Moral Dimensions

Without going into a lot of detail about it (no time!) I wanted to quote from this article discussing the ideas of Jonathan Haidt. It’s actually supposed to be a review of George Lakoff’s writing on political language, but it gets further into Haidt’s ideas and research as a better alternative. He’s not so kind to dear Lakoff (whose earlier work is very influential among many of my IA friends).

Essentially, the article draws a distinction between Lakoff’s idea that people act based on their metaphorical-linguistic interpretation of the world and Haidt’s psycho-evolutionary (?) view that there are deeper things than what we think of as language that guide us individually and socially. And Haidt is working to name those things, and figure out how they function.

Oddly enough, I remembered once I’d gotten a paragraph into this post that I linked to and wrote about Haidt a couple of years before. But I hadn’t really looked into it much further. Now I’m really wanting to read more of his work.

Haidt maps five major scales against which we can categorize (or measure) our moral responses. One of those is the one that seems least changeable or approachable by reason, the one that describes our visceral reaction of elevation or disgust in the presence of certain things we find taboo, without necessarily being able to explain why in a purely rational or utilitarian way.

Will Wilkinson — What’s the Frequency Lakoff?

Most intriguing is the possibility of systematic left-right differences on the purity dimension, which Haidt pegs as the source of religious emotion. In a fascinating chapter in his illuminating recent book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt explains how a primal biological system—the disgust system—designed to keep us clear of rotten meat, expanded over our evolutionary history to encompass sexual norms, physical deformations, and much more. …

The flipside of disgust is the emotion Haidt calls “elevation,” based in a sense of purification and transcendence of our animal incarnation. Cultures the world over picture humanity as midway on a ladder of being between the demonically disgusting and the divinely pure. Most world religions express it through taboos of food, body, and sex, and in rituals of de-animalizing purification and sacralization. The warm, open sense of elevation and the shivering nausea of disgust are high and low notes in the same emotional key.

Haidt’s suggestion is partly that morally broad-band conservatives are better able to exploit the emotional logic of religiosity by deploying rhetoric and imagery that calls on powerful sentiments of elevation and disgust. A bit deaf to the divine, narrow-band liberals are at a disadvantage to stir religious Americans. And there are a lot of religious Americans out there.

I like this approach because it doesn’t refute the linguistic approach so much as explain it in a larger context. (Lakoff has come under criticism for his possibly over-simplification about how people live by metaphor — I”ll leave that debate to the experts.)

And it explains how people can have a real change of heart in their lives, how their morals can shift. Just this week, the mayor of San Diego decided to reverse a view he’d held for years, both personally and as a campaign promise, to veto any marriage-equality bill. Evidently one of his scales changed the other — he was caught in a classic Euthyphro conundrum between loyalty to his party and loyalty to the reality of his daughter. Unlike with Euthyphro, family won out. Or perhaps the particular experience of his daughter convinced him that the general assumption of homosexuality as evil is flawed? Who knows.

Whatever the cause, once you get a bit of a handle on Haidt’s model, you can almost see the bars in the chart shifting in front of you when you hear of such a change in someone.

And you can see very plainly how Karl Rove and others have masterfully manipulated this tendency. They have an intuitive grasp of this gut-level “digust/elevation” complex, and how to use it to get voters to act. I wonder, too, if it helps explain the weird fixation “socially conservative” people of all stripes had with the “Passion of Christ” film? Just think — that extreme level of detailed violence to a human being ramping up the digust meter, with the elevation meter being cranked just as high from the sense of transcendent salvation and martyr’s love that the gruesome ritual killing represented. What a combination.

The downside to Democrats here is that they can’t fake it. According to Wilkinson, there’s no way to just word-massage their way into this emotional dynamic with the public on the current dominant issues that tap into it. In his words, “Their best long-term hopes rest in moving the fight to a battlefield with more favorable terrain.”

(PS: I dig Wilkinson’s blog name too — a nice oblique reference to Wittgenstein, who said the aim of Philosophy is to “shew the fly the way out of the bottle.” )

Edited to Add: There’s a nice writeup on Haidt in the Times here.

