An extended conversation with Lilliana Mason about tribalism, anger and the state of our politics.
If solidarity and the recognition of mutual self-interest are the keys to moving past our fractious moment, it can be hard to see how we'll get there. Anger and tribalism appear to be at an all-time high, creating political and societal rifts that seem unbridgeable. Indeed, it is hard to believe that only 70 years ago, the country was deemed by political scientists to be not polarized enough. In 1950, the American Political Science Association put out a report that suggested that the parties were not distinct enough and that it was making people's political decision making too difficult.
Over the next few decades, they became distinct alright. Lilliana Mason is a political psychologist at the University of Maryland. When we spoke to her last fall, she told us that most people think they know exactly what each party stands for — leaving us with two camps that both seek to destroy the other.
How do we get beyond Right versus Left, "Us" versus "Them," and even "Me" versus "You"? Jonathan Haidt has a few theories about this all too-familiar tribalism and the seemingly endless culture wars of our time. As someone who studies morality and emotion, Jonathan has deep insight into the moral foundation of our politics and his research in moral psychology has revealed new ways for us to engage in more civil forms of politics, which can help make us all more cooperative and decent. In this conversation, Alan Alda talks with Jonathan about what makes us happy and how we can overcome our natural tendency toward self-righteousness, in order to respect and learn from those whose morality (and politics) differs from our own.
You know what I don’t see in my classes — in a Republican district, where a nontrivial number of students don’t believe in climate change? Any reaction of the sort that you “can’t trust the site because declining sea ice and climate change is a myth.” Not one. It’s not just a Republican thing. We find the same thing with prompts for liberal hot-button issues on GMOs. Students — many of whom are very committed to “natural” products and lifestyles — make accurate assessments of the lack of credibility of sites supporting their opinions. They believe this stuff, maybe, but admit the given site is not a good source.
I’ll be bookmarking some additional sources today/tomorrow from the paper as well as from Mike’s work and various links.
The political scientist argues that the desire of identity groups for recognition is a key threat to liberalism.
I’m also reminded here of Mark Granovetter’s ideas that getting a job is more closely tied to who you know. One’s job is often very closely tied to their identity, and even more so when the link that got them their job was through a friend or acquaintance.
I suspect that Fukuyama has a relatively useful thesis, but perhaps it’s not tied together as logically and historically as Menand would prefer. The difficult thing here is that levels of personal identity on large scales is relatively unknown for most of human history. Tribalism and individuality are certainly pulling at the threads of liberal democracy lately. Perhaps it’s because of unfulfilled promises (in America at least) of the two party system? Now that we’ve reached a summit of economic plenty much quicker than the rest of the world (and they’re usurping some of our stability as the rest of the world tries to equilibrate), we need to add some additional security nets for the lesser advantaged. It really doesn’t cost very much and in turn does so much more for the greater good of the broader society.
Highlights, Quotes, Annotations, & Marginalia
Fukuyama’s argument was that, with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, the last ideological alternative to liberalism had been eliminated. ❧
“Last” in the sense of a big, modern threat. We’re still facing the threats of tribalism, which apparently have a strong pull.
August 27, 2018 at 10:26AM
There would be a “Common Marketization” of international relations and the world would achieve homeostasis. ❧
Famous last words, right?!
These are the types of statements one must try very hard not to make unless there is 100% certainty.
I find myself wondering how can liberal democracy and capitalism manage to fight and make the case the the small tribes (everywhere, including within the US) that it can, could and should be doing more for them.
August 27, 2018 at 10:29AM
But events in Europe unfolded more or less according to Fukuyama’s prediction, and, on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence. The Cold War really was over. ❧
Or ostensibly, until a strong man came to power in Russia and began its downturn into something else. It definitely doesn’t seem to be a liberal democracy, so we’re still fighting against it.
August 27, 2018 at 10:32AM
This speculative flourish recalled the famous question that John Stuart Mill said he asked himself as a young man: If all the political and social reforms you believe in came to pass, would it make you a happier human being? That is always an interesting question. ❧
August 27, 2018 at 10:33AM
George Kennan, who was its first chief. In July of that year, Kennan published the so-called X article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” in Foreign Affairs. It appeared anonymously—signed with an “X”—but once the press learned his identity the article was received as an official statement of American Cold War policy. ❧
August 27, 2018 at 10:33AM
Fukuyama’s article could thus be seen as a bookend to Kennan’s. ❧
August 27, 2018 at 10:36AM
The National Interest, as the name proclaims, is a realist foreign-policy journal. But Fukuyama’s premise was that nations do share a harmony of interests, and that their convergence on liberal political and economic models was mutually beneficial. Realism imagines nations to be in perpetual competition with one another; Fukuyama was saying that this was no longer going to be the case. ❧
And here is a bit of the flaw. Countries are still at least in competition with each other economically, at least until they’re all on equal footing from a modernity perspective.
We are definitely still in completion with China and large parts of Europe.
August 27, 2018 at 10:38AM
Fukuyama thinks he knows what that something is, and his answer is summed up in the title of his new book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). ❧
Get a copy of this to read.
August 27, 2018 at 10:39AM
The demand for recognition, Fukuyama says, is the “master concept” ❧
August 27, 2018 at 10:40AM
Fukuyama covers all of this in less than two hundred pages. How does he do it? Not well. ❧
Now I have to read it.
