A recent book by American psychologist Jonathan Haidt (a self-described liberal) has provoked interesting conversation among the political intelligentsia. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt argues that politics is shaped by a more diverse offering of values than commonly assumed. “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second,” he argues, suggesting that values like families and communities, loyalty and order, and a sense of the sacred are touchstones that shape both behaviour and voting patterns.
In the October 2012 issue of Policy Options, NDP insider Anne McGrath and Conservative strategist Stephen Carter provide their assessment regarding the application of Haidt’s thesis to the Canadian context. McGrath equivocates, suggesting that Haidt’s appeal for civility is a bit of a “naïve distaste for acrimony,” and doesn’t adequately account for the mobilization that divisive momentums such as the Occupy Movement have created through history. (Without such movements, “environmentalists, unionists, First Nation Peoples, feminists and even farmers” would not have achieved “new rights to free association, to organize, to protest, and even to vote.”) She notes the alignment with social democratic causes that this momentum has naturally prompted. Simultaneously, she notes how an appreciation for a broader-based value set than typically appealed to in contemporary politics can lead to principled engagement between partisan forces and not simply pejorative demonization, as is the contemporary norm.
Carter takes a more utilitarian approach. He cites The Righteous Mind as “a must read for all political professionals” finding in it the blueprint for micro-targeting and valuable lessons for how to engage the “less-engaged” electorate in a manner that suits a campaign.
I found both of these reactions discouraging. Is this the contemporary state of values in public life? The best McGrath could do was appeal to Jack Layton’s farewell letter, his “let’s get along moment” in Canadian politics, and reframe Haidt’s thesis in social democratic language. Why no appeal to the social gospel tradition within her own party’s history, which would have provided a much more solid anchor for her argument? Equally disturbing is Carter’s purely pragmatic approach, examining the values basis of Haidt’s argument not for any merits but simply for its vote-getting potential.
Haidt’s politics are probably dissimilar from mine, but I appreciated his candour in admitting how this study brought him beyond the pablum moral arbiters of “fairness” and “do no harm” to a more nuanced set of values that also acknowledge the role of other institutions in our social architecture.
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When we launched Cardus just over a decade ago, we were quite conscious that not only were the various institutions between individuals and government generally ignored in public conversation—hence our mission of “renewing social architecture”—but we also knew that neither the arguments nor the language to engage in such conversations in publicly accessible manners were available.
Today’s cultural conversation needs to include many who have come to North America from settings where the roots of western civilization and its implicit trajectory of values are a foreign concept. We also need to engage many born in North America whose frame of reference better reflects the “religion of the nones” (as in no religion at all) than the “religion of the nuns.”
Most in politics (or other spheres) don’t seem to get this. In the midst of sociological complexity, some reduce transcendent values into political slogans or vote-getting tactics. But that is to miss the deeper reality of it all.
Cardus works from the premise that the insights offered by 2,000 years of Christian social thought have something to say to our present social realities.
This is the 500th blog to appear on this website. Cardus commenced blogging to provide commentary on the issues of the day in ways that take seriously those 2,000 years of Christian social thought. (We felt complimented when someone suggested this site might be considered among the best op-ed pages out there.) Our hope is that in offering this daily contribution (along with our many other publications), we are helping to translate transcendent realities—which matter most to people—into the language of today. As we pass this milestone, we thank you, the reader, for joining us on this journey and trust that we will manage to engage the nuances of what it means to have faith in our common life beyond the reductionistic platitudes which sometimes seem to offend rather than engage our deepest held convictions.