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Location: St. Louis, Missouri, United States

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Righteous Mind: A liberal academic understands conservatives...somewhat

Jack Kemp

Recently while reading a conservative website, I came across a reference to a book written by a liberal psychologist and academic called "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt. Prof. Haidt is a self proclaimed Jewish liberal atheist whose grandparents were socialist garment workers in New York and worshiped Franklin Roosevelt.

Prof. Haidt talked of going to Yale, "the second most liberal of the Ivy League schools" where "It was not uncommon during class discussions for teachers and students to make jokes and critical comments about Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party, or the conservative position on controversial current events." He goes on to say that

"I could not understand how any thinking person would voluntarily embrace the party of evil, and so I and my fellow liberals looked for psychological explanations of conservatism, but not liberalism."

What made Prof. Haidt understand - but not necessarily agree with - conservatives was his extended stay in India studying their traditional culture. He lived for a long time in a society that respected its ancestors, had temples raised off of street level to indicate their holiness, saw people doing daily prayer rituals. He noted that traditional societies do not consider individualism first, but relationships to their social group as the primary concern. In essence, while living there, he got to behave and respect somewhat the patterns of a traditional society. Thus, on page 105, Haidt is able to envision the "conservative other" in the US and write:

"I also began to understand why the American culture wars involve so many battles over sacrilege. Is a flag just a piece of cloth, which can be burned as a form of protest....When an artist submerges a crucifix in a jar of his own urine, or smears elephant dung on an image of the Virgin Mary, do these works belong in art museums? Can the artist simply tell religious Christians, 'If you don't want to see it, don't go to the museum'?"

Notice the professor completely avoids that conservative argument that public monies were used to pay for the display in a government owned museum (in the case of the Virgin Mary example, at the Brooklyn Museum), that conservatives were perfectly willing to both disapprove of this display but have it in a private gallery where its probable lack of patrons would most likely make it a financial disaster as well as something most private galleries wouldn't want on their resume or reputation. Also, government grant money may have paid for the creation of this questionable art. But back to Prof. Haidt's revelations. That Haidt calls the creator of a figure of Christ in a jar of urine an "artist" shows he has more to learn about both art and English language definitions.

"If you can't see anything wrong here, try reversing the politics. Imagine that a conservative artist had created these works using images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela instead of Jesus and Mary. Imagine that his intent was to mock the quasi-deification by the left of so many black leaders. Could such works be displayed in museums in New York or Paris without triggering angry demonstrations? Might some on the left feel that the museum itself had been polluted by racism, even after the paintings were removed?"

The professor is here making a standard argument that many conservative articles made about the Virgin Mary with dung exhibit, that no liberal museum would have shown Moses or Anne Frank with dung - or Martin Luther King Jr. That the source is a person raised as a liberal shows an attitude you won't see echoed in the Daily Kos website, The Nation magazine - or in a number of people in my recent New York advanced writing class taught by a former US News and World Report editor.

The professor continues on page 105:

"As with the ethic of community, I had read about the ethic of divinity before going to India, and had understood it intellectually. But in India, and in the years after I returned, I felt it. I could see beauty in a moral code that emphasized self-control. resistance to temptation, cultivation of one's higher, nobler self, and a negotiation of the self's desires. I could see the dark side of this ethic too: once you allow visceral feelings of disgust to guide your conception of what God wants, then minorities who trigger even a hint of disgust in the majority (such as homosexuals or obese people) can be ostracized and treated cruelly."

Another argument the book makes is what was called many years ago "the white mouse" fallacy of psychology. This meant that not only were psychological experiments done on an animal that doesn't live in wild, natural conditions but the college sophomores used in the human experiments are a select subpopulation that has a certain privileged background who have often never held a full time job in the outside world, so they too don't reflect reality. Professor Haidt calls these students the acronym WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. I suspect he could have also stated "Democratic" with a capital "D" political party affiliation.

On pages 96-97, the professor states:

"Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. It has long been reported that Westerners have a more independent and autonomous concept of the self than do East Asians. For example, when asked to write twenty statements beginning with the words 'I am....,' Americans are likely to list their own internal psychological characteristics (happy, outgoing, interested in jazz), whereas East Asians are more likely to list their roles and relationships (a son, a husband, an employee of Fujitsu)."

There is much more in this book and I've barely gotten a third of the way through it. I intend to write a fuller article that will include the above contents when I see, in more detail, what Prof. Haidt has uncovered for himself about the world beyond the walls of Ivy League academe.

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