I asked myself, and Twitter, a hard question the other day. Today, I’m going to try to answer it.
The question I asked was this: “Why is it not obvious to everyone that these people are evil?”
Now, as it happens, I was referring to the political situation in the world, especially the USA, and if you’ve paid any attention at all here, you know which side I favor. However … if someone happens to favor the other side, I’m sure they look at my side and think “Why is it not obvious to everyone that these people are evil?”
It puzzles me, even though I think I know and understand the answer.
Some reading …
An interesting book bearing on the topic is The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Here’s the Amazon blurb, which I think is pretty accurate:
In The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt answers some of the most compelling questions about human relationships:
Why can it sometimes feel as though half the population is living in a different moral universe? Why do ideas such as ‘fairness’ and ‘freedom’ mean such different things to different people? Why is it so hard to see things from another viewpoint? Why do we come to blows over politics and religion?
Jonathan Haidt reveals that we often find it hard to get along because our minds are hardwired to be moralistic, judgmental and self-righteous. He explores how morality evolved to enable us to form communities, and how moral values are not just about justice and equality - for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty matter more. Morality binds and blinds, but, using his own research, Haidt proves it is possible to liberate ourselves from the disputes that divide good people.
The operative words there are justice, equality, authority, sanctity, loyalty. I think the book refines these to something like care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. As with any model, these are imperfect dimensions of our thinking but they ring to me as close to true if not exactly right.
I recommend the book if you struggle with questions like my question here, or with how “those people” can possibly think “those things”.
My thoughts …
With the book referenced, let me finally get around to putting down the thoughts that triggered me into writing this.
The question, rephrased to be a bit less strident, is how can it be that some people’s thinking is so far from my own.
The main dimension where I see a difference is what Haidt, and I, would call “authority”. Some people are inclined to accept authority, and some are not. I myself am not, at least when it comes to authorities saying what I should do, especially when they’re imposing a moral viewpoint. (This surely verges on the “sanctity” value of Haidt.)
Many of the people of this country (and others) have been raised under an authoritarian outlook. They may have been raised in a religion, where the word of God or Jah or Allah is somehow known, and is not to be gainsaid. They may have been raised with strict parents: many people of my generation and the one following were. I was.
I imagine the most common reaction to that kind of upbringing is that you respect authority, pretty much, and you feel badly when you go against it, and you may well feel very angry when someone else goes against it.
But there’s another odd thread around authority, in the USA at least, and that is the notion of “freedom”, or perhaps “liberty”. We’ve seen that in the reaction to mask-wearing orders in the face of Covid. People refuse to wear masks essentially because they were told to do so.
However, I think there is a hidden dimension here … they resist when told by “the other side” to do so. I believe that if Trump and Republican politicians, as well as Democrats, as well as scientists, had said masks were a good thing, there’d be a lot more mask wearing. Trump’s people will wear those red hats, even when red is not their color. I’m sure they’d happily wear Trump masks if he wanted them to.
So it’s still around the authority dimension, with some loyalty thrown in, under the flag of “liberty” but quite likely really driven by the authority/loyalty forces. Or so it seems to me.
The Abortion Question
Here’s an interesting one. I am what you might call “reluctantly pro-choice”. My upbringing and education cause me to feel that abortion is a very serious moral issue. At some point, the fetus is clearly a baby. And pretty much no one thinks we should kill babies. I certainly don’t.
But I was also raised to believe in an “immortal soul” that was pegged into the fetus at the very moment the sperm penetrated the egg, making that odd little cell, at that very moment, into a human being. Now I don’t happen to believe in an “immortal soul”, and I’m not sure that I ever did, but nonetheless I can’t get past the feeing—indeed the knowledge—that these cells, given half a chance, will one day be a person.
So it seems to me that stopping this process is and ought to be a big deal, at east at some stage in the process. I don’t want to draw the line, there is no qualified way to draw the line, but I think it’s a big deal.
I believe that the decision should be left in the hands of the person or people involved, primarily if not exclusively the mother, and out of the hands of old white men in Congress. But I can at least see how someone with an authoritarian outlook, a high score on sanctity, might conclude, no, this is a big enough deal that we need to have laws about it, the same way we have laws about murder and stopping at red octagonal signs. We do have some pretty detailed laws, and this topic is a big deal.
And so on
You can work out for yourself how the authority/sanctity dimension might result in some very different determinations about things, and how some consistency might yield the kind of division we presently seem to have in our society. I want to move now to a slightly different angle.
