Tag Archives: Affordable Care Act

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Knowing by Seeing

             White House Meeting of the “Freedom Caucus”                     

The eye has now fully extended its dominance over the ear, occasionally with interesting results.

The idea that some people are “visual learners” is an old one.  But this observation has special relevance in our age where more media content comes to us in packages meant to be seen as much as read.  What this means in its simplest form is that to see is to know.  We  understand something as meaningful if it comes to us as an image or in a visual frame.  For example, there is new research that indicates that anti-smoking warnings on cigarette packages that include graphic pictures slightly increases the willingness of smokers to quit.

There are obvious and sometimes crippling disadvantages to the idea visual knowledge. Pictures are usually poor at capturing ideas: one reason that local television news often lives up to the dismissive phrase of a “vast wasteland.”  “If it bleeds it leads” is the old phrase that suggests the narrow focus. But for the moment let’s be more positive.  As various visual theorists have reminded us, “presentational media” have the advantage of no “access code.”  We don’t have to be literate to understand feelings and impressions given off by photographs or images.

Appropriation of a visual meme can equal stealing a sacred text.

Television as a pervasive daily presence has certainly played its part in making us ocular-centric. This shift dates from the 1950s, when it became a household necessity.  The new screen in the living room meant that family life would be changed forever. A second milestone in moving toward the visual was the consequential decision by Apple’s Steve Jobs to borrow (steal?) a Xerox research lab’s idea to use graphical interfaces for computers:  what we know as the colorful icons and “windows” that present web content with store-window vividness.   Add in video recording, DVD’s and easy-to-use cameras, and the transition to visual formatting of content was complete.  Especially for younger Americans, the eye has fully extended its dominance over the ear, to the extent that people will sometimes accept bad sound even while they watch super high definition video images.  It’s no surprise that the recent Pepsi ad campaign trading on the images of protest looked bad to so many people.  Appropriation of a visual meme can equal stealing and co-opting a sacred text.

People with good visual acuity can sometimes see what the rest of us might miss. That was surely the case with many readers of a 2017 New York Times column where Jill Filipovic asked us to take a closer look at a recent White House photo of a meeting of the “Freedom Caucus” members of the House of Representatives.  Vice President Pence posted the photo (above), proudly noting that deliberations were underway to replace the Affordable Care Act. No woman appeared in the photograph. What Pence saw as a fitting representation of orderly deliberation Filipovic understood as a representation of unabashed sexism:

For liberals, the photo seemed like an inadvertent insight into the current Republican psyche: Powerful men plotting to leave vulnerable women up a creek, so ensconced in their misogynistic world that they don't even notice the bad optics (not to mention the irony of the "pro-life" party making it harder for women to afford to have babies).

Filipovic went on to argue that that this male power play and its image was evidence of a powerful misogynistic streak. And we can only applaud her ability to see what some of us otherwise might not have noticed.  Reproductive issues are only some of many other concerns that uniquely affect a woman’s health.  White and well-heeled men have been occupying dominant decision-making roles for so long that we may not “see” the gender majority excluded from the room. Thanks to her sense of visual acuity, the group’s decision-making monopoly and hypocrisy looks even worse.

The Melioristic Bias

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010
 President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010

The melioristic perspective is a useful indicator of how an individual has constituted the future and their role in it.

When most people use the term “rhetoric,” they usually mean it as the name for a verbal facade: an artificial construction far removed from what a person actually thinks.  But a University of Chicago thinker a generation ago made a convincing case that our rhetoric tends to have its own unique “signature.”  Our words, he noted, always “mark” us.

Richard Weaver
         Richard Weaver

Richard Weaver never demonstrated his point more convincingly than in his observation that the sciences have a “melioristic bias.”1  His idea was that those working in the social sciences have faith in their abilities to find solutions to human problems that will make things better.  That’s the essence of the bias: a conviction that human institutions tend to evolve rather than devolve.  His point was that our scientific discourse reveals how much we operate on the underlying assumption that we can ameliorate social dislocations.  From this perspective, a program like Social Security is an answer to the once chronic problem of old-age poverty.  It’s the result of the kind of progressive lawmaking in the mid-1930s that many of us still admire.

Here’s the interesting thing about the melioristic bias. Operating on the assumption of the transformative power of institutions is what gives political progressivism its energy. Challenging social conditions are seen as opportunities for fixes, reforms and new policies that can further the cause of social justice.  This belief is the core catechism of American liberalism.

Weaver became an important figure in the evolution of conservative thought in the 1960s.  It seems clear from his work that he viewed the “true” political conservative as someone who is more willing to accept certain human tendencies as givens and less amenable to bureaucratic fixes.  In simple terms, societies are not going to be significantly transformed for the better simply by using the rhetoric and machinery of social change, which ask for more than it is in the nature of institutions to deliver.

This belief in the need to recognize certain “essences” of human nature was central to Weaver’s view.  From his perspective the rhetoric of change and the realities of change are two different things.  We may idealize a solution—increased access to medical care in the Affordable Care Act, for example—but the actual organizational response to a given social issue is always going to be problematic. A conservative usually can’t imagine so complex a piece of organizational planning as likely to be effective.

This skeptical stance is representative of a baseline view that puts greater faith in individual human agency rather than bureaucratic power, a difference that explains the “government-is- the-problem-not-the solution” logic that thrived in the Reagan years and survives in the current Republican Congress.  Somehow massive corporations are mostly seen as immune to the same problems.

Of course this simplified view of the world overlooks how individuals can be dispersed along the continuum that separates these polar opposites. Nonetheless, it remains a useful kind of insight to look for the melioristic perspective as a sign of how an individual has constituted the future and their role in it. See the world as a place of eminently doable reforms–still my view, even though its picked up some dings over the years–and you have a reasonable indicator of a political liberal. In contrast, identify someone who sees progress largely through individual rather than organizational initiatives, and you have probably discovered a classical conservative. Either way, the bias is easily discovered when a person’s rhetoric drifts toward consequential topics.

1Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric (Chicago: Gateway, 1953), 194-200.


Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu