Sarah Palin's Killing Spree

If you haven't been watching Sarah Palin's Alaska, you're missing something!  It's fascinating on a lot of levels. Turns out Sarah is quite likeable and appealing, up close and personal.  It's amusing the way her kids talk back to her just  a bit.  Bristol makes fun of her prom hair, the youngest daughter disses her hunting prowess.  I like her get up and go, and I mean it.  I kinda do strongly suspecting gallavanting all over Alaska isn't standard procedure for this tireless family, but look--she's gutsy. Must give her credit.

Part of the show's fascination is that it makes you think (constantly)--This is a prelude to a presidential run?  This woman (whatever her personal qualities) sees herself as suited to the job?  It's mind-boggling.  For which reason I do not apologize for the fact that we have Sarah Palin magnets on our refrigerator (brought to you by The Unemployed Philosophers Guild, no less).

We all enjoy dressing up Sarah and giving her suitable accessories. I keep saying: if she just stops the business about becoming president, we will take it down and say nothing but nice things about her...but this is our way of coping for the time being.

Now about all the killing on the show.  It really is relentless.  She blows away a "young cow" (her Dad's description) in one show, bashes halibut to death in another. There's shooting practice every other minute.  Which raises a very interesting question.  Surely (surely!) everything on this show is meant to enhance Sarah Palin's prospects as a presidential candidate.  But what about all the killing?  You'd think that would hurt her image, but apparently someone's making the calculation that it helps. Why?

 Maureen Dowd was contemplating the same question this week, and writes (in a column called "Pass the Caribou Stew"):
The poor caribou in the Arctic Circle, a cousin to Santa’s reindeer, had to die so Palin could show off her toughness to voters and try to boost ratings on her show that have slipped since its premiere. (Next Sunday, she’s dragging up nine Gosselins to go shooting and camping.)

Sarah’s view of America is primitive. You’re either a pointy-headed graduate of Harvard Law School or you’re eviscerating animals for fun, which she presents as somehow more authentic.
In movies with animals, they often have a line in the credits assuring that no animals were harmed. In “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” they should have a line at the end assuring that “almost every living creature involved in this show was harmed.”

The caribou that waited too pliantly in the cross hairs is doomed to become stew for Palin and an allegory for politics. The elegant animal standing above the fray, dithering rather than charging at his foes or outmaneuvering them, is Obambi. Even with a rifle aimed at him, he’s trying to be the most reasonable mammal in the scene, mammalian bipartisan, and rise above what he sees as empty distinctions between the species so that we can all unite at a higher level of being.
Great stuff, but I'm not 100% satisfied. It's one thing to be tough--like Sarah was when she was climbing in Denali National Park on the first show.  But killing is just a bit troubling, even to people who don't officially disapprove.  How then, does it get to be a political plus that Sarah's doing so much killing up there in Alaska?

I think I get it, thanks to reading Jonathan Haidt a lot in the last few weeks, and seeing a TED speech of his from 2008. You can watch from 4:30 to 10:30 and get the main idea--

Haidt's account of the "moral minds" of liberals and conservatives explains both why liberals are likely to find the killing spree morally unappealing, and conservatives are likely to find it morally attractive. A liberal like me will tend to react negatively because I live (for the most part) in a 2-dimensional moral space, defined by concepts of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.  Sarah's harming animals, not caring about them; and it doesn't seem fair to sneak up on an unsuspecting "young cow" and blow her away.

Conservatives live (more, anyway) in a 5-dimensional moral space, defined by those already mentioned, but also by authority/respect, ingroup/loyalty, and purity/pollution.  I suspect killing animals is morally attractive to them because of the authority/respect dimension.  Sarah's killing spree confirms her belief in the hierarchy that places humans over animals.  This also explains the bizarre (to a liberal like me) coupling of guns and God, in the conservative mind-set.  What, huh?  No mystery after all.  It's all about two hierarchies.  Humans over animals (that's the guns part), and God over humans.

