The One Percent that Ought to Concern UsBy: FireTag
Hawkgrrrl recently summarized Jonathan Haidt’s thesis, expressed in The Righteous Mind, of how people develop pronounced liberal or conservative tendencies as a combination of both genetics and experience (see here). I also wrote about Haidt’s ideas about how liberals and conservatives define fairness differently. So, perhaps there is too much “Haidt” going around for some people’s taste, but I want to focus in this post on some ignored implications of Haidt’s findings that have been troubling me since I read Andrew’s post about “Typical Mormonism Fallacy” before Haidt started giving interviews.
IS THERE A TYPICAL EMPATHY FALLACY?
Andrew noted that in the 19th Century there was still a vital debate about whether people could or could not actually form images in their minds. It turned out that there was great variability in human abilities to visually imagine things. Those people who could form such mental pictures presumed everyone else could; those who could not presumed no one else could either. So both sides found the other’s arguments unconvincing, if not self-evidently absurd, and those with intermediate abilities could see points to both sides, if not understand the intensity of the argument. So Andrew went on to postulate that part of the problem in developing an inclusive sense of Mormonism is that we all think a typical Mormon thinks like we do. When we discover that we do not think alike, the inclusiveness fractures.
Now, at first, applying this typical mind fallacy to Haidt’s work might seem to be a trivial restatement. Liberals think conservatives should morally reason like liberals; conservatives think liberals should morally reason like conservatives. Got it.
But it’s not quite that symmetric, because one of the moral foundations that is dialed up to higher volumes in the liberal mind than in the conservative mind is empathy itself — the ability to self-identify with other minds. So, where another mind is like his/hers, the liberal’s perception matches reality very well. However, if the other mind is not like his/hers, a liberal must overcome that additional empathic boost to recognize its difference, whereas a conservative starts from a defense-first, they’re-not-like-me bias.
Haidt thus concludes that liberals are less able than others to accurately predict how their political opposites think.
Haidt helped conduct research that asked respondents to fill out questionnaires about political narratives—first responding based on their own beliefs, but then responding as if trying to mimic the beliefs of their political opponents. “The results,” he writes in the May issue of Reason, “were clear and consistent.” Moderates and conservatives were the most able to think like their liberal political opponents. “Liberals,” he reports, “were the least accurate, especially those who describe themselves as ‘very liberal.’”
Instead, Haidt suggests that the evolutionary drive to develop liberal minds and conservative minds has a lot to do with the two types being necessary to balance each other, with which I have long agreed fully. Relative inaccuracy of the liberal view of others can still be secondary to the overall evolutionary value of the liberal view’s presence. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal a week ago, Haidt opined:
“We shouldn’t be here at all. When I think about life on earth, there should not be a species like us. And if there was, we should be out in the jungle killing each other in small groups. That’s what you should expect. The fact that we’re here [in politics] arguing viciously and nastily with each other, and no guns, that itself is a miracle. And I think we can make [our politics] a little better. That’s my favorite theme.”
According to Haidt — the interviewer (Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.) notes — our constellation of moral instincts arose because it helped us to cooperate. It helped us, in unprecedented speed and fashion, to dominate our planet. Yet the same moral reaction also means we exist in a state of perpetual, nasty political disagreement, talking past each other, calling each other names…That is, our moral instincts are tribal, adaptive, intuitive and shaped by evolution to strengthen “us” against “them.”
In other words, liberals protect us from too much internal competition and “friendly-fire” casualties; conservatives, with their higher sensitivity to threats and even disgust with impurity, protect us against the “other” of predators, enemies, and parasites. Like Jew and Greek, or male and female, left and right created He them.
HOW UNIVERSAL ARE WESTERN SCALES OF CONSERVATIVE TO LIBERAL?
To some extent, a genetic mechanism maintained over deep time implies that the conservative vs. liberal dichotomy ought to be common across cultures. The genetic mechanism seems to involve a relatively small number of hormones and neurotransmitters, as reported here, chief among them glutamate, serotonin, and dopamine. Nevertheless, the “experience” part of the process, as Hawkgrrrl discussed in more detail in her post I linked at the beginning of this post, definitely can result in cultural divergence as well as individual divergence. The entire mainstream American political debate occurs at points well to the “right” of even the Tories of Great Britain, for example.
In the Mediterranean, one can see the same liberal versus conservative genetic paradigm played out in the context of “civility” versus “virility”. (Keep that in mind as you watch the military situation in the region evolve over the coming weeks!)
