Jonathan Haidt was on “The Colbert Report” this week.
I have a few quick observations, a beef with his remark that “Actually, Republicans are the cause of the problem in Washington,” and a comment about what I see as a liberal bias that sometimes sneaks into his commentary.
Great line about Kung Fu!
Great line about the Civil War.
“When trying to explain conservatives to my fellow liberals, I’m a professor,…” What a profound and telling line that is. And how sad.
I liked Colbert a lot. He demonstrated (to me at least) that he really gets the essence of Haidt’s description of the psychology behind the political divide. His questions and comments were succinctly zeroed in to the core issues. Sadly, it seemed that the audience doesn’t have a clue, and instead thought he was joking, or possibly making fun of certain types of people.
I know every show like that on TV and radio is all about the host, and current events are really just vehicles through which to showcase him or her. But this one was, to me, more transparently so than most. Maybe that’s because I’m biased in favor of Haidt and his message.
Congratulations to Haidt on his appearance. I hope the exposure gets a lot more people turned on to the book.
Bill Maher next? Charlie Rose? “Uncommon Knowledge” with Peter Robinson? O’Reilly? Greta?
Best wishes to Jonathan Haidt and good luck with The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Despite my criticisms here and elsewhere I am a huge fan and I wish everyone who has any interest in understanding, or getting along with, people who have different beliefs would read his book.
My Beef with a comment Haidt made on Colbert
Haidt said: “Actually, Republicans are the cause of the problem in Washington.”
Before I describe my beef with this comment I want to say that I appreciate how hard it can be to say exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment every time. Haidt was in front of a rowdy(ish) strongly left liberal crowd, on a very popular TV show that is carried nation wide. The pressure of that situation couldn’t help but impact anyone’s ability to stay perfectly “on message” (presuming the object of my beef was “off message”). And he did a wonderful job with the rest of the interview. I was surprised that he was able to say as much as he did about his findings, and he even got in a couple of great, memorable lines (e.g., Kung Fu and the Civil War.) Overall I think his work is right on and I’d like it to reach as wide of an audience as possible.
But with all that said, it was extremely disappointing to hear that from him. So much for not taking sides and not demonizing, huh?
Besides, isn’t that line a little self defeating? I mean, he did manage to work one of his key findings into the conversation; conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals. To which many liberals may respond “Must I believe it?” (1) But he also said that Republicans are the cause of the problem in Washington, which effectively answers the question in the negative, so there’s no need for them to read the book and “learn a little moral psychology.” In the same interview Haidt said that people self-select their sources of information. For example, liberals watch liberal news channels and conservatives watch conservative news channels. No matter how intriguing the book may soud to conservatives, how many of them are going to be interested in reading a book from a guy who believes that Republicans are the cause for all the problem in Washington?
But more than that, the only way one can conclude that Republicans alone are the cause of the problem in Washington is if one views the situation from deep within the liberal moral matrix, where the grasp of human nature ain’t so hot; where “care” matters most, “fairness” comes from positive liberty, and “compromise” is a sacred value. None of which is true out here in the real world, where people actually live, and where most of us see, ALL of human nature. This goes to something that’s been nagging at me for a while now about some of the things Haidt says. I’ll get to that later. For now I want to talk about who is really to blame for the problem in Washington.
In my estimation, Positive Liberty (2) is a liberal sacred value. Positive liberty requires that people are treated differently depending on their membership in sacrilized victim groups. Victim groups go in and out of fashion, but they’re usually based on race, economic status, being female, or having an “alternate lifestyle.” In other words, the liberal conception of liberty – positive liberty – requires, and results in, racial profiling, economic profiling, sexual profiling, and lifestyle profiling.
Positive liberty also requires playing God. It sets up a system in which some person or group of persons at the top of the social ladder – elites in the government – sit in judgment of who “deserves,” or is worthy of, government largess. Positive liberty systematizes the concept that the proper role of government is to ride like a white knight into any and every facet of life in which some person or group of persons thinks they’ve been treated unfairly, or who feel that that somebody else is “unfairly” better off than they are, and “fix” the apparent injustice or “inequality.”
Positive liberty, therefore, requires victim groups. In fact, it cannot survive without them. So it creates them. The concepts and policies of positive liberty encourage people to band together into groups to fight against other groups to prove themselves more worthy of the beneficence of the secular god of government. In this way the liberal sacred value of positive liberty creates class and race warfare. It needs, feeds on, the racism of people like Al Sharpton, and the classism of people like Obama to continually foment unrest among the like minded so that it can put on its white knight suit of armor and ride in to save the day with race based laws (e.g., affirmative action, hate crimes) and class based laws (progressive taxation), and rhetoric (Obama and the Democrats’ perpetual one-note song of class warfare against the rich), which help to further the cause. In this way the racism and classism that is the life blood of positive liberty become self fulfilling prophesies.
The government programs which result from the Democratic/Liberal culture of victimhood and divineness manifest in the disease of pathological altruism which encourages the exact behaviors which should be discouraged if one truly “cares” about their fellow man, and has the safety, security, and well being of a society at heart. The liberal sacred value of positive liberty encourages the breakup of the family by replacing the father with a government dole. It encourages out of wedlock births in the now fatherless homes by increasing the size of the dole based on the number of children. It fosters the mentality of entitlement, and the notion of government as secular god, doling out “benefits” to the worthy. In so doing, it discourages family, community, and self reliance.
