13 March 2017

Globalists versus Nationalists

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“They are trying to fight fascism…. maybe they should go to a country that is actually fascist and fight there. This man is a hero.” “They are trying to fight fascism…. maybe they should go to a country that is actually fascist and fight there. This man is a hero.” http://rightwingnews.com/america/fedex-driver-sees-protesters-burn-american-flag-response-amazing-video/

When President Donald Trump announced his first refugee ban, Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz fired back that his company would hire 10,000 refugees. In turn, this ignited a social media firestorm from conservatives vowing to boycott the brand. Though Starbucks disputes this will have any effect on its bottom line, it does underscore in graphic terms what we all know – our nation is deeply polarized these days!

This blog reflects what I have learned in the last couple of months from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (pronounce “height”). First I showed my Comparative Religion classes a TED talk Haidt did in 2008 that seemed very prescient relative to what’s happening today. Then I read a long article he wrote that was published in July 2016 after Trump became the presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party – hence the title for the blog post: “Nationalism Rising: When and Why Nationalism beats globalism.”

Haidt forced me to think outside of my own comfort zone. I hope you find this helpful too.


The 5 moral foundations of the human mind

There’s nothing remotely religious about Haidt and his colleagues’ research on the social dimensions of morality. It’s all based on evolutionary psychology with data comparisons from all parts of the world. In his 2008 TED talk Haidt approvingly quotes Stephen Pinker’s thesis in developmental psychology that human beings at birth come into the world not as a “blank slate” but with many ingrained moral dispositions. He calls this “the first draft of the moral mind.” Naturally, that first draft gets modified as the child grows up in a particular family, goes to school, and moves around in various social contexts over time.

But at bottom, and all across cultures and disciplines, he and his colleagues found that there were five moral foundations of morality, or sources of intuition and emotions:


1) Harm/care: our brains as mammals cause us to feel compassion for those most vulnerable, compel us to care about them, and castigate those who cause them harm

2) Fairness/reciprocity: we’re also programmed to believe in people’s equality, and hence in justice, and additionally in some form of the “golden rule”

3) In-group/ loyalty: only humans create large groups that cooperate, first and foremost to fight any competitors; schools or sport teams’ loyalty are also good examples of this

4) Authority/respect: hierarchy comes naturally in human society, but respect for authority can also manifest as love, and not just fear of a greater power

5) Purity/sanctity: any ideology that says that virtue can be cultivated by controlling our body; it could be about abstaining from sex, but also about controlling what we eat


Then they gave out questionnaires to about 30,000 Americans that measured the relative strength of these values for each respondent. Also part of the questionnaire was whether the person self-identified as “liberal” or “conservative” politically. The result was astounding. Everyone scored high on the first two moral values, harm and fairness, but that was the extent of the liberals’ moral scope – just a two-foundation morality. By contrast, the more conservative a person is, the more the next three values grow in importance. As Haidt puts it, “conservatives have more of a five-channel, or five-foundation morality.”

Surprisingly perhaps, this same kind of result holds for questionnaires given out in many other countries around the world. Whether in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia or Eastern Europe, everyone agrees about the importance of care and fairness, but it is around issues of in-group, authority and purity that the moral arguments become heated.

The rest of his talk, then, is focused on the two facts of 1) social entropy (left to their own devices, human groups degenerate over time because of in-fighting and chaos); 2) fruitful cooperation entails putting all five moral tools to use. At this point he brings in religion. It is a controversial finding, he admits, but much research points to the emergence of religion as a means of bringing societies together and be able to move forward. Look at all the great civilizations of the past, he says. There was usually some kind of religious component that united people and energized them to achieve the common good.

This research led to the writing of his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. But here I’m more concerned with what he wrote during the 2016 electoral campaign.


The rise of the globalists

In Haidt’s “Nationalism Rising” he point to the World Values Survey that in six waves since the early 1980s has charted people’s values and beliefs around the globe. Just about all of these nations have grown more prosperous in the meantime, with some transitioning from communism to capitalism, from autocracy to democracy. How have their values changed in this time period?

Despite all the variations from one country to the next, there are nevertheless common trends that emerge. They move forward according to two axes. He explains:


“[F]irst, as they industrialize, they move away from ‘traditional values’ in which religion, ritual, and deference to authorities are important, and toward ‘secular rational’ values that are more open to change, progress, and social engineering based on rational considerations. Second, as they grow wealthier and more citizens move into the service sector, nations move away from ‘survival values’ emphasizing the economic and physical security found in one’s family, tribe, and other parochial groups, toward ‘self-expression’ or ‘emancipative values’ that emphasize individual rights and protections—not just for oneself, but as a matter of principle, for everyone.”


When the rule of law is established to some extent and corruption in government is at least curtailed, societies tend to see people live more comfortably; and as they feel safer and more prosperous, they tend to become “more open and tolerant.” Along with the internet and access to movies and other aspects of global culture worldwide, they gradually develop a “cosmopolitan” worldview – literally becoming “citizens of the world.”

Perhaps the best way to describe this “vision of heaven for multicultural globalists” is to quote from John Lennon’s song:


Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.


But as Haidt notes, “it’s naïveté, sacrilege, and treason for nationalists.”


How globalists trigger the nationalist reaction

Some forms of nationalism can be illiberal and outright racist – think of the extreme represented by Hitler’s National Socialism, or even white supremacy groups in contemporary America. But at core, it’s a reemphasis on the in-group, authority and purity values mentioned above. It’s really about a social contract, contends Haidt:


“Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens interests above the interests of people in other countries.”


