Things you’ve said and done coming back to bite you? Try Deep Words Krist-Off!®

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“Right people wank like this, whereas…”

It came a little early this year, but I see it’s that time in the electoral cycle when liberals, having watched conservatives do everything possible to alienate voters and destroy their brand, decide to step in and attempt to salvage the opposition’s legacy. Why do we do this? I used to think it was because everyone in a two-party system benefits when both camps argue in good faith, so we like to believe against all evidence to the contrary that this is the case, but I’m questioning that assumption these days. Now I think it’s more likely that liberals, having flattered—and in many cases, kidded—themselves that their worldview is a result of deep reflection and inquiry (a position needn’t be wrong in order to be ill-considered, after all), look across the divide and think “well, their philosophy must be worthy of serious consideration too!”

Hey, Nicholas Kristof, read any good PDFs lately?

Conservatives may not like liberals, but they seem to understand them. In contrast, many liberals find conservative voters not just wrong but also bewildering.

Actually, “in contrast,” that first part’s bullshit. Unless Kristof really thinks we secretly harbor communist sympathies, despise the land of our birth, and talk our sisters-in-law into cocaine-fueled three-ways with some regularity. Like we could possibly hate America if our lives were that awesome.

Pretty sure the second part’s bullshit too, but I’ll get to that (I don’t usually presume to speak for my compatriots, partly because it’s presumptuous and partly because I’m not entirely representative of what I think, but hey, when in Times Roman).

One academic study asked 2,000 Americans to fill out questionnaires about moral questions. In some cases, they were asked to fill them out as they thought a “typical liberal” or a “typical conservative” would respond.

Moderates and conservatives were adept at guessing how liberals would answer questions. Liberals, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal,” were least able to put themselves in the minds of their adversaries and guess how conservatives would answer.

Now a fascinating new book comes along that, to a liberal like myself, helps demystify the right — and illuminates the kind of messaging that might connect with voters of all stripes. “The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor, argues that, for liberals, morality is largely a matter of three values: caring for the weak, fairness and liberty. Conservatives share those concerns (although they think of fairness and liberty differently) and add three others: loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity.

Demystify the right, yet. How much does this book cost? They hate our guts, buy into Reaganomics, and skipped the adolescent stage where you’re supposed to rebel against your religious upbringing. I accept PayPal.

Those latter values bind groups together with a shared respect for symbols and institutions such as the flag or the military. They are a reminder that human moral judgments are often about far more than just helping others. Some of Haidt’s most interesting material is his examination of taboos.

His team asked research subjects pesky questions. What would they think of a brother and sister who experimented with incest, while using birth control? Or of a family that, after their pet dog was run over, ate it for dinner?

Most respondents were appalled but often had trouble articulating why; we find these examples instinctively disturbing even if no one is harmed. (One lesson of the book: If you see Haidt approaching with a clipboard, run!)

Of course, political debates aren’t built on the consumption of roadkill. But they do often revolve around this broader moral code. This year’s Republican primaries have been a kaleidoscope of loyalty, authority and sanctity issues — such as whether church-affiliated institutions can refuse to cover birth control in health insurance policies — and that’s perhaps why people like me have found the primaries so crazy.

Okay, first off, you’re implying that I’m a “person like you,” and trust me, I’m not. You fly to far-flung hellholes to help starving people; I only frequent one hellhole and I swear to God, once I get these shelves set up, I’m going to organize this place top-to-bottom. Also, I’m not easily swayed by preliminary findings. As far as the primaries being crazy, yeah, I’d agree with that, but not because the ways of conservatives are a mystery to me. Criminy, if they were any more transparent they’d be framing the Family Circus kids for vandalism. What’s crazy is, they’re not trying to play down their proclivities in order to attain/consolidate power. That’s what liberals find confusing, not in a “the world is upside down” sense, more like “but it’s not even my birthday!”

Another way of putting it is this: Americans speak about values in six languages, from care to sanctity. Conservatives speak all six, but liberals are fluent in only three. And some (me included) mostly use just one, care for victims.