Now wait, wait, wait.  There's something to what Maureen Dowd says about Sarah shooting Obambi.  If you're big on hierarchical thinking, shouldn't you show a lot of respect for the president?  So why the conservative disrespect for Obama?  Look away, if you're a conservative who's easily offended.  But I think one factor here is racism.  Remember, the conservative lives in a moral space partly defined by purity/pollution. I think they're none too happy about a (gasp!) black man in the White House, and sad to say, that's what their anti-immigrant fervor is all about too.

And the point is?  Haidt is, as somebody used to say, a uniter, not a divider. He's not actually trying to make liberals and conservatives see each other as foreign, but just the opposite.  On his view, we are all  born stocked with all five "dimensions" of moral thought, but our environments emphasize some dimensions, and de-emphasize others. I see this in my own household, and the way it compares to other people's.  My husband and I have a hard time caring about the authority/respect thing.  When the kids are disrespectful, we don't like it, but we have a hard time working up a big authoritative fit about it.  We know other parents who (believe it or not) even expect their kids to respond to parental commands by saying "yes, ma'am" and "yes sir."

So underneath it all (the idea is) we are all really the same. Plus, Haidt is asking liberals to stop seeing conservative attitudes as anti-moral--blowing away animals, refusing to respect Obama, and keeping out immigrants all do strike me that way.  Rather, we are to see conservatives as seeing morality in more colors than we two-color liberals do. Sarah's killing spree fits into a certain sort of morality that I don't favor, and others do.  And seeing it that way helps us see her less as an alien, and more as a fellow human being.

Good--it's better to understand one another, not demonize other people as utterly anti-moral.  But surely we shouldn't stop there.  Next, we should broach the question of truth.  Is all that authority/respect and purity/pollution stuff really just rubbish?   Should Sarah really be doing all that killing?  Should she (or people like her) really have political power?  Hell no. But it's a fine thing to understand her way of thinking better.


Melissa said...

Maybe some time you should talk to an actual conservative to learn more about us? I find it odd that liberals are so worried about animals, but have no problem viewing conservatives as being alien/subhuman.

I'm not a Republican, but I am a conservative and when I saw the video of Palin I immediately thought of all the hypocritical liberals who would be horrified, yet who purchase eggs from battery hens and wear coats made of petrochemicals rather than fur. I thought it was great to see someone getting food from the wild and I'm hoping more and more conservative women take up hunting to feed their families. Some of my relatives in Louisiana are very very poor, but thanks to hunting they have meat in the fridge. In most of the world and throughout most of history, upper classes have prohibited lower class people from hunting. Americans are very lucky.

Palin can obviously afford meat from the store, but she is upholding this tradition through her public endorsement.

Jean Kazez said...

Melissa, Methinks you didn't get to the end of the post, because the whole point of it was to try to explain why hunting is a PLUS in the eyes of conservatives, and not treat Sarah Palin as alien or sub-human. I presented a little theory, you're welcome to disagree, but hey...don't say I'm doing just the opposite of what I'm doing.

I do agree that hunting animals that had nice lives is better for animals than buying factory farmed meat.

Faust said...

Melissa's comment makes it look like not only did she not get to the end of the post, it's hard to see how she even read it. A post discussing the relationship between Haidt's five moral dimensions and increased understanding of Sarah Palin gets accused of being a celebration of liberal vs. conservative in-group out-group dynamics. Bizarre.

Still, while (pace Melissa) you clearly don't view conservatives as alien/subhuman here, you DO seem to end on a note where you tacitly continue to reject the notion that conservatives have a legitimate moral position:

"Next, we should broach the question of truth. Is all that authority/respect and purity/pollution stuff really just rubbish? Should Sarah really be doing all that killing? Should she (or people like her) really have political power? Hell no. But it's a fine thing to understand her way of thinking better."

So here we have lurking that liberal superiority that conservatives despise, the notion that Haidt's framework can help us be more FAIR to conservative (by fairly taking all these other vectors into account) right before we then DISMISS those other vectors as having no place in a "legitimate" moral discussion ("hell no!") which of course, only takes into consideration "fairness" and "harm" vectors since we liberals all know those other three vectors have nothing to do with "real" morality (except when we in-group/out-group on the basis of our view of morality as such).

On a more general theoretical level, are you aware of any place where Haidt tries to stitch his 5 "dimensions" of moral belief to the "meta triad" of utility, deontology and virtue ethics? I would be very interested to read any work where his 5 dimensions and the 3 primary morality frameworks are lined up.

