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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tribalism vs Morality?

I have defined tribalism as consisting of two dynamics: intense, dehumanizing competition between groups, and intense competition for status within group hierarchies. I then went on to identify the first of these dynamics as a recurrent theme in populist conservatism. Conservatives demonstrate tribal aggressiveness ("It's us versus them and we're better") in their positions on foreign policy (Hawks!), immigration, gun control, and, I would argue, even in economic policy.

"I don't want my tax dollars going to assholes who refuse to work," is the mantra, which begs questions about those who can't work, lack the education to get a decent job, work but don't make enough to support themselves and their families, work but go bankrupt because of medical expenses, and on and on. Conservative economic thinking is tribal because it reduces the population of the country to two categories, the deserving and the undeserving, and shows an inhuman lack of empathy toward the group to which the conservatives are sure they don't belong.

But what about the other dynamic? Where, if anywhere, does hierarchy come into play in populist conservative thought? A recent study carried out by Daniel C. Wisneski, Brad L. Lytle, and Lind J. Skitka attempted to prise apart the roles of religiosity and moral conviction in determining attitudes toward authority. They discovered something surprising: highly religious people tend to be more trusting of authority, while people claiming to have strong moral convictions tend to automatically distrust authority. The surprise was that religiosity and moral conviction don't go hand-in-hand, and, in this study, weren't even related. Now, this is one study, and it was based on attitudes to a specific authority, namely the Supreme Court, in regard to a specific issue, physician assisted suicide. But the results, especially the fact that people who were religious didn't claim to have strong moral convictions, is suggestive.

Euthanasia and abortion are issues that can't be seen in terms of outgroup hostility. But, if the conservative position on them is based on authority, i.e. the dictates handed down from those atop the hierarchy, then we're still dealing with tribalism. I say if because although this study is suggestive we still have to reserve judgment. And it's possible to identify the tribalism inherent in conservatism even if we allow for a couple of exceptions. But still, it's telling that opposition to abortion and euthanasia are so inextricably tied to Christianity, with its big alpha in the sky, who alone has the authority to decide on matters of life and death. Are there any non-religious groups who are anti-abortion?


caynazzo said...

This reminds me of the butt-bomber in the news right now. He hated the House of Saud so completely he kept a bomb in his butt for 30 hours for a chance to blow up the Saudi Counter Terrorism Chief. He even made it through airport security. Are exploding asses headed for the US? Ultimately, he failed in his life's goal, and so probably won't get the virgins, but he proved how to get bottled water on a plane.

caynazzo said...

broken link in your post