Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Left “sensibilities”, Right “social autism”

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-09-28

Eyeing through Andrew Norton’s good set of links pointing to recent essays of The Right on the Left (2009-09-28), I must agree that Norton’s characterization of "the left" as a "sensibility" has much going for it, and that his work is, as usual, much more coherent and rational than most other self-identifying righties.

So what is the converse?  Are most self-identifying rightards best characterized by a lack of sensibility, if not sense?  Could they be described as suffering some kind of social autism?

Such a characterization has a number of advantages, not the least being that it means they should be pitied rather than demonized, and offers the hope that intervention can ameliorate the worst results of their inability to perceive the internal suffering of others caused by their actions.

Let’s think about it for a moment.

Those on the autitistic and Asperger’s spectrum can be very intelligent, and show incredible focus on the details of things that interest them, but are typically unaware of the impacts of their behaviour on others, are often accused of viewing people as objects, and the risk of being in this spectrum rises dramatically with increasing paternal age.

Now the last point is interesting.  It’s not uncommon for righties to run in families with lots of money, and as many of this class delay children to climb the greasy pole, get young "trophy wives" (think Murdoch), then it would not be surprising if there is a variant form of autism that treats the "anonymous other" as an object, while having some sensibility to those they meet face-to-face.

How similar is the modelling of others by those with extreme autism as objects to the way the extreme free-marketeers model the economy, devoid of the bigger human picture!  (Not always the case, some economic libertarians do focus on human outcomes as the key to determining social policy, but the majority of them appear to think that money is the root of all good).

Just as those on the autism spectrum can be talented, and these talents are sometimes best used in environments that remove them from the pressures that can come with standard business environments, perhaps the talents of those with "social autism" can be put to good use, as long as they have no involvement in setting social policy, something that requires a sensibility to the anonymous other.

Perhaps those self-identifying lefties, those united by a "sensibility", when demonizing rightistics, have not been sensitive enough.  The rightards need help to understand the human dimension – and unless we drill them in the human dimension of social policy the same way we assist those on the well-recognized autistic spectrum to work better with others, we’ll continue to marginalize them, if not despise them.

Now… time to start working on getting market libertarianism recognized as a disorder in the DSM?

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13 Responses to “Left “sensibilities”, Right “social autism””

  1. “It’s not uncommon for righties to run in families with lots of money

    Sociologically, free-marketeers tend to come from modest backgrounds and those who are wealthy are mostly self-made millionaires. The politics of self-reliance makes sense to them.

    Old money tends to produce ‘noblesse oblige’ conservatism (Malcolm Fraser is an example). The patronising right and paternalistic left are quite similar in how they view ordinary people.

  2. It’s not uncommon for righties to run in families with lots of money

    I think you’d have a hard time proving any sort of genetic link with right-wing thought, but for what it’s worth I’ve also seen multiple generations of adamant right-wingers in poor families who have a strong independent streak. Farmers children, long-haul truckie families etc

    I think it’s good that you stand up and acknowledge left-wing thinking is all about sensibility, because so much of the time it’s contradictory and not rational it’s not clear what drives it. At least you admit it’s based very much on feelings, which is what a lot of righties suspect all along.

    My response would be that your feelings are a reaction by your subconscious to your values. If your values are screwed up then there’s nothing I can do about your feelings. You need to sort our your value system, and really, if you want your values to guide you through life (which should be their purpose) they’re not going to be much good if they’re irrational and contradictory.

  3. Dave Bath said

    I was being more than a tad tongue-in-cheek, but I suspect Noblesse Oblige conservatism in the Mal Fraser ilk has dropped a bit. It also depends on what we mean by wealthy and modest means.

    Admittedly anecdotal, my own experience as a scholarship and bursary student in the 70s, when many fewer people of modest means were in the "premium" private schools, suggested that yes, the "noblesse oblige" meme was certainly present in some of the generation of parents (to whom I’m grateful), but was less pronounced among their progeny, indeed a sense of entitlement seemed to be rising. Howard’s "aspirationalism" (or "affluenza" depending on political orientation), and especially the rise of the "prosperity gospel" meme, probably decreased that "noblesse oblige", and perhaps this is associated with a decrease in the popularity of a curriculum of both arts and sciences for their own sake, rather than merely as a ticket to employment.  (Indeed, I well remember being hauled into the principal’s office and grilled over whether I was an arts or a sciences student. I responded with something like "you claim to develop a whole person – so why do you object when I want to be both?" – for I hadn’t yet read Snow.)

