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Jon Haidt On Conservatives And Art

Jonathan Haidt himself added a comment to the thread yesterday in which I cited a blog post by someone named Staffan, who drew on Haidt’s moral foundations theory to argue that conservatives make better (= more true to life) art:

I think Staffan is exactly right. Conservatives are more expert in thinking about and writing about groups and the protection of groups. That’s the function of the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations. A mythic struggle that draws on all the foundations will be more satisfying than one that just draws on the care and fairness foundations.

This comment raises some interesting questions for discussion (and if you don’t feel inclined to discuss it seriously, refrain from snarking and potshotting).

1. If it’s true that conservatives — by which I mean not Republicans, but people who draw from all the foundations identified by Haidt, not just Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, should in principle make better art, why is it that they so rarely do, at least in our culture?

2. Are there examples of popular art in which the protagonist, an individual, learns that his assertion of individuality in the face of group values was a mistake, and that he ought to have lived by Loyalty, Authority, and/or Sanctity?

3.  If it’s hard to come up with examples of such books, movies, or television shows (I think Friday Night Lights is a good example of one, because individuals discover themselves in relationships of obligation to the group and its values), but I’m hard pressed to think of others) — anyway, if it’s hard to come up with examples, does that tell us that a) the cultural creatives in this country are not speaking to the full range of human experience, and are thereby underserving a market, or b) that the market is actually responding properly, but Americans simply aren’t as conservative, in the Haidtan sense, as they think they are?

4. Or is it telling us that the kind of people — Haidtan conservatives — who do draw on the full range of moral foundations generally do not commit themselves to the creative arts? And if this is so, is it because a) they are acculturated by their particular cultures to disdain the arts, or b) they are ostracized by the artistic culture in the US?

5. Is somebody going to work with the Hollywood producer who bought rights to The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, and make a TV series out of it? I’ve pitched it as a dramatic television series, à laFriday Night Lights (the best show that ever was), that would reconceive the book’s narrative in this way: the Rod character would return to St. Francisville with his family not after her death, but after the Ruthie character’s initial diagnosis. She would live, struggling with cancer, for the duration of the series. This would set up the characters for exploring all kinds of conflicts among the moral foundations. The truth is, “Rod,” for all his theoretical traditionalism, is fairly individualistic in the context of the culture of which Ruthie was a part. And “Ruthie,” for all her practical traditionalism, was fairly individualistic in the sense that the culture she accepted without dissent had absorbed many non-traditional values. So the drama would come from a clash between two very different sensibilities, both based on characters and worldviews that are “conservative,” in Jonathan Haidt’s sense, but which lead to different conclusions when they’re actually lived out. I hope that the producer can make something work, because I would love to have the opportunity to work with a creative team to produce art that’s genuine and that moves people, and that says something true and honest about the complexities of the human condition, rather than simply consuming and critiquing it.

(You don’t have to answer No. 5, readers. I put it in because it’s a real live question that I’m dealing with, demonstrating that this is not just theoretical for me.)

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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