The shocking, yet not at all surprising, events in the U.S. Capitol this week revitalized a question I’ve been asking myself lately: How do we reconcile a president’s repeated call for “law and order” with his obvious delight in sheer, utter chaos?
Way back in the mists of time – that is, when I was a college freshman – my friends Dave and Wayne introduced me to a fun new game, Dungeons & Dragons. I soon learned that everything in D&D, from characters to monsters to random objects, has an “alignment.” Everything is somewhere on a scale from pure good to pure evil, and also on a separate scale from “lawful” to “chaotic.”
In ancient Babylon, their creation myth tells the story of how the human-shaped god, Marduk, representing order and civilization, vanquishes Tiamat, the “mother of monsters,” a force of primordial chaos.
If they thought seriously about such abstractions, the Babylonians may have conflated “lawful” with “good” and “chaotic” with “evil.” But today we can think of the two ideas independently. We are certainly familiar with “lawful evil,” as in Adolf Eichmann and the Nazi death camp personnel, people committing heinous atrocities while “just following orders.” There’s also “chaotic good” – I tend to picture dreamy young ditzes from the Summer of Love, or any number of fairies and “good witches” in popular culture. Humanity’s favorite Time Lord is a classic example of chaotic good:
Two advanced degrees in personality psychology later, I can tell you that the good/evil and law/chaos axes are not formal categories of study in today’s science. But they’re still fun to think about.
One issue that comes up, whenever people are playing with these ideas, is that “lawful” can mean at least two distinct things, depending on whether the laws and order are internal or external. Someone can be lawful by following rules and valuing structure, but they can also be lawful by practicing inner discipline and creating their own system of order. In D&D, they recognize this by noting that lawful good encompasses both paladins (think Sir Galahad, or Captain America) and altruistic martial arts practitioners (Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon).
Here’s another example: dogs and cats. Domesticated dogs are obviously lawful. They learn the rules of behavior and their place in the hierarchy of their pack, and they’re most comfortable when things happen consistently with their sense of order.
But, contrary to popular conceptions, cats also have a sense of order. They value routines and expectations; they have internal clocks and some sense of hierarchy. Based on my own personal semi-feral cat colony (yes, they’re all spayed/neutered), I can tell you that mama cats eat first, and kittens get cuffed if they do something undesirable. But in general, cats don’t follow rules; each does their own thing.
(For a fun fictional example, see Eugene author Mary E. Lowd’s “furry” science fiction trilogy, beginning with Otters in Space. Dogs get confused if they don’t know the rules and who’s in charge, while the cat gets things done.)
One special thing about being citizens in a democracy is that we, collectively, get to decide what the law is. Some, especially those who are more conservative, will prefer to defer to existing law, while others work to adapt the law to changing circumstances. Both liberals and conservatives want the law to match or support their sense of a “higher law,” moral principles, but they can disagree about what that looks like. There’s also the premise that if we abide by the law, we will have order (although the lived experience of too many law-abiding Black Americans, for example, shows that’s not always the case).
The differences between conservative and liberal attitudes toward law are paralleled in George Lakoff’s observations about parenting styles. Conservative families often have a rigid hierarchy, what he calls a “Strict Father” model, where children learn to defer to their parents, especially their father, or be disciplined. In liberal families, Lakoff’s “Nurturing Parent” model is more common – parents encourage their children to learn to make their own decisions and develop their own discipline, in pursuit of their own ends. And Lakoff believes their expectations of government follow these family models, with conservatives expecting “law and order” to maintain community discipline, while liberals want to ensure that everyone has access to opportunities and has their basic needs met so they can focus on higher priorities.
Meanwhile, I’m reminded once again of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory. His idea is that there are five moral foundations: Harm/Care, Justice, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity, and he claims that liberals value the first two of those, while conservatives value all five. It’s fun to think about his categories, but! The underlying science is fatally flawed. It’s based on a survey, and the survey lacks what scientists call “face validity” – it’s not measuring what they claim it’s measuring. If you read the survey itself – at least the version they were using back when they came up with their theory – you’ll see that they’re basically asking people how much they agree with liberal ideas about harm/care and justice, and how much they agree with conservative ideas about loyalty, authority, and purity. Of course liberals scored more strongly on the first two, while conservatives endorsed all five! Liberals value loyalty, authority, and purity in different ways than conservatives do.
Okay, anyway, let’s circle back to Donald Trump. It’s pretty clear that Trump sees himself as the top of a hierarchy, such that lawfulness means following him and what he wants. We’ll have to leave for another day the question of why so many law-abiding folks would accept (even welcome) a force of Primal Chaos as their lodestar for what constitutes lawful, but they do. And when the right-wing media and the other party leaders collude with someone like Trump, it basically creates what someone on Facebook recently felicitously called not an echo chamber but a “gyre,” a massive whirlpool that pulls people in and agitates them.
Trump is the Top Dog in his world, and the people he unleashed on the Capitol this week were his well-baited pack. To us, they looked like anarchy itself, but he convinced them that some higher law had been violated – the integrity of the election – and his say-so was sufficient.
Thankfully, order has been tentatively restored in Washington. The wheels are in motion for those who perpetrated this week’s assault on the Capitol to meet America’s real law, up close and personal.
There will always be those among us who prefer the comfort of orderliness and knowing their place in a stable hierarchy. Conservatism is not going away. I think one of the most important lessons of this week is that being a person whom conservatives look up to is a special responsibility, and that we should all hope that in the future they’ll better screen their candidates for this role and choose people who won’t abuse this trust.