Published at 12:19 on 14 February 2012
Just under a week ago I heard an interesting interview with a fellow called Jonathan Haidt (sounds like “height”, not “hate”) on Bill Moyers’ new NPR program. Haidt’s stated premise is that liberals and conservatives fundamentally think differently, probably because their minds are wired differently.
I think there is some validity in that premise, but in general Haidt’s statements are also an example of Derrick Jensen’s statement about hidden premises:
One of the first rules of propaganda is: if you can slide your premises by people you’ve got them.
In this case, the hidden premises that Heidt has (and which his interviewer, Moyers, apparently shares) seem to be the following two:
- The presumption that the liberal-conservative spectrum as reflected in Establishment politics in the US represents all legitimate political thought.
- The presumption that the current order is legitimate and is worth preserving.
I suppose the title of the program (How Do Conservatives and Liberals See the World?) should have been a dead giveaway to premise one. And indeed, nothing but Establishment liberalism and Establishment conservatism are discussed in Haidt’s interview. Premise two becomes evident when Haidt says:
Nothing gets us together like a foreign attack. And we’ve seen that, 9/11, and Pearl Harbor. And, conversely, when there are moral divisions within the group, and no external attack, the tribalism can ramp up, and reach really pathological proportions. And that’s where we are now.
By this metric, the problem to be concerned about is not the groupthink that led the Establishment media to not question Bush’s lies about Iraq. That’s apparently merely “our moral sense binding us together into [a team] that can cooperate in order to compete with other teams.” No, the problem is the mean old nasty “pathological tribalism” which merely raised the prospect that (yes, merely raised the prospect: the anti-war movement actually failed, because the Iraq war happened nonetheless) domestic opposition might manage to (horrors!) stop that same war machine from killing.
Getting back to that first premise, Haidt’s analysis of US politics is bereft of any mention of the role played by radicalism, and of how no capitalist state has ever voluntarily agreed to blunt the fangs of capitalism. Reforms to that end only get motivated by the rulers’ fear of what will happen to public sentiment if they don’t get enacted.
Therefore, Haidt’s theory is basically incapable of explaining the Progressive Era, the New Deal, or the Sixties. If there have always been conservatives who don’t agree with the liberal notion of fairness, and that notion is simply incapable of resonating with the majority of Americans, how have programs that profess inspired by that notion ever been put into law? Moreover, if it’s all a matter of the way our tribalistic brains are hardwired, how have most other industrialized nations managed to put far more such reforms into place than the USA?
That said, Haidt is not all wrong. He’s right that neither liberals nor conservatives (nor any other political ideology) has it all correct, and that ideologies in general tend to make it difficult or impossible for their adherents to acknowledge certain key, irrefutable facts, and that humans are in some sense probably born hypocrites and born pandering politicians. He’s not the first to stumble across this, either: it’s essentially what prompted Orwell to write his Notes on Nationalism in 1945.
In fact, Haidt goes beyond Orwell in certain ways that furnish useful insights. For example, he’s definitely correct about liberals’ strongest political motive being care about others:
Sure. So, if you imagine each of our righteous minds as being, like an audio equalizer with six slider switches, and the first one is care, compassion, those sorts of issues, liberals have it turned up to 11. And we have this on a lot of different surveys. Liberals really feel. When they see an animal being mistreated, they’re more likely to feel something than conservatives, and especially than libertarians, who are very, very low on this one.
The next two, liberty and fairness, when liberty and fairness conflict with care, are you going to punish someone, or are you going to be compassionate? Liberals are more likely to go with care.
It’s one of the reasons I consider myself an anarchist and not a liberal. Liberals care about others so much that they tend to reduce adults to the status of quasi-children, all for their own good, of course. It’s the liberal do-gooders who are the worst shoe fascists and who tend to eject me for being barefoot “because we care about you and don’t want you to hurt yourself”; I’ve had far more problems of this sort (or, in fact, of any sort) going barefoot in big, liberal cities than I have in small, conservative towns.
Then we get to:
In other words, care trumps liberty and fairness, even though everybody cares about all three of those. The next three, loyalty, authority and sanctity, what we find, across many questionnaires, many surveys and analyses of texts and sermons, all sorts of things, is that liberals don’t talk a lot about loyalty, you know, group loyalty. They don’t talk a lot about authority and the importance of order and authority, maintaining order. They don’t talk a lot about sanctity. Conservatives on the other hand, what we find is that, they value all of these more or less equally.
We’ve segued back to the hidden premise which says that every belief worth considering is reflected in Establishment politics. In this case, the only forms of organization Haidt is willing to discuss are the hierarchical, authoritarian ones which both sides of the Establishment coin consider as self-evident.
Finally (and ironically enough), Haidt is also correct when he says:
Wherever people sacralize something, there you will find ignorance, blindness to the truth, and resistance to evidence.
Ironically, that is, because with his unstated premises Haidt himself is sacralizing Establishment politics.