During his Florida primary victory lap this morning, Mitt Romney stopped by CNN and declared, as he’s wont to do, “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair I’ll fix it.”
He added, “I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”
Host Soledad O’Brien was understandably stunned. What presidential candidate and multi-millionaire would actually admit his utter disdain for the less privileged? Totally gauche! She described his “very poor” comment as “odd.”
Realizing he had missed the mark, Romney tried to correct course and explained, “There’s no question, it’s not good to be poor… but my campaign is focused on middle income Americans.
“You can choose where to focus. You can focus on the very rich; that’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor; that’s not my focus,” he said, adding, “I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”
The incident is just another in a long-list of Romney’s economically offensive remarks, like his assertion that corporations are people, that he enjoys firing people and that he was once unemployed, all of which lend themselves to the popular notion that Mitt Romney is simply out of touch with regular people and perhaps out of touch with all of the human race.
Brian Fung at The Atlantic took this theory one step further and wonders whether Romney’s real problem extends beyond his wallet-centric politics and to his very core. Could it be, Fung muses, that Mitt Romney actually falls into the emotionally dissonant realm known as the “uncanny valley,” in which human-seeming automatons like sex robots or even zombies invoke an unsettling empathy?
In robotics, researchers have observed that as an object acquires human-like properties, people respond to the object with more positive feelings. The less anthropomorphized an object, the less empathy. What’s cognitively demanding about this formulation is that engineers are beginning to create robots that approximate human behavior so closely that the mind interprets the robot in human terms even if the machine lacks distinguishing anthropomorphic features, like a face. The result is an unsettling feeling that borders on anxiety or revulsion. When a robot inspires such emotions, it’s said to have fallen into the uncanny valley of a conceptual graph that charts fluctuations in our empathetic capacity.
On one end of the graph, objects that look nothing like humans elicit a minimum of empathy. On the other end are real humans, with whom we identify most. In between are things that resemble humans to some degree and earn some measure of recognition for it. In the case of objects falling into the uncanny valley, the recognition can actually be negative. They recall humanity, inviting us to empathize as we might with a real human, but imperfections in the illusion create a kind of dissonance that makes us uncomfortable.
Romney’s problem is that he occupies a kind of uncanny valley for politicians. Just as people who interact with lifelike robots often develop a strange feeling due to something they can’t quite name, something about Romney leaves voters unsettled.
Here’s the graph to which Fung refers:
Aside from convincing very conservative voters he has their collective back, Romney still, after all these years campaigning for himself, has to learn how to relate to actual human beings, or he’ll continue being seen as a simple human caricature — a creation that mimics and resembles humanity, but still falls short of achieving flesh-and-blood likability.
Image via Goddamn Liberal.