Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Narratives, the two stories of capitalism and the three languages of politics

My friend Robert Bidinotto has been writing about the importance of narratives in our lives and in politics. His general discussion is here: http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2011/04/narratives-that-guide-our-lives.html. While his application to politics can be found here: http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/2012/10/election-2012-and-clash-of-narratives.html.

Recently I came across Jonathan Haidt's writing on the two stories of capitalism. (He is working on a book on the subject.) In one capitalism oppresses people; this story fuels the narrative of the left. You can hear it in the language of liberals like Elizabeth Warren. It might not be stated so boldly but if you listen closely the message is there: that capitalism thrives by exploiting people and that government liberates us from the handcuffs of inequality foisted upon us by the rich.

The other story, favored by the right, proclaims capitalism liberates people and that government oppresses by burdening us with rules and regulations. This story resounds especially strong within the libertarian and Tea Party.

I believe there is a third story in line with Arnold Kling's three languages of politics in which some claim capitalism civilizes us and saves us from barbarism. For examples listen to more traditional conservatives such as Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh.

I figure that Haidt would argue that ultimately this story boils down to liberation: capitalism saves us from tribalism and primitivism. Nonetheless, here is Haidt’s explanation of the two stories. I’ve provided several links after these quotes that explain Haidt’s ideas in more detail.
There has long been a thoroughly negative story about commerce, going back to biblical times, in which businessmen, traders, and money lenders are bloodsuckers who extort wealth from workers and customers without contributing anything of value. When mercantile capitalism came along in the 16th century, and even more so when industrial capitalism conquered the globe in the 19th century, the negative story began to animate left-leaning parties and revolutionaries in many countries—with history-shaping consequences for the 20th century. This is story #1: Capitalism is exploitation. It is a curse, a virus, a disaster for the poor and the planet. This story is still told today, as we saw in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But capitalism has also had its passionate defenders, most notably Adam Smith in the 18th century, who explained how capitalism achieves the magic of value creation (as in his famous example of a pin factory). The rising wealth, longevity, and living standards of the 19th and 20th centuries—even for the poor and working class—led to the formation of a thoroughly positive story about capitalism, told by economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. This is story #2: Capitalism is liberation. Free market capitalism is Prometheus, giving fire and freedom to the human race. In this story, it is left-leaning ideologies (socialism, Marxism, and the affection for big government) that continually attack human progress, disconnecting whole nations from the market and dragging them down into poverty for decades—until they see the light, as China and India did a few decades ago.


I mentioned Arnold Kling earlier. There is a lot of overlap between Haidt’s work and Kling’s three languages of politics. Kling argues that the language of the left centers on the oppressed versus oppressors axis. Conservatives argue along the lines of civilization versus barbarism. Libertarians see things in terms of liberty versus coercion. All three groups then will craft different narratives, each with their own favored axis and language.

How does this apply to us? I believe knowing about narratives and the kinds of languages can ultimately help us better communicate our ideas with those who disagree with us.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Where are the conservative social psychologists?

Is the Field of Psychology Biased Against Conservatives? This New Yorker article starts with:

On January 27, 2011, from a stage in the middle of the San Antonio Convention Center, Jonathan Haidt addressed the participants of the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The topic was an ambitious one: a vision for social psychology in the year 2020. Haidt began by reviewing the field that he is best known for, moral psychology. Then he threw a curveball. He would, he told the gathering of about a thousand social-psychology professors, students, and post-docs, like some audience participation. By a show of hands, how would those present describe their political orientation? First came the liberals: a “sea of hands,” comprising about eighty per cent of the room, Haidt later recalled. Next, the centrists or moderates. Twenty hands. Next, the libertarians. Twelve hands. And last, the conservatives. Three hands.

