A while back I was involved in some discussions about Jonathan Haidt’s model of moral foundations via some book reviews. One of those discussions was resurrected. Two people offered links to articles. It connected to something else that was on my mind. That something is violence.
In the discussion, there was a link was to a piece by PZ Myers. What caught my attention was instead a comment by Eamon Knight:
“I mostly liked The Happiness Hypothesis, but I think Haidt’s gone downhill since (and in a direction pointed to by the flaws in that book, ie. let’s just appreciate everyone’s viewpoint because it comes from their basic psychology, even if it requires overcompensating for our natural pro-self bias). I’m reading the last chapter of Pinker’s Better Angels, in which he discusses the underlying psychology of the decline in violence. He frames his exposition in terms of Haidt’s Moral Foundations (the original five), though even more in terms of [mumble’s — sorry I’m not near the book at the moment] Relational Models (the two taxonomies roughly inter-map). Pinker argues that human violence has declined precisely as we have moved away from an emphasis on (using Haidt’s terms) Purity, Authority and Loyalty towards Care/Harm and Fairness — IOW, as we have become more psychologically “liberal”. Even modern conservatives are where liberals used to be — it’s getting harder to justify eg. outlawing certain sexual behaviours on the grounds of “yuck” or blind obedience. So to hell with Haidt’s false equivalence — we are better off by ignoring some bits of social-psychological baggage that worked for small foraging bands, just as we need to train ourselves into restraining our natural taste for sweets and fats that developed in the days when dinner was A) uncertain and B) often had to be chased down.”
Haidt argues that humans and hence society functions best when there is an ideal balance between moral foundations. The problem is such an ideal comes off as an abstract belief. Functions best for what purpose and for whom?
He justifies this balance by claiming he has gained a vantage point above all of us peons. Through his model, both conservatives and liberals can be transcended, although with a tilt toward conservatives for he oddly claims they are more balanced than liberals (an argument he makes by not taking into account some of the moral values that liberals possess and conservatives dismiss). As Eamon Knight says in another comment:
“Or to borrow a punchline originally used in a different domain, but which seems applicable here: the important thing is that Haidt’s found a way to feel superior to both sides.”
Haidt sees himself as a missionary who learned from the natives (conservatives) and now wants to teach the civilized folk (liberals) about the benefits of a more natural lifestyle. Meanwhile, from the safe position of his lectern, he conveniently doesn’t mention that the natives have a high rates of violence and death.
Still, I don’t just want to beat up on poor ol’ Haidt. Let me move onto the next link. It is a response to Haidt by Sam Harris. Of course, Harris does beat up on Haidt, but that isn’t what interested me. Instead, I want to beat up on Harris a bit to even things out.
Harris begins with the same basic insight as Pinker:
“Anyone feeling nostalgic for the “wisdom” of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there’s nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to “suppress selfishness” and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren’t the only culture to have discovered “human flourishing” at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.
“What would Haidt have us think about these venerable traditions of pious ignorance and senseless butchery? Is there some wisdom in these cults of human sacrifice that we should now honor? Must we take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Or might we want to eat that baby instead? Indeed, many of these societies regularly terminated their rituals of sacred murder with a cannibal feast. Is my own revulsion at these practices a sign that I view these distant cultures with the blinkered gaze of a colonialist? Shall we just reserve judgment until more of the facts are in? When does scientific detachment become perverse? When might it be suicidal?”
That is more than a fair point stated with dramatic flair. There are many things that are ‘traditional’ which we would rather not continue. Besides human sacrifice and cannibalism, one could mention common examples from past societies such as slavery and theocracy. Moral progress fits uneasily in Haidt’s scheme of moral foundations.
Harris further on continues his line of thought, but then takes it down a dark alley of his own (bigoted?) paranoia:
“The same point can be made in the other direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of my two-footed morality, can readily see that my version of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others. When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I even expect that conservative epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years—just imagine how we liberals will be disposed to think about Islam after an incident of nuclear terrorism. Liberal hankering for happiness and freedom might one day yield some very strident calls for stricter laws and tribal loyalty. Will this mean that liberals have become religious conservatives pining for the beehive? Or is the liberal notion of reducing harm flexible enough to encompass the need for order and differences between in-group and out-group?”
How did the mostly non-Christian Japanese feel when the Christian Americans dropped atomic bombs on their cities? Some of those Japanese were liberals concerned about the long history of being oppressed and exploited by Western countries. And some of those Japanese were liberals concerned about when their own government went the path of oppression and exploitation in relation to the Chinese. Many liberal Muslims, Arabs, Africans and Asians have been concerned about the violent militaristic Western countries with long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, wars of aggression, invasion and occupations, etc; all issues that many non-Christians see as directly connected to a Christian heritage going back to the Crusades.
A Christian nation is the only one ever to have gone nuclear on another country. Why is it terrorism if Muslims were to do it but a morally justified act of war when Christians do it?
Harris didn’t need to go there. It didn’t help his argument.
Harris isn’t wrong to bring up the violence of particular groups, but he ignores a larger issue of culpability. When the Iraq War (a war of aggression) was promoted, many liberals jumped on board. The number of innocent people who died because of that war makes the casualty numbers of the 9/11 attack look minuscule. Middle Easterners have more reason to fear us than we have to fear them.
This weird mix of liberalism and xenophobia is what I call conservative-minded liberalism. I see it all the time. It’s similar to how some progressives in the past became neoconservatives or how some liberal-minded people today have have embraced neoreactionary ideologies such as the Dark Enlightenment. As I’ve argued before, this seems to be a central aspect of liberalism, it’s ability to shift toward its opposite (sometimes shifting back again and at other times getting stuck).
I came across another example of this from a friend of mine, a very intelligent and well-educated friend I might add:
“Immigration to UK seems to be implicated in the UK criminal class now carrying guns and using them to shoot law abiding citizens and their police adversaries. The old ban on gun crime apparently was maintained by criminal norms–UK criminals shunned others who had shot the police. A criminal who shot and killed 3 UK police in the 1960s was shunned by his fellows and given no place to hide in his local community–he eventually lived in a tent in remote moorland (and was there apprehended).
“Now, that informal arrangement (which empirically, by inspection, seems to have existed) has collapsed. Criminals carry guns and use them against the police, so the police have armed themselves, too.
“One factor that contributes is immigration of Afro-Carribeans to UK, who brought/bring with them different norms for gun crime. For example, murder rates in Jamaica are 50x higher than in UK (Collier’s figures). If Jamaica does not have the highest homicide in the world, it’s quite high.
“A paradigmatic case is Mark Duggan (Afro-Carribean descent) who shot and killed three UK police and was lionized (rather than ostracized) by substantial portions of his co-ethnics in London. After he was shot, vocal portions of his co-ethnics sided with him against the police, and accused the police of brutality.”
Afro-Caribbeans live in poverty that was created from a colonial past. Poverty, for all races and ethnicities, correlates to higher rates of violence and crime. It sucks to be so oppressed to the point that poverty, and the desperation that goes with it, persists for generation after generation. Once slaves, I’m willing to bet those Afro-Caribbeans experience racism on a daily life which makes it hard for them to find good work and housing. Europe has the problem of ghettoizing immigrants, something the US doesn’t do (here in the US we only ghettoize our native-born poor minorities).
Besides, if we included all the violence done in the name of UK citizens by way of their government, the murder rates would look a lot differently. I’m willing to bet Collier isn’t including police brutality and wars of aggression in his figures, and certainly not all the victims of slavery and genocide (and other victims of colonialism and imperialism). We don’t even know how to count up all the victims in order to compare them. But Afro-Caribbeans haven’t enslaved UK citizens en masse nor started a war of aggression against the UK nor tried to make the UK into a colony.
My friend then concluded:
“The interpretation: Duggan can be viewed (in game theoretic terms) as a “super-villian” who violated the old norms, increased distrust between UK indigenes and Afro-Carribean new-comers, and is a paradigmatic signpost / marker of a transition to a new, more violent equilibrium (vigilant UK police must now be ready to shoot suspects before they might pre-emptively be shot *by* suspects).”
Or maybe it is simply the inevitable results of a colonial past with continuing poverty, oppression, and racism magnified by globalized capitalism and growing economic inequality. There are a lot of factors going on and few if any of them can be understood in isolation. There would be no Afro-Caribbeans in the first place if not for the intertwined history with colonialism and slavery. Afro-Caribbeans are as much a product of the Europe as of Africa, both culturally and genetically.
“Another salient example of norms,” my friend explained further, “probably not discussed in Collier but it came readily to mind.”
“In the USA, in theory and I think also in fact, Mafia (La Cosa Nostra) norms prohibited the murder of uniformed police officers and judges. I don’t know when this got to be the case, but it seemed to facilitate a “non-agression pact” in which Mafia members lived openly without much hiding who they were, and cops went home and slept at night with a bit less trepidation.
“The counterexamples in other countries are well known: Italy, Colombia, and Mexico come to mind offhand.”
Yes, norms change. But the argument seems strange.
The Mafia is listed as an example, but Italy is offered as a counterexample. The Mafia brought there norms from Italy. They were social norms and they were quite violent. An early version of the Mafia were the Black Hand. The more Anglo-American KKK was very similar, specifically the second KKK around the same time as the Black Hand.
Both the Black Hand and the KKK were anti-democratic and used violence when they saw it as convenient. They were some of the most violent groups in US history and yes many innocents were harmed, and the era when they dominated was one of the most violent in uS history. They both were trying to enforce their versions of traditional social norms and cultures, but they were also strongly opposed. One of the main motivations of the KKK was fighting against ethnics like the Black Hand because they feared changes that were undesired.
