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Asteroids And ‘Other’ Problems

Jonathan Haidt, one of my favorite public intellectuals, is back with a newly posted TED talk reflecting on how epistemic closure polarizes and paralyzes. In the video, Haidt talks about a handful of enormous problems — “asteroids” hurtling at us — that we have within our ability to solve, but that we can’t seem to […]

Jonathan Haidt, one of my favorite public intellectuals, is back with a newly posted TED talk reflecting on how epistemic closure polarizes and paralyzes. In the video, Haidt talks about a handful of enormous problems — “asteroids” hurtling at us — that we have within our ability to solve, but that we can’t seem to do much about in large part because so many liberals and conservatives won’t recognize that the thing at issue is a problem.

Around the 14-minute mark, Haidt shows a graph showing that income inequality has greatly expanded in recent years, and he points out that the left talks about how this is a very big deal, and bad for the common good. The right doesn’t care about this, or at least doesn’t see it as a problem. In the next graph, he shows how the out of wedlock birthrate has soared, such that in the next few years, most babies born in America will not have a father in the home. This is a huge problem, Haidt says, in part because single parenthood typically locks a woman and her children into poverty, exacerbating inequality, plus it puts children from those families far behind children from two-parent families in acquiring the cultural tools necessary to get ahead in this economy. The right, says Haidt, has been pointing out that there’s a serious problem with family breakdown in this way, but the left has been denying it.

Here’s the thing, says Haidt: they’re both right, and both problems play into each other. But neither side is prepared to grant that the other has a point.

In a related TED interview, Haidt explores more in-depth the insights of his talk. Excerpts:

Your talk got me thinking — on a personal level, what should I be doing and saying and thinking every day to defuse these tensions and break through a party lens?

Great question! I think the key is for us to all think about the word “demonization,” and do what we can to tone it down. That doesn’t mean that we all have to become centrists. My ideal is that we all have more constructive disagreement. So when you hear someone criticize a policy on the other side, that’s fine. But when you start hearing motive-mongering and demonization, stand up to it just as you would if it were something that was racist or sexist. If we avoid the demonization, disagreements can be positive.

Are there other key terms that you would love to see disappear from our political vocabulary?

“Extremist” is an easy one, because extremist just means somebody on the other side. Overall, we do need to watch our language — but it’s not so much specific words. It’s the claims that people on the other side are motivated by evil motives. The key to toning down demonization is to actually get to know some people on the other side and to build relationships with them. If your friend tells you something, you don’t demonize, you listen. But if your opponent does it, you jump right into lawyer mode and say, “Here are 10 reasons why you’re wrong.”

This made me think of a conversation I had not long ago in which a couple of us lamented the impossibility of having an honest conversation about race in office settings, because many of us have so much to lose by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, however inadvertently. Best not to say anything at all, lest the lawyers get involved. One of the guys in our group — we were all white — said that he had asked a black guy with whom he works out at the gym how come he has five kids by five different women, because that’s not right, etc. His black friend explained how he had gotten into that position. Then they got to talking about why whites and blacks can’t talk straight to each other, and for his part, the black guy said that blacks are always looking for a chance to be offended, and to get mad.

“I cannot believe you had that conversation with a black guy,” I said.

“I guess I’m crazy,” said the white guy.

But he wasn’t crazy. He had already built a friendship with the black workout partner. It was okay to ask those difficult questions.

Anyway, back to Haidt:

We’ve talked about the left-right divide in politics, and I’m curious about what you’ve seen as a professor in the academic world. How similar or different is that dynamic?

In the academic world, most fields have gone from being predominantly liberal to being overwhelmingly liberal. It’s been a part of this general polarization of our society since the 1970s. There used to be liberal Republicans and there used to be conservative Democrats, but beginning in the ’60s — once Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act — we got the moral purification of the two parties. So the change first happens in Congress, and then once the two parties become purified, it’s like this giant electromagnet cranks up and starts ripping apart everything else. My own field of social psychology has always leaned to the left, but in the last 20 or 30 years the minority of conservatives has shrunk to be undetectable. And this is a problem for scholarship, I believe.

