So, Jon, this feels scary.
It feels like the world is in a place that we haven't seen for a long time. People don't just disagree in the way that we're familiar with, on the left-right political divide. There are much deeper differences afoot. What on earth is going on, and how did we get here?
This is different. There's a much more apocalyptic sort of feeling. Survey research by Pew Research shows that the degree to which we feel that the other side is not just—we don't just dislike them; we strongly dislike them, and we think that they are a threat to the nation. Those numbers have been going up and up, and those are over 50 percent now on both sides. People are scared, because it feels like this is different than before; it's much more intense.
Whenever I look at any sort of puzzle, any sort of social puzzle, I always just apply the three basic principles of moral psychology, and I think they'll help us here. So the first thing that you have to always keep in mind when you're thinking about politics is that we're tribal. We evolved for tribalism. One of the simplest and greatest insights into human social nature is the Bedouin proverb: "Me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; me and my brother and cousins against the stranger." And so that tribalism allowed us to create large societies and to come together in order to compete with others. That brought us out of the jungle and out of small groups, but it means that we have eternal conflict. And the question you have to look at is: What aspects of our society are making that more bitter, and what are calming them down?
That's a very dark proverb. You're saying that that's actually baked into most people's mental wiring at some level?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And this is just a basic aspect of human social cognition. But we can also live together really peacefully, and we've invented all kinds of fun ways of, like, playing war. I mean, sports, politics—these are all ways that we get to exercise this tribal nature without actually hurting anyone. So we're also really good at trade and exploration and meeting new people. So you have to see our tribalism as something that goes up or down—it's not like we're doomed to always be fighting each other, but we'll never have world peace.
The size of that tribe can shrink or expand.
The size of what we consider "us" and what we consider "other" or "them" can change. And some people believed that process could continue indefinitely.
And we were indeed expanding the sense of tribe for a while.
So this is, I think, where we're getting at what's possibly the new left-right distinction. I mean, the left-right as we've all inherited, it comes out of the labor versus capital distinction, and the working class, and Marx. But I think what we're seeing now, increasingly, is a divide in all the Western democracies between the people who want to stop at nation, the people who are more parochial—and I don't mean that in a bad way—people who have much more of a sense of being rooted, they care about their town, their community and their nation. And then those who are anti-parochial and who—whenever I get confused, I just think of the John Lennon song "Imagine." "Imagine there's no countries, nothing to kill or die for." And so these are the people who want more global governance, they don't like nation states, they don't like borders. You see this all over Europe as well. There's a great metaphor guy—actually, his name is Shakespeare—writing ten years ago in Britain. He had a metaphor: "Are we drawbridge-uppers or drawbridge-downers?" And Britain is divided 52-48 on that point. And America is divided on that point, too.
And so, those of us who grew up with The Beatles and that sort of hippie philosophy of dreaming of a more connected world—and it felt so idealistic and "how could anyone think badly about that?" And what you're saying is that, actually, millions of people today feel that that isn't just silly; it's actually dangerous and wrong, and they're scared of it.
I think the big issue, especially in Europe but also here, is the issue of immigration. And I think this is where we have to look very carefully at the social science about diversity and immigration. Once something becomes politicized, once it becomes something that the left loves and the right—then even the social scientists can't think straight about it. Now, diversity is good in a lot of ways. It clearly creates more innovation. The American economy has grown enormously from it. Diversity and immigration do a lot of good things. But what the globalists, I think, don't see, what they don't want to see, is that ethnic diversity cuts social capital and trust.
There's a very important study by Robert Putnam, the author of "Bowling Alone," looking at social capital databases. And basically, the more people feel that they are the same, the more they trust each other, the more they can have a redistributionist welfare state. Scandinavian countries are so wonderful because they have this legacy of being small, homogenous countries. And that leads to a progressive welfare state, a set of progressive left-leaning values, which says, "Drawbridge down! The world is a great place. People in Syria are suffering—we must welcome them in." And it's a beautiful thing. But if, and I was in Sweden this summer, if the discourse in Sweden is fairly politically correct and they can't talk about the downsides, you end up bringing a lot of people in. That's going to cut social capital, it makes it hard to have a welfare state and they might end up, as we have in America, with a racially divided, visibly racially divided, society. So this is all very uncomfortable to talk about. But I think this is the thing, especially in Europe and for us, too, we need to be looking at.
You're saying that people of reason, people who would consider themselves not racists, but moral, upstanding people, have a rationale that says humans are just too different; that we're in danger of overloading our sense of what humans are capable of, by mixing in people who are too different.
Well, yes, but I can make it much more palatable by saying it's not necessarily about race. It's about culture. There's wonderful work by a political scientist named Karen Stenner, who shows that when people have a sense that we are all united, we're all the same, there are many people who have a predisposition to authoritarianism. Those people aren't particularly racist when they feel as through there's not a threat to our social and moral order. But if you prime them experimentally by thinking we're coming apart, people are getting more different, then they get more racist, homophobic, they want to kick out the deviants. So it's in part that you get an authoritarian reaction. The left, following through the Lennonist line—the John Lennon line—does things that create an authoritarian reaction.
