Pregnant daughter vs. universal health care and clean energy

Why is the front page of the NY Times full of Palin’s daughter’s pregnancy and New Orleans near miss, when the second major political convention is about to start and there are extremely important issues facing the United States about health care, clean energy, poverty and others?  Just after Jender drew our attention to the way in which we were so easily distracted from issues we think are much more important, I read an explanation of why the distraction was so easy. 

Now, of course, that’s just where the philosophical mind is supposed to go, difficult through it may be.  That is, we’re supposed to ask, Why?  And now there’s an answer from – you guessed it! – the evolutionary psychologists.  And we can know without reading any of it what it will say.  Here goes.  Long, long ago it was much more important to know and understand specific social facts than the general policies governing countries.  After all, there weren’t countries with general policies.  So we evolved with minds full of modules to issue conclusions about who is trustworthy, healthy and so on.  All these important things.  And of course they are very important to everyday life.

As many readers of this blog will also know, one of the things philosophers do is to critique claims in other fields.  Sometimes without, it has to be said, much training in those fields.  It can be the PhD form of “I don’t know anything about X, but I know what I like.”  And today might not be the day to go down that route, since there’s a much more important question to be raised.  So let’s just note that we are social, after all, social creatures and, despite books like The Selfish Gene, the evidence is mounting that we are social to the depts of our being and the inner swirls in our brains, or at least most of us are.  Not all the manifestations of our intense social interests are all that pleasant; many of us like to look at car accidents, for example.  But cool indifference to others’ pain is probably worse.

A second thing we know is that the sort of skills required to assess, for example, national health plans do not come automatically to us.  Spoken language may have a strong innate component; written language comes on the scene much later and convenient though it is, it doesn’t seem to come automatically.  And mathematical skills involve coordinating a number of different kinds of thought and a fair  amount of it requires language and boring memorization.  There’s little natural about “12×12=144.”  This is why we need to school children and also why democracy benefits greatly from a critically trained electorate.

So it is harder to debate the comparative merits of various national health systems than it is to empathized the difficult situation a 17 year old girl must feel herself in with a nation focused on her pregnancy and pending marriage.  And click our tongues at McCain for getting his candidacy intertwined with the resulting issues.  But the much more important question is:  how are we going to get the important issues back in the spotlight?  Is the press even going to raise the question of who has plans to pay for his policies?  Are we going to know what models are being followed, for example?

We can individually try to put pressure on the press to be responsible and produce an informed electorate.  We can work for individual campaigns. 

What do you think?  Do you have any ideas?

18 thoughts on “Pregnant daughter vs. universal health care and clean energy

  1. Maybe I should say explicitly that the point of this post is to look at why thinking about health care plans, et., can be less fun than other things, and to ask what we can do about that.

    It is definitely not aiming to say anything about qualifications for voting or qualifications for having an opinion that is important.

  2. You just wait until delivery time for Miss Palin – that is when the cleverly dubbed BabyGate will take over the election.

  3. Obviously I’m a total freak. My degree (UK) was in Social Policy and History and I *HEART* thinking about social policies in all their forms, all the time!

    No! I have nothing better to do with my brain!

    I think the answer in general is to start young and to engage children in the political process on different levels from the earliest of ages. It would also help is they have a parent or grandparent who talks back to politicians on the telly…

    Also, small point, but having written my undergraduate dissertation on teenage pregnancy, Bristol Palin is statistically very unusual. Further more, *statistically* she’ll be reducing her life chances more by marrying her babydaddy at such a tender age than just having his baby.

    When it comes to Sarah Palin herself, I fundamentally do not trust someone who would name their daughter the cockney rhyming slang for nipples.

  4. jj, I’m more worried about her daughter’s impending miscarriage. I really don’t think Trig was Sarah’s kid. It doesn’t matter nearly as much as the media is blowing it up to matter but it does make me giggle that an anti-sex-ed, anti-contraceptives Republican has a pregnant 16 year old daughter.

  5. Of interest to you here might be Paul Slovic‘s work on how to get people to pay attention to really important issues that don’t have “faces” attached to them. He’s been heavily involved in research on the social psychology of getting people to pay attention to genocide. For example, they’ve compared people’s responsiveness to “feed the hungry children” ads and found that not only do ads with facts and figures about starvation produce lower donations than ads with photos of children, ads with facts and figures and photos produce lower donations than do ads with photos alone.

    This is pretty discouraging, for those of us who would like to think that it’s possible to mobilize people to act and care about disadvantaged groups of people. It is far easier to get people concerned about “baby Jessica trapped in a well” or the orca star of the Free Willy movies than about large numbers of people in dire circumstances, and (unfortunately) the answer to getting the general public to focus on important issues probably isn’t more education about the issues but rather, using the media to portray attractive individuals in need.

  6. lga, let me hesitantly suggest a slightly different and happier take. We have a strong gut instinct to help others, and when we start to talk facts and figures we distract from that instinct and weaken its effects. Now I’m betting here, but it’s an informed bet. We do know that we are quite sensorily attuned to signs of others’ distress, and in fact that is found at various places in the animal kingdom. Rats will give up treats if taking them results in other rats making pained squeals..

