The Season of Goodwill?

Dec 24


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Helen Whitten

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The Season of Goodwill?

Differ, debate but don’t demean

In this divided country of ours, where political parties are reviewing the recent election, I am returning to the writings of Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and The Coddling of the American Mind, How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure).  The theme of why good people are divided by politics and religion is a particularly apt subject for the Christmas period, I think.  And I really hope that in the decade to come we learn to listen more and be curious about other people’s opinions rather than judge or shame them for having an opinion different to our own.

People have rushed to label others.  Those who voted Remain have labelled those who didn’t as either stupid or uneducated (which obviously can’t be true of millions of people), Leavers have labelled Remainers as arrogant and undemocratic.  Those who voted Labour or LibDem have labelled those who did not vote like them as bad or nasty people (neither of which, again, is likely to be the whole truth). Those who voted Tory accused the others of being Marxist, etc.  I don’t remember a time in my life where there was so much name-calling as in recent years.

Can we stop this mudslinging I wonder?  All the parties claimed in their election campaigns to seek healing, though none of them explained how they would do it.  Ultimately it is down to individual human behaviour as to whether we continue to box ourselves into corners.  

These polarised attitudes can put us at odds with friends, family, colleagues and neighbours.  Is it really what we want?  Aren’t people entitled to approach problems from different perspectives?  Isn’t that what makes the world go round (as well as love, of course)?  On the whole I believe the majority of people in this country are basically good, hard working individuals doing their best for themselves and their families.  There are, of course, bad and nasty people in any society in any part of the globe but I don’t believe they represent the majority of our fellow countryfolk.  There are people who seek to kill others or steal but no one was voting for such a thing in either the Referendum or election.

There are always serious issues we must stand up for in life, sure, but might we begin to open our hearts more to those who have different views to our own?  We don’t have to agree but we can differ, debate and not demean one another. We may discover that their intentions are as noble as yours. 

I believe Jonathan Haidt’s model of 5 Moral Foundations could shed some light on the recent election result here in the UK. And I suspect he would not have been surprised by the election result last week.  Despite being a Democrat, a speechwriter for John Kerry, and a man of liberal views, he came to the conclusion, through his research, that left-leaning liberals do not embrace as many value-sets as the centre or right.  In what Haidt describes as ‘the conservative advantage’ he found that Republicans understood moral psychology better than the Democrats and therefore were elected more often.  Could the same be said of Conservative and Labour here, I wonder?  For sure both the Labour Party and LibDems need to have a good look at themselves and understand why the silent majority turned away from their liberal offerings because it is in all our interests to have three strong and functioning parties in Parliament.

Haidt’s model of 5 Moral Foundations identifies values that influence thoughts and behaviours.  These Morals were divided into

  1. Care
  2. Fairness
  3. Loyalty
  4. Authority
  5. Sanctity

Haidt discovered, through research surveys, that everyone – left, right and centre – reports being influenced by the first two of these values – Care and Fairness.  Across the board, responders shared the belief that concerns about compassion, cruelty, fairness and injustice shaped their judgements about right and wrong. 

The values of Care and Fairness are therefore shared by all.  However, there has been an insinuation, through virtue-signalling, by left-liberal supporters that they are personally far more fair and caring than anyone of the centre-right.  Yet his research would suggest this isn’t necessarily true.  They may just hold a different set of solutions to the problems they face.

When it came to the three values of Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity the story was quite different.  Haidt’s studies showed that Liberals largely reject these values and, in fact, can be quite derisory of those who hold them.  Notice, if you will, how today’s commentators are referring to values such as patriotism – a form of loyalty – as “working class” or nationalistic. Notice how the immediate response to the Referendum outcome in 2016 was for liberal journalists and Remainers to downgrade the result by claiming it was “working class” views and demented pensioners that had led to this “stupid” outcome.  Notice how the Tory landslide of 2019 is referred to as solely due to the “left behind” (“who obviously know nothing about the world”, being the implication) when of course it cannot have been just the left behind who voted in this way.  Don’t these terms strike you as somewhat patronising?

An example of Loyalty is those who feel loyal to their country and community.  This doesn’t make them stupid or nationalist.  Those who enjoy living in a community and culture where they feel they belong are not necessarily racists.  We see communities all over the world – Muslim, Hindu, Polish, Jewish – choosing to live within neighbourhoods where they can develop the social resources to feel at home. Those in the UK who feel unsettled that their communities have changed beyond recognition should surely not be pilloried as philistines.   Especially not by those who can well afford to move elsewhere should they choose to do so. 

The instinctive human need for a sense of belonging (loyalty) to place, land or a social community is human and actively supports our wellbeing. 

Since my childhood there has been a dramatic shift in how people challenge Authority.  Most of us would never have dared to tell a teacher, doctor or police office to “F-off”.  It just wasn’t done.  I accept that many of my generation have been responsible for challenging authority and especially the Establishment.  Some of this has been successful – the Establishment is certainly more diverse than it was in the 1950s or 60s though I do wonder if we haven’t simply replaced the old Establishment with the new liberal metropolitan elite establishment, as it is called, who don’t truly understand the general population any more than the old one did. 