These kinds of arguments fall apart when you look at all of the data and look at the entire history. But that isn’t my main point in writing about this kind of argument. All three of these liberals (Haidt, Harris, & my friend) argue for traditional Western values. They may disagree about other things, but they agree about this style of argument. This is what makes them conservative-minded liberals, conservative-minded with a reactionary slant.
It is obviously a popular viewpoint. Even liberals get stressed out by the uncertainties of modernity: globalization, industrialization, de-industrialization, offshoring of jobs, world wars, etc. Everything is changing and we humans don’t have the capacity to easily deal with this on the individual level. It is overwhelming.
My argument is that liberalism can only operate on its own terms during peaceful times and in democratic societies. Liberalism becomes dysfunctional or forms weird hybrid ideologies when it is dominated by illiberal forces. It is only in brief moments when we can see the potential of liberalism manifest without the constraints of fear and anxiety. That is understandable, but unfortunately I don’t think many liberals fully understand this.
38 thoughts on “Conservative-Minded Liberals: Reactionary & Xenophobic”
I really like your quotes, Benjamin- they’re quite representative. And I’m very glad that you raised this issue, because I do think it’s remarkable that liberals don’t see themselves doing this flopping you describe. At the same time, I’d argue that the two-toned nature of a liberal is the norm, and in the narrow sense of how we must handle emergency situations in society, it’s sometimes an inevitable, even desired response, though it needs to be managed much better. This is how I see your statement that the tendency is “central” to liberalism.
Two of the classic questions we’re trying to answer as humans are: what does evil look like? And what does one do to fight evil? Conservatives have a relatively straightforward task with these questions, because they think consciously in those terms a great deal. They frame the world in a competitive way, with good vs. evil being the most important cage fight being waged. For most liberals, that conservative instinct is generally anathema, for all kinds of reasons we’ve both discussed at length. I think part of what you object to in your examples is the way these liberals seem to flop over to the language, stereotypes and judgment inherent in this conservative approach, often unconsciously, when they hit upon a seemingly random subject (to us) that creates uncertainty or stress for them personally. Judgments and harshness suddenly seem to be flying around with the same annoying lack of clarity and justification as we see from the right so often.
In wide contrast to conservatives, each of those questions are separate and really tough for liberals. Most liberals are at least somewhat uncomfortable even thinking in terms of good and evil, even if we’re religious. When we come across something “empirically evil”- a person or sociological phenomenon that does a lot of unnecessary damage in the world- those of us who are thinking like to frame the problem in psychological or anthropological terms to get at solutions or understanding. We start talking about: background stories (the murderer was abused as a child); the way we contribute to the problem (American imperialism as a primary cause of global ills); the acts of God that contribute (corruption and poverty in landlocked African nations as a function of geography); the way those we disagree with contribute to the problem (Iran-contra; aid and social services stinginess; biased, damaging policy decisions; Machiavellian tactics). We also may try hard to default to science to address empirical evil, and we get upset when we see conservatives avoid good science: for instance, we may push for education in Muslim countries as the primary long-term antidote for empirically evil extremism.
I love this discomfort with the good vs evil model that we liberals have. I’d have to say that that discomfort is probably the most noble aspect of modern liberalism for me. I’ll wriggle my way around good vs. evil arguments the rest of my life.
But sometimes I shouldn’t do that. Not necessarily because evil actually exists in a given situation, but because the shorthand notion of evil became good enough in the face of grave danger. The classic situation for me is the pre-WWII military buildup of Germany. Conservatives, led by Churchill, were ignored for years while the western world watched Germany violate the Treaty of Versailles in a series of lies and manipulations that eventually became overt. The liberal arguments during those times against intervention make your heart ache, particularly the inattendant, assumptive and mild ones that carried the day with policy between 1932 and 1935, when many argue it would’ve been easy to avoid WWII’s European theater due to Germany’s weakness. They used many common liberal arguments I’ve used myself in other situations. When the “flop” in public and leadership opinion occurred upon the invasion of Poland, it was 7 years too late, and many millions paid the price.
These last two examples of yours are people who can be seen to potentially be in a similar situation as Churchill, with more or less vague complaints about moral hazard that the rest of us can’t hear well. Sometimes the world requires a shift in policy based on moral judgments. While conservatives find that breathlessly easy at times, the same situations are quite difficult for us, by virtue of the conflict between our certainty-loving nature, and our desire to avoid thinking in terms of good and evil.
What we are really talking about are two methods of dealing with uncertainty, one (conservative) fairly consistent and conscious (conscientious, in the sense of seeing uncertainty as a kind of evil in itself; they’re on the watch), while the other (liberal) is fairly unconscious (implicit), and requires unclear shifts in policy and perspective with new information. Research shows that we love to talk a good game, but in the end we’re only marginally less wedded to certainty and consistency than our conservative brothers and sisters. More importantly, under stressful conditions, there’s no practical difference between us. This means that when social conditions get bad enough, that virtually all liberals will be roughly as xenophobic, inattentive to science, and generally as illiberal as conservatives. We’ll “catch up” really quickly, in a very sad process that plays itself out- unconsciously- in little and big ways all the time in society. I’m of the opinion that this latent, in-waiting attachment to certainty and consistency is what’s behind a lot of the liberal inaction on fronts like poverty, immigration, and gender/religious issues. We like to blame lack of progress wholly on conservatives, but I think we should see our own subconscious ambivalences as the primary source of societal weakness. The progressive clamor for change is more of a whimper because of our internal conflicts. And we have half an ear cocked to conservative arguments at all times, ready to collude (mainly through silence, or muted agreement) at the drop of a hat.
My argument and yours regarding our liberal urge to avoid simplistic notions of evil is only applicable during low-stress times, as you’ve pointed out here and elsewhere. I think it’s quite important that liberals understand the universal human love of certainty and consistency within themselves—that we’re not special in this important sense, but that almost all of us carry this “empirically evil” tendency within us to ignore truth for subconscious reasons. In that sense it isn’t “weird” that we do this, but rather, it’s our default. We saw this, as you point out, when we voted overwhelmingly for the last invasion of Iraq, and are utterly silent now about the fact that vociferous Democratic opposition probably could’ve avoided entry into that war, and the subsequent loss of life and nearly 2 trillion dollars of expense (we don’t hesitate to blame it all on Bush’s manipulations, but I was there: that isn’t fair at all). I recall standing around on streetcorners in a small town protesting entering Iraq and Afganistan with a few dozen others, and the occasional honks of passing cars in solidarity. You probably didn’t even see that level of protest over there. I’m trembling even now as I think of it—I’m still enraged at the muted following of our conservative brethren that happens through this phenomenon. We liberals kill through inattention, driven by the same love of certainty and consistency we castigate so overtly. We were comfortable with the propped-up enemy that conservatives gussied up for us, and we went along. Going-along is the underhanded way that liberals normally express this human love of easy targets, and we do it all the time. This going-along is a subtle but important way the ideologies collude subconsciously, in both bad and good ways. In this case, it’s a great source of suffering in the world.
I’m responding to you with two almost opposing arguments that are inherent in your own, Benjamin, in an effort to flesh your point out. On the one hand, I’m vociferously agreeing with you that liberals should do better, that we should move beyond our love of certainty and consistency to be careful with moral judgments, and recognize when we’re co-opting conservative silliness. At the same time, it’s not fair to Haidt or Harris to imply that evil (or empirical evil) is relatively easy for liberals to address properly. Nor do I see Harris’s kind of advocacy well-characterized when you imply he’s advocating violence.
Poor liberal responses to evil (Hitler, Stalin, America’s latest invasions, early Vietnam, and our general distracted inaction amid known suffering) are some of the most pervasive causes of suffering in the world. I’ve read you enough that I believe you’re quite capable of reacting strongly in the face of injustice. Your arguments against the examples’ views are cogent enough, but there’s an implication that good alternatives (to “violence”?) are many and obvious. I see any good alternative responses as challenging and not at all easy for liberals to see and gather around. When, for instance, is it not enough to point at drones and imperialism and education when fighting the ravages of Muslim extremism- when do we act with violence, or propaganda, or secret tactics, or sanctions? I don’t know–neither does Harris in my opinion—but his effort to frame Muslim extremism as evil that needs a radical response I can’t see as either “weird”, or even necessarily undesirable. There is inherent challenge and risk to addressing evil, as embodied in the example of how we ignored Churchill. Harris and Haidt are trying- crudely, I’d agree- to address this ‘required flop’, if you will, that society demands of us at times, the same way that Burke before them tried to (I’m thinking mostly of his early opposition to royalty).
There are many concepts these two last examples contain that are exemplary of this dilemma, that make me hesitate to condemn them, at least readily. One of my favorites is Harris’s intemperate inference that a nuclear terrorist disaster is inevitable. Like you, I find his dogmatic atheism abominable, and I feel that it bleeds over constantly into his effectively xenophobic, simplistic attack-dog rhetoric about Muslim extremism. But the issue that you only obliquely mention is that there’s a non-zero chance that 1) history may prove him more or less exactly right, and 2) if so, I will have contributed to the disaster through my inaction or my overt opposition to his ideas. The conservative point that Haidt in particular is tackling is that low- but nonzero risks have to be dealt with to have a balanced perspective; that’s a lot of what conservatives see themselves doing. We often pretend on the left that we don’t have to deal with such things, and we’re annoyed that they take up so much conservative processing power (that is one of Harris’s points elsewhere, and I agree completely).
