First, I want to explain why I have posted so infrequently here over the past month. My husband, Laurin, has been having health issues which has necessitated numerous trips to visit hospitals or doctors. He has fainting spells, episodes of inarticulateness, and early signs of Alzheimer's Disease or senile dementia. In addition, after a long period of procrastination, I have finally agreed to downsize to a smaller, less expensive apartment. We will be moving right after Thanksgiving and I have much work to do to liquidate my vast and virtually worthless collection of movies on now-passe forms of home reproduction. Both of these have taken much of my time and energy. I won't promise anything for the future, except that I need to do this writing to sustain my soul. Please do check back from time to time.
The title of this post is taken from an article written for Alternet.org by Jonathan Haidt, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Virginia. Prof. Haidt has done original research on how people process information concerning actions that might be characterized as disgusting or disrespectful, specifically involving objects of affection, such as pets, or patriotic symbols, such as the American flag. He concludes, firstly, that when people react viscerally to something that someone has done or said, reason seldom enters into their response. As Haidt puts it, "feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so." Haidt goes on to argue that Democrats often fail to grasp this concept, picking candidates who sound professorial in their extensive use of facts and figures.
Haidt's second principle is that morality--the base subject of his research--is not just about how we treat each other, as liberals claim, but is also about strengthening traditional institutions which bind disparate people together as a society and living in a way that reveres the sacred and respects the noble nature of mankind. It is this aspect of morality that Haidt claims Democrats "just don't get". By dismissing this position as "narrow-minded, racist, or dumb", Democrats, according to Haidt, fail to grasp that "politics is more like religion than it is like shopping [for policy positions that will convince 51% of voters to buy]". Politics is like religion because "across eras and cultures...they are about the same thing: performing the miracle of converting individuals into a group".
One illustrative example that I have found for looking at these contrasting moral views centers around the very hot topic of marriage between individuals of the same sex. Liberals (I prefer to speak in terms of liberal vs. conservative rather than Democrat vs. Republican) believe that same-sex marriage equality is a matter of fairness, because all people are entitled to the same treatment under the US Constitution. Social conservatives, on the other hand, see same-sex marriage as a threat to "traditional marriage, the chief building block of society". They would put the moral value of a culture or tradition ahead of what they see as individual freedom to do as one pleases.
President Clinton used to sell his welfare reform proposal with words such as, "if you play be the rules, you should be able to enjoy the advantages of the good life". This was a coded message to conservatives that people should be expected to work for a living and not become dependent upon government handouts. For gay couples who wish to marry, this would analogize to "if you want to marry, marry someone of the opposite sex". Other examples would be, "if you want to live here, you must enter the country legally and learn the language" or "this is a Christian nation, if you want to have equal rights around your beliefs, you must convert to Christianity".
For conservatives, the only moral question is "How well does this individual fit into the norms of society?" This means obeying the rules (laws) as they have been on the books from the days of the Founding Fathers--at least, as far as the conservative mind understands them. I say this because many conservatives seem to feel that the rules were set by the Founding Fathers for all time and it is forbidden to change them in any way (think: Scalia, Bork, Thomas). Other rules were set by God in the Garden of Eden and are not to be modified as long as someone in some pulpit somewhere still finds them useful.
This, indeed, seems to be the Achilles' Heel of the conservative moral position as Haidt outlines it and as I believe it often functions in society today:
While it is good for our society to be bound together through sharing of common culture, values, morality, rules, etc., the binding is only as strong as the buy-in. Rules are established by the "ruling class" to establish order and protect the status quo. The "commonality" that is nurtured, even revered, is that which assures the security of those in possession of power and wealth. Our Founding Fathers and Mothers felt the need to break away from the power of King George III to bind British society together through the force of the monarchy and the church, which were inextricably bound together. There is nothing more "American" than to sever the binds that tie freedom to oppression.
In my lifetime, I have seen the tremendous changes brought about by the desire of African-Americans, women, sexual minorities, and, now, undocumented immigrants to break free from the unworkable tethers of tradition that have exploited them. Yes, it is moral to seek to avoid disorder, violence, and anarchy by setting a floor on human behavior. It may even be desirable to define what is sacred and attempt to establish a modicum of conformity as to how that should be honored. Where I differ from those on the right is in the relative value to be put on order vis-a-vis oppression. Even Jesus said that the most important rules to be remembered are to do unto others as you would have them do unto you and to love God with all your being. All else is, as someone has said, dicta.
Therefore, I say, what is the harm in telling people where and how to vote in two languages? Is how they receive the message that, in a democracy, it is important to vote more moral than that they actually are able to vote? Is the sex of the person I marry more of a moral imperative than the fact of my love and devotion? Is it more moral to be "color-blind" than to atone for centuries of slavery? Does honoring thy father and mother mean not reporting parental abuse? Does respecting the purity of young girls require consigning them to ignorance about birth control and then forcing them to bear a child they neither want nor are able to care for?
I agree with Haidt that healing the divide among Americans requires a "clear and oft-repeated commitment to guarding the precious coherence of the whole", that "America lacks the long history, small size, ethnic homogeneity, and soccer mania that holds many other nations together, so our flag, our founding fathers, our military, and our common language take on a moral importance that many liberals find hard to fathom". But I also believe that the morality we must consider as most sacred, most deserving of respect, most worthy of holding in high authority is that which underlies the symbol of our flag, the fire in the belly of our founding fathers, the honor of our military, and the resonance of our common language. To place greater value on the institution than its raison d'etre is to remove oneself from the root of all morality and demean the commonweal through the use of rote rules to divide rather than unify and preserve the current power structure rather than open the doors of opportunity to the disenfranchised.