Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and he has a number of papers of interest to philosophers on moral psychology. In an op-ed in today’s NY Times, he says:
… I believe that last week’s celebrations were good and healthy. America achieved its goal — bravely and decisively — after 10 painful years. People who love their country sought out one another to share collective effervescence. They stepped out of their petty and partisan selves and became, briefly, just Americans rejoicing together.
His reasons are summarized in the last sentence, but they deserve more explanation. For one thing, he distinguishes between patriotism and nationalism, “which is the view that one’s own country is superior to other countries and should therefore be dominant. Nationalism is generally found to be correlated with racism and with hostility toward other countries, but patriotism by itself is not. ” Patriotism is about solidarity with one’s fellow citizens.
The understanding underlying this comes from Durkheim:
But Durkheim was most interested in the sentiments that bind people into groups — the collective emotions. These emotions dissolve the petty, small-minded self. They make people feel that they are a part of something larger and more important than themselves.
One such emotion he called “collective effervescence”: the passion and ecstasy that is found in tribal religious rituals when communities come together to sing, dance around a fire and dissolve the boundaries that separate them from each other. The spontaneous celebrations of last week were straight out of Durkheim.
So last week’s celebrations were about bonding together and that is good and healthy.
But in the communal joy of last week, many of us felt, for an instant, that Americans might still be capable of working together to meet threats and challenges far greater than Osama bin Laden.
So it seems that we are petty and small-minded or we get swept up into collective effervescence. A curious view for Mother’s Day (as it is in the States), one could say.
And such bonding is good except, one could also say, when it is not, as with the internment of a portion of our citizen, crowd bullying, lynching, and even that kind of group decision making that means a group has turned for or against a thesis being argued for at a philosophy conference. But the evidence that the bonding last week was good and healthy appears to be this:
We have all the old selfish programming of other primates, but we also have a more recent overlay that makes us able to become, briefly, hive creatures like bees. Just think of the long lines to give blood after 9/11. Most of us wanted to do something — anything — to help…
The psychologist Linda Skitka studied the psychological traits that predicted which people displayed American flags in the weeks after 9/11. She found that the urge to display the flag “reflected patriotism and a desire to show solidarity with fellow citizens, rather than a desire to express out-group hostility.”
And that does not seem decisive, but at least we do not, as far as I know, have any evidence that anti-Muslim feeling is on the increase.
There are two kinds of issues with the argument here that I can detect. One is concerned with the facts. For example, how accurate is the description of American achieving its goal after ten painful years? Does the killing of Osama come anywhere close to the ending of the shorter WWII? It is in some genuine sense a national achievement? Were we really brought out of our local interests, or were we largely relieved because we felt our friends and family members are probably safer? And the second is about bonding in these moments of collective effervescence. For example, we might ask if these moments tend to be as topic neutral as Haidt may be suggesting. Could effervescence bond us over the problems of the least powerful? Or is the bonding shaped by further and selective factors, such as power or perhaps very simple views of the problem?
What do you think? The questions above are genuine questions. Let us know your answers!