Let's Blame Jenny McCarthy

For the record, I agree with everything Frank Bruni wrote in his recent take down of Jenny McCarthy’s role as an anti-vaccine advocate.  I hope everyone who helped give credence to the former Playmate’s medical opinions feels ashamed of themselves.  I really do. 

I, however, disagree with Bruni’s inference that the McCarthy episode is somehow unique and that our nation’s debates aren’t regularly skewed by non-expert opinions masquerading as facts.  I’d actually argue that the only thing unique about the anti-vaccinators is the current backlash against them.     

Bruni asks: “When did it become O.K. to present gut feelings like hers as something in legitimate competition with real science?”

Good question, but I’m pretty sure it’s been going on for awhile.

Right or wrong, “Gut feelings” dominate our nation’s policy debates, because they’re powerful.  

Want to energize voters?  Appeal to their gut feelings.  Validate their fears. Simplify complex policies until they make basic, gut level sense and then dare your opponent to disagree.  Trust me, they won’t, because there’s nothing harder to argue against than a gut feeling.

“Gut feelings” are why politicians nickel and dime health care spending while canonizing the billions our government devotes to national security.  Sure, the average American is 17,600 times more likely to die of a heart attack than a terrorism attack, but according to our guts, terrorism is just plain scarier.

“Gut feelings” are why Americans believe the federal budget is replete with waste even though most of them can’t give you a concrete example of government spending they consider wasteful.  (Despite what you may have heard, the government never actually paid $435 for a hammer.)

Spend five minutes thinking critically about the U.S. economy and I guarantee you’ll agree it bears little similarity to the average family’s finances.  But that doesn’t stop anyone from arguing that the people in charge of the largest and most complex economy in the world could learn a lot from families balancing their checkbooks.  It just makes internal sense, right?

“Gut feelings” muck up immigration reform by confusing “legal” and “illegal” with “right” and “wrong,” just as they empower folks to deny global warming on the grounds that it’s cold outside.  Our brains can look beyond labels, but not our guts.

“Gut feelings” form the basis of racism, sexism and discrimination in all its forms.  They’re why we see folks who call themselves patriots arguing against basic rights for fellow citizens and self-proclaimed Christians railing against programs designed to help the least of God’s people.  A homophobe can’t explain why he thinks it’s wrong to be gay.  He just knows it in his gut.  

Of course, gut feelings might not play such a prominent role in our nation’s debates, if our nation’s media weren’t so keen to turn every issue into a debate.  I guess that’s another point where I disagree with Bruni.  He says that Jenny McCarthy was given a platform because she was a celebrity.  I’m pretty sure –celebrity or not – she wouldn’t have gotten that platform if her opinions weren’t so controversial.    

Jenny McCarthy wasn’t the first person to believe that a gut feeling drawn from a personal experience entitled her to tell others how to live.   I’d argue that every policy debate from gun control to affirmative action to NSA surveillance is harmed from each side’s passionate inability to see things from the other’s perspective.  Everyone thinks they’re right and do you know what?  They all probably have a point.

Our guts tell us we’re right, but if we weren’t so eager to be right, our brains would tell us that it’s more complicated than that and our singular experience can’t be so easily applied to the millions and billions of other people with different experiences, perspectives and challenges.   

But that doesn’t make for good sound bites or slogans.  We like candidates who offer simple solutions that deep down feel right and cable networks that tell us we are right.  It’s just easier than having to think critically about things and risk the possibility that we’re not as right as we thought.  Who wants to do that?  But by all means, let's blame Jenny McCarthy.

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