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Jul-02-2011 02:44printcomments

The genesis of bleeding-heart liberalism and heartless conservatism

Liberals and conservatives are more made than born; but once made and passed into adulthood, they are, like the leopard, unlikely to change their spots.

(CALGARY, Alberta) - The natural world has perils to which humans must adapt or die; but the perils of the social world exist only because humans have both created those perils and maintains them. Animals are born into species-specific worlds but humans are not—we must create our own world. The Great Depression, as only one example, was a man-made disaster, not a natural disaster. It was the consequence of humanly-distorted economic laws—not significantly different from the 2008 crash.

We live in an ungentle world (I personally prefer the term savage society)—something upon which both liberals and conservatives can probably agree—although prompting conflicting action plans from each. There is now hope for understanding and perhaps correcting this antisocial situation.

Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has written a new book, The Science of Evil: On empathy and the origins of human cruelty which I think not only sheds light on this unwholesome reality, but his research points out the key psychological difference between liberals and conservatives. It’s about empathy—too much for liberals and not enough for conservatives. Put another way—liberals care about people in general, conservatives do not.

This is at the root of man’s inhumanity to man. The rich and the powerful throughout history have usurped the task of societal design and construction. Today, says economist Jared Bernstein in the preface to his book, Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries):

Economics has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, and it has been forged into a tool that is being used against the rest of us.”

Even democracy is essentially unworkable because politicians—most but not all—end up governing on behalf of the rich and powerful. There’s an old joke (but not very funny) that defines an honest politician as one who, when bought, stays bought. There are many honest politicians by that definition. A few other politicians who are honest about their role in society, end up as outliers, fighting insurmountable odds.

This is nowhere better demonstrated, than in the current government shutdown in Minnesota. Both legislative chambers are controlled by Republicans. The governor, Mark Dayton, is a Democrat. It’s a typical Republican imbroglio. Over the next two years the state is expected to take in $34 billion and the state budget has a $5 billion deficit.

To close this budget gap the Democrats want to increase the taxes on the state’s highest earners. This, of course, is unacceptable to the Republicans who have taken millions of ordinary Minnesotans hostage to their demand to protect their wealthy benefactors.

The state’s parks, historical sites and the Minnesota Zoo will close; hunting and fishing licenses will not be issued; the state’s lottery system and racetracks will be shut down; Minnesota’s 84 major rest areas along highways will close; thousands of state employees will be furloughed without pay; and contractors will have to abandon hundreds of road construction projects in progress.

This is one battleground between liberals and conservatives.

Another battleground is in Orlando, Florida where there is a homeless problem (again, not a natural situation). A group calling themselves “Orlando Food Not Bombs” is, illegally helping to feed some of those homeless. In response to complaints from the business community about the twice-weekly feedings in Lake Eola Park, in 2006 the City passed a law requiring anyone who feeds more than 25 people in a public park to have a permit. The kicker is that no group may have more than two permits per year per park.

Another unconnected group, calling themselves Anonymous is made up of hackers who disrupt, deface and bring down Orlando websites in retaliation for this anti-human law. In a news release posted on YouTube they say:

Anonymous believes that people have the right to organize, that people have the right to give to the less fortunate and that people have the right to commit acts of kindness and compassion. However, it appears the police and lawmakers of Orlando do not.”

Acts of kindness and compassion, indeed! Outside of their immediate circle of family, friends, relatives and wealthy benefactors these are not Republican/conservative values. If a plague, along the lines of Stephen King’s The Stand were to hit the country, conservatives would set global and historical records for crocodile tears.

The enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his novel Emile:

The universal spirit of laws in all countries is to favour the stronger against the weaker, and those who have against those who have nothing; this disadvantage is inevitable and without exception.”

Rousseau was a contemporary of the Founding Fathers (he died in 1778) and while some may have met him, they would certainly have read Emile. Rousseau’s political philosophy influenced both the French, and the American Revolutions. This is where the Founding Fathers failed. They would have known of this political inevitability but, being believers in the power of reason, would surely have expected that such an anti-human tendencies could be surmounted by reasonable men.

What is empathy?

Empathy, says psychologist Uta Frith, is “our most precious social resource. Lack of empathy lurks in the darkest corners of human history…” Evil, from this vantage point, says Baron-Cohen is essentially the complete lack of empathy.

In her book The “I” and the “Not-I”, psychoanalyst M. Esther Harding said:

Our awareness of the world around us is extraordinarily limited. We are all simply unconscious to an unbelievable degree. And not till we have undertaken a psychological analysis do we glimpse the extent of our unconsciousness. We simply take things for granted. On the objective concrete plane we assume naively that things are as they appear to our senses to be; and on the psychological plane our reactions are frequently based on assumptions rather than on the reality of the objective situation.”

This state of unconsciousness, she says, is the source of most asocial behaviour and of man’s inhumanity to man. She continues:

An individual who is not aware of the ‘other’ as also a sentient being will behave towards him in an unfeeling way but, if he becomes aware of the other, it is quite likely that his attitude will change.” She is alluding here to the condition of empathy, which leads us to the current research conducted by Baron-Cohen and reported in his book.