But there is no clear way to know in advance whether talk about risk is genius or ludicrous. Nothing miraculous, or even obvious, can help us understand whether Harris’ point is as urgent as Churchill in 1932, or as dangerous as George Bush in 2002. All we can do is listen to arguments, accept a world of uncertainty and change, machete our way though the fog, and change direction when we come upon cliffs. Which is our least favorite activity. That task is largely what my reach the right site is about: in a way, I’m focused on getting us to address nonzero risks maturely. To make this personal: I hate the notion of addressing maturely Harris’s implication that nuclear terrorism is inevitable, but I feel that I have a moral obligation to do it. I don’t get to pretend as if he’s just “wrong” (we should realize explicitly here that the word wrong has quite a murky meaning when someone is asking us to address small but consequential risks). A conversation has to ensue—hopefully one that’s not driven overwhelmingly by our addiction to certainty and consistency—to assess the risk, define terms, decide how to get bang for the buck toward addressing the risk, evaluating the type and responses to risk (there are 4 distinct types)- all kinds of stuff. And we’re lousy at almost all of it. Maybe even worse than the conservatives, especially if you loop in our ability to execute on our plans as a factor.
I don’t know if you’ll see this as agreeing with you- I hope so. I think I saw almost every point I’ve made brought up by you, so I consider it a clarification. If there’s a difference, I suppose it can be found in me trying to get at what you mean by “violence”, and asserting an apology for Harris and Haidt that tries to put less of a straightforward valence on that term. I do hate defending Harris, but sometimes it must be done.
I don’t know if you’ll see this as agreeing with you- I hope so. I think I saw almost every point I’ve made brought up by you, so I consider it a clarification. If there’s a difference, I suppose it can be found in me trying to get at what you mean by “violence”, and asserting an apology for Harris and Haidt that tries to put less of a straightforward valence on that term. I do hate defending Harris, but sometimes it must be done.
You summarized my view well in the following part:
“What we are really talking about are two methods of dealing with uncertainty, one (conservative) fairly consistent and conscious (conscientious, in the sense of seeing uncertainty as a kind of evil in itself; they’re on the watch), while the other (liberal) is fairly unconscious (implicit), and requires unclear shifts in policy and perspective with new information. Research shows that we love to talk a good game, but in the end we’re only marginally less wedded to certainty and consistency than our conservative brothers and sisters. More importantly, under stressful conditions, there’s no practical difference between us. This means that when social conditions get bad enough, that virtually all liberals will be roughly as xenophobic, inattentive to science, and generally as illiberal as conservatives. We’ll “catch up” really quickly, in a very sad process that plays itself out- unconsciously- in little and big ways all the time in society. I’m of the opinion that this latent, in-waiting attachment to certainty and consistency is what’s behind a lot of the liberal inaction on fronts like poverty, immigration, and gender/religious issues. We like to blame lack of progress wholly on conservatives, but I think we should see our own subconscious ambivalences as the primary source of societal weakness. The progressive clamor for change is more of a whimper because of our internal conflicts. And we have half an ear cocked to conservative arguments at all times, ready to collude (mainly through silence, or muted agreement) at the drop of a hat.”
I’m aware of this ambivalence in myself. My complaint isn’t so much the general ambivalence but specifically the subconscious ambivalence. I’m for embracing the ambivalence which includes embracing these kinds of liberals even as I hope to prod them into awareness. These subconsciously ambivalent liberals are my people. I understand them and sympathize with them. My criticisms are that of a well-intentioned friend.
“I’m responding to you with two almost opposing arguments that are inherent in your own, Benjamin, in an effort to flesh your point out. On the one hand, I’m vociferously agreeing with you that liberals should do better, that we should move beyond our love of certainty and consistency to be careful with moral judgments, and recognize when we’re co-opting conservative silliness. At the same time, it’s not fair to Haidt or Harris to imply that evil (or empirical evil) is relatively easy for liberals to address properly. Nor do I see Harris’s kind of advocacy well-characterized when you imply he’s advocating violence.”
I’m not sure that I was implying “that evil (or empirical evil) is relatively easy for liberals to address properly”. I certainly didn’t mean to imply Harris was “advocating violence”. It’s easier for me to observe what I see than clearly judge it. I see behavior that doesn’t fit these people’s self-conception of themselves. I don’t know what to do but point it out.
“Your arguments against the examples’ views are cogent enough, but there’s an implication that good alternatives (to “violence”?) are many and obvious. I see any good alternative responses as challenging and not at all easy for liberals to see and gather around.”
I honestly don’t know what the implications are, not entirely. I just have this sense of an interesting psychological dynamic going on. Maybe I’m a liberal more in line with MLK. He was so radical that many saw him as a left-winger and he was highly critical of moderates who let evil go unchallenged. I’m not criticize these liberals for challenging evil but for not going far enough in challenging evil. They need to embrace their ambivalence toward evil with awareness and own their projections.
Good alternatives (to “violence)? Well, once again, MLK comes to mind. He deeply pondered how a liberal strikes a balance between the lilly-livered moderation and fear/hatred-fueled vengeance. Good alternatives are hard to find, but we must look for them.
“The conservative point that Haidt in particular is tackling is that low- but nonzero risks have to be dealt with to have a balanced perspective; that’s a lot of what conservatives see themselves doing. We often pretend on the left that we don’t have to deal with such things, and we’re annoyed that they take up so much conservative processing power (that is one of Harris’s points elsewhere, and I agree completely).”
I meant to add some further thoughts to this post along these lines. I’m not disagreeing with this kind of liberal pointing out real problems with immigration and violence. It’s the same way I acknowledge conspiracy theorists often point to important issues while getting lost in paranoid fantasies. I wouldn’t read the views of conservative-minded liberals and conspiracy theorists if I weren’t also concerned about these larger dilemmas. I’m trying to find a way for liberalism to manifest that doesn’t fall into either denial or projection, avoidance or reaction.
“I don’t know if you’ll see this as agreeing with you- I hope so. I think I saw almost every point I’ve made brought up by you, so I consider it a clarification. If there’s a difference, I suppose it can be found in me trying to get at what you mean by “violence”, and asserting an apology for Harris and Haidt that tries to put less of a straightforward valence on that term. I do hate defending Harris, but sometimes it must be done.”
You’re basically just fleshing out my own thoughts. I have nothing against Harris (or other conservative-minded liberals) and I don’t mean to devalue his writings. I sometimes like what he writes and sometimes not. That is fine. I have no plans on banishing him from my utopian vision of a liberal good society.
A point I’d prefer to keep separate, please–I liked very much the first writer’s first main point, which I took to be that Haidt’s model doesn’t at all do justice to the liberal framing of morality. I’d love to see more cogent thought on that point, because everything I’ve heard is kind of cranky and vague, and I think it’s quite an urgent point that needs clarification. I think Haidt would agree; I’ll try to ask him next time we talk.
One important aspect of our liberal view is that our two moral foundations (I prefer to think of it as one, as fairness, like the Golden Rule, but it’s not important) should subsume and include authority/loyalty/sanctity/liberty/, so that the notion of balance is altered significantly. Matured, in my mind. I’m personally offended in a real way to talk about authority or even sanctity as equals to fairness, even though I can agree on their integral applicability to a moral life. I am in constant arguments now with conservatives as a result of Haidt’s work, about this snazzy nature of moral balance. His work can be read as being simplistic, almost mechanistic. Conservatives love the intellectual symmetry of it all, as well as the notion of having double the foundations of us idiots. Little equal-sized blocks, little equidistant lines; lots of lectures like ‘yes, that’s important, but you’re again ignoring equally important…’, which must feel very, very good; getting to abuse yin-yang. Haidt’s work is a giant headache in this context. I’d do free yard work for a year to the supplier of a good alternative, one centered on fairness that tucks the yourmorals.org data in properly.
But to imply that those problems with Haidt’s work somehow reduces his main point is even worse. Getting past the balance bullshit, his main point is simply that useful aspects of the other moral ‘foundations’ should be better leveraged by liberals. Even the simple point that authority/loyalty/sanctity/negative liberty needs to factor in somewhere and somehow is almost everywhere overlooked on the left, and even vilified in some circles. I find this main point absolutely unassailable, and see the tremendous value of Haidt’s moral work to be how well he has made that case. It’s applicable for me all the time: in fact, I think it has key applicability in the above argument regarding liberal certainty-seeking.
It would be a fantasy to assume that one guy solved morality in one swoop, and Haidt’s said as much many times. It’s a useful model. Going ad hominem about Haidt’s need to be superior is to ignore that he’s in the business of getting above things in the sense of modeling, and he has an interesting new model on morality. If anything, he has rather explicitly stated that he now employs a conservative moral view, and that that change has made him a political centrist. He’s switched sides, which is why conservatives agree completely with his model, and why liberals are annoyed and hinting about dreams of moral superiority. None of which has anything to do with the power of the work, the lens it provides on how poorly liberals actually work on what they value.
“A point I’d prefer to keep separate, please–I liked very much the first writer’s first main point, which I took to be that Haidt’s model doesn’t at all do justice to the liberal framing of morality. I’d love to see more cogent thought on that point, because everything I’ve heard is kind of cranky and vague, and I think it’s quite an urgent point that needs clarification. I think Haidt would agree; I’ll try to ask him next time we talk.”
There was actually two separate lines of thoughts that I jumbled together. I could have dealt with them individually, but I’ve already written some very long and detailed posts about Haidt’s work. I’m not sure I have much more cogent thought on the matter. if you haven’t seen these before, check out some of my posts and tell me what you think.