I call this angle “merit”. and I don’t quite see how this notion would fit into Haidt’s model, nor, honestly, do I much care. I think that people who have good things often conclude that they deserve those good things. It follows that if you do not have those good things, it is because you do not deserve them.
This isn’t even good logic. I know that, and you know that. “I got X because I deserve it” does not have as its opposite “You don’t have X because you don’t deserve it”, but here we are.
It took me a while to figure out that as an old white guy, I am incredibly privileged. I wrote about that in Privilege - I’ve Got It. I’ve worked reasonably hard for what I’ve attained, and I’ve been cheated out of some things that in my view I deserved. I’ve had problems, some of them continuing, and hardships that troubled me even if they don’t plunge to the level of some people’s problems. It’s easy to think that I got what I got because I worked for it.
Of course I was born smart, raised in learning, supported in education, and I’m white. To me, living my life, that’s just the water I swim in. I don’t notice that, unless I think about it really hard.
So it is easy to think that I got what good stuff I have because I merited it, and, by the way, one’s education in authority and sanctity does have a bit of that notion in it. “You’re under my authority now because I merit it, but if you are good and work hard, one day you, too can be powerful like me.”
Well, then, if Sam has whatever Sam has because of Sam’s merits, then when Bailey doesn’t have good stuff, it can’t be due to bad luck on Bailey’s part, because that would mean that Sam’s good stuff was due in large part to luck also.
So Bailey clearly didn’t work as hard as Sam, didn’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps like Sam did, and so on.
And should we not help Bailey? No, because Bailey does not merit the good things that our help would give them.
And so what about people of color? Well, if as a group they are less well off less successful—according to this thinking with which I emphatically do not agree—it must be that they as a group, they do not deserve better.
One more small step, and Voila! you’ve invented rational racism.
This works for just about any identifiable group.
If people try to get into this country and are unsuccessful (no matter if they are unsuccessful because we have people stopping them) and they get separated from their children, sometimes forever, and they get locked in cages and get their wombs ripped out of their bodies … well, we are good people, and so those other people must have deserved that treatment. If they didn’t want to be treated that way, they shouldn’t have come here. We told them not to.
Now I find that thinking to be transcendently odious1. But if you believe that good and bad are distributed to people based on merit, then it’s not so hard to turn away, because, well, they deserve it.
Telling it like it is
I was reminded of this topic yesterday, when rereading REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson. The protagonist has some relatives who are self-described right-wing religious wingnuts, who live pretty much off-grid, have lots of guns, and think that all government is essentially corrupt.
Now I want to believe that my side is far less corrupt than your side, but there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is corruption everywhere. It would be impossible to be in the business of politics today without being impacted by money. There are lobbyists, book deals, political donors and supporters. Virtually every bill has riders in it whose sole purpose is to send some money back to some congressperson’s home district. Quid pro quo. You elect me and I’ll make sure that bridge gets built.
So, yes, the entire political system is far from pure, and even if one went into it with the purest of intentions, it would be hard to stay absolutely squeaky clean, and if one did, one would probably quickly become unelectable. “You have to give a little to get a little”. Slippery slope.
That brings us to “Telling it like it is.” Trump is visibly corrupt. He continues to run his businesses. He actually lives his political live to funnel money to them. Visit your own golf course, rent hotel rooms to a massive entourage. By some counts, hundreds of millions of dollars have moved from the treasury to Trump-owned businesses.
Is that corrupt? Yes. But he tells it like it is. He says government is corrupt. He says people who pay their bills are losers. He’s more honest than the rest, because he’s up front about what he’s doing. Same with every aspect.
If I were anti-government, and on some days it wouldn’t be hard to be that way, I could see him as the most honest corrupt person, the most successful person, in government. I think I’d have to close my eyes to some issues, but perhaps fewer than one might realize.
I don’t feel that way
I don’t feel that way. I think that everyone deserves a truly fair shot at success. I think that everyone deserves a decent standard of living, decent health care, everywhere in the world. And I think we have more than enough resources, intelligence, and general ability to make that come to pass.
And I think we should.
But I’m beginning—just beginning—to understand how it is possible to believe otherwise and not be evil, at least in one’s own eyes. No one thinks they are evil. (Well, there may be someone. But basically no one.) Everyone is doing the best they can.
I sort of think I get it. What I don’t see is how to move as a group, a community, a country, a world, toward something better.
Possibly not having 90 percent of the wealth in the hands of 10 percent of the people would be a start.
But at least I sort of think I get it.
Translation: It stinks. It sucks. It’s bad. Really bad. ↩