The point of politics is to make people’s lives better. Liberals and conservatives may disagree about how to do that, but despite the heated rhetoric, there are a number of broad goals that most anyone would agree upon. Consider a survey we recently conducted concerning liberal and conservative preferences about the kind of place they would like to live. While there are differences in terms of priorities, the top 5 desirable attributes are largely the same. Everyone wants a strong economy, safety, clean air and water, and good medical care.
Top 5 Desirable attributes in a city by ideology:
Unfortunately, roughly half of the country is going to be disappointed by the results of the next presidential election. Both history and psychology tell us that this disappointment will likely lead to some amount of demonization of whomever wins, reflexive opposition, and incivility. This may lead to outcomes that nobody wants, such as what occurred during the debt ceiling negotiations.
Thoughtful liberals, conservatives, and both presidential candidates have talked about the need to transcend partisanship in order to attempt to create better policy and a better country. The results of the next election are likely to disappoint some of these thoughtful people, yet it also represents an opportunity for them to be the change they wish to see in the world, by consciously resisting the impulse toward demonization and reflexive opposition. It represents an opportunity to back up words of bipartisanship with action, at a powerful moment when everybody will expect the opposite.
Supporting our next president does not mean that you need to support their policies. We can disagree without being disagreeable. But supporting our next president does mean that we hope they succeed at goals that we all share such as creating a safer, cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous world. It means hoping that the unemployment rate goes down, not up. It means hoping that the poor receive the help they need, whether by charity or government, and that terrorism is stopped, whether by military or diplomatic means. Whomever wins, let’s support them by truly hoping they succeed at our shared goals.
If this resonates with you, consider joining our facebook group and pass this message on to your friends. Positive change always starts with small groups of people who believe in something.
The recent killing of Americans in Libya by a mob of protestors who were responding to an intentionally offensive youtube video, created by Sam Bacile and friends, illustrates a fundamental truth. Extremism begets extremism. Killing begets killing. Violence begets violence.
It is a truth that directly relates to the cycles of incivility that we see in American politics and a truth that social psychologists often study, because group level reactions to conflict, extremism, violence, and incivility/demonization are fairly predictable; they incite more of the same. Indeed, there is clear evidence that Sam Bacile, Terry Jones, Osama Bin Laden, Charles Manson, and other extremists understand this implicitly and commit their extremist acts with the idea of inciting a wider war. In this case, a desire for a wider conflict is what the Libyan Mob and Sam Bacile have in common. Psychology research backs their methods.
- Interviews in Rwanda illustrate how the humiliation of some led to a desire to counterhumiliate others and ultimately to genocide. (Full article here)
- A large body of research shows that being threatened by reminders of one's mortality leads one to want to punish and derogate those who have a different worldview.
- Threat and mortality salience also increases the tendency to stereotype outgroups.
- When violence occurs between groups, members of a harmed group can be motivated to retaliate against innocent members of the perpetrator's group, leading to cycles of violence and vicarious retribution. (also see here)
Given the reliability with which extremists can create cycles of violence, it remains imperative that those of us who want reduced extremism, incivility, and violence realize the situational causes and consider how to frame things as a cooperative goal of moderates vs. extremists, instead of a Muslims vs. the West frame that extremists on both sides would prefer. It's an imperative that Martin Luther King put as follows:
Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love... Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. … Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. crossposted from civilpolitics.org
Rush Limbaugh recently talked explicitly about calls for civility in the media, saying that "civility is the new censorship". In a sense, he is correct, in that when liberals (myself included) talk about civility, we specifically mean people like Limbaugh, whose livelihood is based on demonization of the opposing political viewpoint. I have to admit that when I talk about civility in politics, as someone who views civility as an intrinsic part of their work, I have him in mind, not Rachel Maddow, the liberal equivalent (more on equivalency in a bit). However, perhaps liberals will get further by marginalizing rather than directly attacking people like Limbaugh.
In the wake of the Gabrial Giffords shooting, there is no real plausible defense of incivility that will sway much of the public. So instead, Limbaugh's basic argument is that liberals are even more uncivil than conservatives. Below is an excerpt:
RUSH: President Obama urges civility in public discourse. F. Chuck Todd is now happily reporting this on MessNBC: President Obama urging civility in public discourse. When I think of the left wing, I think civil, don't you? Code Pink, the New Black Panthers, union bosses beating up black conservatives in St. Louis, ACORN, illegal alien marches, why, it doesn't get more civil than that. The trashing of the Tea Party movement for the last nearly two years, that's civil. When I think of MSNBC, I not only think of journalistic excellence, but civility, don't you? That whole class warfare thing, I mean that's nothing but civility on display. When I think of the counterculture movement of the sixties, I think civility. When I think of Rahm Emanuel, the man Obama chose as his own chief of staff two years ago, I think of civility. We don't need lectures from uncivil leftists about civility, much less Obama. Bitter clingers and all the other incendiary things he's had to say, both as a candidate and as president.
