Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is Conservativism A Neurological Disorder?


Psychologist Jonathan Haidt tells us that conservativism results from a set of values that prizes favoring one's own in-group over an out-group, respect for heirarchy, and purity, while progressives primarily value justice and fairness with equal treatment for all, and an emphasis on compassion for others.  

I, on the other hand, often think conservativism is a neurological condition that manifests as an inability to create new mental maps and models (schema, or in the Buddhist tradition, samskara) in the light of new conditions. To be fair, my theory would then lead to a conclusion that liberalism is a neurological inability to retain useful mental models when challenged by new conditions.

A fascinating and quite friendly conversation today with a conservative colleague suggests that there is some truth to both Haidt's theories and to mine.  

In support of Haidt's theory, my friend expressed concern that his daughter has decided to accept a scholarship to study journalism at NYU.  Having a daughter leave for college is always a stressful time in any parent's life, but his concerns, in addition to the obvious concern over purity, was that she would be surrounded by liberal professors and intellectuals, and by left-leaning fellow students.  Apparently, there was talk about her taking an internship at The Huffington Post.  In short, he was as upset that she was leaving home to study among the "others" (an out-group) instead of her own kind at a more conservative, Southern school, and concerned not so much about her switching sides, but by how well those "others" would accept and treat her.  As far as respect for heirarchy goes, the reason we were even talking about this is that he was upset that his wife and daughter weren't taking his concerns seriously enough, even though he was the father and husband of the house.  This situation presents a challenge to a virtual trifecta of conservative values, and would make a good case study for Haidt's theory.

My theory (inability to create new mental models) gained support when the conversation shifted to the situation in Crimea and the Ukraine.  My friend seemed  unable to see the situation in light of anything other than old-fashioned fears of Soviet world domination, a return to the Cold War era (if it ever went away at all).  The only geo-political factors he could see were a Russian expansion of the Iron Curtain against a US-led counter-force of truth, justice, and the American way.  In this point of view, the only force that contains Russian expansionism is American military might, and the movement of Russian troops into Crimea is nothing less than a failure of American strength, or the perception of American strength.  

In other words, he could only see the situation in light of Cold War geo-politics, of Communism vs freedom, while ignoring the not insignificant fact that Russia is no longer Communist, the nature of the recent protests and counter-protests in Kiev and Crimea, the complex problem of the ethnic Russians currently living in Crimea, and so on.  Not to mention America's loss of credibility regarding invading other nations after 10 years of occupying Afghanistan and Iran. 

I'm not apologizing for Russia's behavior, but as long as the situation is viewed from an outdated world view, the apparent solutions will be likewise outdated.  What's worrisome, though, is that certain members of Congress seem to be working from the same outdated mental models themselves, and they are in a position to apply an outdated, probably counter-productive, and quite possibly dangerous "solution" to the situation.     
My colleague and I still remain friends as we long ago agreed to disagree over many issues, a necessary tolerance for maintaining harmony while living in a Red State.  His differing views and those of his fellow-travelers don't even upset me anymore (although they used to) and now I'm just fascinated by seeing how well Haidt's values model and my neurological theory seem to fit their opinions.