Poised on a Knife Edge

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
~ Edmund Burke

I spent much of the day looking back at old posts. My purpose was to find my various writings on the revolutionary era, specifically in relation to the American Revolution. I was doing so in order to link to them in the post I just wrote, about democratic republicanism in early America.

In my search, I came across a post from several years ago. It is sort of a rambling book review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, the topic being the relationship between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. What caught my attention was the comments section. I sometimes put more into the comments section than I do in the post itself. A longtime friend and reader of the blog left a comment, which is partly what led me to go off on some tangents there.

As one of my responses, I quoted at length from Corey Robin’s writings. One quote came from the first book I read by him, The Reactionary Mind:

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Robin explains what Burke meant by the moral imagination, explains why such power exists and what nullifies it. That is why I began this post with the quote by Burke. Here is the fuller context from the 1759 text (“A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful”, Part Two, Section III – Obscurity):

To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion.

It’s not just the power of the mind. Moral imagination is what extends power over people, the emotional grip of distant or hidden authority, human or otherwise. Sublimity and fear, awe and terror.

But this misses the subtlety of this power. Moral imagination is everpresent, the pervasive force that puts blinders on our vision, hypnotizing us into a reality tunnel and sometimes full epistemic closure. As Burke puts it, this forms the wardrobe of our moral imagination, from which we clothe our experience of the world. This wardrobe holds the social constructs of the mind, the ideologies and narratives of society, the customs and norms of culture. It is just there, all around us, enclosing us, a familiar presence, and yet near impossible to see directly, most often barely glimpsed at the periphery of our awareness. It’s power is in its simultaneous obscurity and presence, the unseen depths of unconsciousness with an undertow that can be felt.

Also in the comments section, I pointed to the connection to another writer: “I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.” What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.” That stood out to me most of all. There is a simple reason for this, as I had just recently mentioned Ligotti (in relation to True Detective) to this same friend when he came to visit me. I had forgotten about these comments. Reading them again, I saw them in new light. That involves a more important reason for these comments interesting me. Ligotti was making a deeper point than mere commentary on horror fiction. The most horrifying other is that which is unseen and that is its power over us.

This all connects back to the ongoing development of my own theory, that of symbolic conflation. But I forgot about an earlier post where I brought Burke into the context of symbolic conflation. It was for a different reason, though.

In that post, I explained Burke’s role as an outsider and how that positioned him as a purveyor of symbolic conflation. The moral imagination is all about this, as symbolic conflation is the beating heart, the meeting point of the imagined and the real. The centrality of the outsider status also brings into play the reactionary mind, according to Corey Robin, for the outsider sees most clearly the threat of boundaries being transgressed and all boundaries are ultimately boundaries of the mind. A symbolic conflation is a wall that both marks and establishes the boundary. It makes the boundary real and, in doing so, defends the authority of claims about what is real.

This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. As Robert Burton explained in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Kindle Locations 2459-2465):

our logic is influenced by a sense of beauty and symmetry. Even the elegance of brain imaging can greatly shape our sense of what is correct. In a series of experiments by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, it was shown that “presenting brain images with an article summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to other articles that did not contain similar images. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination and credibility of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images.” The authors’ conclusion: “Brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.” *

The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.

* * *

* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic.)

A Conservative’s Personal Experience

A while back, I was talking to a conservative Christian. He is a white guy, a typical American from the older generation.

He mentioned to me an experience he had that changed his view on an issue. At the church he attends, there was a talk given on a subject and from a perspective that few Americans get the opportunity to hear. The speaker was a Palestinian Christian who gave the details of his personal experience. His talk was about living in Palestine with Israel as a not-so-friendly neighbor.

Most Americans, especially conservative Christians, probably never think about Palestinians as including Christians. When they think of Palestinians, they put them in the category of ‘other’ and hence in the category of ‘enemy’. Palestinians are portrayed in the MSM basically in terms of the enemies of the Israelis, and every American knows the Israelis are the good guys. The Israelis escaped the oppression of the Nazis and they are our allies who help us in the fight against terrorism. Meanwhile, Palestinians are supposedly all Arabs and Muslims, despite the fact that Palestinians are genetically and culturally the original Jewish population that never left.

This guy noted how angry this Palestinian was. This did bother him because angry Palestinians are the bad guys. But he couldn’t dismiss him. First, he was a fellow Christian speaking at this guy’s own church. Second, he was a real person, not just a picture of a person on the news or a caricature portrayed by a right-wing demagogue. This Palestinian’s Christian experience became also real for this American white guy, and so a sympathetic connection was formed.

Like a typical American, specifically one who is from the right side of the spectrum, he had always seen just one side of the story which was the official Israeli government perspective as parroted by the American MSM. It is all he knew for no media he encountered ever challenged his understanding. He existed in a media bubble and didn’t even know it. This was no fault of his own, not in any direct sense. He didn’t realize he was being deceived and being given partial information, and so didn’t know to challenge it.

Hearing this Palestinian Christian’s experience, he suddenly saw that the situation was a lot more complex. There was no straightforward good and bad guys. More importantly, he came to understand that the official Israeli position wasn’t beyond questioning, especially from a moral perspective. It is one thing for Muslims to be oppressed by Jews, but it is a whole other matter for Christians to be oppressed by Jews. To the conservative Christian, Christians are most definitely the good guys for Christianity is the religion of the West and specifically of the United States.

Personal experience is the one and only thing that can challenge propaganda and rhetoric, lies and manipulation. When you look at so many fears and hatreds people hold, it almost always goes hand in hand with a lack of personal experience in relation to what is feared and hated, whether gays or Palestinians. If a conservative has their own child come out as gay or if a conservative meets a Palestinian in person, then the entire context shifts and it no longer is in the realm of abstract moral absolutes. In bringing an issue down into messy personal experience, it becomes viscerally and emotionally real. It is harder to hate or fear someone who you get to know as an individual human being.

Every moral and political battle is fought on the level of the personal. Minds are changed one at a time.

Compassionate Conservativism, Where Art Thou?

In talking to those on the political right, I wonder why compassion is such a difficult thing for so many of them. Just basic human decency, it’s not complicated.

