The Importance of Dissent

No Soap RadioCan I say how many times a day someone smugly tells me that if Tea Partiers support lower taxes, they should totally vote for Obama because he cut taxes for everybody?

Ha ha! We got you! Score one for our side!

Arguing with this kind of logic is like playing pool with a four-year old. I’m sure the four-year-old enjoys it—but it’s not like I’m really tryin’ if ya know what I’m sayin’?

There are so many flies in the ointment here, it’s hard to know where to begin. The current administration and Congress (like the last ones) have done things that will result in higher costs for everyone in the long run. And it’s not really about our own immediate self-interest (lower taxes); it’s about the economic health of our country and the future we’re bequeathing to our children.

Plus, it doesn’t really prove anything. Endowing it with far more evidentiary value than it actually possesses, at best it demonstrates that Tea Partiers are stupid—but not that they’re wrong.

It’s like making fun of Bill Gates for being a Democrat.

Ha ha! He’s so stupid! Doesn’t he know if he just voted for a Republican his taxes would go down? What a tool. . . of the poor!

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. What are we really trying to do here?

Prove that the clock is broken or figure out what time it is?

I don’t care if the Tea Partiers are stupid or self-contradictory or hypocrites. I don’t care if they’re richer than the average American or if they’re lower middle class pawns of the rich, voting against their own best interests. I don’t care how educated they are. I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense to draw analogies to the Boston Tea Party.

Yes, Janeane Garofalo, I know the Boston Tea Party was about taxation without representation and it doesn’t apply here. This is the pressing political issue of our day? Critiquing analogies?

I’m interested in ideas, not sides.

Unfortunately, the level of political debate in this country suggests I’m in a minority. Most of us talk policy like we’re 12-year-old Cave Robbers.

In Group BiasDo the people who call themselves Democrats understand why people oppose Obamacare? Do they get that there are economic models that predict it will result in higher costs, rationing and a lower quality of care? Do they understand that there might be better, more beneficial government interventions that would do a better job of achieving common goals? They don’t have to agree, but do they at least know these things exist…?

Or do they really believe that anyone who opposed the health care bill wants people to stay healthy or die quickly?

If they call themselves Republicans, on the other hand, do they understand why people feel passionately about separation of church and state? Why the issue isn’t just about whether those words are in the Constitution, but whether it is a good idea? Do they understand the arguments against criminalizing personal choices? Do they have thoughts on the Ninth Amendment?

Or do they just fall back on our Christian history as a justification for imposing their lifestyle preferences on others?

And do they also laugh when someone says, “No soap, radio?”

Back in the 40s and 50s this guy named Muzafer Sherif did an experiment. There’s this thing called the autokinetic effect, where a motionless dot of light on the wall in a dark room will begin to appear to move, due to the lack of any frame of reference on which to anchor perception of the dot.

Sherif would put three people in the room together and ask them to reach a consensus as to how far the light moves. It’s not really moving at all, so each person’s perception is entirely in his or her own head. But each group would eventually reach a consensus, based on a process spontaneous to that group.

A week later, the participants would be asked back individually at which time they would enter the dark room alone to again estimate the movement of the light. This time, rather than repeating their original individual response, the participants were likely to have moved their individual perception closer to the group consensus previously reached.

How many of us have stopped relying entirely on our own perceptions and ideas, and subconsciously adopted a position more closely resembling the consensus of the groups with which we identify?

This other guy named Solomon E. Asch did similar experiments. He showed a bunch of people these pictures:

Then he would ask them questions about these lines, such as if the line on the left is the same length as any of the lines on the right, which line is longer than another, compare the length of one of the lines to some every-day object, etc.

That type of thing.

Interviewed alone, something like 99% of respondents could answer the questions correctly.

But if he put them in a group where some of the participants were actually stooges coached to give wrong answers, suddenly people started flubbing the questions.

Solomon E. AschAs might be expected, the more “stooges” giving the wrong answer, the greater the tendency for the test subjects to do the same. One stooge had virtually no influence, two had only a weak influence, but anything three or over and there was a 32% rate of conformity to the wrong answer by the test subjects.

Guys! One out of every three changed to the wrong answer just because other people did!

Asch’s experiments also revealed something else.

The importance of dissent.

Even if only one stooge gave an answer different from the others, the test subjects were much more likely to resist the urge to conform and maintain their insistence on the correct answer. What’s extra fascinating is that this protective function was served even when the non-conforming stooge gave a different-but-still-also-wrong answer than the conforming stooges.

Just one person dissenting, even dissenting erroneously, made it easier for the test subjects to stick with their own true (and correct) perceptions.

And that is why I do not care if the Tea Partiers are stupid, or even ultimately whether they are right.

At a time when Republicans and Democrats are all giving the same wrong answers—it is enough simply that dissenting voices speak.

In the original Asch experiments, only 20% of the naive test subjects never conformed to a wrong answer.

Would you have been one of them?

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