Morals and politics

Somewhere toward the end of 2017, I came across an interview on On Being of Jonathan Haidt. I had never heard of him, but because the wheels of my mind had already been put into motion on the concept of ideological thinking, the description of the interview caught my attention: ‘He explains “liberal” and “conservative” not narrowly or necessarily as political affiliations, but as personality types — ways of moving through the world.’ I wanted to know what that meant– I needed guidance for navigating this no-man’s-land I had found myself in, politically speaking. And what he explained fascinated me.

The basic tenets of the theory Haidt has culled from his research (more of which is described in his book A Righteous Mind) are that moral judgment is based mostly on intuitions, rather than conscious reasoning; there’s more to morality than harm and fairness; and morality ‘binds and blinds.’ Those who identify as liberal tend to have a two-fold idea of morality, one that revolves around the ideas of fairness and care. But those who identify as conservative tend to have a five-fold idea of morality, one based on the ideas of fairness, care, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. (This does not mean that conservatives are more moral because their definition of morality includes more factors— it just means that the various factors involved are weighted differently by each group.) Moreover, we do not consciously reason our way to moral judgment; rather, ‘When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.’ Lastly, our morals allow us to be part of groups outside of our kin groups; sharing values allows us to find a cohesiveness with others that we might otherwise have little connection with. But they also blind us to values outside of our own moral matrix and to the defects of that matrix.

“…[I]n one study that I did with my former graduate student, Jesse Graham, we asked liberals and conservatives to fill out our main surveys, pretending to be the other, and also as themselves, for different people. What we found is that conservatives and moderates were very accurate at filling it out as though they were liberals. But liberals were not accurate filling it out as though they were conservatives, because they just couldn’t get their mind into the idea that authority is somehow related to morality; they think it’s just oppression. So that’s one reason why there’s a difficulty, an asymmetric difficulty.”

Reading this made me think of all the times I have vehemently stated the case for something to or around my parents– how they must have rolled their eyes! Yes, yes, we can see your point, I imagine them thinking. You just don’t see oursAnd they would be right– I didn’t see theirs. Not only was I afraid to try, but my moral matrix had been whittled down to two legs, while theirs stood on five. I no longer thought the world needed to include more than what I saw. I thought I understood the Truth, and everyone else was blind.

Haidt goes on to explain how different moral matrices can complement each other:

“…[I]n doing this research and coming to see that liberals and conservatives each have a piece of the puzzle — each are really perceptive about certain moral values, about the needs of what it takes to have a humane society, and if you let liberals run everything, they tend to burn up social capital, but conservatives tend to focus more on building up social structures that actually do allow us to flourish in some ways. You do need order. You do need some restrictions. You do need some boundaries.”

So the truth is not confined to two pillars, it would seem. It’s hard for me to admit how eye-opening this was. I shouldn’t have been surprised– I grew up with a conservative moral matrix, after all. Unlike Haidt, who had never encountered conservative ideas until he was an adult, I was surrounded by them for most of my life. And yet I was just as taken aback as he was to find out that there was some value to them. (It hurts me even to write that. The absolute egoism, ignorance, and ingratitude of that statement is shameful.) It was freeing, though. I was now allowed to think outside of the narrow liberal framework I had been working within for so many years. I could appreciate other ideas without having to claim anything. I was given permission to listen to people and hear what they had to say.

I know where my liberal leanings came from, and Haidt explains it in his interview (‘…about the terrible things that happen — I mean we’re talking about polarization here — what happens when the academy itself becomes polarized, so that all the liberals are in the academy, all the conservatives are in think tanks in Washington.’) just as Jordan Peterson warns repeatedly in his own videos and interviews (for example): universities, particularly their social sciences, are often places of ideological indoctrination. I may have been primed through personal experiences and encounters with liberal-minded people, but I was baptized by my college curriculum and sent out from there as a disciple of the religion of the Left. And where did I go? To where other disciples were: grad school, the Peace Corps, nonprofits, none of which are bad in and of themselves. It’s just that the polarization happens with everything: with our online habits, with our choice of city in which to live, with our friend group. We start living in an echo chamber without even realizing it.

