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Jan 24 2013

The usefulness of the duelling myth postulate

Yesterday we ran through a few examples of arguments that can be framed using the duelling myth model. I want to stress how trivially easy it was to find those arguments, and the relative ease with which I was able to fit them into the framework. Indeed, anyone who has spent any amount of time involved in political debate can probably think of about a dozen other examples without even breaking a sweat. The framework seems to be applicable to any situation in where there is an argument over a proposal to take action to change something (which is, one would imagine, a lot of arguments).

So the question becomes why is this framework useful? What discriminant or rhetorical ability does it give us that simply having ready counterarguments to things wouldn’t accomplish? Well, if we can learn to recognize the common premise between bad arguments, label them, and walk them through accordingly, perhaps we can explore the similarities between arguments that we might not necessarily support.

Our first example, the hypothetical “welfare” one, could accurately be described as a ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’ one, at least in a political sense. The ‘conservative’ argument tends to fall on the side of doing as little as possible* and allowing the ‘free market’ or the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to fix problems – i.e., the world is a fair place if you just give it time. The ‘liberal’ position, by contrast, suggests that collective intervention is needed to fix problems – i.e., the world is an unfair place.

But do those labels apply accurately outside the context of political arguments? If you are ‘a liberal’, does that mean that you would necessarily reject the argument that Christians are discriminated against in North America? Are there no ‘conservatives’ who support the #IdleNoMore movement? Judging by some of the rest of the content on his blog, Al Stefanelli would likely go apoplectic if you called him ‘a conservative’. How could we possibly use that label to group a number of different beliefs that may often travel together, but are in fact distinct things?

I would put it to you that rather than labeling all of these arguments as ‘conservative’, it is perhaps more accurate to describe conservatism as the political manifestation of a fair-myth belief structure. The belief that Christians (or men, or white people, or the wealthy) are being persecuted when they are asked to be subject to the same rules as everyone else are entirely distinct arguments, but are linked by a shared foundation – the belief that the way the world currently operates is a fair system, and that change is therefore immoral.

This way of understanding the argument also helps us understand why these arguments, independent though their topics may be, tend to cluster together. There would be no general reason to suspect, in the absence of some common philosophical underpinning, that Christian persecution would go along with male supremacy, white supremacy, and a distaste for welfare. It certainly wouldn’t follow, in the absence of such a common underpinning, that people who are in the greatest need of government assistance would be the most likely to support tax cuts for the wealthy and the shrinking of government services. But if we can infer a common thread, then it may be less surprising to see this pattern.

Indeed, much of this is supported by the psychological evidence we looked at in our exploration of System Justification Theory. Understanding system justification as being more or less synonymous with the ‘just world fallacy’ means that what we are talking about is a powerful psychological drive that makes us more likely to accept one f-myth belief if we already accept a handful of others. It also explains how people who might be ‘liberal’ in some respects are more likely to accept u-myth arguments when they are presented elsewhere.

What this grouping doesn’t necessarily explain is why otherwise-good people believe otherwise-bad things. Why is it, for example, that many atheists are perfectly happy to find a plethora of arguments for why a nativity scene or a prayer breakfast are totally unfair examples of anti-atheist persecution (and I don’t necessarily dispute that claim), but think that policies governing harassment are tyrannical witch-hunts? Is this simple human complexity, or a flaw in my postulate?

This and other questions will be explored when I conclude this series this afternoon.

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*We’ll for the moment put aside the hypocrisy of claiming to be ‘small government’ and then trying to legislate basically every aspect of a woman’s sex life. That particular issue falls along a ‘libertarian/authoritarian’ axis, rather than a ‘liberal/conservative’ one.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    flex

    Heh. You posted this while I was writing out my screed on the previous article. I’ll have to digest this before I can respond. (Not that my responses are necessary or even valuable. I’m simply saying that some of the points I raised in my comments may be answered in this post.)

  2. 2
    Dunc

    Is this simple human complexity, or a flaw in my postulate?

    I’d tend to put it down to simple human complexity. People are generally disposed to regard situations which favour them as fair, and situations which disfavour them as unfair. Hence the necessity of Rawls’ veil of ignorance…

  3. 3
    smrnda

    When you mention people who typically go one way (towards the u-myth) who suddenly shift on a particular issue, I wonder if some of that has to do with a person’s own identity or what you have invested in the current system. I think this applies a lot to men who feel victimized by feminism or who think that women basically already *have* equality and that now the demands are unreasonable. If such a guy believed in the u-myth, maybe it’s just that now fixing unfairness might finally demand a compromise from him on his own behavior.

    You see this in the other direction with right wing tea party types who oppose entitlement, but as soon as an entitlement they use comes under threat, they defend it.

  4. 4
    Brian Lynchehaun

    On reflection, I think this is a pretty useful way of framing things.

    If you can reframe someone’s position, and they agree with it, that ‘things are already fair and changing it is therefore unfair’, the burden is heavily shifted on to them to demonstrate that the current situation is actually ‘fair’.

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