“But to imply that those problems with Haidt’s work somehow reduces his main point is even worse. Getting past the balance bullshit, his main point is simply that useful aspects of the other moral ‘foundations’ should be better leveraged by liberals. Even the simple point that authority/loyalty/sanctity/negative liberty needs to factor in somewhere and somehow is almost everywhere overlooked on the left, and even vilified in some circles. I find this main point absolutely unassailable, and see the tremendous value of Haidt’s moral work to be how well he has made that case. It’s applicable for me all the time: in fact, I think it has key applicability in the above argument regarding liberal certainty-seeking.”
Sounds like an interesting discussion waiting to happen. I’ve surmised that liberals do use all these other moral foundations. It’s just that they don’t use them in a way that Haidt is able to recognize. The reason is that he is using conservative definitions and not realizing these moral foundations can be and are expressed in other ways.
The problem I raise is that these kind of (semi-reactionary) conservative-minded liberals aren’t very aware of much of what goes on behind the scenes of the liberal mind. Haidt has put so much effort in understanding conservatives that he has sacrificed some self-understanding in the process. Or something like that. I’d have to give it more thought.
“It would be a fantasy to assume that one guy solved morality in one swoop, and Haidt’s said as much many times. It’s a useful model. Going ad hominem about Haidt’s need to be superior is to ignore that he’s in the business of getting above things in the sense of modeling, and he has an interesting new model on morality. If anything, he has rather explicitly stated that he now employs a conservative moral view, and that that change has made him a political centrist. He’s switched sides, which is why conservatives agree completely with his model, and why liberals are annoyed and hinting about dreams of moral superiority. None of which has anything to do with the power of the work, the lens it provides on how poorly liberals actually work on what they value.”
My issue is that he hasn’t switched sides. He uses liberalism against liberals. For that reason, conservatives think he is on their side, but if you read between the lines his criticisms of conservatism are harsh.
The challenge is that I’m never sure to what degree someone like Haidt is aware of all this. His model, as I see it, has given him a sense of certainty. There is nothing wrong with that, per se. Liberals, like conservatives, do need some amount of certainty. The advantage liberals have is a potential for awareness in a way that is opposite of the way conservatives tend to think. What irritates me isn’t just that liberals can be unaware but that awareness is so central to liberalism. Awareness is at the heart of liberalism at its best and at its strongest. Unawareness is less problematic for the normal consistent functioning of conservatism.
Here is some of what I’ve written before:
This is an opaquely symbolic way of thinking and speaking. The best way to defend the social order is by disguising it as something other or more than what it is. The moment the social order is clearly seen, it can be openly questioned and doubted. The social order has to be taken as a given of reality in order for it to have power to persuade and inspire. The symbol must become conflated with reality and this conflation is of prime importance, the very heart of conservatism.
I can’t begin to explain how immensely this fascinates me. There is power in this that, as I’ve said before, goes way beyond anything liberalism can accomplish (which is meant as a compliment of sorts). As long as the conflation stands unchallenged, liberalism is pathetically weak (a definite criticism coming from my inner left-winger).
Many liberals don’t understand this or are afraid to speak truth to power. When social order is weakened, all of society becomes threatened by the possibility of change. Only the most radical revolutionary will embrace the new and different without trepidation. Liberals want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin. This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.
Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.
None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how society seems to operate.
I’ll get through the homework regarding your perspective over the next week or so- thanks for the thoughts and references. What I do like about some of the things you say is the breakdown of the moral foundation jargon, which is a little random. Morals, moral impulses, foundations- all a little mushy, especially when you’re veering to a balance idea somehow. And with Haight there’s a succinct little story and a cherry on top (more his interpreters than himself). The underlying science is good, but we need an alternate frame that puts junior ‘foundations’ to work in the service of justice, or makes them conditional..
I did notice you previously had commented on one of my Haidt posts. I forgot about that. I’m more wary about the underlying science. It has to with Haidt’s reliance on unreliable self-reports and non-representative samples.
I don’t mean to sound harsh in my criticisms. We all struggle with issues of self-awareness. That is all the more reason we should point out to one another when we perceive a failure in self-awareness.
Where does or can self-awareness fit into moral foundations? I see self-awareness (know thyself) as a moral foundation of sorts or at least a moral impulse. I think it’s good that so many liberals strive to hold one another to this high standard.
It is only because of Haidt’s liberal-motivated desire for self-awareness that he looked beyond his personal worldview in order to understand conservatives. That is what liberals do at their best. Liberalism is about openness and hence curiosity about and understanding of what is deemed ‘other’. This is why it takes a liberal such as Haidt to make a model like this that attempts to take into account both liberals and conservatives.
I was reading a small part of a book. it’s “Gather at the Table” by Thomas Norman Dewolf and Sharon Morgan. It’s about making amends with our slavery past. In it, one of the authors writes,
“The FBI compiled a report in 2009 of 3,816 cases of race inspired hate crimes for that year alone; 83 percent of the victims were people of color.”
If you’re an immigrant to a Western country, you are more likely to experience a hate crime against you than a native-born is to experience a hate crime from an immigrant. Imagine what this does to immigrants and minorities in general who live in fear. Many of these people were escaping violence and oppression, often a carryover from a colonial past. Then they get to one of these former colonizers and are once again subjected to more of the same.
Also, consider those they leave behind who couldn’t escape. Those people who live in countries torn apart because of the wars, invasions, occupations, coup d’etats, and other political/economic manipulations committed by or supported by these Western governments. Is it surprising that criminals and terrorists are created? It’s called blowback or chickens coming home to roost.
I take violence very seriously. I wasn’t shocked by 9/11 because I was already aware of the terrorism going on in the world. It was the ignorant masses of Americans, left and right, who were shocked… and they were ignorant because the politicians and MSM were ignorant and spread ignorance. We had been meddling in the Middle East since at least Eisenhower’s overthrowing the Shah of Iran. We continually create our own problems and, in our ignorance, we allow those problems to grow. Only after those problems have become too big too handle do we then go into reactionary mode and simply exacerbate the problems further.
It was mostly only those on the left who were warning about these problems all along, but nobody in the mainstream (liberal and conservative) wanted to pay attention. What were these conservative-minded liberals doing before 9/11? Did they criticize the US for its military imperialism that led to 9/11? Were they protesting in the streets against the Iraq War? How would Haidt’s model have prevented the problems that leftists were warning about and the right was ignoring?
I’m for preventing problems before they even begin to develop. It should surprise no one that when we treat others badly they will more likely treat us badly. It’s basic psychology. Fearmongering will just create a world of fear and hence a world of endless violence.
There has to be another response besides blind moderation or fearful reactionary politics, besides doing nothing or doing all the wrong things.
I’m sure you can hear the frustration in my voice.
For most of my adult life, I thought of myself as a liberal and otherwise didn’t give it much thought. But in recent years, I’ve had an increasingly uneasy relationship with liberalism. In place of it, I feel drawn to leftist criticisms of liberalism. And yet I fundamentally still think of myself as liberal.
There is something different about my liberalism. It’s not that I lack all elements of conservative-mindedness. What I seem to lack is the reactionary tendency. I’m sure it exists within me as potential, I sometimes wonder if my severe depression has in some ways grounded my liberalism and allowed it to be more consistent. Or maybe it has to do with having been raised by conservatives partly in the Deep South. Or maybe it has to do with a strain of radicalism I’ve always had that innoculated me from reactionary politics.
I was reading a book about MLK. It goes into his heartbreaking frustration dealing with moderates. I completey sympathized. The worst part is when the moderates get scared, become reactionary and turn against their former allies.
I have a profound mistrust of conservative-minded liberals, whether in moderate mode or reactionary mode. Maybe I’m wrong, but such people seem like potentially greater threats to liberalism than right-wingers. The question of whether consistent liberalism is possible goes hand in hand with he question of whether well functioning democracy is possible.
Even so, my loyalty is to libealism, warts and all. As I said, these conservative-minded liberals still are my people. I know what makes them tick and I know many of them on a personal level. I number them among my friends.
I’m not sure where that leaves me.
This touches upon something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time.
I identify as a Midwesterner and my liberalism is very Midwestern. Despite a minor radical strain, I feel very comfortable in Midwestern moderate culture. And despite my parents’ conservatism, we can meet on the level of this Midwestern moderate sensibility. In the Deep South, the natives there sometimes joked thatmy dad was a secret liberal. And maybe on the Left Coast I’d seem a bit conservative.
The conservative-minded style liberalism is very common here in the Midwest.
I have a post around here about Zach Wahls (I think that is how his name is spelled. He is a born and bred Iowan who made the rounds in the MSM because of a speech he gave and a book he wrote about being raised by two mothers. He was advocating for the liberal value of equality, but he did so by making a very conservative-minded and Midwestern argument invoking the traditional values of community, family and hardwork. It was the perfect expression of Midwestern liberalism.
I have some coworkers, also born and bred Iowans, who fit the description of conservative-minded liberals. They both were raised and still are working class, although one has a college degree in art. Both are union members and one is my union representative. Both are socially liberal and, like most Iowans, they probably vote for Democrats.
Hoever, both also are highly critical of the unemployed and the homeless. Work ethic is a central value to most Iowans, whether conservative or liberal. Fail to be a hardworking citizen of the community and these conservative-minded liberals would heartlessly banish you from the community for a lazy person is worthless. No excuses. Full stop. They have compassion to feed stray cats but not a stray human.
This Midwestern working class liberalism isn’t entirely the same as the reactionary tendencies of the likes of Haidt and Harris. But there is some similarity. These are the knd of people that MLK would have found to be unreliable allies. They are insiders and they jealously would defend against all perceived outsiders. Minorities like MLK never had that luxury for minorities are treated like outsiders in their own country.
