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Warring Tribes

A little over two years ago I published an essay titled “An Encounter with Moral Relativism.”  The essay recorded my reactions to Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, which I had reviewed two years earlier. Haidt had dealt with differences between the moral perspectives of liberal and conservative Americans, as well as between liberal Westerners and much of the rest of the world. According to his research, both liberals and conservatives valued the moral dimensions of liberty, and fairness. Liberals valued the dimension of care more than conservatives, but the latter valued dimensions of loyalty, authority and sanctity equally with the other dimensions and far greater than their liberal counterparts. It appears to me that this difference between liberals and conservatives is beginning to erode.

Although Haidt only skirted the issue of why liberals and conservatives differed in the moral dimensions they valued, it is easy to assign such values to wider world-views. For instance, liberty and fairness are characteristically Enlightenment values, and as such, can be applied universally to whomever one chooses, to friends and enemies alike. A quote that apparently is misattributed to Voltaire, but captures his spirit, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is a paradigmatic example of the value of liberty. Liberals and conservatives differ in how they view fairness: liberals meaning everyone gets an equal share and conservatives meaning no one deserves what they don’t earn. The liberal interpretation of this value is the core of social democracies in the Western world. Differences on the care dimension seem to confirm that liberals are generally more “soft-hearted” and conservatives more concerned with individual responsibility.

Loyalty, respect for authority and affording one’s valued icons the status of sanctity or sacredness, all appear to me to reflect our tribal histories, rather than the more universal identification with wider humanity of the Enlightenment. And it’s the loyalty dimension, the opposite of which Haidt says is betrayal, which concerns me most these days. Free speech, the defense of which was once a staple of the liberal set of values, is now trampled upon with approval when the speakers voice views that are anathema to liberal values of racial identity, sexual, racial, or religious equality, or even preservation of the planet. In the name of defending liberal values, liberals and progressives now defend those who violate other’s free speech. Such defense appears to involve some conflation of loyalty to liberal causes and sanctity of current liberal values, such as gender identity rights. Those who voice discordant views are labeled as favoring “hate speech,” often not because they express hate in any direct manner, but because their position on an issue is thought to lead to hateful suppression of one group or another or to generate pain in vulnerable individual members of certain groups. The privileges of liberty are now afforded only to members of one’s group, i.e. those who have similar values.

The presidential inauguration of Donald Trump has provided another example of liberal/progressive tribalism. Numerous entertainers have declined to perform at Trump’s inauguration, which is understandable, given that many strongly disapprove of his words, behavior and policies. But recently one performer, who had indicated she would perform, reneged, saying that she had gotten too much feedback from the LBGTQ community, that her agreement to perform had offended them. Jennifer Holliday wrote, I was honestly just thinking that I wanted my voice to be a healing and unifying force for hope through music to help our deeply polarized country. Regretfully, I did not take into consideration that my performing for the concert would actually instead be taken as a political act against my own personal beliefs and be mistaken for support of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.”

Sixteen year old Jackie Evancho, a reality show contestant who has become a national celebrity and singing star has reportedly received an avalanche of negative messages for agreeing to sing at the Trump inauguration. Evancho, whose decision is supported by her 18-year-old transgender sister, says "I hope to just kind of make everyone forget about rivals and politics for a second and just think about America and the pretty song that I'm singing. I'm hoping that I can bring people together."

But many liberal and progressive Americans cannot forgive her for making such a decision.

In a similar vein, the statements by civil rights icon, Representative John Lewis, that he will not attend the inauguration because Trump’s election is illegitimate due to Russian interference, has generated more debate about whether one values Lewis himself, the civil rights movement, or Black people’s struggles, than about the accuracy of his statement. Admittedly, Donald Trump’s Twitter attacks on Lewis’ credibility haven’t helped the situation, but Lewis’ statement has become the occasion for a great deal of drawing together of both sides, not on the issue of Russian interference in the election, but on the issue of liberal vs. conservative politics and whose side one is on.

The great issues facing our country today cannot be addressed by a citizenry that is willing to jettison the traditional enlightenment values that have guided our nation in the interest of withdrawing into two embattled camps who value loyalty and sanctity of their current causes and values above individual liberty, care for all of humanity and fairness, even when that means giving to those witih whom you disagree the same consideration you demand for yourself. These latter are real liberal values and I fear that many who come from a long history of standing up for them, are now participating in throwing them away.


Reader Comments (1)

Another thoughtful and informative essay, Casey. I'm hoping our nation can openly discuss important topics without shouting each other down or telling each other to stop talking. Respectful debate is how progress gets made, and how conflicts get resolved. Everyone should have the right to speak up and be heard, and when someone suggests or pushes a harmful idea on others, the voices of reason will prevail and help clarify the best way forward.

January 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRobert L.

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