In experiment after experiment, cognitive scientists have shown us that our experience of the world is based not necessarily on what is real but on what we perceive to be real.
So how does this perception of reality differ between the two political models that dominate American debate today? George P. Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley has described them as different moral models: On the right, the disciplinary father and on the left, the nurturing family.
Maybe the following comments will add another dimension. I propose the difference is based not only on different moral models but also that neither model is fully representative of actual reality.
In other words, the focus from both parties is about how they think it should be; idealized views that differ not only morally but fail to represent the reality that each idealizes. Because objective reality is made up of too many variables to be comprehensively contained in any single political model.
I was reminded of this fact recently while volunteering at an event organized to assist recently released felons to re-integrate into society. This event is a gathering of human service agencies who come together for this purpose.
This gave me the opportunity to meet and discuss their personal circumstances with seven people. During our conversations, I couldn’t stop thinking about the many “shoulds” that come from both the left and the right. “These folks should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” “They should just borrow some money from their parents to go to college or start a business.” “The government should take care of them because they are victims of their circumstances.” “They’ve paid their debt to society so society has an obligation to them.”
First, a disclaimer: I’m not attempting to justify the actions of convicted felons. And although one must consider the circumstances of their lives leading up to their crimes, each of them was fully responsible for their own actions. To be sure, these are not people who have parents who could loan them a few thousand dollars. And there should be no government agency responsible for the results of their personal decisions. But realistically, these are folks who have virtually no access to the ladder of success that both parties claim their policies will provide.
Okay so now we have the political right’s theoretical model, “in America one just pulls himself up by his own bootstraps.” And on the left we have, “the government should level the playing field by supplying some of the boots.”
In the real world we have, “an America where marginalized populations suffer chronic intergenerational unemployment, which has destroyed the family structures so necessary for educational achievement, even if their educational resources were adequate – and they’re not.”
So if we can stand clear of our moral models for a moment and look reality in the face, there is a permanent underclass in America without the resources, opportunities, educations, status, contacts, etc. to realize the American dream. Even though they ideologically “should”.
I’m not saying that this excuses people from the mistakes they make. I am saying that until we recognize we all make mistakes, stop judging others, see some individual failings as related to our societal problems, we will always have marginalized people and some of those will turn to crime to survive.
So you might say, so what. Here’s what, “the United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population, but we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners – we incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any country on Earth,” said Michael Jacobson, director of the non-partisan Vera Institute of Justice. Our epidemic of incarceration costs us taxpayers $63.4 billion a year.
So we can continue to “should” all over ourselves and others or we can address the causes and not the symptoms of our problems.