Appalachia Meets Midlands: My Kentucky & Indiana Family History

I spent this past week with my parents in Southern Indiana doing genealogy research on my mom’s side of the family. We were staying at Spring Mill State Park and doing some research in nearby Mitchell at the courthouse and the historical museum. Most of my time was spent in Lawrence County, although some of the cemeteries we visited were in Orange County as well.

This was the second genealogical trip I took with my parents. The last visit to Southern Indiana was just a year ago. I knew very little about my family at that time and now I know a lot. I find it fascinating, but I realize talking about family history is not dissimilar to telling someone about your dreams. Most people aren’t interested.

Anyway, let me explain why it fascinates me. I’ve been reading a lot of history in recent years. Most of it has been focused on the colonial and revolutionary eras of North America, but I’ve been studying all the history that led up to that and the larger context of events. On a smaller scale, I’m curious about my mom side of the family that is a mix of early immigrants who were mostly poor ethnic types (Germans, Scottish, Scots-Irish, etc). They weren’t English. They weren’t landed aristocracy. They were the desperate poor (mostly farmers, distillers, and laborers) who sought freedom and opportunity on the frontier as the frontier moved into Kentucky and then into Indiana.

Of course, someone of Native American ancestry or even of French ancestry would describe this very differently. My forefathers and foremothers took possession of land that was formerly occupied. And Indiana where my parents come from was the location of the last great battle where Native Americans tried to hold their ground. It’s a sad history all around, sad and fascinating.

My exploration of family history has been an exploration of my feelings about what it means to be an American. I’ve always identified as a Midwesterner which to me feels like ‘normal’, simply what America means. It’s the freaking Heartland. However, when I moved to South Carolina in 8th grade, I was sometimes jokingly referred to as a Yankee. I had no concept of what a Yankee was at that time. Even now living back in the Midwest for many years, I don’t think of myself as a Yankee. I’m a Midwesterner from the lower Midwest. This is the Midlands, the extension of the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania. This isn’t Yankiedom of Puritan origins.

Many of the lower Midwestern states are split between Midlands and Appalachia, the two regions immigrants traveled to at great risk in order to escape the competing powers of Yankiedom and the Deep South. My mom’s maiden name is Clouse which is Germanic and most German immigrants found Midlands to be the most hospitable, but the Clouses on my mom’s side instead first came to Kentucky and then moved to Southern Indiana (Sarah Sally Walters who married William Jr. Fain, the grandfather of William Edward Clouse who was the second generation born in Kentucky, and Sarah Sally Walters was born in Kentucky in 1801; in that family line, the Clouses, Walters, Fains, Hawks, Stogsdills, Randalls, Waddles, Ashy’s, Welchs, and Hansfords were all in Kentucky in the early 1800s and some going back to the 1700; also, some of them were already in Southern Indiana before the War of 1812). My mom’s family has largely adopted the Scots-Irish culture and mentality of Appalachia. Both of my parents, however, grew up in Northern Indiana where Midlands culture is strong. I only knew of the Scots-Irish aspects of my mom’s family from visiting them since I was a child.

My time spent in South Carolina and North Carolina has given me some understanding of Scots-Irish culture. In SC, my high school best friend was a typical Scots-Irish redneck. In NC, a summer girlfriend was from a typical Scots-Irish fundamentalist hillbilly family, actually living in a trailer on a lonely country road nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My SC friend had Goff as his last name. I noticed that in early Kentucky records that there were many Goffs there. For what it is worth, the Scots-Irish are part of my family history and also part of my personal experience. I could judge that culture for all of its problems, but I do have a fondness for it that became most clear to me while living in NC. Besides, Appalachia is beautiful country, ticks aside.

In some ways, that culture is the complete opposite of Midlands culture and hence opposite of my Midwestern identity. On the other hand, there has been much mixing between the two cultures and they have shared the distinction of being the main battlegrounds of the American soul. I was thinking about this recently in terms of a radio show such as Coast to Coast AM which used to be hosted by Art Bell. You can hear all kinds of views on that show. Both my uncle Bob (my mom’s brother) and I have listened to it since the 1990s, yet we otherwise have little in common. He is a fundamentalist of Appalachian culture and I’m an agnostic of Midlands culture, but an interest in conspiracy theories and aliens creates a common ground. Coast to Coast AM is a show about alternative culture. The Midlands and Appalachia have always been regions of alternative culture. It is in these places that alternative religious and political communities often settled. That is what I loved about NC, the hidden pockets of odd alternative culture.

Visiting Southern Indiana brings all of this into focus. It is where my family shifted from Appalachia into the Midlands, always following where land and work could be found, generation after generation restlessly moving on in a drift Westward. All of my mom’s lines of family converged in Lawrence County (and the counties right around it, specifically Orange County and Dubois County). The Clouses and Hawks came separately and soon married, two of those marriages ending up in the Mitchell area right around or in Spring Mill back when it was still an operational mill, an infant of one of those marriages buried in the Hamer cemetery there (the Hamers being one of the rich families that moved into the area). At that time, Southern Indiana was attractive to alternative communities and many intellectuals, New Harmony being the most famous example (radical intellectuals from New Harmony would visit the pub at Spring Mill where some of my family lived and worked). It was this radical tradition of Southern Indiana that helped form the mind of Abraham Lincoln, specifically Lincoln’s being influenced by the alternative religion and politics (socialism, feminism, abolitionism, spiritualism, etc) being promoted by people such as the Owens family of New Harmony.

