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Politics at its Best

by on March 15, 2011


‘Death jostles the viewfinder through which we look at life most of the time. If we’re lucky, it slows the clock of our quotidian frenzies long enough for us to glimpse a more distant future, see a more worthy goal, imagine a better self. This pause, this form of framing, is harder than ever to achieve nowadays, because so many of our modern technologies produce ‘personal’ devices that collapse time and manufacture urgency- faster computers, phones that make us perpetually reachable, twitters of constant thoughts, webs of interaction that vastly increase common knowledge, yet somehow deprive us of that apprenticed learning, that leads to wisdom; this digital haze obscures our view of the future and keeps our focus ever more relentlessly on the present, with ever more insistence on speed as a virtue in and of itself.’ (Wisdom, pg. 269-70)

     I have ranted and raved for quite some time about the dehumanizing consequences that are intrinsic in the technological advances that are now commonplace ‘appendages’- and now it seems that the dehumanizing tendencies have reached the realm of politics.

          In a 1979 speech to the United States Military Academy, the historian Barbara Tuchman ‘lamented the way money and ‘image-making’ had begun to manipulate the elective process.’ As Stephen S. Hall prophesizes, ‘One can only imagine the horror with which she might scan the current landscape, where political campaigns have recruited neuroscientists to help them understand, and shape, voter preferences.

          ‘As the Wall Street Journal reported during the 2007-2008 presidential primary season, several candidates enlisted the aid of clinical psychologists and other campaign consultants who use methods of neural measurement, including fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans, to eavesdrop on the brains of potential voters as they responded to campaign speeches and platforms.’ (ref. EmSense Corporation in California) (pg. 259)

What is wrong with that?

          In essence, these ‘consultants’ told their ‘clients’ how to ‘short-circuit reason and appeal to subconscious biases.’

          Now, there are theories proclaiming that our political choices are determined by strictly emotional biases while some maintain that it is through careful deliberation that we choose a candidate. Until evidence for either becomes conclusive, which theory is being perpetuated by those pretending to represent us? Is it any wonder why campaigns come with bumper-sticker slogans with candidates drum beating generalities like ‘Restoring America’s Greatness’ or ‘American Values’? What voting demographic is for limiting America’s Greatness or diminishing American Values? Of course, both the left and right will proudly claim the other as the guilty party which yet again proves my point.

          As Hall elaborates:

‘Is it any wonder that there are no more statesmen, no more village elders in the world of politics? Not because voters don’t want it; people yearn for political wisdom and guidance. It’s just that a system devoted to honing emotionally charged catchphrases and code words essentially creates a political culture built on a foundation of fear.’

How are politicians using neuroscience to ‘get votes’?

          A group of neuroscientists at Princeton University conducted experiments resulting in a dichotomy of the brain when it comes to making a decision. The limbic system is construed as the emotional, impassioned part of the brain whereas regions of the lateral prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex have the characteristics of being the more deliberative, cognitive part of the brain. This experiment was focusing on the neurology of ‘instant gratification’ vs. ‘delayed gratification’ which has massive implications especially in the field of neuroeconomics. Put simply, why would an individual choose to have twenty dollars now instead of forty dollars two weeks from now? This experiment tested brain activity when making this decision. (Supplemental, Not Dealing With Political Aspect) 

          According to George Lakoff, the UC Berkeley neurolinguist (a liberal, yet this information is non-partisan), techniques in politics such as those just described are a ‘form of neural manipulation. (…) backed by decades of neurological and psychological experimentation, including the Nobel Prize winning work of Daniel Kahnemann  at Princeton University,’ Lakoff argues ‘that political decisions can be cognitively ‘framed’ by the way the choice is presented to voters. And often, this framing is accomplished by the use of loaded, focus-group tested words’ (…) In Lakoff’s view, the language of politics, whether in speeches or advertisements, is a meticulously composed mosaic of code words, inflections, and implicit associations.’

          These ‘code words’ and other tactics elicit immediate reactions in our emotional response system while such catchphrases leave the more rational part of the brain somewhat in the dark. In essence, politicians are using neuroscience to scare us, manipulate us, and in essence, control us by having the ability to know what will trigger neurological responses.

          Stephen Hall concludes with the following:

‘If there is a single message that had emerged from recent cognitive neuroscience, it is that the lightning quick, emotional response system, while it undoubtedly kept humans alive in the fullness of evolutionary time and plunges us into a bath of invigorating neurotransmitters, often preempts a more deliberative, rational decision-making process.(…) If we believe deliberation is useful to wisdom, then just about every tactic in the modern political campaign playbook seems designed to short-circuit (neurologically!) political thoughtfulness. 

          Worried yet?


From → Philosophy, Politics

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