A Diderot Effect for Political Attitudes?

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Everyone knows that some consumer products go together. Ties go with suits, check shirts and RM Williams boots go with country music, and beer goes with barbecued sausages. As Grant McCracken argues, goods have cultural meanings. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the suburb we live in, and the car we drive are all signals that other people use to decide what kind of person we are.

If you drive a hand-painted old Combi, sport an unruly beard, wear your hair in dreadlocks, and refuse to eat meat, then many people will assume that you you’re not keen on logging old growth forests or locking asylum seekers up in detention camps. In the recent US presidential election John Kerry endured sly attacks on the Frenchness of his consumption habits. Obviously anyone who prefers French wine to American beer isn’t going to stand up for the victims of 9/11 against militant Islamists or the butcher of Baghdad.

In his book Culture and Consumption Grant McCracken writes about something he calls the ‘Diderot effect’ – a force which prevents "an existing stock of consumer goods from giving entry to an object that carries cultural significance that is inconsistent with the whole." The link between ties and suits isn’t practical. For example, the combination isn’t any warmer than a suit and skivvy or suit, collarless shirt and suit.

This makes me wonder whether people choose their political beliefs for their cultural meanings too. Perhaps support for Work for the Dole and the belief that welfare recipients are stupid and lazy is just a way of telling people that you identify with talented and hardworking people – a roundabout way of saying that you are talented and industrious.

Most of the people who express political opinions have no direct influence on policy. A tough-talking, beer drinking coalition voter who says that Bush ought to nuke Tehran and Pyongyang isn’t really increasing the chances of nuclear war. What he’s doing is telling you he’s a man of action and believes in taking hard, unpopular decisions. It’s like a 50s film buff telling you he prefers The Thing From Another World to The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Once an off-the-shelf political identity is established there doesn’t need to be any logical connection between the beliefs that signify membership. Believing that global warming is a left wing beat-up is no different to preferring VB to chardonnay. The function of both is to tell the world who you are.

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Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ironically, Don, for many years in Brisvegas drinking VB was a sign that you were a leftie. The VB habit took root among the Left in the late 80s when Bondie bought XXXX and the other Brisbane brew, Powers, was non-union.

TimT
2022 years ago

Nice mag, but … Bikini-pics of Miranda Devine? You mean the cover-girl doesn’t get a saucy centre-spread?

Jozef
2022 years ago

Love the cover, Don, especially that hellish reference to fire et al …

Someone unkindly wrote in Czech provincial newspapers (off line) that the US is the new Russia in 21 century … Subliminally, the czarish tendency is being reflected in speeches (smile)

As The Guardian’s James Meek reminds us, Bush’s rhetorical flourish owes its existence to a quote from a Russian novel. One of the models of American leadership is that of Moses, leading God’s chosen people – then the Jews, now the Americans – towards a promised land, following a pillar of fire. At one point, according to the Bible, Moses was shown a sign: “Behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. But the key fire passage in the Burning Bush speech – We have lit a fire as well; a fire in the minds of men” – actually has its origins in a novel by the 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, ; The Devils about a group of terrorists’ ineffectual struggle to bring down the tyrannical Tsarist regime.

Jozef
2022 years ago

Link to the Guardian article of biblical proportions by Meek who inherited a sense of irony and humour as well as truth…

http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,6109,1395563,00.html

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

What is a compasion fascist?

DrShrink
2022 years ago

Interesting post don.

I think theres a lot to it. Its also part of the reason why i prefer political forums to blogs like these. On a forum a person must justify the reasoning behind their beliefs. That chance to press them forces them to either produce facts to logically back their case or to be seen by their peers to not support a position which will achieve the goal or cultural image they wish to be associated with.

Though you have highlighted mainly right wing issues in your post i think this cultural positioning of ideology is a more common feature on the left. Witness the high support for left wing ideals amongst the younger and those in higher education insitutions where the peer pressure is greater. The desire to look a compassionate soul leads them to support left wing policies regardless of the likelyhood that policy will achieve the results they desire.

In short, the only way to see if a person honestly believes that position will achieve their goals, or they just want the cultural image benefit from being seen to advocate such a position is to challenge them to logically justify the positions they hold.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Though with the exception of the Greens (see my election post: http://badanalysis.com/catallaxy/index.php?p=324) it is getting harder to guess political affiliation from clothes. At least a young guy in a flash suit could easily be a left-of-centre voter these days (the Liberals not being fashionable enough for him) and the guy in overalls could easily be a Liberal voter.

Overall I think you are right that there are cultural meanings in political views. But when you say that “this makes me wonder whether people choose their political beliefs for their cultural meanings too” I think you are overstating the level of conscious choice. The beer drinking nuke the North Koreans type doesn’t really think about politics, and doesn’t use politics as an important part of his self-identity; his political view just flows naturally from his no nonsense, call a spade a spade, action man self.

I think conscious choice of political views as cultural symbols occurs mostly among the university-educated left sub-culture, where having the correct political views is important to social acceptance.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Mark – “Ironically, Don, for many years in Brisvegas drinking VB was a sign that you were a leftie. The VB habit took root among the Left in the late 80s when Bondie bought XXXX and the other Brisbane brew, Powers, was non-union.”

It was different down south. At Monash the left wouldn’t touch VB, because (supposedly) the brewery had South African investments. They drank Coopers instead. So the right drank anything but Coopers, a regrettable decision since I only discovered after I had left university that I preferred Coopers to the beer I had been drinking.

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

Intruiging post Don. Fascinating idea, suberb graphic!.

