The clean and the unclean

A few days ago, I left a long comment on Chris Dillow‘s blog “Stumbling and Mumbling.”  Mr Dillow had posted about a controversy that began when someone participating in a march protesting the results of Britain’s recent general elections (results which I predicted with less than total accuracy) added these words to a war memorial:

The controversy took on a life of its own after journalist Laurie Penny tweeted about it:

The furore that greeted Ms Penny’s remark reminded Mr Dillow of a book that I happened to have read just the other day: The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.  I’d heard about this book more or less continually, from various people, since its original publication three years ago, and had been meaning to get round to reading it ever since. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist, argues that moral reasoning is best understood not as any one thing, but as a network of six interlocking systems.  These systems are the ways we have learned to differentiate between Care and Harm, Fairness and Cheating, Sanctity and Degradation, Loyalty and Betrayal. Authority and Subversion, and Liberty and Oppression.  According to Professor Haidt and his fellow advocates of “Moral Foundations Theory,” analyzing the opinions people express about what is right and wrong in terms of these six systems and of the relationships among them enables researchers to give more accurate accounts of the concerns of people who differ from them in class and culture than do other models, especially models drawn from reductionist philosophical projects such as utilitarianism.

Excerpts from Mr Dillow’s post:

The left and right don’t understand each other’s conceptions of morality, and don’t even try to do so. This is the message I take from last night’s row about Laurie Penny’s reaction to the vandalism of a war memorial….

“Destruction” isn’t entirely hyperbole. The Tories’ proposed £12bn cut in welfare spending is equivalent to £45 per week per working age benefit recipient. That would impose horrible hardship upon many.

Instead, Laurie’s mistake consists in doing exactly what Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind accused the left of: she’s seeing morality as comprising just one idea whereas the right sees others.

Haidt and his colleagues claim that there are (at least) five foundations of morality: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. The left, he says, stresses the first two of these but underweights the last three.

And this is just what Laurie was doing. She was emphasizing the care principle, whilst being blind to the sanctity principle – to the idea that we believe that some things, such as vandalizing war memorials, are wrong because they break taboos even if they don’t do material harm to anyone…

Which brings me to the problem. Far too many – on left and right – are so wrapped up in their own narcissism and so quick to condemn others that they fail to understand (or even try to) where others are coming from: the virtue of Haidt’s framework is that it facilitates such understanding.

What’s being lost in all this is Mill’s classical liberal idea – that there is a strong case for cognitive diversity. For me, Laurie’s voice is a welcome contributor to this diversity. If the herdthink that rushes to condemn leads to her being more inhibited, something valuable will be lost.

My comment was largely directed at earlier commenters who were too fired up about the issue to address the material about Professor Haidt’s theories that Mr Dillow had raised, and so consisted largely of an elaboration on some points Mr Dillow had already made:

Just the other day I finally got round to reading The Righteous Mind, and here you bring it up.

I think Professor Haidt gives us a very clear vocabulary for explaining, among other things, why religious freedom is so hard to maintain. Different religious groups have different conceptions of sanctity. What one person sees as deeply holy another person might see as purely functional, so that Laurie Penny’s comparison of the welfare state to a war memorial might be unintelligible to someone who regards the welfare state simply as a set of policies and institutions to be evaluated by their effectiveness at helping poor people get on, rather than as a transcendent force that sanctifies society. Likewise, the depth of horror that many people feel when a war memorial is vandalized is unintelligible to those who regard that memorial in purely functional terms; clean it up, and it sends the same message it sent before. The uncleanness that bothers those who are most horrified is a ritual impurity, not the marks that bleach or acetone can remove.

What really makes it difficult for people with different senses of the sacred to share a homeland is that something which one group regards as the most sanctified of all things might strike another group as the vilest of all pollutions, and vice versa. Go to an old church and look at the niches from which the Puritans tore the visual artwork during their days of iconoclasm, and think of all the other religious conflicts in history.

War memorials are very much part of this kind of thing. They appeal to Professor Haidt’s Loyalty and Hierarchy axes, but to Sanctity as well. So, if you regard a particular war as an abomination, a particular cause as hideously unjust, then a memorial commemorating those who died to advance that cause may strike you not only as a symbol of disloyalty and subversion, but also as a pollution of the space it occupies. Imagine if a memorial to the Kouachi brothers were erected outside the front window of the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Would it be enough to drape that memorial with a cloth so that no one could see its message? Would it be enough to remove it quietly and replace it with a flagpole flying the Tricoleur? Or would you feel an urge to destroy the memorial as noisily and dramatically as possible and to put some object on the site to which the Kouachis would have objected (perhaps an obscene image of Muhammad)? Indulging that urge would hardly be necessary to display one’s loyalty to France, and would likely involve violation of the hierarchy of the French state. It would make sense only as an attempt to exorcise the ritual impurity that association with the Kouachis would bring upon the site.

Now, the protestors who scrawled “Fuck Tory scum” under the words “Women of World War Two” were probably not objecting to the women of World War Two, not even to those among them who took Tories with poor hygiene as lovers. Still, to the extent that the war memorial is a symbol of the state and the Cameron government has come to be identified with the state, presumably they would have seen the memorial as an unclean thing and their graffiti would be an attempt to purge its uncleanness.

In fairness to Ms Penny, I should probably mention that she does seem to be more aware of these issues than either Mr Dillow or I have implied in the remarks above.  So the first tweets she posted after the one that caused all the trouble describe her grandmother’s contribution to the United Kingdom’s efforts in the Second World War and the role that the postwar development of the welfare state played in improving her lot.  Ms Penny tells us that her story and those of women like her consecrate the welfare state as a monument to the memory of the “Women of World War Two,” and that the Cameron government’s policies are a desecration of this monument:

So Ms Penny explicitly acknowledges the importance of the Sanctity/ Degradation axis as part of moral reasoning.  For her, that axis may be subordinate in its importance to the Care/ Harm axis and the Fairness/ Cheating axis.  But those who responded to her tweet in ways like this:

don’t seem to be treating the Sanctity/ Degradation system as an independent thing either- calling Ms Penny a “cunt,” libeling her late grandmother, etc, are not obvious ways of increasing the overall holiness of Twitter.  For these tweeps, Sanctity seems to be a function of Loyalty and Authority, Degradation a function of Betrayal and Subversion.  Perhaps healthful dialogue between people who disagree on moral questions requires, not only that we all acknowledge the full spectrum of moral concerns, but that we respect each of the six systems on its own terms, not trying to reduce the concerns of one to the terms of another.

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