I wonder what you're calling "emotional."

It occurred to me that sometimes, when progressives talk about working for justice, they use the term "fair." As in, "It isn't fair to push your pollution off on other people."

I suspect that some conservatives are seeing that sort of statement as a whiny, "but it's not fair!! Not fair! Not fair! Not fair! Make it fair!!" kind of statement.

As opposed to the call for Justice and personal responsibility that it is in the minds of liberals. Am I on to anything here?