Over the past few years, our nation has descended into a level of political divisiveness unseen since the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s and 70s. The animosity between conservative and progressive, Democratic and Republican, right and left, is sky-high. Not only have people been getting injured and dying in riots, but familial relations are also being stressed, with couples splitting up and children disowning their parents because of political intolerance.
The situation seems ideal for psychology to come to the rescue. As the American Psychological Association (APA) website states:
Our mission is to promote the advancement, communication, and application of psychological science and knowledge to benefit society and improve lives.
An essential ingredient of the APA mission is its commitment to “strategic priorities…rooted in equity, diversity, and inclusion.” However, when Black Lives Matter exploded in popularity, our psychological organizations joined in their call for an end to institutional racism. Isn’t that precisely what promoting “equity, diversity, and inclusion” is all about––combatting institutional racism in schools, the workplace, and even within psychology? Why, then, is it still a crucial problem in society after decades of intensive efforts? Why has psychology been failing?
The reason may be precisely that we’ve become political activists. And as such, rather than reducing political divisiveness, we may have even been unwittingly exacerbating it.
Is political activism scientific?
Political activism is not to be belittled. It is a fundamental democratic right and an essential tool for social progress. It’s a mistake, though, to confuse it with scientific activity. We cannot assume that our goal is actually beneficial or even achievable simply because it sounds right to us. Sure, we may try to bolster our political activities with psychological explanations and research findings. But our political positions, noble and true as they may appear, nevertheless represent our personal preferences. Intelligent and moral people with diametrically opposed political views can similarly bolster their positions with science.
Official psychology insists that we only employ interventions that have been scientifically validated. Simultaneously, it has been heavily engaging in political activism to promote social justice. Professor Jonathan Haidt, one of the world’s foremost psychologists, has been a leading voice in questioning our field’s pursuit of social justice. The title of his groundbreaking article, “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice“, expresses the fundamental dilemma.
In fact, a case can easily be made that fighting for social justice is contrary to established principles of psychology. Rather than promoting the APA-approved goal of enhancing personal efficacy, social justice is encouraging individuals to blame society for their lot in life and to see themselves as helpless actors in a drama in which their salvation is dependent upon everyone changing but themselves. Are these not the major ingredients of a self-defeating victim mentality?
Moreover, social justice can not only weaken people psychologically but even lead to irreversible physical damage. That is the case made by science journalist Abigail Shrier, author of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. Her lecture available on Youtube, “Science, the Transgender Phenomenon, and the Young”, is a must-see for anyone concerned about our children. The round of enthusiastic applause she receives at the conclusion is possibly unparalleled in academia.
The left bias in the social sciences
The growing dominance of left-wing politics in academia in recent years, especially in the social sciences, has been well-documented, not least by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues. In recent decades, the psychological establishment has become increasingly supportive of progressive political causes while opposing conservative ones. This was abundantly clear regarding the presidency of Donald Trump. Articles pathologizing Trump and his supporters abound, many of them in Psychology Today. The following is a prime example: “Donald Trump as High in the Dark Triad“.
On the other hand, psychologists daring to write anything positive about Trump would get pounced upon by their peers – if the editors ever let it see the light of day – which may account in part for their extreme scarcity. The arguments by Trump pathologizers may indeed be valid, but there is virtually no corresponding pathologizing of progressive politicians and their supporters, as though they represent indisputable virtue and psychological health. Here is an example, also from Psychology Today: “4 Clues to Hillary’s Real Character“.
By choosing to advocate for a specific political standpoint, psychology does not promote unity and diversity but polarization. It puts itself in opposition to everyone supportive of the contrary position. If anything, psychology has been bolstering progressives’ self-righteous condemnation of conservatives, while intensifying the hostility of conservatives in return and undermining their regard for the field of psychology.
Political activism implies the failure of psychology
What few of us consider is that engaging in political activism can constitute a declaration of the failure of our field. We are in effect saying, “We do not know how to solve this problem by psychological means. We need the power of the government to do it for us.”
Like young children who believe in the omnipotence of their parents, many of us believe the government can do anything. All we need to do is convince it to pass a law. However, there are things a government can do, and things it can’t. It can pass a law against intolerance. But it cannot force people to be tolerant. The attempt to do so is likely to backfire because humans resist being forced to feel a certain way.
Fortunately, good unifying psychology does exist
Perhaps the most important psychological work in advancing political tolerance is being conducted by Professor Haidt. While he identifies as a progressive, his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, does an exemplary job of normalizing conservatives, explaining the importance of their point of view, and promoting mutual understanding. To correct the takeover of academia by an intolerant leftist orthodoxy, especially in the social sciences, he helped institute Heterodox Academy, an organization dedicated to reinstituting the teaching of diversity of viewpoints in higher education.
Blueprint for a healthy democratic mindset
If we truly intend to create a safer, more tolerant society, we must resist the urge to join in lockstep with the latest social justice causes. No amount of declarations of the importance of inclusion, diversity, and equity, nor the toughest governmental laws, will save your marriage or your relationship with your children, neighbours, or colleagues if you cannot tolerate their political views. The only way to achieve social harmony is by teaching its individual members how to be friends with those holding views they do not agree with.
In a forthcoming post, I will be presenting a set of psychological principles for accomplishing that goal. It may not be easy to teach to everyone, but it has a better chance of improving society than fighting for our personally favoured political stance.