“A severe divide in terms of political culture cuts across much of the Middle East. It may be summed up as one between civility and virility: the desire to establish a commonwealth based on law, justice, and respect against the determination to prevail over and humiliate others. The Syrian regime’s information tools are laced with the imagery of virility: even the Syrian president has referred to other regional leaders as “half-men.” This imagery is not inconsequential. An authority that displays virility is expected to commit brutal actions, and it ought to be feared and placated by its subject population. The Ba’ath regimes in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Assad’s Syria both sought to perfect the Stalinist model of a republic of fear by injecting it with indigenous paternalism. As disparate as the Arab Spring uprisings were, one common element was their challenge to fear-induced submission. The Syrian regime understands well that its only path to ensuring its survival is through the restoration of its rule by fear and the demonstration of its virility.
“Short of responding with an equal demonstration of kinetic force, Turkey has lost this contest in virility. The cautious, almost legalistic, language used by NATO in its response proves to the regime’s audiences its impotence. To many observers outside of Syria, this incident may be excused as marginal or spun as a part of the case against the regime. But for the Syrian population fearing the regime’s wrath, it comes as a just another reminder of its impunity.” — Hassan Mneimneh, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Indeed, it was this type of cultural divergence that Haidt credits with opening his mind to the notion that his own liberalism was missing something critical. In his WSJ interview, he spoke of finding an Indian society that was “patriarchal, sexist, and illiberal” but worked and produced “lovely people”. In Brazil he learned from street children that:
“…the most dangerous person in the world is mom’s boyfriend. When women have a succession of men coming through, their daughters will get raped,” he says. “The right is right to be sounding the alarm about the decline of marriage, and the left is wrong to say, ‘Oh, any kind of family is OK.’ It’s not OK.”
So most of us in the West are being good little tribalists, arguing in relative safety within the confines of our evolutionary roles. We are outraged with each other, of course, and the outrage is emotionally real because morality is built into and upon our emotions. But even the threat-sensitive conservatives are seldom shocked, because we think, through long practice, that we understand the boundary and rules of the arena.
But, then, as Monty Python once put it, “Nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
WHAT ABOUT THE TRIBES OF ONE?
If genetics and experience can cause humans to diverge away from our Western political norms into behaviors we’d not willingly accept, does the potential inaccuracy of our empathetic beliefs then become much more important to consider in evaluating what may be at large within our own society?
I got a very early look (elementary school age) at how extreme the amorality of minds might be that reside in plain sight among us. Fortunately, I did so from about the safest place possible — the back seat of a car driven by an FBI agent friend of my parents as he acted as an informal tour guide for the “mobster mansions” of Long Island on the only family vacation trip we ever took away from relatives or church camps.
I don’t remember the details of the “tour” so much as its tone. It was like being on a Hollywood bus with the guide pointing out the homes of various stars, directors, producers, and up-and-coming talents. But instead of mentioning pictures, roles, and awards, the agent was talking about missing persons, murders, and connections. (By the way, the mansions were just as large and impressive as one sees in the “Godfather” movies; I just don’t remember the trees being so large 50 years ago.)
I have no idea whether the agent was just expressing his frustration to a former co-worker (i.e., my mother) that he couldn’t do anything under the law against these threats, or whether he actually was trying to get a message across to the “next generation”: “These people exist. They are real. No matter how much they may appear to share our common moralities, they play by the rules of our civilization only when it is convenient to their purposes, and their purposes always consider us outside their tribe and family”.
Kent Kiehl, who grew up down the street from serial killer Ted Bundy, made his career the study of psychopathic personalities in order to improve their treatment. He notes that true psychopaths make up about one per cent of the American population, although they make up a much larger fraction of the prison population. He is clearly an empathetic liberal, since a conservative would not be reassured by the notion that we share the country with a mere 3.4 million psychopaths (not counting lesser, but related, forms such as narcissistic personality disorder), nor that we share a world with “virile” leaders like Assad who are perfectly within the moral understanding of their own cultures’ evolution, but psychopathic by our norms.
Demonizing a psychopath is, of course, redundant. Yet, the psychopathy is not always apparent when early recognition is most important, and doubts about integrity can be easily explained away for the incurious. Surely there must be some legitimate explanation other than conquest for Julius Caesar to lead his legion across the understood boundary of Rome! What was true couldn’t — psychologically — be accepted as true.
Even Al Capone had something of a “Robin Hood” reputation among many common people when he gained control over the Chicago mob, and politicians on his payroll were eager to provide him cover until a particularly brutal mass murder exposed him to the public for what he’d always been. Despite intense law enforcement pressure at local, state, and Federal levels, political corruption within Chicago has never been successfully eradicated.
Kiehl’s observations of psychopaths are therefore illuminating in regard to the psychopath’s ability to hide and their profound impact when they can successfully blend in:
“Well, most psychopaths have a glibness and a superficial charm to them. It does sometimes happen that, if we don’t get a chance to read a case file before we do an interview, we might walk away thinking, “Wow, what a nice guy! I can’t believe he’s in here,” because, basically he hasn’t told you the truth about anything that has happened in his entire life.
