Category Archives: Politics


Coexistence of Right and Left: The View So Far

To prejudge other men’s notions before we have looked into them is not to show their darkness but to put out our own eye.
-John Locke

Though there is more to be learned on the personality differences between liberals and conservatives, I have reached a point where behavior patterns are recognizable. A good deal of this comes from completing Thomas Sowell’s book, “A Conflict of Visions.” His insight will not be the whole story but he has gotten the closest of any author so far to understanding our differences.*

Combine that knowledge with what is coalescing in social psychology—that our opinions are first intuitive then supported by self-directed reasoning—and we have the basis for a paradigm shift in how to view the opinions of ourselves and others. In particular we are finding that our evaluations typically stop at a point of conclusion that matches our initial intuition, a snap judgment reinforced by rationalization and bias, yielding an endpoint that is often factually incorrect. Our considerations stop when we are able to justify a conclusion (to ourselves and others) rather than a point where we are likely to have reached the truth. We do this unconsciously.

A third variable, yet undetermined in my mind, is whether directed reasoning is something we all do dominantly, or if it varies in degree according to our personality type. Based on voting registration in the United States roughly 30% are democrat (presumably liberal), 30% republican (presumably conservative, and 40% independent (presumably mixed opinion). Without getting deep into these numbers this shows that we are a mixed society. We know too that progressives and conservatives exist in every society in every country though because of the challenge of doing inter-cultural polls, it is almost impossible to know the actual numbers. These personalities exist everywhere—indeed coexist—and history tells us they have existed for as long as man has recorded his thoughts. In the United States the difference is demonstrated by The Federalist Papers and The Antifederalist Papers (1787), arguing contrary positions on accepting the proposed US constitution; in ancient Greece, philosophers similarly debated what form of life and government would be best for all.

For the purpose of this article, it does not matter where these personality differences come from. If you are religious, you believe that we are made as God intended, going through life according to His plan, unknown and unknowable to us. If you are scientific, the source is an end-product of evolution to date. Either way we can assume that collectively we are at a steady state mixture of progressives, conservatives, and otherwise. Like it or not, this is the way we are. You may believe that your position is correct, the one to be promoted and evangelized with the intention of converting everyone to your side, but in fact we are exactly at the mixture we should be.

Does this strike you as purposeless? Why bother try to change minds when we are predestined by God or biology to exist in this balance? No, because we don’t know is how this balance has been achieved. Is it from a steady stream of compromise or wide pendulum swings of contrasting styles of governance? Are we doomed to eternally struggle between worldviews by alternating rounds of competitive genocide? I wish I knew. Perhaps someone out there has knowledge of study in this arena; please share!

Historically we know that human culture has evolved to become less violent in total. Despite the daily horrors we hear about, overall conflict worldwide has been decreasing over the past centuries. Appearance to the contrary is largely the result of us being exposed to pervasive news of the bad stuff, something we are predisposed to notice more than the good—an evolutionary survival trait.

What worries me now is that we have moved into an arena that is historically unprecedented—the era of widespread, worldwide access to information. It will be interesting to look back after two hundred years but right now we don’t know how this will affect our steady-state balance. Will this availability of information expose and degrade misinformation? Will the existence of supporting information for any position cause people to isolate themselves into belief-bubble groups that compete for existence by ever-aggressive means? We see examples of both of these measures punctuated by extremist individuals, authoritarian governments and religious (especially cultish) groups who try to restrict their populations from access to outside information, whether by direct physical means (country-specific internets), by pressured misinformation and by punishment.

Since this availability of worldwide information, it has never been such a large factor in affecting our balance of opinions, our decisions of what is right and wrong. Certainly some data exist from the origin days of language, writing, the printing press, radio and television, but none of those ever were on the scale we see today. Of particular concern is the vehemency of the camps—the demonizing of each other, the vitriol that pervades online comments, the dismissiveness of other’s intentions, the reinforcing of one’s opinion whether true or not. What is to come next—word fights turning into fist fights, a slow and steady acclimation to increasingly violent methods of expression and imposed compliance with one’s opinion?

People in left-wing and right-wing media frequently refer to each other as idiots, unintelligent buffoons and zealots. People unfriend each other on Facebook and move into like-minded communities to “get away from those nuts.” Leaders in some countries implement policies that limit speech, restrict media, jail opponents and influence elections. Extremists in some societies practice genocide as an acceptable method of cultural or power-based purification.

What can we do as individuals? First of all, realize that no ideology is right for all. Every attempt to impose a single method has failed at one time or another—feudalism, communism, capitalism, rationalism, socialism, totalitarianism, anarchism, etc. Ayn Rand, in her novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” presents a subculture where all people of a certain type—those inherently selfish—choose to live together, believing that the competiveness among them will yield a balanced society of happy, successful people. Even if one accepts such a final resolution, it is a complete fantasy simply because no such homogeneous mixture of people will ever exist. God or evolution sees to that.

