Right and left

I’ve been a leftie all my life.

I’ve supported the left-wing candidate in every election since I was old enough to vote. I routinely grumble about the NDP, but it’s because I want to see more fresh thinking, not a more conservative stance. And there is no doubt in my mind that if I lived in the US, I would be a Democrat.

My political views were formed before I became a Christian. But they’ve always felt like a natural fit with my religious views. Christ stands up for the marginalized and oppressed, ignores social distinctions, prods the powerful and up-ends institutions – all the hallmarks of the left. And he calls us to turn our backs on security through personal wealth, national strength, or the exclusion of others – all the things I associate with the right.

It’s probably no surprise that most people in my social circle, and all the people I see through my work, would describe themselves as “left of centre.” How could it be otherwise? I thing the right are entirely wrong about most things. How could we be friends and colleagues? Should we even try to be?

An answer came through my favourite website, ted.org. TED is a global community with one simple mission “spreading ideas.” Their website contains over 500 short lectures – the longest is 20 minutes, the shortest about 90 seconds — from brilliant international speakers challenged to give “the talk of their lives.” Some of my own favourites include JK Rowling on failure; Barry Shwartz on the paradox of choice (and with a different perspective, Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce); Elizabeth Gilbert on the muse; Majora Carter on community development in the Bronx; Shaffi Mather on a social enterprise to fight corruption in India; Karen Armstrong on the Golden Rule.

The challenge to my right-left thinking came from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s lecture on “the moral roots of liberalism and conservatism.” Haidt explored cultural anthropology and evolutionary psychology to better understand the moral foundations of political life. He found five moral foundations that seem to be present in all cultures. They are:

  • “Care/harm:” care for others, compassion for the weak and vulnerable, and strong feelings about people who do harm
  • Fairness/reciprocity: the belief in equality and justice
  • In-group loyalty: the bond that creates tribes, teams and nations
  • Authority/respect: cultivated not just by power, but also by voluntary deference and love
  • Purity/sanctity: the belief that one can attain virture by what one does with one’s body. Among right-wingers, this belief often focuses on sexual behavior. Among left-wingers, it is often focused on the food one eats.

The difference between liberals and conservatives

Haidt then surveyed thousands of liberals and conservatives in the US and elsewhere. He discovered, as I would have expected, that liberals strongly value care and fairness. Conservatives also value these things, although not to the same extent.

The real difference between liberals and conservatives is this: liberals put almost no value on loyalty, respect or purity. For conservatives, these have equal value to the foundations of liberal morality: care and fairness. As Haidt commented, liberals run on two channels; conservatives run on five.

(You can test your own responses at www.yourmorals.org . I did, and received a bit of a surprise. I know that I am liberal in philosophy but conservative in lifestyle, so I expected to find my scores half way between the liberals and conservatives. When it came to fairness, loyalty and authority, that was indeed the case. I ranked “care” much higher than either the conservatives or liberals – which I thought was a good Christian thing. But then I baffled myself by ranking “purity” much higher than even conservatives – not a Christian value at all. I think this is what a lifetime of drinking milk will do if you’re not careful.

Moral diversity. Moral humility.

The real challenge to my thinking was the challenge Haidt offered his audience of TEDsters. He said (I’m paraphrasing), “If our goal is to understand the world, our lack of moral diversity is going to make it harder. When a group of people all share moral values, they become a team, and when you look at the psychology of teams, you see that it shuts down open-minded thinking.”

“If you think that half of America voted Republican because they were blinded by religion or stupidity, then I suggest you are trapped in a moral matrix.” And then he asks, “Are you ready to cultivate moral humility, to get yourselves out of this self-righteousness?”

Is Haidt saying we shouldn’t strive to right wrongs? He says, “absolutely not.” But he does say we need both a passionate commitment to make the world better and a passionate commitment to the truth.

Friends, I enjoyed Haidt’s findings, but don’t really know where to go with them. What are your thoughts and experiences?

Jonathan Haidt’s TED lecture



Filed under Joy's entries

7 responses to “Right and left

  1. Elizabeth Sherk

    This woman,Joy Connelly, she sure does make us think!

    Laugh, Let not your right hand know what your left hand is doing.

    I’m too busy to do anymore on this, but i do go on my busy way chuckling.

