All societies are made up of individuals and the groups they form amongst themselves. These groups are modeled around sports, religions, politics, communities, and any number of things. Early humans learned to work together for mutual protection and the advancement of everybody, and these ancient tribal societies became more and more group oriented as populations increased over time. The rise of the individualistic minded society only came about at the hands of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a slow and multi-national movement that mostly occurred in Western Europe, and it laid the blueprint for our current global cultural differences.
Today, some societies still follow the sociocentric model (the group, tribe, herd, congregation, and team first,) and place the needs of the individual second. Conversely, individualistic societies (like the United States and modern western cultures) have more recently put personal liberties first and foremost, and the needs of the greater group have been pushed towards the back burner. Sociocentric societies exist today in certain parts of the world, like the Middle East, and also in forms of governing like fascism, communism, and socialism. Individualistic societies are most often exemplified by capitalism, or most countries in the western world. It’s kind of like the old world versus new world. And yes, the versus is exactly the source of tension. Wouldn’t life be better if it was the old world and the new world?
Middle Eastern cultures have largely not gone through any “enlightenment” period. The Middle East is still a place with deeply ingrained religious practices in addition to rigid familial and cultural hierarchies. These cultural institutions are in place to keep the clan together and cohesive, and to keep society functioning. In the US, as a counter example, we have more secularism than ever before, an erosion of ‘traditional’ family structure, and more personal freedoms than any society before in existence. Science has convinced a large swath of western civilizations of the non-existence of God. Not to mention, we love our right to say fuck the government and not be thrown in jail for it. This is not a reality everywhere in the world.
Now, this is not to say that group cohesion is nowhere to be found in the western world. Obviously there is plenty of it to go around (and plenty of individualism in other cultures as well.) Where the biggest dichotomies lie are in the moral reflections of these foundations. In the western world, questions of morality are favored towards the individual. Take for example a man who goes to the supermarket and buys all the chicken. We might find it detestable that he could be so selfish, but we would conclude that it was his right to do so and we would all eat beef, pork, or microwavable pizza that evening instead. People living in the Middle East would see this as morally wrong and would never dream of doing such a thing. People living in communist or socialist countries would never even be given the chance.
Morals themselves are also tricky things. In his book, Haidt writes about his clinical studies proving that “people made moral judgements quickly and emotionally” and that “moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgements people had already made.” This, in essence, is confirmation bias in action. We all do this, and it would be well on us to understand this aspect of humanity and try our best to recognize it when it happens. A clear example is a controversial foul called in sports when both teams are convinced the other is at fault. Think about the chorus of boos when a referee makes a tough but correct call against the home team. The fans are not reacting to what is correct or fair, they are reacting to harm against their team. If you sat them down individually, they would certainly agree with the refs decision, but when you put them all together and raise them out of individuality to the mental realm of group-think, reason goes out the window in preference to group cohesion.
In his book, Haidt posits that human beings evolved on two tiers—individually and in groups—and that is how we have come to live today as mostly selfish beings (concerned with personal liberty) with the ability to give it all up for the wellbeing of the group (much like bees do for their hive.) If you’ve ever felt lost in a sea of fans at a concert or sporting event, or felt connected to something bigger than yourself when at church, then you recognize what it feels like to be pulled up from your individual thoughts to the collective conscious of the group. It’s often trance-like, with time elapsing faster than it usually seems to do. The same way that we shout and chant along to our favorite football team, we shout and chant along with our preferred political team.
If you apply confirmation bias to political debates, you can immediately see how problems manifest. People will believe pretty far-fetched stuff if it’s in the best interest of their team. (To take it one step father, every time you ‘successfully’ make a moral defense of a controversial contention, say on whether or not abortion should be legal, your brain produces a hit of dopamine. Do this often enough and defending your beliefs, whether right or wrong, becomes literally addictive.) It’s no wonder the political divide in this country is so huge! Haidt sheds some light on finding success in arguments when he writes: “If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”
Nailing down the differences between Republicans and Democrats can be done a thousand and one different ways and here Haidt offers up his own diagnosis. He believes that the two parties have different foundations for what they consider to be morally right and wrong. An example he uses in the book is the spanking of children. Democrats view spanking as cruel to the child (this I can attest to—I have left-wing parents and they openly preferred ‘time outs’ to physical spanking). Republicans view spanking as part of the proper enforcement of the rules of authority, in addition to instilling respect for elders into kids. Both are moral judgements. More broadly on the left, liberals tend to care more about marginalized groups of people and they strive harder for equality at any cost. They are determined to grant everybody equal rights and equal opportunity. Again, on the right, conservatives are concerned with fairness (you get out what you put in) in addition to favoring what is best for their group. This is why conservatives are often more religious people, and are also more likely to use terms like Sir and Ma’am when referring to peers and elders. Respecting your elders shows respect for the social hierarchy and hierarchies are important for keeping groups together. If nobody is in charge, you have chaos. Conservatives are also much more loyal people, and see disloyalty to the group as morally wrong.
As an example of their different morals at work, the same way that democrats feel it is morally wrong that conservatives don’t want universal health care, conservatives think it is morally wrong when people trample the American flag (or take a knee before a football game.) Democrats think: “if you don’t want universal healthcare, you don’t care about the people of this country.” Republicans think “if you destroy the flag, you are disloyal to our country (and disloyal to the group.)” In reality, both can and should coexist. We need to care about everybody in the nation and we need all of us in it to stay loyal to the nation itself.
One of the conclusions that Haidt makes in his book is that modern liberals care too much about helping different subgroups of people and are doing so at the expense of the country as a whole. He writes: “the urge to help the inner-city poor led to welfare programs in the 1960s that reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families.” He goes on further: “the urge to empower students by giving them the right to sue their teachers and schools in the 1970s has eroded authority and moral capital in schools, creating disorderly environments that harm the poor above all.” These are just two examples, but there are plenty more. Although their hearts are in the right place, these attempts to help the disenfranchised continually lead to more destruction then growth. The more this happens, the more conservatives pull towards their traditional values and institutions and advocate for things like the sanctity of marriage and loyalty to your family. Haidt hypothesizes, and I agree, that the more the left tries to improve the country for one group of people (who do need the help) the more they destroy the country as a whole.
Middle Eastern societies and cultures have existed for far longer than the United States. Similar to western conservatives, they embrace religion, respect authority, and are loyal to their familial, community, and national groups. These values are clearly important to the longevity of society. The modern liberal movement wants to go against this grain, actively seeing authority as oppression and religion as nonsense. I fear for where we are headed and hope that we can all reconcile our differences sooner rather than later.
This book was excellent in helping me begin to understand people who come from different cultural backgrounds than myself. We all develop different ideas of what is morally right and wrong and it is up to us to understand these moral foundations as they exist both in ourselves and in others. Our herd mentality often blinds us to the experiences of other groups which only fosters hate and division. To not constantly yearn for a greater understanding of those who are different from ourselves is a laziness we can ill afford.