They give me endless reasons why not to be compassionate. Imagine if they spent all that effort thinking up reasons to be compassionate.

Anyway, why do they need reasons to act morally, to respond with basic human sympathy and care? If they allowed themselves to treat other people as humans as worthy as themselves, what horrible thing do they fear would happen?

Shadow of the Golden Rule

Mass incarceration isn’t just about criminals. Racism isn’t just about minorities. Economic inequality isn’t just about the poor. Animal abuse isn’t just about animals. Et cetera.

This touches upon a fundamental truth, a truth that has been stated in many ways by many people, from Jesus to Gandhi: You can tell a lot about a society by how are treated the least powerful and privileged, the most unfortunate and disenfranchized.

There is no such thing as a moral society that doesn’t treat all citizens justly and fairly. There is no such thing as a free people that denies basic rights and freedoms to a permanent underclass. There is no such thing as a democratic country that is also a police state and a military empire.

Any rhetoric to the contrary is blatant hypocrisy and self-deluded rationalization.

These issues are never about a single demographic. This is for two reasons. 

First, these problems are shared by everyone who is one way or another implicated or even complicit. No person goes unaffected. These are social problems in the largest sense.

Second, these issues are representative of a vast web of issues. They are symbolic of something fundamental to a culture and political system. How the least among us are treated speaks to how we are all treated. It gives hint to how a society is actually structured and operates.

This is the reason that as mass incarderation increases the U.S. increasingly takes on characteristics of a police state such as a militarized police force. A prison shows starkly something that is true about all of U.S. society. The more citizens are imprisoned the larger and more pervasive the entire system of social control becomes.

The Golden Rule states that we should treat others as we’d like to be treated. There is a shadow cast by this nice-sounding aphorism. How we choose to treat others is how we ourselves will be treated. Or to state it colloquially, what goes around comes around. We can’t escape the consequences of our own actions, which is even more true on the collective level.

Moral Accounting Versus Shared Suffering

There is a game humans play. It is about counting wrongdoings and measuring suffering. Whoever has had the worst experience, whoever has suffered the most wins. You get extra points for being a victim.

This is something all people do, left and right, women and men, young and old. Everyone has something that has hurt them or something they fear will hurt them. Some of these ’causes’ seem more objectively valid than others, but they all are real within the person’s experience.

This is the game of moral accounting. I don’t mean to judge this game as wrong. I’m one to do moral accounting when it comes to social problems. And I’ve been known to do it on a personal level. My long-term severe depression is the cross I bear. Through it, my understanding of the world feels justified. I have suffered. I know suffering. But so have almost everyone, one way or another. We all need to remind ourselves that we aren’t special, that our suffering isn’t unique.

How can I say my suffering is greater or less? There is no way to compare suffering. Suffering is suffering is suffering, the great equalizer. Obviously, in this life, suffering hits some people far worse than others. Yet we are incapable of being objective about it. Our own suffering is always worse, in our own experience.

Too easily, suffering can shut us down, close us off, isolate us from the world and from other people. Suffering, sadly, often divides us from the larger experience of shared human suffering, an experience that would lead us to compassion, even when we can never truly understand the suffering of another.

Why is this embracing of compassion so difficult? Why do we nurse our wounds as if from them we could shape weapons and armor to defend ourselves with? What do we fear would happen if others discovered our secret pain, if we just let our suffering be?

 

Morality-Punishment Link

Morality and punishment share an interesting relationship. Society seeks to punish immoral acts. But I also thought of how a relationship between the two applies in the opposite direction.

Take AIDs as an example. It carries its own punishment or rather it is the punishment. The moral crime that is supposedly being punished is sexual promiscuity. AIDs has a stigma. To be infected proves you are guilty, within a particular worldview. However, in reality, not everyone gets AIDs from sexual promiscuity and not everyone who gets infected becomes sick. If a simple prevention or cure for AIDs were discovered, the morality-punishment link would be broken.

There are many other STDs that don’t capture the moral imagination. The reason they don’t is because they are easily cured if caught early enough. There is less consequence and so they seem less attractive to moralizing. How can you know something is morally wrong without a moral punishment that follows from it?

This works for other issues as well. The reason why a certain type of person sees the poor as moral failures is because poverty is seen as a punishment in the ‘natural’ scheme of things. Any negative consequence is easily transformed into a moral punishment. This type of thinking particular captures the religious mind; after all, if not God or the Devil, who else causes people to suffer or not? The Invisible Hand of the ‘Free Market’ is just another supernatural being doling out moral punishment and reward, an economic Santa Claus who keeps a list.

This points to what is so interesting about the world of Star Trek: Next Generation. Most major problems have been solved, especially poverty and hunger and probably STDs as well, although the latter doesn’t seem to come up in the show. That future utopia has almost permanently broken the morality-punishment link. There is no negative consequence for being lazy or for being perceived as lazy by others. The conservative moral imagination is severely weakened in that world.

Liberals do seek to break this link in many ways. Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.

12 Years a Slave, 4 Centuries an Oppression

I watched, along with some friends, the movie 12 Years a Slave. We all enjoyed it or rather appreciated it, in spite of the depressing and horrifying quality of the narrative. Part of its impact is knowing it is based on an autobiography which is being portrayed with as much historical accuracy as is possible in a mainstream film, gruesome whippings and lynchings included.

There is great power in a story. Even a fictional story like Uncle Tom’s Cabin was able to spark a political transformation across an entire nation. An autobiographical narrative is able to cut even deeper.

It put into context the books I’ve been reading about race and racism. Many of them are great books, but even the most insightful analysis can’t compete with a compelling and heart-rending personal narrative. Only Black Like Me by Griffin comes close to 12 Years a Slave and it does so by coming from a very personal angle.

This is the challenge of non-fiction. I love knowledge. There is nothing greater than truth expressed, most especially an uncomfortable truth and even moreso when it challenges power or breaks a oppressive silence. At times something can be explained and given voice so as to make it tangible and real, something that was only vaguely felt before.

A book as I describe can be found in the example of The New Jim Crow which is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long while, but I wonder how many people it will reach simply because it is a dense book filled with data. If the world was just or if most people cared enough about trying to make the world more just, The New Jim Crow would be read far and wide. Yes, it is dense with data, but oh what mind-blowing data it is and what a damning case the author makes with that data. What many only suspected before is made absolutely clear with this book.