In fact, ladies and gentlemen, isn't one of your complaints that Republicans are too docile? Isn't one of your complaints that Republicans just sit there and take it, that the left is always on the march, always accusing, always throwing bombs, and the Republicans just sit there and take it? The fact of the matter is the Republicans are civil, as the left defines it. They don't say anything. That's exactly what civil means. Another couple of examples. Give your civil reaction to the charge that you oppose Obama because he's black. Give me your civil reaction to you are a racist because you have criticized President Obama. Show me how to react in a civil way. Give me your civil reaction to this: You want to take money from the poor and line your pockets and the pockets of the rich. You don't care about the unfortunate. In fact, you and your buddies have created homelessness. Give me the civil reaction to that. If it was up to you, we would still have slavery today.
First, the point of civility is not to get people to "sit there and take it". Disagreement and debate about policy is healthy. Rather, as stated on the home page of civilpolitics.org, "Civility as we pursue it is the ability to disagree with others while respecting their sincerity and decency." It is possible to disagree on a policy, but believe that others who disagree are not evil, anti-American, stupid, or heartless. By that standard, Limbaugh clearly falls short and so does much of what goes on in liberal circles, where many liberals do think that conservatives "don't care about the unfortunate" and are either stupid or heartless. Being clear about what civility means allows us to setup bright lines that Limbaugh and Maddow both cross. Maybe calling liberals evil or anti-American is uncivil, but so is calling conservatives stupid or heartless, which is more or less what MSNBC does.
The other reaction I have to Limbaugh's passionate defense of incivility echoes the words of David Frum, a prominent conservative, who used these words to chastize Rachel Maddow, who was making fun of Sarah Palin in the below video. While my policy preferences rest with Maddow, I have to admit being swayed by Frum's specific words that: "The fact that other people fail in other ways is not an excuse for you failing in your way" (see about 4 minutes and 40 seconds into the below video). The fact that Limbaugh is uncivil does not make it ok for Maddow to be uncivil nor vice versa.
Frum goes on to talk about how the vocal liberals and the vocal conservatives "have a symbiotic relationship of negativity". There is much truth in this. For example, as explained in this article, conservative radio thrives on the idea that liberals want to silence them.
The take home message for me? It is time to unilaterally withdraw from the symbiotic relationship that the far left has with the far right. Frum quotes Ghandi in the above clip, saying that we should 'be the change' we want to see in the world. I agree. In Ghandi's philosophy (Satyagraha), you don't win by defeating your opponent, you win by converting them to your cause. Conservativism thrives under threat (see research on Terror Management). Instead of demonizing Limbaugh or trying to legislate the end of his livelihood, liberals would do better by marginalizing extreme conservative voices by refusing to cooperate in "us vs. them" zero-sum framing of politics. Conservativism is strongest when it has an enemy to rally against. Let us not be the enemy that Limbaugh needs to keep going.
- Ravi Iyer
For the past few months, I have been working with Matt Motyl and Jon Haidt on a website that promotes research based methods for increasing civility in politics. The desire to increase civility in politics is not new, having been parodied as the cliche-d dream of PhD Poli Sci students and recently promoted by Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity, but it has obviously been taken to a new level with the tragic shooting of congresswoman Gabriel Giffords and many others, with politicians on both the left and the right, calling for a less heated atmosphere.
Predictably, the response to the shooting has taken on a partisan tinge, with each side claiming that Loughner, the shooter, is a far-right activist, evidenced by his interest in Ayn Rand, or a far-left activist, evidenced by his interest in the Communist Manifesto. More indirectly, those on the left have blamed the right for their militant rhetoric, while those on the right have pointed out that the left sometimes uses similar rhetoric.
Some on the left have pointed out that the use of extreme rhetoric is unbalanced, and while I don't think this is necessarily wrong, I think it is a mistake to focus upon, especially for liberals and those who want less divisiveness in politics. It sets up an "us vs. them" dynamic at a time when all leaders, including Republicans that are sometimes characterized as obstructionist, are open to unity.
Have you ever noticed that liberal churches often have the word 'unity' in their title? That conservatives want to solve health care by increasing competition across state lines? That liberals prefer diplomatic, while conservatives prefer military solutions to conflicts? Doesn't it seem as if Fox News sees purportedly unbiased (e.g. NPR is run by fascists) and moderate (e.g. the Rally to Restore Sanity) entities as greater existential threats than the more obviously opposed, MSNBC?
Liberalism is congruent with cooperation, while conservativism is oriented toward competition. In social science, linguist George Lakoff shows how conservatives use the language of competition. In psychology, Morton Deutch's considerable work was inspired by the difference between competitive and cooperative systems and his work can be explicitly connected to liberal-conservative differences. Consider the below YourMorals data showing that liberals feel less warm towards sports fans than conservatives.
