Thursday, March 22, 2012

Asymmetries of vision

Almost a hundred years ago, in his “The Souls of Black Folk,” W. E. B. Dubois explored the phenomenon of “double consciousness” in African Americans, whose situation required them to balance two sets of perceptions. The first was born of their own experiences. The second set of perceptions was that of the white majority, which remained blissfully self-confident in the rightness of its views.

Many years later, Harry Hay made a similar point about gay people, speaking of a "double window" we experience.

The larger principle is one of asymmetry: one vision is self-confident and unitary, denying any need to come to terms with the other point of view; the other acknowledges that need.

I was recently struck by an analysis that applies the asymmetry to today’s liberals and conservatives. Let me explain.

In several recent publications and interviews, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has presented the results of some interesting research. This concerns the psychological underpinnings of our contentious culture, our overconfident opinions and the demonizing of our adversaries.

“When it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but… the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise,” Haidt recently remarked in a television interview. “Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

Demonization occurs on both sides, the liberal and the conservative. So much is clear. But what is not often understood is Haidt’s second point, and that is this. By and large, conservatives show a greater ability to understand--up to a point--the views of liberals than the reverse. In fact, liberals rarely show this capacity of perception. They simply view conservatives as stupid and backward--as in the recent grotesque interviews conducted by Alexandra Pelosi in Mississippi--or as dishonest defenders of privilege.

Ultimately, the liberal view is based on the Whig Theory of history, the idea that gradually reactionary ideas must yield to progressive ones. That is the nature of progress. But what happens when these Neanderthal views don’t disappear on schedule? The upshot is perplexity and rage, qualities that are not absent from contemporary liberal discourse.

I am far from being a conservative. But it seems to me that in any debate one has an obligation to try to understand where the opponent is coming from. The general reluctance of liberals to make this effort is serving to retard, not advance their cause.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Burk Braun said...

Another aspect of Haidt's and similar work is temperamental- that liberals emphasize certain emotional axes (fairness, openness), while conservatives have more active axes, adding to the mix purity and respect for authority. This means that intrinsically, conservatives have access to more axes of human emotional politics, while liberals literally don't know what they are talking about. The "purity" of racial groups isn't very high on the liberal agenda, while being visceral for many others.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

There are no conservatives in public life in the US, only relatively secular reactionaries and Christianist radicals. There may be some classical liberals, but they are called "conservatives." And the opposition to gay equal rights (look at the Senate confirmation vote on the openly gay judge) is a subset of the opposition to equal rights for women.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

AND http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/mar/20/age-of-ignorance/

3:59 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Simic's complaint is an old one. P. T. Barnum is supposed to have said that no one ever lost money by taking the American people at a low estimate.

Like so many liberals, Simic seems to think that stupidity and misinformation are found only on the right. He has not read Haidt, and probably would not profit if he did.

5:36 PM  

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