A group of blind men (or men in the dark) touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement. – Summary from Wikipedia
Some of today’s blind men and the elephant parts they encountered are listed below. I’ll update this list if I come across more examples. Readers are encouraged to post suggestions in the comments:
- Jonathan Haidt: The Key to Trump is Stenner’s Authoritarianism
- Thomas Edsall: Purity, Disgust, and Donald Trump
- Frank Bruni: Blood, Sweat, and Trump
- Alexander Hurst: Donald Trump and the Politics of Disgust
- Matthew MacWilliams: The One Weird Trait that Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter
- Amada Taub: The Rise of American Authoritarianism
- Jonathan Haidt (again): When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism
- David Brooks: We Take Care of Our Own
The elephant they’re struggling to describe is the dynamic that exists between the two predominant psychological profiles of human social thought and interaction. The profiles are described by Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, and by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Sowell calls them the constrained and unconstrained visions. Haidt calls them the all-foundation and one-foundation moral matrices.
Purity, disgust, authoritarianism, nationalism, globalism, etc., are the elephant parts – the side, tusk, tail, trunk, etc. – that each of the authors sees most clearly. They are the aspects, foundations, sub-traits, or cognitive styles that make up and follow from the two broad mentalities. They are triggered by the never ending cosmic dance of action and reaction that has existed between the two mentalities for centuries, and by the moral arc of the dance itself, captured in this proverb:
When there’s no food on the table there is only one problem. When there’s food on the table there are many problems.– Proverb
In “Planet of the Durkheimians,” (1) Haidt explains:
The analysis of such transitions was the life-work of Ferdinand Tönnies (2001/1887), who saw this process unfolding in 19th-century Europe. Tönnies referred to the traditional pattern of social relations as “Gemeinschaft,” which is usually translated as “community.” Gemeinschaft relationships rest on the three pillars (whether real or imagined) of shared blood, shared place, and shared mind or belief. The prototype of Gemeinschaft is the family, and the family (particularly the patriarchal family) is easily scaled up to create larger Gemeinschaft institutions such as the Catholic Church or the feudal system. Tönnies labeled the new, more impersonal kind of relationship “Gesellschaft,” which is usually translated as “society” or “civil society.” Gesellschaft is what happens when the social restraints of community are weakened, mid-level institutions are eliminated, and people are largely free to pursue their own goals as they see fit. Gesellschaft relationships are “characterized by a high degree of individualism, impersonality, [and] contractualism, and [they proceed] from volition or sheer interest rather than from the complex of affective states, habits, and traditions that underlies Gemeinschaft” (Nisbet, 1993, p. 74.)
The cultural/historical component of moral foundations theory is largely the story developed by Tönnies, Durkheim, and Weber in their analyses of the transformation of European society from the middle ages to modernity. In brief: the historical and cross-cultural prevalence of Gemeinschaft suggests that this form of association is in some sense the human default – it is the form of social structure in which human evolution took place, and the context in which intuitive ethics became a part of the human mind. The great sociologists put forth many ideas about what drives the shift toward Gesellschaft, and a common theme is the weakening of social constraints upon individuals and the empowering of individuals to make their own choices. Wealth, mobility, technology, education, and cultural diversity – all of these factors weaken the historical interdependence of people within a longstanding community, and free individuals to construct lives for themselves guided by their own preferences. As that happens, the relative importance of the five foundations shifts.
In sum, the all-foundation mentality of Gemeinschaft puts food on the table, and then the one-foundation mentality of Gesellschaft sees all the other problems. Chaos ensues.
Societies grow and mature from the bottom up through the all-foundation process of Gemeinschaft. The virtues, values, principles, practices, customs, traditions, and institutions that emerge naturally and organically from that process become the glue of social capital that hold the societies together, and from which the individuals who inhabit them derive their sense of identity, belonging, and elevation. This is how the invisible hand of human nature, honed by hundreds of millions of years of natural selection, works its magic.
Problems arise when the one-foundation morality of Gesellschaft reaches the critical mass at which it overtakes Gemeinschaft and becomes the dominant force driving society. That’s the tipping point at which we begin to believe we’ve become “enlightenend” and we “know” what’s “right,” and we feel morally obligated to use the VISIBLE hand of the coercive power of government to FORCE what’s “right” onto society as a whole “for its own good.” This sort of thinking is embodied in the idealistic world view of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “General Will,” and by Robert F. Kennedy’s “I dream things that never were and ask why not?” It is at the tipping point that societies tend to begin running roughshod over Gemeinschaft and its moral foundations. The glue of social capital dissolves, resulting in chaos and anomie.
This pattern is a vicious cycle that has repeated throughout human history. Examples include the rise and fall of Rome, the French Revolution and the Terror the followed it, and the American Founding and the gradual erosion of the foundations and principles on which it stands. The last of these has been slowed because the American Founders – social science geniuses – designed the Constitution for that precise purpose (among others), but it’s happening nonetheless.
But the moral foundations are products of evolution, ingrained in us by hundreds of millions of years of natural selection, so they never quite disappear. When Gesellschaft becomes too oppressive the liberty foundation is triggered and the people who feel it “gang up” against the people or forces they feel are violating the sacred value of their individual and national identity; this self-image, of who and what they are.
It is that reaction, not disgust, authoritarianism, or nationalism that explains Brexit and the rise of Trump. Both are liberty foundation backlashes against the erosion of the personal and national identity, autonomy, and sovereignty that make England and America who and what we are.
(1) Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2009). Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality. In J. Jost, A. C. Kay, & H. Thorisdottir (Eds.), Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification. Available on the Publications page of the web site MoralFoundations.org, here: http://moralfoundations.org/publications