It might be funny if it weren’t so tragic, but I remember honestly believing that the events of September 11th would awaken Americans to the idiocy of militarism. I saw the world, I still see the world, through a prism in which war is genuinely a last resort and is almost always a horrible idea. What I learned in the two or three days after September 11th (and I’m not exaggerating at all, it really crystallized for me right then) was that confirmation bias isn’t just giving greater recognition to facts which confirm our previously held beliefs, it also consists of interpreting all facts through a filter which interprets them as supporting those beliefs.
So while I was thinking: “You see, see what happens when we intervene all over the world with our military?” The militarists were thinking in the wake of talk of a Peace Dividend: “You see, see what happens when we start to pull back our military from the rest of the world?” And religious people had their explanation, and environmentalists theirs, and social justice warriors theirs, and demographers theirs. And I learned that none of us learned anything.
The election of Donald Trump seems to be having mostly the same effect. I had read a few explanations for the underlying differences which exist between what we call “liberals” and “conservatives”, mostly consisting of conservatives being father figures more concerned with discipline and authority and liberals being nurturing mother figures. It had more explicatory power than the “liberals are smart and conservatives are idiotic assholes” hypothesis which place it took in my interpretive tool kit. This week however I heard an explanation which went further than either of those models and actually made quite a lot of sense to me in that it very much aligned with my experience and, I think, actually helped me learn just a little.
This explanation involved the moral foundations of the left versus the right. Using data from worldwide polling and some careful analysis it teases out 5 different categories of moral concern and demonstrates that people on the left and right generally seem to differ in the way in which they prioritize those 5. The categories are:
3 In Group Loyalty
The left prioritizes the first two, and the right will prioritize them as well unless 3-5 seem to be at risk, at which point 1-2 diminish in significance. As a leftist I see the power in this analysis mainly because it is very true for me. I have no use whatsoever for 4-5, and “in group loyalty” reads mostly very low in its significance to me except when it involves my hometown (I have no use for nationalism or patriotism).
What really shook my world, though, was seeing how it changed my view of this last election in a significant way. Chuck Marohn, in his article, was making a case for city folk and country folk trying to understand each other in order to bridge the divide made apparent by the most recent election; left wing city folk need to understand how right wing country folk see the world differently and vice versa so that we can all get together and start to deal with the predicaments we are in.
There is a huge flaw in his analysis however: Using this rubric to define liberal and conservative most urban Democrats in places like Springfield are very conservative. The left/right, Democrat/Republican divide using this analysis makes great sense in San Francisco and Cambridge, and I personally have no use for loyalty, respect, authority, purity, and sanctity, but the people in this poor minority neighborhood are actually obsessed with them.
My wife and I realized some time ago that we needed to stop mentioning our atheism around our neighbors. In discussions about certain things, drug use for example, I might mention the unfairness of the War on Drugs (so far so good, I’m thinking “harm” and “fairness”, perhaps they are as well with a touch of “in group loyalty” given the number of Black and Hispanic males incarcerated for drug offenses), the danger created by its Black Market operations (everyone still on board), the ridiculousness of the puritanical religious fear of pleasure (Blank stares). Many of my neighbors live for their religion and their faith so much so that we’ve literally heard (drunk) people express how we (atheists) are legitimate targets (For what, who knows?) because we don’t believe in God.
My daughters were both active in the gay/straight alliance at their high school. I think being Black or Hispanic and gay in Springfield can be almost as challenging as being a gay White kid in the Bible Belt, the only mitigating factors being the fact that a school in Massachusetts is more likely to have a gay/straight alliance and that the wider culture is very accepting.
In group loyalty? I give you DNC candidate Hillary Clinton defeating Bernie Sanders in the Massachusetts Democratic Party primary. If only White Democrats had voted it would have been a different story. Apart from this party loyalty, which I don’t share, there is what I have always interpreted through Steven Pinker’s prism of the honor/revenge response and tribalism among my neighbors. They really do seem to “see” events very differently from me. Even when coaching teams in youth sports I was amazed at how truly unsportsmanlike behavior by “my players” went unseen by “my parents”…but not by me, much to their chagrin. My constant perusal of media coverage of the city often throws up examples of people excusing the most horrible behavior of in group members and a real inability to reflect on the personal responsibility that some individuals ought to take for their actions.
Authority and Respect? Apart from the adoration for the ROTC program and the general worship of the military that we see at every city event, I’ve had opportunities to counsel a handful of young people in the decades I’ve lived in this neighborhood, and if there is a concept which simply mystifies me it is this obsession with “respect” from people they neither know nor particularly like. I have seen young people throw their lives away rather than tolerate disrespect. In my lifetime disrespect went from being a noun to being a verb! I’ve told kids so many times that I grew up in Springfield, went to city schools, and I’ve still NEVER been in a fight. How? Like Pedro in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, I don’t provoke.
-Hey, you stupid ass mother f-ing c- sucker.
-Yes, how can I help you?
-You’re a low life f- ass chicken shit.
-You are truly perceptive, for indeed I am all those things and more. Thank you for revealing my true inner-self to me.
What do I care what some random, belligerent, moron thinks of who I am? I simply walk away…and into my lovely French Second Empire townhouse, throw some fair trade organic coffee in the French press, and wonder where Mr Blowhard will take his next hit of heroin; living well is the best revenge.
But I have witnessed the moment in which a young man decides, quite literally, that life in prison is preferable to allowing a verbal affront to go unchallenged.
If you don’t live in a place like this then just trust me, many cities are filled with conservatives by this definition. Conservatives who vote for what passes for a left wing party in this country, it’s true, but conservatives nevertheless. Their concerns for harm minimization and fairness are every bit as impacted by in group loyalty, authority, respect, sanctity, and purity as the people in any southern small town or Midwestern farming community. I’ve learned at our Independence Day fireworks display that they are even very patriotic. I suppose it makes no less sense than finding sanctity in the religion of the people whose god said it was ok to enslave your ancestors.
If you’ve seen the cartoon of the radical Muslim and the fundamentalist Christian who start out angry with each other but who slowly come to realize that their world views are nearly identical then you’ll understand when I say that minority voters in the Northeast and Whites in the South and Midwest actually have a great deal in common…most of which I happen to disagree with. I can see now that it’s the reason why I hope for gentrification: As a leftist in this neighborhood it’s my only hope of having any like minded people nearby.
I wanted to end with a little quip here, but I don’t think it would do the subject justice. What I think I see here is that we’re telling ourselves that liberals and conservatives need to understand each other if we are to move forward in this country, but the truth is it’s just as much that two very conservative groups are in conflict not because they prioritize different things so much as that their intrinsic in group loyalty makes the other group the enemy full stop. As difficult as it might be to get liberals and conservatives to engage in productive conversation, getting two distinct groups of conservatives to see eye to eye may be even more difficult.