I stumbled across this article by Joshua Holland at Bill Moyers website discussing the ways in which psychologists and sociologists are studying cognitive styles and how those styles shape and influence political positions. The article is an interview of science writer Chris Mooney. The basic insight that keeps coming up in these studies is that liberals and conservatives think very differently about the world. Lakoff described as “strict father” versus “nurturant parent”, but that’s just one way of thinking about the differences.
What we see here is that when asked about various ideas, liberals, conservatives and libertarians respond differently. In some areas, the differences are minor but you can see just by glancing at the chart that they are large in several areas – the three that caught my attention were Ingroup, Authority and Purity.
Purity refers to you how you respond when someone does something you regard as indecent or immoral – essentially Nussbaum’s argument about disgust for immoral acts and persons. Ingroup and authority are related – they refer to “tribal” identification and following and obeying leaders. The article goes on to talk about attitudes toward child-rearing and how those attitudes indicate or reveal authoritarian leanings.
Yeah, this is another way of measuring authoritarianism, because the theory is — and it seems pretty sound to me — that if you’re an authoritarian, one of the places it’s going to come out is in how you view child rearing. That is a situation in which the parent has to exert some level of authority, but parents interpret that differently. And if someone interprets parenting as sort of a strict father model — you need to obey the rules — then that’s an authoritarian style of parenting. So he’s just saying, ‘let’s ask about parenting and we’ll figure out who our authoritarians are,’ and what’s good about that as a scientific method is that you’re not actually asking anything that seems politically tinged. You could be confounding your variables if people get the sense that you’re asking them something political, but that’s not the case here — you’re just asking about parenting. That’s what’s nice about it.
The question of authority looms large in conservative thought – conservatism in its healthier forms is about identifying and sustaining the proper social order which means obeying proper authorities while accepting or adapting to change slowly and carefully so as to not lost what matters most. This is also a measure about how one regards and reacts to authority.
Liberal and conservative authority are very different – and those differences show up in childrearing. Ages ago, I wrote a post in which I argued that children have rights separate from their parents – responding to a post by a conservative writer who bemoaned the inability of parents to control their children’s every move. When conservatives complain that teaching evolution or tolerance for sexual minorities in schools is violation of parental rights to control what children learn they are defending what they perceive as correct system of authority.
By contrast, liberals tend to think about “harm” and “fairness.” It’s about how a person reacts to another person’s suffering and if they see that as a moral issue or not and whether or not the system is fair in the sense of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance.
The differences in cognitive styles, in how liberals and conservatives make moral judgments, are central to our current political situation. The teabaggers represent a minority of the population but they are also the group most threatened by the changes in our society. How the teabaggers make moral and political decisions is shaping how they respond to various political figures and issues. Since teabaggers basically control the Republican party, that means their responses, even as a minority of the population, play a sizable role in how our political discussion takes place.
Reaching out to the teabaggers, hearing their concerns without allowing their fears to dominate the discussion, seems a necessary step. I doubt, however, that we can do it easily. The teabaggers tend to reject as illegitimate any one with whom they disagree which means even if they get a chance to be heard, they won’t be willing to listen.