From Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers discusses our contentious culture with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
Here is my summary of the above excellent conversation, in which Haidt offers a roadmap for those of us weary from years of unproductive cultural clashes:
Groupish tribalism is generally a good thing because it ramps up cooperation among those in the ingroup while animosity toward outsiders is usually minimal. But tribalism evolved for purposes of “war,” so that when a certain intensity is reached,
a switch is flipped–the other side is evil. They are not just our opponents. They are evil. And once you think they are evil, the ends justify the means and you can break laws and you can do anything because it is in service of fighting evil.
(min 4:30). Haidt argues that though “morality” often makes us do things we think of as good, it also makes us do things we think of as bad. In the end, we are all born to be hypocrites. Repeated studies have shown that all of us lie and cheat when we can get away with it, and we justify whatever we do in our own minds. Our minds didn’t evolve simply to allow to know the truth. In social settings, our minds are not designed to really let us know who did what to whom. “They are finely tuned navigational machines to work through a complicated social network in which you’ve got to maintain your alliances and reputation. And as Machiavelli told us long ago, it matters far more what people think of you than what the reality is. We are experts at manipulating our self-presentation; we are so good at it that we believe the nonsense we say to other people.”
Haidt designated the date on which the political parties in the United States ceased cooperating with each other: It was the date Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. (min 7:30). That was the first step of a “purifying” of the political parties (you can’t find liberal Republicans, as you could in the past). This purification has gone so far that members of one party now characterize members of the other party as “evil.” This problem was aggravated by the appearance of baby boomers, who replaced the “greatest generation” (those who fought WWII). The Boomers, who are more prone to Manichean thinking, have been fighting each other (rather than fighting a common enemy) over who is “evil.” (min 10). Third, America has become a nation of self-segregating “life-style enclaves,” homogeneous groups that watch their own TV shows and visit their own websites. Modern American groups do not invite connections with other groups. (min 15). Each side “lives in a separate moral universe with its own facts, its own experts, and there is no way to get into the other Matrix–you can’t just throw arguments and scientific studies at them . . . ” We all feel like we are living in “reality,” whereas THEY are in La-La Land. But we’re all in La-La Land. If you are part of a partisan community . . . or part of any community that has come together to pursue moral ends, you are in a moral matrix.”
Since I first commented on Haidt’s theory of moral foundations, he has added a sixth foundation to his original five foundations, Liberty (see his explanation, starting at min 17). More on that the addition of Liberty here.
How can America break out of its culture wars? The solution is to start with the assumption that those who disagree with you are not crazy (e.g., stupid, racist or greedy). A fruitful approach would be to examine Haidt’s work on the moral foundations to see why different-others are taking the positions they are taking. Haidt is hoping that his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, will serve as a “decoding manual” to stop warring and to begin working together again, as Democrats and Republicans sometimes used to do (min 20).
Conservatives resist the redistributist policy proposals of the left due to “Karma.” They see these ideas as evil because they reward failure and incompetence.
Moyers asked Haidt whether there is a “reality” beyond the positions of the left and right. (min 23). Haidt suggests that there are more productive ways of dealing with America’s challenges, but argues that the political left has failed to carefully hone its message and is thus losing the political battle. The political left should be advocating that the free market is like a garden, which requires some tending; they should be taking a position on what the free market is, why it is good and the ways to make it function better. Even Adam Smith argued that regulation is necessary to prevent externalities and monopolies.
