Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Problem with Dr. Haidt

About a year ago, a book called The Righteous Mind by Dr. Jonathan Haidt stirred up much controversy. In the usual course of the dynamics associated with the free market of ideas, his observations created a big splash, and then fell by the wayside as attention was re-directed elsewhere. But I still think we need to talk about this, so here you go:

Above is a link to a TED talk given by Haidt, and below is a link to one of Haidt's essays on religion and its value in society.

I like Dr. Haidt. Sometimes he can be a bit New Age wonky, but his research has led him to re-examine conservative ideas critically and brought him to some surprisingly positive conclusions. At least, those conclusions surprised him. Nevertheless, there are elements of what he's trying to do - bring about greater civil discourse through understanding - that totally misses the boat. What he's missed corresponds with what I'm trying to do by talking about praxeology and looking at the situation through an economic perspective.

Haidt's assumption, that the conflicts between the ideologies at play are rooted in misunderstanding, is purely liberal. So while he now proclaims himself to be a centrist, he's still extremely liberal, and as such, he's doomed to completely misunderstand the economic reality of the situation. This has nothing to do with misunderstandings. It has everything to do with the competitive nature of ideology itself, and the questions of power that are totally inseparable from it.

The liberal and conservative ideologies are competing, people. They are in a marketplace of ideas, much like Haidt's book came and went in that marketplace, and the ideologies want more market share. This has nothing to do with right versus wrong, in the usual sense of the word, because right versus wrong are issues that are hashed out within the marketplace and do not govern it. The marketplace is ABOVE ideology, so long as the structure of Western society remains individualistic. Ideas are sold. The alternative is essentially moral authoritarianism, and every player in this situation is a moral authoritarian to some degree because everyone thinks that they are right, as Haidt said. You can try to reduce the power of this by creating a pluralist cultural environment, but making that the goal would be to openly say that there is no right and wrong, and it's all a matter of perspective. That's true, but it kills legitimacy, solves nothing, and it couldn't possibly matter less. The question has everything to do with the dominant form of cultural perspective, and how it shapes individual perspectives.

Look at what's happening right now with the gun control situation. Liberals (modern liberals, not classical) want more gun regulation. They don't want this because they're trying to tell you what to do, at least not in their minds. When Obama talked about gun control recently, he urged political enemies to "examine their conscience" and surrounded himself with children, which shows one of three things: naivete, self-righteousness, or absurdly divisive political gamesmanship. It's likely a combination of the three, none of which means that he doesn't mean well. It's just that when we're talking about morality, liberals have based their cultural understandings on the belief that, to some degree, all cultures are kind of the same and can coexist peacefully. And they've made sweeping judgments about right and wrong in the process.

I'm going to skip over some of Haidt's talk of harm/care and fairness/injustice here and just say, liberals simply think that violence is bad and that anything that could contextually promote violence is therefore inherently bad. They see guns as an evil, preferring them to be held only by the elected and therefore legitimate state, and being pissed by the idea that anyone could see guns as desirable or necessary. In the process of this, they've waged a propaganda war aimed at changing minds - or as they see it, bringing them around to reason - on the subject of gun ownership. All the idiotic blathering about what constitutes an assault weapon, or how many bullets in a magazine are too many, couldn't possibly matter less. What they're trying to do is bring guns into cultural disrepute, and doing so requires the passage of laws that make it clear that guns are dangerous and bad.

In the marketplace of ideas, the currency in play is the attention span of society at large, which is an inherently scarce resource, and they're fighting for more. They don't see it that way, because they believe, in the grandest style of any religious zealot, that what they're fighting for is in some sense deeply, objectively, and inarguably right if you understand the situation. They're wrong, but that's my opinion. I am not of that cultural school, and neither are huge numbers of Americans. The Americans who want to keep their guns and maintain a respectable image for gun owners see the assault at work, and CAN see it because they disagree. But morality blinds, and what guys like Haidt both understand and do not admit is that their own morality is a subjective matter which, if stripped from them, would constitute an assault on their ideological identity and they want nothing more than to preserve it. They don't have to worry, because another thing that liberals typically don't admit is that their understanding of right and wrong is already so broadly shared in this country that it simply doesn't come under attack. The fringe liberals - hardcore feminists, pseudo-socialists, extreme egalitarians of all stripes - come under attack, but there aren't many people that stupid. The basis for liberal ideology, focused on secularism and empathy, is soundly dominant in the marketplace of ideas.

This will get its own post eventually, but... Living in a country so deeply individualistic, I think one reason that liberals are under the impression that competing ideologies can co-exist so easily is constant exposure to consumerism. There's an anti-monopolist sentiment. They believe that having two people living side by side with totally different ideologies is as straightforward as having two people live side by side that own different brands of car. It doesn't make a difference if you drive a Chevy and I drive a Ford, so it shouldn't matter that you're a conservative and I'm a liberal. Just mind your business, right? They look at principles like clothes you put on. That's bullshit. It does matter. Your ideas are your identity, and an attack on them - or a marginalization of them - is an attack on you. We have to live under the same laws, raise our children close to each other, and interact in the public sphere in countless other ways. Environmentalists have figured out that selling people on the ideas one by one doesn't work worth a shit when it's time to actually get things done, especially if there is genuine sacrifice involved, and Haidt recognized the "commons dilemma". What can a society do if people don't agree on basic values, basic moral principles, and basic visions of the future? Can it even be called a society anymore?

If this is incompatible with your conception of freedom, then you don't understand some of the deep subjectivity inherent in ideas of freedom in the Western context. When it comes down to it, freedom as a concept makes no sense unless you make massive moral assumptions. You are not free to beat, kill, or rape, so to a great degree, the philosophical basis of freedom says that to be free is to be good. The part of what constitutes goodness makes up huge rafts of our political and cultural debates. Haidt skips over the deep philosophy himself in creating his moral foundations, because he doesn't want to make any actual statements of what is genuinely right or not; he'd prefer to keep that a subjective matter, up to the people. He does not say that liberals are wrong, instead seeing the situation as ying and yang, where balance is necessary for - what do you think? - maximum social welfare. His credit to conservatism is strictly based on not changing too fast. He still wants change, and you can guess his preferred direction: more equality, more choice, more empowerment in all its forms for everyone. He doesn't play with questions of legitimate authority or legitimate values. He doesn't really participate, and in refusing to do so, doesn't contribute much. It's interesting stuff, but not productive. He will not take on the responsibilities of leadership and make the decisions, or even advise on them. Like I said, it isn't a problem of understanding, and his idea that understanding will fix anything is baseless, born of ideological predisposition.

When Haidt really gets this, and really gets how placing ideas into this context deeply devalues the perspective of the individuals who hold those ideas, then he will realize just how futile it is to try and make the world compatible with everyone's ideology simultaneously. Pluralism is a joke. Western societies used to be filled with families that put up walls between their houses as a matter of course. Those walls will have to come back up, figuratively and maybe literally, if we want to preserve the value of our own identities. We already don't want to send our kids to the same schools or let them watch the same TV shows, knowing that some asshole's views that contradict our own will get shoved into their faces. We are already separating into camps. And it needs to happen, because serious questions of ideology don't get resolved by putting them on a shelf at Wal-Mart and letting people just pick and choose whichever ones they want. It kills the prerogative of any society to utilize any serious discipline when you do that. No, the way that ideologies come into their own and create social stability is the way they've always done it:

One side has to win. 

God help us if an internally inconsistent, ridiculous ideology like modern liberalism pulls out a victory.

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