    Well that’s my gut feel – and you may well have impeccable evidence to the contrary.

    One of the indicators I’d also point to is the use by politicians of promises to decrease tax rather than spend it more wisely and efficiently.  My guess is that noblesse oblige doesn’t mind taxes that "buy civilization" – as long as the money isn’t wasted and the programs are well-managed.  The political messages, crafted by those who are paid big bucks to understand prevailing public sentiment, have been over recent decades more to "tax cuts first and foremost" rather than describing how a party would make spending more effective.

    And I hope you don’t think I’m putting you in the bucket with insensitive rightistics – I’ve always thought (and written that) your views are based on some evidence and aiming at a good social outcome, rather than searching for data to support a selfish agenda. I don’t have any problem with altruistic classical liberals, considering them important contributors to the political ecosystem, but unfortunately, such liberals are getting rarer (as you admit by calling yourself “Carlton’s sole classical liberal”).

    I suppose too it’s worth mentioning that I’ve a problem with the simplistic right and left labels – most of those folk I get along with are from the libertarian left and the libertarian right. Perhaps the QuadRant and the Australian should be a little more nuanced too.

    And yes, “the politics of self-reliance makes sense to them” as you say of the self-made wealthy. For me, it’s “mutual reliance” that seems more likely to lead to a successful society – the strengths and weaknesses of one complementing the strengths and weaknesses of another… but that view was doubtless reinforced by my biology studies, especially pathology: the model of the free-marketeers could be mapped across to a thesis that cancers, free to seek their own nutrition and growth without constraint (think glucose and amino acids as the medium of exchange rather than dollars), rather than all tissues (societal classes) subservient to the needs of the entire body and providing their own particular skills to all other tissues, would lead to a healthy outcome.

  4. Once the cancer kills the body the cancer cells die as well. I don’t think any flavours of ‘rightness’ identify with self-destruction. There are a few left-wing ones that do, however, like the hardcore environmentalists who call for humanity to take steps to eliminate itself.

  5. Dave Bath said

    I wasn’t positing a genetic link so much as an epigenetic one, and again, it wasn’t that serious, but involved applying the converse of the "sensibility" thesis to the right.

    For the record, my value system was largely shaped by readings (formal and informal) that could be considered traditionally Tory, if not downright 19th century apart from the science being late C20 – ivy covered school, latin, etc, etc. The lefty sensibiity comes from the knowledge of individuals having strengths and weaknesses, and the feeling that society should be put together more like a dry stone wall, each stone carefully placed, well supported and supporting, than like a wall of fungible bricks and mortar. Unfortunately, I don’t think the wider population gets exposed during school to readings that promote the values of service, or among the privileged, of noblesse oblige. I see that as a failure of both market and state.

  6. Dave Bath said

    Cancerous tissues don’t aim at their own destruction either!

    But the freedom of cancerous tissue to gobble up resources and grow without control maps pretty well with the economic demands of the righties.

    The problem I see with both cancers and many righties is the lack of regard to externalities and resource limits – the tragedy of the commons if you like. In your terms, it’s a bit like each arm of the defence forces, indeed each unit, scrabbling for funding for toys rather than being part of an overarching plan and each providing a service to the whole.

    Should humanity eliminate itself – no, but if we live beyond our means, (including the results insufficient research to characterize those means) then we WILL have an enforced culling. I’d much rather have a well-managed reduction in demand and equitable distribution of available resources.

  7. […] — from someone who really should know better — an attempt by Dave Balneus to define  those politically opposed to him as suffering from mental illness. Shades of the Soviet insane asylums for dissidents, anyone? Now maybe that piece was tongue in […]

  8. I think there are two types of right wing thought, just as there are in left.

    There are the “born to rule” types of the right – the High Tories who think that they are better than other people. The left wing equivalent is the people who think that they are more moral and know better than the plebs what is good for them. I despise these types, whether left wing or right wing.

    Then there are the right wing people who are right wing because they’ve had to work to get out of where they were and this *worked* for them. Or they’ve just had to work very hard to stay where they are. Personally, I respect this type far more.

