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Asteroids, Recommendations, The Partisan Divide, The Political Divide

“Progressive Kristallnacht”

In a recent letter he wrote to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Tom Perkins, co-founder of the silicon valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers caused quite a stir when he compared what he perceives to be “a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent” to the Kristallnacht attacks against Jews in Nazi Germany in November of 1938. 

It goes without saying that Perkins went too far. The implied equivalence between Nazism and any of the mainstream Western ideologies is beyond the pale. Further, “hatred,” may even be too strong of a word.  

But, if we can pause for a moment, take a step back, look beyond Perkins’ unfortunate hyperbole and the diversion it caused, and try to understand what he was actually talking, about I think the inevitable conclusion is that he is onto something.  The left does indeed have a long tradition of overt animosity toward those it considers to be its political opponents; animosity that is unmatched both in kind and in severity by those opponents. 

Thomas Sowell wrote about this recently, saying…

One of the things that attracted me to the political left, as a young man, was a belief that leftists were for “the people.” Fortunately, I was also very interested in the history of ideas — and years of research in that field repeatedly brought out the inescapable fact that many leading thinkers on the left had only contempt for “the people.”

That has been true from the 18th century to the present moment. Even more surprising, I discovered over the years that leading thinkers on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum had more respect for ordinary people than people on the left who spoke in their name.

Leftists like Rousseau, Condorcet or William Godwin in the 18th century, Karl Marx in the 19th century or Fabian socialists like George Bernard Shaw in England and American Progressives in the 20th century saw the people in a role much like that of sheep, and saw themselves as their shepherds.

Another disturbing pattern turned up that is also with us to the present moment. From the 18th century to today, many leading thinkers on the left have regarded those who disagree with them as being not merely factually wrong but morally repugnant. And again, this pattern is far less often found among those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.

The visceral hostility toward Sarah Palin by present day liberals, and the gutter level to which some descend in expressing it, is just one sign of a mindset on the left that goes back more than two centuries.

T.R. Malthus was the target of such hostility in the 18th and early 19th centuries. When replying to his critics, Malthus said, “I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candor.”

But William Godwin’s vision of Malthus was very different. He called Malthus “malignant,” questioned “the humanity of the man,” and said “I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made.”

This asymmetry in responses to people with different opinions has been too persistent, for too many years, to be just a matter of individual personality differences.

I think that an honest examination of history corroborates the “asymmetry in responses” between left and right that Sowell wrote about. During the French Revolution the left had the strength in numbers, and thus the confidence and feeling of safety, to do as it pleased and the result was genocide. Was that not a kind of Kristallnacht?  Occupy Wall Street marched on the personal homes of “the rich.”  Is there any doubt that, had they felt they had sufficient strength in numbers to get away with it, they would have forcibly entered those homes?  I think not.  Is that sort of barely contained rage evident in any rallies held by the right?  No. Not even close.   

I think there’s a fundamental truth behind the saying that conservatives think that liberals are good people with bad ideas, but liberals think conservatives are bad people.  

The question, then, is why?  What explains this asymmetry? 

The “flaws” of reason do not explain it.  Cognitive biases like the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, I think it is safe to say, are distributed evenly among all people regardless of ideology.   The Argumentative Theory applies equally to all.  

Nor does our “groupishness” which Haidt talks about in this video  (also available here).  We have a natural tendency tendency to see in-groups as “good” and out-groups as “bad.”  Different groups sacralize different concepts, and thus contrive different narratives, and everyone has an equal tendency to cherry pick the facts to fit their own narrative.  

All this plays right into Haidt’s metaphors of Yin/Yang, asteroids, taste buds, and cuisines. Where neither side is better or worse, just different.

But none of it, including those metaphors, explains the asymmetry of cognitive and behavioral styles between left and right.  So, again, what does explain it?

I think only one thing explains it: the asymmetry of moral foundations between the two sides.  Moral foundations are not just taste buds that yield little more than personal preference. They’re cognitive tools of social perception, awareness, and understanding that evolved in The Social Animal to help us survive and thrive in the social world we created for our mutual benefit.  

The methods Haidt prescribes for combating demonization and shrinking the divide have their place.  His book, his Asteroids Club, his 2008 TED talk in which he admonishes us to “let go of for and against” and understand moral psychology, his Civil Politics web site, his suggestions that we get to know one another personally and find common ground, common humanity, before we talk about politics, all, are good ideas.  A multi-front “war” against the partisan divide and the demonization that flows across it is, I think, appropriate.  But, I’m afraid, they all come too late in the process of the maturation and the socialization of the elephant. They come only after sides have been chosen and battle lines have been drawn. And they talk mostly to the rider.  They sound great and can have some effect, but when push comes to shove people tend to revert to their inherent selves; their inner elephants take over.  So I think Haidt’s suggestions can have only a marginal net positive effect at best.  I think they’re all a little too much like trying to teach people to behave ethically, which, as Haidt explains on page 106 of The Righteous Mind, almost never works:

Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom. Classes are for riders, and riders are just going to use their new knowledge to serve their elephants more effectively. If you want to make people behave more ethically, there are two ways you can go. You can change the elephant, which takes a long time and is hard to do. Or, to borrow an idea from the book Switch, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, you can change the path that the elephant and rider find themselves traveling on.

