politics, collective ignorance, and neural malleability

I’ve recently noticed a disturbing amount of fundamentalist right wing propaganda showing up on the ‘facebook notes’ of friends, many of whom I previously considered to be reasonable people. Recent trends include attempting to explain why Obama is a ‘socialist’, with further explanations of why socialism is ‘evil’ and is a system which leads to ‘laziness’.  One recent online networking political commentator even made me aware of the fact that there isn’t ‘actually’ a job shortage because of the market crash, in fact, people just think they are ‘too good’ for all of the available jobs; and rather than receive ‘government handouts for their laziness, people should join the military, because they are always hiring’. I’ve also recently ‘learned’ that the real problem is the nature of humans, not the capitalist market system; thus, if we were all just more obedient subjects to the God of capital, the system would reward our faithfulness with economic stability, improved stock options, and eternal (economic) life. It comes as no surprise that most of these conservative capitalist apologist are equally apologetic for the conservative religious ideologies which serve to enable and justify the western market.

But more disturbing than the ignorance of these individual claims, and even more disturbing than the lack of contesting of these claims, is the way in which recent political debates seem to suggest that the cognitive structures of some are fundamental different than those of others.  Although this may sound absurd to some, studies in cognitive neuroscience have made very clear that nature of neuronic function is essential plastic, and thus capable of (self) modifying its fundamental structure. Now this is nothing ‘new’, as the plasticity of the brain was first put forth by Donald Hebb in his 1949 text The Organization of Behavior; the only ‘new’ developments may be the recent philosophical and political implications being gleaned from developments in these sciences.

This allows us to ask a seemingly absurd question; are the brains of some literally (and physically) different from those of others to the extent that it affects their ability to both properly perceive and interpret political reality? Have the brains of some been shaped by capital to the extent that certain political alternatives (ie, socialism) possess an a priori absurdity that places them in the realm of demonic fantasy? Is this why the notion of collective ownership of the means of production seems equivalent to the collective consumption of newborn children in the minds of some? The further question would be why individuals raised and enculturated in similar systems can develop entirely divergent senses of political perception; and further, what sort of events have the potential to re-sculpt the brain and strengthen specific synaptic connections?

At this point it is clear that science is a potential agent of human emancipation; and any future emancipatory project must take seriously questions of both the initial shaping of neuron function as well as the potential for neural ‘re-programming’. The later idea will surely make some uncomfortable as it brings to mind pictures of a futuristic re-education camp in which revolutionary pedagogy is replaced with scientific re-building; but if capital does have the ability to shape the brain in this way, then a counter programming is crucial.


10 thoughts on “politics, collective ignorance, and neural malleability

  1. Grant says:

    Yeah, I’m noticing the same facebook bullcrap as well, largely from Rockharbor people. You have no idea how upset this whole Prop 8 business is making me.

  2. olsenbiebighauser says:

    This is fascinating. Good luck convincing the neo-cons to sit still long enough to measure their neuronic function, so that you could substantiate these suggestions with some evidence!

  3. Eric Lee says:

    They should study those of us who used to be raging conservative Republicans. This is completely whorish of me, but I’d be willing to be studied, as long as somebody’d be paying, because we need the money!

  4. michaeloneillburns says:

    Yes, the hard part with actually carrying out this sort of research would clearly be finding willing subjects. They’ve done projects tracking neuron activity while people are asking their opinions on certain ethical questions, so presumably a similar study could be carried out tracking brain activity during the answering of political questions. Of course the more important research would be to see how the brain changes over a prolonged period of time, but it seems it may be hard to find subjects willing to have their brain activity monitored over such a wide period of time.

    And yes, being a high school republican, I’d also be interested in figuring out what ‘snapped’ in my mind!

  5. olsenbiebighauser says:

    The other hard part, of course, would be communicating the subtleties of this post to those oxheaded-people-who-think-differently-than-us: “it’s not that you’re stupid, per se…”

  6. Anna Cruz says:

    Agreed! Additionally you should’ve seen the last publication of Vanguard’s The Voice. It made me chug my beer faster than I’ve ever done it before because I was so upset at the idocracies some of these students were publishing.

