April 8, 2010
On Rationalization

There’s a great scene towards the end of the 80s movie The Big Chill (readers of appropriate age know it; younger people have no idea what it’s about) in which Jeff Goldblum, playing a reporter for People magazine, asks the question, “Which is more important?  Sex, or rationalization?”  His answer is direct: “Rationalization.  Because you can’t go a week without it!”

(As an aside, The Big Chill was supposed to be Kevin Costner’s breakthrough movie—but they edited him out of the film.)

Whatever one thinks of Goldblum’s question, I have always been struck by the second part of his comment: that none of us can go a week without rationalizing something.  As a practical matter, human beings are staggeringly talented at figuring out how things that are fundamentally self-serving and in profound tension with our claimed values are somehow right, moral, proper and for the good of the community at large.  And believe me, I’m not exempting myself from this reality.  All of us do it. A lot.

A lot of things start making sense if you just realize that people have figured out a way to turn self-serving actions into social goods, at least in their own heads.  After all, if any one of us found out about the kinds of abuse long-going on in the Catholic church, and all we did was send the abuser to counseling and then transfer them to another place they could continue their abuses, WE WOULD GO TO JAIL.  Under US law, people have a positive obligation to report abuse to the state, and failure to do so is an offense that can send you to prison.  Yet somehow church authorities have decided that the remarkable notion that they ought to comply with the law on a secular matter of abuse constitutes an attack on the church.  Thus defending the church is now a matter of principle. And the victims become attackers, at least in the minds of the church’s apologists.

The power of rationalization makes it possible for people to commit savage evils to each other.  After all, “they” aren’t really human, or rational, or trustworthy; thus “we” can kill, isolate, genocide, apartheid, wall off “them” and believe it is necessary for the social good. 

Of course, rationalization doesn’t always manifest itself in such violent ways.  One really interesting area of rationalization in American politics (at least to me) lies in the RINO phenomenon, some of which has morphed into the tea party movement.  RINO stands for “Republicans in Name Only,” and is a charge aimed at moderate Republicans by more conservative groups.  Why not challenge moderates, conservatives ask, since they’re not voting as “real” Republicans would?  (In a reverse case, liberals are challenging Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas because she seems to conservative for their taste.)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course: people have the right to pursue their political agendas.  But it raises the eternal question of American political life: what wins elections?  If you don’t win, you can’t govern.  But usually, if you run a relatively “pure” ideological campaign, you lose the general election.  Which pisses off the purists, and sets the cycle in motion all over again.

We’ll see where all this ends in November.  My guess is that, if not in this election then in an election or two, the forces of conservative ideological purity will start losing.  The system of checks and balances is pretty powerful.  So the Republicans will moderate in order to win—for the good of the community.  Then, as Democrats lose to moderate Republicans, they’ll become ideologically more pure—since they’re losing as moderates.  Until they get tired of losing, and become more moderate.  For the good of the community.

Ah, rationalization.  You actually can’t go a week without it!