This was the frontier, but not the frontier as you learned about in school. People came to frontier communities for all kinds of reasons. My family would have lived amidst great cultural, ethnic, religious and political diversity.

My mom’s paternal grandfather, Willie Clouse, was born at Spring Mill. The family was still poor and at that time they were squatters. The water mill slowly died because of engine-driven mills made them obsolete. Willie married Inez Rosemary Edwards.

On that other side of the family, two lines of Edwards married and there was also another line of Edwards a few generations back from that point. Inez’s maternal great grandmother was a Toliver who lived more than a century after having come to Mitchel as a young child as part of one of the first families to settle there. She was interviewed a few years before her death and she still remembered her childhood.

It was interesting to read about that era. The Edwards and Tolivers (along with the Way and Evans families), unlike the Clouses and Hawks, went straight from North Carolina to Indiana (some of the family on both sides — Henry Sr Waddle, Elizabeth Morris, William Fain jr, Elizabeth Whicker, Catherine Cox, and Benjamin Hansford — came from Virginia instead, although some of these families were moving back and forth between North Carolina and Virginia, and a few lines came from elsewhere — Sampson Hawk from New Jersey and one line, the Cox family as I recall, can be followed back to South Carolina; my mom’s maternal side of the family is similar, but there are several lines that in the early-to-mid 1800s went straight from the ship docks to Kentucky and Indiana).

All of this research has made history more tangible to me. Spring Mill, the home of my family that is of my mom’s maiden name, is now a preserved historical site. It’s strange to visit my great grandfather’s birth place as a visitor to a park; my mom also visited it as a child and had her grandfather point out the building he claimed to be born in. History gets turned into a theme park. The mill has been fixed back up and they grind corn as a demonstration. They even have an old lady working on a loom and a blacksmith doing his thing. To be truly accurate they’d need people to represent my family as distillers and squatters.

After a few generations of industrial growth, Southern Indiana has returned to its origin in poverty. The difference is that early pioneers had land and many opportunities to better themselves, but the poor people there now are simply getting by or trying to. Southern Indiana once was a place that attracted intellectuals and industry. People like the Owens family sought to create a better world. Later on, many famous socialists and labor organizers came out of Indiana. The tide, however, has turned. No one seems to remember Indiana for the hopes and dreams people living there had for generations. You can’t understand the conservatism and fundamentalism of places like Southern Indiana without understanding this history.

Indiana makes for a useful case history. It is a place where the effects of the past are still visible. It is a place that has been in between, split between Midlands and Appalachia. It is one of the main states where the Midwest first took form as a separate culture from the East Coast states.

Like the ancestors of both my mother’s and father’s families, my parents moved on from Indiana, although their movement no longer coincided with a Westward movement. As a kid, I was forced to move around; but as an adult, I’ve chosen to stay put here in the same Midwestern town I grew to love as a child. Most of my mom’s family, unlike her, chose also to stay in the area in which they grew up in. In this age of globalization, a sense of place is taking on new meaning in context of community and family. For the average person, there no longer is a better life to be sought elsewhere. There is no new frontier land to be settled.

 

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The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

I once again have a thought-web rumbling around in my head and it will necessitate my writing it out to clarify exactly what it involves.

This set of thoughts is basically just more of my contemplating the issues of ideology and psychology. It might be helpful to think of this as a continuation of my recent posts about Jonathan Haidt’s theory of moral foundations, specifically as found in his recent book, The Righteous Mind — see here for the first post in the series). However, the posts it might most directly relate to is the last post I wrote in which I posed liberal analytical thinking against conservative intuitive thinking and the post before that in which I described the negative side of liberalism or rather liberal-mindedness. I probably also should put my thoughts in the context of some posts I wrote last year about American anti-intellectualism, specifically the strange school of thought inspired by Rand and Rothbard (see here and here).

Despite my criticisms of liberalism, particularly in its political failings, I find myself attached to liberalism as a general worldview. In terms of my personal inclinations, moreso than the political tradition, what interests me is the intellectual tradition of liberalism (in which I would also include the liberal tradition of creative arts that underlies both the high arts and the counter-culture); and this is what I particularly see of worth that comes out of the liberal predisposition. Liberalism is ultimately more of a cultural vision than an ideological system, and for this reason it isn’t within politics that liberalism shows off its best potential. The social science research shows liberals apparently are talented at not being misinformed about political issues, but this obviously doesn’t lead to them creating a successful and stable liberal society or even simply an ideologically and morally consistent liberal movement. Knowing and doing are two distinct abilities. Liberals are maybe better at doing on the small-scale such as being good community organizers, therapists, service workers, nurses, teachers, scientists, etc. On the large-scale, however, liberals tend to only do good to the degree that these small-scale activities add up to and form the ground of larger collective or political actions. This limitation of liberalism, I would add, seems to me is a limitation of all liberal societies, specifically democracies: the larger the democracy, the more likely the dysfunction and corruption.

