Comment on “The Age of Outrage” by Jonathan Haidt

This is a response to the (transcript of) Jonathan Haidt’s recent lecture, which begins ominously: “What is happening to our country, and our universities? It sometimes seems that everything is coming apart.” If you are interested in why “it sometimes seems” that way, or whether any of this has any bearing on reality, you’ll have to look elsewhere, as here it is an unquestioned premise. Among other points, Haidt identifies 5 forces he claims either helped hold America together in the past but are now waning or are increasingly tearing America apart. I‘ll address each of these before returning to the overall premise.

External enemies: Fighting and winning two world wars, followed by the Cold War, had an enormous unifying effect. […] Since 1989, we have had no unifying common enemy.

That this “unifying” did not apply to, for example (and among many others), African Americans, Japanese Americans, communists or other targets of McCarthyism/COINTELPRO/etc, is a simple narrative inconvenience. Similarly, the ongoing war in Afghanistan having lasted about 160% as long as the next longest war in US history (Vietnam) is a minor detail, because Americans are evidently divided on whether or not terrorism is bad. I encourage proponents of #ViewpointDiversity like Haidt to consider the ultimate taboo in America: maybe war is actually bad and us bombing people all over the world doesn’t have any beneficial effects at home or elsewhere. In fact, what if war — with its massive toll in lives, economic opportunity costs, the damage to public trust caused by propaganda used to gain temporary support, the erosion of valuing others lives that occurs when we know our government is constantly killing innocent people, etc — actually drives us apart?

The media: Newspapers in the early days of the republic were partisan and often quite nasty. But with the advent of television in the mid-twentieth century, America experienced something unusual: the media was a gigantic centripetal force. Americans got much of their news from three television networks, which were regulated and required to show political balance. [emphasis added] […] Now we are drowning in outrage stories, very high-quality outrage stories, often supported by horrifying video clips. Social media is turning out to be a gigantic centrifugal force.

While arguing for liberalism, Haidt identifies the regulation of TV news as a source of unity. But putting that aside, since there is no evidence presented for the existence of this golden era of media when outrage stories didn’t dominate the headlines, I’ll just assert with an equal amount of evidence that there has never been a period where outrage stories didn’t dominate headlines. The news is dumb as hell and always has been. The main difference with social media — and the part that I believe bothers Haidt — is that with social media the choice of which stories get to dominate is now (somewhat) crowd-sourced rather than chosen by (almost exclusively) wealthy, white, educated, male producers, editors, or anchors. “Horrifying video clips” have shown the public how our police actually behave in the real world. Would Haidt prefer the #BlackLivesMatter movement had never occurred? (More on this later.)

Immigration and diversity: This one is complicated and politically fraught. Let me be clear that I think immigration and diversity are good things, overall. The economists seem to agree that immigration brings large economic benefits. The complete dominance of America in Nobel prizes, music, and the arts, and now the technology sector, would not have happened if we had not been open to immigrants. But as a social psychologist, I must point out that immigration and diversity have many sociological effects, some of which are negative.

A perfect example of American exceptionalism: America ranks 16th in Nobel prizes per capita, with about 1/3 the rate of Sweden, 1/2 that of the UK, and behind Germany, Israel, Ireland, etc… but this amounts to “complete dominance” because, uh, USA! USA! I don’t know why this is supposed to be a good metric anyway, because it would only demonstrate that we are the happy (and lazy?) beneficiaries of brain drain. The rest of this section is a bit confusing since it argues that immigration and diversity have positives and negatives, and doesn’t conclude much about the net effect. I’m left unconvinced that they’re having any effect, or that the actual rates of immigration have any relation to the efficacy of scapegoating immigrants as a cynical political move- which I think is the far more relevant aspect of this question to unity/divisiveness.

The more radical Republican Party: […] personal relationships among legislators and their families in Washington had long been a massive centripetal force. […]
[…] the Democrats did some polarizing things, too. Fair enough. […]

Earlier in the lecture, in one of the few points that mentions data, Haidt cited increasing two-party polarization of the American (voting?) public since the 1990’s. He’s now discussing the parties themselves, without giving any kind of systematic account of evidence that the GOP has changed any more or any differently since the 90’s than the Dems, or even asking (never mind attempting to answer) any questions about the underlying reasons why any of the parties are changing in any directions, or whether there is any relationship between these party changes and the aforementioned increasing polarization of the public. Is there any causal relationship, and if so, in which direction? I am again unconvinced about the importance and even the characterization of this force of division. I would argue it’s the Democratic Party which has been moving aggressively away from working class advocacy to try to earn support from business interests and the upper middle class, and that the GOP is only reacting to their grab at the “center” by seeking to make up for lost Wall Street money with votes from the far right.

I’ll also point out the sort of comfortable, elite, liberal ideal of government as a body of philosopher kings who are all friends with each other despite disagreeing on whether or not children starving is something the government should do something about. That’s not important, really, what’s important is reaching a bipartisan consensus on who to bomb next to unite the republic. And perhaps most importantly of all, legislators should not interact with the public, lest they get any ideas from the majority who, because of human nature, do not support free speech.

