Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The Biological and Psychological Foundations of our Division

Our nation is in an intense political and cultural struggle where neither side can emerge as an unequivocal victor. Internal strife leaves us vulnerable to external threats from those aspiring to replace our global dominance. Understanding the deeper underlying forces at work as we grapple with the political tension may help forge a way forward. In my reading and research to understand our division better two books stood out to provide a compelling lens to understand the deepening polarization rooted in the fabric of our minds.

Jonathan Haidt’s, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion provides a study of the profound disparities in the political values of liberal and conservative-leaning individuals. As a summary, I recommend this twenty-minute video TED Talk by Haidt: “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives.”

I previously wrote the blog post, “Isour political division biological?” about Oxford scholar Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The book offers warnings about the collective potential of the divided brain to destroy civilizations. As a summary, I recommend this twelve-minute animated summary of McGilchrist’s ideas: The Divided Brain.

Haidt's six moral foundations framework posits that human morality is built upon distinct pillars: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. Liberal-leaning individuals prioritize Care and Fairness, focusing on protecting vulnerable individuals and ensuring equitable treatment. Conservative-leaning individuals share these values but additionally emphasize Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty, prioritizing the preservation of social order, respect for authority, and the sanctity of traditions.

The table below provides a short description of Haidt’s moral foundations, the reason they evolved in human beings, and some of the characteristics of each of the foundations:

The graphic below shows the priority given to each moral foundation by the spectrum of political groupings in our country:

The divergence has profound implications, as indicated in my 2017 blog post, Brotherhoodand Borders. That post emphasized that both caring for individual immigrants and ensuring responsibility to protect the common good through appropriate immigration policy are essential, rejecting an either-or proposition.

Very liberal individuals prioritize immigrant care, emphasizing the unfairness immigrants face compared to the abundance in the United States. They may overlook border control, the rule of law, and the potential harmful incentives their focus may create. On the other end, very conservative individuals value immigrant humanity but focus on border security and law enforcement, sometimes advocating for an end to all immigration without recognizing its economic significance. In the center are those who advocate for orderly immigration, a secure border, and humane treatment of migrants.

Understanding these psychological underpinnings helps us appreciate the intractable nature of political polarization. It is not just about policy disagreements; it's about fundamentally different worldviews shaped by our neurological wiring and environment. This realization calls for approaching political discourse with newfound empathy, recognizing that the moral priorities of our counterparts are inherent in their cognitive makeup.

Recognizing the interconnectedness of moral foundations and cognitive processes does not imply one side is inherently superior to the other. Both liberal and conservative-leaning perspectives contribute valuable insights to the societal dialogue. Liberal-leaning individuals bring attention to issues of social justice and equality, pushing for a more inclusive and compassionate society. Meanwhile, conservative-leaning individuals share those values but also emphasize the importance of tradition, order, and authority in maintaining a stable and cohesive community.

Haidt established that liberals and conservatives have different sets of moral foundations that are a spectrum with individuals having diverse mixtures of each of the six specific moral foundations. This is a strength in human social development when these moral foundations are in harmony societally.

Iaian McGhilcrist’s studies provide insight into the competing nature of the two hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere has a limited view of the world. It organizes and categorizes, focusing on detail and analysis, while the right hemisphere is creative, intuitive, and holistic. The dominance of the left hemisphere, both in individuals and societies, can lead to destructive outcomes.

Applying this insight to contemporary politics, a hypothesis emerges: Extreme liberal and conservative individuals, dominated by left-brained societal tendencies, may veer toward totalitarianism.

Bureaucracy, totalitarianism, and mechanistic emphasis are the extension of the left brain’s modeling, categorizing, and controlling at the societal level. In the ancient world, the written language and money were the technologies that enabled Greece and Rome to flourish and create empires. These technologies served as tools of command, communication, and trade. Think of how these technologies served the Roman Empire’s administrative bureaucracy to conduct a census of conquered lands or impose taxes. In time, the left brain is refining and extending the bureaucracy and its control as it does with the individual. Eventually, both the individual and society fall subject to the excess of the left hemisphere and bureaucracy to their detriment.

McGilchrist provides as a cautionary tale, urging vigilance against the potential pitfalls of unchecked dominance of left brain tendencies in the activism and leadership of both liberals and conservatives. Both sides are equally vulnerable to these forces, and a Marxist or fascist totalitarian regime is equally undesirable.

In a time where political discourse often descends into acrimony, understanding the biological and psychological roots of our division offers a pathway to constructive engagement. Recognizing that our differences are deeply rooted in our cognitive architectures is crucial. Bridging the gap requires appreciating the validity of alternative moral perspectives and acknowledging that a harmonious society must balance the values encapsulated in both liberal and conservative-leaning worldviews.

If you are interested in learning more about your own personality and hemispheric tendencies, you can take the following self-tests: Moral Foundations Test    Left – RightBrain Test


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Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The opportunity after the Gaza War

The brutal attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7, 2023, presents a challenging situation. However, it may have unforeseen consequences, such as weakening Iran's influence, potentially leading to a change in leadership in Gaza, and creating a more favorable political environment for peace and prosperity in the region, including for Palestinians.

Hamas's attack on Israel can be seen as an attempt by Iran, using one of its proxies, to disrupt the progress and success of the Abraham Accords. These Accords offer modernization, economic prosperity, and peace to a region that has been plagued by bitter conflicts with no hope of resolution for decades.

