Self-Discovery and Political Opinion
by Mark English
How do we come to have the political views we have? Genetics (and, more broadly, biology) plays a part, but only, I think, to the extent that genetics/biology contributes to determining broad psychological characteristics, relating to personality type for example. The main contributing factors are no doubt socio-cultural and relate to one’s upbringing, etc., bearing in mind that this is never a completely passive process. While some individuals seem to happily adopt the attitudes of those around them, others react strongly against accepted opinion.
The birth order of siblings is clearly psychologically significant in various ways, and some of these may relate to politics. Claims that first-borns tend to be more conservative than their siblings have some scientific support, though they are contested. It would hardly be surprising were such claims to prove well-founded, however, given the obvious fact that a first-born loses his or her monopoly on parental attention when a sibling comes along. The status quo ante becomes, in many cases, a sort of lost golden age. I myself experienced this, having lost at a very young age my father’s initially unqualified approval and attention to a younger, more athletically gifted and less argumentative brother. It was only as an adult that I became close to my father again.
It took me a couple of decades to work out an ideological position, but it remained – and remains – in flux. So rather than talking about its latest iteration, let me say a few things about how I see the evolution of personal political ideas.
First of all, I see the process as one of self-discovery rather than in purely rationalistic terms. I don’t believe we adopt ideas about politics or the social sphere on a purely intellectual basis. Ideology – by its very nature – draws deeply on (largely unconscious) value systems and so cannot be analysed in purely logical or intellectual terms.
As I see it, ideologies should be assessed in terms of how accurately they reflect and embody one’s fundamental insights and attitudes, as well as in terms of how viable they are. In other words, you have to know yourself (not an easy matter) before you can even begin to settle on an appropriate ideology, as well as have a good grasp of the social world and how it works.
The phenomenon of tribalism, which is often associated with the desire for a clear and distinct (ideological) identity, also needs to be taken into account here. We are sometimes tempted to adopt a clearly defined ideological identity for underlying social reasons, for the sense of moral security – and, in the worst cases, moral superiority – which belonging to a group often brings. Obviously this kind of ideological commitment has more to do with groupthink than with self-knowledge or self-discovery.
Let me try to explain what I mean by ‘self-discovery’ in this context. If one recalls (this often happens by chance) some personal conviction or intuition from a time when one’s conscious ideological commitments were undeveloped or quite different from what they are now, and this remembered intuition happens to be in conformity with one’s current ideological views, then this could be taken as a confirmation of sorts of one’s current position. At least it is clear that one’s current views are not completely out of kilter with earlier, largely pre-theoretical responses.
If, on the other hand, the old intuition or attitude is incompatible with current views, realizing this may lead one to call those current views into question, to ask whether they conform to one’s deep personal convictions, to “who one really is.”
I know that many will not find this last clause (and by extension the whole approach I am recommending) meaningful. But even if one rejects (as I do) any notion of an essential self or a personal essence, the old idea of “knowing oneself” which preoccupied the Greeks does have some real meaning and substance – especially when seen in the light of modern psychology. I am assuming that readers will have a good grasp of the essentials here (which relate to the surprising extent to which our behavior is driven by unconscious forces and of the prevalence of post hoc rationalizations).
I might also mention an older tradition of social thought which was associated with philosophical idealism. Thinkers in this general tradition typically rejected atomistic individualism and saw society in organic rather than mechanistic terms. They saw rationalistic approaches to social phenomena as being both superficial and dangerous. Like many more conventionally religious thinkers before them, they may have got their metaphysics wrong, but some of them, at any rate, got their psychology and social and political understanding fundamentally right.
Any acceptable ideology needs to be rooted in a realistic psychology and keenly attuned not only to the possible range but also to the constraints which apply to human social behavior. Some psychological knowledge (intuitive or otherwise) is necessary, but historical and cross-cultural knowledge is also important if such judgments are to be made with any degree of confidence.
History (by which I mean the actual events as preserved and reflected in primary sources, rather than historical narratives) can be read as a vast set of social experiments, some successful, some not. Speaking in general terms, it’s fairly clear that radically ambitious, all-encompassing political projects usually result in dysfunction and disaster. By contrast, piecemeal and gradualist approaches that give due respect and recognition to normal social instincts – and to the spontaneously-generated order which these instincts tend to create (taking the form of implicit agreements, customs, etc.) – have a better success rate. But I don’t want to push one particular line here, partly because different situations call for different solutions, and partly because in a given situation there are usually multiple possibilities of interpretation and action, no single combination of which can be convincingly demonstrated to be the best.