Still, even that book doesn’t even come close to the soul-despairing indictment made in the best books by Derrick Jensen, an author not part of my present reading project. He doesn’t as directly focus on the issue of race and racism for his scope is more broad while also being more personal. I was thinking that only Jensen has ever touched me as deeply as a movie like 12 Years a Slave, more deeply actually in that he shows how the horror of violence and oppression isn’t a thing of the past or even just an issue of a single race.

We need someone equivalent to Jensen with a more direct focus on race and racism. A closer equivalent would be What’s the Matter with White People? by Joan Walsh. She connects personal experience and larger issues in a way that is useful, but nowhere near as profound or insightful as Jensen.

There are many good books and movies out there. If anything, we are swamped in worthy works. In the past, many people were ignorant because of a lack of info or lack of access to info. But that is no longer the case. No one has an excuse to not understand the problems of our society, the racism and other prejudices, the oppression and violence, the victimization and impoverishment, etc.

One of my friends I went to the movie with made a comment that I thought was problematic or misses something important. She said that those slave-owners had to have been insane. No, they weren’t insane, well no more insane than most people at that time and I’d argue no more insane than most people today. We all are largely blind and indifferent to the immoralities and injustices all around us, even when they directly involve us. If we were to face the immense suffering of our society, we’d be overwhelmed by despair (or that is the fear). But maybe there is no way forward except through that despair, scary as it seems.

Even more than that, we are afraid of the guilt that would follow, guilt about what has been done and continues to be done, guilt about what hasn’t yet been done and should be done. This is our shared society. We are all responsibility for the way things are. None of us are innocent. There is no place in this world for innocents. Only those who are able to feel guilt will be able take moral action. As there is power in a story, there is power in guilt. Shame is disempowering, but guilt when deeply felt creates a moral imperative.

How do we as a society move past shame and denial? How do we let go of our fears and face what must be faced? We are filled with potential more immense than any despair. We can continue to re-create the same old problems and failures or we can find a new path forward. I’m not alone in understanding this choice. In many different contexts, I hear people saying the same thing across the political spectrum. We feel stuck, but the necessary insight is to realize that we are stuck in a trap of our own making. If whites were to let go of their shame and blacks to let go of their anger, how might we redirect our focus on solving our shared problems?

Ideology and Empathy

My relationship with my parents has been stressed. It’s not just this past campaign season and the elections, but it does have to do with politics in general. I’ve seen this coming for years (by which I mean the larger social trends beyond just my parents), even if I couldn’t predict the personal impact it would have on my parents.

Back in the Bush presidency, I began to more fully understand the trends that were shaping the future. Conservatives thought they were on top of the world. Their narrative had dominated national politics since Reagan, even finding ways to capitalize during Clinton’s presidency. They had been angry and righteous for a long time, and it made them feel powerful, almost untouchable. They knew that they were the Real Americans. They knew they were the moral majority. The problem was that their knowledge was incomplete and not perfectly correlated to certain social realities.

George W. Bush was the culmination of the entire Southern Strategy: white Texan good ol’ boy (at least in persona), born-again Evangelical who spoke in grand religious terms (of America as a Christian nation and of good vs evil), social conservative who gave up alcohol and funded abstinence-only sex education, fiscal conservative who pushed tax breaks (especially for the “job-creators”) and trickle-down economics, and on and on. But it all ended in failure. It turned out to not be all that they dreamed of. They were lost and confused, and then they were defeated.

Along came Obama. He had vision and narrative, just like they once had. He pointed out the failures of conservative rule. The anger and righteousness of conservatives was magnified a thousandfold, verging on bitterness and cynicism. Out of this, the Tea Party formed and swayed the entire Republican Party along with the entire right-wing media.

Now, conservatives like my parents claim that Bush never was a real conservative and that they never cared about him, but they sure didn’t feel that way at the time. Anyone who questioned the Great, Wise Leader (particularly in his first term) was considered un-American and possibly a terrorist or at least a terrorist sympathizer, definitely someone of questionable morality and allegiances. I find it odd that my dad in the past often reacted with sensitivity to any criticism of Bush as if it had been a personal insult, yet now doesn’t even consider Bush a conservative. If it’s fine for “real conservatives” to criticize Bush, why isn’t it fine for everyone else to do so?

I’m not blaming my parents for changing their minds. I wouldn’t like a conservative call it flip-flopping for as a liberal I highly value the ability to change one’s mind. It would just be nice for them to acknowledge how much they once praised Bush and how they didn’t at the time argue that Bush wasn’t a real conservative.

I spend a lot of time with my parents. I care about them. Even as I judge conservatives, I all too well understand there is a personal side that goes beyond mere politics. My parents feel hurt and attacked, as if people like them no longer matter. From their perspective, they’re just trying to be good people, just trying to be responsible citizens. They’ve always played by the rules. They’ve worked hard. They don’t understand how everything went so wrong. They just don’t understand and they don’t feel understood.

What I wish they understood is that everyone wants to be understood. It seems to me that they want something that they haven’t always been willing to offer to others.

Yes, my parents have worked hard. But so have many others. There are hundreds of millions of people in America and billions of people in the world who have lived more difficult lives than my parents. Most of these people have suffered and struggled for no fault of their own, just circumstances of their birth. They get less understanding than my parents have received. They get less benefit of the doubt. They get fewer opportunities and fewer second chances. My parents have never known the lowest depths of poverty, extended unemployment and welfare (or, worse, depending on welfare despite being employed, never being able to make ends meet with minimum wage), having to choose between paying the bills or feeding one’s children, a life of homelessness with few if any prospects of escaping the streets, being treated with negative prejudice by the police and courts because of their skin color, etc. Relatively speaking, my parents have lived a life of privilege (and so have I, although my generation fared worse than did theirs).