If one digs deeper into Haidt’s suggestions one sees that some of his ideas are about how to “change the path.” An example, mentioned above, is his suggestion that we get to know one another personally before we talk politics.  His Civil Politics web site offers a great example of this in an article by Ravi Iyer about the recent bi-partisan budget deal that was lead jointly by Conservative Paul Ryan and Liberal Patty Murray.  That sort of thing, I think, is a great idea that’s right on the mark.  

But I think we should not be so quick to dismiss his idea of changing the elephant.  Yes, it can take a long time and be hard to do, but I think it’s doable and worth it.

I think we can do it by reinforcing ALL the foundations in K-12 education.   I would even go further and suggest that this the only, or at least the best, way to work toward shrinking the political divide, reducing the demonization that flows back and forth across it, and increasing civility in a deep and lasting way that could actually “change the path” of our our culture for the better.  It’s also, I submit, the only, or best, approach that truly targets the asymmetry that is at the root of the divide. If we really, actually, do want to shrink the divide and reduce demonization then, I think, this idea needs to be implemented.

Since liberalism and conservatism are heritable and therefore at least partly “hard wired” into us by our genes there’s no danger of “indoctrinating” kids into conservatism as liberals might fear or argue would happen.  There always has been, and always will be, liberalism and conservatism.  

So here’s my question, how could an understanding and appreciation of all the foundations NOT help to increase civility and reduce demonization?  How could teaching our kids as I suggest do anything but help?  Conversly, how does continuing to operate in ignorance of why getting along can sometimes be so hard to do not harm everyone and even exacerbate the problem?  


2 thoughts on ““Progressive Kristallnacht”

  1. You’ve mentioned educating our kids on the foundations before. At first I resisted the premise–we’re trying to teach kids SO MANY things in school. But if we taught them the foundations as they relate to everything that they learn, as an integral part of the subjects they learn and how we function in everyday life, THAT might be very productive.


    Posted by Susan Quinn | February 5, 2014, 9:29 am
    • Yes! That’s precisely the idea! Excellent! (My bad if that aspect has not come across more clearly in my writing).

      It does not need to be overt. For example, in preschool, the stories that are read aloud to the kids could be carefully selected such that, by the end of a school year, the kids have had a broad exposure to all the foundations. Another example: Teachers often decorate bulletin boards with messages about how kids should be nice to each other, respect each other, etc. Same thing here. Make sure that by the end of the school year all the foundations have been reinforced. Then later, in middle and high school, choose and assign books for book reports in a similar fashion. Haidt has said that kids aren’t ready for abstract thought until the early teen years. So it’s probably smart to wait until high school to talk about moral foundations explicitly. And even then, all it needs to be is a module that’s taught at some point during the school year. For example, as I’ve said in the past, if moral foundations really are products of evolution then they’ve been “in play” for pretty much all of human history. So, why not introduce them near the beginning of the school year in history class, and then once or twice during the year ask the kids to identify the moral foundations that drove some historical event and how those foundations shaped the way people thought about and reacted to it. The classic example would be to compare and contrast the French and American Revolutions in this way. The same sort of thing could be done in English or Literature classes. Ask the kids to identify the moral foundations behind the story in some novel, and how the foundations shaped the way the characters in the story acted and reacted to the situations they faced. After the kid are old enough, the most important class of all in which to teach moral foundations might just be “health” class (by whichever name is used) in middle or high school, and/or any discussions regardless of which class it’s in, about getting along, and why it can sometimes be hard to do.

      I think the partisan divide is a major issue facing Western cultures, and for the most part we’re “flying blind” as to the real causes for it, and thus to any real solutions that might help to mitigate it. Reinforcing moral foundations in this way would, I believe, take the blinders off, and would greatly increase the odds that future generations would understand and empathize with one another much better than we presently do, and the leaders who emerge would be better able to understand where the other side is coming from and account for its concerns.

      I don’t think this would be a silver bullet that would cure all our ills and create heaven on earth. People are still people, with all our faults, and we’ll always be “groupish,” and political factions will always compete for power. But still, I just don’t see how taking the blinders off could do anything but help. I think we should make every effort we can to do it.

      If I could quit my day job and start a foundation this would be its cause. I’d start small. Find one school, or one school system, somewhere in the country, that’s willing to give it a shot. Involve the teachers, administrators, parents. Enlist experts in curriculum design, child development, teaching methods. Enlist an engaging, open, friendly personality (like Haidt’s) to speak to groups about the ideas. Try it out. Fine tune it based on lessons learned from experience and feedback from teachers, parents. Try to achieve one small success, then, if it works out, build on it. Based on that success, maybe another school or system might give it a try. And another. Grow it organically. Maybe, if things go right and energy can be maintained, the program just might catch on, reach a “Tipping Point” (as in Malcolm Gladwell’s book by that name), such that, rather than having to “sell” people on the idea, they seek it out, and it becomes part of standard curricula everywhere.

      Anyway, that’s my dream.


      Posted by The Independent Whig | February 5, 2014, 10:35 am

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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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