We're certainly seeing that in America with the alt-right. We saw it in Britain, we've seen it all over Europe. But the more positive part of that is that I think the localists, or the nationalists, are actually right—that, if you emphasize our cultural similarity, then race doesn't actually matter very much. So an assimilationist approach to immigration removes a lot of these problems. And if you value having a generous welfare state, you've got to emphasize that we're all the same.
OK, so rising immigration and fears about that are one of the causes of the current divide. What are other causes?
The next principle of moral psychology is that intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. You've probably heard the term "motivated reasoning" or "confirmation bias." There's some really interesting work on how our high intelligence and our verbal abilities might have evolved not to help us find out the truth, but to help us manipulate each other, defend our reputation... We're really, really good at justifying ourselves. And when you bring group interests into account, so it's not just me, it's my team versus your team, whereas if you're evaluating evidence that your side is wrong, we just can't accept that. So this is why you can't win a political argument. If you're debating something, you can't persuade the person with reasons and evidence, because that's not the way reasoning works. So now, give us the internet, give us Google: "I heard that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Let me Google that—oh my God! 10 million hits! Look, he was!"
So this has come as an unpleasant surprise to a lot of people. Social media has often been framed by techno-optimists as this great connecting force that would bring people together. And there have been some unexpected counter-effects to that.
That's right. That's why I'm very enamored of yin-yang views of human nature and left-right—that each side is right about certain things, but then it goes blind to other things. And so the left generally believes that human nature is good: bring people together, knock down the walls and all will be well. The right—social conservatives, not libertarians—social conservatives generally believe people can be greedy and sexual and selfish, and we need regulation, and we need restrictions. So, yeah, if you knock down all the walls, allow people to communicate all over the world, you get a lot of porn and a lot of racism.
So help us understand. These principles of human nature have been with us forever. What's changed that's deepened this feeling of division?
You have to see six to ten different threads all coming together. I'll just list a couple of them. So in America, one of the big—actually, America and Europe—one of the biggest ones is World War II. There's interesting research from Joe Henrich and others that says if your country was at war, especially when you were young, then we test you 30 years later in a commons dilemma or a prisoner's dilemma, you're more cooperative. Because of our tribal nature, if you're—my parents were teenagers during World War II, and they would go out looking for scraps of aluminum to help the war effort. I mean, everybody pulled together. And so then these people go on, they rise up through business and government, they take leadership positions. They're really good at compromise and cooperation. They all retire by the '90s. So we're left with baby boomers by the end of the '90s. And their youth was spent fighting each other within each country, in 1968 and afterwards. The loss of the World War II generation, "The Greatest Generation," is huge. So that's one.
Another, in America, is the purification of the two parties. There used to be liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. So America had a mid-20th century that was really bipartisan. But because of a variety of factors that started things moving, by the 90's, we had a purified liberal party and conservative party. So now, the people in either party really are different, and we really don't want our children to marry them, which, in the '60s, didn't matter very much. So, the purification of the parties. Third is the internet and, as I said, it's just the most amazing stimulant for post-hoc reasoning and demonization.
The tone of what's happening on the internet now is quite troubling. I just did a quick search on Twitter about the election and saw two tweets next to each other. One, against a picture of racist graffiti: "This is disgusting! Ugliness in this country, brought to us by #Trump." And then the next one is: "Crooked Hillary dedication page. Disgusting!" So this idea of "disgust" is troubling to me. Because you can have an argument or a disagreement about something, you can get angry at someone. Disgust, I've heard you say, takes things to a much deeper level.
That's right. Disgust is different. Anger—you know, I have kids. They fight 10 times a day, and they love each other 30 times a day. You just go back and forth: you get angry, you're not angry; you're angry, you're not angry. But disgust is different. Disgust paints the person as subhuman, monstrous, deformed, morally deformed. Disgust is like indelible ink. There's research from John Gottman on marital therapy. If you look at the faces—if one of the couple shows disgust or contempt, that's a predictor that they're going to get divorced soon, whereas if they show anger, that doesn't predict anything, because if you deal with anger well, it actually is good.
So this election is different. Donald Trump personally uses the word "disgust" a lot. He's very germ-sensitive, so disgust does matter a lot—more for him, that's something unique to him—but as we demonize each other more, and again, through the Manichaean worldview, the idea that the world is a battle between good and evil as this has been ramping up, we're more likely not just to say they're wrong or I don't like them, but we say they're evil, they're satanic, they're disgusting, they're revolting. And then we want nothing to do with them. And that's why I think we're seeing it, for example, on campus now. We're seeing more the urge to keep people off campus, silence them, keep them away. I'm afraid that this whole generation of young people, if their introduction to politics involves a lot of disgust, they're not going to want to be involved in politics as they get older.
So how do we deal with that? Disgust. How do you defuse disgust?
