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General News    H4'ed 11/17/18

Are You "Fixed" or "Fluid" -- Or Mixed? (REVIEW ESSAY)

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In my estimate, the advocates of so-called "political correctness" tend to sound like the ancient Hebrew prophets such as the prophet Amos who spoke out in favor of social justice for those in the community who could not care for themselves adequately for whatever reason. The prophet Amos, for example, did not mince his words.

In American culture from colonial times onward, we have had a cultural tradition of spirited critiques known as jeremiads -- named after the prophet Jeremy. See Sacvan Bercovitch's book The American Jeremiad, 2nd ed. (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012; orig. ed., 1978).

Now, Hofstadter wrote about the paranoid style in American politics at a time when anti-communism hysteria swept across America. Politicians in both the republican Party and the Democratic Party embraced the anti-communism hysteria. For example, in the 1960 presidential campaign, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, campaigned on an alleged "missile gap" with the now-former Soviet Union. But there was no such "missile gap." In any event, we should not use the apparent unity evoked by the anti-communism hysteria of the Cold War as a baseline against which we compare today's more politically polarized tendencies.

But back to Hetherington and Weiler. On page 14, Hetherington and Weiler identify the four forced-choice survey items as asking the respondents to identify from the following four choices which one they would see as important for a child to have:

"1. [B] Independence versus [A] respect for elders

"2. [A] Obedience versus [B] self-reliance

"3. [B] Curiosity versus [A] good manners

"4. [B] Being considerate versus [A] being well behaved"

Then on page 16, Hetherington and Weiler operationally define what they refer to as "people's orientation toward hierarchy" as responding to the four forced-choice items so as to favor "respect for elders, obedience, good manners, and good behavior" -- the items I have referred to in square brackets as A's. Hetherington and Weiler also claim that these four responses "provide people cognitive closure."

The way in which Hetherington and Weiler sort out the responses to the four forced-choice survey items means that the people whose responses are categorized as "fluid" tended to favor the responses about independence, self-reliance, curiosity, and being considerate.

In all honesty, I do not understand how being considerate is supposedly opposed to being well behaved. I would have thought that good manners (in item 3) would include both being considerate and being well behaved. I do not see any operational definition of terms. But I guess that survey respondents found these terms meaningful somehow.

I detect a certain asymmetry in Hetherington and Weiler's account of the "fixed" and the "fluid" patterns. As mentioned, they operationally define the "fixed" pattern as representing "people's orientation toward hierarchy," which they operationally define as providing cognitive closure. They also operationally define the "fluid" pattern as the opposite of the "fixed" pattern, but they do not operational define what this polar-opposite pattern means as supposedly favoring something other than hierarchy and cognitive closure. But how can we characterize whatever the opposite of hierarchy supposedly is? How can we characterize whatever the opposite of cognitive closure is?

I know, I know, the word "open" is the opposite of "closed." Consequently, we might think that "cognitive openness" is the opposite of "cognitive closure," eh? But, hey, complete and total "cognitive openness" does not characterize the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos -- or any example of an American jeremiad. The advocates of so-called "political correctness" surely cannot be accurately characterized as exemplifying complete and total "cognitive openness" in their critiques. For example, they are not cognitively open to what they consider to be racist views -- or a host of other views they see as objectionable.

Now, my favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) in English at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA). In his book Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1977), he uses systems terminology in his essay "Voice and the Opening of Closed Systems" (pages 305-341). Because he recognizes that complete and total cognitive openness would be untenable, he opts for what he styles as "open closure." No doubt Hetherington and Weiler's "fixed" pattern of responses represents closed-systems thinking. They say that "on average 16 percent of Americans [they surveyed] are typically purely fixed" (page 18).

Perhaps we can take a hint from Ong and suggest that all of the other positions on Hetherington and Weiler's spectrum may be characterized by what Ong styles as "open closure" to one degree or another. However, as they say, the squeaking wheel gets the attention, and the 16 percent sure gets a lot of attention in American culture today, especially when the 26 percent of mostly "fixed" people join them. From the standpoint of the "fixed" and the mostly "fixed," they are not broken, so they do not need to be fixed by the political-correctness crowd, eh?

Now, based on the surveys Hetherington and Weiler have administered over the years, in which the four forced-choice items were included, they say, "we can make some basic generalizations about Americans' worldviews. Worldview is essentially a spectrum, with a purely fixed outlook at one end and a purely fluid outlook on the other end. Most Americans [they surveyed] -- a bit above two-thirds of the [survey] population -- sit somewhere in the middle. Across the surveys we fielded, an average of 29 percent of Americans occupy the [two] extreme ends of the spectrum. Yet the fixed side of the spectrum has a marked numerical advantage: 42 percent of Americans fall on that side, whereas only 32 percent fall on the fluid side. The remaining 26 percent are dead center; these Americans are equal parts fixed and fluid" (page 18).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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