Wednesday, July 25, 2012

One more thought about Jonathan Haidt and 'The Righteous Mind'

There was a moment at the end of our podcast with Jonathan Haidt when I wanted to leap up from my seat indignantly and shout, "You just don't get it sir!" I was restrained by a couple of things A) time constraints and B) the collegiality that is our default mode during these podcasts.

Some background: Haidt is a proponent of the "Moral Foundations Theory," which posits that humans essentially have six areas of morality that they care about. How does this make a difference in our politics? Well, Haidt says that conservatives tend to score highly in caring about all six areas of morality—but that liberals seem to care mostly about three. (Liberals apparently care less about proportionality, purity, and loyalty—and this puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to engaging their fellow citizens and earning their votes)

It was the loyalty part—conservatives care about it, liberals don't—that got me tripped up. I explain why in an early part of the podcast: Because my moral sense tells me that appeals to a national sense of loyalty can often be abused. Just look at what Michele Bachmann has been up to lately.

But toward the end of the podcast, we revisited the idea of loyalty, and Haidt ... well, "sneered" isn't too strong a word: He sneered at that fine old liberal bumper sticker that urges readers to "Support The Troops: Bring Them Home."

Here's what Haidt said:
"If you put that on your car, you're basically admitting you have no clue what it is to support your team when it's fighting an away game. You have no clue what it is to support the troops. You're saying (shifts into simpering voice): 'Well, morality is about protecting people from getting hurt, and I don't want the troops to get hurt, so I want to bring them home.' That just embarrasses your side. And liberals do this on a lot of issues."
Well. To heck with that.

In my lifetime, that "Support The Troops: Bring Them Home" slogan was used mostly in reference to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the years of warfare that followed. Lots of liberals were fine going to war in Afghanistan—we had been attacked on 9/11, after all—but were appalled by the decision to go to war in Iraq. There were several elements to this: Lots of folks doubted that Iraq had WMD weapons at all; others didn't think think the threat rose to the level of requiring armed intervention, but lots of people simply thought it was wrong to simply go start a war and invade a country that hasn't actually hurt you first.

Liberal opposition to the war did have a strong moral element then. It wasn't just "don't hurt people." It was "don't hurt innocent people." "Don't hurt people who haven't hurt us." "Don't hurt people for causes—WMDs—that turn out not to exist."

Most Americans didn't initially agree with liberals. But liberals turned out to be right.

And yet, many liberals also gave serious effort to "supporting the troops." Some of this was leftover from Vietnam, and its residual sense that returning troops had been unfairly treated. Some of it was the recognition that the troops have a job to do, and a boss who gives them orders, that Private John Doe isn't necessarily gung-ho about patrolling Baghdad, but is loyal and serves the country, and that those moral feelings of loyalty deserve—yes!—respect from liberals.

In other words: "Support The Troops: Bring Them Home" represented an often-conscious effort by liberals not to concede recognition of the troops' virtues to conservatives—but to do it within a framework that also holds onto the liberal moral belief that the war itself was wrong: That just because your "team" has taken the field does not always, automatically, make that team right. "Support the troops" and "bring them home" are ideas that are in tension, yes, but for me and millions of others, living with that tension is the morally praiseworthy thing to do.

Haidt's mockery, then, suggests to me that—despite all his research and well-intentioned efforts to hear the best of both sides—what he ultimately believes is that liberals should ignore their own moral judgements and let conservative moral judgements rule our sensibilities.

Again, to heck with that.

I think there are some fine things that liberals can learn from Haidt's research and books. We don't do a very good job understanding conservatives, it's true. Liberal dominance of the academy can lead to skewed research focus and interpretation, yes. It will not hurt us to be more aware of these things.

But if Haidt—a former liberal turned centrist—is concerned about academia's tendency to pathologize conservatism, I think it possible that he's done more or less the same thing in reverse. Liberals must do a better job understanding conservatives, yes. We don't need to become them to become better.

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