But what has fed the conflicts between the globalists and nationalists of late has been the flood of immigrants pouring onto Europe’s shores. There had been a steady stream of economic and political refugees crossing from Africa into Spain, but things have accelerated by multiple digits since the Arab uprisings in 2011, the Syrian civil war, and the rise of ISIS in 2014. In 2016 around 5,000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. I dealt with this issue in two blogs about inequality (the first, and the second).

Haidt captures some of these feelings on both sides as these events unfolded:


“But if you are a European nationalist, watching the nightly news may have felt like watching the spread of the Zika virus, moving steadily northward from the chaos zones of southwest Asia and north Africa….

By the summer of 2015 the nationalist side was already at the boiling point, shouting ‘enough is enough, close the tap,’ when the globalists proclaimed, ‘let us open the floodgates, it’s the compassionate thing to do, and if you oppose us you are a racist.’ Might that not provoke even fairly reasonable people to rage? Might that not make many of them more receptive to arguments, ideas, and political parties that lean toward the illiberal side of nationalism and that were considered taboo just a few years earlier?


Yet in this conversation, the word “racism” is too imprecise to be helpful. What the nationalists are objecting to, in fact, is what they perceive as the immigrants’ different values and abhorrent practices, which represent a threat to their way of life. Of course, there are politicians who exploit and amplify those fears for their own gain.

Enter here Karen Stenner’s classic book on political psychology, The Authoritarian Dynamic. This is how Haidt describes her thesis:


“Her core finding is that authoritarianism is not a stable personality trait. It is rather a psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat. It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group. At those times they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force. At other times, when they perceive no such threat, they are not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.”


What “pushes that button” is what she calls a “normative threat,” when leaders are not worthy of respect, when society is fraying at the seams and threatening chaos. As Haidt puts it, “it’s the perception that ‘we’ are falling apart.” Most nationalists, he adds, are just trying to protect the homeland, not just their income or family.

Stenner conducted some studies in a variety of national settings and when a scenario came up showing that Americans were becoming more similar, “authoritarians were no more racist and intolerant than others.” But change the direction in which society is moving and something gets triggered:


“But when Stenner gave them a news story suggesting that Americans are becoming more morally diverse, the button got pushed, the ‘authoritarian dynamic’ kicked in, and they became more racist and intolerant. For example, ‘maintaining order in the nation’ became a higher national priority while ‘protecting freedom of speech’ became a lower priority. They became more critical of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce.”


Not surprisingly, when asked about what values should be emphasized above others in raising one’s children, authoritarians put “obedience” above “tolerance and respect for other people” or “independence.”

Haidt also likes Stenner’s distinction between “status-quo conservatives” (those wary about any radical change) and authoritarians. This was graphically demonstrated by the quasi-unanimous opposition to Donald Trump by the Republican establishment during most of the 2016 presidential campaign. At the same time, Stenner gives the reason most Republican leaders rallied behind him once it was clear he would be the party’s nominee (though writing years before):


“But status quo conservatives can be drawn into alliance with authoritarians when they perceive that progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political actions (such as Brexit, or banning Muslim immigration to the United States) are seen as the only remaining way of yelling 'Stop!' Brexit can seem less radical than the prospect of absorption into the “ever closer union” of the EU.”


This dynamic also explains why Muslim immigrants pose a greater threat than immigrants from anywhere else. But it’s not so much about security as it is about what Stenner calls a “normative” threat. Muslims generally do not assimilate as easily as immigrants from other backgrounds. They require high maintenance – building mosques, seeking special treatment for prayer spaces at work, insisting on halal meat, having their women wear hijabs and in some cases even niqabs (full face veils). This represents a threat to western secular civilization. Many in the US would add “a threat to Christian civilization.” Besides, Europe has been discussing for at least two decades the ins and outs of “reasonable accommodation” for Muslim immigrants. In Sweden, for instance, public swimming pools now offer specific times reserved for female swimmers in order to accommodate Muslims.


What do we take away from this?

I offer three takeaways:


1. Start listening to one another: If globalists are in power, they need to think how best not to trigger an authoritarian reaction. Angela Merkel, after welcoming over a million mostly Muslim refugees in Germany in the last two years, has a great challenge before her. That would be like if the US had let four million Muslims!

On the micro level, let’s learn to reach out to people on the other side of the political divide, wherever we happen to be. Building a healthy democratic society will mean paying attention to all five foundational values mentioned above: fairness and care; but too, group loyalty, respect for authority (including religious authority), and moral uprightness (sanctity/purity). Many times, bridge-building starts within our families!


2. Assimilation versus multiculturalism? I have no space to deal with this here, but I want to push back just a bit against this Haidt conclusion:

“If the story I have told here is correct, then the globalists could easily speak, act, and legislate in ways that drain passions and votes away from nationalist parties, but this would require some deep rethinking about the value of national identities and cohesive moral communities. It would require abandoning the multicultural approach to immigration and embracing assimilation.”

The classic contrast here would be between France (staunchly assimilationist) and the UK (multiculturalist, including Sharia courts!). I believe France’s hardline stance against Muslim expression will only invite more terror attacks. Further, it seems to me that Britain has managed its multiculturalism rather well. But so much more could be said …


3. Be loyal to your nation, but remember the big picture. If you know anything about this website, you know that my lifelong commitment is to building bridges between adherents of different faith traditions in the name of Jesus, most notably between Muslims and Christians. This endeavor knows no national boundaries. In fact, its objective is to raise awareness of and commitment to our calling to care for our fellow human beings and for our planet as God’s trustees on earth. With the privilege of a trust comes responsibility and accountability. And that means moving forward with sensitivity, wisdom and love in these troubled times. Reconciliation and peacebuilding are the order of the day!