Iran's opposition to the Accords is driven by its desire for regional hegemony. Iran is a theocracy governed by totalitarian mullahs, leading a population of 90 million people with the intent to remove the U.S. presence from the Middle East and dominate its Sunni Muslim neighbors. Their leaders aspire to “restore a sense of “greatness” reminiscent of ancient Persian empires.” Iran uses proxies across the region to pursue its strategic goals with plausible deniability.

Contrary to the outcry from Hamas supporters worldwide and distorted intersectional views on U.S. college campuses, the attack was not about a continuing cycle of violence or a righteous anti-colonial struggle of the oppressed. Its purpose was to prevent the Abraham Accords from uniting Israel and Sunni Muslim states in the Middle East.

Friday, October 27, 2023

A Republican Unity Ticket to Challenge Trump

Former President Donald Trump currently holds a commanding lead as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the 2024 Presidential Election. His lead has consistently grown despite facing several indictments. None of his opponents has managed to surpass the 20% mark in national polls or in early caucus/primary states since July. To disrupt this trend and challenge Trump more effectively, a major shift in strategy is required by his challengers.

One potential approach is for the competing candidates to cease vying for second place and instead form a team. This team would identify a president-vice president partnership from within their ranks and select cabinet members from the remaining candidates. The goal would be to work together as a cohesive unit focused on unseating Trump as the primary front-runner.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Red Flag failure - laws mean nothing if not implemented

The 4th of July mass public shooting of parade goers in Illinois is yet one more tragedy sparking calls for new gun control laws.   As in the Buffalo shopping center mass public shooting, this event occurred in a state with some of the most stringent gun control laws in the country.  Only seven states are ranked A- or better, including Illinois and New York, by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.  Both states also have Red Flag Laws in place that if properly resourced, prioritized, and enforced could have prevented both events. 

In a previous blog post, “Mourning with Uvalde – what can we do?” this blog recommended several actions for readers and law makers to make changes that could be realistically achieved and might make a difference.   Another blog post, “A victory for respectful bipartisan collaboration,” described some legislative success at the federal level.  One of the outcomes was to support states in creating and implementing Red Flag laws. 

As I have written before, there are now 19 states with Emergency Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws commonly called Red Flag laws. These laws are essential to successful intervention at the intersection of dangerousness and firearm access.   They typically create a process for the removal of guns from the possession of an individual who demonstrates they are dangerous to themselves or others.  Having a Red Flag law in place is essential as a first step in this effort. 

Monday, June 27, 2022

A victory for respectful bipartisan collaboration post Uvalde

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was signed into law on June 25, 2022.   It was a major achievement for the Congress to pull together the Bill in a bipartisan manner and approve legislation that may not make anyone at the extremes of the left and right divide happy.  But for the 60+% in the middle, it showed that people of good will, respecting the opinions of others, can get something done to impact a problem of concern to the public.

The law provides support to improve mental health services for communities and schools; expands background checks for those under 21 to include juvenile records; funds assistance to states to implement Red Flag laws; closes the “boyfriend loophole;” clarifies trafficking to include “straw purchases;” and funds school safety programs. 

Credit for the law goes first to Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D) who vowed business as usual would not pass muster after the Uvalde mass murder.  She approached Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel (R) of Kentucky and asked for negotiating partners on the Republican side.  McConnell identified Texas Senator John Cornyn (R) and Senator Thom Tillis (R) of North Carolina.  The two promptly agreed to meet with Sinema the next day along with Senator Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut. 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Is our partisan political division biological?

Stephen Stills wrote a song in 1966 for the group Buffalo Springfield titled “For What It’s Worth.”  It became an anti-war protest anthem of sorts in the 1960’s. The song seems more broadly applicable today than in 1966.  Parsing the lyrics:   

There's battle lines bein' drawn.  Nobody's right if everybody's wrong.  A thousand people in the street.  Singin' songs and a-carryin' signs.  Mostly sayin' hooray for our side. 

In the responding chorus, Stills gives good counsel singing, “It’s time we stop children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s goin’ down.”

Western countries are increasingly divided in partisan political animosity that is personal and intense - the U.S. most acutely.   Mutually antagonistic political groupings cast their political identity like an umbrella over personal and professional relationships.  Irrational allegiance to political identity and confirmation bias are at play, not opinion. Shared opinions on specific issues and policies flourish across the dividing lines.  Many people hold political identities that are largely inconsistent with many of their expressed opinions and policy preferences.    Much is written about the divide - when it started; how it gets worse with time; that it may cause the breakup of the U.S. or even a civil war

Both sides of the divide seek to impose their values through control of government, particularly national government, and through cultural and economic entities.   On the one side, the goal is to restore a nostalgic, almost mythical past, and stop change that is often essential to the renewal of institutions and culture.  On the other side, the goal is to transform society to an unattainable political and cultural utopia that necessitates the destruction of the social institutions that bind society and undergird civilization.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Mourning with Uvalde – what can we do?

 After the Parkland murders occurred, and again after the Santa Fe murders I asked my readers to take action.   I ask you again to please take individual action within your own sphere of influence. Please, also communicate with school and governmental leaders. Hold them accountable and demand that they implement solutions. Do not assume that your schools are safe.  Demand testing, practice, and exercise protocols be instituted.

Once again America mourns the loss of innocent children.  How horrible for the people of Uvalde to suffer such a loss of innocent life.  That such things can happen seems unimaginable, but we know them all too well.  May each of these families, and the community of Uvalde, find peace and healing after their immense loss.  May their loss and God’s love inspire our nation to gain the understanding and wisdom needed to come together with humility in a cooperative manner to prevent such horror in other communities.