Saturday, January 20, 2018

Readings on tribes and tribalism — #25: Jonathan Haidt, “The Age of Outrage” (Dec 2017)

In an earlier article in this series (#8), Jonathan Haidt and co-author Pico Iyer proposed that Americans ease their divisive turn to tribalism by focusing on improving interpersonal relations. Writing alone in this article — “The Age of Outrage: What the current political climate is doing to our country and our universities” (Dec 2017) — Haidt focuses more on how students and kids are being affected by current trends. He’s particularly critical of what the Left has done to tribalize our campuses, notably by purveying “intersectionality”. He seeks to counter tribalism by having his Heterodox Academy work for “viewpoint diversity” on America’s campuses.

Haidt shows up front that he understands the tribal form, our naturally tribal natures, and the concerns of our Founding Fathers to safeguard democracy from tribalized factionalism, not only by institutionalizing a division of powers along with a set of checks and balances, but also by seeking to educate new generations of American citizens to uphold our fledgling system:
“When we look back at the ways our ancestors lived, there’s no getting around it: we are tribal primates. We are exquisitely designed and adapted by evolution for life in small societies with intense, animistic religion and violent intergroup conflict over territory. We love tribal living so much that we invented sports, fraternities, street gangs, fan clubs, and tattoos. Tribalism is in our hearts and minds. We’ll never stamp it out entirely, but we can minimize its effects because we are a behaviorally flexible species. …
“Here is the fine-tuned liberal democracy hypothesis: as tribal primates, human beings are unsuited for life in large, diverse secular democracies, unless you get certain settings finely adjusted to make possible the development of stable political life. This seems to be what the Founding Fathers believed. …
“So what did the Founders do? They built in safeguards against runaway factionalism, such as the division of powers among the three branches, and an elaborate series of checks and balances. But they also knew that they had to train future generations of clock mechanics. They were creating a new kind of republic, which would demand far more maturity from its citizens than was needed in nations ruled by a king or other Leviathan.”
Haidt’s long account of why Americans have lately come to “hate and fear each other so much more than we used to” revolves around an insightful “unifying idea” borrowed from physics: “keep your eye on the balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces.” He doesn’t say so explicitly, but that’s an excellent notion for distinguishing between bright sides of the tribal form that pull people together — e.g., family, community, civic clubs, patriotism — and dark sides that push people apart, such as factionalism, sectarianism, xenophobia.

Haidt then identifies a series of five current trends that “can be seen as increasing centrifugal forces or weakening centripetal forces.” One of these is diversity — it is so strong a centrifugal force that “those who want more diversity should be even more attentive to strengthening centripetal forces.” Two other tribalizing trends, he warns, are “the Republicans in Washington, and the Left on campus. Both have strengthened the centrifugal forces that are now tearing us apart.”

As for our university campuses, Haidt deplores the rise of “the new identity politics of the Left” as a centrifugal “bad kind” of identity politics, in contrast to the centripetal “good kind” once represented by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Particularly worrisome is the spread throughout academia of the concept of “intersectionality”. Initially a reasonable idea about how race, ethnicity, gender, age, and other identities may intersect in ways that compound prejudice and discrimination, it soon got turned into a concept about systemic oppression and how to fight back:
“And here’s the strategically brilliant move made by intersectionality: all of the binary dimensions of oppression are said to be interlocking and overlapping. America is said to be one giant matrix of oppression, and its victims cannot fight their battles separately. They must all come together to fight their common enemy, the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male. …
“This means that on any campus where intersectionality thrives, conflict will be eternal, because no campus can eliminate all offense, all microaggressions, and all misunderstandings. This is why the use of shout- downs, intimidation, and even violence in response to words and ideas is most common at our most progressive universities, in the most progressive regions of the country.”
Haidt’s ultimate concern is education. In addition to being a university professor, he is the founder (co-founder?) of the Heterodox Academy (, an ingenious bold non-partisan effort to improve “viewpoint diversity” in academia. Through it, Haidt and other members are working to help besieged professors “stand up” against illiberal activism. They are seeking solutions by “putting out ideas and tools that help people stand up for viewpoint diversity and open inquiry” — a laudable endeavor.

In closing, Haidt leaps pragmatically from alarm to hope, appealing to us to “come together, admit that we messed up, and change what we are doing to kids, and to college students”:
“So please do not despair. Be alarmed — the situation is truly alarming. But most Americans are decent, thoughtful people who don’t want to give up on their country or its universities. There are many things we can do to reduce tribalism, strengthen our kids, and repair our universities. We — the baby boomers and gen-Xers who fill this room — we have made a mess of the clock. Left and Right, Republicans and Democrats. But we can make up for it if we can come together, admit that we messed up, and change what we are doing to kids, and to college students. We just might be able to raise a generation of kids who can care for the clock after all.”
My conclusion: Haidt makes valuable points throughout. I especially like his distinguishing between centrifugal and centripetal forces — I’d not thought of that as a way to characterize the differences between what I’ve called the “dark sides” and “bright sides” of the tribal form. Moreover, I welcome his effort this time to go beyond rather abstractly advocating improving interpersonal relations, to point toward pragmatically improving campus environments in ways that should reduce tribalism.

To read Haidt’s article in full, go here:

No comments: