Thursday, March 31, 2016

Liberal Emphasis on Breadth, Its Limits, and Its Failings

All right, I have posted on Donald Trump followers as authoritarians.  And I have relied heavily on Jonathan Haidt, who warns against simply identifying authoritarianism with conservatism, i.e., a high value on social cohesion. Instead, he defines authoritarians as people who place a high value on social cohesion and a low value on compassion.  I would like to give some thought to the meaning of what it is to be liberal, conservative, or authoritarian, even apart from Donald Trump and his followers.  And I would like to give some thought to how conservatism differs from authoritarianism -- and the ways in which they are alike.

So let me try my own ideas here once again.  There is a trade-off between depth and breadth of social commitment.  And I would roughly define liberals as people who prefer breadth and conservatives as people who favor depth.  And, it should be noted, social depth and social breadth are both good  things.  Unfortunately there is a trade-off between them. And I am inclined to think that conservatives understand this trade-off better than liberals do.  That is (presumably) why conservatives are so inclined to resist any broadening of social commitments, because they see it as a threat to depth.

Liberals, by contrast, are either blind to the importance of depth, or vaguely regret the lost of depth in today's society, without recognizing that it is tied to the increase in breadth.  This blindness to depth is a serious failing among liberals.  It is, in large part, what Haidt is talking about when he talks about the "binding foundations."  These foundations, of group loyalty, respect for authority, and reverence for the sacred can more broadly be described as social cohesion, and more broadly still as social depth.  And really, if you don't understand the value of social depth, you are missing something very important.  Consider this Vox article, in which the author wearily tries to explain to liberals why, really, social depth is important and valuable:
Everyone knows their purpose, knows their neighbors, and has a common understanding of what America means. Consequently there is an ease and harmony to life. Because people know where they stand and feel secure, small acts of generosity and social solidarity are common. 
Someone offers to help when your car breaks down on the side of the road. You buy a kid a soda. Police help people across the street. Everyone knows each other, knows that we are an Us, so there's a background level of trust and support.
Another example is from Sara Robinson at Orcinus, on why people may be attracted to fundamentalist churches and how to encourage them to leave.  Obviously many people are brought up in such churches.  Leaving can often mean a painful loss of social depth:
Former fundamentalists often mourn the hothouse intensity of their family and church ties -- even when they're simultaneously grateful not to be under the constant watchful eyes of all those intrusively "caring" people, and free of the manipulations used to keep them in line. On our side of the wall, that level of intimacy is harder to come by. What feels like an appropriate respect for other people's boundaries to us may feel fairly cold and uncaring to them, and it may take a while before they become accustomed to the more temperate social climate that prevails on our side of the wall. . . . They may respond to our misfortunes with a generosity that we find a bit unsettling; or, conversely, they may expect us to become involved with theirs to an extent that's frustrating to us and disappointing to them. It's best to remember that what's really happening here is a bit of cross-cultural miscommunication, and deal with it in that same multiculti spirit. It's something we're supposed to be good at.
She also comments that people are most attracted to such churches in times of stress or crisis because of the support they offer.  It does not seem to occur to her that the failure of broader-committed liberal society to offer similar support is a serious failing.

Or consider liberal Episcopalian Bruce Bawer in his book Stealing Jesus (page 229), who can barely restrain his contempt for Evangelical mega-church Willow Creek:
[T]he culture of a place like Willow Creek suggests that the name of Jesus Christ has been attached to something that is less about the gospel than it is about people's desire to achieve for their families a safe, controlled environment -- the ecclesiastic equivalent of a gated community.  Observers have noted that Willow Creek members can spend a whole weekend at the church's campus, eating at the food court and enjoying various other services and diversions; members who need, say, emergency car repair or tooth extraction can call day or night on fellow members who do those things for a living.
Well, it shouldn't have to be said, but it is good to belong to a close-knit community and know you can call on members for emergency car repairs or tooth extraction whenever needed.  It is also a fine example of Christian charity to offer those services on a personal rather than commercial basis.  On page 224 he recounts an exchange with a conservative Episcopalian who said that Christianity is about looking after one's own, while he said that it is about the opposite.

This is an ongoing dispute I see in blog comments sections that really allow opposing viewpoints and are not mere echo chambers or shouting matches.  Conservative Christians say that Christianity is about social depth.  Liberal Christians say that it is about social breadth.  In fact, it is about both. Christianity makes unrealistic, impossible demands on its adherents.  As a church it is free to do so. In setting social policy, however, we have to take human nature as it is, not as it should be.  And the simple fact is that there is a trade-off between social breadth and social depth that must be taken into account in setting public policy.  To focus exclusively on breadth and ignore the value of depth is to build a remarkably cold, impersonal society, an ultimate fraying of the social bond.  And to dismiss the desire for depth and mere bigotry is to invite a backlash from the likes of Donald Trump or Marine LePen.

This is not to suggest that conservatives are right and liberals are wrong, or that we should always resolve the trade-off between depth and breadth in favor of depth.  But that trade-off does exist, social depth is a thing of value, and the trade-off needs to be openly acknowledged and debated, not simply and automatically resolved in favor of breadth.

NOTE:  Updated to link and quote the Vox article that I was not able to find before.

No comments:

Post a Comment