In some ways, I have great respect for some basic elements of conservative-minded liberalism. It has informed my own sense of liberalism. I don’t want to be a left-winger who dismisses liberalism out of hand because it is imperfect. One reason I like liberalism is that it can make room for conservatism in a way conservatism can’t as easily do in return.
Maybe this relates to the ambivalence. I’m drawn to the potential inherent in liberalism when its at its best. Part of that potential is the liberal’s psychological ability to shift, but it is also the liberal’s Achille’s Heel.
Let me lay down some of the main points.
First, there is the issue of individual differences, what they are, and what causes them.
Much of it has to do with psychology. I would put Haidt’s moral foundations in this category, but I’d also include traits/types which Haidt doesn’t seem to consider. Haidt’s moral foundations ultimately sounds like a traits theory and so maybe he doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Or maybe he really is offering a unique insight with his model. Either way, bringing in traits research could strengthen and clean up his model. Also, there are models of moral/values development which Haidt also doesn’t consider, at least not in his writings I’ve read. A weakness of his model is that it is static. Without envisioning stages of development to strive toward, his model doesn’t in itself inspire individual and collective betterment. Some conservatives take his model as saying they are already balanced and so just fine as they are.
The other influence I mentioned is culture. This could be broadened to environment in general and hence the broader field of social sciences. I’ve been reading some books by Judith Rich Harris. She looks into the scienific studies and finds strong evidence supporting the view that the larger environment, especially that of peers, is extremely influential. This connects to learned behavior for we model ourselves after what we find in our environment. So, this brings in another angle of human development. Spiral Dynamics theorizes moral/values development doesn’t just happen to individuals but entire societies.
The second angle is that of morality taken on its own terms, something Haidt doesn’t do or necessarily want to do.
As a scientist, Haidt focuses more on description than prescription/proscription. Unlike MLK, Haidt shows no obvious interest in human evil. His model is morally relativistic (a omplaint that some have made) which can have its uses but its weaknesses as well.
Few conservative-minded liberals tend to take evil as seriously as I’d prefer. Taking evil too seriously can lead to radicalism, what both the moderate and reactionary fears most of all. Think of Burke’s fear of what Paine was stirring up with his playing the role of Judeo-Christian prophet on a moral crusade of good vs evil.
To take evil seriously requires taking sides. Haidt doesn’t want to take sides. The role he wants to play is the neutral observer. But to borrow a phrase from Howard Zinn, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.
The reference to Pinker is relevant here. Pinker seems to be arguing that it’s because civilization has sided with liberal moral foundations that violence has decreased. As such, not all moral foundations are equal or should be treated as equal. That is a very clear hypothesis and I imagine someone could devise an experiment to test it.
What do you think?
I came across a good Edge discussion.
“Actually, conservatives frequently have come over to positions advanced by liberals. One can see this in how the culture-war debates evolve. Today there is a debate over gay marriage. Not so long ago the debate was over the criminalization of homosexual behavior—a debate the conservatives lost and gave up on. Likewise, compare the debate over requiring religious institutions to offer health insurance that covers contraception — the culture war issue du jour – with the 1960s debate over whether contraception should be legal in the first place. Here, too, the conservatives lost and gave up. Racial segregation, women in the workplace and then the military, prayer in schools, in-vitro fertilization, decriminalization of marijuana, no-fault divorce—and in earlier centuries, slavery, heresy laws, religious persecution and disenfranchisement, absolute monarchy, corporal punishment in the legal system—the trend in the West has been away from legal systems based on authority, purity, and conformity and toward those based on autonomy and fairness. To a lesser extent the trend can be seen elsewhere in the world (e.g., the enfranchisement of women, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the replacement of Jim-Crow laws with affirmative-action laws, the rise of democracies)—these are global (though jerky and geographically uneven) long-term trends. The current divide between American liberals and conservatives is embedded in a longer continuum that stretches more or less from Denmark at one pole to Saudi Arabia at the otherwith, perhaps, the entire world sliding slowly and jerkily in the Denmark direction (as seen, for example, in the very late but historically inevitable abolition of chattel slavery in Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1962).
“Jon’s theory of moral foundations is indispensable in making sense of these trends. What is less clear to me is whether all of the foundations are equally justifiable on normative grounds, and whether the current weightings that liberals and conservatives give them are irrevocable and beyond rational debate.”
And Haidt responded:
“Yes! I fully agree, this is the trend. And I fully agree that the three “binding” foundations (loyalty, authority, and sanctity) are of most use (i.e., are normatively justifiable from a consequentialist perspective) when societies face strong external threats. As violence and war decline, the need for everyone to hang together and fight an external enemy declines, and we do indeed see a broad movement toward social institutions based on care, fairness, and liberty. Liberals do indeed lead, but sometimes they lead too fast; sometimes they take some wrong turns and have to back up (as with forced bussing and race-based quotas to achieve racial integration—both deeply unpopular because they violated liberty and fairness). Two relevant quotes here:
“Conservatives “stand athwart history yelling ‘STOP!’” (William F. Buckley).
“So I think Steve and Stewart have put their finger on an important idea for the left: It is indeed up to the left to lead – to point out where “progress or reform” are needed. And if they pick wisely and lead in ways that don’t alienate voters who rely on a broader set of moral foundations, then they win, over the course of just a few decades. So now the question for the left is: What’s next, and how will you get there? Will you learn from your past mistakes, learn to understand the intuitive reactions arrayed against you, and commit less “sacrilege” against the sacred values of mainstream voters along the way? If so you’ll get there faster, and with less collateral damage along the way. Who knows, you just might create a stable electoral majority which has eluded the American left for decades.
“I think the next big fight is crony capitalism. It’s money in politics, but it’s also rethinking capitalism beginning from the premise that capitalism is basically good, yet it only produces its bounty when markets are fair and efficient, not controlled by monopolists, and not populated by corporations freed to foist externalities on others. Only governments can exert such control over corporate super-organisms.”
But Haidt shows a problem of the conservative-minded liberal when he responded to Brian Eno:
“Brian is absolutely right that the Right will not lead this issue. Since the progressive era it has always been the left that is more concerned with good government and clean government–in part because they want to USE government to achieve their ends. Brian and John are right that the conservatives are unlikely to embrace an issue once the left makes it its own, but the key for the left is to find an issue that will inspire the left and bring along the center. Everyone is upset about corruption and special privileges. The challenge for the left will be that following this line will require them to alienate the groups that they bestow special privileges upon, such as unions and civil rights groups.”
Conservative-minded liberals make this kind of mistake all the time. They don’t realize they are right of center. Most Americans are far to the left of conservative-minded liberals. This causes many conservative-minded liberals to act paternalistically, claiming to know the American public than the American public knows themselves. Unions and civil rights groups arose out of the experience of average Americans, and they weren’t waiting for the likes of Haidt to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do.
BTW here is a post I wrote about how political elites are disconnected from the general public. This would include liberal elite such as Haidt and Harris.
The basic conclusion is that the political elite, both right and left, falsely assume most Americans are more conservative than they are. It appears that the opposite is the case. This doesn’t surprise me, of course. I’ve long written about public opinion.
If someone like Haidt were to finally understand this simple insight, how might that change his entire view? And how might that in turn inform his own model of moral foundations?
Dennis Junk has a good review of Pinker’s book about violence. Here is a relevant part:
The Better Angels of Our Nature came out about a year before Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, but Pinker’s book beats Haidt’s to the punch by identifying a serious flaw in his reasoning. The Righteous Mind explores how liberals and conservatives conceive of morality differently, and Haidt argues that each conception is equally valid so we should simply work to understand and appreciate opposing political views. It’s not like you’re going to change anyone’s mind anyway, right? But the liberal ideal of resisting certain moral intuitions tends to bring about a rather important change wherever it’s allowed to be realized. Pinker writes that
Classical liberalism—which Pinker distinguishes from contemporary political liberalism—can even be viewed as an effort to move morality away from the realm of instincts and intuitions into the more abstract domains of law and reason. The perspective-taking at the heart of Enlightenment morality can be said to consist of abstracting yourself from your identifying characteristics and immediate circumstances to imagine being someone else in unfamiliar straits. A man with a job imagines being a woman who can’t get one. A white man on good terms with law enforcement imagines being a black man who gets harassed. This practice of abstracting experiences and distilling individual concerns down to universal principles is the common thread connecting Enlightenment morality to science.
So it’s probably no coincidence, Pinker argues, that as we’ve gotten more peaceful, people in Europe and the US have been getting better at abstract reasoning as well, a trend which has been going on for as long as researchers have had tests to measure it. Psychologists over the course of the twentieth century have had to adjust IQ test results (the average is always 100) a few points every generation because scores on a few subsets of questions have kept going up. The regular rising of scores is known as the Flynn Effect, after psychologist James Flynn, who was one of the first researchers to realize the trend was more than methodological noise. Having posited a possible connection between scientific and moral reasoning, Pinker asks, “Could there be a moral Flynn Effect?” He explains,
We have several grounds for supposing that enhanced powers of reason—specifically, the ability to set aside immediate experience, detach oneself from a parochial vantage point, and frame one’s ideas in abstract, universal terms—would lead to better moral commitments, including an avoidance of violence. And we have just seen that over the course of the 20th century, people’s reasoning abilities—particularly their ability to set aside immediate experience, detach themselves from a parochial vantage point, and think in abstract terms—were steadily enhanced. (656)
Pinker cites evidence from an array of studies showing that high-IQ people tend have high moral IQs as well. One of them, an infamous study by psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa based on data from over twenty thousand young adults in the US, demonstrates that exceptionally intelligent people tend to hold a particular set of political views. And just as Pinker finds it necessary to distinguish between two different types of morality he suggests we also need to distinguish between two different types of liberalism:
And Kanazawa’s findings bear this out. It’s not liberalism in general that increases steadily with intelligence, but a particular kind of liberalism, the type focusing more on fairness than on ideology.
