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.






17 responses to “Self-Discovery and Political Opinion”

  1. Nice article. My little quibble (of course)

    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 am puzzled that anyone is surprised at any of this. Also, this realisation is not new. There are references to unconscious drivers and post hoc rationalisations going back centuries.

    For example the quote attributed to Lao Tzu about the greatest leader being the one who the people barely know exists and when they have done as he wanted they think that they thought of it themselves.

  2. s.wallerstein

    There are authoritarian people on the left and on the right and in the center, so I don’t think that an authoritarian personality necessarily leads to a certain political viewpoint nor does any other personality type, as far as I can see.

    My basic political options, on the left, began as a teenager, because of friendships, because I wanted to rebel against the hypocrisy of the adults around me, because I felt that was cool, etc. At age 71 it would be ridiculous to become a rightwinger: I’ve met my friends, my woman companion, my social world, my lawyer, my doctors and dentist directly or indirectly through involvement in the world of the left. The people around me expect a certain basic political commitment from me and I see no reason to disappoint the few people in the world who care about me, I’m much too blasé and cynical to “see the light”, even if the light was on the right and actually, I don’t believe that the light exists anywhere, neither on the right, on the left or in heaven.

    Furthermore, on the left (and on the right as far as I know) there are varieties of nuances and shades which allow you to find a niche which suits your personality structure and your degree of belief or disbelief in political ideologies in general.

  3. It is true that our political beliefs cime to us through some mixture of genetics,;culture,tribalism, accident etc.

    But this doesn’t seem to matter too much because, when we think on it, how else would we have come across them?

    The question is, what accommodation do we make with this and where do we go from here?

    It seems to me that the way we have come across our politics has conditiobed us to always ask the wrong question. We ask “which political system is best?” before we have asked the question that needs to come first: What do we want from a political system?

  4. ombhurbhuva

    Not having any interest in politics in a systematic, doctrinaire way is a a conservative stance. Present. Being encouraged that Belgium avoided austerity through not having a government at the time when it was the article of faith Eurowide, and moreover that their economy grew at that time makes one sigh and shrug and continue to vote with a measure of irony. It is interesting that there is a general political logjam in both majoritarian (first past the post) and proportional (preference) representational government. The hive mind has decided that stasis is the best plan lest too much power lead to decerebrate flailing. The public seems to be saying – for God’s sake take those shovels out of their hands, the hole is quite deep enough. America del Norte has gone in for shock and guffhaw. I’m enjoying it but your smilage may vary.

    What influence does politics have on culture? Does it reflect it or does it distort it. Do we get what we deserve in those thrusting ambitious ones that have a plan. In our times a great many politicians start young without a measure of citizen experience. Those layers of spinners, advisors, experts dancing like bees to indicate honey trove. I think I’ll abdicate.

  5. How can you have rational thought without considering the whole environment, including ones emotions which mostly are the conscious traces of unconscious drives?

  6. Robin


    You are puzzled that anyone would be surprised at (as I put it) “the extent to which our behavior is driven by unconscious forces and of the prevalence of post hoc rationalizations” as revealed by scientific studies.

    I agree that some people have always had an intuitive sense of these matters (using techniques such as reverse psychology, and so on). But we have now what past thinkers did not have: firstly, a general understanding of how the brain actually functions; and, secondly, a vast body of experimental work which demonstrates in various and often very convincing ways the mismatch between what we (consciously) think is going on and what is really going on.

    Take those split brain experiments where, for example, the left eye is shown a blushworthy picture, the subject blushes, and immediately the rational/linguistic parts of the left hemisphere (which don’t have access to data from the left eye) make up a plausible story – which the subject apparently believes – to explain the blush. Or even bog-standard experiments in social psychology, with normal subjects.

    I for one was certainly surprised by the dramatic demonstration, time after time, of the “thinness” of our conscious reasoning – and I am someone who had from a very early age accepted the important role that unconscious processing plays in our thought and behavior.

  7. s.wallerstein

    “There are authoritarian people on the left and on the right and in the center, so I don’t think that an authoritarian personality necessarily leads to a certain political viewpoint nor does any other personality type, as far as I can see.”