However, today people reject the authority of science, biology, experts, politicians, medics, police and more.  They seem to think it acceptable to make up facts about science or biology if they can convince enough people on social media to believe what they say.  But this challenge to authority needs surely to be balanced within the context of law and order, facts, manners, and the need to respect others without being fundamentalist.  Respecting authority may have motivated voters towards Boris Johnson but they may equally have done so for fear of the over-powering authority of a socialist state. 

Living in an era that followed on to the terrible dictatorships of left and right in the 20th century we are no doubt wary of those who take authority and yet people seek and can benefit from a good leader, so we should surely not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We don’t want strong leadership or bullies but a family, organisation or country does benefit from a vision, sense of purpose and a set of morals by which to live.  Creating an organised system that protects this vision can liberate people to be creative, to work together, aspire and achieve new inventions or services that can benefit all.

Research has shown that more liberals are drawn towards city life and towards change.  Those who live in the countryside tend to value continuity and stability.  I guess this isn’t surprising.  These are generalisations but perhaps demonstrate, all the same, that we need all kinds to make a world and to make a society that functions well and where people get along with one another. Change is good but continuity and stability have value too.  
A tolerant democratic structure should protect a flow of ideas through freedom of speech.  Neither anarchy nor dictatorship protects the individual as well.  Authority, in balance, has its place.

Sanctity does not necessarily equate to religion but can certainly refer to giving reverence to those around you, whether human, animal or a part of nature.  We see it today in the trend towards vegetarianism, the sensitive treatment of animals, the protection of our environment against Climate Change, the protection of the vulnerable.  Whether you have a religion or not there is something sacred and mysterious about this world of ours, is there not?

Proportionality is a word that Haidt uses and, in my view, needs to be raised to greater consciousness in the next decade. Perhaps, post the election, the Labour Party would do well to understand that loyalty, authority and a sense of sanctity are not ‘right-wing’ but human.  Many, if not all people value loyalty to friends, family, colleagues and country.  Many, if not all, have some sense that a social group of any kind, anywhere in the world, benefits from respecting authority, provided that the authority does not over-reach its powers.  Many, if not all, hold some sense of sanctity either in terms of a religious belief, a belief in the wonder of nature, of science, of the need to respect those around us.

Whether we voted Leave or Remain, Tory, Labour, Green, LibDem or independent, we are not so different as humans, though we may well believe in different ways to approach the problems we face.  Perhaps, as we come towards the Christian rituals of Christmas – which, incidentally, many peoples of different religions nonetheless celebrate – we can focus more on what connects us rather than on what divides us.

Happy Christmas.


2 Responses

  1. Hello Helen
    And Happy Christmas, I usually enjoy your bloggs, but found this one a little difficult to swallow.
    While I agree that both Labour and Lib Dem’s got it wrong in some ways, I can’t agree with your theory about why the Tories gained an overwhelming majority. You do not mention the lies and ‘brainwashing’ tactics coming from the Tory Camp – it’s hard to conduct an honourable campaign, when one side is dishonourable in every way.
    The assertion in the theory that the more ‘Conservative’ parties e.g. Republicans in America are the keepers of ‘care and fairness’, how can we equate this with our present government who show, through their actions, that they are seriously lacking in compassion and fairness as they continue to tell lies about the fate of our NHS and indeed our Country. Their lack of compassion is evident in so many ways, but in particular the recent change in the European Law that says refugee children should be allowed to be united with their parents in the UK is typical. We have never had such a dishonest, hard hearted and greedy government in our history, nor such a PM with such a low moral compass. This, I think, makes our situation unique.

    1. Hi Jenny
      I would totally agree that we have been thoroughly badly served by all our politicians over the last few years. I believe they have all lied and promised us things they could not possibly keep. And some, certainly, more than others. I heard both the Leave and Remain campaigns tell lies, some perhaps easier to prove than others. I should have added in my blog that I hope in the future we get better role models and more ethical behaviour. Certainly the moral compass of leaders has been lowered in many parts of the world recently which is depressing. I don’t think Haidt or anyone else is saying that Republican or Conservatives are more fair than others. Simply that they report as strongly on the care and fairness angle as others do and that perhaps an acknowledgement that continuity and stability are a legitimate value could gain the Labour Party and LibDems more votes – as government surely works better with a strong opposition. The points you make on refugee children, the NHS etc are absolutely valid. We do not yet know what will happen in the NHS which has been badly served for decades under both Labour and Conservatives. We can’t fully know what any other party would have done in terms of austerity or the economy since 2008 as that can only be speculation. So I guess all we can hope for is that things prove to be better than we fear and that individuals speak up freely for the things they believe in, as you have done. Thanks.

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