Haidt, Caring and Politics

Jonathan Haidt’s talk examines the political divide and ways to heal it from The Righteous Mind. His discussion of the problems free riders pose is often discussed here in terms of vaccinations. Haidt discusses group adaptations posited by Darwin and central to Edward O. Wilson’s 2012 The Social Conquest of Earth. Chicagoboyz might also find interesting his TED presentation “Religion, Evolution, and the Ecstasy of Self-Transcendence.” He concludes with Donne, a man of deep passions both religious and secular, whose meditation “No man is an island” was a favorite of my father, repeated often as I grew up, integral to our fly-over village. But, of course, it is always and everywhere, our experience.

Another TED discussion summarizes the Liberal/Conservative split section of the longer (and aimed at a different audience) talk. (Haidt knows his pedagogy – interesting, visual, reinforcing.)

His liberal vision tempered by research, Haidt’s is a reasonable voice. I liked it; unfortunately, my thoughts wander on a less charitable path. But my criticism began at home: struck by how narrow my horizons were – mired in the long work weeks, bearing three children – when I rather thoughtlessly subscribed to a liberal agenda. He notes a more complex (perhaps more proportional, certainly more long range) set of values on the right. These take energy and vision. We’d like to alleviate the particular misery of an unhappy marriage, an unmarried mother, a child who is having trouble fitting in to the classroom, an accident victim in pain – these tug the heartstrings. And society in 1965 could be cold – I remember. Nonetheless, when immediate solutions based on the great value of caring but without the values of justice and sanctity (in traditions sometimes harsh but responsive to past experience), we have found, unfortunately, some unhappy experience repeated.

So, as rich as Haidt’s insights were, I was struck by a memory his audience was less likely to consider: the ability of Sarah Palin to evoke disproportionate and visceral passions and, let’s face it, just plain stupid comments. We hear many observations posited – the elite exclusivity countering fly-over egalitarianism, spunky womanhood both independent and conservative, her religious views that they fear, an Alinsky personalizing and ad homineming of the opposition. We note passions engendered by (distracting from) cognitive dissonance in similar disproportionate attacks on Clarence Thomas and Condoleeza Rice. Perhaps the image of a clearly pre-menopausal woman, holding a baby as she accepts the nomination, was part of it. The baby, well, deeply bothers. There is the obsession by Sullivan – she can’t have had the baby, he thinks. Why? Well, what need does such bizarre theorizing fulfill. Yes, I’ve always thought womb-envy was a powerful force. But Trig, well, Trig represents caring.

To liberals, Haidt argues, caring is so far a dominant value that others fade. Stossel notes one sure way to increase an endangered species is to hunt or eat it. Our sympathy for the whole of the herd requires more sense of the future but it, in the long run, saves. It isn’t the hardening of the heart as much as the broadening of experience (and the diminution of immediate sympathies by enlargement of head-led ones) that moves us. My irritation with Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? came from anger: he implies he “cares” about mid-western farmers; prose dripping with condescension, the reader wonders if the failure was of intelligence or motive – but hadn’t the twentieth century history demonstrated the seductive sirens of policies he advocated led to bloodshed, a century littered with the starved and broken bodies of farmers? My colleagues assert their sympathy – they “care” for children and therefore want national health care; my minister contends he – and his congregation – care about the poor by extending unemployment compensation; Gore cares about the environment.

Caring is embodied in selfless action. But who “cares”? Those who identify with the victim or those who identify with the caregiver, the adult in the room? Soldiers, who risk their lives; firemen who rush into buildings afire. And there is the choice to raise – to acknowledge and love – a special needs child. Accepting this restraint on action – one Santorum did as well as Palin – is an example of living the value of care. I’ll admit that I’m not sure that is the choice I would make – I’m restless, less generous, less willing to subsume my ego in that daily effort. Maybe I would. We know Arthur Miller did not make Palin’s choice. Of course, in many ways Palin’s choices were different than his. She showed time after time that she knew history, the constitution, energy policy and pipeline politics better than her opponents (not just Obama and Biden but her real opponents in the media). But she also knew them from a different perspective than the media’s (or Miller’s). But they spun that – they were used to spinning that. And they could ignore the fact that a lesbian couple was part of Bush’s White House. But they could not ignore Trig; they tried (complained because they were forced to see him); but, isn’t that because he posed a problem? They might have to acknowledge that no, they didn’t care. Their desire for autonomy, so often voiced as “caring”, was self-aggrandizing, not self-subsuming.

How such pressure can go dramatically wrong and encourage at once free riders and malignant envy, transform the healthy life force into a suicidal loss of self and abuse our desire for transcendence is described in another lecture, one Instapundit linked.

1 thought on “Haidt, Caring and Politics”

  1. Liberals use the poor as pretext to steal from the rich,not to help the poor ,but to injure the rich and aggrandize themselves on how kind they are. Note that they are not generous with their own money. Pious frauds who believe their own BS.

Comments are closed.