The story of Mitt Romney leading a vicious mob attack on a student at Cranbrook school was in the news for a couple of days before I was aware of the details. Initially, I saw a few links that said something about Romney and bullying in high school, but I assumed the stories were typical mountain out of mole mound politics. So when I finally got to the story, I was surprised to find myself palpably shocked by the details of the attack.
The most severely partisan reactions to the story were predictable. On the left, I encountered more than a few gleeful declarations that the attack reveals Romney's character today. Maybe it does, and maybe doesn't, but that's a subject I'm saving for another post. Suffice it to say that those who want to see an evil Romney won't ask themselves hard questions or explore nuanced possibilities about character.
On the right side of the spectrum, I've seen absolutely no evidence of an honest effort to deal with possible meanings and implications of the attack. If I didn't know about the unconscious power of partisanship, I'd probably see the reactions on the right as willfully evasive and stupid. But it isn't willful; it's just the partisan mind at work.
Whether left or right, in partisan politics, arguments aren't foundations for positions; arguments are usually rationalizations that are employed to defend group identity and attack rival groups. So the political implications of this story aren't about changing the opinions of strongly identified political partisans who are locked into predetermined attacks and defenses. The political significance will lie in how it might affect the opinions of uncommitted voters.
Politically, the Cranbrook attack is certainly not the entire story this week. I strongly suspect that the release of the story was timed to bookend Obama coming out as personally in favor of same-sex marriage. Whether or not his hand was forced by a Biden "gaffe," once Obama announced his approval of same-sex marriage, a contrasting bookend was needed to define Romney relative to Obama. So let's look at the bookends of this story.
When I think back to the Obama interview, what is in my mind is not an argument for same-sex marriage, but a picture of Obama calmly revealing himself as a compassionate person who considers the feelings of those who have less power than he has. Never mind the question of whether this was theater, what stays in my mind is an image and a feeling rather than argument.
And while I had initially dismissed the significance of headlines about Romney’s Cranbrook bullying, my gut reaction as I actually read the story was one of shock. I didn't intentionally conjure an image, but I pictured a humiliated, desperate, blonde-haired kid struggling futilely against attackers who were holding him down on the floor while a much bigger, pretty-boy—Mitt Romney—was grinning ear-to-ear, moving in for the humiliation with scissors. The emotionally-loaded picture of Romney is exactly the opposite of the Obama image. While Obama showed compassion for those weaker than he, the image of Romney is of a contemptible, privileged kid who enjoys sadistically brutalizing the weak.
It is emotion-laden imagery like this, not an abstract policy argument that tends to influence uncommitted voters who typically have far less power and privilege than any president of the United States.
Unresponsiveness to rational argument can be very frustrating for people who find their carefully constructed, rational arguments ignored. This is especially true for people whose preferred defenses are intellectualization and isolation of affect. But who we like and who we dislike are inclinations rooted in more primitive, preverbal capacities for attachment and love, and that’s a place where images and feelings, far more than words, are what reach most people. I'm not arguing against reason and making rational arguments, but ignore at peril to your personal influence on others, the reality that there is something powerfully and fundamentally human about change catalyzed in the imaginal and emotional realms of experience.
Whether or not this story represents a net win for Obama isn't clear, but I do think that some people who lean toward favoring same-sex marriage, but aren't quite there yet, might be tipped there by the imagery in this story. They have to decide whose side they're on: the rich brat with the scissors or the guy who wants to protect the terrified child on the floor. The answer to that question won’t come from a rational argument; it will be found in a individual's sense of identity.