The core of my present thought is the human capacity for reason… which is itself at the heart of the Enlightenment project and a major strain of Western Civilization going back to the Greeks (the ideal of the individual thinker probably having its origin in the Axial Age, a societal shift that seemingly impacted all of civilization at that time). Liberals have a greater faith in this capacity for reason and conservatives have less faith in it.

(By the way, I assume that most people understand that by ‘liberal’ I mean ‘liberal-minded’. Liberalism shows it’s highest correlation to social liberalism rather than economic liberalism which means liberal-mindedness to varying degrees can be found among many but not all left-wingers, quite a few libertarians, and even some moderate or independent conservatives. I would assume the majority of people in a modern liberal society have learned to think to some degree in a more liberal-minded fashion, the difference mostly being a matter of degree.)

Without further ado, let me begin with this basic distinction involving rationality.

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How conservatives tend to counter reason is often through such things as anecdotal evidence. They have some personal experience or an example of an exception to the rule. They look for a reason that justifies their gut response.

There is something about conservative morality that is pre-rational, it simply feels right, it is right because it is perceived as always having been right (whether that perception is an accurate or romanticized appraisal of the past). To a social conservative, what feels right might be expressed as a religious belief or a moral truth, typically perceived as of ancient origin. To a fiscal conservative, however, what feels right might be expressed as an intellectual axiom or concrete observation.

(Before going further, let me re-emphasize a point. People are complex and so conservative morality is rarely found in its extreme form, it being particularly rare in liberal societies such as the US; for simplicity’s sake, I’m speaking about the extreme which represents the archetype of conservatism, the ideal form; but in reality the average conservative is more moderate, although the more vocal and more right-wing conservatives will tend to more closely fit my descriptions. Nonetheless, it probably is true that most conservatives rely more on intuitive reasoning than analytical reasoning, by which I mean relative to most liberals — this is the argument I’m making, anyway.)

This conservative-minded intuitive reasoning touches upon the reason why many liberals are less trusting of anecdotal data. Liberals realize it is easy for all people to fall into motivated reasoning with anecdotal evidence for it opens one up to confirmation bias, it being hard to tell apart intuitive reasoning from motivated reasoning. Scientific data that isn’t anecdotal has more protections against such personal biases, after all the purpose of the scientific method is specifically to filter out personal biases. Conservatives seem less aware or less concerned about the unreliable nature of anecdotal data and the intuitive reasoning that is typically behind it. This conservative preference for the anecdotal seems to be a clear example of motivated reasoning since anecdotal data is sometimes the only evidence they can use to challenge scientific data, and so it is just what is conveniently at hand in justifying and rationalizing what they already believe. There is a satisfying simplicity in pointing to a tangible anecodate, it being more on the human level of everyday experience.

It’s from my libertarian-leaning dad that I learned to better understand why conservatives mistrust reason or only see it as valid on a more constrained level (by the way, keep in mind that my dad is a relatively liberal-minded intellectual conservative and so he doesn’t go as far as a stronger conservative would in constraining and mistrusting  reason; my dad makes a fairly rational argument for the limits of rationality and he overall maintains great respect for rationality). My dad likes to share something he read from Thomas Sowell. Basically, it is about how a person will worry more about his own finger being cut off tomorrow than he will about a large number of people who actually died and are suffering far away in another country (notice how this is a very concrete scenario that is easy to imagine as an actual anecdote from someone’s life). From Sowell’s perspective, the constrained vision is more accurate to human nature in that humans are imperfect and imperfectible, rationality included. From my liberal-minded perspective, it would seem to be more rational (in terms of the objective data and pragmatic results) to spend one’s time doing something to help a large number of people (donate money and supplies, fly to the location to offer help and services, advocate for policies that improve public safety during catastrophes, etc) than to sit around worrying about a future event that will only effect you personally. But Sowell’s point is that humans aren’t and never will be overly rational in this way. Liberals, of course, disagree. Liberals see the objective data (at least in this case) as more relevant partly because they also feel more empathy for strangers, something Sowell doesn’t take into account. Not all people are equally constrained in their empathy or equally constrained in their rationality about all issues.

So, conservatives such as Sowell and my dad seem to openly admit in their own way that they find anecdotal data more persuasive. It is in fact how they define human nature. Such conservatives probably aren’t basing their conclusions on the social science research I refer to, but in coming from a different direction they come to a similar conclusion, at least about the conservative mindset. The disagreement is that conservatives argue that their conclusion applies to all people, both conservatives and liberals, but that liberals in their unconstrained vision are denying human nature. The research, however, seems to show that both the constrained vision and unconstrained vision are correct in a more limited way. The constrained vision is (relatively more) true to the conservative predisposition and the unconstrained vision is (relatively more) true to the liberal predisposition.

That said, conservatives do have an advantage to their vision. The research has shown that (through fear, stress, and disgust) it is easier to get a liberal to think and act like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to think and act like a liberal. The latter, however, isn’t impossible, just in some ways very difficult to accomplish. A further thing shown by research is that most Americans are symbolic conservatives (persuaded by abstract notions of conservatism) while being pragmatic liberals (supporting and defending specific liberal policies). So, it is complex and impossible to say either side is completely right or completely wrong, at least in the court of public opinion.

