A reader who posts under the name Salamander left this comment on the thread about the Left, epistemic closure, and the culture war, in which I made the point that so many on the cultural left are so confident in their own judgments, even though they don’t know what they don’t know. Salamander writes:
Rod, this is so true. I have long joked that my liberal friends love diversity, as long as the diverse persons in question behave exactly like the right sort of upper middle class white people.
I’ve also noticed my nice liberal friends assume that everyone thinks exactly like them. For example, my nice liberal upper middle class female friends know that the only reason they would possibly have gotten pregnant as a teenager would be that they were completely ignorant of how babies are made, or that they were ignorant of contraception, or evil patriarchs blocked all access to contraception, or they were raped – because why else would you jeopardize your college education and career plans? Hence they truly believe that since working class and underclass girls get pregnant frequently, it must be a combination of all of those – complete ignorance about sex and birth control, no doubt because of rape culture and patriarchy – hence more sex ed classes and burning down hobby lobby will fix it. None of them even know an actual baby mama, and have no idea that life’s priorities and circumstances are a little different in Fishtown.
Btw we live in a very Belmont-ish town, a short distance from a very Fishtown-ish town…but there is surprisingly little mixing between the SWPLs in iur town and the working class folks down the road. The five miles between us might as well be fifty in some ways. Both towns are about 99.9% white so it’s not racism. Our church is in the Fishtown-like town so we probably have more firsthand knowledge of the problems Fishtown folks face than our nice liberal friends do (they all go to the UU church in our town where they can obsess about which bathroom hypothetical transsexuals should use while ignoring the unemployment, drug addiction, and broken families down the road.)
Rereading that, I sound a little harsh on my nice UU liberal friends. Many of them do serve in soup kitchens and do care about the poor…but I get the vibe that they prefer faraway poor, preferably of another color, because they can blame that sort of poverty on racism which they of course are against. The nearby dysfunctional white people are more problematic, because they refuse to behave like the proper sort of white people. As it is often difficult for upper middle class white people to imagine NOT being upper middle class, they can’t quite figure out why the lack of clear cut rules and moral norms has caused so much chaos in the lower socioeconomic groups, when it hasn’t affected them nearly so much.
This brought to mind something I write about from time to time: the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s finding that conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.
In his invaluable book The Righteous Mind, Haidt — a secular liberal — talks about how our moral intuitions inform our worldview far more than does reason. You can get a basic idea of his thesis in his TED talk. From that talk, here is a very basic outline of Haidt’s theory:
Let’s start at the beginning. What is morality and where does it come from? The worst idea in all of psychology is the idea that the mind is a blank slate at birth. Developmental psychology has shown that kids come into the world already knowing so much about the physical and social worlds, and programmed to make it really easy for them to learn certain things and hard to learn others. The best definition of innateness I’ve ever seen – this just clarifies so many things for me – is from the brain scientist Gary Marcus. He says, “The initial organization of the brain does not depend that much on experience. Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises. Built-in doesn’t mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.” OK, so what’s on the first draft of the moral mind? To find out, my colleague, Craig Joseph, and I read through the literature on anthropology, on culture variation in morality and also on evolutionary psychology, looking for matches. What are the sorts of things that people talk about across disciplines? That you find across cultures and even across species? We found five — five best matches, which we call the five foundations of morality.
The first one is harm/care. We’re all mammals here, we all have a lot of neural and hormonal programming that makes us really bond with others, care for others, feel compassion for others, especially the weak and vulnerable. It gives us very strong feelings about those who cause harm. This moral foundation underlies about 70 percent of the moral statements I’ve heard here at TED.
The second foundation is fairness/reciprocity. There’s actually ambiguous evidence as to whether you find reciprocity in other animals, but the evidence for people could not be clearer. This Norman Rockwell painting is called “The Golden Rule,” and we heard about this from Karen Armstrong, of course, as the foundation of so many religions. That second foundation underlies the other 30 percentof the moral statements I’ve heard here at TED.
