What does that slogan (famously uttered by Gordon Brown in his speech to the 2007 Labour party conference) make you think? If your gut reaction is that it’s either outright racist, or at best pandering to racism, then congratulations: you’re WEIRD. Welcome to the club; grab a drink and find yourself a seat.
WEIRD is the term used by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt to describe the mindset of Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic liberals; a concept discussed by David Goodhart in a fascinating review of Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. The key question Haidt raises (and that Goodhart discusses) is why many western liberals not only find more conservative viewpoints hard to understand, but why they find it hard even to credit that anyone could ever hold what seem to WEIRDos, self-evidently outdated, stupid or even evil opinions.
The WEIRD worldview can be summarised as follows:
They are … universalists, suspicious of strong national loyalties. They also tend to be individualists committed to autonomy and self-realisation. Balancing that they are usually deeply concerned with social justice and unfairness and also suspicious of appeals to religion or to human nature to justify any departure from equal treatment.
As Goodhart observes, this “secular liberal baby boomer worldview” is in many ways “an attractive and coherent one”. However, this worldview is increasingly running up against the more “sociocentric” and “groupist” ways that are, Haidt argues, hardwired into us as “group-based primates”.
And this is where it gets really interesting. Haidt argues that there are five main “moral dimensions” – but that liberals only really understand, and operate within, two of them. These five moral dimensions are:
- harm and suffering;
- fairness and injustice;
- loyalty to the in-group;
- authority; and
- the sacred.
Haidt argues that liberals tend to focus on the first two, while conservatives care about all five dimensions. As he puts it:
It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.
This helps explain why liberal/conservative arguments over some issues rapidly become a dialogue of the deaf, particularly where the dimension of the sacred is involved:
The sacred is especially difficult for liberals to understand. This isn’t necessarily about religion but about the idea that humans have a nobler, more spiritual side and that life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit. If your only moral concepts are suffering and injustice then it is hard to understand reservations about everything from swearing in public to gay marriage—after all, who is harmed?
Not that Haidt wants liberals to stop being liberals. Rather, he wants both sides to understand each other better, so that US politics (in particular) can become less polarised by mutual cultural incomprehension.
So instead of “telling conservatives that their moral intuitions are wrong”, liberals should seek to frame their arguments in terms that address, “so far as possible”, conservative concerns. So for example, to improve racial justice it is not only a case of preaching tolerance, but also of promoting the wider common in-group identity that those of all races within the same society share. As Haidt puts it:
You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals and mutual interdependencies.
Lots of interesting stuff to think about there, and Goodhart goes on to consider the implications of Haidt’s views for a UK (and Europe) in which the “abstract universalisms” of both left and right are raising concerns about “where the social glue comes from in a fragmented society”.
But for me, reading this also had a personal impact. Haidt’s “five moral dimensions” help explain why, while my political and social instincts are in many ways “liberal”, I have often found myself feeling profoundly out of step with much of “actually existing left-liberalism”: mostly because I’ve never been able to shake off the dimensions of the sacred and of a healthy “loyalty to the in-group” (in which you love your country, just as you love your family, not because it’s better than any other country or any other family, but because it’s the one you’ve been given to love; and thus not uncritically, and not to the exclusion of others or of the demands of justice). I must admit I’m pretty WEIRD when it comes to “authority”, though…