My most basic point is that talking about the objective data often confuses the underlying issues. We need to first make clear the underlying issues before discussing the data. I’ve discovered it is unhelpful and frustrating to bring up the best available data when it may seem irrelevant or less relevant to the priorities of the other side. To speak in terms of a obvious example (that I brought up in my last post about the symbolic conflations of intuitive thinking): Is abortion an issue simply about the objective data of decreasing or at least not increasing the rate of abortions? Or is abortion an issue symbolic of a deeper issue such as the conservative vision of social order versus the liberal vision of compassion and freedom? Until such questions are answered, talking about the data is pointless.

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By the way, in light of Haidt’s theory of moral foundations, Haidt does mention Thomas Sowell in his recent book. He doesn’t directly mention the constrained vs unconstrained visions there, although I’m fairly sure his use of “parochial” in his book refers to Sowell’s constrained vision. The specific terms of constrained and unconstrained do get discussed in at least one paper he co-authored:

Running Head: THE MORAL FOUNDATIONS OF POLITICS
Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations
Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt & Brian A. Nosek, 12/9/08

“Haidt (2008) recently suggested an alternative approach to defining morality that does not exclude conservative and non-Western concerns. Rather than specifying the content of a truly moral judgment he specified the functions of moral systems: “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible” (p. 70). Haidt described two common kinds of moral systems – two ways of suppressing selfishness – that correspond roughly to Sowell’s two visions. Some cultures try to suppress selfishness by protecting individuals directly (often using the legal system) and by teaching individuals to respect the rights of other individuals. This individualizing approach focuses on individuals as the locus of moral value. Other cultures try to suppress selfishness by strengthening groups and institutions, and by binding individuals into roles and duties in order to constrain their imperfect natures. This binding approach focuses on the group as the locus of moral value.

“The individualizing-binding distinction does not necessarily correspond to a left-wing vs. right-wing distinction for all groups and in all societies. The political left has sometimes been associated with socialism and communism, positions that privilege the welfare of the group over the rights of the individual and that have at times severely limited individual liberty. Conversely, the political right includes libertarians and “laissez-faire” conservatives who prize individual liberty as essential to the functioning of the free market (Boaz, 1997). We therefore do not think of political ideology-or morality-as a strictly one-dimensional spectrum. In fact, we consider it a strength of moral foundations theory that it allows people and ideologies to be characterized along five dimensions. Nonetheless, we expect that the individualizing-binding distinction can account for substantial variation in the moral concerns of the political left and right, especially in the United States, and that it illuminates disagreements underlying many “culture war” issues.”

Also, I’d like to note that Sowell got this idea from Adam Smith. However, if we go back to the entire quoted section of Smith’s writing, it isn’t clear that Smith would agree with Sowell’s conservative conclusions:

“Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.”

To clarify the origins of some of my own thinking, this general misunderstanding between ideological predispositions first became clear to me through something else Haidt had written (something I read, by the way, long before my recent discussions of Haidt’s theory). The following explanation gave me an insight into the conservative mind that had previously eluded me:

What Makes People Vote Republican?
By Professor Jonathan Haidt, September 2008
Annotated by Dr. Bruce L Gibb, September 2008

“They want more prayer and spanking in schools, and less sex education and access to abortion? I didn’t think those steps would reduce AIDS and teen pregnancy, but I could see why the religious right wanted to `thicken up’ the moral climate of schools and discourage the view that children should be as free as possible to act on their desires. Conservatives think that welfare programs and feminism increase rates of single motherhood and weaken the traditional social structures that compel men to support their own children? Hmm, that may be true, even if there are also many good effects of liberating women from dependence on men. I had escaped from my prior partisan mindset (reject first, ask rhetorical questions later), and began to think about liberal and conservative policies as manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society.”

Even Haidt seemingly admits that the conservative position is less rational in terms of objective pragmatism involved in dealing with the stated issues that can be scientifically measured and analyzed. I think Haidt’s point here isn’t dissimilar to my own. He sees the real debate as happening on another level, that of values. What I think Haidt misses, though, is that at least one of the liberal values relates to intellectuality (scientific inquiry, neutrality, curiosity, honesty, etc). Liberals take those outward issues as relevant on their own merits. It matters more to liberals which methods will actually reduce abortions, rather than just arguing over what liberals often see as subjective values.

That is the sense in which conservatives are less rational. For various reasons, conservatives are sometimes less prone to speak directly about what they consider most important, instead using symbolic issues as proxies for the real issues they care about. This is a point of confusion that has often led to frustration for me and for many liberals (along with probably many conservatives as well). Abortion becomes a symbol of deeper issues, but to take the symbol at face value is to miss the point of the conservative argument. It would be immoral from a conservative perspective to put pragmatic results above moral purposes; as the Bible puts it, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

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In explaining my views as stated above, someone (who goes by the username ‘Sanpete‘ on Amazon.com) couldn’t follow my explanation of how conservatives (such as Sowell) have admitted that they’re more persuaded by anecdotal evidence. The person told me that the “main point about one’s finger being cut off seems to be that it’s one’s own, not that it’s particular.”

My response is as follows.

The particular and the personal are closely related. It is about an emotional response. People, especially conservatives, typically feel less of an empathetic response to distant strangers (maybe similar to how strongly religious people are less motivated by compassion in general, a distinction needing to be made between compassion and charity). Numbers of people hurt or killed is just data, specifically data that is both less particular and less personal. None of the people are real to the emotional experience in the way that the future potential of a finger being cut is real. The potential finger loss is real because it is perceived as real, even if just real in the mind. The feelings induced are real. As such, conservative moral intuition goes for this gut-level sense of reality. Even more rational-minded conservatives such as my dad will harken to this gut response, and they would even see this emotional ground as rational in that it is very close to personal experience, the anecdotal (or hypothetically anecdotal) evidence in this case is trusted or else seen as persuasive for the very reason it seems closer to observed reality whereas abstract data is seen as too disconnected from concrete reality or rather too disconnected from the personal experience of concrete reality.

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Here is what interests me most in thinking about this.

A more universal (i.e., less constrained) sense of rationality goes hand in hand with a more universal experience of empathy, the ability to think abstractly is connected to the ability to imagine empathetically (both requiring the ability to cognitively come to terms with what is beyond the personal level of concrete reality, whether concrete in terms of personal anecdotes or concrete in terms of the subjective experience of the five senses) — the scientific method requires this ability and more importantly requires trust in this ability, trust that through being systematically rational we can collectively reach greater rational results. This is what Haidt doesn’t understand about liberal morality. Rationality isn’t just rationalization, even though intellectual liberals understand the potential conflation. Rationality isn’t just at best a guide to emotion and intuition. Rationality stands on its own merits, as it should.

Like the liberal willingness to challenge authority and the liberal love of irreverent and playful humor, all of this goes back to liberals measuring high on the trait ‘openness’ and low on the trait ‘conscientiousness’. This cuts to a deeper level than Haidt gets at with moral foundations for these personality traits are psychological foundations that precede and make possible an articulation of moral foundations. This gets at the issue of how to interpret the moral foundations. Conservatives interpret them one way and liberals another way. What Haidt misunderstands is that liberals also value all the moral foundations, even if they interpret them differently. Haidt ignores the full sense of morality present in the liberal view and so he underestimates the importance of the liberal value of reason.

In my recent writings, I keep repeating one very significant point that Mooney presents so clearly in his book (The Republican Brain). When it comes to politics, liberals prove themselves to be more rational in that they use less motivated reasoning and that they are less misinformed (i.e., less prone to confirmation bias, backfire effect, and smart idiots effect; among other biases). As Mooney makes clear, liberals aren’t necessarily less prone to motivated reasoning overall. It’s only with political issues that liberal rationality stands above that of conservatives.

So, what makes political issues different? I’d argue that political issues are simply the issues that humans collectively come to think of as important. What this means is that liberals, when they think something is important enough, are capable of bringing reason to bear upon a particular issue. Liberals aren’t consistent in always being reasonable about all issues in all aspects of life, but at least they show a more consistent capacity when it really matters.

Being rational is very difficult. It takes effort and determination. Most of the time, it just isn’t worth it to go to such lengths. Humans are lazy in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to thinking. Most people don’t want to think about life and about politics. We have our biases and our beliefs. We already know what is ‘true’ according to our worldview. Humans aren’t born as rational beings, although humans are born with the implicit potential for rationality and even explicit early signs of reflective thought. For example, research shows babies are capable of seeing something from another person’s perspective and thus predict their behavior, and this demonstrates the connection between empathy and objectivity — objectivity is first and foremost the ability to see from a perspective outside of the directly subjective sensory experience, involving abstraction but an abstraction rooted in empathetic imagination.

The sad effect of Haidt’s theory is that it can be used to justify the position of those who would like to discredit rationality and so can be used to justify what I’d call intellectual laziness. Yes, it is easier to be intellectually lazy. Yes, most people most of the time will be intellectually lazy. But that is hardly a moral argument in defense of intellectual laziness, even when labeled as “intuitive reasoning”. Many liberal values are difficult, that is the very proof of their worthiness. On the political level, small ‘d’ democratic values and small ‘r’ republican values are what make modern societies liberal to the extent that they are. It was a difficult (not to mention violent and bloody) struggle to get to this point where liberal values could become accepted as part of the status quo and hence defended even by conservatives. If we don’t constantly struggle for these liberal values including most specifically Enlightenment values of rationality, then we will fail to live up to these values… and, like most liberals and most people in general, I’d rather avoid that if possible.

There are two issues at hand. Can we live up to such values? And do we want to? The two go together. Theoretically, we can live up to them, assuming we want to. Our values are dependent on our values and both are dependent on our psychology. It is proven that a minority of people are capable of rational thought (I’ve heard someone claim that it was 15% of the population that rates highly on “reflective reasoning”), but it isn’t yet proven that the majority of people can manifest this human potential. Human reason as a universal capacity of human nature, at this point, is still somewhat an article of the liberal faith… although conservatives have as much to lose as liberals if this liberal faith turns out to be wrong, after all we share the same liberal society.

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I think it ultimately comes down to culture.

