The Situationist

The Economist Responds to The Situationist

Posted by Jon Hanson on November 25, 2011

W.W. at The Economist takes issue with my 2007 post (reposted on Wednesday) about “Thanksgiving as System Justification.” Readers can judge for themselves the merits of the critique.

The purpose of this post is simply to point out that The Economist article and the comments that follow it exhibit the naive cynicism dynamic that we have written about several times on this blog.  Here’s one recent description:

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.

With that dynamic in mind, consider the following excerpts from The Economist post and the comments that followed it:

NO HOLIDAY is safe from the scolds. Independence Day? A celebration of the American exceptionalism behind our bogus claims to legitimacy as a “benevolent” neo-imperialist global hegemon. Christmas? A sickening display of consumerism run amok and a case study in Christian mythology crowding out pagan good cheer. (Take your pick.) Memorial Day? An exercise in the elevation of those who kill and die for the state without asking too many questions about it. Veterans Day? Ditto. Labor Day is all right, I guess, if you’re red. Columbus Day? Ask a Seminole. Now here we are on the cusp of Thanksgiving. Other than lamenting the white man’s plundering, murdering, colonising ways (ask an Iroquois) what else is there to say to take the fun out of the national day of gluttony here in the home of the bravely obese? Plenty!

Before you stuff yourself to the gills with the flesh of innocent birds fattened in disgustingly inhumane conditions, please read this discourse on “Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification’“, by Jon Hanson, the Alfred Smart Professor of Law at Harvard. In a nutshell, “system justification” is the socio-psychological process by which turkeys come to welcome their impending slaughter. Every society is rife with injustice. System justification is how we convince ourselves it’s all for the best.

“Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions”, Mr Hanson says. For example, Harvard University might be said to make extremely privileged people comfortable in their mostly unearned wealth and prestige by helping them develop a super-classy shared vocabulary for expressing their mildly guilty feelings about it. Mr Hanson, demonstrating how this is done, worries that Thanksgiving, as Americans celebrate it, is but one more prop shoring up the corrupt current dispensation.

* * *

*  * * If you think it’s only healthy to set aside politics now and then and bask wholeheartedly in the warm love of family, you’re probably part of the problem.

Economist commenters (of which there are many) piled on praise for, and agreement with, W.W.’s critique.  The shared sense seems to be that  W.W. is correct:  “Unreasonable outgroup members [namely, Jon Hanson and other scolds like him] are attacking us, our beliefs, and the things we value.”  Here’s a sample:

“Thanks for reminding us of how messed up our world is Economist.”

* * *

I’m thankful that my tuition helps provide Professor Hanson with plenty of income to contribute important insights on law and policy while living in style.

* * *

The big-brained ape is a jerk.

Sitting down to a feast with those dear to you is just fine by me. I guess I must be part of the problem.

* * *

To say that this Hanson person gives idealists, liberals and academics a bad name is to be guilty of gross understatement.

* * *

This article is from someone who sees the life extremely bitter, and wants everybody to see the same. OK, life has its problems, in the US and everywhere. But I think that to see the glass always half-empty is a very sad way to live.

* * *

Some folks have no sense of humor, cannot ever lighten up, and consider every particle of existence to be a big political issue.

* * *

the writer needs to lighten up and spend some with loved ones (if he has any…) . . . .

* * *

I don’t think there is any need to throw guilt into something that promotes community and family life.

Related Situationist posts:

You can review all of the Situationist posts related to naive cynicism by clicking here.

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5 Responses to “The Economist Responds to The Situationist

  1. SSB said

    The Economist piece and the related comments exemplify how system threat leads to system justification.

  2. Tamara Piety said

    Apparently the fact that these comments tend to prove your point rather than engage with the substantive critiques escapes most of these folks commenting. It is sad though that some of these comments are so spiteful and hateful. Anyone who thinks work such as this is motivated by pessimism, cynicism or hatefulness has not thought very hard about this. Writing these serious and thoughtful critiques about the various social rituals and devices we have for reassuring ourselves that everything is okay when there is ample evidence that it is not so okay, requires a profound hopefulness about the essential goodness of most people, about the possibility of positive change, and a commitment to the quest for justice even where it seems that justice is elusive and difficult for us to define or locate but worth struggling for nevertheless. A cynic would not bother since it is utterly predictable that most people will respond hostilely to information that disrupts cherished illusions or half truths. The evidence of this is all around us but one striking recent example was the rioting at Penn State over the firing of Joe Paterno. I understand why the information about Sandusky and what Paterno was told was so distressing that many wished to block it out. But it surely significant that the first reaction of many was to defend the coach rather than to reflect concern for the child victims. Expressions of concern were finally forthcoming but seemed an afterthought and one driven by public dismay that so many people could have their priorities so out of order as to (in essence) cry, “What about our football legacy?!” in response to hearing about someone being allowed to prey on vulnerable children for more than a decade. I think many people are just really uncomfortable with complexity. They would like something to be all good or all bad, heroes or villains, a day of celebration or a day of infamy. But that doesn’t seem realistic since people are rarely so simple, nor anything people do. I am not sure why it has to negate all the positive associations with Thanksgiving to reflect on those unlovely aspects of our history and culture that it also represents. Why isn’t it appropriate to pause in recognition of those ills as well as giving thanks for the good? It seems we would do well to reflect on a clearer eyed vision of our past as well as recommitting ourselves to trying to avoid making such mistakes in the future.

  3. Jon Hanson said

    Unsurprisingly, I wholeheartedly agree with the above responses (from SBB and Tamara). As always, Tamara, your comments were both elegant and insightful. Thanks. -jh

  4. Ed said

    The truth of the matter is that your critiques stem from self-hatred. You hate yourself and your society and wrap it up in flowery words.

  5. anon4ce said

    Ed. I don’t read any hatefulness or self-hate in the column at all. All I see is a thoughtful man imploring people to understand that even beneficial social rituals have negative attributes and effects. If we ignore them, we risk harming our society and the people who comprise it.

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