Haidt Lectures on Politics, Polarization and How We Got Here
Caroline Ahearn ‘20
Chief News Editor
On Tuesday, April 2, renowned social psychologist Jonathan Haidt delivered the 53rd annual Hanify-Howland Memorial Lecture in the Hogan Ballroom.
The Hanify-Howland Lecture Series recognizes individuals who have distinguished themselves in the realm of public service in honor of Edward Hanify, a member of the graduating class of 1904, and Weston Howland. The 12-student committee founded in 1965 serves to select the speaker for the College’s annual keynote lecture. For the 2018-2019 academic year, the Committee is co-chaired by Victoria Tutino ‘19, Spencer Caron ‘20, and Emily Zeno ‘19, and includes Katherine Lenahan ‘19, Nicolas Jones ‘19, Eliza Oak ‘19, John Swartzwelder ‘19, Kevin Brewer ‘20, Margaret Anderson ‘21, and Ben Tayag ‘21.
“We look at the climate of our campus at the time and think critically about what topics and people would be most beneficial for the campus to hear and to engage with,” said Tutino about the selection process for the speaker each year. “When it came to Jonathan Haidt, we were struck by how his publications, research, and career delve into the evolution of humans as moral and political beings. We felt that our campus could benefit from his experiences and his work on ‘Politics and Polarization’ since he is a social psychologist and not a political scientist or someone in government. We felt that his talk would come from a more neutral position and help our campus unpack difficult topics and understand how other people come to different conclusions and why that is. Overall, that is how and why we selected Jonathan Haidt.”
Haidt currently serves as a Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He has authored several articles and books, including “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” published in 2012, and “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” published in 2018. The former served as his basis for the Hanify Howland lecture, entitled “Politics and Polarization,” though both works influenced his speech, as well as his afternoon seminar with a small group of Holy Cross students prior to the event.
“With the students I started by noting that I wrote a book which is basically about Gen Z, namely people born after 1996, yet almost all of my teaching has been with millennials. I’ve talked with a lot of people in Gen Z but I haven’t really had them as students for full semesters, so I welcome the chance to talk with members of Gen Z,” Haidt said of the seminar. “Then I asked them what questions they wanted to talk about. I mostly want to talk to them and learn from them about how they deal with social media, how they deal with politics, how they think about safety and overprotection, but I invited them to talk about anything they wanted to talk about, and the questions were sort of evenly split between issues of Gen Z and overprotection and issues from ‘The Coddling of the American Mind,’ versus those who had my previous book ‘The Righteous Mind’ and wanted to talk about politics and left and right.”
When asked about the overlap between his studies of Gen Z and of political psychology, Haidt said: “I study moral psychology, and the basic approach I always take is to begin with human nature. Our nature, our default sociality is that we evolve to live in small tribal communities within intense animistic religion and frequent intergroup conflict, and our minds are prepared for that. But I’m also a cultural psychologist and I’m interested in the way that different institutions and cultural traditions can play up our tribalism or dampen it down. I’m interested in the ways that our moral psychology can be a boon or a bane to any collective enterprise. The late twentieth century triumph of liberal democracy around the world shows us there are ways that we can live peacefully and cooperatively with rapidly rising wealth and rapidly extending rights for all. The twenty-first century on the other hand shows us that we can have resurgent tribalism, resurgent – how to put it – ethnic and race-based identity conflicts on both the right and the left. I believe that anybody who is studying a complex moral system should bring in psychology, and especially moral psychology. We can’t have systems designed just by economists, for example, unless they also understand moral psychology.”
“Many people, I think, share my feeling that the world is going mad,” said Haidt of his decision to speak on the topic of the current political climate and increasing polarization. “And the madness began before the 2016 election. I’ll be trying to explain why that is [in the lecture]. I think the world is truly going mad – I think we are losing our minds, not as individuals, but in our groups and institutions. So I’ll be offering an analogy that the universe has a certain number of physical constants in it, and if you were to change one of them – say the force of gravity, if you were to increase it by ten percent – there would be chaos throughout the universe. In the same way, if you were to reach in and change the connectivity of human beings, and the degree to which their communication is not one-to-one but one to the world, there would be chaos in society. I think that’s basically what has happened.”
As for what he hopes the audience of the Hanify-Howland Lecture, made up primarily of 18-22 year olds, gleans from his talk, Haidt hopes they exit the Ballroom with an understanding “that a liberal democracy is very difficult. That the older generations messed it up. That we’re passing on to them a very damaged liberal democracy, with low trust and high debt. That we then overprotected them and denied them the opportunities to develop toughness and anti-fragility, which are essential for democracy. So in a variety of ways, we are passing on to them a very damaged world. I hope that they will understand the severity of this problem. I think it’s extremely severe. I’ll be talking about the moral motivations of left and right. I think it’s important for people to understand that other than the one percent of people who are psychopaths, almost all of us are morally motivated. If you think the other side is doing what it does because it ‘hates poor people’ or ‘hates America’ or whatever the platitudes are on your side, then you’re simply wrong. We all need to understand that we’re all morally motivated, just in different ways, and we’re all blind to the moral motivations of others. If [Gen Z] just plays the game of the culture war, then they’re going to just make it worse, and America could fail on their watch. I don’t think our country’s going to fail in the next ten years, but it really could fail in the next fifty. I want them to understand just how serious this problem is, and how we [the older generations] didn’t find the solutions to it. So they’re going to have to.”
Photos by Jacob Bucci ’21.