Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wilkinson critique of framing

Blogger Will Wilkinson has posted a lengthy critique of George Lakoff's "framing" arguments that the Democrats have lost elections because the Republicans have changed the meanings of words. He cites the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to offer a different conclusion:
Haidt’s research leads him to posit five psychological foundations of human moral sentiment, each with a distinct evolutionary history and function, which he labels harm, reciprocity, ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. While the five foundations are universal, cultures build upon each to varying degrees. Imagine five adjustable slides on a stereo equalizer that can be turned up or down to produce different balances of sound. An equalizer preset like “Show Tunes” will turn down the bass and “Hip Hop” will turn it up, but neither turn it off. Similarly, societies modulate the dimension of moral emotions differently, creating a distinctive cultural profile of moral feeling, judgment, and justification. If you’re a sharia devotee ready to stone adulterers and slaughter infidels, you have purity and ingroup pushed up to eleven. PETA members, who vibrate to the pain of other species, have turned ingroup way down and harm way up.
Rather than recommend that liberals fake religiosity, he offers a different suggestion:
Democrats can try to appeal to religious American voters by giving some ground in the culture wars. But it seems unlikely they will find an effective balance. There is no point conceding stuff too trivial to really matter, such as school prayer, and comically pretending to be moved by the pure and the foul. And there is even less point in nominating religiously convincing candidates who really do believe embryos have the spark of divinity, that gay is gross, etc. Socialized health care isn’t worth it.

Democrats should play to their own moral-emotional strengths, not apologize for not having different ones. Haidt’s early research on moralized disgust shows that its cultural manifestations vary. The Japanese apparently find it disgusting to fail their station and its duties. And here at home, formerly “repulsive” practices, such as interracial marriage, have become mere curiosities.


Democrats shouldn’t cater to and reinforce sensibilities that both hurt people and hurt the Democrats’ prospects. Religious doctrine and religious feeling can and have been trimmed and shaped over time to accommodate the full plurality of liberal society. Illiberal patterns of feeling bolstered by religious sentiments, like disgust for homosexuality, can be broken through slow desensitization, or a shift in the way the culture recruits that dimension of the moral sense. In dynamic commercial societies, this happens whether we want it to or not. But we have something to say about how it happens. The culture war is worth fighting, one episode of Will & Grace at a time, if that’s what it takes.

Liberals must understand the profundity to others of feelings that are weak in them, but shouldn’t pretend to feel what they don’t. They can lead as well as follow. And it remains true that all Americans, conservative and liberal alike, are wide awake to the liberal emotional dimensions of harm and reciprocity. The American culture war is about how thoroughly the liberal sentiments will be allowed to dominate. If a thoroughly liberal society is worth having, liberals will have to spot the points of conflict between the liberal and illiberal dimensions of the moral sense, drive in the wedge, and pull out all the rhetorical stops—including playing on feelings of quasi-religious elevation and indignant moral disgust—to make Americans feel the moral primacy of harm, autonomy, and rights. When the pattern of feeling is in place, the argument is easy to accept.

I find Wilkinson's reasoning to be sounder than Matt Nisbet's and Michael Shermer's.


olvlzl said...

Anyone who comes up with the idea that "General Betrayus" (which I agree with entirely but thinks there were probably better ways to do it) and then goes on National Public Radio (Republican Promoting DC based media) to explain the brilliant science behind it is pretty clueless about how the real media works for Move On to be listening to. But then, Move On gave them an interview too. Here's an idea, if you come up with something like this, you don't make the media campaign the story.

The Shermer point about Dawkins depends on what outcome you want. If you want to get attention for atheist fundamentalism (and make a lot of enemies) well, he does that. If you want to promote the public understanding of science, look at the numbers of people who accept evolutionary science for the period of his greatest prominence. For people understanding science, the empirical evidence is that the Dawkins way is an abject failure.

Lippard said...

I don't think the goal of the "new atheism" books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett is to promote the public understanding of science, but rather to promote critical thinking about and scientific investigation of religious belief and religious claims.

I'll make the same point I made in the comments on the Matt Nisbet framing article--there's no contradiction in wanting to promote this *and* to promote public understanding of science through the work of religious scientists who claim there is no contradiction between science and religion. I support both approaches.

My personal position is that you certainly can hold religious views that do not conflict with science, but I think you have to empty the religious belief of all empirical content that conflicts with science, resulting in a liberal form of belief that has very little resemblance to traditional religious views. And I think that as time goes by, more and more of the religious belief will be similarly forced to give way. Conservative religious believers appear to think the same thing, and so they see liberal religious belief as a greater threat to their way of thinking than atheism.

olvlzl said...

I addressed Dawkins specifically in terms of the seat he holds at Oxford, that is certainly within the bounds of fairness. Since he and his close associate, Dennett constantly couch their atheist polemics in terms of the promotion of science - and I'll say in passing, a person could reasonably think that in their case "science" means evolutionary psychology - the effect of the period of Dawkins' greatest prominence on the promotion of the public understanding of science is highly relevant. And it's pretty dismal. I'll forgo some ironic points I'd usually make here about the nature of Dawkins and Dennett's own science.

In the case of Hitchens you might be able to separate the alleged motive of upholding a scientific view of the universe since that doesn't seem to figure in his diatribes. But I don't think you can in people who make that the basis of their promotion of atheism. Even Harris seems to have the upholding of among his other stated motives, though in his case it is certainly not one that seems to entirely meet with the approval of other atheist fundamentalists of a scientistic bent. His use of stereotypes, vicarious blame and bigotry would seem to be his primary focus.

Whether or not the political effects of the promotions of all the above will be an increased acceptance of atheism as a civil rights issue, is far from certain. I take my lessons from the late sixties and the slowing and eventual back slide of progress in civil rights took hold. I have every faith that was due to the success that the enemies of civil rights had in putting a threatening and hostile face on the movement for justice. Often with the help of those whose egos were larger than their ideals.

Under the present Supreme Court, the separation of church and state is certainly endangered and the use of public schools to promote creationism is more likely. As science and liberalism has been successfully promoted as the enemy of the religious majority by the enemies of science and liberalism, the job of the reactionaries has been made easier. At least that's how I see it.