Conservatives like my parents often feel very little empathy and compassion towards those deemed different or other. It’s not that conservatives are intentionally trying to be mean-spirited. They just don’t feel it on a gut-level. It’s not a part of who they are, not part of their life experience. The undocumented immigrant seeking to escape the violence and poverty of Mexico (that Americans have helped to cause), well too bad for them, they are foreigners, not ‘us’. The poor who have known generations of poverty along with oppression and prejudice, well too bad for them, it’s their own fault, they should quit complaining and work harder. Obviously, this isn’t the response Jesus would give, but that doesn’t seem to bother many conservatives, if they ever think about it. That said, my parents are more likely to think about it than some conservatives, but I’m not sure it often causes them to deeply question their own privilege.

In the end, I want to understand conservatives, even if many conservatives are unwilling or unable to return the favor to others. The reason I want to understand is that I have that basic liberal/leftist sense of all of us being products of our circumstances. My parents didn’t choose to be the way they are and I didn’t choose to be the way I am. There is no credit to be taken or blame to be given. People are just people, doing the best they can for the situation they find themselves in. Sometimes understanding is the best thing we can offer to others.

What frustrates me the most is knowing that my parents genuinely are good people. I’m sure most conservatives, like most people, are good people. It’s not that my parents lack the ability to empathize, but it’s just not their first response when dealing with people they don’t personally know or identify with, especially when it comes to groups that have been made into political scapegoats.

Let me return to the example of undocumented migrants from Mexico.

Mexican immigrants aren’t coming here for the fun of it or even for the free goodies (e.g., welfare). They are coming out of desperation. They risk their very lives to cross the border. They could die of heat, be murdered, kidnapped, sold into slavery, or any number of horrible ends… yet they come anyways, risking everything, many of them putting their entire faith in God to protect them and their families. They are that desperate, but most conservatives still wouldn’t naturally think to first compassionately empathize or to consider how American policies contribute to their misery. The US War on Drugs has created a thriving black market. American money funds Mexican drug cartels, criminals and corrupt politicians. American guns go across the border to help fuel the endless violence (and then Americans complain when a tiny fraction of that violence spills back over). All of us Americans are part of the problem for our government is part of the problem, but it never occurs to most conservatives to accept responsibility for being a part of the problem; instead, they blame the victims who are just trying to escape the misery.

I could present all of this to my parents. If I pushed the case hard enough, I might be able to get them to give a more empathetic response. However, they wouldn’t likely come to such a response on their own, at least not about such issues as undocumented immigrants. I don’t want to twist someone’s arm just to try to get some empathy. I’d like to live in a world where most people respond with empathy as their default position, idealist that I am.

I was just now reminded of the quote conservatives like to repeat: “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before.” There is some truth to it. Fear will make even liberals more conservative-minded, even if only temporarily. But the underlying worldview is questionable, that fear represents the norm of reality and mugging represents the norm of human behavior. I wouldn’t claim that the conservative response is always wrong, but it is problematic if one is stuck within a worldview of fear. When fear closes down the normal human response of empathy, that is when people act without compassion such as mugging others. A lack of empathy sadly too often leads to a lack of empathy, fear to fear, violence to violence to even more violence; a vicious cycle of crime leading to desperation and desperation leading to crime, ever escalating (as seen with the War on Drugs which has led to an increase of drug use, drug sales and drug-related incarcerations; and similar to what is seen with abstinence-only education and abortion bans which lead to an increase of teen pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies, abortions and STDs).

In considering the conservative response, I see something even more fundamental going on. It’s not just an issue of ideologically moralizing about empathy and compassion. It goes to a deeper level of how we view the world and experience reality, a level of the psyche that isn’t easily accessed by the conscious mind for our fundamental worldview is formed prior to even our sense of self being fully formed. This has to do with how one is raised or rather the environment in which one is raised. I keep coming back to the research that showed kids who grew up in multicultural environments tended to become socially liberal as adults (and vice versa for kids who grew up with monocultural environments).

That is essentially what differentiates my parents and I. A simple, yet crucial difference. More importantly, a difference that neither my parents nor I chose for ourselves, like everyone else simply a given of the social world we were born into.

This is why it’s so frustrating. After reaching adulthood, people rarely change. My parents experienced plenty of multiculturalism as adults, but they didn’t experience it during the key formative periods of youth. They can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a multicultural world, just as I can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a monocultural world. Morality and ideology fails us in this conundrum.

I can’t say my parents are objectively wrong for putting their principles before empathy. All I can do is argue that principles not based on and instead contrary to empathy aren’t worthy principles… but that is an opinion that is only persuasive to those who already agree with me.

Is there a way to frame the discussion so that conservatives would understand the central value of compassionate empathy? I know my parents would like to be empathetically understood by others. Such a desire is a potential beginning point for developing an ability and willingness to offer this to others. But why does the plea for mutual understanding almost always end up being characterized as a liberal agenda? Doesn’t mutual understanding benefit all, conservatives included? Is there a reason conservatives don’t want mutual understanding? Do they think some people don’t deserve it because they didn’t morally earn it? Do they see understanding offered freely as a moral danger, both to the person receiving and the person giving?

As always, I wish I understood.

Re: The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives

In this post, I will analyze Jonathan Haidt’s study (in partnership with Brian A. Nosek and Jesse Graham) about liberal and conservative perceptions of and stereotypes about moral foundations:

“The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives”

Haidt did this research on self-identified conservatives and self-identified liberals which invalidates it from the start. Self-report data is notoriously unreliable.

Here is a good summary of the study and in summarizing the author unintentionally pointed out the problem of self-reports:

One of the applications of those pairings is a study that Haidt describes in Reason this way:

“In a study I conducted with colleagues Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and con­servatives could understand each other. We asked more than 2,000 American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a ‘typical liberal’ would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a ‘typical conservative’ would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about ‘typical’ partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right. Who was best able to pretend to be the other?

“The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as ‘very liberal.’ The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the care and fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with statements such as ‘one of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal’ or ‘justice is the most important requirement for a society,’ liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree.”

In other words, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.  More precisely, conservatives’ version of liberals matches liberals’ version of themselves better than liberals’ version of conservatives matches conservatives’ vision of themselves.

That last sentence hits the nail on the head, without the author realizing it.

Haidt was studying perception. He oversimplified his conclusions by stating the liberal perceptions of conservatives were wrong for the reason they didn’t match conservatives’ perceptions of themselves. This is oversimplified because, as Haidt should know, self-perceptions are often inccorect (while apparent stereotypes aren’t always incorrect). Haidt would need to also measure the accuracy of self-perceptions among conservatives and liberals.

