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Monday, September 10, 2007


Everyone's talking about conservatism this month

... and through John Scalzi's blog, I see that includes neuroscientists.

This is what they say in the Los Angeles Times:

Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

... Participants were college students whose politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

...Based on the results, he said, liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.

So basically, if you're polically conservative, you have more trouble changing your habits. Pretty much makes sense if you apply it politically, but if you apply it psychologically? Hoo boy.

Apropos of what we've been talking about, would that mean that people who were 'conservative', to use the study's definition (though exactly what they consider 'conservative' to be defined as, the article doesn't say, which is always a recipe for vigorously confused debate) are more likely to be artistically conservative?

I think if you have the kind of mind that's particularly habit-forming, it seems likely: you repeat habitual behaviour, so you always make for the same shelves in the library, and are less receptive to new ideas, so are less willing to try different kinds of books. And the latter does involve receptivity to new ideas: if you've never read a certain kind of book before, it may take you a while to get your ear in, which can demand open-mindedness and patience while you're getting used to the new thing. If you're not inclined to take new ideas on board, it's more likely that you'll read a couple of pages of a new kind of book, think, 'Bah. This doesn't do what I like!', and put it back on the bookshop shelf.

Does that necessarily mean that genre books are more conservative, though? Big question. Personally I always think art has to start with people: 'Genre X is conservative' sounds less likely than 'Conservative-minded people are more likely to find a genre that they like and then stick with it'. That genre could be anything, but I'd guess that quest-story fantasy, crime and romance would be high on the list, as they have template plots, literary habits, which you can depend on new books to reproduce.

What do we think? I say all this partly because it's an interesting article, and partly also to suggest that everyone who's debating conservatism/authoritarianism and genre, of whom there are several people all making interesting comments on various threads, might like to get together on a single thread. I'm enjoying hearing from you all, but I'm starting to lose track of who's saying what where. Can we move it to here?


Consolidating, then...

Re: Ayn Rand examples -- Good grief. Was she just didactic, or did she cross over the line to nuts?

Re: " working with the definition 'lends itself to this interpretation far more readily than to its opposite'."

I am far more comfortable with this line of reasoning. I'd go so far as to say that I'm prone to judge the quality of a work that way -- better works are likely open to a greater number of interpretations. (Of course, like anything else that can be taken too far.)

Does genre lend itself to conservatism? Possibly, in the sense of maintaining that status quo? (Or is it capitalism that lends itself to this -- publishers being more willing to put the sure-sells out there? I think that's probably how the whole notion of genre came about to begin with.) I've heard (well, read) romance readers discussing this online -- that there are certain parts of a romance novel that define it -- I think it was brought up that lack of a happy ending (hero and heroine either together or getting pretty damn close), booted a book out of the genre by default.

I can't decide if I see authoritarianism in them, though. Spy thrillers, on the other hand, seem particularly prone to it (although I haven't read any since the mid-90s, so perhaps trends have changed).

Because spec-fic is my baby and I am prejudiced, I like to think that its very subjunctive, "what-if?" nature would prevent it from going too far in that direction, its nature of boundary pushing; at least if it's any good. Some of its (lighter) subgenres lend itself to repetition more than others.

But I wonder, does the fact that a particular fluffy book or series outsells more ambitious works really mean that the fluffies have more impact, though? A lot of them seem to come and go like a breeze, but which ones are really talked about and causing stirs?

Still trying to decide what to make of this: "Because, you know, I'd say the person who more or less unthinkingly votes a straight ticket, whether it's Republican or Democrat, is fairly "conservative" in my book, in that they've decided that they know what they want rather, rather than evaluating new ideas and possibly taking a chance with them in the voting booth."

