In reaction to the current tumultuous political climate, Jonathan Haidt, a Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU, devotedhis latest research to understanding the mapwork of the political mind. At the 2014 WORLD.MINDS Annual Symposium, Haidt used thevideos below to demonstrate the left-wing and the right-wing take on industrialized capitalism.
As you watch the two videos, notice which one strikes you as propaganda and which one occurs as an accurate, if brief, rendering of history.
According to Haidt’s research, libertarians and conservatives view it as the incentive for value creation, while progressives and radicals view it as the subjugation of human values to market values.
Partisan politics concern a variety of issues — from the very personal to the global — constructing the mythologies of Western Civilization: Republicanism, Marxism, Conservatism, Intersectional Feminism, to name a few.
When left unchecked, they become rigid ideological dogmas, refusing to legitimize dissenting views. Rather than hypotheses to be tested they become articles of faith.
The central thesis of Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why People Are Divided By Politics and Religion expresses a tension between rationality and socialization: “Morality binds and blinds.”
“Morality binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say,” Haidt wrote.
Before we as humans can self-actualize as critical thinkers, we have evolutionary obligations to fulfill set forth by our primitive ancestors. Biologically speaking, we are no more evolved than they were. Sure, we were born in a time where we have a more advanced understanding of the natural world, but that knowledge isn’t an inherent biological fact. If any modern infant were transported back 200,000 years, they would only be as knowledgeable as their society permitted.
The priorities of those primeval homosapiens — warring over land, for the supremacy of their gods, are identical to those which engage the modern world’s political warfare. We are not evolved enough to think critically beyond our ancestor’s need for survival. Like them, we are dogged by our over-active adrenal gland and a remedial prefrontal cortex.
Think about it: if any of our ancestors acted in a way that threatened the ethical coherence of their tribe, they were abandoned or killed. This psychological phenomenon is why it’s not so irrational when young people feel an existential threat at the thought of sitting alone in the cafeteria.
Psychologists distinguish between scientific truths and deterministic truths. Science seeks to provide an absolute truth, independent of our perception of it, like the nature of gravity. Mythologies, in contrast, provide a deterministic truth, a truth to suit our momentary needs of survival.
For example, look to the Judeo-Christian bible: in the opening lines of Genesis describe a flat earth beneath the sun and moon which revolve along the axis of a giant blue dome which is the sky. This description is entirely based on empirical engagement with the natural world and is just as obvious to an ancient Canaanite as gravity is to us.
The Hebrew scriptures do not conceive of God the way he is cartoonishly depicted in media. British religious commentator Karen Armstronganalyzed the Judeo-Christian conception of God from a cognitive standpoint in her book A History of God. She described God as an abstraction of a code of ethics held by the Israelite tribes to keep them accountable as they protected their clan against warring tribes.
The constant turmoil endured by the tribes is attributed to a wrathful God for their worship of false idols, or, in other words, other religions, hindering their moral cohesiveness. Whether the idols are greed or the original Canaanite gods, the plurality of worldviews threatens their survival against warring groups.
If the Israelites are victorious, however, it is because God has joined their side. This moral compass determines good and evil based on God’s will, or the collective will of the Israelites — to establish a prosperous nation.
This reasoning featured in the Hebrew scriptures in unfalsifiable. This is why faith has persisted through the ages and survived through the vetting of the Age of Reason. Standards of falsifiability distinguish faith from reason.
For example, fundamentalist Christians say dinosaur fossils, evidence against creationism, were placed in the earth by God to test their faith. Such a claim cannot technically be disproven because it has not standards of falsifiability like a scientific thesis.
Political mythologies operate with self-confirming logic to stave off criticism, especially when spawned in an politically homogenous group, according to Haidt’s paper “Political diversity will improve social and psychological sciences.” Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto that any criticism of communism was a product of bourgeoisie preconceptions.
Sectarian divides are more commonly associated with race than ideology, especially in cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic democracies like the United States. But Americans, living in a society where decisions are made based on popular consent, are far more hostile across ideological lines than racial lines, according to a study by Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood. Whereas ethnic bigotry is promptly condemned in mainstream society, ideological bigotry is a democratic civic duty.
But by distancing our modern ideological battles from territorial or religious disputes of former civilizations, we deny ourselves the lessons our ancestors died for.
Once you understand the tendency of humans to divorce one limiting rule only to submit themselves to another kind of enslavement, every tragic irony in history makes sense: communist insurgencies replacing colonial rule with a totalitarian government, revolutions replace monarchical rule with Napoleonic empires and middle-school hipsters age into cult-like groups through nonconformist beliefs.
But, outside of our politicized narratives, we find our minds far broader than promised by our demagogues, who discourage free thought. They value us only as another voice in the crowd or vote in the ballot, using the the rationales of maintaining solidarity and allyship. Each of us is capable of forming independent ethics and values that can cannot be reduced to any political label. Learning about the world becomes a celebration of living in a free society rather than a chore to prove our allyship. Rather than a political slogan or a trite epithet, we will marshal ourselves and our minds in debate as our primary civic duty.