How the Right-Wing Brain Works and What That Means for Progressives
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But to my mind, here’s the really telling thing about all of this. When you get right down to it, Lakoff and Haidt seem to be singing harmony with each other. It’s not just that they could both be right—it’s that the large overlap between them strengthens both accounts, especially since the two researchers are coming from different fields and using very different methodologies and terminologies.
Lakoff’s system overlaps with Haidt’s in multiple places—most obviously when it comes to liberals showing broader empathy and wanting to care for those who are harmed (nurturing parent) and conservatives respecting authority (strict father). But the overlaps are larger still, for the strict father family is also an in-group and quite individualistic—in other words, prizing the conservative version of freedom or liberty.
What’s more, both of these systems are also consistent with a third approach that is growing in influence: The cultural cognition theory being advanced by Yale’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues, which divides us morally into “hierarchs” and “egalitarians” along one axis, and “individualists” and “communitarians” along another ( helpful image here). Conservatives, in this scheme, tend towards the hierarchical and the individualistic; liberals tend toward the egalitarian and the communitarian.
Throwing Kahan into the mix—and yes, he uses yet another methodology--we once again find great consistency with Lakoff and Haidt. Egalitarians worry about fairness; communitarians about protecting the innocent from harm; hierarchs about authority and the group (and probably sanctity or purity—hierarchs tend toward the religious). Individualists are, basically, exercisers of the conservative version of freedom and liberty.
Terminology aside, then, Lakoff, Haidt and Kahan seem to have considerably more grounds for agreement with each other than for disagreement, at least when it comes to describing what actually motivates political conservatives and political liberals.
And in fact, that’s just the beginning of the expert agreement. In all of these schemes, what’s being called “morality” is emotional and, in significant part, automatic. It’s not about the conscious decisions you make about situations or policies—or at least, not primarily. Rather, the focus is on the unconscious impulses that shape how you think about situations before you’re even aware you’re doing so, and then guide (and bias) your reasoning.
This leads Lakoff and Haidt to strongly reject what you might call the “Enlightenment model” for thinking about reasoning and persuasion, and leads Kahan to talk about motivated reasoning, rather than rational or objective reasoning. Once again, these thinkers are essentially agreeing that because morality biases us long before consciousness and reasoning set in, factual and logical argument are not at all a good way to get us to change our behavior and how we respond.
This is also a point I made recently, noting how Republicans become more factually wrong with higher levels of education. Facts clearly don’t change their minds—if anything, they make matters worse! Lakoff, too, emphasizes how refuting a false conservative claim can actually reinforce it . And he doesn’t merely show why the Enlightenment mode of thinking is outdated; he also stresses that liberals are more wedded to it than conservatives, and this irrational rationalism lies at the root of many political failures on the left.
On the one hand, the apparent consensus among these experts is surely something to rejoice about. Progress is finally being made at understanding the emotional and cognitive roots of the culture war and our political dysfunction alike. But if all of this is really true—if conservatives and liberals have deep seated and automatic moral and emotional differences—then what should we do about it?