  2. Barbara Anderson

    Hi Joy,
    I am enjoying your blog. Great topics.
    I was once a “leftie” – always voted and supported the NDP and if I was American I would definitely be a Democrat.
    I would now probably consider myself either a Red Tory or a Libertarian. I don’t feel that I moved from the “left” so much as the ‘left’ abandoned me when they stopped thinking about their platforms.
    First of all for anyone on the ‘left’ to align themselves with the Muslim faith leaves me speechless. I have done a lot of research into the faith and reading the stories of women who became ‘apostates’ such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others. The teachings of the Prophet about women, Jews and infidels are not at all in line with any kind of social gospel that I know nor are they in line with the ‘left’s’ promotion of women’s rights.
    The ‘left’ has now aligned itself with some very anti-Semitic movements that demonize Israel. Again, another direction I find at odds with my faith. I am not someone who believes Israel can do no wrong nor do I believe the Second Coming requires no justice for Palestinians etc. I am very disappointed in the NDP/left for jumping on these bandwagons without any real thought.
    While I do not consider myself rightwing I have been shocked the way some ‘lefties’ have demonized Christians as if they were all right-wing, demonized Republicans (who I don’t agree with at all) and want to shut down free speech on campuses etc. (i.e. Ann Coulter – who again I don’t agree with).
    Left wing knee-jerk reactions aren’t better than right-wing ones.
    Here in B.C. I am furious at the way the Campbell Liberals (old Socreds) have been so mean-spirited in their budget cuts to education, healthcare and social services- slashing small budgets for marginal groups first. That is wrong and I have never nor will I vote for the Liberals because of their meanness. However, the NDP are so tied with unions (that I have experienced as being as corrupt as their bosses a lot of times) they really can’t make the kind of changes necessary to preserve our environment, reform healthcare, education and affordable housing.
    So, while I don’t feel that my politics have changed the left reactionism cannot win back my allegiance. In the U.S. the divide is so great people are becoming very vicious.
    I belive in fairness – I am in favour of freedom of speech even if people offend me (I don’t have a right not to be offended and I don’t want any political party shutting down people who are against my religion, sexual orientation, politics, etc.)
    I believe in compassion – public education, healthcare and social welfare policies but I do want open debate about their management and administration.
    I believe in respect for people – but not necessarily for all their ideas. (Nazism and Islamism don’t deserve my respect)
    But I don’t believe in purity at all – not left wing purity nor right wing purity. To me, that’s what Christ taught us- no one is more impure than anyone else – lots of parables, stories etc.
    As a last comment I read an article recently that said that secular humanism and tolerance carries within it its own seeds of destruction. I am not a secular humanist but
    I am worried about tolerance for intolerance. Unfortunately, the whole left/right divide has sometimes paralysed Christians on the left because we don’t want to be associated with those on the right so we don’t speak out against some things in society as much as we ought. And I wonder if it has stopped us from naming evil as much as we should in case we are seen as those on the right. It’s a tightrope we are often afraid to walk. Just a thought.

  3. Paul Connelly

    I did one of the tests on the yourmorals.org website, and came out to the left of the liberals on all five scales. But, as The Dude says, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.” With that warning to you, I have a couple of thoughts in response to Barb’s posting.

    It seems to me that we keep circling back to Joy’s early post about good and evil. My thinking on that one is a lot of what we call evil really is the consequences of a bunch of choices (imperfect, altruistic, good-faith, naive, selfish, fearful) billions of us make every day. So every society, faced with different forces, goes a different way.

    Barb mentions Islam. So we get the situation in Egypt where the regime can crack down on dissent, torture and kill people – including the intellectuals who formed the theories behind Al Queda – an maintain the legitimacy of their rule by invoking a fear of a Jewish/American plot to rule the world. Or you get Iran’s regime rigging the election and dismissing the protests as American-inspired.

    Meanwhile, we have the US (and the UK – I’m not exonerating the “left”) invading Iraq using 9/11 as a pretext, getting our society all riled up and focused on an external threat, drawing attention away from the fact that in our culture the new religion appears to be, in Rick Salutin’s felicitous wording, “Bizlam, the submission to the will of business.” So here we get the pillaging of the financial system for the gain of a few (see Paul Krugman’s article today on the NY Times website), Toyota knowingly building dangerous cars for years, and, perhaps the most dangerous of all, the casual transformation of Earth into an entirely new, much less hospitable planet. (Check out http://www.billmckibben.com/.)

    What to do? I don’t know, but I think the answer depends on where you live. I hope that if I lived in Iran I’d have the courage to be part of the opposition that is protesting the theft of their government. But I live in Toronto, so I think the immediate challenges are different: to advocate the quick closure of coal-fired generating stations, to call for legislation requiring greater responsibility and accountability for Canadian companies investing in the Third World, maybe just to try to lower the level of local NIMBYism about changes to the neighbourhood. But mostly to try to keep myself open to other voices and not to succumb to the temptation to group the world into “us” vs. “them” (the saved vs. the unsaved, maybe?)

  4. Dan Cooperstock

    I think it’s a bit dangerous to demonize Islam. As with Christianity, there are multiple elements and multiple interpretations within it. Moderate Islamics, who I suspect are actually the majority, seem very innofensive to me. And Fundamentalist Christians of many sorts seem very offensive to me. There is good and bad in all scriptures.

  5. Richard Hopton

    My formative years were lived in an environment in which I was ‘accustomed’ to believe that leaning to the right politically was the more Christian way. The left was the territory of abortion, immorality, etc. I am grateful for Joy and others for helping me to see another side of things, however, I still believe the right to be correct about more things than the left.

