The Situationist blog raises critiquing Sarah Palin to a high art

by: Paul Rosenberg

Thu Jan 20, 2011 at 15:00


Last week, the Situationist blog had a most illuminating take on Sarah Palin's speech, which was also quite illuminating about the nature of situationism, for those of you still trying to figure out what I've been talking about, on and off, for all this time. It's a relatively short piece, so I'm going to include the whole thing, along with some comments.  It starts by setting things up, and explaining the term "naive cynicism", which is a form of defense against situationist awareness:

Sarah Palin a Naive Cynic?
Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2011

Situationist Contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson have written extensively about a dynamic they call "naive cynicism."

Their work explores how dispositionism maintains its dominance despite the fact that it misses so much of what actually moves us. It argues that the answer lies in a subordinate dynamic and discourse, naive cynicism: the basic subconscious mechanism by which dispositionists discredit and dismiss situationist insights and their proponents. Without it, the dominant person schema - dispositionism - would be far more vulnerable to challenge and change, and the more accurate person schema - situationism - less easily and effectively attacked. Naive cynicism is thus critically important to explaining how and why certain legal policies manage to carry the day.

Naive cynicism often takes the form of a backlash against situationism that involves an affirmation of existing dispositionist notions and an assault on (1) the situationist attributions themselves; (2) the individuals, institutions, and groups from which the situationist attributions appear to emanate; and (3) the individuals whose conduct has been situationalized. If one were to boil down those factors to one simple naive-cynicism-promoting frame for minimizing situationist ideas, it would be something like this: Unreasonable outgroup members are attacking us, our beliefs, and the things we value.

* * *

Is Sarah Palin exhibiting that dynamic?  Below the video of her remarks you can read some excerpts from the transcript.

I find that having that checklist of assault targets in hand makes it lot more bearable to watch this video.  The selected parts and my comments on the flip.

Paul Rosenberg :: The Situationist blog raises critiquing Sarah Palin to a high art
First off, before plunging into Palin's speech, I want to quote briefly from the Emory Law Review paper, "Legal Academic Backlash: the Response of Legal Theorists to Situationist Insights" which explores in detail the workings of naive cynicism in legal academia.

1. Conditions Encouraging Naïve Cynicism

Based on what we described in the Great Attributional Divide as the interior sources of dispositionism,10 we predicted that naïve cynicism will be enhanced with respect to a particular policy question when the situationist attributions

    (1) involve settings with particularly salient actors who appear to be making particularly clear choices;
    (2) are complex or counterintuitive;
    (3) fail to provide clear answers or cognitive closure;
    (4) are made by-or otherwise involve-outgroup members;
    (5) threaten our conceptions of ourselves or the groups with which we identify; and/or
    (6) threaten the legitimacy of larger systems (or arise during periods when the system is threatened generally).11
Each of those factors will likely contribute to naïve cynicism because each encourages dispositionism, amplifying the motives behind naïve cynicism.

These same issues arise in less formal settings as well, and, indeed, one of the prime functions of conservative culture warriors is to keep things simple, keep things black-and-white, keep the white hats and the black hats straight--all of which meshes with the points described above.  If there's one thing that Sarah Palin is good at, it's declaiming heroes and villains. So it's not surprising to find naive cynicism at work when she speaks:

It's inexcusable and incomprehensible why a single evil man took the lives of peaceful citizens that day.

Here Palin is, asserting a simple, all-purpose dispositionist explanation:  It's the evil-doers, stupid! But inadvertantly, she lets something else slip:  Of course it's incomprehensible! To comprehend, one would have to look at things we're not supposed to.  Naive cynicism denies this, of course, but by doing so overtly like this, it exposes what it's doing. While it's part of naive cynicism to assault  situationist attributions, Palin's patented trigger-happy style typically overdoes it like this.

There is a bittersweet irony that the strength of the American spirit shines brightest in times of tragedy. We saw that in Arizona. We saw the tenacity of those clinging to life, the compassion of those who kept the victims alive, and the heroism of those who overpowered a deranged gunman.

There's something deeper going on here that I'd just like to briefly note:  Palin is valorizing the actions of people in order to vicariously identify herself with their heroism.  This is above and beyond trying to cast herself as a victim, and it stands in stark contrast with the actions and attitude of those involved, including most notably Daniel Hernandez, who repeatedly denied being a hero, but also 61-year-old Patricia Maisch, who grabbed the gun clip, but, as TPM reported,

said she doesn't consider herself a hero.

"It was just an extra security to get that away from him, but I think the two heroes were the two men who had the courage to knock him down," Maisch said.

In contrast to Palin, both Hernandez and Maisch gave situationist explanations:  they just did what anyone would have done in such a situation.  And there are literally countless other examples in which ordinary people have proved them right.

Continuing:

President Reagan said, "We must reject the idea that every time a law's broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions." Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.
The last election was all about taking responsibility for our country's future.

Whew! That passage reads sort of as if Palin were using the description of naive cynicism as an instruction manual, now doesn't it?  She sure can be thorough when she's a got a mind to.

Remember that the law review paper said

naïve cynicism will be enhanced with respect to a particular policy question when the situationist attributions
    .... (2) are complex or counterintuitive;
    (3) fail to provide clear answers or cognitive closure...
    (5) threaten our conceptions of ourselves or the groups with which we identify;

All these are involved as Palin works overtime to to insinuate herself and the Tea Party into the position of victims in the passage above, a process that kicks into overdrive as she continues, blurring all distinctions between genuine democratic engagement, and the sort of thuggish behavior that actually defined the Tea Party when it first emerged, and rose to prominence:

Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions.  And after the election, we shake hands and get back to work, and often both sides find common ground back in D.C. and elsewhere. If you don't like a person's vision for the country, you're free to debate that vision. If you don't like their ideas, you're free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

Again with the "it all started when he hit me badck" routine, one that Palin knows better than anyone else in the business.  But the description of naive cynicism provides a sort of guidebook for understanding what's going on, for seeing it in slow-mo, the way that a stage magician learns their tricks.

And, of course, a stage ham like Palin just can't resist reprising an old performance, from the last time she got caught & tried to wriggle her way out:

As I said while campaigning for others last March in Arizona during a very heated primary race, "We know violence isn't the answer. When we 'take up our arms', we're talking about our vote." Yes, our debates are full of passion, but we settle our political differences respectfully at the ballot box - as we did just two months ago, and as our Republic enables us to do again in the next election, and the next. That's who we are as Americans and how we were meant to be. Public discourse and debate isn't a sign of crisis, but of our enduring strength. It is part of why America is exceptional.

A situationist approach requires careful analysis and consideration.  Distinctions between things like vigorous debate and intimidation sometimes are difficult to make.  But sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are as clear as spitting on an American hero like John Lewis.  Situationism does not involve an attempt to attack or destroy vigorous debate--but it does provide a means for attacking this sort of disingenuous defense of thuggery, which is why it has to be pre-emptively "taken out" with naive cynicism, if possible.

If not, well, there are always those Second Amendment remedies still lying around.

The rest is left as an exercise for the readers:

No one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent, and we certainly must not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.

America must be stronger than the evil we saw displayed last week. We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy.

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