by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 19
May 2020

Does blank slateism make us more intolerant?

‘America First’ protesters face off with opponents at California beach rally

It turns out that if you believe people freely choose their political viewpoints, it makes partisan polarisation worse. At least that’s the implication of a new research paper from Boise State University social scientist Alexander Severson.

Recent research in political science is suggesting that to a significant extent, our political worldview is less freely chosen than we think. Rather, there are strong correlations between differences of brain structure and of political outlook, while a conservative outlook is also correlated with generally higher disgust sensitivity (the ‘yuck reaction’).

So if that’s the case, then does it mean we should be more charitable to political opponents (because they can’t help believing what they do) or more determined to defeat them (because they’ll never see things the way we do)? To explore this, Severson studied what happened when people with strong partisan political beliefs were exposed to information designed to persuade them that political viewpoints are affected by biology.

The result showed two things: firstly, that some people simply reject the science and continue to believe their political opponents choose their views. But also secondly, that among the greater number who accepted the information about biological influences on political outlook, this significantly reduced their hostility toward political out-groups.

This makes sense. Jonathan Haidt argued in The Righteous Mind that there’s an asymmetry between the mutual assessment of liberals and conservatives in the US because they draw differently on the five moral foundations of Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. Liberals, he suggests, are oriented toward the first two and conservatives more balanced across all five. Thus, he argues, liberals simply don’t understand where conservatives are coming from on a number of things that are of great concern to the latter — and conclude that they must be heartless or even evil.

When you add in a belief that we’re all blank slates at birth, and political viewpoints have been freely chosen, then this heartlessness (or evil) must seem infinitely worse. But if it turns out that political differences are grounded in physiology, then instead of interpreting differences as the result of calculated malice there’s suddenly more scope for curiosity about how we differ.

It’s also much more difficult to argue that our political opponents should be annihilated if their viewpoint is partly a consequence of biology and would likely reappear in the next generation even if we did succeed in wiping conservatism (or whatever) from the face of the earth.

But it also suggests an emergent social downside of our current tendency to idealise human freedom. If we believe others have chosen every aspect of their worldview, we’re less tolerant of their differences. Conversely, it’s easier to be forgiving of others’ quirks if we entertain the possibility that they’re not wholly in command of how they see things.

If others freely chose even the attitudes we like least, those attitudes will seem like a calculated affront. But if they can’t help seeing the world that way, there is at least room for grudging tolerance. From that it follows that the remedy for our slide into political polarisation isn’t denigrating ‘tribalism’ in the pursuit of even greater freedom, but charity based on a recognition of the limits to that freedom that are — it transpires — baked into our very physiology.


  • May 25, 2020
    I am rather surprised the ‘Americanisation’ of the UK has taken so long. We have in effect been a Client Sate of the US since 1916, when Balfour had to beg for financial assistance to continue and win the war. The first chairman of the Fed, Paul Warburg had done the sums and realised we were... Read more

  • May 24, 2020
    When I was young, I was always struck by how much more difficult it seemed to be to have a honest political debate with Americans than with my compatriots. The Americans I knew always seemed to take political disagreements as a personal attack, whereas most of my British friends were happy to... Read more

  • May 24, 2020
    The paper refuting the replication claim does not appear to have been published in any peer reviewed academic journal. Read more

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