Saturday, April 25, 2009

You HAVE to wonder

All the media are falling in line with the self-imposed requisite focus on the first 100 days of the Obama Administration -- as though there is some kind of legal or superstitious relevance to that nice round number. Not one of them has the creative or business impulse even to make it a focus on the first 99 days and scoop on the competition.

This can be considered an illustration, if one is needed, of the effects of that media consolidation which happened under the Bush Administration during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion where Bush's billionaire friends in corporate media were rewarded with the profitable ownership of nearly all the news outlets across the country while keeping the voices of dissent to a minimum. But all that is just a digression...

What may be more interesting, as a counter-point to the saturated examination of what has been going on in the new Administration, would be an intelligent analysis of the psychology behind the extreme and irrational opposition to it, the proponents of which have sunk to the level of lame side-show silliness (tea-bagging?). It's a malevolent silliness, of course, which is the only thing that makes it newsworthy.

We can hope it is just the dregs of a 20-year-long charade that most people who once bought into have become fed up with. With people like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove still pushing their delusional viewpoints on the gullible public rather than just shutting up and going away you have to wonder how the failed neo-conservative movement can rationally claim any credibility after their eight-year disastrous regime was - and continues to be - rejected soundly by people with half a brain.

Well, I wonder. I really do. I wonder why people en masse are compelled to glom onto prepackaged political mindsets that often cause them to take action against their own best interests? And I wonder if maybe that's just my point of view.

But, apparently, a lot of other people have been wondering about this too. Some who have the smarts and the luxury of thinking about such things for a living have been doing some structured wondering - otherwise known as research - about this very topic and have come up with some pretty interesting ideas and theories that try to make sense out of the circus going on around us.

Jonathan Haidt is one such person: an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. Haidt has been studying politics and morality for a number of years and written several books and articles on the subject. I recently came across an online video of a lecture he gave to the TED conference several years ago that I feel offers the most gratifying, balanced analysis of the underlying psychology of what we are currently seeing and a starting point from which we may be able to move beyond it.

Haidt has identified five foundational moral impulses relevant to how we live our lives as social beings. They are:

• Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.

• Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.

• In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.

• Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.

• Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.

Haidt's research reveals that self-identified liberals feel strongly about the first two dimensions -- preventing harm and ensuring fairness -- but often feel little, or even feel negatively, about the other three. Conservatives, on the other hand, are drawn to loyalty, authority and purity, which liberals tend to think of as backward or outdated. People on the right acknowledge the importance of harm prevention and fairness but not with quite the same energy or passion as those on the left.

Whatever point you find yourself on along the political spectrum you may be fed up with bewilderment over the irrational viewpoints to which you are opposed. It would be well worth 20 minutes of your time to watch the video below. If you are moved, as I was afterward, you may consider signing on to the pledge Haidt has posted at his website to commit yourself to acting on the principles that come out of his analysis:

I was led to this discovery by Tom Jacobs who has written a revealing article about Jonathan Haidt currently posted at Miller-McCune's website:

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