The research suggests that people may hold extreme policy positions because they are under an illusion of understanding — attempting to explain the nuts and bolts of how a policy works forces them to acknowledge that they don’t know as much about the policy as they initially thought.
One of my favourite topics, this, because it's so important to social function (or dysfunction, as the case may be).
Political operatives tell each other that politics is a blood sport and therefore, one must be tough and aggressive to win. The ability to take the heat is supposed to prove fitness for governance, or some such.
Do we put prospective CEOs or Board Members through personal insults and public humiliation in an effort to prove their leadership value? Would anyone even think that would be a useful exercise?
Do we encourage hazing in university, because the trial-by-fire approach builds team spirit and reminds participants they're part of the tribe? No - we have categorically decided that hazing is detrimental and at its worst, incredibly harmful.
Do we put newlyweds through shivarees to remind them not to get too caught up in their wedded bliss, because they're still part of the tribe? No - that would be invasive and offensive.
Do we encourage bullying in schools as a way to foster thick skin among students? No, because that leads to mental illness and suicide. Unless of course, you're Christie Blatchford.
There are only two human endeavours where it is considered acceptable to dehumanize and bully/haze/harass/abuse opponents - war and politics. The desired outcome of war is to beat the other guy, not to build a cohesive society that builds strength through diversity. Politics is the same thing - tribal warfare that uses different tactics to accomplish essentially the same goal.
In war, who's right and who's dead depends on who reacts faster. The same holds true of politics. Reaction is a limbic action that is pre-programmed and happens instantaneously, meaning you don't consciously think about it - you shoot first and ask questions never. You have to be reactive, because if you're not, you're dead. If a member of the tribe is acting up, you beat them down to maintain traditional order.
Which is exactly what happens with extreme policy positions. Strength and aggressiveness is synonymous with right - the other guy can't be right, because if they are, then you're dead. But pistols at dawn doesn't work in a dense social framework; it leads to reactive blood feuds like you see in Afghanistan. And, as we're seeing with the very predictable revolt against Harper, you can't beat down your tribe forever; not even the threat of violence is enough to accomplish that any more.
The very reason why people have developed the capacity to commit sociology and think rationally in the first place is because society depends on it. As tempting as it is to view the world through binary lenses of good and evil, society is a complex system; you can't change or remove one cog without consequences for the whole machine.
This is why education, communication, social-emotional learning and structure are so crucial to social functioning; our schools understand this and our private sector is beginning to wrap its head around the consequences of doing this poorly. Politics, maddeningly, keeps heading in the opposite direction.
Slowly, painfully we are pulling back the curtain on our own ignorance and expanding our ability to see around the corner; politics, that aggressive hold out with its ancient institutions poorly suited to modern realities, is a laggard, holding out.
Social evolution works the same way biological evolution does - that which fails to adapt doesn't survive. Which is why it's time for our political people to put away their horses and bayonets and start committing a bit more sociology.
Give up the illusion, folks, and stop boxing at shadows. The real world is dying for you to catch up.