Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Goal-hugging: Exploiting the halo effect to distract and dominate

Goal-hugging: A slippery debate and switch tactic.

A goal is not a plan. Sometimes people pretend it is so they don’t have to plan. And sometimes people pretend it is to protect their plan from scrutiny.

In an NPR interview yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican Ranking member, Jeff Sessions expressed his party’s persistent doubts about Sotomayor:  "She said her background could affect the facts she chose to see as a judge, and that, if believed, is a disqualifying thing, frankly."

The interviewer Robert Siegel tried over and over to bring Sessions around to wondering about the best plan to keep biases in check given that everyone has biases. Sessions ignored Siegel’s arguments returning over and over to the goal of keeping bias from affecting decisions. 

To highlight Session’s goal-as-plan subterfuge, here’s the conversation paraphrased:*

Sessions: Despite her declared commitment to our goal, we suspect that Sotomayor may not really share it.

Siegel: Perhaps she shares your goal but not your plan for achieving it.

Sessions: It is the priority goal.

Siegel: Of course it is, but there are reasonable questions about the Republican’s plan for achieving that goal.

Sessions: Well, that’s not good enough. It’s the priority goal.

Siegel: But there are different approaches to achieving that goal and it is reasonable to wonder whether the Republican plan might in fact, be counterproductive to achieving it.

Sessions: I can’t stress enough how great a priority this goal is.

Siegel: Republicans talk as though they don’t have biases, as though they have a perfectly surefire way to keep those biases in check, or as though they alone can see the truth without any interpretive bias. But Republicans have shown no more ability to keep their biases in check than anyone else.  It is reasonable to wonder whether admitting to bias or denying bias is the most effective approach to achieving our goal of minimizing bias in interpreting the law.

Sessions:  I don’t see why it is so difficult for you people to understand that the priority is that there be no bias or interpretation done by members of the supreme court.

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Siegel:  Well, I thank you for your time Senator Sessions.


Patriotism is a last refuge of a scoundrel, but not the only refuge.  Patriotism, like freedom from bias is in effect, a goal. Declaring patriotism is the equivalent of saying “I love my country so much that I make a goal of serving it as best I can.” That’s a lofty goal perhaps but it’s not a plan. It becomes a refuge if debates about the best plan for achieving that goal are consistently blocked by goal-hugging. Another example:

X: America has got to invade Iraq to depose Saddam.
Y: I think that’s a bad plan.
X: You do?  Boy, you must really hate America.
 
It’s a powerful technique.  The Republicans aren’t going to have the power to block Sotomayor’s confirmation, but through relentless goal-hugging they have managed again to define the debate.

Claims to purity won them decades of dominance in Washington, a real chance to implement their social experiments.  Not one of them has played out as positively as predicted.  They demanded originalists on the bench who have turned out to be activists for the Republicans, they demanded deregulation and we ended up in a financial nightmare, they demanded social conservatism and today red states produce more unwed teen mothers than blue states.  They demanded less government and generated the greatest deficits in history. 

Fundamental to the Republican ethos is their plan for handling human deceptability.  Project it onto others so vehemently that you convince yourself you have none.  Trivialize the management of bias claiming it as simply a matter of discipline and choice and that therefore your opposition is weak willed.  Selectively forgive your own exposed biases, and claim quick “I once was lost but now I’m found” cures.  Interpret your own biases to be the pure originalist read, from which all alternative interpretations are divergent distortions.  Be selectively conservative, demanding only that your preferred traditions are sacrosanct while claiming to apply an even unbiased hand.

If there’s one thing psychologists can agree upon, it’s that this approach is not likely to achieve the stated goal of keeping bias from influencing decisions.  Psychologists and indeed scientists have committed to another approach. Admit to bias.  Put your biases on the table where you can keep an eye on them.  If you deny your bias the way the Republicans do, they operate uncontrolled behind your back.

No doubt that’s exactly what some Republicans want. Other Republicans hold this blinded and blinding ethos earnestly and will defend the scoundrels to the end.



* The radio interview can be heard at:  http://www.npr.org/templates/player/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1...

 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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