[CONTENT WARNING: Animal cruelty, gross inhumanity]
As loyal readers are well aware, Conservative Personality Disorder takes many forms. Although its symptom clusters appear on the surface to be somewhat subjective and frequently overlapping, they are nevertheless quite simple to spot in subjects with sufficiently advanced cases. In their seminal work published in 2003, Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition (pdf), Jost and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis (88 samples, 12 countries, 22,818 cases), and confirmed that several key psychological variables predict political conservatism:
- fear and aggression
- dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
- uncertainty avoidance
- need for cognitive closure
- personal need for structure
- terror management
- group-based dominance
- system justification
They present compelling evidence that these psychological variables are related to two primary motivations at the core of conservatism: (1) resistance to change, and (2) justification of inequality. The expression of these variables may change given the situation (and the disposition of the conservative), but at the end of the day they all trace back to the significant motivation to manage uncertainty and threat. Further, they argue that these two primary motivations are themselves interrelated:
Specifically, the avoidance of uncertainty (and the striving for certainty) may be particularly tied to one core dimension of conservative thought, resistance to change (Wilson, 1973c). Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). Although resistance to change and support for inequality are conceptually distinguishable, we have argued that they are psychologically interrelated, in part because motives pertaining to uncertainty and threat are interrelated (e.g., Dechesne et al., 2000; McGregor et al., 2001; van den Bos & Miedema, 2000).
But like the physicists who continue to work feverishly toward a “theory of everything,” the Palace lab has endeavored to formulate an all-encompassing “theory of Conservative Personality Disorder,” one which is simple, elegant, and accounts for the entirety of the epidemic in all of its manifestations. And despite the beautiful synthesis Jost et al present in their work, there is a third dimension of conservatism that looms large in this picture: empathy, or more accurately, a lack thereof.
For many issues near and dear to the conservative’s shriveled heart, it is easy to see “resistance to change” and “justification of inequality” at work. Take reproductive rights: the woman-as-breeding-sow* model of sexuality is perceived by conservatives — in my view, correctly — as under an existential threat from female autonomy. The Jost et al model perfectly explains, for example, why those who proclaim so fiercely their opposition to abortion are also opposed to birth control and comprehensive sex education, both of which would go a very long way toward drastically reducing the abortions they say they abhor. That is because abortion per se isn’t motivating any of this draconian anti-choice legislation and hostile rhetoric we’ve seen: female autonomy is. That is precisely the change conservatives are resisting and the inequality they are justifying.
But a profound empathy deficit is also at work here, in at least two significant ways: (1) anti-choicers know full well that restricting abortion will not result in significantly fewer abortions but in needless suffering and death for millions of women, and they are perfectly fine with that outcome, and (2) the benefits of a woman’s autonomy for her are never given a second thought in the conservative mind. Or even a first thought, for that matter. Basic empathy would require putting one’s self in her shoes in a sincere attempt to understand and relate to what she feels, and this is apparently way too icky and revolting an exercise to even contemplate.
Empathy deficit is one of the defining characteristic of sociopaths and narcissists, of course — and, I would argue, conservatism. Every once in a while, we see a case of CPD where “resistance to change” and “justification of inequality” pale as motivations when compared to sheer, sadistic cruelty for its own sake. Like this one:
The campaign manager for Ken Aden, an Iraq veteran and Democratic House candidate in a staunchly conservative Arkansas district, found his cat killed with the word “liberal” painted on its corpse. Actually, Jacob Burris’ five-year-old son found the cat when the family got home Sunday evening.
Jacob Burris, who has served as Aden’s campaign manager since late October, arrived home with his family Sunday evening, and his four children discovered the gruesome scene as they exited the family vehicle to enter their home.
The family pet, an adult, mixed-breed Siamese cat, had one side of its head bashed in to the point the cat’s eyeball was barely hanging from its socket. The perpetrators scrawled “liberal” across the cat’s body and left it on the doorstep of Burris’ house.
“To kill a child’s pet is just unconscionable,” Aden said Monday morning. “As a former combat soldier, I’ve seen the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. Whoever did this is definitely part of the worst of humanity,” he said.
“It is one thing to engage in civil political discourse, and for Republicans and Democrats to disagree with each other, which is an expected part of the political process. Taking it to this level is beyond unacceptable,” Aden said.
The local police are investigating, and a report will be made to the FBI today.
As readers well know, I am a staunch advocate for deploying certain conservative tactics in the service of liberal goals because those tactics are effective. And it should go without saying, but in case it does not: I do not in any way endorse responding to the heinous actions of these CPD case(s) by responding in kind and killing the family pets of conservatives. I have not read much coverage of this incident (and am unlikely to do so because of its stomach-turning nature), but I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that the vast majority of even the wildest-eyed wingnuts would condone such abhorrent acts, at least not in public. In fact, this seems likely to provoke a backlash — which is to say, it is not an effective tactic at all. But that is hardly the only reason one ought not to engage in it. Like the Giffords shooting, or the Breivik rampage, the act itself is so evil on its face that it provokes empathy in nearly every human being, including those with a diminished capacity for it. While I believe it is no coincidence that all of these incidents are inextricably connected to political conservatism, it is also true that despite their ideological differences, conservatives and liberals tend to agree on this: there exists a line that no one in any society worthy of the name “civilization” should ever cross. We disagree vehemently on where that line is or should be, but we can all agree that killing a family’s beloved pet falls on the wrong side of it.
If you’ve got the stomach for it, a pic of the cat is below the fold. I cannot stress this enough: CONTENT WARNING: Animal cruelty, gross inhumanity.
*Although I have found that woman-as-breeding-sow serves quite nicely as a metaphor, Amanda Marcotte makes a pretty good case for woman-as-dog here. Perhaps the two creatures should be metaphorically gene-spliced to create the perfect hybrid: woman-as-breeder-dog.