Haidt is measuring the symbolic ideology rather than the substance on specific issues. This is a failing not only of this particular study by Haidt but also a failing of his other studies as well. As far as I can tell, he is only using self-report data in developing his Moral Foundations Theory. He is asking people what they identify as and asking people which values they identify with (i.e., symbolic ideology). Neither of these gets at people’s pragmatic ideology or gets at whether people’s stated beliefs conform to the less-conscious values they act according to. It certainly doesn’t get beyond the superficialities and biases of self-perceptions and self-reports.

Maybe the difference Haidt is measuring is being incorrectly analyzed. Maybe liberals are correct in their views of conservatives while conservatives themselves have less accurate self-awareness about their own conservative values. Maybe liberals are looking past the rhetoric and talking points to the actual behavior of conservatives. Actual behavior says a lot more about someone’s actual values than their own claims about what they theoretically or idealistically value.

One of the conclusions that Haidt comes to in the study’s paper is that liberals and conservatives are closer together than either side realizes. This is probably true in one sense and untrue in another sense. This is true when speaking of the average American in terms of the average liberal and the average conservative. However, the problem is that the conservative movement includes a significant number of people who are fairly liberal in their political positions.

If these politically liberal self-identified conservatives were removed from the measure of conservatism, then the average conservative would be much further to the right. There is no similar percentage of politically conservative self-identified liberals and so the average liberal would remain about the same. So, Haidt would come to different conclusions if he did a study that categorized people according to their political positions rather than their political labels.

There is an even further point of possible confusion. Haidt does at least distinguish a third group of  ‘moderates’. Polls show that most Americans will identify as conservatives if ‘moderate’ isn’t given as a choice. But if ‘moderate’ is given as a choice, most Americans identify as ‘moderate’.

So, there is a certain amount of overlap between moderates and conservatives. First, this would exacerbate the other overlap of political liberals self-identifying as conservatives. Second, considering there is a large percentage of Americans who will switch between the labels of ‘moderate’ and ‘conservative’, it makes issues of ideological conflation even more fuzzy. Furthermore, considering most Americans are politically liberal, these self-identified moderates are probably in ideological alignment with the politically liberal self-identified conservatives.

All of this leads one to wonder what ideological labels even mean. What is Haidt measuring? And what does Haidt think he is measuring?

—-

Let me continue my analysis with some other types of questions and criticisms.

Were the subjects of the study a representative sample? If the sample was, for example, all or mostly college students who are more liberal, then it would mean that the conservatives were around more liberals and the liberals were around fewer conservatives. In the paper, this is what they say about the participants:

“The participants were 2,212 visitors (62% female; median age 28; only U.S. residents or citizens) to ProjectImplicit.org”

This basically fits in with my doubts. Like college students, females and the younger tend to be more liberal. In general, more liberals are probably found online than in other environments. So, Haidt’s sample would include more people who are liberal, liberal-minded, or otherwise familiar with liberalism and liberal-mindedness. I’d argue that this doesn’t offer a fair and accurate representation of the general population.

This brings me to other confounding factors.

Most older people are conservatives. Simply being older can potentially give one more perspective and experience. Younger generations are more liberal than the older generations were at the same age. However, when these younger liberal generations grow older, they probably will maintain their higher rates of liberalism (as did the older generation maintain their lower rates of liberalism) and will also gain more perspective and experience. Furthermore, younger conservatives may have no better understanding of liberals than younger liberals have of conservatives.

So, are the results of the study merely pointing to a demographic fluke at this point in history? If the study controlled for age, would different results be found?

Ignoring all of that, maybe there is something going on that Haidt isn’t even considering.

First, authoritarianism and social conservatism have been shown to have strong correlation:

“For several decades Bob Altmeyer, an American scholar at the University of Manitoba, has been a tireless and dedicated researcher. According to the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Altmeyer’s work “powerfully predicts a wide rang of political, social, ideological and intergroup phenomena.” Altmeyer’s work is largely directed at other psychologists and social scientists. He has undertaken hundreds of experiments and his work is reliable and valid according to Paul Nesbitt-Larking reporting in

“Political Psychology in 2004. His work goes the distance in understanding conservatism.

“In an article titled “What Happens When Authoritarians Inherit the Earth? A simulation,” Altmeyer explains that, “When I started out, and ever since, I was not looking for political conservatives. I was looking for people who overtly submit to the established authorities in their lives, who could be of any political/economic/religious stripe.” His work identified “right-wing authoritarians” but he was not using the term “right-wing” in the political sense. Rather he used the designation in a psychological sense.

“But as he continued his work he reports that “it turns out that in North America persons who score highly on my measure of authoritarianism test tend to favor right-wing political parties and have ‘conservative’ economic philosophies and religious sentiments. He goes on to say that this empirical finding has been repeatedly duplicated in his continuing studies and has been replicated in studies by others.

“The extensive research on the behavior and personality characteristics of right-wing authoritarians and conservatives concludes that they are people who do not see themselves as they actually are and have little facility for self-analysis.

“The research demonstrates that conservatives delight in hurling invectives against their enemies and often prove to have the thinnest of skins if the same is done to them. Many conservatives are unaware of their illogical, contradictory and hypocritical thinking. And if they are forced to address it, either rationalize it away, fail to care, or go on the attack against those who reveal their human weaknesses.”

And authoritarianism has been correlated with higher rates of hypocrisy:

“Research reveals that authoritarian followers drive through life under the influence of impaired thinking a lot more than most people do, exhibiting sloppy reasoning, highly compartmentalized beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness, a profound ethnocentrism, and — to top it all off — a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence or logic.”

It’s certainly not hard to find inconsistencies among conservatives, especially social conservatives. For example, conservatives have the highest rate of porn consumption and conservative states have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. I could list many more examples, but that isn’t as helpful as research on authoritarianism and hypocrisy. By the way, liberals test high on ‘openness’ which is something authoritarians, of course, test extremely low on (‘openness’ probably disinclines someone towards the worst forms of hypocrisy as found in authoritarian groupthink).

