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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

What liberals can learn from conservatives Add to ...

I’d like you to take a moment and consider three issues from the week’s news. First issue: Omar Khadr is coming back to Canada – at last! – even though it’s obvious our government would be much happier if the guy miraculously dropped dead. Second issue: The government is mounting a high-level protest to save the life of a Canadian man who is about to be executed by the Iranian regime on trumped-up charges of espionage. However, that government is barely lifting a finger to save another Canadian on death row in Montana, who brutally murdered two men in 1982.

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The third item hinges on the case of the transgender beauty contestant, who is now being allowed, on human-rights grounds, to compete in the Miss Universe contest. The renowned ethicist Peter Singer wrote an opinion piece in The Globe this week that applauded the decision, arguing we’d all be better off if society ignored gender entirely and children were raised sexless.

What are your reactions to these stories? Many people I know (I live in an affluent downtown Toronto postal code) believe that Mr. Khadr has been treated atrociously, and that the government should be condemned for not repatriating him from the hellhole of the U.S. justice system. These people are also likely to fault the government for being hypocritical about death-row cases. As Amnesty International says, Ottawa has an obligation to vigorously defend any citizen who faces execution abroad. As for the beauty contestant, they may well agree with Peter Singer that society’s overemphasis on gender identity is a bad thing.

There’s a label for these people. They are WEIRD. That is, they belong to a tiny subculture of the human population that is Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. In Canada, they are the secular liberal baby boomers who dominate the opinion elite.

Jonathan Haidt has a lot to say about WEIRD culture (of which he is an admitted member). His fascinating new book, The Righteous Mind, is a must-read for anyone who’s dumbfounded that Stephen Harper got to be prime minister, or that so many of his obviously stupid policies are so popular, or that Albertans appear to be on the verge of electing a party full of bigots and climate-change deniers.

Mr. Haidt is a social psychologist who studies the moral foundations of politics. He argues that conservatives and liberals operate with two quite different moral systems. Liberals are almost exclusively concerned with harm and fairness. They see society as composed of autonomous individuals who should be free to satisfy their wants and needs as they see fit. Conservatives have a wider moral palate. They are also concerned with loyalty, authority and sanctity – values that are deeply rooted in human nature and all societies throughout history. They see society as composed of people in relation to community, who have a set of roles, responsibilities and obligations to God and their neighbours. They believe there is much more to the moral domain than harm and fairness.

Mr. Haidt argues that politicians on the right have a built-in advantage, because they understand human nature better than liberals do. Most people’s moral frameworks are far broader – and far less rational and systematic – than liberals believe. Nonetheless, liberal psychologists (and politicians) have spent most of the past 40 years trying to explain why conservatives are so misguided. Why don’t they embrace equality, diversity and change, like normal people? Obviously, they’re repressed and afraid of difference.

Mr. Haidt believes that as long as liberals continue to pathologize conservatism, they’re doomed. Instead, they need to understand why the reaction of many ordinary people to the issues in the news is so different from their own.

The simple answer is that these people are less concerned with individual rights and universal justice than they are with things such as loyalty, authority and people getting what they deserve. They think, for example, that Omar Khadr is a troublemaker in a family of troublemakers who are disloyal to their adopted country and that he should be grateful he’s not dead. They’re glad our government is standing up to save the life of an innocent man, but they couldn’t care less if a brutal killer gets his just deserts. As for transgender beauty queens – well, whatever. But the whole idea that gender can be made irrelevant in human affairs – or that kids can, or should, be raised sexless – is ridiculous.

Of all the Harper government’s policies, the ones that drive liberals craziest are those concerning crime and punishment. To liberals, its law-and-order agenda is nothing more than base pandering to an ignorant electorate. But many Canadians have a sharply different view. They don’t care that crime stats are at record lows, or that mandatory minimum sentences don’t work. What they care about is the Vancouver bus driver who was off work for more than a year after a young thug bashed his face in. The thug got 18 months to be served at a rehab residence. They care about the stupidly light sentence imposed on Graham James for sexually abusing teenage hockey players and about shopkeepers who get charged by the police for trying to protect themselves from thieves. They think these things are profoundly wrong. And despite the enlightened views of liberals, an alarming number of them continue to support the death penalty.

Perhaps if these Canadians were better educated they wouldn’t think this way. Or perhaps, if liberals were better educated in moral psychology, they’d be able to understand why conservative policies are so appealing. My advice is to begin by listening to Jonathan Haidt.

 
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