Saturday, September 13, 2008

hard to swallow.

Yesterday my friend's mom, the one who isn't voting, sent me this article from the New York Times. The article, by Judith Warner, is pretty depressing. Warner anecdotally suggests that the reason Conservatives have been winning elections is that they can empathize with Liberals, know how to get under our skin, in a way that Liberals can't. They can identify with why we vote the way we do and tap into that, to their success, while Liberals have a harder time understanding Conservative reasoning. Or something like that.

Anyway, she links to an interesting article by Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at UVA. He and his colleagues developed web surveys that calculated how strongly a person endorsed statements related to various types of morality (whether something is pure, whether something is fair, etc.) What he found is that liberals feel more strongly about a narrower definition of morality (involving preventing harm and being fair), while conservatives adhered to more "types" of morality pretty evenly. These remaining types are ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.

This all makes sense, but it's not encouraging. Haidt, a self-professed liberal, acknowledges the fact that we Liberals like to consider ourselves more nuanced in our understanding of issues, while Conservatives put things into black and white boxes. We like to say that many Conservatives vote that way out of ignorance, because why else would deeply religious people vote for the party that mainly represents big business? But he finds that they understand their party quite well. It's not a matter of needing to be educated. They just don't agree with us.

Two points remain. It's hard to wrap my brain around Haidt's exact points, as I'm not an expert on either psychology or morality. But in his alternative definition of morality, he rejects a universal system in favor of "what works best for that particular society". I could be wrong, but that's what I gathered after reading the article several times. If that's true, it will be hard for Liberals to accept. Because there is a difference between what is best for people as individuals and what is best for a society in a specific context. Socially liberal people strongly value granting individual rights without discrimination, such as gay marriage. If gay marriage is best for gay couples, which I think it is, isn't it also true that legalizing it might cause more friction in our society between the Religious Right and the rest of us? If all the policies I (and many liberals like me) wanted, such as full abortion rights and comprehensive sex education, were suddenly put into effect, there would probably be even more tension between party lines than there is now.

But why should we have to sacrifice what we believe in? Why should we settle for civil unions? I don't know, I could be way off base, but that point makes the task at hand (convincing more people to vote Democrat) seem even more daunting.

The second point is that Haidt suggests we re-frame our issues in more encompassing moral rhetoric. Obviously we emphasize care and reducing harm against things like the environment, but he says that appeals to care AND the elements of purity and sanctity would be more effective. I think this is compelling and hopefully true. I just wonder if Liberals will have trouble using that language. Many of us like to think of ourselves as social constructionists, so what IS purity, exactly? Why should authority remain unquestioned? Re-framing our issues in these new ways might feel like we're sacrificing our beliefs. I just wonder how easy that will be.

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