Lethem's "Ecstasy of Influence"

I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Lethem. And I hadn’t gotten round to reading all of his essay in Harper’s until just lately. Here’s a slice. And yes, the writing is this sharp and elegant all the way through:

“The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism” by Jonathan Lethem (Harper’s Magazine)

For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks?

It strikes me that his argument about art and influence is applicable to communities of practice as well. That we all borrow and re-contextualize our tools, ideas, methods.

It also strikes me that language itself works this way. What if, at some point early in civilized human development, as soon as one primitive came up with a name for something, nobody else was allowed to use that very name for that thing, without paying a fee of some kind? The very reason we have a rich language is that it can be fluid — it can grow, morph, and brawl its way through history — and because of that, we have civilization itself.

New Graphic Novel: Light Children

light children

The incredibly talented Kyle Webster is doing the art for a new graphic novel called Light Children. The story sounds fascinating: creepy orphans with special powers, a macabre carnival of some kind, and lots of mysterious intrigue. I can’t wait to see it come to life.

From the site:

The first chapter of the book will be released on this site at no charge in a few months; this is a never-before-seen online method of introducing an illustrated novel to the public before the first page is even printed. Enjoy the ride as we invite you into the epic story of the Orphans of Westover Lake. If you would like to be notified when the first chapter is online, please sign up for news and updates on the homepage. People who sign up will also receive exclusive Light Children content, such as behind-the-scenes news, concept art, and some story teasers.

So what are you waiting for? Go click!

Wills on Paul

Slate reviews Garry Wills’ “What Paul Meant”

If anyone can wean his fellow liberal Christians from their historic habit of denigrating Paul, it is Wills, whose translation of Chapter 13 of First Corinthians, tying Paul tightly to Jesus as a preacher of love, is characteristically fresh and gripping. The last six verses read: “Love will never go out of existence. Prophecy will fail in time, languages too, and knowledge as well. For we know things only partially, or prophesy partially, and when the totality is known, the parts will vanish. It is like what I spoke as a child, knew as a child, thought as a child, argued as a child—which, now I am grown up, I put aside. In the same way we see things in a murky reflection now, but shall see them full face when what I have known in part I know fully, just as I am known. For the present, then, three things matter—believing, hoping, and loving. But supreme is loving.”

I may need to read this book. It’s been years since I studied Paul in college (with a relatively ‘liberal’ professor who, unlike the stereotypes this reviewer refers to, was very balanced on Paul). I constantly find myself in conversations with friends and family over the New Testament and references to Paul’s letters. I guess a refresher wouldn’t hurt. Plus I completely love Garry Wills’ writing.

Coulter's shovel problem

In my last post, I opined at excruciating length about how so much of what makes one’s message in corporate life effective is the context and how one plays that context. It has to do with much more than appearance, which is just one factor; it’s about presence. That self-assurance that in some people seems arrogant or cocky but in others makes you want to defer to their judgment automatically.

Con artists use this very well. It’s a ‘confidence’ game, after all, and the con artist understands intuitively that confidence in oneself is necessary in order for others to have confidence in you.

Ann Coulter is one such con artist. She’s peddled her (relatively speaking, when compared to other political pundits) photogenic looks, rapier tongue and unapologetic attitude into a lucrative, powerful career as one of the most televised dilettantes alive. Oh, and she writes books too.

I have a hard time imagining Coulter sitting at a laptop surrounded by piles of meticulously perused research. I have an easier time imagining her spewing vitriol into a tape recorder and paying some hack(s) to edit it into something coherent, and run out and find anything in print that might be used as evidence. At least, that’s how her prose reads to me.

There’s a big difference between thoughtful, reasoned prose based on thorough research and crude polemic dressed up as respectable political opinion. That’s why I doubt Coulter would’ve gotten far in her career if she’d just written books. Like a trashy pop singer, it’s her TV appearances that make her career.

And it’s in those appearances where she performs brilliantly. Not that I think she’s brilliant. She’s a brilliant performer. She’s smart, certainly, but I think she actually believes she’s making intelligent, logical arguments, which signals to me that she’s not really as smart as she thinks.

