Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Tunnels and Bridges: A Short Detour

by Sara Robinson

Rules Lawyers
This is a sort of detour off the series -- a side road that opened up while I was writing the seventh part. I'd been picking at this subject for the past week or so; then, interestingly, the same topic popped up in the comments. I finally realized that what I had here was serious omission to Part II, "Listening to the Leavers," which was a field guide to the reasons people finally leave fundamentalist religions. There was one important subgroup I didn't address (perhaps due to my overfamiliarity with it). It merits a closer look before we move on any further.

Commenter Splash filed the first field report:

Im not sure I see much in the way of authoritarians wanting to be like others, wanting to fit in. That may be true for some, but there is a contrarian type who fancies himself a victim of liberal culture, and will resist all the more when he perceives that prevailing norms reflect that liberal culture. They turn contrarianism into a "hip" rebellion and latch onto the conservative "counter-culture." For this type especially, things must happen to them and the shell has to be cracked by circumstances that bring forth both a cognitive dissonance and a way out of the dissonance that is different from, and more attractive than, the contrarian default position.

That default position is the positiion that they have cornered the market, so to speak, on morality - and the smartest of these always seem to cite Kant for support. If time permits i will try to get an analysis of Kant up but if anyone has any thoughts on this, id love to see. Kant seems to be the most widely cited philosophical support for the "objective source of morality is eroded by liberal culture" meme. "We have discovered the very structure of human consciousness, you see, which is the source of all objective morality, and liberals pushing moral relativism are the enemies of Western Civilization." On top of this, for those more disposed to fancying themselves victims, being an outsider is a virtue.

Kant needs to be refuted because his thought provides the intellectual excuse to be contrarian in the face of empirical evidence. My sense is that the smarter RWAs can be tricked into empirical thinking once their Kantian rationalistic attachments have been seriously challenged by factual reality.

And I replied:

I've known way more than my share of these guys, since Silicon Valley is one of their primary native habitats. And my take is that they're at least as driven by their burning desire to fit in as any other RWA. In fact, their feelings of victimization may be rooted in the belief that they were promised an acceptance in liberal intellectual circles that they intensely wanted but never really found.??The most extreme ones were frighteningly bright and well-read, and usually also from very religious family backgrounds. Those two qualities alone guaranteed that it was going to be hard to find a niche among the better-rounded, more secular big city liberals. So they decided that, if they were going to be outcasts anyway, they could at least claim moral superiority. I may be a nerd, but I am RIGHT -- the possessor of Ultimate Truth! -- and that's what really matters in the end.

Kant, yeah. And Aristotle. Also Ayn Rand, for the less evolved sorts. I'm no philosopher, but if you can marshal arguments against the nasty intellectual habits Kant justified, I'd love to hear them.

Having actually dated a few of these in my younger years, I speak from experience: Beware the black-and-white thinker with a high IQ. Fortunately, we are talking about a very small (probably >1%) sliver of the RWA population -- a rare but fascinating subspecies.

It's much too flip, but not altogether inaccurate, to say that what these guys (and they were all guys) needed most was the love of a good woman. In almost every case I can recall, the very best and most healing challenge to their Kantian rationalistic attachments turned out to be the factual reality of marriage and parenthood. There's nothing like the day-to-day -- and often irrational and non-linear -- reality of caring for other people to teach you to take life as it is, and not as you think it ought to be.

My husband is a lifelong board, paper, and computer gamer. This same personality type appears so often among gamers (though, mercifully, not at my house) that there's actually a term for them. They call them "Rules Lawyers." This is the guy (and it's usually a guy -- female versions exist, but they are truly rare) who has memorized every rule in the book, and comes to the game prepared to explore every loophole, argue every detail, and punish every infraction. (Can you say "anal retentive?" I knew you could.)

A lot of very bright people are drawn to fundamentalism and other authoritarian systems because they're committed Aristotelians, on a similar lifelong search for Ultimate Truth. Fundamentalist literalism offers just the kind of hard-and-fast, black-and-white "here's the book -- now go live by it" pre-packaged Truth they're looking for. Their intense fear of ambiguity motivates these people to become tremendous scholars, giving hours a day to their studies. Over the course of years, they absorb the system chapter and verse, can quote it at length, and know all the standard (and even some esoteric) defenses against those who might question their interpretation. The more knowledge of the closed system they have, the more secure they feel.

Those of us who've spent a long time in Blogtopia have run across the secular versions of these guys -- for instance, the hard-core free market True Believers who've read their Strauss (all too well) and their Adam Smith (not nearly well enough). If you get into an argument with them, they'll give you a wild ride -- and you might even learn a thing or two, before you finally walk away shaking your head and wondering how somebody so obviously smart could possibly misunderstand so much about how the world really works.

The interesting thing about these guys is that, committed as they are, their beliefs are often quite brittle, making them uniquely susceptible to change. The day always comes that they trip over a particularly intractable contradiction in their belief system -- the one that cannot be studied, rationalized, or willed away no matter how hard they try. And, because they accepted the system in the first place with the assurance that every word of it was true, finding even one untruth in the mix is all it takes to make their faith in the whole edifice crumble. They were promised perfection. If even small imperfections are found, the whole thing must be scrapped, and something Even More True must be found to replace it.

While these people almost never return to an authoritarian belief system once they've left it, their burning desire to find Ultimate Truth may not leave them for years, if ever. In the meantime, they'll be extremely susceptible to latching on to other authoritarian systems that promise them the certainty they seek. Those '60s radicals who made the leap from Communism to neo-conservatism may look like they've made a 180 -- but, in reality, they were simply exchanging the comfort of one all-encompassing ideology for that of another. They're still True Believers; they're just reading different books now, and wearing different clothes. One common story is the former fundie who declares his atheism, makes a meticulous study of logic and the scientific method, and embraces radical skepticism as the New True and Only Way. New ideology; same dogmatic mental habits.

When they finally come vaulting over the wall (and it happens fast for this group -- their preferred mode of transport seems to be the trebuchet), greeting them with a gentle "We told you so" isn't totally out of place -- in fact, they expect it, and almost welcome it. Former fundies of this stripe spend a lot of time in the early months re-tracing their logical tracks, combing the Bible looking for errors and contradictions, trying to figure out where they went wrong. (It's a grueling process to watch, but a necessary step before they can really come to terms with their loss and let go of it.) We may expect very bright people who are leaving RWA political movements to have the same impulse -- in fact, many are having it right now, as their complicity in the Iraq War hits home. "Where did I get it wrong?" is a painful question to ask; but some of the bravest and most honest ones are now sincerely interested in hearing our side of the story.

For this group, we need to be welcoming and ready to share our worldview with them -- patiently, honestly, and with compassion. These people are looking for new authorities. When we respect their intelligence and give them solid answers, we provide them with a comfortable landing zone -- and stand a good chance of establishing ourselves as these people's new credible authorities in the short run.

But we also need to realize that getting them to accept our ideas as their new dogma doesn't define a victory here. In the long run, real freedom only comes when they can let go of the need for authoritative answers altogether.

These are the ones most discomfited by liberal moral ambiguity, and our enjoyment of colors other than black and white. In the reality-based world, no rules -- not even the laws of physics -- are hard-and-fast. They're all general guidelines at best. As this particular subgroup of Leavers learns to trust themselves and others, they may eventually relax, let go of the need to explain and control everything according some Unified Field Theory, and take life as in all its messy glory. It's only at that point that their escape is truly made good.

That's the detour. Now that that's out of the way, we can get back on the main road.

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