“I’ll cop to having tunnel-vision. I’ll cop to it in the most unctuous way possible.”

Okay, so Kristof’s take-away is that wingnuts are twice as good when it comes to values. This groundbreaking insight will be invaluable in our attempts to “connect with voters of all stripes,” just as long as we refuse to ask a zillion or so questions about underlying assumptions.

“Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much difficulty connecting with voters,” writes Haidt, a former liberal who says he became a centrist while writing the book.

And we all know that “former liberals,” especially the ones with just-so conversion stories (“I used to be a liberal, but then typing 911 pages happened and now I’m outraged by the way nonprofit employees fill out ScanTrons”), tend to have the only the best intentions for Democrats’ electoral fortunes at heart.

In recent years, there has been growing research into the roots of political ideologies, and they seem to go deep. Adults who consider themselves liberals were said decades earlier by their nursery-school teachers to be curious, verbal novelty seekers but not very neat or obedient.

Some research suggests that conservatives are particularly attuned to threats, with a greater startle reflex when they hear loud noises. Conservatives also secrete more skin moisture when they see disgusting images, such as a person eating worms. Liberals feel disgust, too, but a bit less.

Anything that prods us to think of disgust or cleanliness also seems to have at least a temporary effect on our politics. It pushes our sanctity buttons and makes us more conservative.

A University of Toronto study found that if people were asked to wash their hands with soap and water before filling out a questionnaire, they become more moralistic about issues like drug use and pornography. Researchers found that interviewees on Stanford’s campus offered harsher, more moralistic views after “fart spray” had been released in the area.

At Cornell University, students answered questions in more conservative ways when they were simply near a hand sanitizer station.

Man, I always bristle at these explanations, whether it’s this or whatever that book was that liberals were going ga-ga over a few years back (The Authoritarians, I think). I know psychologists can do good work in a first-draft-of-pathology sort of way, but whenever they start codifying their data I worry that something reductive this way comes. There’s something ickily deterministic about tracing a political stance back to toilet-training, and I know of too many people who’ve had honest-to-God changes of heart (hi there, everybody who thought they were Rockefeller Republicans until 2003 or so) to hear about these conclusions and say “yeah, you’re right, the egg must have come first.”

Our ideologies shape much more than our politics. We even seek pets who reflect our moral outlook. Researchers at YourMorals.org found that liberals prefer dogs who are gentle but not subservient, while conservatives seek dogs who are loyal and obedient.

Dogs, and also women. Sidebar: YourMorals.org posts some of the filthiest BDSM clips around, if you’re into that.

In short, moral and political judgments are complex and contradictory, shaped by a panoply of values, personalities — maybe even smells.

Little of this is a conscious or intellectual process. Indeed, Haidt cites research that a higher I.Q. doesn’t lead people to think through their moral positions in a more balanced, open way (although they are more eloquent in defending those positions).

There’s even extensive research finding that professors of moral philosophy are no more moral than other scholars.

Yeah, I think I read that one in the Journal of Higher No Shit Sherlock, that’s the outfit that publishes studies about how men pay more attention to women in push-up bras. Nobody tell Kristof that some of the kids who used to kick his ass in school went into law enforcement, it’ll fry his cortex.

Okay, Nick, gimme something to go out on, something that’ll solidify my notion of you as a credulous chump.

And do you know what kind of books are disproportionately stolen from libraries? Books on ethics.

I’ll bet you two underage Cambodian sex slaves that’s apocryphal.

P.S. I’ll have to revise my opinion on Kristof—I got through the whole op-ed, so I guess he’s not, technically speaking, “insufferable.” And I shouldn’t be entirely negative, the guy does some fantastic humanitarian work, I just wish he agreed with me that sometimes “shutting the fuck up” falls under that umbrella.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/22/12 at 12:33 PM • Permalink

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I’m going to stick to my theory that conservatives are paranoid nihilists and assholes who delight in cruelty and control.

