Ever feel like critics of religion who like to parade their ‘tolerance’ in front of everyone are actually less tolerant than their political opponents, and less willing to try to understand them?
Well, it turns out that there is compelling evidence that you're right. Academic Jonathan Haidt has written a new book, "The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion" in which he asks how well conservatives and liberals understand their political opponents.
Telegraph blogger Tom Chivers, himself a liberal, writing about the findings, explains the book demonstrates that liberals, “on one small but extremely important metric, are wrong far more often than conservatives”. The metric in question is the ability to grasp the point of view of their ideological opposites.
Chivers says that researchers “asked two thousand Americans to describe their political leanings (liberal, moderate, conservative) and fill out a questionnaire about morality, one-third of the time as themselves, one-third of the time as a "typical liberal", and one-third of the time as a "typical conservative".
“The clear answer was: self-described conservatives and moderates were much better at predicting what other people would believe. Liberals, especially the "very liberal", were by far the worst at guessing what people with different views would say, and especially bad at guessing what conservatives would say about issues of care or fairness.
“For example, most thought that conservatives would disagree with statements like 'One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenceless animal' or "Justice is the most important requirement for a society'.
The reason for the discrepancy, Chivers says “is that our morality is not based on reason but on intuition – an instant, unreasoned response more akin to our taste in food than to our rational thoughts”.
He says: “The trouble is that liberals, in general, base their morality almost exclusively on three 'flavours' – care for others, liberty from oppression, and fairness – whereas conservatives use those three plus another three: loyalty to one's group, sanctity and sacredness, and respect for authority.
“So conservatives can understand the morality of liberals, but much of conservative morality is alien to their opponents.”
Chivers argues that the book's most important message “is the one in the subtitle – our political opponents are not evil people”.
He says: “My fellow liberals, in particular, should remember that conservativism is not necessarily cruel and selfish, or dogmatically anti-Enlightenment, but an alternative theory about the best way to provide the best for society.
“It believes that some institutions are worth keeping in place, because institutions (including religions and nation states) build social cohesion; that people require some constraints and accountability to prevent them acting badly; that we should emphasise what is similar about people, not what is different, if we want our group to rub along. Whether or not those statements are correct, they are not evil.”
It would be nice if more liberals could take such sentiments to heart.