The third foundation is in-group/loyalty. You do find groups in the animal kingdom – you do find cooperative groups – but these groups are always either very small or they’re all siblings. It’s only among humans that you find very large groups of people who are able to cooperate, join together into groups, but in this case, groups that are united to fight other groups. This probably comes from our long history of tribal living, of tribal psychology. And this tribal psychology is so deeply pleasurable that even when we don’t have tribes, we go ahead and make them, because it’s fun. (Laughter) Sports is to war as pornography is to sex. We get to exercise some ancient, ancient drives.
The fourth foundation is authority/respect. Here you see submissive gestures from two members of very closely related species. But authority in humans is not so closely based on power and brutality, as it is in other primates. It’s based on more voluntary deference, and even elements of love, at times.
The fifth foundation is purity/sanctity. This painting is called “The Allegory Of Chastity,” but purity’s not just about suppressing female sexuality. It’s about any kind of ideology, any kind of idea that tells you that you can attain virtue by controlling what you do with your body, by controlling what you put into your body. And while the political right may moralize sex much more, the political left is really doing a lot of it with food. Food is becoming extremely moralized nowadays, and a lot of it is ideas about purity,about what you’re willing to touch, or put into your body.
Haidt found that in general, the moral mind of liberals rests on two of the five bases: Harm and Fairness. The moral mind of conservatives rests on these two bases, but also the other three: Loyalty, Authority, and Purity. Because of this, Haidt says, liberals have a much harder time understanding conservatives than vice versa. Todd Zywicki explores this point:
One other point that I find really interesting and important about Haidt’s work is his findings on the ability of different groups to empathize across these ideological divides. So in his book (p. 287) Haidt reports on the following experiment: after determining whether someone is liberal or conservative, he then has each person answer the standard battery of questions as if he were the opposite ideology. So, he would ask a liberal to answer the questions as if he were a “typical conservative” and vice-versa. What he finds is quite striking: “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 describe 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.” In other words, moderates and conservatives can understand the liberal worldview and liberals are unable to relate to the conservative worldview, especially when it comes to questions of care and fairness.
In short, Haidt’s research suggests that many liberals really do believe that conservatives are heartless bastards–or as a friend of mine once remarked, “Conservatives think that liberals are good people with bad ideas, whereas liberals think conservatives are bad people”–and very liberal people think that especially strongly. Haidt suggests that there is some truth to this.
If it is the case that conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives, why is that? Haidt’s hypothesis is that it is because conservative values are more overlapping than liberals–conservatives have a “thicker” moral worldview that includes all five values, whereas liberals have a “thinner” view that rests on only two variables. Thus, the liberal moral values are constituent part of the liberal views, but not vice-versa. So conservatives can process and affirm liberal moral views and liberals literally cannot understand how someone could be both moral and conservative–the moral values that might be animating a conservative (say, tradition or loyalty) are essentially seen by liberals as not being worth of moral weight. So conservatives who place weight on those values are literally seen as “immoral.”
As an aside, I think the “thinness” of the liberal moral worldview may explain a phenomenon that has puzzled me, which is the speed at which liberal views harden into orthodoxy and the willingness of liberals to use various forms of compulsion to enforce that orthodoxy. Consider same-sex marriage. For conservatives, this is actually quite a difficult topic and one sees a wide variety of opinion and discussion on the “conservative” side of the fence. “Conservative” opinion is not uniformly opposed to same-sex marriage and conservatives who support same-sex marriage are not ostracized or silenced for doing so. I think Haidt gives a sense why: same-sex marriage cuts across a lot of these moral dimensions in different ways–it simultaneously triggers sanctity (for religious conservatives) and authority (tradition), but it also triggers equality/fairness impulses and care/harm impulses for the individuals affected by it. So conservatives, I think, tend to see it as an issue on which reasonable minds can disagree and that those who hold contrasting views are not generally thought to be immoral or evil. I think this sense that there is room for legitimate disagreement is also consistent with the one near-consensus view of conservatives, which is that regardless of one’s position on the issue there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage, as opposed to allowing the issue to evolve through democratic processes that permit disparate moral and other views to be heard and compromised.