A review by John Kwok, a self-identified libertarian-biased conservative, of Haidt’s book goes to the heart of the moral foundation theory. Kwok points out that Haidt’s emphasis on conservative moral foundations is based on inadequate and faulty scientific research:
“However, I think he emphasizes too much, the potential role that Group Selection may have in determining much of human behavior, by invoking it as the primary reason why humans tend to organize themselves into groups, and adhere to “group thinking” that reduces potential cooperation with those who are not members of the same group. (Coincidentally, Haidt’s book has been published months after a controversial scientific paper in which its authors, most notably E. O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, have suggested that much of the decades-long research in Kin Selection – which is Natural Selection as seen via the perspective of individuals and their closely related relatives – is badly flawed, arguing instead for a renewed emphasis on Group Selection.)”
“The main problem I have with moral foundations theory as presented by Jon Haidt is that it doesn’t seem to provide a basis for judging any particular moral feeling to be superior to any other. What basis do we have to say that it is silly for people to cling collectively to a set of irrational beliefs that is impoverishing them? What basis do we have to say that the sense of self-transcendence that a person might feel while engaging in meditation is superior to that which some other person might feel while taking part in a lynch mob? Haidt clearly doesn’t think all moral sentiments are equal, but there is nothing in his model that requires him to give calm philosophical reasoning a higher status than unprocessed emotions.”
“So if group selection is so intellectually and scientifically unproductive, why do we hear so much about it? I think there are two reasons.
“First, its few proponents make a lot of noise. And those proponents include well-known scientists like Martin Nowak, E. O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, and Jon Haidt. Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson published a big (and deeply faulty) paper in Nature asserting that group selection was a better explanation than kin selection for “eusociality”: the social system of animals, like bees and ants, that have sterile “castes” of workers that divide up colony labor, and have one or a few fertile queens tended by those workers. (For links, see my post on the scientific community’s rejection of that paper.) E. O. Wilson has incorporated many of these erroneous ideas into a new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, that will, because of his prominence, be widely read by the public. (I hasten to add that his other biological work has usually been superb.) Wilson’s book has not received much acclaim from scientists: it’s been severely criticized, for example, by Steven Mithen in The New York Review of Books and by Richard Dawkins in Prospect. I’ll be weighing in on the book later.
“Jonathan Haidt, a well-known psychologist with a wide public following, has also pushed group selection in his new book The Righteous Mind. I’ve previously discussed his problematic TED talk on the book and his penchant for group-selection explanations of religion and human cooperation here.
“The problem with all this is that the arguments for group selection are being made in books aimed at the general public, but the critical responses by evolutionary biologists are not only buried in technical papers, but involve arcane scientific arguments that sometimes use (horrors!) mathematics. So while group selection may flourish in the public mind, it’s moribund to most evolutionary biologists who have followed the technical debates in the literature.
“Second, people want to believe in group selection. That doesn’t just include scientists like D. S. Wilson, who has made it his life’s mission to defend the concept, but, more importantly, the general public. We want to think that stuff like religion, cooperation, and altruism have spread by group selection because that involves the concept of harmonious and cooperating groups. Such a notion is deeply appealing to those who have a dislike for the idea of the “selfish gene,” mistakenly conflating that notion with the idea of selfish individuals. As all evolutionists know, or should know, cooperation and altruism can evolve via selfish genes!
“Nevertheless, the idea of group-level adaptations has an innate appeal to those with a penchant for the religious and the spiritual. Why, just this morning the unctuous Krista Tippett (why do people listen to her?) interviewed D. S. Wilson on her “On Being” show on National Public Radio. The topic was Wilson’s attempts to improve his own city of Binghamton, New York using evolutionary principles of group selection. Last year, in a review of Wilson’s book The Neighborhood Project in The New York Times, I strongly criticized his evolutionary-based sociology.
“So while group selection is moribund among evolutionary biologists and many evolutionary psychologists, the criticisms of the idea are buried in the technical literature while its vocal proponents write best-selling books. Behind much of this is the insidious Templeton Foundation, which has for some reason decided to promote group selection, probably because of its religious and spiritual connections and its link to “goddy” things like altruism and cooperation. Both D. S. Wilson and Martin Nowak, for example, are heavily funded by Templeton. And Jon Haidt not only was funded by two Templeton grants (here and here), but they also funded a sabbatical semester for him to write a book in 2003. Plus he won the Templeton Prize for Positive Psychology in 2001. (I guess there’s no prize for Negative Psychology.)
“With all that money and all those megaphones behind it, the idea of group selection persists in the public mind while slowly dying in the scientific community. Yes, it’s dying, but it refuses to lie down.”
A few more interesting reviews/articles:
Click to access Pinker_Edge_2012.pdf
Here is a great piece by Corey Robin which, among other things, shows the dark side of liberalism:
The blacklist was also the work of liberal pamphleteers, executives in the culture industries, influential politicians in and around the Democratic Party, and most prominent of all, J. Edgar Hoover, about whom Arthur Schlesinger wrote:
All Americans must bear in mind J. Edgar Hoover’s warning that counter-espionage is no field for amateurs. We need the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security.
Far from being the object of liberal derision that he is today, Hoover was, in his time, thought to be the consummate rational bureaucrat, a professional of the first order who needed, said the liberals, more money, more resources, more power, not less. As Hubert Humphrey declared:
If the FBI does not have enough trained manpower to do this job, then, for goodness sake, let us give the FBI the necessary funds for recruiting the manpower it needs….This is a job that must be done by experts.
For liberals, Hoover, the ultimate impresario of the blacklist, was someone to collaborate with, not contend against.
The blacklist, as Victor Navasky reminded us long ago, was the triumphant realization of a perverse version of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Everyone pursued their own private or personal definition of the good; the result was cooperation, exchange—and coercion. What’s most striking about the blacklist is just how diversely inspired, and collaborative, its various protagonists were. Some were hardcore anticommunist true believers. Others were cold calculators of the bottom line. Some were patriots, others careerists, and still others cowards. There were liberals, conservatives, socialists, ex-communists, atheists, Catholics, libertarians, Jews.
Most amazingly, these differences didn’t matter. Despite what virtually every modern political theorist—from Hobbes to Montesquieu to Madison—maintains, pluralism and diversity did not lead to liberty, anarchy, or disorder. Instead, they provided more avenues and opportunities for collusion, collaboration, and coercion.
I randomly came across something I wrote on facebook a while back. It fits into this discussion about liberals gone bad or simply gone awry. Let me first offer the link to which it was a response:
And here is my response:
I think I posted this already to fb, but something in the comments came up that really starts to worry me.
The post is part of a series that describes the author’s increasing frustration at the failure of Wikipedia to operate fairly and democratically. This blogger is very liberal, both psychologically and politically. As he gets frustrated, I sense him becoming a disgruntled liberal.
Liberals are usually harmless creatures, until they become disgruntled. Reagan once was a Progressive Democrat and a union leader, and then the Cold War and McCarthyism made him disgruntled. Neo-conservatism was founded by former progressives, Reagan being the most famous example. This phenomena relates to the research that shows how easy liberals become conservative-minded when facing something fearful and distressful such as constant images of the 9/11 attacks, in that case showing more support for Republican policies.
In the comment section, a self-avowed fascist said they would support more regulation of the internet such as ending anonymity. The liberal blogger agreed. When fascists and disgruntled liberals start talking about regulating the internet and forcing others to comply, my inner radical anarchist begins running for the hills.
I recently came across another example of a conservative-minded liberal. This person is also a friend of mine, although not a close friend. He wrote an article this past week:
He writes about an issue that touches upon inverted totalitarianism, a threat to our entire democracy. But he writes it with detachment as if he were dispassionately reporting on any other issue. Yes, he is concerned in some basic way or he wouldn’t be writing about it. Even so, he expresses no moral outrage and no sense of urgency. Instead, he expresses that typical liberal faith in placing facts and reason above emotion, as if emotions were icky and dangerous.
In a discussion with him, he twice responded to my comments. He first wrote:
“Yes, Ben, I probably could have emphasized the heinousness of this more, but hopefully it speaks for itself.”
Actually, no, it doesn’t speak for itself. If it spoke for itself, you wouldn’t have needed to write an article about it.
He then wrote:
“I think there’s a place for righteous outrage, but I also feel style is important. Often people respond better to a piece that’s well-written and gets its points across with subtlety. Blunt outrage can turn people off. As a writer I want not only to communicate my message but to do it in a way that uses context, subtlety and a well-turned phrase. There’s too much bloviation out there already. At the same time there sure seems to be a lot of poking-of-heads-in-the-sand, so we do have a responsibility to speak hard truths… I think the PC would print whatever I wrote, if it’s not vulgar, and I have tried to bring a critique of capitalism into my columns over the years…”
There is no other place for righteous outrage. If you don’t voice that righteous outrage in a public forum, then for all practical purposes that righteous outrage is impotent.
The final point I made was this:
“Moral outrage can be done with style, context, subtlety and a well-turned phrase.
