Conservatives see an asteroid, fail miserably at articulating it. Liberals snottily ridicule their inartful warning, don’t even bother to look up. Meanwhile… asteroid is getting closer.

Welcome to the usual tribal dance.   You know, the dance we’re so busy with that we’re not noticing that “asteroids” are approaching earth and we’d better roll up our sleeves, cross the partisan divide and work on diverting them.

Conservatives – particularly well-equipped to see threats to the moral communities and social structures that make our highly improbable civil society possible – are sounding the alarm on one of the Asteroids Club’s four inaugural “asteroids” – breakdown of the family. Maybe they’ve stopped keeping company with liberal friends who might gently tell them their argument (made by a panel of men, sheesh) is coming off just slightly lunkheaded… Comments like Erik Erickson’s “having moms as the primary breadwinner is bad for kids and bad for marriage” and “when you look at biology… males are the dominant role.”

If the Fox panel’s goal was to communicate their alarm to others who aren’t seeing the problem, they didn’t get it done – more likely, they may have set recognition of this asteroid back a year or two. Arguments get weak and mushy when the only practice you have making them is to people who already agree with you. These guys would have been bounced from a first grade debate team.

Predictably, the asteroid zooms right past liberal ears.  They’re covering it as a cause for action over at the liberal Media Matters for America media watch organization. Thread comments include the usual culture war fare like “strong women scare them to death.” When we’re in full tribal mode, no one seems willing to ignore the brain dead commentary and linger a moment on the underlying numbers.

Morality binds and blinds.

Here’s what they might have said:  the marriage rate has plunged to an all-time low.  7 of 10 black children are being raised in a single parent household, 5 in 10 hispanic children and 3 of 10 white children. Marriage is the structure around which civil society has been built and children have been raised – it’s the fundamental cooperative relationship in society – so we’ve got to stop and look at the potential damage this is doing to families and children.  

Here’s what they did say that critics aren’t paying any attention to: “systemically something is going terribly wrong in our society and it’s hurting our children” “we as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complimentary relationships and it’s tearing us apart.”

We suggest you might want to ignore the circus and look up.

Morality binds and blinds

cubeIt’s pretty obvious that America’s political landscape is deeply “tribal” right now. So great is the animus between elected leaders, they can barely muster the immature level of cooperation that exists on the average kindergarten playground, even when the America’s future rests on it. And it’s not just elected leadership, this tribalism is increasingly evident among average Americans too, as journalist Bill Bishop stumbled on accidentally when doing demographic research. He documents the trend in his book The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Likeminded America is Tearing Us Apart.

Inside each tribe, we consider ourselves the moral actors – the ones doing the right thing in the match-up between good and evil. Our moral compasses bind us to the people in our tribe we trust, rely on and find common cause with. Aside from Dr. Evil, few of us side with “bad” things done in the world. Surely that’s a start?

But the rub is this human quality of groupishness can really distort our accuracy in assessing reality – and thus can veer us off-course in taking moral action. Studies show that inside the “teams,” extremism thrives even to the point of believing things that are factually untrue. Just look at the other tribe to see the dynamic in action (it’s hard to see in your own). Yes… MORALITY BLINDS. It blinds us to seeing things our team doesn’t see. It’s like the mass delusion in the movie “The Matrix.” It’s what makes it so an “asteroid” can be barreling toward earth and about half of us just don’t see it coming.

What you may not know is that the human tendency to be tribal can also be credited with the incredible accomplishments of mankind – we are unique among animals in our ability to work in cooperation with others beyond our kinship ties. Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics & Religion:

Our tribal minds make it easy to divide us, but without our long period of tribal living there‘d be nothing to divide in the first place. There‘d be only small families of foragers—not nearly as sociable as today‘s hunter-gatherers—eking out a living and losing most of their members to starvation during every prolonged drought. The coevolution of tribal minds and tribal cultures didn‘t just prepare us for war; it also prepared us for far more peaceful coexistence within our groups, and, in modern times, for cooperation on a vast scale as well.

MORALITY ALSO BINDS. Our tribes serve a function, even in politics. Our founders understood our allegiances carried authority with them and built a system of governance around the checks, balances & and pressure of opposing forces and ideas. They considered what James Madison called “the constant clashing of opinion” healthy – and a critical protection against tyranny. But they expected that these groups of people would engage – they’d fight the good fight, and cooperate uneasily as a part of how America works.

Perhaps understanding our basic tribal nature – and that morality both binds us together and can blind us to reality – is the key to understanding how we have to work inside our human contraints. When we’re looking up at the sky – at our future – we’ve got to realize that some people might see “asteroids” better than we do. And we’ve got to find a way to see others as legitimate partners in protecting our future. You know, as members of the same Asteroids Club.

C.S. Lewis: “A hothouse of mutual admiration”

A hothouse of mutual admirationIn honor of the anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ birthday today: Remember in The Screwtape Letters , C.S. Lewis writes a fictitious letter by God’s enemy, a senior demon Screwtape, so references in the letter to “The Enemy” are references to God. References to “the patient” or “he” are to a man whose soul Screwtape is seeking. Read the entire clip of Letter #7 HERE.

“I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal. Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true…

“Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here, Your affectionate uncle SCREWTAPE”

Jonathan Haidt wows FSU: Professor Jonathan Haidt speaks about morality to a full house at the Student Life Cinema on Sept. 11

Written by Elena Novak, Contributing Writer

Imagine there’s an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. At its present rate, it will make impact in the year 2022. The human race is doomed; however, there is one controversial solution: raise taxes and cut spending. This would fund a project designed to divert the asteroid’s path.

The harrowing scenario began New York University Stern School of Business professor Jonathan Haidt’s speech addressing FSU students and the Tallahassee public on Sept. 11. His speech, entitled “The Righteous Mind: How morality binds us together and tears us apart,” was delivered to a filled-to-capacity Student Life Cinema on Tuesday evening.

Those who came late to the event were directed to an overflow room, where the lecture could be viewed on a projector screen.

There is no known asteroid bent toward destroying mankind; Haidt made it up as an experiment to gauge the audience’s willingness to implement measures that might go against their political views if it meant saving the world. The majority said they would. (Read the whole article online at FSView.)