That said, the lack of logical argumentation in her rantings doesn’t seem to be a problem. She knows she can get away with so much because she’s amazing at manipulating conversations. For example, on the rare occasion that someone argues with her or contradicts something she’s said, she weasels out of it by one of several strategems: 1. impugn the honor of the other person by making some outrageous, straw-man assertion about them because they would even think of contradicting her; 2. impugn the intelligence of the other person by quoting from “facts” that the other person doesn’t know, pointing to her book and squawking “I have XX pages of footnotes on this,” leaving the other person stammering and wondering if maybe they haven’t really done their homework; 3. making some other outrageous claim about someone not even in the room in order to derail the conversation. (This last one was evidenced most recently when she asserted that Clinton was a latent homosexual.)

Why does she get away with it? I think it’s in her delivery. In her utter and complete confidence. Couple that with a very quick mind (again, brilliant and quick are two different things) that can pop a comeback at an interviewer faster than the Williams sisters can nail a poorly lobbed serve, and time and time again you see people stumble over themselves trying to get around her. And she thrives on it; you can see it in her face. The television interview is her favorite element, and she plays it like a virtuoso.

This combination for an honest person would be admirable. But in someone who twists others’ words in order to fuel her unfounded pronouncements and allegations, it’s insidious.

The second trick works especially well. Claiming that you have numbers and research to back up your claims is a great way to shut other people up, especially if it’s during a TV taping or live interview when they can’t go and check your facts. She does it a lot, according to Media Matters.

This was hardly the first time Coulter and her defenders have offered the large number of footnotes contained in her book as “evidence” of the quality of her scholarship. Also on July 7, Terence Jeffrey, editor of conservative weekly Human Events, defended Coulter’s book on CNN’s The Situation Room by citing her “19 pages of footnotes.” And when similar questions were raised about her 2002 book, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right (Crown, June 2002), Coulter repeatedly cited her “35 pages of footnotes” as evidence that her claims were accurate.

The same Media Matters article goes on to check these oft-cited footnotes, and finds them lacking.

Media Matters’ analysis of the endnotes in Godless revealed that Coulter routinely misrepresented the information of her sources, as well as omitted inconvenient information within those same sources that refuted her claims. Coulter relied upon secondary sources to support many of her claims, as well as unreliable or outdated information.

In addition to demonstrating her poor scholarship, this analysis also made clear Coulter’s lack of respect for her readers, who she clearly assumed would believe anything she wrote, as long as there was a citation attached to it.

That last bit is awfully accurate. People really do swallow a lot if it has the appearance of authority, and they rarely bother to look beneath the veneer. I’m guilty of it frequently. Who has the time? And if you’re predisposed to believe the points they’re making anyway, why not roll with it? We all walk around assuming that big publishing houses would never publish something that wasn’t well-documented.

I’m sure there’s plenty of left-leaning stuff published with similar weaknesses. What steams me about Coulter, though, is that she’s so hateful. She delights in polarizing people, and in objectifying and criminalizing her opposition. What she does is only a couple of tiny steps away from the sort of hate speech people use for minorities when they call them “vermin.” Calling ‘liberals’ things like “Godless” and “Traitors” is the sort of talk that one uses to start wars or pogroms.

What really disturbs me is that this woman is paraded as a real expert, as someone we should listen to, along with the other professional windblowers from both sides of the political spectrum, just because her antics grab viewers.

Obviously, the woman shovels a lot of crap; she’s got a real problem with that shovel. But nobody’s going to talk about it. I’d love to see the networks and news shows jumping on her about this stuff, but they didn’t do it about the last books so why this one?

It makes me nostalgic for the days when we had no 24-hour news channels that had to fill their hours no matter what. Back when the nightly news was 30 minutes, and that was it, there was at least some vetting of sources. Can you imagine CBS circa 1975 wasting even 15 seconds getting an opinion from a hack like Coulter? Not that things were perfect in 1975, by a long shot.

I don’t have a pithy wrapup for this post… just a pleading hope that, in the same way people get sick of so many other things and then move on, maybe we’ll all get sick of this and leave people like Coulter to the dust heap of “what were we thinking?”