Haidt, who once considered himself to be a “liberal” has come to think that “conservative intellectuals are more in tune with human nature than liberal intellectuals. Conservative intellectuals have a “more accurate” view of human nature. “We need structure, we need families, we need groups. It’s OK to have memberships and rivalries. All that stuff is OK unless it crosses the threshold into Manicheanism. It would be very difficult to run society without resting much on loyalty, authority and sanctity.” (25:27). Moyers countered by suggesting that liberals are more in touch with social structures–they understand cooperation better than conservatives. Haidt responded:
Cooperation and competition are opposite sides of the same coin. And we’ve gotten this far because we cooperate to compete. So you can say that liberals are more accurate or in touch with how the system works, but I would say that they are more in touch with some aspects of how systems go awry and oppress some people and ignore other people. Liberals see some aspects of how the social system breaks down, and conservatives see others. You have to have consequences following bad behavior. That is as basic an aspect of system design as any. And that is where conservatives see it much more clearly than liberals. I’m a centrist in terms of liberal-conservative, and I feel like I’ve sort of stepped out of the game. Now that the game has gotten so deadly, I’m hoping that in the coming year I can be the guy saying ‘Come on, people. Understand the other side so that you stop demonizing and now you can argue more productively.”
Moyers: How do we do that when one side has a great advantage in demonizing the other side (Moyers mentioned Newt Gingrich)? (min 27). Haidt responds: Demonizing one side makes the other side stronger, but it weakens the country as a whole. Democrats are not good moral psychologists. They treat constituents as consumers. Come, let us sell you things. “We have a deal for you.” Democrats don’t understand that:
“Politics is religion. Politics is about sacredness. It is about binding the nation together in a way that will achieve greatness, and the Republicans since Ronald Reagan have been really good at that.”
It can also blind the entire tribe. (min 29).
“We are clueless and hypocritical about ourselves. We’re actually moderately accurate in our predictions about other people. Our blindness is about ourselves.” We are also insatiable in our desire to know what others think about us. We all cheat when we can get away with it (even moral philosophers), regardless of our beliefs that we all abide by our own infallible moral compass. One study showed that ethics books (the kind most ofter used by moral philosophers) are less likely to be returned to university libraries than other types of books. Instead of being experts on being moral, moral philosophers appear to be experts at justifying what they want to do (min 31). We also have little press secretaries in our minds, constantly running to justify what we have done. We lie, cheat and justify so well that we actually believe that we are honest. “Everybody believes that they are above average in honesty.”
The confirmation bias dominates our individual internal thought process: “Reasoning and Google will take you wherever you want to go.” We do our research much as a lawyer would do. It is not even-handed, and we can believe almost anything that supports our team. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason.” Reason is much better at confirming what we want to believe than at finding the truth. “We’re really good lawyers.”
The idea of the sacred is an important marker: “Wherever people sacralize something, there you will find ignorance, blindness to the truth and resistance to evidence.” Individual reasoning “is post hoc and justificatory; individual reasoning is not reliable because of the confirmation bias. The only cure for the confirmation bias is other people. So, if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, or institutions to preserve, they can challenge each others’ reason. And this is the way the scientific world is designed to work . . .” Truth emerges when we challenge each others’ confirmation bias. Haidt suggests that the Christians have it right when they suggest that we need to come together to reason, and to be more modest about reason. Today’s “Apostles of Reason” are anything but modest. Science has shown that individuals cannot reason well. “Wisdom comes out of a group of people well constituted who have some faith or trust in each other. That’s what our political institutions used to do but don’t do anymore.” (min 36).
If you want to understand America, Haidt suggests that we “follow the sacred.” Both political parties are blind to evidence around their [own] sacred commitments.” A Republican sacred topic is taxation–it sees the government as doing evil by propping up cheaters, slackers and losers. A Democratic sacred topic is coming to the rescue of victims. (min 40).
At minute 42, Haidt points out that Ron Paul’s response regarding the hypothetical fellow who decided to not buy insurance, but then had a desperate need for major medical treatment is actually “Aesop’s fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper.” Aesop meant that if you are lazy and don’t take care of yourself, you will (and should) die. The problem is that people on the left have not properly developed a clear story about what is the proper role of government regarding the safety net.
Haidt believes that we are in big trouble regarding our difficulty talking with one another, but there is hope. We’ve changed our attitudes about smoking in public and sexual harassment over the decades. Haidt suggests that we also moralize against two things:
A) Demonization. You can disagree all you want, but we need to avoid the language of demonization.
B) Corruption. We need to develop a massive groundswell of revulsion that Congress is bought and paid for.
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.
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