I. The Three Languages of Politics
A number of years ago, Kling wrote a short book called "The Three Languages of Politics" where he introduced a simple model to help explain political polarization. In a nutshell he argued that people, to some degree, fall within three heuristic categories, or as he calls them, axes. Progressives fall within the oppressor/oppressed axis which simply means that they think in relation to groups and organize the bad and the good in terms of oppressors and those being oppressed. Conservatives are in the civilization/barbarism axis. For them, the good is civilized values that have accumulated over time and have stood the test of time; and the bad are the barbarians who try to strike out against those values and destroy civilization. Finally, Libertarians are in the freedom/coercion axis. For them, the good is individuals making their own choices, contracting freely with each other; and the bad is coercion at gunpoint, particularly on the part of governments.
In summary, identifying with a particular group indicates that you tend to frame issues in the terms described above. This is why political groups are speaking past each other; they are speaking in different languages.
II. The Righteous Mind
A couple of years after reading Kling's book I read Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind" which presents ideas similar to Kling's but from a different perspective and much more fleshed out. Actually, there is so much in the book I'm finding it difficult to present an adequate summary.
Like Kling, Haidt provides an explanation as to why politics is so polarizing. He sees liberals and conservatives living in their own moral matrices. "Each matrix provides a complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview, easily justified by observable evidence and nearly impregnable to attack by arguments from outsiders."
To get a better understanding of these moral matrices, it's necessary to first understand how Haidt views morality. He lays this out with his Social Intuitionist model which proposes that moral positions and judgments are generally first the result of quick, automatic evaluations (intuitions) and that reasoning is a post hoc attempt to justify our intuitions. In other words, though we would like to believe that we come to moral decisions in an objective, unbiased, rational manner, we are actually deeply influenced by our intuitions. These intuitions, Haidt believes are to some degree the result of evolutionary adaptations.
The second part to understanding moral matrices is found in Haidt's Moral Foundations theory. Here he lays out a model composed of six (formally five) innate, modular foundations:
The Care/harm foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. It makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering.
The Fairness/cheating foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. It makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good (or bad) partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us want to shun or punish cheaters.
The Loyalty/betrayal foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. It makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player. It makes us trust and reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize, or even kill those who betray us or our group.
The Authority/subversion foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. It makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are (or are not) behaving properly, given their position.
The Sanctity/degradation foundation evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivore’s dilemma, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats. It makes it possible for people to invest objects with irrational and extreme values—both positive and negative—which are important for binding groups together.
The Liberty/oppression foundation evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of living in small groups with individuals who would, if given the chance, dominate, bully, and constrain others. It triggers an urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants. This foundation supports the egalitarianism and antiauthoritarianism of the left, as well as the don’t-tread-on-me and give-me-liberty antigovernment anger of libertarians and some conservatives.
Haidt's research shows that those in the three general camps of progressives, libertarians and conservatives rely upon each foundation in different ways or to different degrees. While all three political camps are sensitive to the fairness foundation, progressives are particularly sensitive to the care foundation, libertarians to the liberty foundation and conservatives roughly equally sensitive to all six foundations.
III. Microaggression and Moral Cultures
Published in 2014 by sociologist Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, the paper argues that western culture is in the midst of a moral transition.
Prior to the 18th and 19th centuries we lived in an culture of honor.
"Honor is a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone. Honor in this sense is a status that depends on the evaluations of others, and members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them...
In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing, such that “in honor cultures, people are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so”. Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights.
Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or nonexistent and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack. Because of their belief in the value of personal bravery and capability, people socialized into a culture of honor will often shun reliance on law or any other authority even when it is available, refusing to lower their standing by depending on another to handle their affairs."During the 19th century, as liberal philosophy took hold and the rule of law was developed, we transitioned to a culture of dignity.
"The prevailing culture in the modern West is one whose moral code is nearly the exact opposite of that of an honor culture. Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others.
Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor...
For offenses like theft, assault, or breach of contract, people in a dignity culture will use law without shame. But in keeping with their ethic of restraint and toleration, it is not necessarily their first resort, and they might condemn many uses of the authorities as frivolous. People might even be expected to tolerate serious but accidental personal injuries"Now we seem to be transitioning to a culture of victimhood.
Microaggression complaints have characteristics that put them at odds with both honor and dignity cultures. Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response. But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor – tantamount to showing that one had no honor at all.Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.
A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.
Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights."