Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Political Brain

The current issue of Reason magazine contains a very interesting excerpt from a book by Jonathan Haidt, called The Righteous Mind. In it Haidt, who is a psychologist by trade, deplores the increasing political polarization in the U.S. and discusses the genetically-based psychological dispositions which underlie people's political inclinations. It's fascinating reading.

Haidt certainly does not believe in determinism when it comes to political views; he emphasizes that genes produce only a "first draft" of the brain which is modified by experience throughout the developmental process. But he doesn't believe in a blank slate, either. He cites a study of DNA in 13,000 subjects that found genes governing neurotransmitters that differed in people who described themselves as liberals and conservatives. The conservatives were more reactive to threats; the liberals derived more pleasure from novelty and change. Stereotypes leap immediately to mind.

But genes aren't the whole story; the next step is Haidt's particular area of interest. He focuses on the narratives people construct to give their lives meaning, the "simplified and selective reconstructions of the past, often connected to an idealized vision of the future" which, imbued with moral values, help people to make sense of a chaotic world. Haidt has identified various dichotomies of values (e.g. fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal) around which our narratives tend to coalesce and shown how they underlie people's political views, with differing political stances prioritizing these concerns differently.

In exploring how people of differing ideologies might find common ground, Haidt found some interesting things. There is an asymmetry in "obstacles to empathy", with liberals finding it harder to understand the conservative position than vice-versa. Haidt found that while conservatives might rank some values lower than liberals, they at least recognize all the values liberals espouse. On the other hand, liberals find some conservative values (sanctity, for example) impossible to swallow. They find it hard to imagine that conservative positions could be based on thoughtfully held values.

This may account for the peculiar vituperation of some liberal rhetoric (as when Village Voice columnist Michael Feingold wrote that Republicans "should be exterminated before they cause any more harm"). Liberals feel entitled to voice things which would appall them if said by a conservative because they do not recognize conservatism as a legitimate belief system. Conservatives, meanwhile, are only further alienated by the self-congratulation of liberal opinion, causing some of them to retreat further into anti-intellectualism and their own vituperation.

None of which, of course, is any guide to who's right. Haidt's concern is not to take a position but rather to illuminate why we believe what we believe and to establish some common ground for the solution of our problems.

As somebody who has done some veering and tacking across the political spectrum in his day, I found all this very interesting. I like to describe myself as a moderate libertarian (though I think I'm going to start telling people I'm a Whig), but the first distinct political views I remember formulating were considerably farther to the left. A lot of conservative values appeal to me: the emphasis on personal responsibility, a hard-nosed understanding of the value of deterrence and a mistrust of the overweening state, to name some. On the other hand, tolerance and openness to new experience and different people are pretty high on my scale of values, and while I acknowledge the conservative insight that traditions are usually there for an evolutionarily sound reason, I balance that with the liberal insight that if we never question tradition we never get progress.

In short, I recognize that things are complicated. What part my genes play in all this is speculation: my parents were devout and culturally conservative but voted Democratic, largely out of a concern for civil rights; I have two brothers who are arch-conservatives and another one who is more or less like me. Go figure.

The intractable diversity of political opinion is an annoying feature of life. We know we're right; why can't everybody else agree? They never will, for the reasons Haidt adduces. But they don't have to in order for progress to occur. In response to any given problem, the only pertinent question is, "What is the proper policy?" And if the machinery of democracy is carefully maintained, an acceptable policy can emerge from the interaction of parties with divergent or conflicting views. It's a messy process and it doesn't always produce the best policy, but it avoids civil strife.

That's something we all ought to be able to agree on in our diversity. All of us, left, right and middle, have a stake in keeping the political process honest and functioning. Democracy is messy and freedom of speech pollutes the airwaves, but they are our best guarantees against tanks in the streets.

Sam Reaves

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