Sunday, April 3, 2016

Conservative Emphasis on Depth, Its Limits, and Its Failings

Just because I have criticized liberals for focusing excessively on social breadth and ignored the importance of depth does not mean that I am siding with conservatives, or that I think depth is superior.  If liberals tend to dismiss conservative preference for depth as mere bigotry, conservatives tend to see the liberal preference for breadth as outright treason.  They are right that liberals tend to be highly self-critical of our own society and its failings, while less so of the failings of other societies.  I can only ask them to understand:
The love of one’s own – one’s own culture, one’s own country and also one’s own person – manifests itself in self-criticism. The love of the other – of another person, another culture and even another religion – can be far more effusive; it can be unreserved. It is true that the prerequisite for love of the other is love of oneself. . . . Self-love must be a struggling, doubting, constantly questioning love if it is to avoid falling prey to narcissism, self-praise, self-satisfaction.
Exactly so.

Social depth is certainly valuable.  It makes for a tight-knit society, a more personal and more human  society than one that emphasized breadth over depth.  It answers the paradox of why conservatives, despite valuing compassion less than liberals, donation more to charity, do more volunteer work, etc. Charitable donation, volunteer work, civic engagement, and so forth are part of social depth.  A preference for breadth is going to sacrifice these things.  But depth has its problems as well.  Tight-knit societies can seem intrusive as well as caring.  They can be harsh in their treatment of non-conformists.  They are often cliquish and gossipy.  Their informal means of enforcing norms are not necessarily any more pleasant than the formal means used by broader but shallower societies.

But above all, people who prefer depth to breadth still have to figure out how to deal with the outside world.  At best, they tend to be incurious and indifferent to it, to ignore the outside world and hope that it won't bother them.  What if the outside world fails to cooperate?  I have discussed Robert Altemeyer's work The Authoritarians before and why it is the perfect example of pathologizing conservatism, i.e., the preference for depth over breadth.  Certainly, Altemeyer makes the case in favor of social breadth (which I do not dispute), but nowhere does he acknowledge the value of social depth at all, much less explain why breadth is worth any concomitant loss of depth -- or does he?

The closest if really comes to making the argument that breadth is better than depth is in his description of how differing groups played The Global Change Game, a complex, multi-player game intended to promote environmental awareness.  (Since environmentalism was not yet a culture war issue, there was no resistance to such a game among conservatives).  The liberal group (i.e., people who preferred breadth to depth) did not really see their assignment into different nationalities as meaningful and therefore were able to work together as one group to deal with the environmental problems the game threw at them (pp. 31-32).

Things were quite different (pp. 181-182, 186) when he played the game among people who he called right-wing authoritarians, and others might call authoritarian followers (no leaders), Haidt might call social conservatives (people who put a high value on social cohesion, but are not lacking in compassion), some might simply call conservatives, and I will call people who prefer depth to breadth (conservatives for short).  Assigned to separate groups, each group was close-knit and worked well together.  Leaders stayed home and sincerely addressed themselves to their groups' problems.  The various groups were not in any way hostile toward each other, but neither did they cooperate across boundaries.  They simply wanted to be left alone and were perfectly prepared to leave others alone in turn.  Wealthy countries made some charitable donations to poorer ones, but showed no interest in working with them on a serious level.  But the environmental problems thrown at them were bigger than any country could handle on its own, and no one knew how to reach beyond their groups to address them.  Indeed, Altemeyer comments, their preference for depth over breadth reached absurd lengths here.  They were, after all, among people just like themselves, people they could normally for real social depth with.  The assignment into different countries was perfectly arbitrary.  Yet once assigned, they limited their commitments to the people arbitrarily assigned to their group and showed no interest in anyone else.

I can see conservatives crying liberal bias here.  It is not as obvious as in Altemeyer's research, but the bias may subconsciously be there.  If you want people to start addressing global environmental problems, you are apt to favor people who can cooperate on a global scale to deal with them, i.e., people who value social breadth more than depth.  Doubtless other games could be devised that would show the advantages of depth over breadth.  But this game does ultimately illustrate a reality. There really are problems (environmental and otherwise) that are global in scale and that can only be addressed on a trans-national basis.  People who are absolutely dead-set against any sort of international cooperation as an intolerable threat to national sovereignty are going to be very poorly equipped to deal with such problems and can only respond by denying that they exist altogether.

Nor does this problem come up only in the context of global problems.  So far as I can make out from blog comment sections, the ideal of people who prefer depth to breadth is a society of nations all of perfect ethnic uniformity, with no migration and minimal interaction of any kind, avoiding conflict by having as little to do with each other as possible.  Even within a nation, the preference tends to be for small, tight-knit communities, as uniform as possible, with migration and interaction existent, but decidedly low.  I do not consider this approach to be a realistic one.  A country as large and as commercial as the United States cannot hold together without a significant amount of breadth in our social commitments.

Conservatives often argue against a preference for breadth over depth on the grounds that it is simply not human nature to broaden our social commitments, that the preference for depth over breadth is innate, and that liberals are trying to achieve the impossible.  To this I would respond that if there has been one long-run trend throughout the arc of history, it has been toward greater breadth.  Yes, granted, this has been paid for with a loss of depth.  And it has not always been pretty.  But it has happened.  This is not an argument for inevitable progress or being on the right side of history, or proof that breadth is preferable to depth because it has grown over time.  It is simply an argument that expansion is breadth is obviously possible, given that it has happened.

And I would make another response on the subject of preferring depth to breadth.  If the ideal of people who prefer depth to breadth is a world of self-contained units avoiding conflict by interacting as little as possible, I would ask when such a thing has ever happened.  If any social vision is impossible, it is that.

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