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Liberalism & Conservatism, Moralty BInds and Blinds


Scott Wagner is a liberal blogger whom I hold in high esteem. He writes about how liberals might do a better job in their efforts to Reach the Right. Scott often relies on the work of Jonathan Haidt. He and Haidt epitomize the liberal ideal of openness to new ideas. They have the ability to follow the evidence even when it seems to point toward conclusions that are contrary to their liberal sensibilities, and they apply what they’ve learned as they attempt to bridge the political divide (i.e., in Scott’s case, to “Reach the Right.”) Scott’s comment to a recent post of mine set off a train of thought in my mind which resulted in this post. Thanks Scott, I hope in some small way my ideas contribute to the conversation in a constructive way.

Imagine if you will a world in which half the people in the country know in their heart of hearts that you are, say, a habitual liar, and everything else they think about you starts from this basic “truth.” And imagine that the way those people talk about you and act toward you reflects their disdain for who and what you are. They ostracize you. They gossip among themselves about what a bad person you are, saying things like “How can he think that way? Who does that? What’s wrong with him?” They say the same sorts of things directly to you. They flat-out accuse you of being a habitual liar, they point to your lying as the cause of pain and suffering of many other people, and they demand that you mend your ways.

But the thing is, you are honestly, truly, not who or what those people “know” you are. On the contrary, you are an honest, good-hearted person who cares about, and for, others. You truly want what’s best for everyone.

You know that the real problem is not with you, it’s with others’ perceptions of you.

And what’s more, you can see that the reason those perceptions about you are wrong is because the lens through which the people who hold them see the world gives them a distorted picture of what’s really going on. You can see that the people themselves aren’t bad. They’re good, honest, caring people too. Just like you. They, like you, want what is best for everyone. They’re not being deliberately obstructionist, and there’s no “vast conspiracy” against you or people like you. It’s just that the lens acts as sort of an invisible shield that blocks certain types of information and ideas about you from penetrating to the honest, reasoning, fair minded people behind it.

The unfortunate part of all of this is that, practically speaking, because of that lens nothing you say or do; no amount of honest discussion; no amount of factual evidence; no amount of playing by the rules of polite society or civil discussion, can ever make even the slightest crack in the lens – in the false premise – that those people believe, no, “know,” is true about you, because all of that discussion, all of that evidence, passes through the exact same lens which is causing the problem in the first place.

You’re stuck inside a definitive example of a classic “Catch-22.”

A “Catch-22,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem.” The phrase was coined by Joseph Heller in a book titled, oddly enough, Catch-22.  Anyway, you can see that the root of the problem is the lens and not the people themselves, but you can’t say that because the people don’t separate the two. To them, the lens is what makes them who they are, so any mention that it might be getting in the way of meaningful communication is taken as an attack against them personally and they take offense.

Further, more than just being offensive, your comment is perceived (through the lens) to be ad hominem.

Further still, your comment is also perceived (through the lens) to be discriminatory against the entire group of people who happen to see the world through more or less the same lens.

And the rules of civil discussion and of today’s polite society pretty much preclude anything that is perceived to be offensive, ad hominem, or discriminatory.  For any and all issues the rules of discussion and of society demand that you stick to the facts of the issue.

But the facts and reason, “about 200 pages worth in Haidt’s recent book,” (from Scott’s comment) indicate that the lens is, if not the root cause, at least a significant contributing factor of the problem.

In other words, even though reason and facts and letting go of for and against indicate that the lens might be the real root cause of the problem you can’t talk about it because the rules of discussion preclude you from doing so. But on the other hand, it’s practically impossible to solve just about any problem, including the problem of the lens, if you don’t talk about it.  The solution is denied by a circumstance inherent to the problem.


So here’s the challenge: How do you proceed? How do you get people to see the elephant in the room without talking about it? How do you talk about the root of the problem without offending people and confirming (to them) their mistaken perceptions of you, and of conservatives and conservatism?

How do we Switch the path or Nudge people in a way that actually does some good? How do we get to the point Scott described in his comment, where liberals “use a broader set of moral foundations to accomplish what’s important to them, so that liberal advantages, if they exist, can be married up with a more accurate moral approach?”


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