The new identity politics of the Left: Jonathan Rauch offers a simple definition of identity politics: a “political mobilization organized around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interest.” Rauch then adds: “In America, this sort of mobilization is not new, unusual, un­American, illegitimate, nefarious, or particularly left­wing.” This definition makes it easy for us to identify two kinds of identity politics: the good kind is that which, in the long run, is a centripetal force. The bad kind is that which, in the long run, is a centrifugal force.

Quite an intellectual feat: to explain the new identity politics of the left, Haidt cites a “simple definition” from Rauch which, according to Rauch, is “not new […] or particularly leftwing.” Haidt then offers a classification rule which can only be used in retrospect and is essentially tautological: the good kind of identity politics is that which, in the long run, is good.

The audacity is still just beginning, because next Haidt uses Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of good identity politics which was focused on uniting. Rather than say anything about this myself, I would love nothing more than for Haidt to read the words of MLK:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

After identifying these 5 forces, Haidt spends some time discussing intersectionality, first explaining Crenshaw’s original argument, which he calls “excellent,” before asking — cue dramatic music — “But what happens when young people study intersectionality?” (And now that the evolutionary psychology begins, I can’t resist taking some cheap shots…)

A funny thing happens when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side of each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.

Jonathan Haidt’s mind apparently evolved differently from those of young human beings (please don’t ask how that’s possible, or whether any of these evolutionary claims are backed by any evidence). He himself certainly isn’t finding a sense of meaning and purpose by engaging in tribal warfare against an imagined enemy.

Haidt’s side of the social justice war is good, the other side is bad.

But just to be clear, Haidt does (unironically) identify the enemy tribes:

My field — social psychology — for example, is quite sane. […] The problem on campus — the intense illiberalism — is concentrated in a few departments that are committed to political activism. […] it is mostly professors from about seven departments in the humanities and identity studies.

You see, it’s very important for students to be exposed to a diversity of viewpoints, so Haidt and company have helpfully created a ranking of universities so students can choose to safely major in STEM somewhere they won’t be accosted by those mean SJWs or forced to learn about bad things like intersectionality and power. (Sadly, Haidt’s employer, and mine, is near the bottom of the ranking). Professors should also be exposed to a diversity of viewpoints, but not by talking to those terrifyingly powerful students, instead they should listen to the voices of the unheard, the downtrodden, the afraid: college presidents.

Some college presidents are starting to stand up. […] I have spoken with several other college presidents who would like to stand up publicly but still feel that the illiberal factions on their campuses are too strong.

Once upon a time there was a golden era of liberal education, when Jonathan Haidt attended university and learned to think in diverse ways. Supposedly, one of those methods of thinking was humanism, but this is hard to believe, as any humanities student would easily recognize his central idea of the “fine-tuned liberal democracy” as a convenient myth. America has never been liberal nor a democracy, never mind a fine-tuned one. Why doesn’t he see this? Since Haidt’s enemies only think in terms of power, he must balance them out by refusing to ever emphasize it himself. Press him on a specific example, like slavery or police killings, and he’ll acknowledge it sure enough, but he’s just not interested in thinking that way unless someone else requires it.

Haidt’s self-serving biases (which he seems able to identify in just about every group he doesn’t belong to) make him a poor advocate for the liberalism he claims to value. Social media gave more people platforms, and exposed them to a greater diversity of other voices than ever before, but to Haidt this is just the “age of outrage.” Student activists are paying too much attention to the extreme and non-representative examples they see magnified by social media. They are being tricked into thinking some problem is much worse than it really is. But a viral video of a professor yelling at another professor and calling him privileged?! Now that is cause for alarm. A nazi-spokesman internet troll wasn’t able to perform his circus act on a stage at Berkeley? RIP freedom of speech and intellectual inquiry. (I apologize for this, to actual circus performers, who, unlike milo, have talent and do something valuable and entertaining). How will students ever learn that “feminism is cancer” now? How will they grow if they aren’t challenged by the important ideas of phrenology?

It’s somewhat understandable why classical liberals wouldn’t want to acknowledge the threats to free speech that come from other kinds of “free speech,” like billionaires exercising their rights to buy up media companies or lobby the government, because that’s awkward. If my political philosophy were self-contradictory I would want to avoid talking about that, too. What I really can’t accept is that students exercising their free speech is somehow the one exception to this. Liberalism abhors any limits being placed on the accumulation of power, unless a dozen students occupy a classroom and prevent a lecture from occurring, because that would be tyranny.

In a narrow, two-party identification sense, it’s true that America is becoming polarized. But why is that a problem? Having more political parties gives us more choice. Would we be better off if our only two parties functioned more like one? I claim polarization is a good thing. Students caring enough about their learning experience to argue over the curriculum and even disrupt the classroom is also a good thing. I’ve not seen any evidence that there’s more outrage in our current era than any previous one, but if there was, that would be a good thing, too. There’s a lot to be outraged about. Even Jonathan Haidt agrees with that, he just prefers to call it “being alarmed” when he does it.