Liberals, it turns out, have too much empathy and, as a result, end up morphing into socialism. From this excess of empathy comes the conception of bleeding heart. Liberals come across as, compared to hard-hearted conservatives, too soft.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have too little, approaching no empathy at all for anyone outside their immediate circle. The evidence of conservative’s overall lack of empathy is easily found. They exhibit mind-blindness—a difficulty, or impossibility in understanding the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others.

The greatest accomplishments of liberal-empathy were in response to the Great Depression—social security, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, progressive labour legislation, to only name a few—all things that conservatives have been trying to undo or repeal ever since.

The liberal’s response was to the needs of the American people, overall. The conservative’s continued reactivity has been to meet the needs of their corporate and wealthy benefactors.

There is a continuum with autism on one end of the spectrum, and extreme empathy on the other says Baron-Cohen. People on the autism end are systemizers, with superior pattern recognition skills, but lack the ability to perceive and appropriately respond to the mental and emotional states of others—think Rainman, or Malcolm in the Australian movie of the same name.

A real life example is Richard Borcherds who, in 1998, was awarded the Fields Medal, which for mathematicians is equivalent to the Nobel Prize (he has specialized in lattices, number theory, group theory, and infinite-dimensional algebras—pretty high end stuff). But his connection to other people is very limited. He knows other people have thoughts and emotions, but is unable to understand what they might be. To a very limited extent, he can tolerate one on one conversations, but groups, even a few people at his home, are confusing. He cannot understand jokes and small talk is beyond his limited social abilities. He says he doesn’t understand the communication aspect of telephones. What is he supposed to say? Whose turn is it to talk? Where was a conversation supposed to go? When are you supposed to hang up? He has very limited powers of self-reflection. Here is a man who could fathom any mathematical problem you could throw at him, but who was unable to work out the basics of friendship or how to have a phone conversation.

His mother reported that, as a teenager, he was out unusually late one night and she became worried. When he came home, she asked why he hadn’t phoned to let her know where he was. “What for?” he said to her, “I knew where I was.”

This is the end of the scale where conservatives coalesce. Like Borcherds, they know that other people have thoughts and feelings, but cannot connect to them.

As big promoters of freedom, conservatives, are unable to understand that this concept is a chimera. As Harding said in her book:

The extent to which we are motivated and controlled by unconscious attitudes is unbelievable. We are quite unaware when we are taking a collective attitude, believing it to be individual. An individual who goes to live in a foreign country may get a little glimpse of his own unfreeness. He discovers that collective assumptions enter into the smallest details of daily life and influence his every reaction. His expectations and psychological attitudes are challenged at every point, from table manners to political opinions. He begins to realize that his attitude rarely rests on his own judgment of a particular situation but that in everything he is influenced by all sorts of overtones of meaning that may not be shared by his hosts.”

This is one of those concepts that is so obvious that it hardly needs mentioning. That obviousness is also routinely invisible. You know this yourself from observing, from an outsider’s point of view, any family dynamic which can be even a source of great frustration to you. You look at a dysfunctional family dynamic and see the conflict, as only one example, between parents and their same-sex children. It’s so obvious to you, but so unobvious to them. Children swim in their parents' unconscious like fish in the sea, but neither is aware of this psychological control over their lives and their actions.

If a person is free this means, in theory, that they can do anything they want. The key word, here, is want. Does a conservative want, from his perspective of limited empathy, to help others in general. No.

Where does empathy come from?

Empathy, I suggest is a mix of innate and learned. What makes me think it is largely learned is that, culturally, Americans are far more conservative than Europeans or even Canadians. If it were more innate than learned, the conservatism elsewhere would be comparable to America’s conservatism. Even here in Canada, conservatism exists in a far milder form. We have a socialist party, The New Democratic Party which, from the point of view of American politics, could not exist in any significant form. The NDP, however, is the official opposition in Parliament, holding the second largest number of elected seats (103 out of 308). Canadians have even elected one member of the Green Party. While the NDP is talking about the possibility of forming the next government in four or five years, I don’t really see that as a possibility—but a even week is a long time in politics. Still the party has enough elected members to hold the conservatives’ feet to the fire. It’s the opposite in the U.S. where it’s the conservatives who are holding the liberals’ feet to the fire.


Liberals and conservatives are more made than born; but once made and passed into adulthood, they are, like the leopard, unlikely to change their spots.

It's not that conservatives are bad people; they are just psychologically unable to be good people.

Conservative lack of social empathy promotes a rigidity and inflexibility that enhances their mind-blindness so that, analogous to Borcherd above, they simply cannot see or understand how someone can think differently than they. They believe they possess the truth in an absolute sense. But, as the philosopher Lewis Mumford said in his book The Pentagon of Power:

If the history of the human race teaches any plain lessons, this is one of them: Man cannot be trusted with absolutes.”

He could have said, more meaningfully, that it is conservatives who cannot be trusted with absolutes. Liberals seem to know, intuitively, that there are no absolutes and that man makes his own society.

