Thursday, November 17, 2016

Jonathan Haidt on the trials of multiculturalism in contemporary America

Sean Illing
What you’re describing sounds like an expansion of the culture war. Is it your view that culture wars have subsumed all of our politics and that policies are just props in this broader battle?

Jonathan Haidt
Yes, that’s right. There are existential questions at stake, and this election has felt really apocalyptic for both sides. The right thinks the country is crashing into a void and that Trump, while crazy, is our only hope. The left thinks Trump will bring about a fascist coup, a war with China, or a betrayal of our alliances.

So there is an apocalyptic feeling here. Sacred values are at stake. There really can be no compromise between these two visions.

Sean Illing
It’s common to hear people bemoan “identity politics,” and for good reasons. Tribalism and politics don’t mix well. But I wonder if you think all politics is, on some level, identity politics. If politics is about the assertion of values in the public space, and if values are bound up with personal identity in all sorts of ways, is there any way around this trap?

Jonathan Haidt
I don’t know. A multiethnic society is a very hard machine to assemble and get aloft into the air, and if you get it just right, you can get a multiethnic society to fly, but it easily breaks down. And identity politics is like throwing sand in the gears.

Politics is always about factions, always about competing groups. At the time of the founders, those groups involved economic interests — the Northern industrialists versus the Southern agrarians and so on.

But in a world in which factions are based on race or ethnicity, rather than economic interests, that’s the worst possible world. It’s the most intractable world we can inhabit, and it’s the one that will lead to the ugliest outcome.

Sean Illing
And yet this is precisely the world in which we find ourselves.

So what next? How can we improve our democracy moving forward and cut across these racial and cultural cleavages?

Jonathan Haidt
We haven’t talked about social media, but I really believe it’s one of our biggest problems. So long as we are all immersed in a constant stream of unbelievable outrages perpetrated by the other side, I don’t see how we can ever trust each other and work together again.

I don’t know what we’re going to do about social media. I’m hopeful that future generations will learn social media responsibility and somehow manage to communicate without demonizing the other side.

We have to recognize that we’re in a crisis, and that the left-right divide is probably unbridgeable. And if it is, we’ll have to give up on doing big things in Washington, and do as little as we possibly can at the national level. We’re going to have to return as much as we can to states and localities, and hope that innovative solutions spring from technology or private industry.

Polarization is here to stay for many decades, and it’s probably going to get worse, and so the question is: How do we adapt our democracy for life under intense polarization?

Sean Illing
There are some who think we’re not quite as polarized as it seems. The idea is that what often appear to be deep divisions are really just products of people living in echo chambers, and that this amplifies differences and obscures commonalities. I’m not terribly persuaded by this, but perhaps it’s worth considering.

Jonathan Haidt
There’s certainly a debate among political scientists about this, but I’m a social psychologist, so I’m not looking at people’s views about policy; I’m looking at their views about each other. And if you look at any measures of what people think about people on the other side, those have become vastly more hostile. That’s what concerns me.

In the 1960s, surveys asked people how they’d feel if their child married a Republican or an African American or a Jew, and back then some people really didn’t want their kids to marry someone of a different ethnicity, but a different political party wasn’t as big a deal. Now the opposite is true.

So I’m quite confident that there is affective polarization or emotional polarization in recent years.

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