April 6, 2012

ANGLOSPHERIC POLITICIANS SUCCEED WHEN...:

Last hope for the left: The liberal, secular world view may hold sway over western elites, but it is struggling to answer the conservative challenge (DAVID GOODHART, 19th March 2012, Prospect)

Most traditional societies are "sociocentric," meaning they place the needs of groups and institutions first. Today most rich societies are "individualistic," making society a servant of the individual. Yet even in these countries significant traces of our more sociocentric and "groupist" past are to be found in peoples' instincts and moral intuitions. This has been the message of countless works of popular science since the renewed interest in Darwin (including from the late conservative social scientist James Q Wilson). Humans are not "blank slates" and only partially respond to a WEIRD worldview, we are still also group-based primates and our moral psychology has been shaped by deep evolutionary forces.

And the problem for liberals is that conservatives understand this better than they do. As one conservative friend put it, "it has taken modern science to remind liberals what our grandparents knew." Ed Miliband's difficulty is not so much that he is weird but that he is WEIRD. Yet help is at hand in the shape of a truly seminal book--out of that remarkable Amerian popular-science-meets-political-speculation stable--called The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

Like Steven Pinker, Haidt is a liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better. His main insight is simple but powerful: liberals understand only two main moral dimensions, whereas conservatives understand all five. (Over the course of the book he decides to add a sixth, liberty/oppression, but for simplicity's sake I am sticking to his original five.)

Liberals care about harm and suffering (appealing to our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness and injustice. All human cultures care about these two things but they also care about three other things: loyalty to the in-group, authority and the sacred.

As Haidt puts it: "It's as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning." This does not mean that liberals are necessarily wrong but it does mean that they have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa.

The sacred is especially difficult for liberals to understand. This isn't necessarily about religion but about the idea that humans have a nobler, more spiritual side and that life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit. If your only moral concepts are suffering and injustice then it is hard to understand reservations about everything from swearing in public to gay marriage--after all, who is harmed?

Haidt and his colleagues have not just plucked these moral senses from the air. He explains the evolutionary roots of the different senses from a close reading of the literature but has also then tested them in internet surveys and face to face interviews in many different places around the world.

Morality "binds and blinds," which is why it has made it possible for human beings, alone in the animal kingdom, to produce large co-operative groups, tribes and nations beyond the glue of kinship. Haidt's central metaphor is that we are 90 per cent chimp and 10 per cent bee--we are driven by the "selfish gene" but, under special circumstances, we also have the ability to become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives.

One of my most politically liberal friends read this book and declared his world view to be transformed. Not that he was no longer a liberal but now "he couldn't be so rude about the other side, because I understand where they're coming from." This will be music to Haidt's ears as the book was written partly as an antidote to the more polarised American politics of the past 20 years, marked by the arrival of Bill Clinton and the liberal baby boomers onto the political stage.

The American culture wars began earlier, back in the 1960s, with young liberals angry at the suffering in Vietnam and the injustice still experienced by African-Americans. But when some of them adopted a style that was anti-American, anti-authority and anti-puritanical, conservatives saw their most sacred values desecrated and they counter-attacked.

Some conflicts are unavoidable and Haidt is not suggesting that liberals should stop being liberal--rather, that they will be more successful if instead of telling conservatives that their moral intuitions are wrong, they seek to shift them in a liberal direction by accommodating, as far as possible, their anxieties.

For example, if you want to improve integration and racial justice in a mixed area, you do not just preach the importance of tolerance but you promote a common in-group identity. As Haidt puts it: "You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals and mutual interdependencies."

...they recognize that the most successful human grouping ever is Christianity and that it is the basis upon which to sell policies. It is what unites all of the Third Way leaders from Thatcher to Howard to Harper to Key to W.

Posted by at April 6, 2012 6:01 AM
  

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