What I’ve found from my own experience is that breaking out of our echo chambers is not an easy thing to do. It took a long time for me to accept that some things I didn’t want to hear nevertheless made sense and that I couldn’t just ignore them. Even now, there are things that are uncomfortable (like the effects of diversity or admitting how idealistic and ignorant I have been about certain historical events, like so many people on the Left were/are regarding socialism). Ultimately, though, it’s worth it, however long it takes and however uncomfortable it is. Haidt describes his own experience:

“…[I]in doing this research over many years, and in forcing myself to watch FOX News as an anthropologist who just — ‘I’ve got to understand this stuff’ — over time I realized, ‘Well, they’re not crazy. These ideas make sense. They see things I didn’t see.’

The feeling of losing my anger was thrilling. It was really freeing. When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before, that’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility. Because once you get it started, it’s kind of addictive.”

This has led me even deeper into what I now realize is the Intellectual Dark Web (of which Jonathan Haidt is part): a collection of thinkers all along the political spectrum who are devoted to discussing meaningful subjects– however much they may disagree on them– while maintaining civility and without obeying the laws of political correctness, often to the detriment of their own careers in academia or elsewhere. What has shocked me the most since discovering this ‘third way,’ so to speak, is the realization that people rarely go to the source for information. Blatant and imprecise accusations are thrown around, mostly online (and often by the Left), with as little prompting as a Tweet. ‘Alt-right,’ ‘neo-Nazi,’ and ‘white supremacist’ are slapped on people without regard to the person or group’s statements and alignments to the contrary. It frightens me to see that, rather than actually valuing other people, we are wanting to see an obliteration of any thought that differs from our own. How did that happen? And what good will that do?

I think that part of the answer– at least to how this happened– lies in the different moral matrices: if one side cannot even fathom another side’s moral framework, if theirs is the more restricted matrix, then anything beyond that will appear irrelevant at best and immoral (possibly even evil) at worst. So when someone from the more restricted matrix comes upon something written by someone outside of that, or witnesses a group gathering with values different from theirs, it is more difficult for them to see morality there. If mislabeling happens, so be it– their concerns are misplaced (or downright wrong) anyway. Right?

Something I fell prey to myself as I went from Christian conservative teen to agnostic liberal young adult was the idea that religion (and therefore, religious conservatism) was useless and in many ways oppressive. It’s clear to me now that I was in the throes of quite a different religion and that it was much more dangerous, but it didn’t hit me until I came upon Haidt’s interview just how far off I was, just how much I had benefited in my life from growing up in a religious family with a religious community. It turns out  that there actually is something to religion (again, the ingratitude!): 

“…[A] wonderful book, American Grace, by Putnam and Campbell, is the ultimate authority on this. What they find is that it doesn’t matter what religion you are, and it doesn’t matter what you believe: If you are part of a religious community, then on average, you’re a better citizen. You give more to charity. Religion does bring out the good in people. Now, secular people can be perfectly good too, but on average, they give less, and they give less of their time.”

I am grateful to have been taught in my formative years: giving matters. And what I’ve been grateful for is the model of my parents in their more rural town, continuing to find ways to give of themselves to their neighbors, their church, the people in their community, my grandparents. My blinders are falling off inch by inch: I can now see just a tad bit more than I once could, and I am humbled by what I find.  

“… one of the clearest differences between left and right, psychologically, is that the left is generally universalist, almost to a fault, and the right is parochial, often to a fault. And what I mean by parochial isn’t just ‘narrow-minded and dumb.’ What I mean is — so we have a survey at where we ask, ‘How much do you care about or think about or value people in your community, people in your country, people in the world at large?’ And OK, so conservatives value people in their nation and in their community much more than people in the world at large. And you might say, OK, well, that’s parochial. But what do liberals do? Liberals on our survey actually say they value people in the world at large more than people in their own country, more than people in their community. So liberals are so universalist, they often don’t really pay much attention to their own groups. As my mother said about my grandfather, who was a labor organizer, ‘He loved humanity so much that he didn’t really have much time to care for his family.'”

What matters? What is really important? What morals do I consider real, do I believe are valuable? And which ones do I think are ridiculous? How many things have I not noticed simply because I couldn’t even acknowledge their presence? All these months later, I’m still left mulling over so many questions. But what I do know is that Haidt’s research has deeply affected how I see the world. And I don’t imagine I’ll stop thinking about it for quite a while.


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