Another way of putting it is this: Americans speak about values in six languages, from care to sanctity. Conservatives speak all six, but liberals are fluent in only three.

If we’re to believe that all of these “values” should be given equal weight, what should we think about troublemakers who only care about feeding the poor and healing the sick but show great contempt for authority as demonstrated by turning over the tables of moneychangers?

Jesus was obviously a moral retard.

Kirstoff went to Harvard my year with me and Mr. Aimai and Brad deLong. What an incredible wanker.

aimai

(“I used to be a liberal, but then typing 911 pages happened and now I’m outraged by the way nonprofit employees fill out ScanTrons”)

Oh, no sir. That’s how one would competently conduct a study. If you actually click on that first link, you’ll see that the basis of Kristof’s column is a bit off. Check out their methodology:

Project Implicit (https://implicit.harvard.edu/) maintains a web-based volunteer participant pool that is open to the general public. With regular media coverage, Project Implicit enjoys a healthy traffic flow (>20,000 study sessions completed per week) from a heterogeneous sample of the general public. Even so, the sample is not representative of a definable population (Nosek, Smyth, et al., 2007).

It was an Internet survey! That means it was self-selected, and therefore not actually representative of anything. They even admit it themselves a little later, when talking about what they used to define “typical” liberals and conservatives:

To gauge the accuracy of participants’ predictions of “typical” liberal and conservative responses, we needed a standard of comparison. The most obvious comparisons were the actual ratings provided by the liberals and conservatives in our sample, when they were asked to answer as themselves. This was indeed our first comparison. However, it is not ideal because our sample is not representative of the national population.

In other words, they can’t actually trust their own results. I’ve seen my share of bad surveys in my time, but I’ve never seen the designers come right out and say “Yeah, we totally can’t vouch for any of this.”

All-around fail on Kristof’s part.

P.S.: All the Rumproasters are clever and funny, but you, gil mann, force me to use the word “delightful” in all sincerity for the first time in my life. Once you get those shelves set up I might just move in.

Conservatives may not like liberals, but they seem to understand them. In contrast, many liberals find conservative voters not just wrong but also bewildering.

Yeah, it’s bewildering how awful conservatives are.

It’s like Kristoff is unaware that we all have receive horrible e-mails from our right-wing acquaintances.  I understand Conservatives all too well, and that’s why I don’t like them.

Whew, great post! I just think Kristof is trying to hard, here to dress up a poll as revealing something deeper about our ideological differences with conservatives, and I can’t buy the biggest supposed difference—those other three languages?

They’re made up. They’re convenient fictions. Loyalty—ever see what conservatives do to dissenters? That’s fear holding those globs of boosterism together. Respect for authority? Yeah, they’re really impressed with law and order—until the get a president they don’t approve of.  And sanctity? I think of it as flagism. They respect the symbols, then hollow out the meaning behind it.  Look for the respect for the Beatitudes behind the cross, or a respect for the democracy the flag represents. I don’t speak those languages because ig-pay atin-lay akes-may more sense.

If he really wanted a window into the differences between us, he could just follow a Fox News thread about Trayvon Martin, and that would be all he needed to know.  Although that might be enough to make the world lose another humanitarian.

Conservatives understand us? They’ve been pushing the notion that we worship our President when we criticize him regularly.

I understand Conservatives completely. They are all sizzle, no steak. They excuse their politicians for lying to them on a daily basis. They worship their own Conservatism fervently.

Hey Nick - David Brooks just called. He wants his column back. thx

Hey, I see a business model here that would be even more profitable than the underpants gnomes! 

First, we set up website where any bored troller O’ da Tubes can happen upon it and take a survey, maybe even show some creativity and spoof the survey a few times.  Then they can tell their friends and have a spoof-fest, or just dick around with their answers for giggles; whatever.  Maybe even answer honestly (weird, eh?). 

Then, we slap it all together into some trendy-named book with our preconceived notions carefully preserved but given shiny new labels, and sell it to credulous NYT’s columnists, who will then hype it and sell even more copies for us. 

Profit!

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