In the interest of full disclosure, I must begin this post with a confession: I am an avid listener of political radio programming. Left wing, right wing, centrist – it makes no difference – I consume it all, and with gusto. I like it. I like the buffoonery, the absurd caricature of political debate, the conspiracy theories, and the partisanship. Yes, even the partisanship, the rah-rah, my team is better than your team, logic-eschewing cheer-leading that makes up such a large portion of political talk radio.
But why? Why should I? I hate partisanship. It’s irrational and counterproductive. I value real debate informed by empirical evidence. And buffoons are both irritating and dangerous in real life. Which brings me to the point: In Real Life. Talk radio makes for fantastic comedy, a sort of political Coyote and Roadrunner, as long as I can maintain the illusion that none of what I am hearing is real. Because if it were real, it would be as deplorable as it is absurd.
And of course, it is real, it is deplorable, and it is absurd, but it’s also very telling, because for some segment of the population (hopefully a rather small one) the almost Dada-ist surreality of the talk-radio world is not just a reality, but a place of fulfilling affirmation. Participation in its particular brand of vociferous partisan commiseration is an act of cementing party membership. It therefore represents a privileging of group membership over what I call rationality. Doubtless to the devoted members of the talk-radio in-crowd, group membership and rationality are synonymous. It is only reasonable, from their perspective, that reasonableness be the sole province of their own particular political sect. But such views are unreasonable when considered from perspective of the world majority of non-members.
How could such a state of affairs come to exist? In my particular brand of rationality, evolutionary biology represents a powerful tool for explaining behavior, and so the possibility occurs to me that blind group membership has been, and may still be, a better decision-making tool for reproductive success than the system of thought I call rationality. How depressing if that were the case! And declaring, without sufficient evidence, that my rationality is so far advanced beyond that of my ancestors that it now offers an evolutionary advantage over tribal acceptance seems more than a little arrogant.
After all, the scientific method, even as I accept it, holds no position sacred. Theories are accepted until they are not. Truth is consensus based and liable to revision as new empirical evidence emerges. That which is now right is more or less assumed to be at best incomplete and at worst in need of paradigm-shifting revision. So at what point does rationality as I believe in it so approximate reality that it can more reliably be used to predict evolutionarily successful behavior than can the instinct toward social cohesion at all costs? Was the theory of the elements (earth, air, water, and fire) a good enough system to trump the adage that we all stand or fall together? Is the theory of evolution good enough now? It seems to me to be less than clear.**
Nor is this any trivial ambiguity. How am I to act when rational examination of an irrational position suggests potential benefits to adopting irrationality as a pragmatic principle? Can I even be said to be behaving irrationally if I do so out of rational motives? And if my irrationality is indeed rational, is it any more reliable than the potentially unreliable rationality that prompted it? Such are the questions that arise when one turns up an internal inconsistency in one’s belief system. Here, flaw seems to be the assumption that rationality (in the mathematic-empiric mode I accept) has yet come to dominate human behavior. An assumption that raises forests of contradictions (as this one seems to) is suspect as a result. Or perhaps the problem is deeper, that any assumption of rationality at all but the most conscious levels of human cognition mistakes successful decisions for logical or probabilistic ones. It is hard to say just where the flaw lies, but there is no doubt that the puzzle of partisanship raises both biological and epistemological questions that simply condemning party loyalty as irrational fails to address.
**At this point the issue of religious faith fairly screams to be introduced, but its implications are utterly beyond the scope of this argument, so I will leave readers to ponder them on their own. Even my arrogance does not extend to public speculation on the ineffable.