“Then when we actually do get a chance to look at the file, it’s like you are reading about a completely different person. When you see the person again, they’ll often say: “I didn’t want to talk about the old me; I thought I’d tell you about the new me.”
In other words, to use the title of an old M. Scott Peck book, they are seemingly “People of the Lie.” They lie incessantly. They lie incoherently. When a lie is discovered, they easily slip into a lie that contradicts the lie they just told. In the extreme, they can not conceive that someone would not find it more comfortable simply to believe the lie, and when that misconception is shattered, the resort to rage can be extraordinarily disproportionate.
Kiehl further says that:
“There are probably many psychopaths out there who are not necessarily violent, but are leading very disruptive lives in the sense that they are getting involved in shady business deals, moving from job to job, or relationship to relationship, always using resources everywhere they go but never contributing. Such people inevitably leave a path of confusion, and often destruction behind them…”
“…Psychopaths normally get into so much trouble, are so impulsive and fail to consider how their behavior impacts others, that it is unlikely they would become highly successful. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is impossible for an individual with psychopathy to have a “successful” career.”
I’m not sure whether I’d agree with the last part. It seems that, whether we regard them as “successful” or not by our norms, their success is best understood in terms of their own norms. And if gathering power, living with material riches, satisfying appetites, molding history, and consuming their “prey” was their goal, at least a few of them did well enough to trigger a couple of World Wars and a number of genocides in the 20th Century. The 21st Century is still very young.
That makes it all the more important that we keep as many “degrees of separation” as possible between access to power and that one percent of people we’ve agreed to recognize are outside the safe boundaries of political debate on the American liberal-conservative evolutionary spectrum. Only Daniel gets a do-over if he steps into a lion’s den to give the lion the benefit of the doubt.
Which brings us back to Al Capone. Capone had a top subordinate, Frank Nitti, who was trusted enough by Capone to take control of the gang after Capone went to prison. Nitti, in fact, played a major role in shifting the mob’s revenue from liquor-smuggling to prostitution and then union racketeering, especially in extorting money from major Hollywood studios to avoid “labor-trouble” from unions the mob secretly controlled.
Nitti had a “mascot”, an academic who had approached Nitti in order to study gang methods of acquiring and using power “from the inside” as the subject of his PhD. That academic was Saul Alinsky, but he never bothered to complete his PhD. He instead adapted the gangs’ approach to “community organizing”, creating several of the institutions that are significant to today’s American political left, and acquiring some very powerful believers in his methods (published in the book Rules for Radicals, which he jokingly dedicated to Satan, the “first radical”, who was successful in winning his own Kingdom). However, he left little to suggest he particularly shared the moral ideals that motivate liberalism according to Haidt. In fact, the records he left about his own moral compass can quite easily be argued to accord with the amorality of his mob friends.
John Fund noted:
“Clues can be found in a Playboy magazine interview he gave in 1972, just before his death. In the closest thing to a memoir Alinsky left…Alinsky told Playboy. “Nitti took me under his wing. I called him the Professor and I became his student. Nitti’s boys took me everywhere.”
…The Playboy interviewer asked, “Didn’t you have any compunction about consorting with — if not actually assisting — murderers?” Alinsky replied: “None at all, since there was nothing I could do to stop them from murdering. . . . I was a nonparticipating observer in their professional activities, although I joined their social life of food, drink, and women. Boy, I sure participated in that side of things — it was heaven.”
Unlike the mob members he hung out with, Alinsky never coveted great wealth. “He was essentially a thrill-seeker who admitted he was easily bored and always had to stir things up,” says Lee Stranahan, who was a blogger for the Huffington Post until last year, when his research into Alinsky-inspired groups soured him on the Left. “His followers are even more ideological and relentless than he was.”
Alinsky’s tactics of intimidation are a case in point. His most oft-quoted rule is “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. . . . One acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other.”
If we liberals and conservatives within the “evolutionary safe zone” of political debate fall into the trap of thinking that “all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other”, we will always be behind the power curve in recognizing and responding to the one per cent of the people who see morality differently than any of the rest of us. The trap will close, faster than we can imagine it happening, and the issues we debate will be overcome by events.
“Going down into captivity” doesn’t necessarily mean being conquered. It can mean having future choices increasingly constrained by past mistakes. Mormons, of all people, ought to be cognizant of the metaphor of the Gadiantons as it applies when people in a society are set against one another by a call for raw power disguised as a call for fairness, as either liberals or conservatives naturally define fairness.
Or, as a Klingon once told James T. Kirk, “Only a fool fights in a burning house.”