Metaphors are nonpartisan. Today two New York Times columnists, one conservative and one liberal, used
the same “look in the mirror” metaphor. It seems that regardless of what side
of the aisle you’re on, those on the other side lack self-awareness.
In “The Tenacity Question,” David Brooks raises questions
about President Obama’s desire to pursue the war in Afghanistan. He suggests
that it’s not his scheduled meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that’s
important, but the one with the “mirror, in which he looks for some firm
conviction about whether Afghanistan is worthy of his full and unshakable
Paul Krugman writing about health care reform in “The Defining Moment”
takes aim at the centrists opposed to the current bills. While he deigns not to
“psychoanalyze” them, he does urge them to “take a good hard look in the
Whether you agree with their positions or not, it would be hard to
deny that both of these men are brilliant, and that’s what’s so surprising
about their use of the same metaphor. The two are judging the character of
those opposed to their point of view, and asserting that with a little
self-reflection, they would recognize the error of their ways.
In rhetoric, going after the character of your opponent is known as an
“ad hominem” attack, and it is usually resorted to only when the logically
challenged fail to come up with a convincing counter-argument. Since it demeans
the other side, it’s hardly going to persuade anyone not already persuaded, and
it usually elicits an ad hominem attack in return.
As Steven Pinker has pointed out in The Blank Slate, our minds have evolved to convince us that we are
always the one acting morally, regardless of whether we are or not. I’ve got to
believe that both Brooks and Krugman are familiar with Pinker’s work. So the
only way they could resort to an ad hominem attack is if they were lacking
self-awareness as well.
The findings of neuroscience suggest that the metaphor itself is
problematic, for we’re not capable of an objective view of the person in the
mirror. Our perception is a product of everything going on in the brain,
including our feelings of self-righteousness.
If my view of the mirror image were objective, I wouldn’t be so
shocked by the person that shows up in videos of my interviews and speeches.
While there are times that I’m less than pleased with my mirror image and
others that I’m quite happy with that good looking guy smiling back at me, what
I see is almost always a function of what’s going on inside of my head, and in
particular in the limbic system responsible for my emotions.
The objective self-reflection I believe both Brooks and Krugman are intending
for their opponents would indeed make us all better people, but it’s just not
possible unless we view ourselves not from inside, but from the outside. If we use
our mirror neurons to assume the perspective of others, we’ll be much more
objective when we look back at ourselves.
Even better, we should assume the perspective of those we feel are
deserving of those ad hominem attacks. Seeing the world from their perspective
will better enable us to appreciate the reasoning that got them to the position
we have such an issue with. While it may not lead us to agree with them, it would
make us better at reasoning them into an appreciation of our point of view.
And that should be why we take the trouble to state our position,
either orally or in writing. Otherwise, we’re no better than alpha chimpanzees
and their displays, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” We may get
people’s attention, but not their commitment.