This inevitable residue of disagreement in the area of politics is similar to – and arguably derives from – the intractable differences we find in values generally. As I see it, there is a large set of realistic (workable) ideologies and value systems which individuals may construct or choose from, and this variety is always going to be a source of potential conflict. There is no way – scientific or otherwise – of definitively choosing between seriously contested points of view.
Sure, some perspectives are more sophisticated or logically coherent than others, some will be deemed more likely to work well and lead to better outcomes than others. But in any given case there will usually be more than one plausible way of approaching things, and decisions concerning which direction to take will depend on subjective (i.e. personal) preferences. Thus my emphasis here on self-discovery.
I would like to think that my personal, informal and somewhat anecdotal approach to these matters is not driven by intellectual indolence or self-regard (as some may assume), but rather by a particular understanding of the nature of the topics under discussion and, in particular, the conviction that neither moral nor political values can ever be rationally derived. Simply, they go beyond the scope of rationality, and also beyond the scope of science (except in a descriptive sense). Moral dilemmas and problems are not (primarily) problems of reason, at least in any normal sense of the word. Likewise, most political problems cannot be solved in straightforwardly rational ways; unless, of course, the word ‘rational’ is being used in a sense which does not preclude taking into account the unconscious (and irrational) elements of human behavior.
When I talked about early attitudes and intuitions, I was thinking of views that I had when I first tried to work out what sorts of things I most valued – as a teenager and young adult – and also various strong convictions which I have felt from time to time in my adult life. But it’s worth going back also to early childhood to get a sense of one’s innate personality and other inborn or very-early-acquired characteristics.
An early obsession of mine with military toys and marching and military music could perhaps be put down to environmental influences and specifically to my father’s background. His life had been changed and his personality profoundly affected by his military experiences. These had occurred a good number of years before my birth but though he never talked about these experiences – perhaps because he never did – somehow the war never ended for him. (I knew that he had received the Military Medal for his work behind enemy lines but it was only after his death, when I did some archival and other research, that I found out the full – horrific – story.)
Behind my toy soldiers and obsession with marching bands lurked a kind of fear or dread, undefined to some extent, but often linked to aircraft (the sky was full of them where I grew up, many of them military). Bombing raids haunted my imagination. There were coups and rumors of coups in nearby countries. This was the time of the Cold War where regional conflicts were potential global flashpoints, and images of nuclear destruction loomed large in just about everybody’s mind.
Though I was a polite and generally well-behaved child whose military interests were focused on toys and models and identifying different kinds of vehicle, different kinds of aircraft, etc. rather than on the actuality of combat, there is some evidence of underlying aggressive tendencies.
For example, a much-loved female cousin who was five years my senior told me that I had as a very small boy terrorized her with a cricket bat in the back garden of our home, backing her into a corner. I have absolutely no recollection of this incident, but she claimed that it really traumatized her. In spite of this mysterious incident, she always seemed very fond of me, and I was certainly fond of her.
Let me finish with another anecdote. My mother’s older sister (and mother of the cousin I spoke of) lived nearby. She visited just about every day. One afternoon, in my absence – I would have been about three or four years old and in the habit of taking an afternoon nap – she had apparently unscrewed the lid and helped herself, at my mother’s suggestion (or at least with her approval), to my special jar of boiled sweets. Big mistake!
After my nap, I wandered into the kitchen and saw that the jar was not up on the shelf where it ought to have been but on the kitchen table. My mother explained, but I was furious. Property rights had been disrespected. Proper procedures had not been followed. I rationed the candies very strictly: two per day. No doubt, if asked, I would have allowed my aunt to have a couple. But I was not consulted.
I solemnly proclaimed: “No more lids are to be taken off in this house!”
The two sisters couldn’t stop laughing. I got even more worked up.
“And there is to be no more laughing in this house!” I ordered. Which, of course, sent them into hysterics.
And now I’m beginning to wonder whether perhaps that incident with my cousin wasn’t connected in some way to this humiliation. Was it some kind of primitive revenge, the sins of the mother being visited upon the daughter? The story of the boiled sweets fits my personality as I know it (even if I have lightened up a bit since then); but I can’t for the life of me explain that cricket bat business. No recollection. No plausible explanation.
How all this relates to political issues is difficult to say. But I concede that the small boy in question would appear to have had authoritarian, and maybe even fascistic tendencies. I can assure you, however, that neither this authoritarian streak nor the apparent propensity for terrorizing nine-year-old girls developed or manifested itself in later life.