Sunday, November 04, 2007

Who's Your Daddy?

-- by Sara

Back in August, I wrote post called Leering Old Men: Another Take that sparked a fair amount of discussion around the lefty blogs. The gist of the thing was that authoritarianism -- religious, political, or otherwise -- seems to stunt people's mental, social, and emotional growth; and this is why we see so much stunningly juvenile behavior on the right wing.

While I've done other posts along these lines, this one specifically related Conservative Arrested Development Syndrome (CADS) to the way the Macho Men Dave discusses in the post just below fetishize the outward trappings of masculinity -- even as they're driven to tear down anyone who exhibits the robust inner confidence and character that define a mature adult. Our media kingmakers are nothing more than little boys playing dress-up, I argued, because they have no concept of what it means to be a grown-up -- and being around people who do makes them feel so shamed and humiliated that they can only respond with spiteful derision.

That August piece has turned out to have an extraordinarily long tail, as various other bloggers touch back on it to poke at the wide-ranging implications of this idea. In recent weeks, Paul Rosenberg over at OpenLeft has been working this same territory in a fascinating series I've been meaning to point y'all to. While I described the publicly visible symptoms and effects of CADS, Rosenberg (who obviously has some background in developmental psychology) is digging into the theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, and others to describe, in great detail, the cognitive structures and processes that conspire to produce this whole system of behavior. It's an important contribution, because knowing why they act this way will give us the insight we need to counter them more effectively.

But Rosenberg isn't just dissecting conservative mental processes. At almost every step, his explanations compare and contrast conservative thinking in ways that also explain the liberal cognitive style -- in other words, he also gets at the reasons behind both the real and perceived fecklessness that characterizes so much of the liberal response to conservative misbehavior. We have plenty of bad habits of our own -- habits that the conservatives have deftly learned to exploit to keep us perpetually in lose-lose situations. Until we start choosing to respond in other, better ways (and quite a few alternatives flow easily out of Rosenberg's analysis), nothing is going to change.

It's a tour de force, and I've been absorbing each new installment eagerly. So it was delightful to tune in yesterday for part 6b of the series, and discover that it was almost entirely arranged around the observations I'd made in the Leering Old Men post, which he quoted at length.

And it got me thinking about some other things, too. The issue of conservative sandbox behavior is a longstanding joke; but it's now evolving into a wide and serious discussion here on our side of the blogosphere. We talk about what it will mean to put the grown-ups in charge again; but an important part of being a grown-up is knowing how to effectively motivate and discipline children and keep family life from degenerating into The Lord of the Flies. We're starting to realize, at long last, that our country -- and perhaps the planet -- cannot survive with this pack of tantrum-throwing moral six-year-olds in charge. Yet we've been consistently, remarkably, frustratingly unable to muster the authority necessary to set strict boundaries and make them stick.

And that is, unfortunately, what's required here. Conservative brats are brought up to expect spankings -- and they don't respect any adult who they've decided isn't capable of dishing them out. In the conservative world, for reasons Rosenberg explains, respect equals fear. Unfortunately, being liberals, we don't parent that way. In our world, respect equals trust; and our methods -- docking allowances, grounding, heart-to-heart chats, and time-outs -- only work where that basic bond of respect and trust between parents and kids already exists. They make no impact at all on kids who are in open defiance (or are openly sociopathic), and thus really don't care what happens to themselves or you.

The conservatives don't respect or trust us, because they've reckoned we're not willing or able to give them the kind of strict discipline they crave. Rosenberg's series shows us what's going on on both sides of the dynamic, and how we might alter our behavior and begin to set limits in ways that they will begin to understand and respect.

Go take a look. The linked page is a round-up of all of Rosenberg's work for OpenLeft, but if you scroll down, you'll easily find all the parts of the series. It's brilliant stuff, and a fine advancement on one of the most important conversations we can be having right now.

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