Off the top of my head it seems clear that utilitarianism is aligned with the "harm/care" dimension while the "purity" vector would go well with deontological considerations. But surely a sophisticated analysis could be done here and perhaps Haidt has already considered this.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Actually, my last paragraph was written in a rush. I was just trying to point out that Haidt leans toward relativism, and seems to discourage rational assessment of the 5 dimensions, and (being a philosopher) I'm all for rational assessment. I was more dismissive toward authority/respect and purity/pollution than I really feel. After some rational assessment, I don't think we will necessarily just be left with the two liberal dimensions.

I think Kantian deontological ethics has a lot to do with the authority/respect dimension. There's a legitimate place for those concepts, I think. I can even think of an issue or two where purity/pollution is hard to totally dismiss, though I think in most cases that kind of thinking is pernicious.

Example: what's with Michael Pollan-esque food ethics? There's a little bit of purity/pollution type thinking involved there, as Haidt points out.

Virtue ethics...hmm. Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis has a big section in praise of virtue ethics, but I'm not sure whether it aligns with one of the 5 dimensions. Have you read the book? I think you might really enjoy it.

Faust said...

It is very very high on my list of books to read, I bought it last year, and then, not having gotten around to it, gave it to a friend as a present. So I'll have to get it again. I really love Haidt in general, but then, being a "relativist" that's not suprising :)

Right now though I'm reading a lot of stuff on intellectual property and copyright, so it's unfortunaely going to have to wait...

Aeolus said...

Thanks for posting the TED talk.

How much of Palin's killing spree is about proving she is "man" enough to be president? Recall liberal John Kerry's own goose-killing spree in October 2004, designed to make that point to the voters.

The underlying idea may be that authority figures are not touchy-feely consensus-builders; they are ready to take ruthless action to accomplish their goals. God, of course, is the ultimate authority figure. As one of my students once put it, in answer to a question about the problem of evil, "God plays hardball."

You may have seen Aaron Sorkin's ill-tempered anti-Palin rant in the Huffington Post. Sorkin, who said he is quite happy to eat meat and wear leather but doesn't want to do the killing himself, struck me as quite hypocritical in condemning Palin's hunting.

Jean Kazez said...

I think there's a difference between just tolerating killing...thinking it's a necessarily evil, or some such, and glorifying it--thinking that doing it actually shows something politically positive. There's nothing really hypocritical about questioning the glorifying, even if you do tolerate.

Yes, to some extent she's showing she can do "guy stuff" (and I find that kind of appealing, actually), but killing the pretty caribou goes beyond that. I think she's showing that she supports traditional power relationships like--

humans over animals
god over all
man over family (?)
country over citizen

The country over citizen business is interesting, because she's also anti-government. Country doesn't mean government, but is embodied in military leaders (or some such).

Touchy feely consensus builders (as you say) are unattractive, on her view. Actually, they get on my nerves a bit too. I would really like to see Obama get out there and fight the good fight.

amos said...

I guess that most people, including conservatives, want to be "understood" on and in their own terms.

elkly said...

Thanks for this post! I found Haidt's account of the five fundamental dimensions of morality interesting. However, it is unclear to me the three socalled conservative dimensions (purity, ingroup and authority) are necessarily moral dimensions rather than simply survival dimensions relevant in a certain evolutionary context. To assume that these dimensions qualify as moral simply because hey did at some in the past is committing the naturalistic fallacy. Although, I suppose we might be committing the same fallacy regarding so called liberal dimensions of morality as well. Still, it seems to me that the dimensions of harm and fairness stand p to critical scrutiny in a way that the other three cannot.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.

I would suggest that there is nothing "conservative" about killing either the non-humans or human beings too. Here is why.



Anonymous said...

Sorry, a bit late to the party -- but Elkly's comment got me thinking. Why would 'harm' or 'fairness' necessarily be anything more than tit-for-tat, self interest in the sense of 'I scratch your back, you scratch mine?' Seen from that perspective, it's no more or less moral than the 'purity,' 'in-group' and 'authority' dimensions. All five dimensions could come down to self-interest and survivalism.

-- Anna