“Yes, blunt outrage can turn people off. But where would America be without the blunt outrage of every person who pushed for social change, from Thomas Paine to MLK (two of the most elegant and persuasive writers/speakers in US history). Indeed, Paine and MLK turned some people off, even as they provoked people to take important issues seriously. I’m sure many people accused such people of bloviating or similar accusations.
“Still, I get what you are saying. You are seeking a balanced approach.”
Indeed, I understand what he is saying. The problem with this kind of liberal is that they will too often put balance, moderation and compromise before justice. They want everyone to just get along. What they don’t want to do is hurt anyone’s feelings and so they stay away from feelings altogether, including moral passion. They’d rather not challenge power too strongly for then someone might think they are radical left-wingers, God forbid.
This is a different variety of conservative-minded liberalism. Instead of attacking an out-group like Muslims, this person fears attacking anyone. In both cases, there is a fear of radical liberalism that would consistently and strongly push liberal values.
There is a commonality between all these conservative-minded librerals. They all are: relatively well off economically, well-educated, white, male, and US born.
These people live in relative privilege. Their lives are comfortable, safe and predictable. Yes, they are also worldly people who aren’t clueless. But they don’t have the tangible everyday experience to really grasp that urgent sense of genuine moral outrage against an oppressive system.
They are concerned and they will voice those concerns. That is good and I don’t mean to devalue it. But they will only take it so far. They fear radicalism more than anything. The one thing they always want to be is reasonable, and they are full of reasons to rationalize with. In the end, their class and/or ethnic identity (unconsciously) trumps all else.
Those on the bottom of society don’t have the privilege to think about issues from a detached and dispassionate perspective. People on the bottom know their lives suck and they know they are caught up in negative patterns within society. If they knew how to escape, they would. But they don’t have a high vantage point to look down upon others or to stand back from the problems they face.
Here is the perfect expression of everything I’ve been trying to say:
“Love Me, I’m a Liberal” is a satirical song by Phil Ochs, a U.S. protest singer. Originally released on his 1966 live album, Phil Ochs in Concert, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” was soon one of Ochs’s most popular concert staples. The song mocks the differences between what liberals say and what they do.
Introducing the song on the live album, Ochs said:
In every American community there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals. An outspoken group on many subjects, ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally. Here, then, is a lesson in safe logic.
“Love Me, I’m a Liberal” is sung from the perspective of a liberal. In the first verse, the singer laments the assassinations of Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy, but says Malcolm X got what he deserved. Each verse ends with the refrain, “So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.” In the song’s other verses, the singer says he supports the civil rights movement, “love[s] Puerto Ricans and Negros as long as they don’t move next door”, and that if somebody suggests busing the singer’s children to integrate their schools, he will call the police. In the final verse, the singer reveals that he used to be like the listener:
Sure, once I was young and impulsive; I wore every conceivable pin,
Even went to Socialist meetings, learned all the old Union hymns.
Ah, but I’ve grown older and wiser, and that’s why I’m turning you in.
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.
According to Ochs’ biographer Michael Schumacher, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” would evoke “a strange mixture of laughter, from nervous tittering from those who recognized themselves in Phil’s indictment, to open roars of approval from the radical factions in the audience.” Eric Alterman describes “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” as “a scorching indictment of liberal cowardice by a bitter adversary, not the good-natured ribbing one might expect from an affectionate ally”.
Most of all, I take MLK’s example very seriously. If one had to choose a single person to model the ideal liberal, it would be hard to find a better one.
MLK sought to save liberalism from the liberals. When MLK was pissed off, he didn’t play nice and talk sweet. No, he kicked ass and took names.
In his jail letter, he literally named names. He called out the lilly-livered moerate liberals. It was a public accounting. In his moral outrage, he meant to shame them out of their yellow-bellied inaction. If inspiring speeches and demands for justice wouldn’t work, then good ol’ fashion shame would have to do.
I’m thinking liberalism could use a calling out about right now. A public shaming would put a fire under the asses of the fence-sitters. It would force them to take sides and either stand by what they claim to believe or denounce the same.
The time for moderation is long gone. There is no way to compromise with injustice. If feelings get hurt in the process, then so be it. A few hurt feelings would be a worthy sacrifice if it awakens the heart of moral outrage and reminds liberals about what liberalism truly means.
MLK reminds me of Haidt’s discovery of emotional appeal and moral intuition.
Hiaidt’s having spent much of his life repressing his own non-rational side can’t be blamed on all of liberalism as he’d like to do. Haidt has to take responsibility for his own repression and not project it onto others.
Liberalism has always had its own tradition of emotional appeal and moral intuition. Haidt didn’t need to look to traditional societies or conservative politics. All he had to do was look to the likes of MLK or further back to the likes of Paine, both fiery writers of righteous outrage.
There is a good reason MLK and Paine remain moral compasses for Americans. The moderate liberals they both critiicized have been almost entirely forgotten, but not these firebrands, these radical liberals. I advocate for a liberalism that will be remembered by future generations, not a liberalism that will be rightly forgotten.
This is why Haidt and Harris will be forgotten and why their relevance is limited. This is why liberalism must be defended at all costs, including defending liberalism against the liberals.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote:
“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
I’d alter it thusly:
“Well-behaved liberals seldom make history.”
Haidt, in arguing liberals lack certain moral foundations, is basically arguing that liberals aren’t well-behaved enough. I, on the other hand, worry about liberals being too well-behaved.
I was glad to see that Harris has begun to see the light. That is what I like about conservative-minded liberals. They are still liberals and they are more open to changing their minds. Often, not just willing but seeking it out.
I can despair sometimes when considering how slow it can take conservative-minded liberals to change their minds, but at least it is a real possibility. In this case, it doesn’t seem that Harris necessarily went too far out of his way to seek this information in order to challenge his own views. Yet when confronted with such information, he accepted it despite having reasons to be wary of the source they came from.
He was able to get past his personal bias in order to look at the data for what it is. I respect that.
“In August, I launched the Moral Landscape Challenge, an essay contest in which I invited readers to attack my conception of moral truth. I received more than 400 entries, and I look forward to publishing the winning essay later this year. Not everyone gets the opportunity to put his views on the line like this, and it is an experience that I greatly value. I spend a lot of time trying to change people’s beliefs, but I’m also in the business of changing my own. And I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be.”
[ . . . ]
“But my primary experience in watching this film was of having my settled views about U.S. foreign policy suddenly and uncomfortably shifted. As a result, I no longer think about the prospects of our fighting an ongoing war on terror in quite the same way. In particular, I no longer believe that a mostly covert war makes strategic or moral sense. Among the costs of our current approach are a total lack of accountability, abuse of the press, collusion with tyrants and warlords, a failure to enlist allies, and an ongoing commitment to secrecy and deception that is corrosive to our politics and to our standing abroad.”
[ . . . ]
“Clearly, this won’t be the last time I’ll be obliged to change my mind. In fact, I’m sure of it. Some things one just knows because they are altogether obvious—and, well, undeniable. At least, one always denies them at one’s peril. So I remain committed to discovering my own biases. And whether they are blatant, or merely implicit, I will work extremely hard to correct them. I’m also confident that if I don’t do this, my readers will inevitably notice. It’s necessary that I proceed under an assurance of my own fallibility—never infallibility!—because it has proven itself to be entirely accurate, again and again. I’m certain this would remain true were I to live forever. Some things are just guaranteed. I think that self-doubt is wholly appropriate—essential, frankly—whenever one attempts to think precisely and factually about anything—or, indeed, about everything.”
That is lovely! What good news. And important. His support of Hitchen’s asinine views was influential, so it’s good to see that mistake finally buried with its progenitor. We need about 400% more ‘war is not the answer’ in this society. That’s my only pure peacenik belief, and it hasn’t wavered in a generation. Now, if he could similarly nuance his coarse, simplistic views on religion, he could influence a whole generation of New Atheists to kick their immaturity down the road to somewhere relatively harmless.
Benjamin, I would’ve liked to respond to some of your thoughts here, but am in the midst of 100 hour weeks in a film project. I hope to respond in April when my life is more leisurely. Thanks for the very good thoughts and the great news.
It’s the conservative-minded liberal’s tendency toward dogmatism that is problematic.
Atheists like Harris express this in terms of dogmatism against all religion (in, as you say, “his coarse, simplistic views on religion”), most especially Islam (along with the ethnocentrism and ethno-nationalism that this view implies). And this dogmatism is what opens the door to a violent worldview, what brings the conservative-minded liberal under the sway of right-wing reactionary fear-mongering.
It’s all of one piece. To tug at the loose thread in one part of it will lead to its unraveling, a slow unraveling but slower is better than not at all.
No problem about responding as you will. Take care of business and come back when you have time. My post will still be here.
I should give credit to one of the early inspirations for this line of thought about conservative-minded liberals. I read this several years ago and it has stuck with me ever since.
Liberals who gleaned most of their news from television in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks increased their support for expanded police powers, bringing them closer in line with the opinions of conservatives, a study by a UW-Madison researcher shows.
In contrast, heavy newspaper reading by liberals was related to lower levels of support for expanded police powers and for limits on privacy and freedom of information, basically reinforcing the differences between liberals and conservatives, says Dietram Scheufele, a journalism professor who conducted the study.
“TV pushed the two groups together in their thinking about post-9/11 policies, such as the Patriot Act. It made liberals more conservative. It took them away from what they initially believed and pushed them more toward a more conservative law-and-order stance,” Scheufele says.
The study, soon to be published in the journal Mass Communications & Society, is based on a survey of nearly 800 residents of Tompkins County, N.Y., in the fall of 2001, shortly after the attacks. Its results have been validated by two subsequent national surveys.