People tend to fulfil the social expectations that culture puts forth, assuming those expectations are within human potential. Research shows that, when shown the Ten Commandments, most people will act according to those moral rules; they will tend to cheat less, lie less, etc — which is to say that they will act more moral according to some of the basic moral values conservatives and liberals agree upon, but it probably wouldn’t lead people to be more moral according to the exclusively liberal moral values such as intellectual honesty that goes beyond merely not lying. To manifest liberal moral values would require different social expectations than those stated in the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, recent research seems to show that behavior will conform to liberal moral values of rationality when analytical thought is intentionally elicited:

Logic Quashes Religious Belief, New Study Finds
By Dr. Douglas Fields, 4/26/12

“Gervais’ and Norenzayan’s first experiment tested the idea that analytical thinkers tend to be less religious. They recruited 179 Canadian undergraduates and gave them analytic thinking tests, followed by a survey to gauge their religious disbelief. As expected, the results showed that higher scores in analytical thinking correlated with greater religious disbelief. But this is just a correlation.

“To test for a causal relationship between analytical thinking and religious disbelief, the researchers devised four different ways to promote analytic thinking and then surveyed the students to see if their religious disbelief had increased by the interventions that boosted critical thinking. Varieties of these interventions had already been shown in previous psychological studies to elevate critical thinking measurably on tests of reasoning. In one intervention, when people are shown a visual image that suggests critical thinking (for example, Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker,” seated head-in-hand, pondering) just before taking a test of analytic reasoning, their performance on the test increases measurably. Subconscious suggestion about thinking apparently gets the cognitive juices flowing and suppresses intuitive processes. The researchers confirmed this effect but also found that the self-reported religious disbelief also increased compared with subjects shown a different image before being tested that did not suggest critical thinking.

“The same result was found after boosting critical reasoning in three other ways known to stimulate logical reasoning and improve performance on reasoning tests. This included having subjects rearrange jumbles of words into a meaningful phrase, for example. When the list of words connoted thought (for example, “think, reason, analyze, ponder, rational,” as opposed to control lists like “hammer, shoes, jump, retrace, brown”), manipulating the thought-provoking words improved performance on a subsequent analytic thinking task and also increased religious disbelief significantly.”

Religion & Brain: Belief Decreases With Analytical Thinking, Study Shows
By Greg Miller, 4/27/12

“Many people with religious convictions feel that their faith is rock solid. But a new study finds that prompting people to engage in analytical thinking can cause their religious beliefs to waver, if only a little. Researchers say the findings have potentially significant implications for understanding the cognitive underpinnings of religion.

“Psychologists often carve thinking into two broad categories: intuitive thinking, which is fast and effortless (instantly knowing whether someone is angry or sad from the look on her face, for example); and analytic thinking, which is slower and more deliberate (and used for solving math problems and other tricky tasks). Both kinds of thinking have their strengths and weaknesses, and they often seem to interfere with one another. “Recently there’s been an emerging consensus among [researchers] … that a lot of religious beliefs are grounded in intuitive processes,” says Will Gervais, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada and a co-author of the new study, published today in Science.”

[ . . . ]

“It’s very difficult to distinguish between what a person believes and what they say they believe,” says Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate at Princeton University who has done pioneering work on the contributions of intuitive and analytical thinking to human decision making. “All they have shown, and all that can be shown, is that when you’re thinking more critically you reject statements that otherwise you would endorse,” Kahneman says. “It tells you that there are some religious beliefs people hold that if they were thinking more critically, they themselves would not endorse.”

“To Gervais and Norenzayan, the findings suggest that intuitive thinking, likely along with other cognitive and cultural factors, is a key ingredient in religious belief. Greene agrees: “Through some combination of culture and biology, our minds are intuitively receptive to religion.” He says, “If you’re going to be unreligious, it’s likely going to be due to reflecting on it and finding some things that are hard to believe.””

At that last article, a commenter (username: srheard) brought up a good point:

“The Catholic and evangelical religious communities discovered this over 40 some years ago in the aftermath of the post WWII GI Bill and the Kennedy challenge – i.e. the Education Boom. They could see the correlation between an emphasis of science and analytical studies in schools and universities- and a decline in church attendance. It became clear that a citizenry educated in analytical thinking posed an existential threat to fundamentalist (literalist) religious enterprises. Their act of “self defense” was a involvment in politics and a quest for an American Theocracy. The theocrats calls this the “War on Religion”. This is Newspeak for the “War on Thinking”. If theTheocrats win that “war”, the Republic falls. End of story.”

It seems to me that it is within the realm of possibility to create a culture of rationality. However, it is also clear to me that many people, especially those in power, realize that they might not personally benefit from such a culture of rationality. As individuals, they might not politically or economically benefit from a more rational playing field. And collectively, certain groups (whether fundamentalist churches or the Republican Party) might not benefit from a more rational citizenry.

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This isn’t to dismiss the basic point that Haidt makes.

Many liberals like Haidt are grappling with how to best interact with and live among conservatives in a shared society. It’s obvious that conservatives don’t value rationality in the same way as liberals. This has led some liberals to question the entire Enlightenment project and so devalue the role of rationality, whether out of a sense of cynicism or pragmatism. As Zach Wahls recently said (to paraphrase), “You can’t reason people out of what they didn’t reason themselves into.”

