Behavior Modification Is The Rule In Politics — I’m Looking For the Exception
Without collaboration and a focus on skills, we’re on the road to nowhere.
Contemporary American politics has been reduced to an ongoing spectacle of tit-for-tat. Each side tries to score points off of the other as if that is how they’re going to win the election rather than show us how we will be represented in the legislature. Each side wants to win against the other. The problem with winning (and losing) is that winning is not conducive to collaboration. This is important because the problem of living in peace together requires collaboration to solve.
It is often assumed that “the other side” has evil or dubious intentions. I’m a liberal and I don’t believe that any of the Republicans are evil. I do, however, think that they may be misinformed, perhaps even a little too sure of themselves that an all-mighty, all-powerful being is on their side. I think that kind of confidence is not conducive to collaboration.
When I observe our political discourse and see how “blows” are landed, I see something called, “behavior modification”. The implied assumption is that if we punish the other side enough, they will have learned some lessons and then they will modify their behavior in honor of the punishment so received.
Well, I’ve observed enough Republicans and Democrats to know that punishment of any kind only fortifies the resistance. Punishment hardness the soul of the recipient, making them only more certain that they are right. Punishment does not make the recipient any more receptive to new information. Punishment teaches no skills. Punishment is not conducive to cooperation or collaboration.
The more we criticize Trump, the more his supporters gird their loins for battle. The more they criticize Joe Biden, the more easily liberals can set aside negative information to vote for Joe. Either way, both sides become less interested in viable alternatives like the Libertarian or Green parties. Both sides, sick of the abuse without really knowing it, develop a narrow vision, focusing only on the victory rather than on the solutions.
I’m not a Joe Biden fan, and I’m certainly not a Trump fan. But I see the abuse that people are hurling at each other as if one more blow will change the mind of the other. I see the rush to confirm a justice, the rush to reveal less than certain information about one another, the desire to stall the other side. I see the rhetoric in social media and I don’t see that very much of it is helpful.
Probably the single greatest threat to this entire country is this notion that if people are rewarded, they will do better and that if people are punished, they mend their ways. I see this value system coursing throughout our society and politics. I see behavior modification.
But the one thing that I know about behavior modification, after decades of introspection, reading, writing, and personal observation as a boy, a single man, a married man, and as a father, is that behavior modification doesn’t work. It will achieve short term results — just ask Wall Street. But behavior modification doesn’t actually produce long term peace and tranquility. This is something that an originalist might miss.
Analysis will reveal that behavior modification is great for reinforcing behavior. We can see that in our politics. Every criticism of Trump only reinforces the behavior of Trump supporters. I pause to wonder if Trump knew this going into the first election. Every reward bestowed upon a Trump supporter reinforces their behavior. This is also true of liberals, but at the moment, Trump is in my head, and I’ve had a hard time getting him out. Joe Biden, not so much. Take note that through all of this, neither punishment nor reward, are teaching any skills. Which skills?
The entire premise of behavior modification is an implied assumption: that people always know that they could do better and that they exhibit challenging behavior because they’re motivated to be difficult. Our politics work a lot like that. Our politics is punitive and confrontational based on the assumption that confrontations and punishment (and reward) are how you get things done. But in my life, and looking at all of our histories, all that we’ve ever been able to accomplish with this philosophy have been really shortsighted, short term achievements. While we may have many conveniences now, they come at the long-term expense of our environment.
The assumption behind punishment and reward, behavior modification, is that there is a standard code of conduct and that people are motivated to meet that code of conduct. There is little discussion of the skills required to meet that code of conduct. This relationship between skills and standards is not easy to see in politics. But it is plainly evident in child development.
When a child has difficulty reading, we are compassionate and work with the child to resolve the problems that a child might encounter while learning to read. But when a child is told to behave a certain way and fails to do so, we often assume that the problem is motivation, not skills or capacities. So we tend to punish the child rather than figure out where the deficits are and fix the deficits. We tend to assume malice before ignorance in child rearing and in politics.
I think that both of our dominant parties have had some good ideas. I would like to see more competition to keep them honest to be sure, but in general, we’ve gotten this far, and I think we’ve gone as far as we can with two major parties. I think we need a party of compassion and skills. We need to rethink our politics to assume ignorance or a lack of capacity before malice.
I am a liberal because I see that liberals, and I mean progressives, have demonstrated a greater awareness of the relationship between behavior and skills and capacities. Behavior modification is still pervasive in our culture, but when I see serious politicians calling for the legalization of drugs and funding for rehabilitation and recovery programs, I have hope. When I see that the state of California has made college free in their prisons, I have hope. When I see politicians talking about giving judges more discretion in sentencing, I have hope. These are mostly liberal ideas and some of them have broad support.
So when I post on social media, I am mindful that what I say may be construed as a form of punishment, and that such behavior may reinforce the very behavior I wish to stop or reduce. I try to fashion my statements in such a way that they might leave the recipient more receptive to new ideas. I avoid insults as much as possible to make my point. I try to keep my discourse civil, and I maintain an awareness of how I am feeling so that I can let the feeling pass before I press send, tweet, or post. I seek to inform rather than to punish or reward. I seek to inform because new information is conducive to collaboration, and collaboration is conducive to learning.
I’m not perfect at this, and often in my writings, I express an idea that I wish to achieve. I think I have enough information to know that punishment and reward, aka, behavior modification, doesn’t work very well in politics. If we expect someone to adhere to a code of conduct, we must be mindful enough to ask if that person has the skills and capacity to meet the code of conduct. If not, we must relinquish any desire to punish that person and train our focus on the problems that are signaled by the unwanted behavior and work together to solve those problems. This process, if repeated hundreds or thousands of times, tends to result in the peace and tranquility that Founding Fathers wrote about. I know it does because I’ve been living in the philosophy of collaboration for at least a decade now.
If I can reframe politics as an art of collaboration, then the nation can, too.