  7. Dan says:

    i do remember reading about the forming of new neural pathways, something which happens all the time, and the possibility for subsequent reinforcing of these pathways through repetition. I am not sure exactly what you are getting at by neural “re-programing” but I am guessing that it is something along these lines. For me, since I was a republican or at least leaned that way for awhile, I believe that it was the constant discussions that I had with numerous individuals whom i respected but whom thought differently than I that changed my mind. It is possible that as I sought to see things their way, so to speak, new neural pathways were being formed that would subsequently be reinforced by later conversations, or allowed me to apprehend phenomenon that I had previously not been able to. This of course assumes that one is actually open to the possibility that one may in fact be wrong, something which is highly unlikely in the current state of American politics.

    It is similar to religious or theological commitments I suppose. This may be why individuals usually need to have a crisis before they realize that their previous metaphysical commitments may not be correct. It is as if a certain phenomenon, say the tragic death of a loved one, is so apparent and contradictory that it can not be ignored or incorporated into the cognitive system and this short circuits there neural mapping, forcing them to consider a gestalt switch. However ideology can be incredibly powerful. It is possible for a Calvinist, John Piper, to be so committed to his shitty system that when events seem to make it reprehensible he still will not budge. I think this is more about fear of the unknown than anything else.

    This may help explain a phenomenon that I find hard to comprehend. The fact that 700 billion dollars has been thrown into the void in order to save the unreasonable system of late capitalism would seem to be enough of a crisis to jar even the hardest nosed ideologue from their staunchness. In fact it has. Alan Greenspan testified before congress this week that recent events have forced him to admit that his economic ideology, the ideology that is needed to give even an appearance of logic to capitalism, was wrong. You would think that when Greenspan admits that he was wrong others might be willing to as well. But, alas, I am afraid that if we were to do so, the anxiety we would come up against might interrupt us enjoying yet another episode of dancing with the stars. We may also have to deal with the fact that our American/Western life style is made possible by a long line of colonialism, neo-colonialism, empire, economic and military domination. We would then have to admit our guilt, which is something that we, as good patriots, are never supposed to do.

  8. Tim says:

    I have never responded to any of your posts Mike but I guess this is just as good a time as any to start doing so.

    I agree that something like a counter-programming is needed. Maybe not exactly a counter-programming so much as an exposure to the reality that we are vulnerable to programming. I think most people, even some very well educated ones, are not aware of the fact that they have been conditioned to think a certain way by the myriad of influences in our culture. Through many of the discussions I have had regarding anything from theology to philosophy to the current political issues in this election I have come to realize that many people have never even heard a good argument for viewpoints opposing their own. In our liberal democratic society we have become excellent producers and consumers of shallow emotionally driven rhetoric with no real content. I have found that when people are exposed to good arguments from both sides of the spectrum they are much more able to have good discussion and maybe even change their mind.

    Possibly the antidote to the neurological entrenchement of which you wrote is educating people on how to have real conversation. We need to help people move away from the ’emotivism’ that Alasdair MacIntyre argues has infected our political, moral and ethical discourses.

    I can personally testify to the fact that the only reason I held to the political and religious conservatism I did only a few years ago was that I had never heard good arguments for opposing viewpoints. I had insulated myself so that all I heard was crappy empty rhetoric which is easy to disagree with.

    I think Dan hit it on the head when he said we must first get people to a place where they can admit they might be wrong. We have to try to get others to understand that “it is possible to believe even while recognizing that it is possible to doubt one’s beliefs” (Leslie Newbigin)

  9. Dan and Tim,

    You both bring up some really interesting points. The idea that one must face a sort of crisis to re-consider their ideological/political commitments is a great point, almost a counter to the methods of ‘disaster capitalism’ inaugurated by the chicago school of economics (Friedman, etc), and popularized recently by Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”.

