Full-scale war may start: Friend, do you want to avoid the atavistic impulses which lead to full-blown tribal war?
The impulse to war is bred in us all. If you want to avoid that prehistoric impulse, we’ll make two suggestions:
First, challenge the idea that people come in well-defined types. Example:
Suppose a study shows that members of Tribe A are more likely to do X, Y or Z, as compared to members of Tribe B.
In that case, pay attention to the key term, “more likely.” Is the other tribe more likely to hold some view? If so, always ask yourself this: how much more likely?
You may end up learning that The Others are only five percent more likely to hold the view in question. By way of contrast, Goofus will decide that Those People all think that way!
Try to pretend you’re Ed McMahon! Always ask this: “How much more likely are they?” Until you’re told, you shouldn’t assume that the difference in question is vast.
Friend, here comes our second piece of advice: Try to avoid handling bombs!
Halfway through his discussion with Chris Mooney, Joshua Holland unsheathed a very powerful bomb. For yesterday's discussion, click this.
Before Holland unsheathed his bomb, this exchange occurred:
HOLLAND (10/31/13): Let’s dig a bit deeper into Haidt’s moral foundation theory. In your Mother Jones interview with Haidt you have a graph comparing how liberals, conservatives, and then also libertarians score on what Haidt calls the “seven moral foundations.” And when you look at the graph, the biggest disparities between liberals and conservatives—and, again, libertarians—are “purity” and “authority.” That’s where you see the biggest gaps between the groups. What is purity in Haidt’s reckoning?Hold on there. Careful, friend!
MOONEY: Purity is basically whether you feel moral emotions when someone does something you view as disgusting or indecent. A lot of this is going to involve your judgments about what’s sexually proper, but it could be other things that are disgusting. Basically, this is a way of measuring the emotion of disgust, and what this shows—this is the most striking disparity of all of them—is that liberals and libertarians really don’t sense disgust very much. And they’re together on that completely. There’s an amazing number of things that liberals and libertarians are together on. But conservatives feel it much more than either of them. And so this can explain a great deal in politics—it’s most regularly invoked to explain gay rights and how people respond to that, which I think is very appropriate. But I think it also gets into a lot of bioethical issues.
In this exchange, Mooney says that conservatives feel the moral foundation Haidt calls disgust “much more” than liberals do. According to Mooney, liberals “really don’t sense disgust very much.”
If you want to avoid being atavistic, you should be careful when you find yourself saying things like that. For ourselves, we see liberals expressing disgust, or something in the same ballpark, on a fairly regular basis.
As with his other “moral foundations,” Haidt’s concept of “disgust” is a bit imprecise. Here as elsewhere, it all depends on what Haidt is willing to categorize as “disgust.”
It all depends on what the meaning of disgust is!
Careful, friend! In our view, history teaches this basic lesson:
When you find yourself believing that The Other Tribe is very different in some basic way, you ought to make sure you understand the basis for that judgment.
Haidt deals with some very fuzzy concepts, including the concept of “disgust.” Especially when dealing with fuzzy concepts, folk should be careful about jumping to sweeping conclusions about Those People. Otherwise, you may find yourself saying things like this:
HOLLAND (continuing directly): And we’ve discussed authority before. That’s really central to understanding the conservative mindset. There’s been a lot of research on the so-called authoritarian personality type, and I want to connect this with the idea of political polarization.Uh-oh! Possibly primed by Mooney’s last statement, Holland pulls out an A-bomb! Just like that, he introduces the idea that we’re talking about “authoritarian personalities” here.
One of the things that we understand about authoritarians is that they have a stronger sense of the importance of loyalty to one’s own in-group. How does that factor into this equation, do you think?
He also introduces the notion that we have been discussing something call “the conservative mindset.” That almost sounds like a set of ideas, impulses and instincts every conservative holds.
Earlier in this conversation, Holland and Mooney were discussing different tendencies, differences in degree. The two tribal groups experience the same basic types of feelings; they just tend to have those feelings to different degrees.
All of a sudden, the other tribe is deemed to have a “mindset.” And a very unpleasant and imprecise term has been hauled in for use.
In the past decade, we liberals have been inclined the drop those A-bombs all around. The other tribe? They’re authoritarian!
It can feel very good to say that!
That said, do we really know what we mean by that claim? Terms like that lead us to war.
Tomorrow: How careful is Holland with his bomb? Does Mooney approve of its use?