I still regret to some extent that at the beginning of Swarthmore College’s Aydelotte Foundation (before it received its current name) we decided that a good initial test of the ability to have conversations across and within disciplines was best suited to a shared college-wide reading of Jonathan Haidt’s flawed book The Righteous Mind. I would rather have found a book that didn’t frustrate and irritate most of the participants.
I don’t regret the conversations, though. And the odd thing is that I keep coming back to the book with new complaints against its claims, so it did help me actually rethink and refocus some of how I observe and imagine political life.
Haidt argues that liberal political dispositions, which he views (like other political dispositions) as substantially subconscious and intuitive, are unresponsive to blasphemy or sacrilege, that liberals do not cross-wire deep emotional responses connected to disgust or repulsion to politics, do not have strong notions about the sacred and the profane as a part of their subconscious script for reading the public sphere and political events.
My colleague and friend Ben Berger pointed out during one of our discussions that this observation seemed fundamentally wrong to him–that people can hold things sacred that are not designated as religious, and that many liberals held other kinds of institutions, texts, and manners as ‘sacred’ in the same deep-seated, pre-conscious, emotionally intense way, perhaps without even knowing that they do. Ben observed that Haidt might be missing that because many liberals and leftists did not feel deeply trespassed against in this way in their own favored institutional and social worlds, and usually looked upon a public sphere that largely aligned with their vision of civic propriety and ritual.
I’m not opposed per se to Haidt’s insistence that some of our political affiliations and reactions stem from deeper, non-conscious cognitive predispositions: I just think he woefully mismaps those findings to real politics, to history, to institutions, and so on. I think Ben’s point now seems deeply confirmed. Why are so many of us feeling deep distress each day, sometimes over what seem like relatively trivial or incidental information (like Trump pushing aside heads of state?) Because Trump is sacrilege.
Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue. He offends against the notion that merit and hard work will be rewarded. Against the idea that leadership and knowledge are necessary partners. Against deep assumptions about the dignity of self-control. Against a feeling that leaders should at least pretend to be more dedicated to their institutions and missions than themselves. Against the feeling that consequential decisions should be performed as consequential. Against the feeling that a man should be ashamed of sexual predation and assault if caught on tape exalting it. Against the sense that anyone who writes or speaks in the public sphere is both responsible for what they’ve said and should have to reconcile what they’ve said in the past with what they’re doing in the present. These are emotional commitments before they are things we would defend as substantive, reasoned propositions. They’re interwoven into how many of us inhabit social class and working life, but sometimes spill over both class and work to connect us with unlike people who nevertheless have similar expectations about leaders and public figures.
Even when we intellectually understand that our sense of the sacred in civic and public life may be dysfunctionally entangled in stifling technocratic arrogance or neoliberal visions of governmentality, even when we believe ourselves to be open to a more carnivalesque or improvisational mode of public leadership, we still have very deep feelings about what’s proper and improper, righteous and demonic, sanitary and repellant. And Trump is violating every intuition, every deep reservoir of feeling we have about how one ought to be a man, a leader, a symbol of our national identity. We are not distracted when we respond to those feelings. In fact, we might be better off to articulate our responses as feelings, as intense and profound and utterly righteous feelings.
I can’t stand him either; but I can’t escape the suspicion that we aren’t having this discussion if Trump behaved like this, but shared a policy perspective with Bernie Sanders.
I both like and dislike this post. I like your tough-mindedness when it comes to admitting that your positions may be in essence based on an idea of the sacred, as opposed to reason or altruism. But I have a feeling that I am giving you credit for more tough-mindedness and brutal honesty than I should, because you don’t seem to find anything wrong with basing your opinions on an idea of the sacred, or with the prospect of conservatives and liberals backing into corners and howling ‘unclean!’ at one another.
I personally don’t want any part of this. I don’t respect a liberal who yells ‘unclean’ at Trump any more than I respect a conservative who yells ‘unclean’ at gays. Nor do I have a lot of use for the list of things you identify as sacred, given that too many of them seem to be about how the public leader should lie and pretend. I am more offended by politicians who do pretend to be upstanding citizens, even though any fool can see otherwise.
But then, I *am* the kind of liberal Haidt writes about; at least, I took his online quiz and discovered that I didn’t use any of the moral indices it was trying to distinguish.
I think what many people hold sacred is non-arbitrary. I will defend the things on that list of expectations as reasonable, as ethical, as deeply necessary in a good and just society. A person should be accountable for what they’ve said, for example. They shouldn’t be able to say many things (even on Twitter) that contradict what they are presently doing without being able to give an account of that. Either they were wrong in the past, or they’ve learned something new. Hard work does matter–especially if you’re the leader of a country. Manners, especially when your manner speak not just for you but an entire people, matter. Being knowledgeable matters. And so on.
But I want to account for why every moment we see Trump violating all those things that matter is so intensely, deeply violating. Some of it is that we are collectively certain that a terrible price will be paid for all this, because we are certain in thoughtful and evidence-based ways that there has been a terrible price for similar behavior in the past. Much as I found myself howling in a primal way as the Iraq War started because I knew it was a horrible mistake, a folly that would cost lives and treasure to no good end. That’s also an emotion–and in some sense about trespass against the sacred, that a leader must serve a greater interest. Henry V in Shakespeare’s play wanders the camp of his soldiers in part to find out: who would he be sinning against if what he was doing was personal vanity rather than serving a greater moral or national good? His answer in the end is: God, and it will be God that decides what happens if Henry has sinned. (And seemingly, he absolves himself of the fact that his men will suffer also.) That’s no good to me, but the sense of sacrilegious trespass there is close enough: it is not just wrong, not just a policy error, not just something I rationally disapprove of, but a violation to lead so badly and with so little respect for what leadership is. I feel it deep in me. George W. Bush already did some of that, but Trump surpasses him on every level, in every way. He offends me, deeply, before I ever get around to enumerating my arguments against him.