    I also agree with the idea of making people aware of the fact that we’ve all been, to some extent, programmed as a sort of pre-condition for reconsidering our ideological commitments and political perceptions. Reading Kierkegaard just now I can’t help but think of his call for ‘Christianity’ to be introduced into ‘Christendom’, which in his day was an aristocratic state church which fell under the watch of the prevailing social order; sadly, this critique applies to the religious communities of the United States and Western Europe today.

    It also seems that on a really basic level a certain type of Socratic method would be most useful in encouraging US Christians to re-think their political ideologies. I often find that when you really question people as to the basis of their political commitments they end up spouting off an apologetic for neo-liberalism or american imperialism rather than being able to provide an account of how their professed religious commitments shape their perception of political realities.

    But sadly this all seems to go back to the fact that most ‘religious’ people (at least in the United States) have been shaped more deeply (socially, politically, and neurologically) by Capitalism than by religious commitments that are ‘supposedly’ all encompassing. I think that in the age of the empire of the market one can take Hauerwas critique of individuals being “Americans first, Christian second” to the more appropriate “Capitalist first, Christians second”; but of course rather than this order being reversed, one’s prior religious commitment should eradicate the former emergence of a secondary allegiance to the market.

  10. Dan says:


    Yes, hopefully the type of counter we could offer would be one that did not further enslave the poor like Friedman’s. It is a shame that the scandols which arose after his return from Chile, where he attempted to help one of the worst dictatorial regime’s of the 21st century (Pinochet’s) “disasterize” the economy, didn’t shame him from the public for life, or at least shame his rampant apologia for Capitalism. I do think that these disaster moments are crucial. For me, when it came to Capitalism, it was the faces of the poor in the IDP camps in Uganda that “shocked” me. Ever since I left I could not shake their anguish and the thoughts that in this day and age, with the technology we have this situation should not be. Fortunately I did find that others thought the same way. Unfortunately, for the Church, most of them were not Christians.

    I think that the Socratic dialectic has been and will continue to be a vibrant way in which one can help another come to a realization and in this way can definitely be helpful. I also agree that most American’s are first capitalist’s and then Christians. I also wonder if the two, American and Capitalist, can be decoupled in this day or if they ever were. That is can one be good patriot without being a good capitalist, or vise-versa? So much of the current American system has been built off of the backs of those impoverished by capitalism that to reject one is in a way a rejection of the other. Yet, for rhetorical purposes, which is why I think you made the distinction, it is a fair one.

    Lastly, I think that part of the project is in offering new ways of life. Part of the problem with capitalism is that it homogenizes everything. Everything must be remade in its image. (I think someone else said that once) I think that there are many Christians out there who do want to follow Jesus, it is just that following him has never meant questioning the current system in which they are a part. This is not only Christians but westerners as a whole. Unless you are parousing marxist blogs, something I highly recommend at the current moment, you will be incredibly hard pressed to find any discussion that takes into account the possibility that the system as a whole is just shit. At least all I’ve found elsewhere is debate over deregulation, re-regulation, economic bubbles, ie how to fix or better the current system. The point being that for most people imagining another option is just not an option. It has never been apart of their horizon.

    This is where I see radically new ways of living as being appropriate. One’s that make people think differently. “Oh I could live communally? we could share a car, or a big truck instead of each owning our own? we could share a house, grow some of our own food, make music together–literally–instead of sit as autonomous monads, in isolated boxes that we call apartments or “our” homes, in front of the TV and watch other’s have lives? I could look at “my” property as a social good?”

    I see Shane Claiborn’s, along with other’s, projects as being incredibly helpful here. The challenge is to keep them from being radicallized. This is just another way that capitalism has the power of inscribing everything into its system and redistributing it as just another commodity. I think this has already happened in a way to Shane. He is seen as the radical, not as someone to be imitated by everyone.

    Of course one would also want to be aware that just because this type of project was available to oneself in capitalism, this does not and must not function as an apologetic for the system. One would have to be constantly aware of the radical inequalities that still persist within the system, and willing to act towards a liberation from it. But in the mean time I think that an immanent critique is possible and one that could be truly helpful in creating new imaginative possibilities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: