April 4, 2008

Cognitive Frames and the Mexican Contra-Emo Violence (causality is not assumed)

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I have a lot of conversations on stairways. It’s a thing. Most are political, most of them fairly banal as well. Recently they’ve tended to involve the phrase “institutional legitimacy in Latin America” due to the invasive influence of my thesis, which is also why I haven’t written a column in a month. In that month a wave of anti-emo kid violence has erupted in Mexico and Chile, gripping shopping malls from Tijuana to Santiago. Causality between this and my hiatus is suspect yet plausible. But for the record I fully endorse anti-emo kid violence in any part of the developing world. Luckily for Asian emo kids, if the argument my thesis holds, the Mexican and Chilean anti-emo violence will pattern itself regionally, first spreading to Peru and Argentina before it jumps to any other continents.
Back to the matters at hand, one recent stairway conversation stands out for no reasons other than that it was particularly banal and incontestably on a stairway. When the girl with whom I conversed noted that all politicians, World Bank employees, police, etc. were inherently corrupt, I stopped to revisit the point.
“Do you really mean that you think every member of Congress engages in illegal activity?”
(pauses, considers, adopts defiant look)
(defiantly) “Yeah definitely.”
I was disturbed. 535 is a lot.
In another set of conversations, I noticed that a conservative kid I had recently met would preface his remarks about radical Islam with something to the effect of “No offense, but [terrorism is a global threat/ the holocaust happened!]” I was confused: neither am I an Islamic fundamentalist nor do I give occasion to garb that would place the matter within the scope of ambiguity.
I later came to understand that the reason my conservative friend assumed I might take offense at his anti-radical remarks was that, as an openly active Democrat, he assumed me a terrorism apologist. This radicalized idea of what a Democrat is and the first girl’s idea of what a politician is serve the same function: they allow each individual to delegitimize entire groups (liberals, the government) in order to boost their own self-assuredness. All humans engage in this practice of cognitive framing. We condense information, clumping ideas, people, and arguments into pre-defined groups in our minds. This isn’t necessarily an intellectual deficiency, as no individual has the time, mental capacity, or will power to sort through all the information he receives. You’d choke or explode or something, plus you’d have no friends. You’d be like John Voigt.
But when we depend on cognitive frames, it also puts barriers on our ability to form rational opinions. Earlier this week Nicholas Kristof mentioned the disquieting reality that 30 percent of black Americans believe AIDS could have been created by the U.S. government, and the more disquieting reality that 65 percent of Americans resist evolutionary theory. Clearly these opinions are based more in previously existing feelings towards institutions like the U.S. government and Christianity and than in a fair contest of fact. And to the extent that we depend on others (see: Kristof, Nicholas) to navigate this complex information-sorting-and-condensing process, those opinions aren’t even our own.
The point that incriminates us — as Cornellians, Americans, human beings — is not that we engage in cognitive framing, but that it accounts for an overwhelming degree of our opinion forming process. To test for the durability of cognitive frames as opposed to rational interpretation of unbiased information, I looked through the responses to a newspaper article about Michigan’s primary situation. Out of 199 comments to the fairly blasé piece, I found no Barack supporters who put much stake in every state voting, and no Hillary supporters who put much stake in upholding the rules. Cornellians show little difference in behavior — see how many Jewish kids you can find who like the word “apartheid,” and how many Muslim kids you can find who think Israel is a liberal democracy. Rational assessment is suspect (would predict divisions slicing through religious groups); religious causality is assumed.
The extent to which preexisting cognitive frames temper our thought processes is wholly depressing, sometimes laughable, and probably at the root of a lot of America’s problems. So stop, Cornell. I’m not desiring a sea of raceless, genderless, classless rational individuals, but I think we’re binging on cognitive shortcuts. And that’s never healthy… except for when Mexican emo kids are involved. Which is the main point I want to make.
There is no rational argument for my affirmation of the Mexican anti-emo violence, merely unabashed satisfaction at such a wonderful and pure series of events. I here embrace the cognitive framing process as a refuge from reason’s tendencies to spoil this type of primordial glee.
Moreover, the anti-emo violence is probably the best thing to have happened to Mexico, from a developmental point of view, since Mexico City hosted the Olympics in 1968. In fact this is far better, since the 1968 Olympics involved the massacre of somewhere between 200 to 300 university students who were protesting Mexico’s undemocratic practices and state sanctioned violence. Compare that to last week’s demonstrations, which were organized by emo kids on Myspace to protest violence sanctioned by a Televista host named Kristoff (not to be confused with Kristof, Nicholas: demonstrably not a Televista host). The trajectory visible over the 40 years from one demonstration to the next surely points to modernization, if not postmodernity. Expect World Bank publications on the subject; scrutinize for corruption.
Tim Krueger is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at tkrueger@­c­o­r­n­ellsun.com. Educate Your Guesses appears alternate Thursdays.