I’m never sure what to think about anthropologists–on one hand, at least they’re trying to understand what some people wouldn’t. On the other, I wonder whether they ever actually ask the people involved what they think is going on rather than just narrating from on high. This article, though it makes good points in parts, largely falls victim to the crass-hermeneutics-of-suspicion that characterizes most anthropologists. Oh, and he’s examining American conservatives:
When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label “elitist.” But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?
Of course, Haidt is just picking up on the old concept of taboo, the inexplicable prohibition that simply must stand as unexaminable. The problem, of course, with such a category comes when the people in question actually do have explanations for the prohibitions. Haidt, apparently never asking for such reasons, simply takes his field experience studying the caste system in India and lays the template over the American red state:
Back in the United States the culture war was going strong, but I had lost my righteous passion. I could never have empathized with the Christian Right directly, but once I had stood outside of my home morality, once I had tried on the moral lenses of my Indian friends and interview subjects, I was able to think about conservative ideas with a newfound clinical detachment. They want more prayer and spanking in schools, and less sex education and access to abortion? I didn’t think those steps would reduce AIDS and teen pregnancy, but I could see why the religious right wanted to “thicken up” the moral climate of schools and discourage the view that children should be as free as possible to act on their desires. Conservatives think that welfare programs and feminism increase rates of single motherhood and weaken the traditional social structures that compel men to support their own children? Hmm, that may be true, even if there are also many good effects of liberating women from dependence on men.
Somehow the idea of studying such things with “clinical detachment” makes my skin crawl, especially when it’s for the sake of manufacturing consent in a federal election. I can understand the classical liberal idea of tolerance, refraining from coercive force and legal hegemony when relating to one’s neighbors. But this strikes me as standing above humanity, studying the ways people live with statistical models for the sake of manipulating them. I’m not naive; I know politicians have been doing this at least as long as modern psychology has been around. But that don’t make it right.
Once again I’m thrown back to that good old Enlightenment-conservative, Neil-Postman-singing-in-harmony-with-Al-Gore idea that attempting to convince rationally, with a common language to which all parties have access and through which all parties can publish, might be better than a culture in which well-paid technicians of the soul put together 30-second television commercials for the sake of garnering votes. Frankly, I tire of image managers and pollsters conducting polls about what people think of polling and 24-hour news in general. What ultimately makes me sickest about the whole enterprise is that, while I’m trying to teach young citizens to articulate ideas and critique others’ ideas and participate in the ancient practice of philosophical dialogue, advertisers and anthropologists are doing blatant end-runs around real thought, playing at democracy even as I hold out hope that something like reasoned consent is actually possible. I suppose this is why nausea rather than duty is what grabs me when I think too long about federal politics.
Wait a second… how did I get on that? I can’t wait until about December 18, when the Supreme Court has decided who won this recount. Then perhaps I’ll have a good three weeks before campaign season starts back up again…