Here is an interview with Jonathan Haidt, currently visiting Australia, about social trends in the USA.
BY PAUL KELLY, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, The Australian, JULY 20, 2019, 253 COMMENTShttps://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquir ... d289e1604e
Making his first visit to Australia, American social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership Jonathan Haidt warns that the liberal, multicultural, secular model of Western politics is not a natural phenomenon for human beings and believes there is a “very good chance” that US democracy will fail in the next 30 years.
“In my two public lectures in Melbourne and Sydney I will talk about the problems that have hit us in the United States and how Australia can avoid winding up like us,” Haidt tells The Weekend Australian at the start of his brief tour to this country.
“I think I will use the metaphor of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and come to Australia as the ghost of liberal democracy’s future warning that ‘this is what you could end up like’.”
Haidt’s 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, co-authored with lawyer Greg Lukianoff, dissects the crisis in the American higher education system with its central theme being that “good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure”.
But his argument extends far beyond universities — Haidt’s bigger thesis is that the Western political model is heading into dire trouble and even a potential collapse caused by the intersection of changes in culture and technology.
Asked about the prospects for American democracy based on his diagnosis of current trends, Haidt says: “I am alarmed, as much as I would be if my hair was on fire. I am extremely concerned. In 2012 when I wrote The Righteous Mind I thought the trends looked bad, but if we pulled together, if academics did really good research, if we brought together people of goodwill, we could really solve this problem. That’s what I thought in 2012. I am now very pessimistic. I think there is a very good chance that American democracy will fail, that in the next 30 years we will have a catastrophic failure of our democracy.”
Haidt’s analysis and empirical research over years shows a culture war between progressives and conservatives, both possessed by a moral righteousness with a growing inability to understand and accept each other. The upshot is the capacity for compromise — essential for any polity — is dying. He says the left and right are now akin “to different cultures”.
“We just don’t know what a democracy looks like when you drain all the trust out of the system,” Haidt says. “Although we do have examples of such democracies in Latin America, and the result is generally not pretty. So I don’t know what this future will look like. It may just be a continual decline in trust and efficacy such that everything is contested, everything is fought.
“The current political civil war is between two groups of educated white people with radically different views about what the country is, what morality is and what we need to do to move forward.
“Most Americans are non-political but in the age of social media they have become like dark matter. In a sense they don’t matter, they don’t exist. The modern civil war is being fought by the extremes.” The test is whether the centre — repelled by polarised politics — can revive or whether the forces of culture and technology will continue to drive the extremes on the left and right into deeper conflict that entrenches the political civil war that Haidt invokes.
The transformative technology is social media with “its disastrous consequences for our most important and specialised institutions”, and the cultural eruption is the arrival of Generation Z, born in 1996 and afterwards, which embraces the new divisive identity politics with the consequence that between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of an entire generation is potentially at risk, with anxiety, mental health and suicide on the rise.
Haidt’s starting point is the evolutionary story of human nature. He says “the human mind is prepared for tribalism” and that “our minds were devised for groupish righteousness” because “we are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive strategic reasoning”. This means our political systems are far more fragile than we appreciate because, from the time of Plato onwards, the task was to devise political systems where tribal passions could be contained, disciplined and controlled. Now we are reverting.
He calls the creation of liberal, secular, multicultural, tolerant democracy a “miracle”. Our great delusion is to think it is the natural order for humanity. It isn’t. In our interview, Haidt compares the achievement of liberal democracy with the remote probability of nuclear fusion. There are moments when scientists are able to get nuclear fusion “but it’s very difficult and not very sustainable”. The genius of America’s founding fathers was to devise a constitutional clock with the right checks and balances to contain tribal passions, but the reality is now apparent: “Our liberal democracy is far more fragile than we thought in the 1990s.” Haidt agrees that “tolerant liberal democracy is not a naturally occurring phenomenon” and warns that any nation that wants to sustain this model must work “very hard to turn down tribal identities and inter-group conflicts”. But the US and the West are heading in the opposite direction.
