Michel Foucault writes, “A name makes reading too easy.” Foucault, a famous philosopher and activist during the latter part of the twentieth century, believed his celebrity made it impossible for people to hear what he was actually saying. People no longer read his work, they read him. So Foucault says, if he has written anonymously in the past, it was “a way of addressing the potential reader…more directly: Since you don’t know who I am, you will be more inclined to find out why I say what you read; just allow yourself to say, quite simply, it’s true, it’s false. I like it or I don’t like it.” Foucault’s point: names blindside us with bias; impulsive associations tethered to monikers and brands make it nearly impossible to read plainly what is truly being said and why. The surface always wins.
A personal example: I’ve always been fascinated by the immense disdain people have for the band Nickelback. At a friend’s house once I got in a heated discussion about the band. I insisted they weren’t all that bad, while she said they were the absolute worst. I played a Nickelback song and asked for feedback, and she responded that it was “the most awful crap in the world” and “so mundane and repetitive.” The trick, of course, was that I was playing a Nirvana b-side, not a Nickelback song. Perhaps my friend would still not like the track, but would she be so critical if she knew it was Nirvana? A name makes reading too easy.
Science, insofar as modern science can be accurate, syncs up with Foucault’s insight on surface bias. Neuroscientists at Emory University presented liberals and conservatives with factual, negative information about their favorite political candidates. They discovered, using M.R.I. scanners, that their subjects’ brains rejected this information — and, even more amazingly, that their brains rewarded them for doing so by shooting off chemicals associated with pleasure. In other words, the human brain is wired to make us feel good for being close-minded. The following video from wearethechange.org is a good example of this at work out in the world.
The stunt the reporter pulls is similar to the Nickelback/Nirvana trick I played on my friend. He asks Obama supporters for their opinion on what he claims to be a Romney policy, when in fact the policies all belong to Obama. The people are quick to dismiss and slander the so-called Romney legislation. But the polices all actually belonged to President Barack Obama (not Romney). What would they have said if they were told these were actually Obama polices? A name makes reading too easy.
When we think, are we even thinking? Or are we just operating off a combination of assumed truths and surface emotions? Who among us has actually read the legislation of the politicians we support? How many of us, on either side of the spectrum, has thought through these things with any sort of intellectual vigor? Is the political, or the cultural for that matter, just a big soap opera of primitive impulses masquerading as a higher calling?
Evolutionary psychologists like Richard Alexander and John Hartung give us ample evidence to understand why humans are so, to put it mildly, thoughtless in their interpretations of things and the world. In-group morality and intergroup competition were staples in the evolution of human consciousness, thus, humans have been hardwired to see the world binarily: Us vs. Them. This hardwiring is not based on logic or analytical thinking, but rather on an animalistic tribe mentality. We are predisposed to think of ourselves in one group and vehemently against another. Thus, as Foucault notes, humans prefer to judge the world, rather than analyze it. “Judgement is being passed everywhere, all the time. Perhaps it’s one of the simplest things mankind has been given to do.” Simple because it’s so natural to hate when the other both metaphorically and literally carries a different name, a different surface badge of association. Our brains reward us for this close-mindedness to ensure evolutionary survival: If you want to survive don’t cross your tribe, trust your team, hate the other team.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian political scientist Georgi Arbatov ominously remarked that the Soviet Union’s greatest trick was still in the works: “We are about to do to you the worst possible thing we can do [to America],” said Georgi. “We are going to take your enemy away.” Yesterday, the front page of the The Washington Post read, “Election Day reveals a growing political divide… There appears to be a Red and a Blue America, each seeing a different reality.” Today, it seems from Fox News to NBC, the Drudge Report to The Huffington Post, The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, Georgi might be right: America, lacking an external concrete enemy to fulfill our innate desire as humans for tribalism and surface division, has found a punching bag in itself. And, if it all goes south, let’s not forget which side lives on high ground and owns all the guns.