Dr. Dawg

Conservatives: your moral, if not intellectual, superiors

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Margaret Wente has the advantage of me this morning: she’s read a book that I haven’t. A controversial evolutionary psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, is apparently making the claim that conservatives understand real people better than liberals, and that their moral framework is far broader, if not rational or systematic.

As I said, I haven’t perused his tome, so I’ll work with Wente’s account of it. Haidt’s simplistic chart of morality identifies several allegedly universal components: harm reduction (care), fairness, loyalty, respect for authority and tradition, and sanctity. “Liberals,” he says, restrict their moral universe to the first two; “conservatives,” however, pick up on all five, with emphasis upon the last three.

While I am struggling here not to sink under the sheer weight of counter-examples, my main bone of contention is his notion that conservatives know best how people tick.

I’ll start by noting that his liberal/conservative binary is highly problematic. Admittedly there is some polemical value in this reductionism, but it doesn’t leave much room for serious intellectual inquiry. My own politics (for example) could hardly be termed “liberal,” and frequent commenter (and less-frequent blogger) Sir Francis, a high Tory by inclination, is by no means “conservative.” Libertarians, meanwhile, object strenuously to the statism of the Harper government—like commenter Mike Brock and my good friend Connie.

Wente reproduces Haidt’s arguments as a bit of a tautology, which may be unfair to him: conservatives have this advantage, apparently, because most people are already conservatives. She proceeds to give examples of conservative reactions to such issues as Omar Khadr and transgender beauty queens—as though we couldn’t predict what they might be with our eyes closed.

And she concludes with this:

Of all the Harper government’s policies, the ones that drive liberals craziest are those concerning crime and punishment. To liberals, its law-and-order agenda is nothing more than base pandering to an ignorant electorate. But many Canadians have a sharply different view. They don’t care that crime stats are at record lows, or that mandatory minimum sentences don’t work. What they care about is the Vancouver bus driver who was off work for more than a year after a young thug bashed his face in. The thug got 18 months to be served at a rehab residence. They care about the stupidly light sentence imposed on Graham James for sexually abusing teenage hockey players and about shopkeepers who get charged by the police for trying to protect themselves from thieves. They think these things are profoundly wrong. And despite the enlightened views of liberals, an alarming number of them continue to support the death penalty.

Here’s one non-conservative who thinks the sentences mentioned here were absurdly light as well, although calls for the death penalty are just more conservative eliminationism, a defining characteristic of their species that Wente fails to mention.

But she goes on:

Perhaps if these Canadians were better educated they wouldn’t think this way. Or perhaps, if liberals were better educated in moral psychology, they’d be able to understand why conservative policies are so appealing. My advice is to begin by listening to Jonathan Haidt.

And then do what? Pander to the same reptilian impulses as conservatives to attract support? Is that the lesson they’re supposed to take home?

They shouldn’t be tempted. Conservative policies are not appealing to most Canadians, and they never have been. Even at his best, Stephen Harper has never been able to attract more than 40% support from the electorate (from those who bother to vote, that is) and that support is now sinking rapidly—even though he’s publicly moderated some of his political stances in a failed attempt to make his party more appealing.

We are told that we shouldn’t “pathologize” conservatives, but try to understand them instead. But that work is already well under way. What characteristics have they been found to exhibit? Why, an unwillingness to think very hard, a pronounced tendency to be prejudiced, and low IQs. Again, of course, we have that liberal/conservative binary problem, but if it’s good enough for Haidt and Wente….

Still in doubt? Check out the loathsome comments left by readers of the Toronto Sun or the National Post—or the chorus of conservative voices lifted in various degrees of support for mass-murderer Anders Breivik. We cannot pathologize the already-pathological.

My advice, for what it’s worth, would be to avoid reading pop psychology and to recognize that there are some people who simply can’t be reached. Our task on the Left is not to convert them, but to ensure that their poison doesn’t spread any further than it already has. And, judging from the polls, we’re doing a pretty decent job of it. Perhaps Haidt and Wente might want to draw the appropriate conclusions.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on April 21, 2012 12:25 PM.

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