    There’s a lot of thought these days about whether we have a basic instinct toward helping others. David Hume certainly thought we did, and one thing we’re starting to realize in cognitive neuroscience is that there are hosts of valuable reactions that are not, as Hume in fact himself argued, left for us to figure out by reasoning.

    Anyway, back to your point. There might still be ways to do something here. I just realized that my research group’s invitation to work with a public-health advertising group might be a huge gift….

  7. Aside: I don’t think it’s actually true that “books like The Selfish Gene” dispute that we have evolved to be highly social animals. (Dawkins takes care to remind us that selfish genes do not imply selfish brains, or anything like that, despite what some of his more confused critics claim. Have you actually read the book?)

  8. Any good-hearted Christian would not begrudge the care given to a needy neighbor. The true Christian remembers those words “As ye have treated the least of these, my brothers, ye have treated me.” Fortunately, the evangelical movement has matured since the days Bush used it as a political wedge issue. Now, evangelicals are waking up to the implications of brotherly love, and are addressing the values of caring for each other, poverty, and healing the planet. Certainly, universal health care fulfills the plea to love your neighbor as yourself. Even those who are not of the Christian faith would have to agree, upon reflection, that we all benefit from having healthy citizens.

  9. Richard, thanks for the comment. I didn’t set the contrast out properly. For Dawkins, at least as I read him, our sociality is derivative and quite qualified. Explaining the contrast would really take a paper, and in fact I’m scrambling to meet a publisher’s deadline on a related paper right now. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned him.

    It’s interesting that you wondered whether I read him. Do you find philosophy faculty commonly throw his name around without reading him? Perhaps that wouldn’t be surprising…

  10. To Iga & JJ’s points: Maybe Bristol’s pregnancy can be tied into the bigger picture. We could raise questions like: What if the father didn’t want to marry her? What if she had been raped? Did you know that “in 2006, 435,427 births occurred to mothers aged 15-19 years, a birth rate of 41.9 per 1,000 women in this age group”? (Pointing out the disproportionate number of non-white teens here could lead to a discussion on race & class). What will happen to Bristol and all these other young mothers since they’ll likely not continue with their education? We could tie in other Western countries who have much lower teen pregnancy rates and point out that they do not simply push abstinence.

    Sometimes it helps to have a personal story to hang the bigger picture on.

    (Thanks for the links, Iga, I’ll check them out! And thanks to Richard for picking up on the Selfish Gene comment…)

  11. Rachel, great ideas for teaching. No doubt a lot of us will find ourselves in classroom discussions about her.

  12. And also, Rachel, something in your remark has led me to worry that my concession to Richard might have made things more unclear.

    Here’s part of the difference between Dawkins and the link to sociableness that I gave in the post. For Dawkins impulses to altruism are in the service of our genes and they are partial to our close kin, for example. That’s the sort of view that gets picked up in too much evol psych and results in the view that while men will protect their own biological children, they are fond of killing off step children. It is true, as Hume noted, our benevolence does not naturally spread to everyone – we’re not good on people of different races, people who are far away, etc – but I can’t see any grounds for reading anything remotely like ‘close kin’ restrictions into recently discovered bases of sociableness. I’m pretty familiar with the literature surrounding that stuff and I don’t think anyone else has suggested it is so limited.

    If you want to check on whether Dawkins has considered this problem, you could look for him and “mirror neurons” as a start.

  13. Thanks, jj, for clarifying the Dawkins comment… It reminded me of another concern: Explaining everything with biology leaves out a whole slew of influences from the environment. While I am sure that nature has its influence, there seems to be a tendency (again) to ignore the influence of nurture…

    I find the research on “mirror neurons” fascinating! Although, again, it seems to focus almost exclusively on biological explanations…

    I recently finished Carol Tavris’ Mismeasure of Woman, which was published in the early 1990s and sadly doesn’t seem outdated at all. She points out this over-emphasis on biological explanations historically and currently.

  14. Thanks, jj and Rachel. I really think the personal story, as Rachel mentioned, is key. When I referred to having “a face” and an “attractive individual” in need, I didn’t mean necessarily in the physical sense, but more the importance of letting the public get acquainted with someone they can care about and relate to, through either a visual image or a story that lets people create internal visual images. I think there is a special responsibility for people in the media to be aware of situations where we in the West know of oppressed groups only as faceless statistics, and to put faces on them, tell the stories. This is what Aung San Suu Kyi does for Burma, what Blood Diamond did for that part of Africa, and what didn’t happen for the Holocaust, Stalin’s genocides, the great famines of the last century, etc.

    As for your point about responsiveness to distress, jj, I really like Dan Zahavi’s work building on Max Scheler’s writings on empathy. Sensitivity to the distress of others seems originally to be experienced as indistinguishable from one’s own distress, and it isn’t until the person develops a more detached facility for perspective-taking that she or he is able to experience another’s distress with compassion. Martin Hoffman and Mark Davis have separately done empirical studies to confirm this. For many people, seeing that someone else is unhappy just makes them unhappy too; they need to be able to mentally put themselves in the other’s position before they have the necessary detachment to act.

  15. Oh right, I was going to add – mirror neurons appear to be associated with the first stage in empathy, experiencing another’s distress as our own. That’s the more automatic response, but sympathy and compassion requires a further cognitive ability for perspective-taking.

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