August 27, 2018 at 10:41AM
Fukuyama gives this desire for recognition a Greek name, taken from Plato’s Republic: thymos. He says that thymos is “a universal aspect of human nature that has always existed.” ❧
August 27, 2018 at 10:43AM
To say, as Fukuyama does, that “the desire for status—megalothymia—is rooted in human biology” is the academic equivalent of palmistry. You’re just making it up. ❧
August 27, 2018 at 10:45AM
Rationality and transparency are the values of classical liberalism. Rationality and transparency are supposed to be what make free markets and democratic elections work. People understand how the system functions, and that allows them to make rational choices. ❧
But economically, we know there isn’t perfect knowledge or perfect rationality (see Tversky and Khaneman). There is rarely even perfect transparency either which makes things much harder, especially in a post-truth society apparenlty.
August 27, 2018 at 10:48AM
Liberalism remains the ideal political and economic system, but it needs to find ways to accommodate and neutralize this pesky desire for recognition. ❧
August 27, 2018 at 10:50AM
Enrollment was small, around twenty, but a number of future intellectual luminaries, like Hannah Arendt and Jacques Lacan, either took the class or sat in on it. ❧
August 27, 2018 at 10:52AM
For Kojève, the key concept in Hegel’s “Phenomenology” was recognition. Human beings want the recognition of other human beings in order to become self-conscious—to know themselves as autonomous individuals. ❧
This is very reminiscent of Valerie Alexander’s talk last week about recognizing employees at work. How can liberal democracy take advantage of this?
August 27, 2018 at 10:53AM
Kojève thought that the other way was through labor. The slave achieves his sense of self by work that transforms the natural world into a human world. But the slave is driven to labor in the first place because of the master’s refusal to recognize him. This “master-slave dialectic” is the motor of human history, and human history comes to an end when there are no more masters or slaves, and all are recognized equally. ❧
August 27, 2018 at 10:55AM
Kojève’s lectures were published as “Introduction to the Reading of Hegel,” a book that went through many printings in France. ❧
Maybe it was Kojève and not Covfefe that Trump was referencing?! 😛
August 27, 2018 at 10:56AM
Encouraged by his friend Saul Bellow, he decided to turn the article into a book. “The Closing of the American Mind,” which Simon & Schuster brought out in February, 1987, launched a campaign of criticism of American higher education that has taken little time off since. ❧
August 27, 2018 at 11:00AM
In 1992, in the essay “The Politics of Recognition,” Taylor analyzed the advent of multiculturalism in terms similar to the ones Fukuyama uses in “Identity.” ❧
August 27, 2018 at 11:03AM
Fukuyama acknowledges that identity politics has done some good, and he says that people on the right exaggerate the prevalence of political correctness and the effects of affirmative action. ❧
There’s a reference to voting theory about people not voting their particular views, but that they’re asking themselves, “Who would someone like me vote for?” Perhaps it’s George Lakoff? I should look this up and tie it in here somewhere.
August 27, 2018 at 11:05AM
He has no interest in the solution that liberals typically adopt to accommodate diversity: pluralism and multiculturalism. ❧
Interesting to see an IndieWeb principle pop up here! How do other parts dovetail perhaps? What about other movements?
August 27, 2018 at 11:06AM
Fukuyama concedes that people need a sense of national identity, whether ethnic or creedal, but otherwise he remains an assimilationist and a universalist. ❧
Is it a “national” identity they need? Why not a cultural one, or a personal one? Why not all the identities? What about the broader idea of many publics? Recognition and identity touch on many of these publics for a variety of reasons.
August 27, 2018 at 11:08AM
He wants to iron out differences, not protect them. He suggests measures like a mandatory national-service requirement and a more meaningful path to citizenship for immigrants. ❧
What if we look at the shrinking number of languages as a microcosm of identity. Are people forced to lose language? Do they not care? What are the other similarities and differences.
Cross reference: https://boffosocko.com/2015/06/08/a-world-of-languages-and-how-many-speak-them-infographic/
August 27, 2018 at 11:10AM
Wouldn’t it be important to distinguish people who ultimately don’t want differences to matter, like the people involved in #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, from people who ultimately do want them to matter, like ISIS militants, Brexit voters, or separatist nationalists? And what about people who are neither Mexican nor immigrants and who feel indignation at the treatment of Mexican immigrants? Black Americans risked their lives for civil rights, but so did white Americans. How would Socrates classify that behavior? Borrowed thymos? ❧
Some importatnt questions here. They give me some ideas…
August 27, 2018 at 11:12AM
History is somersaults all the way to the end. That’s why it’s so hard to write, and so hard to predict. Unless you’re lucky. ♦ ❧
This is definitely more of a Big History approach…
August 27, 2018 at 11:12AM
I am returning, at last, to the thoughts I was exploring in my recent posts on Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community (post 1 | post 2), and I’m starting to wrestle this morning with the big one: obligation. Thinking about community as a strategic rather than an idealized concept, community in its pragmatic coalition-building sense, leads me to consider the work required to create and sustain communities. If the kinds of communities that I am seeking in trying to imagine a more generous relationship not only between the university and the publics that it engages but also, crucially, within the university itself are first and foremost voluntary communities—self-organizing, self-governing collectives based in affiliation and solidarity—what exactly can we be said to owe those communities? Do those communities and our relationships to them impose obligations on us?
Highlights, Quotes, Annotations, & Marginalia
I am generous with what I have—I choose to be generous with what I have—precisely because we are no longer committed to one another as members of a shared social structure. Instead, the shift of responsibility for the public welfare toward private entities displaces our obligations to one another in favor of individual liberties and, I think, leaves us queasy about the notion of obligation altogether. ❧
The game theory of things tends to pull the society apart, particularly when it is easier to see who is paying what. If the richer end feels they’re paying more than their fair share, this can tend to break things down.
I suspect that Francis Fukuyama has a bit to say about this in how democratic societies built themselves up over time. Similarly one of his adherents Jonah Goldberg provides some related arguments about tribalism tending to tear democracies down when we revert back to a more primitive viewpoint instead of being able to trust the larger governmental structures of a democracy.