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Moffat '13: United we stand, divided we fall

More tribal than ever, the mainstream political scene recently has devolved into utter superficiality. Pundits, politicians and their SuperPACs, increasingly rely on finger-pointing, identifying "the other" as the cause of America's economic, cultural and political problems. Hatred and fear seem to have become the predominant political emotions.

Andrew Kohut, director of a recent Pew public opinion study, found that political identity has surpassed race, gender, and class as the source of most division among Americans. Though I lament this state of affairs, I must admit that I have personally instigated many heated political conversations myself - and they sometimes leave me feeling disappointed in my ability to guide the discussion in a non-confrontational, non-threatening way. We need to find a better way to talk to one another about the grave problems that face our country.

I tend to identify myself as a passionate liberal, but I find much to respect in conservative thought - when you remove the Republican Party. I think both liberal and conservative worldviews can respond to each other in the context of meaningful, respectful debate. Both philosophies, as expounded by the best thinkers on each side, represent coherent systems of thought rooted in foundational moral convictions. Both have played a profound role in shaping the American psyche, and recent work in psychology even shows that most people think liberally about some issues and conservatively about others. Yet we see that often liberals and conservatives feel threatened by each other and fail to understand the opposing point of view.  

Political identity can be a major source of tension at our university, too. Many conservatives at Brown feel that their liberal peers and professors censor, or are intolerant, of them. It deeply troubles me that my fellow students and colleagues feel discriminated against. If there are serious allegations of inappropriate behavior in a classroom, there should be an investigation.

But it is very tempting to think at the same time: Shouldn't political opinions be treated differently, since you choose them rather than inherit them?

Brown would abandon its designed purpose if we demurred the development of intellectual and moral passion - and vigorous debate - which we need to run the engines of culture and politics. But at the same time, we learn little from bitter, self-righteous arguments that end only in reinforced antagonism.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, studies people's core moral, political and religious convictions, and a portion of his research illustrates that liberals and conservatives possess different "sensitivities" towards a range of six foundational moral concepts - care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. Having collected data from over 30,000 participants, Haidt found that liberals tend to be highly sensitive to care/harm, fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression, but not necessarily to the other three. Conservatives, on the other hand, resonate at a mediocre level with all six moral foundations more or less equally.

Every person responds to each of these moral categories to some degree, so in essence, we all share a universal moral palette. There are many individuals who are highly sensitive to all six concepts. There is such bitter conflict between people with different moral profiles because these moral foundations often collide in very messy ways in the real world. When a conservative's respect for the sanctity of life is pitted against a liberal's conviction that a woman's body belongs only to her, the stage is set for a dramatic and embittered argument. That's probably why these issues occupy most of the attention of our political pundits and cable news shows, since their careers depend on controversy.

I think, however, that in times of great national strife and hardship, we ought to celebrate that we all share the same moral taste buds, rather than focusing on the moral dilemmas where our intuitions conflict. Overall, society tends to reach consensus on most issue of right and wrong.

But if we aren't conscious of it, our divisiveness can blind us to the most egregious moral failings of our society. What if someone has an interest in aggrandizing these gray-area issues in order to distract us from the more serious political issues about which both liberals and conservatives ought to be outraged? I'm talking of course about the two permanent wars - the War on Terror and the War on Drugs - the dismantling of the First and Fourth amendments, our ridiculously inscrutable tax code and the role of money in politics, just to name a few forms of bipartisan political corruption.

I believe much of the anger and frustration we direct at one another should instead be directed at the political theater that distracts us from the important issues around which we should all be united. Our basic institutions of American democracy are broken. Liberals and conservatives have to work together to rebuild them.

My hope is that the dialogue at Brown can exist above the shallow standards of debate our current political leaders have set for us. I firmly believe conservatives and liberals can learn from each other and communicate more productively when they respect the intent and goodwill of one another. At Brown, if nowhere else, we have an obligation to uphold and respect the tenets of democratic discourse, and duty calls now more than ever.



Jared Moffat '13 is from Jackson, Miss. He can be reached at



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