Blankenhorn and Haidt

I promised a while back (a long while back) that I would be doing a series of pieces on David Blankenhorn’s online interview show “The Conversation,” part of the Institute for American Values’ “Call for a New Conversation on Marriage.” Each video features Blankenhorn and one or more guests discussing ways that we might move beyond our polarized public debate about the future of marriage in American culture, which has for the past decade been concerned solely with the controversial issue of same-sex unions, and toward a productive dialogue about strengthening the institution more broadly.

My intention was to post my recaps in the order that the interviews themselves were taped, but I realized as I was about to publish my thoughts on Blankenhorn’s conversation with Rusty Reno that IAV had misdated one of the videos; his exchange with Jonathan Haidt of NYU actually took place in March and not, as indicated in the opening credits of the YouTube version, in June. Hence the (additional) delay in kicking off this series, which I hope to atone for by posting two recaps in relatively quick succession.

This first episode is entitled “Can We Get Beyond the Marriage Culture Wars?”, an appropriately foundational question to explore at the outset of an initiative that aims to do just that (one has the sense that it might be rhetorical). Haidt, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who formerly taught at the University of Virginia, researches the psychology of morality and authored a book on the subject entitled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The exchange is friendly and lighthearted throughout and offers some fresh perspectives on the marriage debate. That said, there are some aspects of the episode that could have been improved or even omitted, like the distracting and unexplained change in format midway through. To make it easier for you to skip around to the interesting parts, I’ve indicated in parentheses the number of minutes into the video that various points are raised.

Blankenhorn uses Haidt’s book as a jumping-off point for their conversation, and questions him about how the insights he develops therein are relevant to the marriage debate. One of these insights is the notion that “the rider serves the elephant,” (24:00) that contrary to our intuitive understanding of our own minds, our rational faculties are used more often than not to justify the prerational thoughts, feelings, and desires of our subconscious and our unconscious rather than to modify them or nudge them to conform more accurately to reality. This is consistent with psychological phenomena like “confirmation bias,” the tendency to interpret new evidence and information in a way that confirms rather than challenges what we already believe. Haidt argues that this makes dialogue and collaboration with others absolutely essential for intellectual and moral progress, since we all have blind spots that only other people will be able to detect and remedy.

How is this relevant to the debate over the meaning of marriage? Haidt explains that trying to change deeply entrenched beliefs and attitudes requires “talking to the elephant,” or crafting campaigns that use emotional appeals as a supplement to rational argument. He cites the example of last fall’s campaign for legal recognition of gay marriage in Maine (28:00), which he sees as a particularly effective instance of this type of engagement. (It should be noted that those on the losing side of a public debate tend not to see this as a particularly admirable tool of persuasion.)

Haidt also argues that all groups – be they tribes, societies, families, religions or social clubs – have “sacred values,” or ideals that animate them to such an extent that disrespecting those ideals is punishable by expulsion from the group (3:00). In many cases, those values which are professed to be sacred may not actually be sacred in practice, and those values which appear to be sacred under this definition may not be preached as such. What an individual or collective identifies as its highest principle is often not the principle that it actually defends with the most vigor.

When Blankenhorn identifies his own sacred value as “the free exercise of the mind,” Haidt launches into a discussion of contemporary academia and the disconnect between what many academics claim to value most and what they appear to actually value most (4:00). “If you want to make yourself not welcome at a dinner party [of academics] ever again,” he says, “falsifying your data would probably do it, but a surer route is to say something racist or sexist.” “Race and gender”, and not scientific truth, are what Haidt believes are the actual sacred values of the modern academy.

While Blankenhorn and Haidt spend a lot of time discussing the trajectory of the same-sex marriage debate up to the present day and IAV’s ambitious goal to “change the conversation,” they deal only superficially with what seems to me to be the more important variation on the titular question: how might we get beyond the culture war over marriage? The video features precious little in the way of concrete suggestions for how to turn Blankenhorn’s dream into a political reality.

We get some rough intuition for how this might work when Blankenhorn talks about how he sees a “shift on the left” with regard to whether or not marriage is perceived as good for society (57:00). He claims that back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, you “needed a search warrant to find liberals who had a good word to say about marriage,” and that many on the left saw marriage as a “prison” that was inextricably bound up with oppressive patriarchal norms. Blankenhorn believes that a number of critics of traditional family structures have had a change of heart as data has started coming in that marriage is “pretty darn good for kids” and as the “children of the divorce revolution have started sharing their stories.”

Yet the critics have not disappeared, and as far as Blankenhorn and IAV are concerned there is still work to be done. Haidt draws on the idea of sacred values to suggest that liberals might become even more sympathetic to a “pro-marriage agenda” (details of which are few and far between) if their attention were directed to the link between marriage and income inequality. He cites a New York Times article from the summer of 2012 entitled “Two Classes Divided by ‘I Do’,” (12:00) which he says made vivid for him the ever more salient connection between marital status and socioeconomic status in America, and even prompted him to become one of the signatories to Blankenhorn’s “Call.” In the latter part of the video there is a joking aside about how concerns about global warming can also be used to convince liberals that marriage is a vital social institution, since couples living together can share a single set of energy-hungry appliances (58:00).

But joking asides aside, there is a lot here that could be fleshed out further. For one, we never really hear about what tangible steps Blankenhorn or the Institute or anyone else could take to further this whole endeavor. What to do with the progressives once they’ve been roped in by concern about climate change? Blankenhorn jokes that the article’s author, Jason DeParle, is a “big liberal guy” who has “total credibility as not just some cranky conservative.” But he fails to explore how a fact like this might be leveraged in the service of some greater end. It isn’t enough to get the readership of the New York Times thinking about the connection between marriage and the plight of the working class, although that is important as a first step. What’s ultimately needed is a plan for how to get IAV’s objectives translated into a policy agenda, and then how to get that policy agenda noticed by legislators and others with the power to shape American law and culture.

Midway through the episode, Blankenhorn brings out psychiatrist and “old and dear friend and colleague” Kathleen Kovner Kline to join the conversation (45:00). But it isn’t clear why she is introduced at this point. Why not feature her as a participant in the discussion from the very beginning? Changing up the format midway through with little explanation struck me as an odd production decision. The inclusion of IAV scholar Elizabeth Marquardt, who joins the trio via telephone to report on questions being submitted by online viewers, made somewhat more sense, although I was puzzled as to why she couldn’t moderate an online discussion in person (maybe she had to actually climb down into the tubes to talk to people).

The latter half of the video features a wealth of great insights, including a story about a radio interviewer who Blankenhorn saw as embodying the stereotype of liberals only caring about marriage “if it has the word ‘gay’ in front of it” (55:00); musings about whether marriage is a force for conservatism, and whether the fact that gays are fighting to gain entry to the institution will transform them in addition to transforming it (59:00); a meditation on the uniquely modern view of marriage as a private contractual arrangement rather than a “social fact” (1:03:00); and a vivid metaphor from Jonathan Haidt involving electromagnets, Whole Foods, and political polarization (1:14:00).

This first episode of “The Conversation” has the potential to appeal to a wide audience because of the way that it approaches a controversial subject from novel directions and tries to get a handle on related issues that are important but that rarely get a hearing in the public square. As I’ve argued before, I think this can be an effective strategy for rebooting stalemated discussions – and a strategy that we at RM are trying to make use of ourselves.

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