A few days ago, I had the honor of sitting at a dinner gathering across the table from James Watson, the world’s greatest living geneticist, joint winner of the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of the DNA molecule. It was a private gathering so I’m not offering any specifics. But I can report that Dr. Watson is still vexed about his public shaming eight years ago after he told a newspaper interviewer that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospects for Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” [Fury at DNA pioneer’s theory: Africans are less intelligent than Westerners, By Cahal Milmo, Independent, September 18, 2011]
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, argued that the human moral faculty is built around five axes. He gave them names like “Care/Harm”—that is, caring about others is at one end of this axis, harming them at the other. Another axis is “Fairness/Cheating” with fairness at the positive end and cheating at the negative. Later Haidt added a sixth axis. Haidt and his colleagues worked up a Moral Foundations Questionnaire they could give to test subjects, to see where they placed on each axis.
Well, one of these basic axes—Haidt actually calls them “foundations”—is “Sanctity/Degradation.” Haidt argues from the case of the German guy who advertised on the internet for someone willing to be killed, cooked, and eaten by him. [German cannibal tells of fantasy, BBC, December 3, 2003] He got hundreds of responses, interviewed likely applicants, made a selection, then killed and ate the guy—all on video, to prove the thing was totally consensual.
So, Haidt asks, did anyone do anything wrong there? Your answer tells us where you are on the Sanctity/Degradation axis.
And while you can of course rationalize your position—the human mind is a wonderful rationalization machine!—your place on that axis owes much more to intuition than to reason.
Similarly with cognitive scientist Bruce Hood’s experiments, asking a roomful of people whether they’d like to wear a sweater he’s waving in front of them—a sweater that once belonged to a serial killer. Very few people would. Furthermore “in large lecture halls, members of the audience will physically recoil from the few people who say they are willing to wear the sweater.” [Would You Wear a Serial Killer’s Sweater? by Katherine Mangu-Ward, Reason.com, June 12, 2009]
It doesn’t make sense. The sweater’s been dry cleaned. You’re not going to catch serial killing from wearing it.
Reason is not in play. That’s the power of moral intuition.
Jonathan Haidt discovered from his questionnaires that people who are politically liberal register big positive scores on the Care/Harm axis and the Fairness/Cheating axis—that is, they are very keen on Care and Fairness—but not so much on the others. Conservatives had much better balance, with positive scores on all the axes, on things like Authority/Subversion and, yes, Sanctity/Degradation.
It happens that I read Haidt’s book shortly after my own public shaming in April, 2012. Reading about those questionnaire scores, I was shaking my head at the book. It seemed to me that liberals are not so much light on regard for Sanctity, they just attach it to different objects.
To blacks, for example. The late Larry Auster said that blacks are sacred objects in the modern West. He was right. To say negative things about blacks, or to be thought to have negative thoughts about them, is a blasphemy.
It’s like someone in 13th-century Europe speaking ill of the Virgin Mary. The reaction is just the same. You have violated a sacred object.
That’s what James Watson and I did.
This sacralization of blacks is lurking behind a lot of the campus shenanigans we’ve been reading about the past few weeks. A mulatto girl at Yale shrieks foul abuse at the master of her residential hall, a white guy. Another harpy, this one blacker, dishes the same treatment to the President of Princeton University.
Instead of saying, “Shut up, you obnoxious little brat,” and having the students suspended, the white authority figures whine and grovel.
When black students went on a rampage at the Dartmouth college library, yelling foul-mouthed racial and sexual abuse at white students trying to study, the President of Dartmouth, Philip J. Hanlon [email him] wrote that the library ruckus was “a powerful expression of unity in support of social justice.”
[Dartmouth President Announces Investigation of Black-on-White Intimidation, By Lee Stranahan, Breitbart.com, November 25, 2015]
These white college bureaucrats are all far-Left Liberals, of course, with moral intuitions over on the negative side of the Authority/Subversion axis. They can’t help admiring subversion. Their moral intuitions tell them to.
I beg leave to doubt, though, that they would have groveled so low if the shriekers and rampagers had been white.
And let’s face it: Much, probably most, of these recent disturbances are a consequence of Affirmative Action. Most black students, to adapt Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s admiring description of herself, are “Affirmative Action Babies.”
Before I spoke to the Black Law Students’ Association of the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2010, by way of preparation I did some quantitative analysis on the LSAT statistics, that’s the Law School Admission Test. On the basis of a simple LSAT cut-off score, I found that the expected number of blacks in the law school would be four. The actual number was 57. And that’s ignoring the phenomenon of the highest-prestige law schools sucking up all the brightest black applicants.
From a misguided altruism, we admit to our universities big numbers of blacks who can’t do university-level work. Disappointed and frustrated, they act out.
And the moral intuitions of the universities’ Left-Liberal white administrators leave them poorly equipped to cope. Favoring subversion over authority, they rather admire the shriekers and library-trashers. Regarding blacks as sacred objects, they dare not criticize them for fear their peers will turn on them for blasphemy.
That’s our current campus ructions in a nutshell. And it is, of course, blasphemy to say so.
Back in the early 20th century, when China was still reeling from its failure to compete with the West, the Chinese writer Lu Xun remarked that his countrymen could not look on Westerners as equals. “We Chinese are always,” he said, “either looking down on Westerners as uncouth barbarians, or else looking up to them as superman masters of science and democracy. We can’t look them straight in the eye.”
Whatever happened to the idea of treating people on their individual merits and faults? What happened to that? Why can’t we look each other straight in the eye, citizen to citizen?
Well, personally, I believe some of us can; but why can’t liberals? Because their moral intuitions won’t let them.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjectsfor all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He’s had two books published by VDARE.com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and From the Dissident Right II: Essays 2013.