So, it is possible that many individual social conservatives even if only moderately authoritarian, enough to skew the conservative sample in that direction, are less consistent in their beliefs than the average liberal. This might skew the entire study for conservatives are familiar with their own inconsistencies and it is easier to be aware of your own inconsistencies (or the inconsistencies of those in your own group) than to be aware of the inconsistencies of someone who is entirely different from you, although being intuitively aware of inconsistencies doesn’t necessarily imply a broader self-awareness. On the opposite side: If liberals are more consistent in their beliefs, then it probably would be easier for a conservative to understand liberal beliefs. It is harder to have accurate views of an inconsistent group, especially one that hypocritically betrays its own stated values on a regular basis.

I really don’t know how this factor might play out in Haidt’s study. I have no data about ideological self-awareness as it might relate to authoritarianism and hypocrisy. My main point is simply that it is a confounding factor not being controlled for.

Secondly, it seems obvious that self-identified conservatives as a group are less ideologically homogenous than self-identfied liberals as a group. This would contribute to the conclusion that conservatives are collectively more inconsistent which would make it harder for an outsider to assess their beliefs on average. To determine this, testing for the average beliefs of liberals and conservatives wouldn’t be adequate, and so the rate of diversity of beliefs would also need to be tested. This is particularly problematic for Haidt’s entire theory as he is relying on self-defined labels which are notoriously unreliable because people’s defintions of such labels aren’t consistent. I’ve analyzed the complexity of this problem before.

The problem of the study is that self-described liberals are a smaller and more narrowly defined demographic group whereas self-described conservatives are a larger and more broadly defined demographic group, diversity making the conservative movement itself less consistent. As Pew data shows, almost 1 in 10 Americans holding strong liberal beliefs self-identify as conservative, but you don’t find a large number of Americans holding conservative beliefs self-identifying as liberal.

The conservative label, besides including 9% of Pew’s “Solid Liberals” (liberal across the board, both fiscally and socially), includes neocon progressives and war-hawks, free market neoliberals, fundamentalists as well as theocrats, some libertarians and socially liberal fiscal conservatives verging on libertarianism, patriotic statists wanting a militaristic empire, anti-statists wanting a weak government, openly gay Republicans, WASP culture warriors, white supremancists, gun-toting militants and survivalists, constitutionalists, small town rural types, elderly people remembering a conservatism that no longer exists, former Cubans who hate communism, small business owners fighting free trade globalism, big business defenders promoting free trade globalism, corporatists verging on fascism, anarcho-capitalists, Randian Objectivists, traditional Catholics who have high rates of membership in unions, union-bashing think tank employees, ordinary people wanting to conserve progressive reforms such as social security, politicians promoting the ending of the progressive reforms such as privatizing social security, etc.

You don’t find such massive diversity among self-described liberals.

A further problem is that self-described liberals don’t represent all liberals. As I pointed out, many liberals self-identify as conservatives. Other Pew data also has shown almost half of liberals self-identifying as Independents. I would suspect that most moderates hold a majority of liberal beliefs, values and policy positions. The data shows that most Americans in general, despite large numbers self-identifying as conservative, are actually very liberal on many key issues.

One other factor to consider is the mainstream media. Maybe some of the most popular pundits (or, most popular or not, pundits with the most ability to make themselves heard) such as Limbaugh and Beck aren’t representative of the average conservative. So, a liberal might mistakenly base their views of the typical conservative solely or largely on these few far right pundits. However, maybe the opposite isn’t true. As liberals are more narrowly defined as a group and because liberal activists are less radicalized, popular pundits of liberalism might be more representative of the average liberal and so the media ends up, intentionally or not, giving conservatives more accurate information about liberal beliefs.

Even if it is true that liberals are inaccurate in their assessment of the beliefs of the average conservative, liberals may be accurate in their assessment of the beliefs of conservatives in the media and other powerful conservatives who control the political narrative of the conservative movement. This is an important difference since pundits and other powerful people have more influence and control over party politics than does the average citizen. Political movements are defined more by their activists and leaders than by the average person identifying with the movement. It might be possible, though, that liberal activists and leaders are closer to the average liberal than is found with conservatives in the conservative movement.

How is the liberal supposed to know what the average conservative thinks when the spokespersons for the conservative movement don’t represent the average conservative? If this is the case, this would be more of a criticism of the conservative movement that causes such confusion than a criticism of the liberal who is confused by it. Going by this interpretation, I would posit that this possible liberal misperception of conservatives would be based on the mischaracterization of the average conservative by the conservative media itself and based on how the rest of the MSM mostly accepts this right-wing framing of the conservative movement.

All of the mainstream media and all of mainstream politics is similarly confused. You’ll never see acknowledged in the MSM that, although the average American would rather self-identify as a conservative than a liberal, the average American holds liberal views on many if not most major social, economic and political issues. The average liberal is simply repeating what they’ve learned from the MSM which is problematic in itself. It is sad that we must judge liberals for believing what they’ve been told by supposedly trusted news institutions. The MSM has misinformed the American people about the general public being more conservative than it  actually is and misinformed the American people about the average conservative being more right-wing than they actually are.

I admit that it is a sad state of affairs. I wish liberals better understood that the average conservative is closer in opinion to the average liberal than the average conservative is to the radicalized activists, leaders and pundits of the conservative movement. This is hard for most liberals to wrap their minds around for these non-radicalized average conservatives keep being manipulated by the radicals in their movement and hence voting the radicals into power, at least in recent decades.

Still, being manipulated by radical rhetoric isn’t the same thing as being radical oneself. Even liberals can be manipulated by the radical rhetoric of the right-wing which is what happened after 9/11. Fear works, sad but true.

Another factor to keep in mind relates back to hypocrisy. Haidt is testing for self-described labels and self-described values. This might in some cases have little to do with actual behavior. If on average conservatives show more inconsistency between their stated values and their actual behaviors, why would Haidt judge liberals as being inaccurate for basing their assessment on the actual behaviors of conservatives rather than on their stated values? Liberals shouldn’t be blamed for assuming that conservatives are more like liberals in thinking that their actual behaviors match up with their stated values. This speaks maybe to the naivette of liberals in not appreciating conservative hypocrisy, but such naivette certainly isn’t a moral failure. I think that ‘moral consistency’ (i.e., lack of hypocrisy) should be added to Haidt’s moral values.