The survey showed that among liberals who watched little television, about 20 percent favored more government police powers. But about 41 percent of liberals who were heavy viewers of TV news supported such measures – much closer to the 50 to 60 percent of conservatives who supported greater police powers, regardless of how much TV news they watched.
The gap between conservatives and liberals widened, however, among heavy newspaper readers.
About 39 percent of light-reading liberals backed restricting freedom of speech in the days after the attacks, versus 31 percent who were heavy newspaper readers. Among conservatives, about 66 percent favored the limits, and nearly 70 percent of heavy readers backed the restrictions.
“Newspaper reading tended to reinforce partisan leanings, partly because it is more selective, readers have more options and seek out their own viewpoints,” Scheufele says. “By contrast, TV coverage is very linear, doesn’t offer any choice and was more image driven. You saw the plane hitting the building time and time again.”
I originally posted about that in a post asking whether right-wingers love war.
Maybe I should ask whether conservative-minded liberals love war. Why are people so easily manipulated by fear?
This seems like simple question, but its implications are profound. It speaks to how we perceive our own (shared?) human nature. This discussion about human nature has been going on for centuries.
I’d like to believe that fear isn’t the mainspring of all that defines who we are and motivates what we do. It is because I take fear seriously that I want to see into what it means and to see beyond it toward some broader meaning and purpose. Those who don’t question fear are the ones not taking it seriously enough.
I forgot part of what I meant to say.
The greatest weakness of liberals is fear (or more generally psychological stress and cognitive overload). And so the greatest danger to liberalism is fear. Liberalism maybe will always fail under such conditions.
This is why liberalism should protect against fear before it becomes established. Liberals need to be more vigilent about fear itself than about the objects of fear. As soon as a liberal is focused on fearing what conservatives tell them to fear, the game is already lost.
Thinking along these lines, maybe it wasn’t new info that changed Harris’ mind. What changed was the environment of fear. Americans have grown tired of and frustrated with the fear-mongering. They see it hasn’t led to any benefit. The fear-mongering has subsided for the time being and so the worst manipulations have subsided.
That is good, but it doesn’t in itself offer hope.
What happens when the next wave of fear-mongering comes along with some new scapegoat? Will Harris go back to kowtowing to power?
How can we protect the liberal movement against such undermining of liberalism? How can we help conservative-minded liberals see that the greatest threat isn’t the scapegoat but the fear-mongering?
The important point isn’t that Harris changed his mind. But whether he has learned the lesson from his mistake.
Is he any more self-aware about his weakness toward being manipulated than he was before? Is he prepared to fight against fear-mongering next time? Does he have the conviction to do what is right and make amends for his wrongdoing? Does he truly understand the sin he committed against liberalism, the severe damage he has done? Has he genuinely been humbled and made wiser for it?
I thought of some other varietes or expressions of conservative-minded liberalism: the extremes of political correctness and narrow identity politics. Conservative-minded liberals focus on group identity/inerests, enforcement of rules and norms, ideological purity, partisan politics, proceduralism, etc.
They can act very much like conservatives. The difference is they maintain a basic loyalty to liberalism, even when it is temporarily sacrificed or constrained.
The conservative-minded liberal worries first about ensuring liberalism for their group for they see the world as a dangerous place for liberalism. And they also worry more about defending past victories than seeking new ones. They curtail their own liberalism in fear of reactionary conservatism taking over. It is constantly on the defensive.
I was just now listening to a lecture on the French Revolution. Bonaparte sought to enforce a new conservative order. In doing so, he eliminated and neutralized all the radical leftist opposition. The remaining liberals in positions of power got on board because Bonaparte was offering security and offering to protect some of the basic reforms the early revolution had brought. To liberals, supporting an emperor was a good deal in exchange for that.
Earler on, though, some of those liberals had been strong supporters of the radical leftism that instituted those reforms in the first place. Liberals are wishy-washy like this. They tend to follow power and try t work within whatever system is available to them.
There were also liberals who didn’t get on board, but they had less happy experiences under Bonaparte.
There was a reason for my thinking about this. I’ve been involved in a Facebook discussion about rape. It is an issue that has come up with the local University of Iowa.
It was a challenging discussion because it is one of those highly emotional issues. It is also an issue involving supporters/advocates who have been victims themselves. Many of them are angry and for good reason, but it brings out the conservative-mindedness in their liberalism. For women, rape is an issue of fear and social stress, as with to a lesser degree the problems of misogyny and gender inequality.
The discussion began with a post that was pushing a slogan. Those who questioned the slogan were criticized. This demanding of groupthink and enforcing of norms is typical of conservative-minded liberalism, especially when is involved identity politics and special interest groups.
I came to realize that for some of these people the rape issue was most fundamentally about identity politics, us vs them. One argument was that no other victims can understand what rape victims feel, that our issue is more important than everyone else’s issue, that anyone who disagrees just doesn’t understand. Voila! Conservative-minded liberalism.
All identity politics can run into this problem, whether it is black power/separatist movements or labor unions. It can lead to self-defeating behaviors with attacking supporters and allies along with potential supporters and allies. A lot of bickering and in-fighting, for which these groups have been famous. It ends up dissuading many people from sympathizing with their plight and joining their ranks.
In response, I was arguing for a radical liberal attitude based on a larger perspective. Instead of the divisiveness of us vs them and my group over all others, I was advocating for unity and cooperation, a shared front and a shared vision. To say my suffering or my problems are more important than yours isn’t helpful But that is where conservative-minded liberalism leads.
Here are some of my comments from that discussion:
There is being morally righteous and there is getting results. Sometimes the two go hand in hand and at times not so much.
If moral righteousness causes activists to attack supporters and allies, it becomes counterproductive. Or if moral righteousness gets in the way of pragmatic concerns of dealing with the problem, it would also be counterproductive.
I am a person more than capable of moral righteousness, but ultimately what I care about are results. In this case, this means reducing the number of rapes by any means available to us, fom public policy to personal responsibility. It also means helping the victms and dealing with the victimizers. Real solutions and human-centered responses are what are needed.
I’m reminded of another subject of debate between my mom and I. She is for banning abortions. And I’m against it.
I’ve pointed out to her that studies show that countries that ban abortions on average have higher abortion rates. This is because banning abortions tends to go along with banning other pragmatic programs such as full sex education, birth control availability and women’s healthcare clinics (all of which reduce unwanted pregnancies in the first place and so reduce the number of people looking for abortions).
With the ssue of abortions, social conservatives have to decide whether they are more concerned with moral righteousness or pragmatic results. The same choice exists for every moral issue.
It’s easy to get caught up in moral righteousness and it does have its place, but our focus should be on the problem itself and anything that will bring improvements. There are no easy answers. The best we can do is create greater public awareness for the problem and work from there.
The best way to move forward is cooperation, not divisiveness. That requires dialogue. It also requires not automatically assuming the worst of others and instead offering the benefit of the doubt when there is potential for misunderstanding.
As far as I can tell, all of us in this discussion are against rape and are for punishing rapists. We are on the same side.
There is no way to talk about rape without talking about the larger culture of violence and victimizating. Separating and isolating problems is the problem. That is the main theme of Jensen’s writings. He specifically connects sexual abuse into that larger context.
It isn’t just about violence. That was my whole point. I was trying to get at a deeper understanding.
There are numerous varieties of victimization, some truly horrific: torture, enslavement, etc (all still happening in the world, for both men and women). Victimization lives in the minds of all victims in a way others can’t understand.
That is what I’ve been trying to communicate, although I seem to be failing in my attempt.
By mentioning other forms of violence and victimization, I’m not lessening or dismissing rape. I’m putting it in a larger context that gives greater insight into the problem, hopefully. If rape was a problem in isolation and disconnected from all other problems, it would be easier to grapple with. But that isn’t the case. To deal with rape requires us to simultaneously come to terms with what motivates all violence and victimization.
Yes, each and every form of victimization is unique for no experience can be simply translated. Because of this, a major challenge is seeking to understand the experience of others and have compassion, even when or especially when we don’t fully understand. I don’t need to be raped, tortured, or enslaved to have compassion for the victims of these crimes against humanity.
Our whole society is a patriarchy which goes hand in hand with it also being a hierarchy of class, race, ethnicity, etc.
A well off white Anglo-American woman can’t begin to understand the even greater misogyny and gender inequalities experienced by a woman who is poor, a minority and an immigrant. Even a woman who has been raped can’t imagine what it would like to be a sex slave (and many sex slaves are young boys).
Such problems are magnified as you go down the various chains of hierarchy. And they are tangled up in ways that may be impossible to separate.
It isn’t just men who are raised to hate weakness. Everyone in our society is bombarded from a young age with this message. And sadly many women intentionally or unintentionally spread this message as well, most directly to their own children.
Victimization is a cycle, nearly every victimizer having once been victimized. If you were look to the backgrounds of rapists, you’d probably find many (most?) of them had been sexually abused themselves when younger. All children are in a position of weakness, including male children.
Weakness isn’t just personified by the feminine, but any and all traits of any group found on the bottom of the totem pole. To pick at one thread of victimization is to begin to unravel the entire fabric of victimization.
Can rape and the victims of it be understood in isolation? Or do we miss out on deeper understandings and more fundamental issues when we focus too narrowly?
Also, how does identity politics and special interest groups fit into this? If all acts of violence and victimization are seen in isolation, if all victims are solely focused on their group’s interest, then where is the opportunity for large-scale organizing of shared interests? If one person sees their interests and their problems as more important than those of others, what will allow for larger and more diverse alliances?
If we are all fighting our separate battles and often fighting one another, how will progress be made?