This brings to mind a post by Beyng in the “Other” thread below, in which I was trying to get readers to do a Haidt-like exercise in empathy. Beyng wrote:

My Other? The leftist academics and intellectuals among whom I spend my working days, especially those who wax romantic about the poor–like, for example, Andrea.


I would thus like to modify and elaborate on my statement. In truth, then, I find that, on a day-to-day basis, my true “Other”–that person whom I genuinely struggle to understand and, yes, to love, or at least to like–is the urban cosmopolite from a privileged background. This is the sort of person who comprises the bulk of the academic class among whom, as I already noted, I spend my working days.

This is not me. I am from a rural, working-class-at-best background in Appalachia. I am the first person ever in my family (on either side) to pursue higher education. The values among which I was raised were solidly placed, solidly religious, solidly conservative, and solidly traditional. These are not the values that orient most of my colleagues. In fact, a number of these colleagues have made a career of opposing everything about my cultural imaginary.

To the extent that such opposition is explicitly thematized, I suppose I understand it, as Rod notes. That is in my job description after all. But one thing I’ve learned is that academic arguments are seldom the product of objective or detached contemplation. They are shaped decisively by their cultural background. And what I do not fully understand, much less condone, is the milieu that produces the cosmopolitan orthodoxy of academia.

To be more precise, I do not understand why a person would want to live in NYC or Chicago. I do not understand folks for whom tenure and careerism is the sine qua non of a worthy life. I do not understand those for whom debating meaningless triviliaties represents a worthy endeavor. I do not understand why my colleagues insist on disparaging what Wendell Berry calls “country people” (with all such a moniker entails) at every chance they get–it’s not as if these upper-middle class elites who have never done an honest day’s work in their lives have ever been tangibly wronged by, for example, the trailer trash, farmers, and paper-mill workers of my family and youth. I do not understand, in short, the sort of cosmopolitan elitism that prevails in my professional world. It is thus that I feel profoundly unheimlich here, despite loving my work.

I could go on. The point is that I’m not sure I should understand, though your post has inclined me to wonder whether I ought at least try.

I wonder what understanding would gain for Beyng in this situation. I mean, I think it’s almost never wrong to try to understand the world from the point of view of others, if only because it helps you to be more considerate in your dealings with them, and perhaps more effective in winning them over to your side. As a journalist, though, I was usually an outlier in most newsrooms, given my conservative cultural politics. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t understand why my liberal colleagues — and they were almost all liberal — believed the things they did. I did understand that; I just disagreed with them. What I struggled to understand was why so many were content to live inside that epistemic bubble, given that the profession we’d chosen, if done right, would lead one into frequent encounters with all kinds of different people, including people who saw the world much differently than oneself. The lack of curiosity about the world beyond what they were safe with was what really puzzled me about my liberal colleagues. And it discouraged me a great deal about journalism’s ability to do what journalism is supposed to do.

This talk of the Other resonates with me as I think about the book I’ve just written about my sister and me. I was her Other, and she didn’t want to engage me, to ask me about why I believed the things I do, and made the choices I did. She judged me for those choices, and judged me pretty harshly. But she didn’t want to make the effort to understand my Otherness. And she rebuffed my attempts to talk with her about our differences, to try to resolve them. I don’t know why that is. Anyway, it’s a mystery to me, one that is now unsolvable, a sad fact that I regret.

At the same time, I think about the extent to which the character traits that made her so strong — her fierce dedication to this place and its way of life — depended on her unwillingness to consider the world as it must have looked from the point of view of a brother who rejected it. For me, thinking about the Other is an interesting and improving exercise; for her, it was most likely far more tied up in identity, and therefore more threatening to her sense of the self. If I had been her neighbor, and not her brother, I bet she would have found it easier to try to see the world as I see it. Ah, siblings…

So, where was I? Shouldn’t write these things late at night. Anyway, Haidt says the way to overcome all this polarization and paralysis is to unite around a common threat. An immediately visible problem with this is that to recognize the  threat posed by certain phenomenon may require one to cede an ideological principle. For a conservative to agree that inequality is a serious problem likely requires a pretty serious philosophical concession about egalitarianism. Likewise, for a liberal to agree that there’s something deeply wrong with out-of-wedlock childbearing may demand a substantial philosophical concession, having to do with the purpose of marriage, and stigmatizing certain expression of sexual liberty.



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