I see your point, but I just can’t feel it. Trump doesn’t particularly offend me, and if he did I would view it as irrelevant if not inimical to any reasoned critique I wanted to make of him.
And I don’t take the merit of your list of expectations as obvious, probably because I have so long ago given up on expecting any human being – let alone any politician – to adhere to them without lying like a mattress. People say careless things, they are not consistent, they do contradict themselves, and some horrific stuff is done, and justified, by people who follow a consistent ideology right off the cliff. I’ve often wondered what a politics or psychology of radical honesty would look like (not that I’m suggesting we have one at the moment), and I think it would be something very different from the flimsy rationalizations we currently consider intellectually respectable. But that may be a topic for another discussion.
Anyway, I’m left admiring your willingness to delve into the emotional bases of your approach to Trump, but interested to see where that leads you. My own bias is that it has to lead you somewhere.
Would you feel this way if he was fully committed to cutting carbon emissions by 30% by 2025, raising the minimum wage to $17/hr, and slashing the defense budget by 25% to fund a massive improvement initiative for our public schools?
You don’t mention it, but presumably you saw John Holbo’s Durkheimian approach to Haidt, specifically about pussyhats, a few months ago at Crooked Timber? http://crookedtimber.org/2017/01/22/protestandpolarization/ with two follow ups. I, too, have found Haidt to be a weird combination of useful mid-level theorizing (yes, moral intuitions lead, with justifications for those intuitions following, rather than vice versa) and absolutely blinkered applications to current circumstances.
Truthfully? I can’t say for sure. But I think I might be as uneasy with a person who signified in all the ways I listed but who ostensibly supported policies I believed in. Likely less so, but not much.
Ultimately I think he’s a cautionary tale about not wanting to be a pundit too badly–there is a lot of stuff that could lead to raising further questions, to exploration, to open-endedness, that he is quick to close down and package as a kind of letter of application to join the legion of talking heads.
Now this is why I have kept coming here for so many years. Thanks.
I agree that Trump is a desecration, though I focus on Trump University as clear proof of moral depravity.
Also, I think Haidt missed that there’s a lot of purity issues on the left about food.
Someone asked during the election how I’d feel if it were Kanye West running for the democratic nomination.
I’m still not sure how I’d feel in this hypothetical, but I do know my initial reaction was strikingly less visceral than my reaction to Trump, despite Kanye being a very likely highly-ill-suited candidate—just in ways that appeal more to my lefty/progressive sensibilities.
Isn’t the more straightforward term for what you guys feel about Trump “snobbishness”?
I don’t know. Is it snobbish, for example, if a Catholic finds desecration of a sanctified host to be deeply offensive? If you’re working for an organization or company that you really believe in, and the newly appointed CEO or head is seriously incompetent, is it snobbish to feel that this incompetence is both objectionable and dangerous?
But nothing is simple–that’s the problem. So I would say that you may have a point that intermingled with genuine, warranted anger at genuine violations of real norms and reasonable expectations, there may also be a kind of attachment to much more class-bound forms of protocol.
Let’s take yesterday’s testimony. There’s a reason why the FBI should not be under the direct command of the President of the United States. The FBI’s powers and responsibilities position it between the executive and judicial branch. Its powers are easily abused in ways that profoundly violate the nation’s highest laws and most deeply held principles. For the same reasons, however, the FBI should not be completely and utterly autonomous from any executive oversight, and the President should remain the authority of last resort to decide whether the FBI is upholding its responsibilities in a responsible way.
These are not “manners” about which one could be snobbish. They are hard-won principles that we as a society arrived at after a number of very real, grave abuses in the past.
So Paul Ryan’s defense of the President, basically the equivalent of saying the POTUS didn’t know that you use the outer fork for eating your salad, is really weak. This is not a silly little custom, any more than the insistence that our military is under the control of elected civilians is.
But there are other examples where your observation may be more valid or useful.
Liberals would like to think that liberal values are sacred, but how can values without God be sacred?
So it’s a cross between snobbishness, company loyalty and a nose for heresy. Got it 😉
Can you say a little bit more about why the college community was “frustrated and irritated” by the book? My college is considering the book and your experience might have an effect on our choice. (If you’ve blogged about this before, just provide a link; my Googling was unproductive.)
I think because Haidt doesn’t really engage a whole range of possible objections from other disciplinary and epistemological perspectives, and in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of Steven Pinker sets up some straw men when he does engage with countering perspectives. I was especially struck at the frustration of my colleagues who work on evolutionary biology, who were annoyed with Haidt’s understanding of evolution, competition, and similar topics.
I think if you look for a book the whole campus can discuss, it’s either got to be a book that has a kind of generosity towards multiple perspectives, methods and so on, or it has to be a book that is picking a fight that many different disciplines respect and are willing to engage with. A book that purports to be about a wide-ranging perspective but that is relentlessly and somewhat ungenerously favoring a particular disciplinary perspective is going to feel somewhat ill-chosen much of the time, unless that’s part of a series of readings that cycle through similar books or readings from other disciplines.