I don’t know whether you saw that doco “The Corporation”, but thre was a scene in there where various Laywers and other groups tried to have the Californian attorney general remove Unocal’s company status, dismantle it and sell of its assets because it was being a nasty corporate citizen.

The Unocal spokesman when interviewed, claimed it was a smear campaign, and said something like “This campaign originates from The Left side of politics, they attack us for producing, for doing, and yet all they produce is hot air”. I think this line, although nonsense, resonates well because there are so many receptive to its message.

To me this supports your proposition. A simple one-liner like this can derail a successful and legitimate campaign. There need to be equally pithy responses.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Andrew, before about 1987 it was very difficult to drink the beer of your choice in Queensland as hotels tied to Castlemaine would only sell xxxx, and similarly with a minority of pubs tied to Carlton. Under the licensing laws then in force, bottlos could only be attached to a pub (they still have to be – causing Qld to lose competition payments – but now they can be freestanding – for instance, there’s a bottlo owned by the Regatta Hotel in Toowong up the road from me on Brunswick St, New Farm). The Story Bridge at Kangaroo Point was the only place in Brissie that had Coopers on tap. Soon afterwards, when Goss was elected, we had oodles of beer choices, but the VB habit stuck. I’m very partial to Coopers, though.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

To be introspective for a moment: I think about the basic attractions which enabled me to construct a political identity, and it is not about compassion. I don’t want to be seen as a saint (maybe because I went to an Anglican rather than a Catholic school).

For me the issue has much more to do with a “That’s not fair” which pops into my mind and motivates me. That is the meme which is attached to action in my bonce. I am not thinking “Oh poor sods, you are unemployed and life must be so hard for you without self value etc etc”, although I will write about it and explore this. I am more likely to think “You bastards. You construct an economy where you want these people out of work, and then you bash them for it.”

In other words, we are talking about righteous, self defensive anger. I think it is terrific to discuss the political process on this level – without criticism because we are talking about the atavistic minds we all carry – since it helps us talk about the mass psychological process of doing politics.

Unfortunately, there is a sad sense in which this is irrelevant. I am a committed voter; the person we are all trying to reach in politics is by definition not committed. Indeed, it is important to recognise this stuff in order to make sure that we don’t mistake our own drives for political winners.

Mind you, the politics of anger is not necessarily bad – see the power of negative advertising. Maybe we all carry all the possible political memes and feelings and it is a question of managing the attachments between the “consumer goods” and their meaning. If that makes any sense..

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

I would not claim to be particualarly talented and industrious but I’m willing to confess that this cap may fit in my case. My RWDBness has a cultural/tribal driver. I’d hope it was not entirely so.

Interesting post, and I LOVE that mag. Until it’s published I’ve got Tim Blair and should be grateful.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

sharing David Tiley’s introspective frame of analysis for a moment, I’d guess in contrast to David, the instinctive bases for my constructed political identity would probably be more along the lines of ‘that’s bloody stupid’ or ‘that’s irrational’ or ‘that’s antiquated/counterproductive/irrelevant/perverse’ though i suppose ‘irrational’ would be my biggest swearword. like david, i wouldn’t hide the fact that the politics of anger motivate me too but anger at stupid ways of doing things that foresake net gains all for the sake of what i may define as ‘pointless tradition’ or ‘soft-mindedness’. Secondly there is probably also a layer of more pointed moral anger e.g. that individuals be treated as individuals first and foremost but again this can probably be traced back to some instinctive aversion i have to people being treated according to certain categories where i feel such methodology is ‘irrational’ or ‘irrelevant’.

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

Where can I get a subscription?

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

“Where can I get a subscription?”

Well Yobbo, you’ll have to contact a lefty/centrist won’t you? Because, as is now becoming increasingly and depressingly common, their parodies become your realities.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

And in response to the Diderot Effect, I’d respond with Sturgeon’s Law (look it up).

The last elections in Aus and the US were swung by less than .5 of the overall population, and those whose votes did swing things were swingers all anyway.

Shit, I’ve just shot my own argument in the foot here.

OK yes, political viewpoints do tend to polarise along lifestyle/cultural/consumer (LCC) lines (which is not exactly new is it) and we are seeing the rise of new LCC blocs such as the plasma screen voters.

But, as others have pointed out here, in a consumer-driven culture, there’s all sorts of subtle and coded actions to indicate where you stand such as yer choice of beer in different states.

And what would pollsters make of a commercial real estate agent on eccies at an Earthcore rave. Or a retired public servant, carefully managing his super while going to bondage parties? Or a thirtysomething corporate lawyer heading off to run a dive school in Cairns.

Or moi, who wears RM Williams boots (the B&S model – and bloody comfortable and stylish for both town and country they are), drinks chardonnay, agitates for lower personal taxes and drug decriminalisation, believes higher education should be free, fools around with biotech stocks and psychoactive drugs, is working on registering a shell company in Vanuatu for evil stuff, while working unpaid overtime to speed on water purification systems to Aceh, enjoys the work of both Bill Hicks and PJ O’Rourke and despises Dubya but loves visiting the US.

Actually, this does come back to Sturgeon’s Law in a way. If you need your lifestyle and attitude defined by others, then in the long run, you’ll get the world they want

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

Van Gogh designer vodka?

Two drinks and yer on yer ear?

cs
cs
2022 years ago

I think I agree Nabs, but I do know a good cover when I see it. Conspicuous indignation snookered …

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

“But after sinking almost a bottle”

“Two drinks and yer on yer ear?”

There’s only way to settle this Holden FX.

*cue theme from “A Fistful of Swizzle Sticks”*