As Ronald Aronson wrote in “The Left Needs More Socialism”, (The Nation, April 17/06):

Living in a capitalist world, we can't get far thinking and talking about alternatives and new directions without acknowledging that many of our key values and starting points are drawn from a common historical source: the socialist tradition. We have not reached the end of history as long as the spirit of solidarity animates antisweatshop movements, as long as a root sense of fairness motivates our efforts for a living wage, as long as the belief in equality nourishes our demand for a national healthcare system, as long as we embrace the democratic social provisioning embodied in Social Security. The next left will have to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the socialist spirit. Socialism's values continue to nourish community life. Much of our world continues to be organized collectively, democratically and socially, operating according to need and not according to profitability--in schools and cooperatives; libraries and nonprofits; local, state and federal government programs. September 11 and Hurricane Katrina showed the undying need for extensive and intensive structures of community. The socialist standards of fairness, democracy, equality and justice are as much a part of daily life as are capitalism's values of privilege, unequal rewards and power.”

Even though conservatives believe they are winning, it’s temporary, as they continue to fight uphill against the historical grain.

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Douglas Benson July 3, 2011 6:34 am (Pacific time)

RM that is correct and my point exactly. When you interact with those that you find so offensive and find that they arent the bogey man its hard to keep your prejudice. Let me point out that if I were to attend the family church and spout the rehtoric I would be more than welcome in my family circle . But I dont and wont . That makes me a problem ,it puts a real face to those that they and you would like to remove from society .
By the way ,unless you know me personally you used your LEO credentials to get that info .That my friend is a big no no . Get ready to have a little talk with your CO and a citizen complaint . Tim when you read this would you please give me a call ? I will need this posters info .Thanks

Tim King: Doug, I have a new phone but the same number, however I can't access my contacts, so if you can call me we'll be in business.  I am tempted to just pull this aspect of the post.  For the record, Doug is a steadfast individual who has worked with and was particularly helpful working as security during Ken O'Keefe's visit last summer.  A minor conviction for possessing an herb that God placed on this earth does not make a bad person.  Doug, I look forward to catching up.

RM July 2, 2011 8:44 am (Pacific time)

Doug you are a repeat offender and a multiple convicted felon. I would also minimize my contact with you, and it has nothing to do with political ideology. But in regards to conservatives maintaining closed social circles, well that is a normal artifact of any socialization process that is also dependent on one's environment. It is not a reflection of just ideological values, for all keep close those that share their cultural norms and values. I have very close liberal friends that I would risk my life for, even though we have different political values, we generally want the same thing for our families and country. It's just the methods that we have difficulty with. Those on the far right and far left have been the ones stirring the pot big time, and as soon as more people learn to ignore them, the more we can have a "meeting of the minds" to work together in resolving our differences and our methodologies.

Douglas Benson July 2, 2011 8:02 am (Pacific time)

Great article Dan . One thing you missed. Our founding fathers recognized that reason alone would not carry the day and protect freedom and social responsibility .Thats why they gave us what you seem to find so offensive. The constitution ,and the bill of rights. These are the gaurds of liberty ,just take a look at dancing at the jefferson memorial. Our rights in action . I mention this because it shows that when we exercise our rights and refuse to obey those that would subvert them they back off. It is so true that interaction breeds empathy and that is why conservatives have very closed social circles . Those that dont share thier views or dont fit their ideals are treated like they have the plauge . I see it every time I attend a family function [and that is rare]. The furitive glances,the lack of engagement,herding the children away ,what is said behind my back to further thier indoctrination ,the list goes on. As far as they are concerned I am satan incarnate. Its hard to hate the poor,the homeless,the addicted ,the disadvantaged,ect when youve been there . Got to run Im out .Peace

Ralph E. Stone July 2, 2011 7:22 am (Pacific time)

There is an old saying: "If you're not liberal when you're young, you have no heart. If you're not conservative when you're older, you have no brain." I wish you had defined what you mean by "liberal" and "conservative." We all want freedom; we want the chance for prosperity; we want as few people suffering as possible; we want healthy children; we want to have crime-free streets. Some would say that liberal policies generally emphasize the need for the government to solve problems while conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems. Or are you equating "liberal" and "conservative" to the left and right wings of the American political spectrum. This would be unfair to both liberals and conservatives. Perhaps, you should have used different terms than liberal and conservative to make your point.

Thanks for your comment.

I agree that the terms liberal and conservative can be slippery. My definitions tend to be by pointing out examples. If you are like G.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michelle Bachmann, and so on, then you're a conservative. The list of public liberals is a little harder to produce, but I would put people like Paul Krugman ofPrinceton/NYT who calls himself a liberal. Not any more notable examples off the top of my head, but if you agree, overall, with Krugman's writing, then you'e a liberal.

Yes, liberal usually does equate to government doing something but that's the only way a lot of things can get done. The private sector will only do things for profit and profit always trumps people. Milton Friedman covered the basic concept in an article simply titled: "The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits".

So it's the people in the community/state/nation who must do things for themselves through elected representatives. Nice in theory, anyway. 

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