Neither cooperation or competition is inherently superior as there are situations where each is needed. Sometimes war is the only way to prevent injustice (e.g. stopping Hitler) or competition does lead to greater productivity (e.g. capitalism vs. communism). However, competitive framing and divisiveness is likely to increase both conservativism and vitriolic rhetoric (see this page on how competition leads to incivility) and most Americans now say that, at least in politics, competition for office has gotten out of hand, at the expense of cooperation on policy and now at the expense of innocent lives. We are in a moment when moderates on both sides of the aisle are preaching unity and civility, which should naturally lead to less divisiveness, threatening to marginalize extremists on both sides. If there is anything that the killer's reading list is indicative of, it is of extremism, not any particular political view. As such, those liberals who are using these events to specifically attack conservative rhetoric, further polarizing debate, are fighting a fire with gasoline.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. if you are interested, here is Jon Haidt's reaction to these events.
Today's lead story from Politico, The Age of Rage, probably summarizes a lot of what people think is wrong with politics. Rather than make good policy, politicians and media are more concerned with scoring points for their political ideology (hyperpartisanship). However, as the Politico article points out, their actions are largely driven by the general populace. Politicians and media reflect what people respond to, which happens to be hyperpartisanship, rather than causing the incivility we see.
...there are two big incentives that drive behavior at the intersection where politics meets media. One is public attention. The other is money. Experience shows there’s lots more of both to be had by engaging in extreme partisan behavior.
Fox News has soared on the strength of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom fanned the Sherrod story on the strength of the misleading Breitbart video. (A Fox senior executive, by contrast, urged the news side of the operation to get Sherrod’s response before going with the story, The Washington Post reported.) On the left, MSNBC is trying to emulate the success of primetime partisanship. Meanwhile, CNN, which has largely strived toward a neutral ideological posture, is battling steady relative declines in its audience.
If media executives hunger for ratings, politicians hunger for campaign cash and fame.
Obama put it best earlier this year, after Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “you lie” during the president's State of the Union speech. "The easiest way to get on television right now is to be really rude,” the president told ABC News.
Indeed, at first Wilson seemed embarrassed and apologized for his outburst. But within days, Wilson and his opponent were both flooded with campaign contributions; Wilson took in more than $700,000 in the immediate aftermath of his outburst and was a guest of honor on Hannity’s show and Fox News Sunday.
We reward politicians and news organizations, with our attention and our money, that engage in the very incivility that makes politics so ugly. This is true on both sides of the aisle.
At the recent meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Linda Skitka gave a talk which puts a lot of this in perspective for me. Her lab studies the dark side of moral conviction, which I call hypermoralism in the hope that the term catches on. Roy Baumeister studies a similar concept, idealistic evil. In Skitka's talk, she demonstrates in a Chinese sample that political intolerance (e.g. "people with different positions than your own about this issue should be allowed to have their phones tapped by the Chinese government") and social intolerance (e.g. "How willing would you be to have someone who did not share your views on this issue as a close personal friend?") were best predicted by moral conviction (e.g. "To what extent are your feelings about this issue or policy based on your fundamental beliefs about right and wrong?"). When controlling for moral conviction, all other variables (e.g. demographics, political position, attitude importance, and attitude strength) were all insignificant predictors of social and political intolerance. I look forward to seeing how this replicates on a US sample and how political intolerance is operationalized. Perhaps something along the lines of liberal consideration of censoring Fox news or conservative publication of what many would consider private discussion would make good operationalizations of political intolerance as they mirror what we see in reality, where considerations of privacy, context, and free speech are considered secondary to partisanship. Moral conviction may underlie the hyperpartisanship that Politico talks about.
Hyperpartisanship and hypermoralism may be another instance of the effects of what evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett calls "Supernormal Stimuli". As the Wall Street Journal writes about her book:
As Ms. Barrett notes, modern life surrounds us with supernormal stimuli. An example: Humans evolved strong tastes for fats and sweets, tastes that conferred a reproductive advantage in the days when starvation was common. But these tastes can be a burden when we're confronted with such supernormal stimuli as the 400-calorie Frappuccino at Starbucks. An evolutionary adaptation that once promised survival is more likely nowadays to produce Type 2 diabetes.
Ms. Barrett pushes her thesis too far at times, but her plain-spoken disquisition makes a strong case that supernormal stimuli "can help us understand the problems of modern civilization."
In the case of hyperpartisanship and hypermoralism, our evolved moral senses, which allow human beings to cooperate, are now subject to the stimulus which is the 24 hour news cycle and the non-stop political campaign. Moral emotions are powerful forces, which are now activated routinely, rather than rarely.
If anybody has ideas on how to escape this cycle, I would love to hear them. Humanizing and getting to know the opposition, along the lines of intergroup contact theory, is an idea. Perhaps moral emotions can be activated against hyperpartisanship itself, rather than against individual ideologies. Or maybe with greater understanding, we can all learn to recognize supernormal moral stimuli and give them less power in our lives. Ideas welcome and I'm open to operationalizing particularly promising ideas as studies to be run on yourmorals.org.
- Ravi Iyer