Social psychology, Haidt went on, had an obvious problem: a lack of political diversity that was every bit as dangerous as a lack of, say, racial or religious or gender diversity. It discouraged conservative students from joining the field, and it discouraged conservative members from pursuing certain lines of argument. It also introduced bias into research questions, methodology, and, ultimately, publications. The topics that social psychologists chose to study and how they chose to study them, he argued, suffered from homogeneity. The effect was limited, Haidt was quick to point out, to areas that concerned political ideology and politicized notions, like race, gender, stereotyping, and power and inequality. “It’s not like the whole field is undercut, but when it comes to research on controversial topics, the effect is most pronounced,” he later told me.

The rest of the article ranges widely over the various studies researchers have conducted on this phenomenon. I recommend it highly as well as the work of Jonathan Haidt. He describes himself as a political liberal when he embarked on the journey to investigate the foundations of morality. Haidt ultimately identifies six foundations:

1. Care/harm: cherishing and protecting others.
2. Fairness/cheating: rendering justice according to shared rules. (Alternate name: Proportionality)
3. Liberty/oppression: the loathing of tyranny.
4. Loyalty/betrayal: standing with your group, family, nation. (Alternate name: Ingroup)
5. Authority/subversion: obeying tradition and legitimate authority. (Alternate name: Respect.)
6. Sanctity/degradation: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions. (Alternate name: Purity.)

This isn’t too controversial. However Haidt stepped on a live rail when he noted that conservatives tend to rely on all six foundations while liberals and libertarians tend to favor only one. Liberals rely on the Care/harm foundation while libertarians gravitate to liberty/oppression. (See his paper: Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations) As you can see Haidt is not afraid to question the status quo! Imagine the horror that someone dares to suggest that conservatives might have a broader moral foundation than liberals, and the conclusion comes from a liberal! (Haidt admits he has drifted more to the center as a result of his research and thinking.)

Anyway, please check out this article as well as the links to the various studies that are referred to in it. To me Haidt shows the result of truly trying to be objective.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Narratives and Arnold Kling's The Three Languages of Politics

My friend Robert Bidinotto has written a lot at http://bidinotto.blogspot.com/ on the importance of narrative in today’s politics and that the group that controls the narrative tends to win the debate and elections. I found an interesting ebook by Arnold Kling called The Three Languages of Politics that talks about the kinds of narratives liberals, conservatives and libertarians favor. He claims if you listen carefully liberals, conservatives and libertarians each have a favored language that centers on a different axis. Liberals talk about oppression versus the oppressed. Conservatives talk about civilization vs. barbarism. (I'd say their reference to tradition translates into preserving the collective knowledge that establishes laws and rituals that preserve civilization.) Libertarians focus on freedom versus coercion.

I think he is onto something and that it explains the acrimonious, usually unproductive cross talking when people argue. (I know many Objectivists strongly disagree with libertarianism. I'm not going to get into the argument some have with the issues they have with libertarianism as a political philosophy. I think it's fair to say that in general Objectivism shares the libertarian opposition to political coercion and support for individual freedom even if they arrive at this conclusion from a different philosophical approach based on rational self-interest.)

Kling gives some examples of this in his book and on his blog, http://www.arnoldkling.com/blog/. Most recently he predicted how the narrative about the shooting in Ferguson would play out. The media and the left would try to portray Brown as a victim of oppression. The right would say that the ensuing riots show the battle between civilization and barbarism and the need for strong order. Libertarians would decry the use of coercive police force as threatening our freedom.

The more I listen to the different spokesman of the three sides the more I see confirmation of Kling’s model. I'm not saying it applies all of the time but I think he has identified generally valid patterns. He doesn't try to explain why people gravitate to one language, only that they do settle on one language and can’t understand why someone who disagrees with them can’t see the blindingly obvious truth of their position.

The link below has a nice, almost hour long discussion by Paul and Diana Hsieh on the details of this model and some ideas on how to apply them when talking with people who disagree with you. While Paul’s preferred language is in the libertarian axis (as is Kling’s) I believe anyone in the three groups could benefit by giving Paul’s talk a fair hearing.

http://www.philosophyinaction.com/podcasts/2014-07-03.html Here is the general outline of points in the pod cast.