I understand this view. Being a rational-minded liberal doesn’t mean dismissing the non-rational aspects of human nature, rather it means seeing less conflict in the first place between the rational and non-rational. Maybe we are presenting a false dichotomy, false and more importantly unhelpful. Recognizing and even respecting the non-rational doesn’t require we stop striving for the full potential of rationality. There are some people who are as dogmatic about rationality as others are dogmatic about religion, but such people are certainly a very small vocal minority among liberals and the liberal-minded.

What I’m offering in this post is a view that should appeal even to moderate conservatives who have become fed up with the anti-intellectualism that has taken over much of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. It’s not conservatism I’m criticizing, at least not in terms of the average conservative who I suspect tend to be moderate and hence not overtly anti-intellectual. I would recommend to liberals to have respect for the non-rational and so it is in this context that I recommend to conservatives (along with liberals like Haidt) to have more respect for rationality. The difference, though, is that I think most people in this highly religious/spiritual country already have respect for the non-rational and so such a recommendation is maybe less necessary. The situation we face is a society where rationality (in terms of science and education) is constantly under attack, this not being a sustainable situation for a democracy such as ours, something must give.

There is one point I want to bring up, a point I’ve mentioned recently in other posts. From what I’ve seen in various data, conservatives are more polarized against liberals than vice versa. Liberalism, on its own terms, isn’t directly opposing conservatism. One of the weaknesses of liberalism, in fact, is how easy it is for liberals to act like conservatives.

This plays out on every kind of issue. On abortion, conservatives see liberals as being for abortion, but in reality liberals would love to decrease the number of abortions (in response to conservative EITHER/OR thinking, liberals want BOTH free choice AND fewer unwanted pregnancies and hence fewer abortions). On freedom, conservatives oppose positive liberty against negative liberty whereas liberals see the two as inseparable (liberals deny the us vs them attitude implicit in conservatives favoring liberty for those who already have it, negative liberty, while denying it to those who seek to gain it, positive liberty). On the issue of this post, conservatives are more likely to perceive the intuitive and rational as in conflict, yet this is less clear of a conflict for many liberals (it’s just liberals would rather the two sides interacted through more of a conscious choice than an unconscious conflation).

From the extreme conservative perspective, conservatives can only win by liberals losing and liberals can only win by conservatives losing. Most liberals, however, would prefer to seek win/win scenarios. The problem liberals face is that the conservative predisposition might make win/win scenarios impossible, so conservatives prove themselves correct by refusing the olive leaf offered by liberals. This saddens me. I don’t want to just gripe about conservatives. As I see it, even conservatives benefit from promoting a more rational society, even when they fight against it (such as their demonizing scientists and scientific institutions).

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Like most liberals and liberal-minded folk, I don’t dislike intuitive knowing, symbolic thinking, or the non-rational in general. In fact, I love such things when taken on their own terms, instead of being conflated with what they aren’t.

I would go even further. My defense of rationality is also a defense of the non-rational, the love of the latter motivating my love of the former. I have a mad fascination with the non-rational. I would daresay that I embrace the non-rational to a greater degree than even most of the more anti-intellectual variety of conservatives. It is my liberal-minded ‘openness’ that opens me up to the non-rational, leading me and those like me to seek out new experiences and alternative states of mind. I’ve previously explored this relationship between liberalism and the non-rational:

NDE: Spirituality vs Religiosity
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Fortean Curiosity: Liberalism & Intelligence
American Liberalism & the Occult

So, it’s not that I want to live in a rationalist utopia ruled over by intellectual elites. Rather, I want to live in a world where all knowledge is respected and a love of learning is valued. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for. Let’s not give up on Enlightenment values before they’ve even had a chance to be fully tested. Modern liberal societies are still a young experiment.

Intuitive Conservatism & Analytical Liberalism

I had two related thoughts.

First, I was considering the actual meaning of liberalism and conservatism. I noticed someone mention that conservatives rarely are interested in conserving and liberals are rarely interested in liberating. Actually, in the US, liberals are generally more interested in conserving than conservatives, but certainly conservatives aren’t more interested in liberating.

Second, I keep pondering what conservatism actually is about. Liberalism is more straightforward in some ways. Liberals may not put as much priority as left-wingers in liberating people, but liberals aren’t against liberating people. Liberalism more is about an attitude of openness which can express both in a desire to liberate from what is bad or conserve what is good. Conservatism, however, plays out on two levels where symbolism simultaneously represents and hides the deeper issues of meaning and values. For this reason, conservatism often can’t be taken at face-value.

These two thoughts relate in the data I’ve shared before about how most Americans self-identify as conservatives and yet support liberal policies. So, Americans tend to only find conservative principles attractive in the abstract, but what conservatives (and Americans in general) seek to conserve on the practical level are the achievements of the liberal movement, specifically the policies of the Progressive Era of the first half of the 20th century and the policies of Liberal Era around the middle of the 20th century.

How is symbolic thinking so powerful when it doesn’t seem to relate to concrete issues? The tricky part is that for conservatives the concrete conservative issues are the symbolic form of conservative values. So, conservative issues are never concrete even when or especially when they appear to be. For example, the conservative moral order grounded in in the conservative vision of family values is very compelling to many Americans. This gets expressed in concrete issues such as abortion, but when you get down to practical details conservatives don’t directly care about abortion, in terms of the gritty details of factual data. Liberal policies have proven themselves to decrease more abortions by decreasing unwanted pregnancies which is accomplished by better sex education, better availability of contraceptives, better women’s health services, etc. Conservatives won’t agree to liberal practices simply because they are more effective for the issue of abortions is symbolic, not practical.