Liberals, by contrast, appear to broach little disagreement from the orthodoxy on this issue (and others for that matter), and I think Haidt gives us a sense why. If they are processing this only through the care and fairness moral value frameworks, then that implies that only immoral people could be opposed to same-sex marriage. And if these people are immoral, then their opposition is hateful and unjustified. So a notion quickly hardens into an orthodoxy–no moral person could oppose same sex marriage. It is then a logical step to a willingness to demonize and try to silence opponents of same-sex marriage as holding not just wrong-headed but illegitimate views, much like the Inquisition, which was premised on the idea that there is potential harm and no value in tolerating “error.” (‘That’s an oversimplification of the Inquisition, of course.) Ditto for more petty forms of censorship and suppression of speech, such as university speech codes.
I think this is right, and it goes far to explain why I am very pessimistic about the future of religious liberty in post-Christian America. You will remember that in the 1996 Romer v. Evans decision, Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court majority, said in striking down a Colorado’s Amendment 2, which banned special protection for gays and bisexuals:
Its sheer breadth is so discontinuous with the reasons offered for it that the amendment seems inexplicable by anything but animus toward the class that it affects; it lacks a rational relationship to legitimate state interests.
This is a classic example of the Haidtian disconnect between liberals and conservatives (N.B., Justices Kennedy and O’Connor, both nominated by Reagan, are more libertarian than conservative). The Court majority could not imagine any reason other than hatred as the basis for disapproving of homosexuality. This formed the basis for all subsequent gay rights jurisprudence, specifically Lawrence (2003) and Windsor (2013). And it will be on this basis that the Court eventually constitutionalizes same-sex marriage.
What does this have to do with the thermonuclear pants-crapping freakout from liberals over this week’s Hobby Lobby decision? Many liberals seem incapable of grasping that there were and are profound moral issues present in the controversy. Conservatives can, or should be able to, easily understand why liberals who do not believe that Purity, Authority, or Loyalty are morally significant qualities disagree with the decision. Conservatives can also understand why liberals who don’t believe that life begins at conception cannot grasp why it’s such a big deal to those who do, based on the Harm foundation. What is remarkable — and deeply worrying — is not only that so many liberals cannot imagine why conservatives conclude the things we conclude, but that they assume our beliefs only come from illegitimate assumptions. As Zywicki wrote, it’s a quick step from concluding that one’s opponents are only driven by hatred to concluding that they must be thoroughly stamped out, because their irrational animus must not be allowed any quarter. Error has no rights. Suffer not a witch to live. Etc.
The country has unmistakably become far more liberal on gay rights and sexuality in general over the past 50 years — and more individualistic too. When a majority of Americans accept the liberal view of sex and its meaning (or lack thereof), they will be much less sympathetic to religion-based dissent from the mainstream, precisely because they will not be able to comprehend how any decent person could believe the things that traditional religionists do. The Millennials are well on their way: according to the Pew study, they are more liberal than older Americans in their attitudes toward sexuality, they are less religious, they are less trusting of others, and they are more disconnected from institutions.
All this would not be as concerning to me if I had confidence that liberals empathized with conservatives, even as they disagreed with us. But on Haidt’s view, many (though not all) liberals see us only as crazy and/or bad when we disagree with them. And they don’t want to try to understand where we’re coming from, because what good can come from practicing empathy towards evil bastards?
What compounds the fear and frustration is that according to Pew, I am a “faith and family leftist” — that is, a moral and social conservative whose moral and social conservatism (my Christianity, frankly) causes me to break ranks with the mainstream right, usually over issues of economic fairness, including protecting the poor. I left the GOP and registered as an Independent because I no longer believe that the Republican Party’s agenda is one I can identify with. I consider myself more open to voting for Democrats today than I have been since college, especially on matters of foreign policy.
Yet seeing the grotesque animosity towards people like me from liberals over the small-beer Hobby Lobby decision compels me to face up to the fact that the only political force standing between me, my church, and my community, and a State dominated by people who think we traditional church people are cretins who deserve to be pushed around, is Republicans.