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27 July 2016

Rationality as a Nonrational Social Position

I teach sociology to undergraduates. As a proponent of a liberal arts approach to higher education, I reject the idea that my students should memorize a series of definitions, theories, etc. Instead, I try to give my students a new way to think about the world, indeed, a new way to think. As difficult as it is to succinctly define sociology, I think that one important distinction between sociology and the other social sciences is that social interaction and behavior is fundamentally rooted in nonrationality. Economics, for example, is rooted in the assumption that, all else being equal, individuals make rational decisions. (Of course, this was not originally a statement about actual human behavior but instead a modeling assumption, but I digress.) The classic example I use in class is voting. For individuals, voting is irrational in that there are clear costs (e.g. educate oneself, travel to polls, spend time in queue, etc.) but no rewards (i.e. virtually no election is ever decided by a single vote). For the group, however, voting is necessary; if every individual acted rationally, social order would crumble, and individuals would be affected negatively. So, we need a way to encourage nonrational behavior, a way to create social rewards. We do this by making the voting process a solidarity-generating ritual, by socializing our young to think of voting as a civic duty, etc. We can apply this same sociological perspective on rational/nonrational to things like religion and crime.

Watching the political conventions these last two weeks with my wife, I have started to think about how contentious politics is of course also inherently nonrational. It's easy (I hope) to see this among many supporters of Donald Trump. Trump's political planks, where they can in fact be clearly deciphered at all, tend to be at odds with the needs of his typical supporters. Middle class white men without college degrees have actually done pretty well, and Trump's scapegoating, isolationism, regressive tax proposals, among others, will do those supporters more harm than good. Their support for Trump, though, is not about a reasoned logic valuing a candidate because of his practical ideas. Instead, since these middle class white men without college degrees "feel" like they aren't doing so well (and, even more, "feel" quite aggrieved), they irrationally support the candidate who is happy to exploit their resentments for political gain; Trump gives voice to those who have seen their privileged status slip with recent social change even as he promises more practical disadvantage than benefit.

I think that part is relatively uncontroversial, at least among sociologists, but what I started wondering about is how the relative rationality of the left fits in with the nonrational bases of the social. Lefties like me and my wife tend to understand our political position as one that is rooted in rationality. We are more likely to trust science, both natural and social, and its claims. We are more likely to be swayed by systematic evidence than emotion (even as emotion is acknowledged and respected). Does this mean, though, that we are somehow immune to the same social forces that motivate Trump supporters or is rationality itself a kind of nonrational social position? I don't know the answer to this, but I suspect that we lefties are not as different as we assume--even as political rationality is inarguably less dangerous than willful political ignorance.

Let me close with an example from outside of contentious politics that might help me better explain. A friend and I were recently discussing religion. He is a Quaker who loathes ritual, while I am an Episcopalian who laps up ritual like water in the desert. His assertion was that people should avoid ritual as a habitual distraction from the things that only rational deliberation can address. My assertion was that human beings actually don't fair so well with abstract rationality alone and require nonrationality to cement our social bonds. Perhaps what the political left can show us is that ritual devotion to rationality is itself akin to irrationality in its practice--even as it has demonstrably different practical results.

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