There is also an irony in Haidt doing this kind of research. As I pointed out in my reviews of his theory, it seems obvious to me that Haidt lacks an accurate and unbiased assessment of liberal moral values. The fact that the theory itself is problematic makes any research based on it problematic. Maybe Haidt merely ends up testing for which group ends up agreeing the most with his own personal bias.

Another irony in a scientist like Haidt promoting conservative values is that research shows that conservatives mistrust science more and that this mistrust has been increasing:

http://404systemerror.com/study-conservatives-trust-in-science-has-fallen-dramatically-since-mid-1970s/

But a similar strong and persistant bias can’t be found among liberals:

http://open.salon.com/blog/ted_frier/2012/03/29/everyone_is_biased_only_liberals_try_not_to_be

http://truth-out.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=6892:the-republican-brain-why-even-educated-conservatives-deny-science–and-reality

“So now the big question: Are liberals also “smart idiots”?

“There’s no doubt that more knowledge—or more political engagement—can produce more bias on either side of the aisle. That’s because it forges a stronger bond between our emotions and identities on the one hand, and a particular body of facts on the other.

“But there are also reason to think that, with liberals, there is something else going on. Liberals, to quote George Lakoff, subscribe to a view that might be dubbed “Old Enlightenment reason.” They really do seem to like facts; it seems to be part of who they are. And fascinatingly, in Kahan’s study liberals did not act like smart idiots when the question posed was about the safety of nuclear power.

“Nuclear power is a classic test case for liberal biases—kind of the flipside of the global warming issue–for the following reason. It’s well known that liberals tend to start out distrustful of nuclear energy: There’s a long history of this on the left. But this impulse puts them at odds with the views of the scientific community on the matter (scientists tend to think nuclear power risks are overblown, especially in light of the dangers of other energy sources, like coal).

“So are liberals “smart idiots” on nukes? Not in Kahan’s study. As members of the “egalitarian communitarian” group in the study—people with more liberal values–knew more science and math, they did not become more worried, overall, about the risks of nuclear power. Rather, they moved in the opposite direction from where these initial impulses would have taken them. They become less worried—and, I might add, closer to the opinion of the scientific community on the matter.

“You may or may not support nuclear power personally, but let’s face it: This is not the “smart idiot” effect. It looks a lot more like open-mindedness.”

So, the very act of scientifically studying biases, including liberal biases, is typically going to get strong support from liberals and weak support (if not outright antagonism) from conservatives. Even if liberals were more biased about certain issues, that may be less relevant in that liberals also show a stronger desire to correct their own mistaken views.

To me, this relates back to the issue of consistency and hypocrisy. If liberals are more aware of inconsistencies when they occur, they will put more effort into becoming more consistent. I’d love to see Haidt not only study moral values but also how those values relate or don’t relate to moral behavior, especially the specific moral behaviors that the moral values imply.

I should clarify that I’m not arguing that liberals are morally better in all or even most ways. As I see it, there are strengths and weaknesses to both conservative and liberal predispositions. What I am suggesting, though, is that it might be possible that liberals are more self-aware of their own moral failings, at least in terms of being less prone to confirmation bias and the smart idiot effect when it comes to their own cherished beliefs and opinions. The hypothetical part would be whether being more self-aware of moral failings actually leads to lessening those moral failings and hence seeking to morally improve oneself, beyond merely being willing to change one’s mind according to new info.

As a liberal-minded person, what I care about are the facts even when or especially when they contradict or put doubt to my beliefs. However, conservatives don’t equally share my concern and this bothers me, almost causes me to lose hope.

Because of my liberal respect for science, I feel compelled to take Haidt’s theory seriously and to carefully look at his data. What I’ve come to is doubts about how Haidt is going about his research. My doubts are only increased as his conclusion doesn’t seem to fit the broader range of research about biases in terms of conservatives and liberals. I’d like to see Haidt’s response to all this other research and why it seems to point away from his preferred conclusion.

So, I honestly don’t know what to make of it. If someone can fix some of the problems of Haidt’s research model and yet come to similar results, I would be more convinced of his conclusion. Until then, it’s just data, just as likely to turn out to be meaningless as meaningful.

—-

Here are a few of my previous posts about Jonathan Haidt, Moral Foundations theory, and the conservative/liberal distinction:

 Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

Haidt’s Moral Reasoning (vs ethnical reasoning)

Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

And here are some relevant commentary on Haidt’s theory and research:

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/some-incoherent-thoughts-on-jonathan-haidts-moral-compass-and-the-idea-of-the-marxian-left/

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/marginalia-on-radical-thinking-dialogue-with-keith418-on-the-moral-grounding-of-political-notions/

http://skepoet.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/marginalia-on-skeptical-thinking-interview-with-simon-frankel-pratt-part-2/

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/05/17/the-unbearable-squishiness-of-jonathan-haidt/

http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/4235/conservatism’s_bulldog_claims_psychology_tilts_liberal

http://accidentalblogger.typepad.com/accidental_blogger/2012/04/a-semi-righteous-book-prasad.html

http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/human-morality-is-evolving/http://www.ethicsdefined.org/the-problem-with-morality/conservatives-vs-liberals/

http://openparachute.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/morality-and-the-worship-of-reason/

http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/102760/righteous-mind-haidt-morality-politics-scientism

http://rsafellowship.com/group/human-capability-and-societal-transformation/forum/topics/beyond-the-righteous-mind-helping-jonathan-haidt-understand-his-o

http://readingsubtly.blogspot.com/2012/04/enlightened-hypocrisy-of-jonathan.html

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/03/jonathan-hadit-robert-wright-crazy-delicious/

http://isabel.penraeth.com/post/26069975441/tilting-at-a-new-windmill-from-moral-foundation-theory

http://www.desmogblog.com/conservatives-seeking-show-they-are-open-minded-ignore-contrary-evidence-and-no-not-onion-article

Moral Vision: A Liberal-Minded View

This post is a continuation of my last post. There I wrote about combining my liberal-mindedness with a Taoist approach to politics. That could be seen as a bit too passive considering the urgent problems that are like an earthquake shaking the edifice of modern society. What is the comfort of being a political Taoist in a society that fantasizes about Christian apocalypse along with secularized versions of social decay and doom?

