Liberals vs. Conservatives

On the OpEd page in Thursday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof notes that liberals and conservatives have different emotional profiles, not just different ideas.  They face the world with different stances. (See “Would You Slap Your Father? If So You’re A Liberal”)

“For liberals, morality derives mostly from fairness and prevention of harm. For conservatives, morality also involves upholding authority and loyalty — and revulsion at disgust..”  This is a good beginning at delineating the unconsciously held attitudes that underly conflicts over policy and politics.  Essentially, the arguement goes, we start with an underlying predisposition to think a certain way, a “moral intuition,” and then our brains find the arguments to support that position.

But the interesting question he goes on to raise is, given this fact, how can each camp learn from the other?  He tells us that he started out with the old fashioned idea that debate – the clash of viewpoints in the marketplace of ideas – was the right approach.  But now, he cites the work of Professor Jonathan Haidt, Psychology Professor at Virginia:  “Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.”

There are other factors as well that keep us from changing our minds.  We tend to fight to preserve our predispositions, seeing other points of view as antagonistic, threatening to the beliefs that makes us comfortable.  We also strive to protect our identities as members of different ideological camps. We endanger our affiliations and support systems if we are too willing to change.  It is a complex and thorny array of factors that keep us tenaciously holding to our beliefs.  But I think Kristof is right to ask: How can we open our minds – and hearts – to different points of view?

His suggestion is that we reach out to moderates on the other side in order to break down the “us vs. them” battle lines.  That’s a good beginning, but just a start. When we get back to our own communities it is hard to hold on to the new ideas we picked up at lunch.  Moderates can play a crucial role, but, clearly, they are not the root of the problem.

As a psychotherapist, I know how hard it is for people to change ingrained patterns of behavior and established assumptions — even when they want to.  So I think we need an array of strategies and a consistent emphasis on the existence of the problem to make any progress at all.  And we need leadership that constantly reminds us that there are better ways to listen to each other and to talk.