The power of conservative symbolic thinking is that it conflates the symbolic with the concrete, the subjective with the objective, the metaphorical with the literal. This can be seen in religious fundamentalism where stories are so compelling because they are taken as real, even when there is no evidence of their reality. It is the refusal to submit to objective evidence that gives such symbolic stories their objective-seeming reality.

Liberals, on the other hand, seek to disempower such symbolic-minded conflation. This is why liberals speak more directly. When a liberal speaks about the issue of abortions, they are more genuinely concerned about the practical issue of decreasing abortions, among other concerns. Even religious liberals will tend to more clearly demarcate the symbolic and historical aspects of religion, sometimes even going so far as refusing to apologetically argue over historicity of religious figures. This is why liberals are greater defenders of analytical thinking and the scientific method. This is also why liberals aren’t as effective with political rhetoric. In undoing the conflation, liberals undo the very power of the conflation. Liberals love symbolic thinking taken on its own terms of symbolism such as with art, but symbols only have power as a political force when they become identified with concrete and social realities.

This creates quite the dilemma for liberals. Conservatives can never admit to their own way of symbolic thinking, can never admit that the superficial political issues are mere symbols. Conservatives intuitively understand that their effectiveness as a movement and that the compelling nature of their abstract principles necessitate never admitting this fundamental truth. For many of them, they can’t even admit it to themselves. Symbolic conflation can only work if there is no overt awareness of how it works, at least among average conservatives, although there are cynical conservative leaders (SDOs – Social Dominance Orientation types) who understand this and use it to manipulate the conservative movement (the relationship is very interesting between SDO leaders and Authoritarian followers).

Liberals seek to increase self-awareness, but this very kind of liberal self-awareness is the Achille’s heel of the conservative mind. Conservatives don’t want to question and analyze, not in this psychological introspective sense. They want to take action and create results. There is pragmatism in the conservative method, despite its apparent disregard of pragmatic details that get in the way of political ends.

There is a polar opposition between understanding and effectiveness. Liberals have better psychological understanding which ends up being the very reason they are politically ineffective, although it makes liberals into helpful therapists and service workers. This is a seemingly impossible situation. Liberals put so much emphasis on education and journalism because they understand liberalism can only operate effectively to the degree the conservative method is undermined, by way of undoing the conservative conflation that originates from anti-analytical intuitive thinking. In a world where rhetoric rules over facts, liberals will never win. Liberal ideals can never compete with the power of fundamentalist religion combined with right-wing think tanks. This is a major aspect of the pathetic weakness of liberalism. By its nature, liberalism is incapable of fighting dirty in this way. The moment liberals try to meet conservatives on the playing field of rhetoric, liberals are out-matched. Some liberals like Lakoff are trying to teach liberals to be able to play this kind of game better, but it’s not clear that liberals are capable of coming even close to competing with conservatives on this level.

The only hope liberals have is that which can be found in the younger generations. Kids growing up these days are more well educated relative to past generations, especially about the difference between religion and science. More importantly, kid these days are raised from a young age in the worldview of psychological understanding. Slowly over time, psychology and the social sciences in general have seeped into mainstream culture. This will eventually give liberals the advantage they need, but it isn’t clear that even this advantage will be enough.

I don’t wish to just criticize conservatism, but the conservative style of symbolic conflation is one of the most dangerous issues we face as a society. Liberals need to be criticized as well in that liberals aren’t well-equipped in dealing with the power presented by such conflation. Most liberals can’t even comprehend the conservative mindset or why their rhetoric is so persuasive. Liberals, despite their desire to understand, too often are clueless. Liberal values of mutual understanding are impotent in face of this conservative force that hits below the belt, that hits with an emotional punch that can’t be comprehended rationally. Liberals are barely even coming to terms with the problem, much less figuring out solutions.

In their desperation, liberals just cling tighter to their Enlightenment values. Liberals just don’t undersand why throwing more facts at the problem doesn’t persuade the public, why no matter how strong the scientific consensus a large part of the population will go on denying evolution and global warming. Liberals assume that there eventually has to be a breaking point where facts win over beliefs. This liberal faith in rationality is admirable, but maybe ill-advised. Time will tell.

I should add that in describing conservatives I have a basic sense of respect. They understand one thing about human nature seemingly better than liberals. They may not have a broader understanding, but this one thing they understand very very well.

In being so effective, conservatives could be argued to prove they are correct about human nature. Unlike liberals, conservatives don’t believe humans are primarily rational in this broad sense. Conservatives, instead, believe that humans only act responsibly (in a moral and social sense) for reasons of emotion: fear, shame, guilt, etc. It’s the punishment/reward model of both fundamentalism and capitalism. Conservatives are certainly correct in terms of it being easier to influence and/or manipulate people through negative emotions.

It makes me wonder. What does this say about human nature. Are liberals truly wrong about their faith in Enlightenment values and ideals? If so, where does that leave liberalism? If rationality will continue to fail or continue to not suceed to any great extent, then what value should we place on rationality? Should we all just accept the conservative assumption about human nature?