Reason is the loser in our political age of overblown symbolism

Democrat members of Congress, including John Lewis, participate in sit-down protest seeking a vote on gun control measures (Rep John Yarmuth via AP)

I reserve some pity for anyone who still thinks politics is a war of ideas. Consider one telling spectacle from the American political scene last week: Democrats, led by Georgia congressman John Lewis, staged a “sit-in” revolt in the House of Representatives. Having failed to force a Republican vote on new gun-control legislation, Lewis and other politicians sat on the floor of the lower house in protest for almost 26 hours.

Now, for many observers this will appear to be nothing more than moral exhibitionism. But who says that isn’t effective? At least in our postmodern era, symbolism is more powerful than ideas. Why? The United States, according to some anthropologists, is a guilt culture: we are kept in line socially by the guilt one feels when one breaches some convention. My own opinion, as a thoroughly unqualified theorist in this area, is that the US today blends aspects of both guilt and shame cultures. The point is that guilt, shame, and social ostracism — not ideas or principles — figure most prominently in our contemporary politics. And the use of symbolism is an efficient way to evoke those feelings in an opponent.

Lewis is a significant figure in the 1960s fight for civil rights. He knows that the sit-in brings to mind all sorts of symbols and images of that tumultuous era. (He and his cohort laid it on quite thick, at one point singing We Shall Overcome — a ridiculous bit of high burlesque.) One side of the culture war has been successful in linking all its opinions to the most contentious and guilt-ridden periods in American history. Anyone opposing the sit-in, then, is cast in the symbolic role of Bull Connor.

One might scoff at all of this, but bringing guilt and shame by continually invoking the lowest points in a nation’s history does affect people — see “Germany” — and often makes people assent to things not on their merits but on their emotional repercussions. I’ll always defend the Enlightenment, but it cemented in many Western minds a false idea of how humans actually think and make decisions. We have been trained since school age to believe that if we use facts, logic, and reason to make a case, we can persuade others to our side; if we apply this process to governance, the thinking goes, we can preserve our rights and liberty through superior argumentation.

Facts and logic exist, but most people don’t use them — or at least they only pretend to use them, brushing their base emotions with a thin glaze of reason. Those who sincerely value reason as a tool of debate are at an eternal disadvantage against those who don’t.