... Because I just recently had an hours-long discussion with a Londoner in Times Square over the pros and cons of voting by party, with a clear outlined platform (and then having the elected group pick a leader) versus voting for a particular guy running on image and canvassing to say the right things on particular hot-button issues: is it rigidity versus flexibility or trustworthiness (hee! yeah) versus flash... (we did not come to a clear conclusion).
'better works are likely open to a greater number of interpretations'

On the other hand, just to be difficult, what about works of such sweeping conviction that they overwhelm you and make you feel exactly what the artist wanted? I've only seen bits of Triumph of the Will, but it's difficult not to respond to it viscerally, even though you know it's a Bad Work. Or what about the way that Gone With The Wind is one of the ultimate favourite female works of all time, despite the fact that its idea of race relations is in no way superior to Hitler's? (There's an interesting book about it called Scarlett's Women by Helen Taylor which I'd recommend - http://www.amazon.com/Scarletts-Women-Gone-Wind-Female/dp/0813514967)

And, to pick up on what you said in the previous thread - 'the way to avoid authoritarianism is to produce quality work, which opens up a host of new questions and criteria.' - while I'd really like to agree with that, I fear that you can produce quality work that's profoundly authoritarian.

I'd say that good naturalistic work needs to be unauthoritarian, because authoritarian thinking tends to be stereotypical and uncompassionate, but emotionally overwhelming work can go straight for the instincts in a way that an authoritarian mindset will very much enjoy.

Sigh. Art has its own laws, I think, and the way they connect with morality is complicated.

I'd say that capitalism shapes what people buy, but it doesn't necessarily shape how they write. Very few writers write specifically with a market gap in mind. It's too hard to write a book promoting a worldview you don't hold. And there's a market for as many different kinds of ethos as there are kinds of people, so I think there's a lot of flexibility within the market.

I think genre's more likely to lend itself to conservatism in that, at the more stereotypical end, genre can repeat the same plot over and over, which will appeal to small-c conservative readers - a minority of whom will also become writers, and set out to write a book that explicitly reproduces that genre's tropes. Because of that process, I'd hesitate to call any one genre inherently more conservative than any other. I suspect that, as with people, there's a sliding scale of conservatism and innovation within each kind of book.

This is one of the many reasons why I don't like genre and have a go at it whenever I get the opportunity. Which, when you have your own blog, can be quite often. :-)

More impact? I wouldn't necessarily say so. I read a lot of books, but not all of them have the same impact - and the more mass-produced ones tend to have less impact. But then, if you read a lot, you're more likely to read the obscure ones. Books that sell more copies will be read by people who read fewer books, so will form a bigger proportion of that reader's experience. I guess it depends on who the impact we're talking about is happening to.
Oh, re Ayn Rand - 'a radical for capitalism' was how she described herself, rather than 'conservative'. I'd say dominant personality rather than authoritarian follower as well. Bit of a slippery example if you're talking about conservatism, but a good one if you're talking about how an author's personality affects their work, as the two were unusually obvious in their connections in her case.
Ah, but is Gone With the Wind and such "quality work" or just freakin' manipulative?

(I'm being contrarian now. If I'm honest with myself I have to say it's quality -- of a certain kind, at least. I loved that book in high school, even while being horrified by it. And it was complicated, and layered, and technically competent -- it's just, bits of it were in favor of, or at least romanticizing of, an abhorrent system and mindset.

So, yeah, I've bookmarked "Scarlett's Women." Thanks! Probably part of why it's so accessible is that the more reprehensible ideas were more of a backdrop; the main plot points were the universals; survive the war, win the man, endure your family sorrows, um... attend the cotillions, and so on.)

Then again -- and I cannot find this quote for the life of me and so I'm sure I'm butchering it, but I love it so -- it was Adrienne Rich, I think, who said something like "The great justification for the act of writing fiction is that through it we can be seduced into sympathizing with people with whom we do not identify."

So I suppose both authoritarian and conservative work need to exist. Now I just need to tamp down my unreasonable fear of accidentally producing some.

And... "It's too hard to write a book promoting a worldview you don't hold." Arrrrgh, why do I want to try this now?? I won't really, I suspect it would make me miserable.

Ayn Rand was just mean. Yeah, I said it. ;-) Possibly her might-makes-right shtick makes her more authoritarian than conservative? Or just, you know, MEAN. I've actually met libertarians I like and respect and who make some sense, sometimes, but Rand... no. Judging by the previous examples, such extremism only hurt her in the end, maybe most of all.
Ah, forget about accidentally producing authoritarian work. Heck, if you do, you do, and if it's good, so what? Worrying about the political bias before you've finished a first draft will only give you writer's block. :-)
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