Nouns, adjectives and political allegiance
According to a UK newspaper web side, the way people use language can show how politically “left” or “right” one is:
with three simple questions?: New research published by the University of Kent suggests that the way you use nouns and adjectives is indicative of how right- or left-wing a person is.
If you haven’t already done so, go to the site and do the test, and see how accurate you think it is.
The web site claims to have a simple answer determined by a simple test, but it actually opens a huge can of very wriggly worms, and raises far more questions than it answers.
That’s OK, in the sense that I do tend to think of myself as more “left” than “right” politically, but the answer, and the reason behind it, bothered me.
If you’re willing to follow my convoluted reasoning, here’s why it bothered me.
I read quite a lot of whodunits, and enjoy watching detective stories on TV. Recently we’ve been watching two crime investigation series we have on DVD — Silent Witness and New Tricks. And one recurring theme in that genre is that if a person is guilty of one crime, they are not necessarily guilty of another. Evidence that shows that they committed one crime is not necessarily sufficient to prove that they committed the crime they are now suspected of committing.
This is an elementary principle of justice: Produce the evidence.
It’s the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning.
Deductive reasoning works from the general to the particular: this person is a thief, therefore this person must have committed this theft.
Inductive reasoning works from the particular to the general: evidence shows that this person stole various items on several different occasions, therefore this person is a thief.
Both types of reasoning have their place, but the three questions in the quiz call on us to make a choice between two kinds of judgement: judging people and judging actions.
And it is that, rather than nouns or abstraction, that the quiz tests.
The choice in the answers is clearly between saying “this person is bad” or “this behaviour is wrong”.
And the quiz is therefore clearly prejudiced against conservatives, because it is saying that “conservatives” are more prejudiced than “leftys”.
My answers are also influenced by my Christian outlook. As Christians, we are told “Judge not, that ye be not judged”, and are told to be merciful to others, just as God has been merciful to us. Most Christians pray every day “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Man judges by the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
And that is precisely what the quiz measures — the extent to which you hate the sin but love the sinner.
And what the interpretation of the quiz tells you, categorically and unequivocally, is that “leftys” are Christian, and “conservatives” are not. So just when you are feeling smug about how unprejudiced you are because it tells you you are a “lefty”, it encourages you to become the most prejudiced of all and say, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this conservative (Luke 18:11).
How’s that for a Catch 22?
And that’s only the top layer of the can of worms. Wait till you get further down.
At the level of the quiz, one can quite easily say that it is better to judge actions rather than people. If we are to judge, or condemn, then we are to judge or condemn behaviour, not people. It is what people do that can be condemned, not what people are.
But if you go a bit deeper, it’s actually the other way round. What we are is more important than what we do.
As Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway put it in their book Up to our steeples in politics, “We agree with those who have reminded us in recent years that the Christian faith is indicative (the fact that God reconciles the world in Christ), not imperative (Go to church! Do not drink bourbon! Feed the hungry! Search and destroy!). But we believe that St Paul’s use of “reconcile” calls attention to a special kind of behavior by the Christian toward the world. Behavior which “does” by being, “acts” by living – that is, being and living as God made us in Christ.”
When we look at other people (as the quiz invites us to do, for the most part) we are to look at actions, at behaviour, and make judgements about what the person does rather than what the person is.
But when we look at ourselves, when we confess our sins, it is the other way round. Yes, I should confess that I lied, I cheated, I fornicated, I slandered, I got angry, but the really serious thing, the root of all this, is what I am, alienated from God. The root of the matter is not so much individual sins, but the sinful state, the fallen state, that I have fallen short of the glory of God.
The Publican in the story realised this, the Pharisee didn’t. And the quiz tempts me to emulate the Pharisee.