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15.12.03

Saddam, Immigration, Emotion

J. Collins Fisher has a good post up describing her reaction to hearing that Saddam was captured. My reaction was much the same. I know on an intellectual level that it's a good thing that we captured him, and I'd defend that position against any wing nut who said otherwise. But my emotional reaction was "Dang. This is good for Bush, and the gloating from the hawks will be intolerable*." My personal investment in the chatter of the blogosphere and domestic presidential politics is greater than my investment in Iraqi freedom from tyranny.

This raises the larger question of the role of personal investment in a situation in shaping one's view of it. To throw in another example, in the comments to a recent post advocating a more open immigration policy, Unadorned charged that my view would be different if my job were threatened by immigrant labor. There's certainly something to that on the factual level (i.e., I would be more likely to believe that immigration would be bad if I thought it hurt me personally), but the interesting question is about which viewpoint is correct. Does my distance from the problem make it too easy to dismiss the sufferings of American workers and sacrifice them to my own project of open borders? Or, if I were in an immigrant-threatened job, would that threat occupy my mind so much as to distort my perception so as to favor my personal benefit over the wider goal of justice? And even if I get the question right despite my emotional disjuncture (as in the case of Saddam), does my lack of investment subtly change how I respond, how much I work on the issue and how I weigh it against other concerns?

The philosophy and science of the Enlightenment tended to take the first view, stressing the benefits of a detached, "objective" view unhindered by selfish concerns. (I've used an argument of this type to defend the use of the language of rights and moral rules in a consequentialist system -- having a hard and fast rule makes it harder to overemphasize your own personal gains and losses when deciding whether an act is moral.) Recent "critical" social science has moved in the opposite direction, stressing the insight held by people who are in the system (typically as its victims) and urging researchers to get personally involved in the situation they're studying. It seems that the real solution lies somewhere in the middle. The researcher gains from the researched's involved perspective, while the researched benefit from the researcher's distance and outsider's perspective.

The problem with saying that is that it tells us little about where that middle sweet spot is. Should the worker allow more threat to her job for the greater good, or should I recognize the worker's hardship by accepting stricter immigration controls? And once we agree on a correct policy (as I agree with Iraqis about getting rid of Saddam), can or should those who gave ground realign their personal investment so that their emotional reactions push them toward the right answers in the future?

*It wasn't half as bad as I feared, actually.

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