Saturday, April 28, 2012

In-Group Loyalty: The Darker Side

As my last post suggests, I think there is much to admire in a stronger sense on in-group loyalty, particularly its ability to build close-knit communities that take care of their own.  At the same time, close-knit communities have their shortcomings.  Free market economics tend to undermine them, something that conservatives and libertarians are unwilling or unable to face.  And a great many problems are simply too big for each community to handle on its own.  We need more cooperation across boundaries.  But those are more in the nature of limitations than actual shortcomings.  Strong in-group loyalty has inherent flaws that limit how far any liberal in good conscience can endorse it.

The problem is this.  Deepening ties with one’s in-group means weakening ties with out-groups.  Haidt assumes that the opposite of in-group loyalty is disloyalty or even betrayal.  But what if the opposite of in-group loyalty is, in fact, universalism?  What if what conservatives see as disloyalty in liberals is, in fact, universality?  What if what liberals dismiss as ethnocentrism or bigotry in conservatives is really in-group loyalty? 

The conservative value of in-group loyalty can conflict with the universal value of justice.  And I don’t primarily mean the highly controversial concept of social justice, but the far less controversial notion of criminal justice.  Liberals have the reputation of being soft on crime.  But when do we start sounding tough and insisting that whoever is guilty should be convicted and punished?  Some might say, when it sets off hot buttons about oppressed minorities (see Duke lacrosse team, killing of Trayon Martin).  And I will concede that.  But I believe we also start getting tough on crime when we perceive someone’s in-group loyalties as standing in the way of universal justice, even when those in-group loyalties are the loyalties of an oppressed minority.  The O.J. Simpson murder trial exposed a wide racial gap, but not an ideological gap.  Blacks and whites saw themselves on opposite sides.  But white liberals and white conservatives generally saw eye to eye, insisting that justice must trump racial loyalties. 

So how do I know that universal standards of justice are more important than in-group loyalty?  The sure proof of the need for a universal standard of justice superseding in-group loyalty is how offended everyone gets when someone else’s in-group puts loyalty ahead of justice.  Whether it is white juries acquitting lynch mobs, black juries acquitting O.J. Simpson, police covering up corruption in their midst, inmates whose sole code of honor is not to snitch, unions resisting the firing of a member for clear misconduct, bishops transferring pedophile priests from parish to parish, or family members hiding the knife their brother used to kill his girlfriend – all these provoke outrage in anyone outside the affected in-group.  Indeed, I think it fair to say conservatives are often the most offended.

In-group loyalty strengthens the foundation of care among in-group members.  But it can dangerously narrow the circle of people considered worthy of any kind of care.  Alexis de Tocqueville addressed this issue very well in Democracy in America.  Speaking of the mixture of heroism and cruelty one reads about in the Middle Ages, he says:

Feudal institutions awakened a lively sympathy for the sufferings of certain men, but none at all for the miseries of mankind. They infused generosity rather than mildness into the customs of the time; and although they prompted men to great acts of self-devotion, they created no real sympathies, for real sympathies can exist only between those who are alike, and in aristocratic ages men acknowledge none but the members of their own caste to be like themselves.

When the chroniclers of the Middle Ages, who all belonged to the aristocracy by birth or education, relate the tragic end of a noble, their grief flows apace; whereas they tell you at a breath and without wincing of massacres and tortures inflicted on the common sort of people. Not that these writers felt habitual hatred or systematic disdain for the people; war between the several classes of the community was not yet declared. They were impelled by an instinct rather than by a passion; as they had formed no clear notion of a poor man's sufferings, they cared but little for his fate.
He contrasted with with the broader but weaker ties of a democratic society: 
In democratic ages men rarely sacrifice themselves for one another, but they display general compassion for the members of the human race. They inflict no useless ills, and they are happy to relieve the griefs of others when they can do so without much hurting themselves; they are not disinterested, but they are humane.
Clearly, Tocqueville sees room to regret the decline of the fierce loyalty and devotion that one saw during the Middle Ages.  But he considers it more than counterbalanced by the broadening of basic humane standards to more people. 

Worse, in-group loyalty can mean more than just indifference to outsiders.  One of the best ways to maintain cohesion within one’s group is in the form of solidarity against an outside menace.  Consider George Wallace's (in)famous quote: "I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor."  In other words, people cared less about things that could improve their material well-being than about in-group solidarity against some hated out-group.  The specific out-groups have changed since then, but little else.  Right wing politicians all too often show a need for scapegoats of some kind.  When blacks ceased being acceptable scapegoats, they switched to gays.  Now that gays are becoming an unacceptable scapegoat, Muslims are taking their place.  Or, if Muslims are too remote and unreal, illegal immigrants.  In the past, Catholics were once a popular choice.  And, of course, always the hated liberal elite.  Republican primaries all too often sound like contests to see who can be most brutal and inhumane to the largest number of people outside their in-group.

Haidt asks if the Democratic Party can broaden its appeal to the conservative values of loyalty, authority and the sacred without compromising its principals.  I can only answer that if the suggestion is to stop carrying about oppressed people because they aren’t part of most people’s in-group, or to narrow the circle of people we think worthy of any decency in order to strengthen ties within the smaller group, than my answer is no.  Indeed, Haidt has helped me define what it is to be a liberal.  For now, I will define a liberal as one who places, or aspires to place, universal moral rules ahead of in-group loyalty.  Liberals, by this definition, invariably make up a minority of the population.  Most people are at best indifferent and at worst hostile to people outside their in-group and have little use for bleeding hearts who want to expand the circle of care. But despised liberals lose and lose and lose again, only to end up emerging triumphant as European immigrants, or Catholics or blacks or gays or other despised scapegoats over time become accepted into the larger circle of what it is to be American and (I hope some day) human.

No comments:

Post a Comment