In light of this, I was thinking of what may be the active role of liberal-mindedness. What can the liberal predisposition offer besides patience and persistence? How can the liberal-minded advocate for something entirely new, something that profoundly challenges the status quo?

What came to my mind was the necessity of moral vision. In my last post, I spoke of the relationship conservative-mindedness has to fear. The moral vision conservative-mindedness creates can be compelling, often portrayed in form of battle, whether waged by a Christian army fighting for God’s Glory in a fallen world or the lone vigilante like the noirish Batman as the Dark Knight fighting evil in a crime-ridden Gotham. The liberal-minded have their work cut out for them in seeking to offer something more compelling than these visions of a fearful world to be overcome.

This is where liberalism as a movement has failed to live up to the potentials of the liberal worldview. I would include left-wingers in this failure. Maybe left-wingers deserve even more responsibility than liberals for it has always been the necessary role for left-wingers to push society toward the liberal-minded moral vision and thus keep liberals accountable. Without left-wingers playing this role, liberalism remains unchallenged in its safe dreams of status quo timidity. If liberal-mindedness is left to ‘liberals’ like Obama, then an alternative compelling moral vision will continue to elude us. What we need right now is someone with the vision and voice of a Martin Luther King jr.

Thinking along these lines, I found myself coming back to the insight about how disconnected we are and how splintered society has become. We are lacking the moral vision not just to inspire but to bring it all together as a coherent narrative. This isn’t about superficial debates about how to metaphorically frame arguments in order to win at the political game. This goes deeper into the meaning of culture itself. The problems we face are a soul sickness. Read Derrick Jensen’s early work to know what I mean by this (specifically: A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe).

I’ve often contemplated this disconnect and splintering. I know it in my own experience. The disconnect I feel is between my desire to understand and my ability to act and between my ability to act and the possibility of genuine change. I would be the first one to admit that I’m no moral exemplar. My greatest moral achievement is my sense of humility in the face of my own weaknesses and failures, but that isn’t much of a consolation prize.

So, the reason I often pick on conservatives isn’t based on righteously standing on the moral mountaintop looking down upon others. It’s just that the disconnect in conservatives can seem so blatant at times. More frustrating is that this kind of disconnect often doesn’t seem to bother conservatives as much for, at least when they are in reactionary mode, seeing things this way isn’t part of their worldview.

It is beyond my comprehension to make sense of how, for example, conservatives can claim moral highground of their own through Christianity while simultaneously singing the gospel of patriotic jingoism and military imperialism. I know of a conservative who in many ways is morally good Christian in doing good works (volunteering at soup kitchens, etc), but he sees nothing wrong with the US government having dropped atomic bombs on innocent civilians in Japan. That is such a massive disconnect. There could be no greater symbol of the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings than this morally depraved collective action. It’s not just un-Christian. It is completely and utterly anti-Christian… or else just anti-Jesus.

I don’t know what to make of this. The  power of this kind of disconnect is that it breeds numbness and blindness. The person disconnected to such an extreme extent isn’t even aware of it, can’t be aware of it.

It isn’t about blaming individuals. The soul sickness is greater than any single individual for all of us in this society are implicated, in one way or another, to some degree or another. A few of us have slightly more awareness about particular things, but I haven’t yet discovered a person who has fully come to terms with the society-wide disconnect that plagues us. I couldn’t say what good it does to be aware of a problem to which one has no good solution. Derrick Jensen’s solution is for the collapse of civilization which is an unsatisfying answer from my perspective, especially considering that there is nothing Jensen can do to force civilization’s collapse. We’re all just groping in the dark, even if some of us have become more familiar with the darkness.

As I see it, the more blatant examples such as hypocritical Christians make obvious a truth that is otherwise difficult to see in our everyday lives. I too am a hypocrite… or to the degree I’m not a hypocrite, it is because I’ve lowered my own moral standards. This is why, even if I were a believer, I’d be reluctant to call myself a Christian. I’m not a hypocritical Christian because I realize Jesus’ teachings are more radical than I could ever live up to. Many Christians simply ignore the radical nature at the heart of Christianity, but it makes little difference.

This isn’t about liberals being better than conservatives. A worthy moral vision has to transcend differences by inspiring people to transcend the divisions within themselves. It may take someone with a strong sense of liberal-mindedness to usher in a new vision, but such a person can’t be stuck in a single state of mind. A worthy moral vision would equally touch upon what is true in all aspects of human nature. Conservative-mindedness in and of itself is not capable, almost by definition, of positively envisioning the new. Even so, conservative-mindedness has many other strengths that liberal-mindedness lacks. Without focus (low ‘openness’) and conscientiousness, implementation of any new vision would be impossible.

Liberalism and conservatism as movements may be separate phenomena, but as predispositions they exist as potential within every person. A unifying vision must express what is universal in human nature. This isn’t compromise. It is simply a psychological fact, even if the disconnect within us has made us forget this fundamental truth. Maybe one of the most central disconnects is between liberalism and conservatism, thus causing the former to be impotent and the latter to be reactionary. But the disconnect comes in many forms for all divisions are expressions of the same fundamental divide… or so it seems to me.

Everyone has some specific divide or another that they are attached to and are unwilling to give up no matter the cost: atheism vs faith, civilization’s progress vs civilization’s collapse, capitalism vs communism, reform vs revolution, and on and on and on. Our personally favorite division appears as reality to us. It simply makes sense. Meanwhile, we go on criticizing the blind allegiance others have to their preferred divides.

This relates to how Derrick Jensen, who experienced victimization as a child, would advocate violent activism that would inevitably victimize others. To Jensen, all the world has become a projection of his own victimization and so it plays out everywhere he looks. That is true for all of us, according to our respective projections. We become what we fear and hate. The ultimate disconnect is between self and other. The ‘other’ becomes the enemy, whether that other is some particular group or all of civilization.

I don’t have any solution to offer. I only wish a public discussion could begin. A collective problem requires a collective response. My fear is that only a collective catastrophe will be able to bring forth collective concern, but I’d rather believe there are other ways to achieve change.