Liberal policies of positive liberty act as an Iron Curtain which effectively prevents the binding foundations from penetrating into the very part of society those policies are intended to protect. Those sub-cultures within the larger culture of America are Coming Apart precisely because of the programs and policies that the Pathological Altruism of liberal positive liberty created with the intention of helping them.
Is it any wonder that, after generations of these policies, children who grow up in that environment have so little regard for human life, family, and community – those things having been replaced by the beneficence of the secular god of government via entitlement “benefits” – that they often join gangs so they can feel like they’re part of something, and they sometimes literally kill each other over sneakers and jackets? There’s a definite and direct cause and effect relationship between the liberal policies of positive liberty through welfare and entitlements, and the resulting failure of the segment of society where those “benefits” are most in evidence, because those benefits effectively block the binding foundations from taking hold in those communities.
Is it any wonder that three-foundation people, who are blind to the benefits of the binding foundations, then turn around and blame the gun makers for the killings? And is it any wonder that they blame “the rich” for the cultural and economic plight of the poor?
And is it any wonder that the blame Republicans for all the problem in Washington?
The problem with that kind of “logic,” which results from the three-foundation mindset, and notions like positive liberty, is that it blames the symptoms while being blind to the disease, and its remedy is more of the same, which only makes matters worse.
The liberal sacred value of liberty makes about as much sense as trying to make a dog happy by grabbing its tail and moving it back and forth, and then doing it even harder when the dog doesn’t like it.
If liberals really want to see the cause of the “problem in Washington,” and in the country as a whole, then the first place they should look is in the mirror.
The only path to true “fairness” is the process orientation of negative liberty: one set of laws that applies, and is applied, as much as is humanly possible, to all people. No playing God. No white knight. No self fulfilling class, racial, or lifestyle warfare. Everyone treated the same way. True equality. But, when Republicans stand up for those things; refuse to “compromise” on real fairness and true equality that come from negative liberty, suddenly they’re “The cause of the problem in Washington.”
An Observation about Liberal Bias in some of Haidt’s commentary
Here’s the thing that’s been nagging at me for some time. It’s just a feeling. I can’t prove it. I’ll just say it. I get the feeling that Haidt’s respect for the constrained vision of conservatism and the insights that come from it is intellectual and academic, but it doesn’t go much deeper than that. At bottom, because of his liberal roots and genetic wiring, he just can’t “feel” what conservatism is about. Despite all his intellectual knowledge about it, he really doesn’t get it at a deep level. Statements like the one on Colbert about Republicans being the cause of all the problem in Washington, and the one on Moyers where he caught himself and said “Sorry. I shouldn’t demonize.” (or something close to that) are telling.
And I think because of this he’s sending mixed messages. Said differently, his message is muddled. He says that conservatives have a better grasp of human nature, but then in practically the same breath he also says that moral matrices are consensual hallucinations, which puts conservatism and liberalism on morally equal grounds. It’s moral relativism. I understand what he means about “consensual hallucination,” but seriously, the two moralities are not equivalent, as that phrase suggests. One is, indeed, better than the other. That one is conservatism. Haidt’s own data, and his own talks, and his own interpretation of human history show this. (In his CCARE talk, for example, he said “The unconstrained vision, I believe, has the worst track record in the history of ideas.”)
Either conservatives grasp human nature better than liberals do, and the constrained vision of conservative morality, warts and all, is therefore the better one upon which to build a society, or both sides are equally deluded by their own consensual hallucinations, they need each other in the sense of Yin/Yang, and morality really is relative. It can’t be both ways. Which is it?
If Haidt believes the solution is to change the path (as in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath), then he should stop encouraging liberals to pull so hard to the left with his anti-Republican comments, and stop the moral relativism. He should put his understanding of human nature – and specifically the knowledge that people circle around sacred values when those values are threatened – to better use, and stop encouraging liberals to commit sacrilege against three sixths of human nature with comments about how Republicans are to blame. She should stop affirming for liberals, through comments like that, that “No, I must NOT believe Haidt’s message.” (1) He should stop undermining the principle of negative liberty – which is the only path to true “fairness” – and the other principles upon which this country was founded, which are based on an understanding of the full spectrum of human nature rather than just half of it.
Haidt was on the right track in his CCARE talk (3). What happened?
(1) “When we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must. – Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, page 84.
(2) “Everyone – left, right, and center – cares about Liberty/oppression, beut each political faction cares in a different way. In the contemporary United States, liberals are most concerned about the rights of certain vulnerable groups (e.g., racial minorities, children, animals), and they look to government to defend the weak against oppression by the stron. Conservatives, in contrast, hold more traditional ideas of liberty as the right to be left alone, and they often resent liberal programs that use government to infringe on their liberties in order to protect groups that liberals care most about.” (56)
(56) Berlin 1997/1958 referred to this kind of liberty as “negative liberty” – the right to be left alone. He pointed out that the left had developed a new concept of “positive liberty” during the twentieth century – a conception of the rights and resources that people needed in order to enjoy liberty.
– Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, page 182 for text and page 350 for note # 56.
(3) Haidt’s CCARE talk, in which he demonstrates how liberals commit sacrilege against many of the moral foundations is available for viewing online here, I typed up a transcript of that talk. It’s available here.