    Similarly, there are the left wing people who are left wing because this is what helped them.

    Possibly one of the reasons I am left wing-ish is because my parents come from very poor backgrounds, but through means of scholarships were able to go to school past the age of 14, complete high school, go to university and complete postgraduate degrees (each was the first in his or her family to achieve this). I believe that you have to give people mechanisms by which they can make their situation better, or at least put them on the same playing field as more advantaged people.

    On the other hand, there are times when helping people out seems to actually do the opposite of what was wanted. Think of the indigenous situation in this country. So much money and resources has been thrown at the problem, and to no avail. Now from my point of view, the problems are not ones which can easily be fixed with laws, or with funding or whatever. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but there is a point where just ramping up government intervention becomes counterproductive.

    Ultimately, I’m a pragmatist, not an idealist. I don’t really care about whether something is left wing or right wing. I care about whether it WORKS, whether it achieves the aim it sets out to achieve. And if it doesn’t…well then, it should be scrapped.

  9. Dave Bath said

    LE@8: Yes. A boolean classification of politics is useless, and outcomes (providing they aren’t cruel) are more important than means. That’s why I think good governance is more important than a particular policy lever – if the objectives and metrics are clearly defined and accurately reported to the citizenry, with the right people accountable (and with real kicks up the bum if they don’t perform), then things should sort themselves out. The problem is that too often in politics the aims and measures of success and failure (a “balanced scorecard”) are rarely laid out properly and in advance. See "Political claims, good management, no evidence" (2008-10-29) and "Pollies should give spreadsheets with pledges" (2007-10-25).

    And for those who haven’t seen SL’s post in the pingback – read it – I agree with SL on many of her points, and added the following comment:

    Yes, SL, I was CERTAINLY being tongue in cheek (with both of yesterday’s posts, actually), ignoring the differences between the libertarian/authoritarian right like many of the “rightie” writers ignored the differences between libertarian/authoritarian left.
    I would have thought that the mention of the DSM would have been the icing on the giveaway cake – that bastion of conservatism took HOW long to declassify same-sex orientation as a mental illness, something that could even be “cured”? So what chance classifying most in US politics as defective?

    Andrew Norton, of course, was spot on about the sensibility thing. (And the “left has sensibility X so right have no sensibilities” is another giveaway about buccal overstretching). However, I’d also think that most with a social libertarian streak arguing for rights they’d never exercise (e.g. pro-same-sex-orientation rights even if not having any SSO folk in their families or circle of friends) would have many of the same sensibilities.

    As for any “treatment” I’d recommend – certainly not a re-education camp, but maybe a few simple things commonly done in allied health courses, and best done in schools – make each student wear a sling or leg splint and crutches for two days and you’ve pretty much opened the eyes of everyone but the most egocentric.

    As to the ironing out of individual variation, differences, etc, that’s got little to do with left/right and more of the divide between the libertarian/authoritarian. Procrustes’ bed serves no-one but inflexible clothing manufacturers.

  10. Dave Bath said

    This from “Legal Theory Blog” has a good discussion on public v private goods, includes discussions of tragedy of the commons, and divides goods not by the boolean public/private but by a combination of “Excludable/Nonexcludable” and “Rivalrous/Nonrivalrous”.

    Perhaps this is a good starting point for the left/right debate/classification, and discussion of sensibilities.

    I’d argue that some goods (e.g. social services) can often be seen by righties as excludable and rivalrous, whereas lefties are more likely to see otherwise (even if just “if you aren’t desperate, unhealthy, and hungry, then you are less likely to mug me”, or through to “I’m happy when I see others happy, miserable when I see others miserable”).

  11. […] response to my left sensibility post, Dave Bath suggested that Are most self-identifying rightards best characterized by a lack of sensibility, if not […]

  12. […] fits in well with my post the got some libertarians quite riled ("Left "sensibilities", Right "social autism"" 2009-09-28), at least among those who don’t get constantly primed, watch the ABC, […]

  13. Jayjee said

    Dave, to be perfectly honest, I can’t off-hand think of ANYBODY I know who describes themselves as “right-wing”. I think this is overwhelmingly a projection by the masses who do self-identify as “left wing”.

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