    I would love to have long discussions about this topic, however, for now, these thoughts are foremost:
    It never ceases to amaze me the way two or more people can read something or look at a situation and see completely different things. Joy says that “Christ stands up for the marginalized”, and in many ways He does. But I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of His silence about slavery. You can read the bible cover to cover, and if you followed it literally today you could easily conclude there would be nothing wrong with owning slaves, provided you treated them well. To me, if slavery is wrong ( and I believe 100% that it is), it is possibly INEXCUSABLE that Jesus, or at least the apostles, say nothing to condemn slavery. I am aware that is was a Christian – William Wilberforce, who was most significant in beginning the end, but imagine the countless number of lives saved and amount of suffering that could have been prevented if Jesus had very easily condemned slavery.

    Joy lumps ‘national strength’ in with the ‘negative’ aspects of the right. Not completely sure what she is referring to but, didn’t God start the whole national-strength concept with Israel? Jesus is God, right? – ” I and the Father are one.” ?
    I am unfamiliar with what exactly Jesus said telling us to ‘turn our backs on national strength’, but, as far as I can see, the concept originated from God(Jesus).

    Finally, this topic made me think about the issues of the death penalty and spanking. It has been my observation that the Left and the Right largely disagree on these issues. God himself instituted the death penalty for murder to Noah after the flood. And ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’, is also scriptural.
    While I admit that I am in favour of both (but still open to being convinced otherwise), I am not trying to persuade. I raise these two issues simply because I get the impression that those who oppose are just so sure of the ‘correctness’ of their position that the death penalty is wrong, ( and to a lesser extent that spanking is wrong.)
    I am not arguing, but I find it fascinating that people can believe the bible to be ‘authoritative’ , and essentially ‘true’, and at the same time hold passionately divergent opinions on the death penalty and spanking. So God is absolutely wrong and you are right? Or am I missing something?

    What it all boils down to for me is the concept of being so sure you are right (correct, – not politically.) M Scott Peck wrote in one of his books something that has had a lasting impression on me. He said, paraphrasing, ‘most of the great evil in the world has been done by people who were absolutely convinced they were doing the right thing.’ ( eg. research how many millions, mostly children, have died from malaria as a result of the banning of DDT.)

    I wish we all had a better appreciation for the POSSIBLITY that the other side might have a point, which, I think, is a step towards a ‘passionate commitment to the truth.’

  6. Jamie Perttula

    This is a very hard topic for me to sort out because I find the division between right and left to be arbitrary at times, fuzzy at other times, insufficient, unnecessarily divisive and confusing. On some matters, I would be considered left of centre politically. On others, I have found myself being more right of centre, particularly as I have aged.

    As a civil servant, I am meant to provide “impartial” advice to whichever party is in government. I am to carry out the direction of that government even if I may not always agree with it. I have worked for governments of all stripes, and in many ways have seen more similarities and areas of common ground than vast differences.

    As an observer of politics from within the bureaucracy, I often view some of what is put forward as political debate as being nothing more than hairsplitting or petty vindictiveness. This bothers me because it diverts so much of our energy from addressing the critical issues that face our communities and society. We also become locked in positions, even if they make no sense, because to give in or suggest the other side might have a point is to show weakness.

    Perhaps my difficulty with the concept of right and left is linked to the profession I chose, and to my personality. I just went through a bunch of personality tests and reviews as part of a leadership training program. One of the things it showed was my strength as a mediator. I can see validity in many different points of view and have a tendency to look for common ground.

    Throw into the mix my Christian faith and my challenges are compounded. In some circles in the church, to be a true Christian is to be very conservative and right wing. In other parts of the church, to be a true Christian is to be more liberal and left wing. What should I do?

    I can be quick to judge others who call themselves Christians yet hold different views than I do on certain topics. When this happens, I often hear an inner voice reminding me that I don’t always have it right in matters of faith and living as God would have me live.

    For me, it comes down to holding onto my views with a loose grip and with humility. I may be proved wrong and have to repent at some point.

    Perhaps I’ve skirted your question Joy. In reality, I don’t have a full answer for myself.

  7. Dan Cooperstock

    In response to some of what Richard Hopton said, I think some of how you feel about these things depends on your view of the authority of scripture. Personally, as a liberal Quaker, I feel that there is much to learn from in the Bible, but that it was written by PEOPLE, at least 1900 or more (depending on whether we are talking New or Old Testament) years ago.

    To me, continuing revelation, as tested by the various levels of bodies of Quakers (in my case), is more important than individual specifics from the Bible. All possible wisdom cannot possible be present in any one book, no matter how large!

    I have a really hard time understanding people who claim that everything in the Bible is completely authoritative (i.e. as if it were dictated by God), because it seems really clear that there are significant changes over time, significant contradictions in many places, and many different voices speaking.

    So on issues like slavery, or homosexuality, my view is that our revelation has continued, and we have moved beyond the positions of two millenia ago. And that is a good thing!

    By the way, I did a lot of those morality quizzes, and found them fascinating. Thanks for that link, Joy!

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