Calling social media “one of the central problems of the age”, Haidt says: “The rise of social media shreds any shared network of social understandings or meanings. It is worthwhile to look back at the story of the Tower of Babel — human beings were getting so powerful that God said he would confound us by shredding our common understandings by dividing us by language. I believe social media is doing that today.
“Social media is putting us all into the state of humanity after the Tower of Babel. A democracy is predicated on the ability of groups to compete but also to co-operate. You must have compromise in a democracy. And that is becoming increasingly difficult. When people believe the ends justify the means they are much more likely to resort to violence. So far there still has been little political violence in the US but I expect that will rise. If you look at an electorate map, the country by county, it is almost entirely red, which means Republican. But by population it’s essentially 50-50 because the cities are blue, which means Democrat.” Ruminating on how a crisis might trigger, Haidt says: “It’s not likely to be a split by state, not like the civil war where we will see states seceding, because the split in America today is mostly urban-rural.
“The way it could happen is if there is a contested election. If Donald Trump loses the popular vote but wins the electoral college in part because of corrupt or illegal processes, if many Americans don’t trust the political process, don’t trust the political system, don’t trust the courts, there will be an even further erosion in trust in democracy, trust in law, trust in each other.”
Activists in the US now refer to the “Great Awokening” — meaning the rising awareness of the oppression committed against minority victim groups by privileged elites. This is invoked by the younger generation empowered by social media.
Haidt draws a sharp distinction between two brands of identity politics in order to capture the depth of our current malaise. In general, identity politics is a good thing, “not morally problematic”, and when advanced in what he calls “common humanity identity politics” as exemplified by Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela it is a powerful force for progress.
King’s aspiration was to expand the American dream of equality and justice to include his own people. It was centripetal — drawing people together under the one universal roof. But the alternative identity politics now prevalent “is the psychological easier way; that is, you go with tribalism, you don’t try to subvert tribalism, you go along with it”.
The impact in political terms is centrifugal — you undermine the centre, shake it and strike against shared universal values. “That means your emphasis is ‘us versus them’,” Haidt says. “This brand of politics is when you get people to identify more and more with their sub-identities” — notably by race, gender and sexuality.
“It means you help people to understand their identity as being victims of oppression by other identities. It is about power. The message is ‘we hate you and we’re going to defeat you’.”
This generates not just an “us versus them” culture but a destructive morality: life is a battle between good and bad people. Once this moral view takes hold, co-operation is shot. For Haidt this goes to the essence of the crisis. The conflict between progressives and conservatives is assuming, particularly in the mind of progressives, a conflict between good and bad people.
Referring to the evolution of human nature Haidt and Lukianoff wrote in The Coddling of the American Mind: “Tribalism is our evolutionary endowment for banding together to prepare for inter-group conflict. When the tribal switch is activated, we bind ourselves more tightly to the group, we embrace and defend the group’s moral matrix and we stop thinking for ourselves. In tribal mode, we seem to go blind to arguments and information that challenge our team’s narrative. Merging with the group in this way is deeply pleasurable.”
The eruption of common-enemy identity politics highlights, by contrast, the greatness of figures such as King and Mandela compared with the moral pygmies of today. King resisted the temptation to hate even when traduced. His aim was not to divide America but to reunite America around the principle that “all men are created equal”.
Haidt says: “I grew up in the 20th century and I was on the left and we were told that progress was no longer about judging people based on race and gender. But that now seems to be reversing. The last thing we should be doing when trying to create a tolerant diverse society is to teach young people to judge others by visible characteristics and to incite moral praise or blame based on these visible characteristics.”
Social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt in Melbourne ahead of his Australian tour. Picture: Aaron Francis
Social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt in Melbourne ahead of his Australian tour. Picture: Aaron Francis
In his book The Righteous Mind, Haidt identifies the competing moralities now tearing at American life — the “liberal progress narrative” enshrines the ideas of equality and fairness while the modern conservative narrative invokes the moral force of liberty, reward for effort and belief in loyalty, authority and the sacred.
