Identity politics, social media, and tribalism: an interview with Jonathan Haidt - RSA

Identity politics, social media, and tribalism: an interview with Jonathan Haidt

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Jonathan Haidt speaks with Matthew Taylor on polarisation, identity politics and the importance of social science for our collective future.

In the latest episode of Polarised, the RSA’s podcast about the cultural and political forces driving us further apart, Matthew Taylor speaks to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, one of the leading experts on the psychology of political polarisation and tribalism. Haidt is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, The Righteous Mind and, most recently, The Coddling of the American Mind (with Greg Lukianoff).

You can listen to the podcast below or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts – just search for Polarised.

Here are some edited highlights from their conversation:

Matthew Taylor: To what extent is polarisation one of the big problems in our politics?

Jonathan Haidt: I think it's a very real phenomenon in the United States.

There's been a long running debate as to whether it's really happening. There are some political scientists who dispute the idea, but that's a kind of a technical dispute about attitude polarisation. As a social psychologist, I keep my eye on affective polarisation – that is, how much do you hate the other side? There is no doubt it is increasing.

Surveys in the United States going back to the 1960s show that we used to slightly dislike the other party and the people in it. But beginning in the 1980s it begins rising, and in the 2000s it rises very quickly, to the point where now members of one party in my country hate the other side so much that many find it deeply offensive even to work in the same office as someone who voted the other way.

MT: We’re talking about political polarisation here, but part of this is also about identity.

JHYes and this is one of those trends that is not going to reverse.

I've been arguing that one of the big changes is the shift from a 20th-century, left-right divide, which was over labour vs. capital, to what we might call ‘the globalists vs. the nationalists’. Those who lived through World War Two are typically nationalists. Young people, who were raised after the Cold War, often think that nation-states are bad things: they're arbitrary, they divide people. So yes, that politics is ever-shifting and age and globalism – or cosmopolitanism – is one of those dimensions.

MT: David Goodhart has described this as the distinction between the ‘anywheres’ and the ‘somewheres’.Theresa May famously said, “If you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere.” So you can see these things playing out.

Is the link between polarisation and identity politics that identity politics essentially says that the most important thing in determining your political stance is you; the person you are; the tribe you belong to?

JHWell, I don't know about that.

In my recent book with Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, we offer a different take on identity politics. We say there are two versions. There is one we call ‘common humanity’ identity politics – where you draw a circle around the relevant community and you say ‘we're all Americans’, or ‘we're all British’, or ‘we're all human beings’. And then within that circle you might say, ‘some of our brothers and sisters are being denied justice or dignity’. That’s a more positive and loving approach, and this was used by Martin Luther King in the United States, and by Nelson Mandela when he got out of prison. It’s not zero-sum – it’s an attempt to say, we have differences in our community and we need a political process to adjudicate them, but it can be done in the spirit of ‘we're all in this together’.

What has arisen in United States and in the UK is what you might call ‘common enemy’ identity politics, which is based on the idea that there are several binary dimensions. Intersectional identity politics – while I understand the idea behind it, the idea that identities do interact, and it is based on an important insight – breeds a kind of ‘us versus them’ attitude within communities, within universities, within groups, that leads to intractable conflict. People see everything as a zero-sum game and you're fighting for slices of a fixed pie.

So I think the problem is not identity politics per se, it's the subtype or the flavour of identity politics.

MT: I want to explore a link between that argument in The Coddling of the American Mind and your previous book, The Righteous Mind.

What The Righteous Mind was encouraging liberals to understand, was that appeals to universalism missed out the importance of things like tribal affiliation, the sacred. Those thicker psychological and cultural bonds. So isn’t your hope that people will have this kind of inclusive notion of identity – isn’t that forlorn, given what you yourself have said about the fact that we want to belong to tribes?

JH: Well, real tribes are not always at war. They are actually very good at exchange, they're very interested in having good political ties with neighbouring groups. Real tribes are not this parody of constantly warring closed groups. Not at all. So I think we have to understand that human nature gives us the ability both to put up walls and to lower them.

MT:In terms of these phenomena that we’ve been talking about – pessimism, polarisation, populism – what do you think are the most important things we need to do to try and address this anger?

JH: One of most important things that we haven't mentioned is social media. This is the reason why I'm especially alarmed about the future.

I imagine society as having a set of centripetal forces pulling it inwards and holding it together, and centrifugal forces blowing it outwards. In the United States at least, the centripetal forces were quite strong in the late 20th century, and one by one they've all sort of come apart.

Our media environment used to pull us together – we only had three TV networks. But we’ve now taken the degree of connectivity and increased it not by 20% or 50%, but by 5,000%, so that anyone can make a death threat to anyone else. And at the same time we’ve increased affective polarisation, so the two sides really hate each other. This is why I think things are blowing up in such a similar way in so many countries. Social media has changed the basic connectivity of the world.

So we must figure out how to adapt, and that means that the media companies will have to become more responsible. I don't see why anyone can get a Facebook or Twitter account without proving their identity. I’m not saying you have to be public about it, but the companies need to verify that you are an identifiable human being, so if you make death threats you can be held accountable.

We have to adapt to social media and until we figure that out I think we're going to have a lot of discontent, distrust and populist anger.

MT: Do you think we need some sort of recipe – a ‘5-a-day’ – for civic health?

JH: Yes I do. I personally think that the 21st century is not going to be the century of robotics, AI or genetics – those will all be very important, but I think it's actually going to be the century of social science.

If we get the social science right then we're going to make it through and we'll thrive, and we'll be much better off at the end of the century. And if we get the social science wrong – if we have increasing inequality and hostility, and decreasing trust – I think we will see some countries break apart.

So I would urge that everybody should learn one semester of microeconomics, statistics, and either social psychology or sociology. We need citizens who understand just how difficult it is to create a large, secular, liberal democracy. The odds are stacked against us. The founders of my country knew that. We need to educate people as if it’s precious and fragile, which it is.

Polarised is available for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Thanks to Will Grimond for transcription and editing help.

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  • Haight is completely ignoring what we know about kinship in Homo Sapiens.