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Why we must all reduce our moral certainties

Rally to Restore Sanity, Washington DC, 2010.

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Flickr/Monique Wingard. CC BY 2.0.

It has been three years since the UK’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in the USA, events that were followed by a long string of authoritarian and far-right populist victories across the world. However, most diagnoses of the underlying dynamics that led us into this mess continue to be astonishingly shallow.

Aside from broad agreement that the algorithms of facebook, twitter and youtube have played a key role in influencing elections, two contrasting diagnoses dominate progressive discourse. One is that real economic fears and grievances exist among parts of societies, and far-right populists have cultivated this fertile ground to blame immigrants, manipulate people and drive forward a xenophobic and racist agenda in politics.

This explanation apparently shows how easily people can be manipulated to turn against each other, as demagogues have demonstrated many times over in the course of history. However, if the economic situation were such an important factor, why is the populist left not benefitting from these fears much more extensively? The reason is that economic hardship and self-interest is not an important driver for most people who vote for far right parties, as research shows clearly.

The second popular explanation argues that it isn’t the most disadvantaged people who vote for the far right anyway, but rather a privileged class of older white men who fear losing their dominance in an increasingly multicultural and open society, and who see a chance to pursue agendas that they had previously kept hidden from view. In other words, most Trump voters and Brexiteers are racists and misogynists.

However, the data don’t support this argument either. In a study by the Open Society Foundations carried out in 2019 across France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Greece on people’s views about the ‘open society and its values,’ only nine per cent of respondents rejected the importance of freedom of religion, protection of minorities, and equal treatment of immigrants. However, 59% believed that a good society should incorporate the ideals of both the open society and the ‘closed society’ – which included values such as protecting a country’s borders and preserving the dominance of traditional majority culture.

Another study by the organisation More In Common that analysed the values and political views of US citizens reached a similar conclusion: an ‘exhausted majority’ of 67% of the population are “flexible in their views, and willing to endorse different policies according to the precise situation rather than sticking ideologically to a single set of beliefs.” Only eight per cent of those surveyed held views that were fully in line with progressive activists who are concerned about social justice and equality above all other values.

These studies show that relatively few people explicitly reject the advances that have been made with regard to the rights of women and minorities over the last decades, but also that an important segment of society feels threatened by the speed of change in these areas in recent years. They are not the enemies of social progress as such, but they do see important trade-offs between further progress and the stability of their societies that still have to be resolved. The core of the issue is that the recent surge of authoritarian populism attests to a clash between different moral worldviews that is regularly misinterpreted and misunderstood.

Voters who support far-right populist parties are often people in rural areas who value stability, order and being rooted in a local community, things they fear losing as their identity is threatened. In 2005 the psychologist Karen Stenner had already predicted the current political situation after finding that authoritarianism is to a large extent both heritable and relatively immutable. According to her research, around one third of people across Europe and the United States have a predisposition for becoming more intolerant and supportive of authoritarian politics if they feel the things that matter most to them are being threatened.

This tendency typically lies dormant until a threat is perceived. The conditions that can activate and aggravate such feelings include a loss of societal consensus and shared beliefs, and/or an erosion of cultural or group identity, sometimes expressed as a loss of ‘who we are’ or ‘our way of life.’

If we want to fight polarisation more effectively, we need to understand that compared to the rest of the world, the Western, urban, well-educated liberal progressive class is the exception not the norm, a class that’s also been described as ‘WEIRD’ (for ‘Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic). The vast majority of the global population (including rural and traditionalist working classes in Western societies) care about their religion, nation and family as much as the rights of minorities and the pursuit of social justice.

In his book The Righteous Mind, the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt lays out the variety of moral systems that govern human societies, based on a common set of six moral foundations that he claims are shared by all human beings. Haidt shows how human morality has its roots in the moral intuitions children are born with. Mainly from studying twins, we know that people’s morality and political attitudes are heritable by up to 50%.

The morality of WEIRD people has helped to protect individuals and advance their rights: it is incontestable that the moral foundations of care and fairness (in other words, of social justice) have made the world a better place, with less discrimination and oppression. But more conservative moral foundations like authority and loyalty to one’s own group have also been important tools in human evolution. They have helped to bind people together and advance large-scale human cooperation.

Obviously, Haidt’s empirical research on these moral foundations doesn’t tell us that we cannot or should not try to advance the idea of social justice even further. But it can provide us with a useful dose of realism: there is more to morality than social justice. When activists develop ideas and strategies for a fairer world, knowing what most people actually value obviously matters for success. And possibly, the morality of non-WEIRD people may carry some of its own wisdom about how to run societies from which others can learn.

In fact, the current political landscape makes it more urgent and important than ever to get out of our bubbles and identify pathways for society in which people with differing moralities can co-exist peacefully. This requires reducing our moral certainties and cultivating more generosity of spirit. The open society can only exist if everybody is capable of being tolerant, and that has to include tolerance towards those who hold traditional values. One of the characteristics of liberal societies is precisely that people with different views can manage to live together without always aiming to convert the other side.

Stenner suggests that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about and applauding our sameness. This is what Mark Lilla meant when he wrote that “We must relearn to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals – including the ones to benefit particular groups – in terms of principles that everyone can affirm.”

In doing this - in cultivating tolerance towards non-WEIRD people while still resisting far-right populism - activists can learn, for example, from the mistakes of the large anti-Nazi/anti-far-right #unteilbar demonstrations that were organised in 2018 and 2019 in Berlin. The organisers didn’t allow participants to hold German flags as a stance against nationalism. But what signal does that send to people who feel that their national identity is being threatened, and who are attracted by an authoritarian narrative that promises to restore national pride?

Resistance against far-right populism is important, but progressive activists could be more effective in combating polarisation and authoritarianism if they learned that in essence, disputes come down to fundamental differences in morality. If we could manage to take off our own powerful moral lenses, at least temporarily, we might realize that the ‘evil’ we’ve been seeing isn’t always evil, and proceed accordingly.

One way or another, we have to get along with that considerable part of our societies who hold a worldview that is different to ours. We don’t have to like them, but we would do well to respect them. We can’t change them, and they’re not going to go away, so we have to find a way to live with them. If we want to continue living in free and open democracies, we have to reach compromises that allow everybody to be reasonably secure and comfortable.

If we don't learn this lesson, the enemies of the open society might destroy our democracies, and we will lose much of the enormous social progress that has been made in recent years.

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