Accepting that heterogeneity is our way of being, two options lie ahead. One, the path we appear to be on now, we gather into ever-extreme positions and watch the casualties rise as we fight a succession of winner-take-all battles. Two, we acknowledge our differences and our right to coexist, continue to advocate for our positions, and develop cultural boundaries for what is acceptable in obtaining our goals. Either way, we will ultimately achieve the next steady-state balance in our personality mix, assuming we don’t kill ourselves on the road.

I encourage you to strive to understand the other side. Also become aware of your own biases. We are all guilty of hypocrisy to some degree. I am not asking any side to give up their principles or routinely compromise positions. In truth there will be times when we must compromise and times when a best resolution rests near one extreme. What is absolutely clear however, is that we need all sides to participate in the process. We need to allow each other to express freely and safely. We need to condemn imposition by non-representation or forced-persuasion, whether it occurs on a government scale, a corporate scale, a tribal scale, or a religious scale. We need elected representatives to converse and debate vigorously, and remove the incentives (wealth and special interest power) that make reelection more important than governance. We need to develop ways to encourage, perhaps even mandate (realistically) the responsibility of every adult to vote—this paired with mixed-partisan education of all citizens on social basics (history, economics, etc) and election specifics. Finally, we need to encourage moral and ethical codes that remove mankind’s ability to impose ultimate punishments on the basis of opinion. This we need to do worldwide, as a shared responsibility, with an updated definition of civilized behavior.

*I will write a review of Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions” at some point but first want to reread it. I bookmark important passages when reading, even in audio version, and this book ended up with so many marks it deserves a more comprehensive look.

The Righteous Mind: A Book Review

The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind:

Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Book by Jonathan Haidt

There has been significant activity on psychological and sociological fronts over the past twenty years trying to find explanations for the differences between liberals and conservatives. Many studies have indeed indicated distinctions, perhaps innate.

Haidt’s thesis is a moral foundations theory that defines morality as having six core elements—harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and purity. Through clever and original experiments done in several cultures Haidt concludes that the morality of liberals derives dominantly from the harm and fairness elements, of libertarians from harm, fairness and liberty, and of conservatives from a balance of all five.

On the face these conclusions match neatly with the stereotypes. Focus on harm and fairness yields a bleeding heart liberal, willing to make some sacrifices to protect the vulnerable. Making liberty the primary sacred value (with harm and fairness next) defines a libertarian with the desire to act without intrusion. Differing from both, conservatives are said to have the best mix by balancing all five virtues.

His second premise is that intuition precedes and largely overrides intellect, something that author Michael Shermer similarly concludes in his excellent book, “The Believing Brain.” Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant, the elephant representing the more influential intuition. Our first reaction to a circumstance or choice is via intuition, leaning in a particular direction. The rider is a secondary reactor; he must think things through before deciding which way to go but by then is trying to steer a larger beast already in motion. The rider may decide to lead the elephant in the leaned direction or against it but is already at a disadvantage, perhaps too large to overcome.

The metaphor implies that the elephant and rider are independent thinkers, a notion still in question. Other writers indicate more of a service role for this rider, the intellect serving to rationalize intuition’s direction rather than trying to overcome it.

Haidt also focuses on theories of natural selection—individual, kin, and group. Each defines the unit which better survives in its environment. Kin (siblings, and to a lesser degree, near relatives) and group are more complex forms where the individual may be sacrificed in service to the higher forms. Overall he proposes that natural selection functions as a mixture, particularly of individual and group.

To demonstrate this progression he starts with the theory of two single-celled organisms having joined into the complex cell we know today—mitochondria and nuclei having once been free-floating organisms that merged within a larger cell wall, a symbiosis that improved survival. The mitochondria are power-generating organelles and nuclei the holders of the replication mechanism.

Progressive gathering is seen in animal groups—cooperative hunting, sharing resources, etc. Haidt states there is little evidence that any animal except man works in a group for unselfish goals, however this opinion is in contention with others (see Frans de Waal, on Moral Behavior in Animals Nevertheless grouping is important in man especially as the seed of language then culture, with aggregates such as religion and government being end products that yield group cohesion and improved survival.

Also down the road in the animal kingdom comes the formation of colonies, particularly bees, ants, and termites. These cooperative units have been so successful that they now comprise ninety percent of the world’s insect population by mass. Within these groups workers not only carry out suicide missions but are biologically unable to reproduce, all in the service of survival of the colony and its genetic pool. This serves as an analogy for religious behavior in humans, not as a demonstration of right vs wrong but of survival benefit.

Interestingly, the group selection model was largely discarded by biologists in the late 1960’s. Haidt’s argument is quite convincing however and may indeed revive the group survival model.