You can't do it with reasons. I think... I studied disgust for many years, and I think about emotions a lot. And I think that the opposite of disgust is actually love. Love is all about, like... Disgust is closing off, borders. Love is about dissolving walls. So personal relationships, I think, are probably the most powerful means we have. You can be disgusted by a group of people, but then you meet a particular person and you genuinely discover that they're lovely. And then gradually that chips away or changes your category as well. The tragedy is that Americans used to be much more mixed up in the their towns by left-right or politics. And now that it's become this great moral divide, there's a lot of evidence that we're moving to be near people who are like us politically. It's harder to find somebody who's on the other side. So they're over there, they're far away. It's harder to get to know them.
What would you say to someone or say to Americans, people generally, about what we should understand about each other that might help us rethink for a minute this "disgust" instinct?
Yes. A really important thing to keep in mind—there's research by political scientist Alan Abramowitz, showing that American democracy is increasingly governed by what's called "negative partisanship." That means you think, OK, there's a candidate, you like the candidate, you vote for the candidate. But with the rise of negative advertising and social media and all sorts of other trends, increasingly, the way elections are done is that each side tries to make the other side so horrible, so awful, that you'll vote for my guy by default.
And so as we more and more vote against the other side and not for our side, you have to keep in mind that if people are on the left, they think, "Well, I used to think that Republicans were bad, but now Donald Trump proves it. And now every Republican, I can paint with all the things that I think about Trump." And that's not necessarily true. They're generally not very happy with their candidate.
This is the most negative partisanship election in American history. So you have to first separate your feelings about the candidate from your feelings about the people who are given a choice. And then you have to realize that, because we all live in a separate moral world—the metaphor I use in the book is that we're all trapped in "The Matrix," or each moral community is a matrix, a consensual hallucination. And so if you're within the blue matrix, everything's completely compelling that the other side—they're troglodytes, they're racists, they're the worst people in the world, and you have all the facts to back that up. But somebody in the next house from yours is living in a different moral matrix. They live in a different video game, and they see a completely different set of facts. And each one sees different threats to the country. And what I've found from being in the middle and trying to understand both sides is: both sides are right. There are a lot of threats to this country, and each side is constitutionally incapable of seeing them all.
So, are you saying that we almost need a new type of empathy? Empathy is traditionally framed as: "Oh, I feel your pain. I can put myself in your shoes." And we apply it to the poor, the needy, the suffering. We don't usually apply it to people who we feel as other, or we're disgusted by. What would it look like to build that type of empathy?
Actually, I think... Empathy is a very, very hot topic in psychology, and it's a very popular word on the left in particular. Empathy is a good thing, and empathy for the preferred classes of victims. So it's important to empathize with the groups that we on the left think are so important. That's easy to do, because you get points for that.
But empathy really should get you points if you do it when it's hard to do. And, I think... You know, we had a long 50-year period of dealing with our race problems and legal discrimination, and that was our top priority for a long time and it still is important. But I think this year, I'm hoping it will make people see that we have an existential threat on our hands. Our left-right divide, I believe, is by far the most important divide we face. We still have issues about race and gender and LGBT, but this is the urgent need of the next 50 years, and things aren't going to get better on their own. So we're going to need to do a lot of institutional reforms, and we could talk about that, but that's like a whole long, wonky conversation. But I think it starts with people realizing that this is a turning point. And yes, we need a new kind of empathy. We need to realize: this is what our country needs, and this is what you need if you don't want to—Raise your hand if you want to spend the next four years as angry and worried as you've been for the last year—raise your hand. So if you want to escape from this, read Buddha, read Jesus, read Marcus Aurelius. They have all kinds of great advice for how to drop the fear, reframe things, stop seeing other people as your enemy. There's a lot of guidance in ancient wisdom for this kind of empathy.
Here's my last question: Personally, what can people do to help heal?
Yeah, it's very hard to just decide to overcome your deepest prejudices. And there's research showing that political prejudices are deeper and stronger than race prejudices in the country now. So I think you have to make an effort—that's the main thing. Make an effort to actually meet somebody. Everybody has a cousin, a brother-in-law, somebody who's on the other side. So, after this election—wait a week or two, because it's probably going to feel awful for one of you—but wait a couple weeks, and then reach out and say you want to talk. And before you do it, read Dale Carnegie, "How to Win Friends and Influence People"—
I'm totally serious. You'll learn techniques if you start by acknowledging, if you start by saying, "You know, we don't agree on a lot, but one thing I really respect about you, Uncle Bob," or "... about you conservatives, is... " And you can find something. If you start with some appreciation, it's like magic. This is one of the main things I've learned that I take into my human relationships. I still make lots of stupid mistakes, but I'm incredibly good at apologizing now, and at acknowledging what somebody was right about. And if you do that, then the conversation goes really well, and it's actually really fun.
Jon, it's absolutely fascinating speaking with you. It really does feel like the ground that we're on is a ground populated by deep questions of morality and human nature. Your wisdom couldn't be more relevant. Thank you so much for sharing this time with us.