    Sure, it’s important to distinguish between a person’s personality and his/her political views, but I think the former often influences the latter. For example, contrast the type of person who continually seeks out new experiences with the person who works to a routine or is simply more cautious. The latter could be said to have more conservative tendencies; and this often carries over into politics in one way or another. But, as you suggest, there are niches within both the left and the right which can accommodate most personalities.

    On this last issue, as a non-Marxist studying the history of Marxism, I was always looking out for thinkers with whom I felt some affinity. (They were usually the hated ‘revisionists’.)

  8. ombhurbhuva

    “Not having any interest in politics in a systematic, doctrinaire way is a conservative stance.”

    Agreed. Only, you’re cheating a bit here as the word ‘doctrinaire’ has negative connotations. You are defining the opposition in negative terms. This is something just about everybody does, of course, including many progressive apologists and ideologues (Corey Robin comes to mind). They define conservatism in negative terms (e.g. privileged people hanging on to what they’ve got).

    Your semi-facetious analysis of the current political logjam in many Western countries is good as far as it goes (e.g. the metaphor of a brain-damaged body politic), but I am inclined to think that the broader context of major shifts in the balance of wealth and geo-political power will mean that stasis is not sustainable and political action of some kind (“decerebrate flailing” or not) will inevitably kick in.

    Of course, it may be that the grand plans being hatched in the Orient collapse under their own weight, and the politically-ineffectual West will muddle through and win the day. I don’t personally think so, however.

  9. Jonathan Gossage

    “How can you have rational thought without considering the whole environment, including ones emotions which mostly are the conscious traces of unconscious drives?”

    Well you can’t have thought without the unconscious, but some kinds of thinking can be understood and assessed without taking the unconscious or the emotions into account. Formal disciplines like mathematics and logic and the pure and applied sciences that depend heavily on such disciplines, for example.

    By contrast, our normal thinking about the social world (including political thinking) is not like this. Not only does it draw heavily (like all thinking) on unconscious processing, it cannot really be properly understood or assessed unless you take the unconscious elements into account.

    This is how I would want to draw the distinction, at any rate.

  10. s.wallerstein

    What personality traits are associated with certain political positions also varies according to historical circumstances

    I live in Chile and to be on the left during the Pinochet dictatorship involved a bit of courage and rebelliousness. In Cuba today
    to be a classical liberal involves courage and rebelliousness. In the U.S. during the McCarthy era to be on the left involved courage and rebelliousness, but today in some elite U.S. universities to be a conservative involves courage and rebelliousness, while the left in some cases becomes the position of groupthink.

  11. Mark,
    This blending of philosophy and personal experience is again you at your best.
    I see nothing to disagree with here.

  12. Thanks, ej, I appreciate it.

  13. labnut

    Your essay touches on some very deep issues.

    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.

    But how does it happen that there is something to discover?

  14. labnut

    I must confess that I am quite impatient with the new-agey concept of self-discovery which seems to me to be a kind of pandering to the self. It seems to me that we are instead engaged in a process of self-creation. Quite how it is that we go about it is the really important question. If I create an object, have I discovered it? I don’t think so.

  15. Hi labnut.

    I am not, I hope, using the concept of self-discovery in a new agey kind of way. As I point out, I am using it in a very particular sense here relating to psychological self-knowledge. Such knowledge is largely intuitive but it can be guided by – and certainly needs to be compatible with – a general scientific understanding of how our brains/minds work and develop.

    Your comment brings Sartre to mind. Not only did he (apparently) deny the existence of the unconscious, he emphasized self-creation through action.

    *In a sense* we create ourselves by what we do, but there is/was never a blank slate.

  16. labnut

    Your comment brings Sartre to mind. Not only did he (apparently) deny the existence of the unconscious

    And so do I. The belief in the subconscious has been science’s biggest wild goose chase.

  17. labnut

    a general scientific understanding of how our brains/minds work and develop.

    We have a slight scientific understanding of how the brain works but we have almost no scientific understanding of how the mind works. The biggest problem of all is the gap between the brain and the mind. Study of the brain tells us little about the mind.