Despite the strong presentation—the book is easy to read, the content reinforced by strong metaphors and interim summaries—some problems are evident in his analysis.

First is the idea that morality is the defining personality feature. There is almost no word on other factors such as intelligence, innateness and genetics. With Haidt being a moral psychologist one wonders if his explanations are biased into too narrow a field. It may be that morality does end up being the defining factor, perhaps with these other factors being prerequisites, but that discussion is not in these pages.

Another problem is his simplistic acceptance that a balance of five moral factors is better than two. There is no exploration that perhaps fewer is better or that certain factors may be more important than others. He does mention that more factors may need to be added to the stew, but this assumptive best balance is questionable. It’s hard to tell if this a shortcoming of his research or his presentation.

Perhaps the most incongruous topic is his criticism of the New Atheists. He demeans the New Atheist claim that religion is an extrapolation of false-positive agenticity as an overly complex rational explanation, rather than the intuitive argument he would prefer. It’s hard to see how this matters since they look like two roads to the same destination—the natural development of religion. His preference is a liberal-vs-conservative example itself, Haidt preferring to discount individual rational decision making in favor of emergent decisions made by groups.

Despite these criticisms, Haidt makes a strong argument and his premises match up well to observed behavior. One hopes he will deal with the shortcomings in future work but meanwhile “The Righteous Mind” is an important stop on the journey to ideological understanding.


Chapter Next

My life seems to work itself into chapters with one interest dominating for a time, running its course, then being replaced by another. I used to view this as a weakness of follow-through—and there is some truth to that—but have learned to accept it as somewhat of a blessing. There is not enough time in life to experience everything so one way of coping is to move from one interest to another. While the price is lack of mastery it does yield a broad range of experiences. Today it is time to turn the page from managing a movie theatre to Chapter Next.

A parallel interest has been brewing for several years. In the midst of work stress an unrelenting irritation was moving to the forefront—not understanding the contrary opinions of others, lingering post-911 shock (how could people do such a thing?), the public’s slipping trust in science, false statements of “fact,” and the political flare preceding the 2008 presidential election.

In 2007 I wrote this statement, planning a blog based on my limited knowledge:

I May Be Wrong But…
(Surviving in a Complex World)

Ruminations on all the controversial subjects. Essentially a “this I believe” piece written with the disclaimer that I don’t know enough about anything but this is my take on things, trying to get through life with the limited understanding of subjects. Generally it is a lament of not understanding why some things are the way they are, why some people (governments, etc) act the way they do.

My base belief is that people want to do the right thing and yet there is much evidence to the contrary, at least among those in the minority who have an effect beyond the average person.

Final essay is that we can only do what we can do, trying to get by in this complex world. We don’t understand enough about probably anything to call ourselves competent or expert and we certainly can’t make that claim about multiple subjects. The best we can do is to strive to do the right thing, keeping in mind that others must be allowed to do the same.

Mistakes are allowed, though lessons should be learned and corrections made. Ego is, to a large extent, bad.

Why different opinions?
• Our crutches—indulgences, divine belief, laziness.
• Our strengths—right intent, perseverance, knowledge.
• Our weaknesses—greed, ignorance, fear, arrogance.
• Tools to be better—open mind, tolerance, middle ground, compromise.

The essays never happened but by 2009 (the summer of the harsh healthcare town hall “debates”) I had decided that the above was not an acceptable course—developing coping mechanisms to ignorance. Ready to finally pay attention to this confusion, I aimed to try to understand it all. A better answer was to learn. I wanted to understand what yielded logical but opposite opinions, separate belief from truth, explore contradictions and hypocrisy, research the history and context of issues—in short, to learn about people, society and the forces that drove them. There had to be sense in this mess.

As do many people I had been living day to day, not paying deep attention to such things, triggering a broader question—how much does an average citizen need to know to intelligently (read knowledge, not intellect) make good election decisions?

So I began reading and reading. Soon though each book lead to more questions and a growing list of must-study topics. This expanded the broader question too—does an average citizen really need to go into this much depth? Was that even possible given the daily demands of life? Special interests were lobbying Washington in historic volume while affecting public opinion significantly, yielding “opinions” that looked implanted and reinforced. Were we really that gullible?

As flashes of answers began to appear, an interest also grew in sharing this information. Life kept me busy, in learning mode for several years but that turned out to be a good thing. Now, with the theatre gone there is finally time to begin interacting on these topics. My knowledge base remains modest but many books later, the tapestry is starting to come together.

I invite you to join me on this knowledge quest. Let’s share what we know, fill in each other’s blanks and correct each other when wrong. Let’s learn to interact in a less contentious manner than the growing political divide is pushing us toward.

History is full of conflicts based on quick judgments, emotional reactions, public manipulation, and the protection of power. Granted, none of this will magically go away but societies now have the benefit of much hindsight and fast, widespread dissemination of information. Let’s do some good here.