  • About the "three languages of politics"
  • The differences in the three languages
  • The difference that the three languages make
  • Examples of the three languages
  • Conflict between camps
  • Alliances between camps
  • Political argument between camps
  • The debates over the Hobby Lobby decision
  • Using the three languages to become more persuasive
  • Caveats and cautions
  • Three take-home points

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The 1980s Called, and They Want Their Objectivism Back | The Tracinski Letter

This article by Robert Tracinski covers the "four cornerstones of the mainstream or ‘orthodox’ school of Objectivism that formed in the 1980s after Ayn Rand’s death. These propositions, having to do with the nature of Objectivism as a philosophy and how it should be organized as a movement, were solidified between 1985 and 1989 and articulated by Leonard Peikoff and by Peter Schwartz, with Peikoff’s approval and support. All of them are now coming crashing down in one way or another." The 1980s Called, and They Want Their Objectivism Back | The Tracinski Letter

While I think he is a bit harsh on the Brandens, Barbara in particular, I agree with his overall take on the continuing schisms and purges that plague the Objectivist world.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Tribal Mind: Moral Reasoning and Public Discourse — The American Magazine

This article goes into more detail than the one I talked about in the previous post. The Tribal Mind: Moral Reasoning and Public Discourse — The American Magazine He also refers to the work of Jonathan Haidt who wrote The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind, two of my favorite books. Objectivists and libertarians would benefit by reading both, in particular the later book.

Tribal Politics in the 21st Century — The American Magazine

One of these days I plan to write something on Arnold Kling's essay on the three languages of politics. (Actually have something in close to final draft stage.) In the meantime I highly recommend this summary: Tribal Politics in the 21st Century — The American Magazine. I think what he says about libertarians can be extended to Objectivists as well with minor modifications.

I'm sharing this also because I think Kling's identification of these models can help us craft our message so that it stands a better chance of being heard.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Institute for Objectivist Studies

I've been meaning to post something on this web site "founded in March 2013 by Irfan Khawaja and Carrie-Ann Biondi, professors of philosophy at New York City-area institutions with long-standing interests in Objectivism." In short, I recommend checking it out.
Irfan's latest post about The Atlas Society's Graduate Seminar caught my eye when he shares his observations after attending this seminar.
[M]any of the problems I observed at the seminar were, to put the matter bluntly, an offense against the practice of philosophy and of inquiry quite generally. I said that many of the presenters presented their material in a competent, responsible way. But some did not. I think candor compels the assertion that some of the presentations given were shockingly deficient in argument, evidence, and coherence. This would be a relatively minor issue, or at least a remediable problem, if the atmosphere of the seminar had been conducive to an open airing of the relevant problems. But it wasn’t. This latter defect--a defect of openness obvious to just about every participant in the seminar--calls into question The Atlas Society's much-advertised claim to practice an "open" form of Objectivism not practiced elsewhere. With all due respect, I must dissent from this claim, and insist that those who make such claims acquire more inductive evidence about the rest of the Objectivist movement before they make them. Movement Objectivists should also (let me suggest) stop deriding academic philosophy and start learning something from it. The fact is, there is more openness at the average academic conference--I've run five in the last five years--than there was at the TAS Graduate Seminar.
I agree with Irfan’s comments about learning from academic philosophy. While I have never attended an academic conference (primarily because I’m not an academic philosopher) I have read books written by philosophers. Their usual style of building their case is to first present the positions of other philosophers, critique them fairly (or as fairly as possible) then build the reasons why we should accept their counter proposal. The acknowledgement sections of these books (and papers) often cite many people who reviewed the manuscripts and offered criticisms or suggestions where the argument could be improved.
I know some Objectivists yearn for the day when the academic world will take Rand and Objectivism more seriously. Part of the “dues” that need to be paid for this acceptance is their willingness to let peers critique their work. If what Irfan says is true (and I have no reason to doubt him) The Atlas Society still has a ways to go.