“The two narratives are as opposed as could be,” Haidt writes. “Can partisans even understand the story told by the other side?” But his analysis highlights the excessive righteousness of the progressives. Haidt says when he spoke to audiences about the moral foundation of the conservatives — loyalty, authority and sanctity — he found many people “actively reject these concerns as immoral”. He found that progressives could not imagine a moral matrix different from their own.
Haidt argues the “fundamental blind spot of the left” is to seek institutional change oblivious to the effect such change has on the moral capital of society. Too often, he says, progressive reforms result in changes that “weaken groups, traditions, institutions and moral capital”. This provokes, in turn, a moral backlash. Haidt underwent a personal journey as a result of his research and his conclusions.
He says: “You need people on the right standing up for the structures that make society ordered and stable. And you need people on the left standing up for the victims and pushing for change. I was on the left before I wrote The Righteous Mind but now I am a centrist. Writing that book made me step out of my moral matrix. I’m not on either team. I’m trying to get the system to work.”
The great risk America faces leaps from the pages of The Righteous Mind — it is that people cannot disagree with civility because they are governed by rival moralities. Haidt’s message is that “morality binds” but it also “blinds” — it binds people into “ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle”. Unless checked, this is the path to ruin.
Common-enemy identity politics has now invaded the American university system. The blend of social media and young people has made for a dangerous mix and Haidt has been a pivotal figure seeking to reverse the new tribalism. He says that between 2014 and 2017 “American university life changed fairly dramatically”. The Great Awokening meant “white people on the left got very radicalised and passionate about race issues and immigration, and this was before Trump”.
“This is affecting intellectual life, journalism and universities right across the country,” Haidt says. “In the 2014-2017 period common-enemy identity politics came bursting out and changed the way we think about identity and justice. This met up with a demographic trend — the arrival of Generation Z in 2014. Students began catastrophising and engaging in all sorts of cognitive distortions around speech.
“We thought they were millennials (Generation Y) and people began talking about millennial snowflakes. But it turns out the protesting students weren’t millennials, it’s only when Generation Z arrives that these issues begin. Some of Generation Z got social media as young as age 10 or 11 and it is now looking more and more as though human beings need really extensive face-to-face interactions.
“The kind of social interactions that Generation Z has been involved in are virtual interactions — in which hundreds of thousands of people can rate you instantly — and this seems to be warping their social development, making them much more anxious and fragile, and the rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide are going up rapidly, especially for girls.”
Haidt says most of Generation Z will be fine but the estimate in his book is that as many as one in five are affected, with the figure higher for girls. He warns that if the numbers rise to 20-40 per cent “this will have ramifications for our society”. The reality, however, is that social media is a force that cannot be contained.
“Social media has put everyone in touch with everyone else and that knocks down the walls that segregated different practices,” Haidt says. “Doctors should have different norms from engineers and dentists and psychiatrists. But on social media everyone can yell at everyone and everyone can hold others to account. This has disastrous consequences for our most important and specialised institutions. A university is not the public square. It must have different norms from the public square.
“The purpose of a university is to discover and to disseminate truth, add to the frontiers of knowledge and pass that on to the next generation. If we lose track of that, if we say society is just one vast field of war — and we can attack anyone with ideas we don’t like anywhere on the battlefield — then universities become as incoherent as the rest of society.”
Haidt was instrumental in founding the Heterdox Academy to improve university research given what he calls the “political purification” of universities from the 1990s, where “in many fields it is hard to find a single conservative, often the ratio is 20 or 30 to one, left to right”.
It now has more than 3000 members, many professors, and Haidt believes it is the only “politically balanced” organisation in US higher education. He says universities must choose their core mission: is it pursuit of truth or the pursuit of social justice?
His trip involves speeches at both Melbourne and Sydney universities. He thinks Australian university leaders are “well aware” of the plight of the American academy.
Haidt concedes his pessimism about US liberal democracy. He says his friend, scholar Steven Pinker, has written two books arguing pessimists are invariably wrong.
Haidt says Pinker may be correct that the US “can pull through this”. But he says: “Right now, I cannot see the path that gets us there. I think things are going to get a lot worse in the next 10 years.”