Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stranger Danger 2.0

Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Moslem.
Donald Trump is agent for Russia.
Micah White is a Satanist.

Or, perhaps more simply, each of these people is a Dangerous Other in the eyes of those who oppose their politics. So why not focus on their politics? In an intensely partisan environment, it isn't very difficult to find some policy prescription that a candidate that is vulnerable to being described as Wrong For America, or whatever jurisdiction that they hope to represent or manage. In a world where solutions are rare and trade-offs are common, most policies will come at a cost to someone - those costs being the necessary trade-offs for the benefits proposed - and people's Loss Aversion tends to prime their sensitivity to those costs, making them easy targets for mobilization to scuttle the entire enterprise.

Part of it, I think, is related to the idea of Lovely Awful Things - the seductive nature of Bad Ideas that makes them attractive to people other than ourselves. The injection of ad hominems into the mix is designed to inoculate people against Wrong Thinking by casting the source of those thoughts as Evil.

But I also think that this phenomenon grows out of a focus on Stranger Danger. Although Stranger Danger is perhaps most accurately defined as the conceptual framework that we've built around the idea of the threat to children posed by adults they don't know, I think that we can also broaden the term to encompass the idea that people we don't know who don't signal shared virtues with us are dangerous, in no small part because they seek to advance their own special interests at our expense.

In this sense, the focus of Birtherism is a way of blunting the rhetorical skill of President Obama and the accusations that President Trump is intended to undermine the idea that he's simply another partisan. Likewise, but on a much smaller scale, labeling Micah White a Satanist is mean to counter his for-the-common-man bona fides. Just like an adult unknown to a child offers sweets as a lure, politicians from the other side of a political divide offer reasonable-sounding policies only as traps for the unwary, and casting them as an evil person aligned with an outsider enemy allows for ad hominem attacks on them without appearing to be openly partisan. The non-partisan may be repelled by an attack on someone for their partisan affiliation, but calling them out as a Dangerous Other allows that unacceptable prejudice to be cloaked in an tolerated one.

In 1992, I turned 24, after a childhood in which Stranger Danger was starting to become a thing, even if it hadn't yet acquired that name. Stories of predatory adults prowling about for children to victimize seemed to be slowly becoming more an more common. And even though people my age often look at modern parental hysteria with a mix of amusement and concern, it's not as if our own generation didn't indulge in it. And I wonder of part of the pattern of increasing, and intractable, partisanship that seemed to take root as my age cohort came to be of voting age isn't perhaps rooted in the distrust of strangers that was starting to be seen as a virtue when we were still in school. Part of that distrust was buttressed by the speculative things that were attributed to unfamiliar adults, things that, as time went on, morphed from unsupported suppositions to presumed truths, each becoming a justification for shedding the presumptions of innocence and good intent.

Of course, I'm speculating here. I don't have any evidence one way or another, and correlation does not imply causality. But part of me hopes that there's something there, for no other reason than it offers a visible, if not easy, path to begin to undo some of the divides that we've built between ourselves.

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