Were “last week’s celebrations … good and healthy”?

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!

34 thoughts on “Were “last week’s celebrations … good and healthy”?

  1. Crowds are unthinking and frightening, frightening because they are unthinking.

    I can understand the tribal response to Bin Laden’s death, although I don’t share it, but it does seem ominous that the last newspaper in the U.S. dedicated to the “thinking” reader runs op-ed articles apologizing for tribalism.

    Will the NYT run an op-ed article giving the anti-tribal or anti-celebratory (if you don’t like my adjective, “tribal”) point of view? The point of view that there is something disturbing or perhaps in bad taste about celebrating someone’s assassination.

    We’ll see.

  2. Interesting, Rob. I had no idea that arguing against liberal reactions is a main thing he does. I thought this might just be a sloppy one-off thing for him.

  3. Interesting, Rob. I had no idea that arguing against liberal reactions is a main thing he does. I thought this might just be a sloppy one-off thing for him.

  4. I was really worried our commentary on this event would have to be similar to how we treat other peoples who cheer in the streets over our violent misfortunes. I wasn’t really able to see a difference between our good, healthy patriotism and others’ barbarity and rabble but I’m glad to know there is one.

  5. Durkheim? Interesting. Clifford Geertz once referred to his work as “Sociological Kantianism”. Geertz struck me as kinda Freudian, tho.

    Haidt’s interpretation of Durkheim’s theories to try to prove that the kids partying in front of the whitehouse are being patriotic as opposed to nationalistic rubs me the wrong way. Something from my half remembered lectures in ’02 and ’03 are putting my hackles up over that one.

    Durkheim was also a pioneer in suicide research, with one of the leading causes, according to his findings, being what he called “anomie”, the suffering associated with being an outcast.

    For the sake of NOT being accused of delivering a non-sequitr :-P I’ll be back after I check my sources. I’m fairly certain that Durkheim was one of the first sociologists to suggest a correlation between Group-Think, outcasts, feelings of rejection and despair, and suicidal tendencies among out-groups. If so, then Dr. Haidt’s description of “collective effervescence” over Bin Laden’s death as “good and healthy” may be a heavily slanted misinterpretation of Durkheim’s work.

  6. Ok, I’ve had enough. Thanks for the link, Rob. Haidt is severely biased, and not in a good way. Flood the field of social psychology with social and fiscal free-wheeling conservatives? For what? So they can sell aversion therapies to gay people? So they can start lobotomizing sex workers again?!? PFFTT!!

  7. And why do you assume we don’t know about his scholarship? Did you look at the link to him on philpapers that I started with?

  8. Yeah, yeah. I’ll mind my own biases. Actually, that show of hands where Haidt pointed out the 0.3% conservative set among the psych people reminds me of a little story I told Synaesthetik about the Stepford Wife like quality among the students at my school. I actually found it a little eerie. The students were all Ken&Barbie perfect, and so were around a third of the over 40 profs I saw walking around campus. Some of my younger profs were absolutely stunning. Really. Even if they were a 7 or 8 on the Ken&Barbie scale, rather than a 9 or a 10, they were all extremely fit. I used to joke about how the university must have accepted me because I’m good looking too :-D

    I said to S, “I never see any fat people there. In 3 years, I’ve seen maybe 10. That’s all. And they always disappear after one semester or less. I think the beautiful people eat the fat people.”

    She laughed. (In case you haven’t guessed, that WAS my intention.) She said, “Did you ever think that maybe the fat people–oh, LOSE WEIGHT because of all the walking they do on that ginormous campus? And maybe you just don’t recognize them after a semester?”

    Maybe after studying greats like Phil Zimbardo, and overwhelming evidence to contradict the beliefs that make conservative thinkers what they are, the conservatives within the discipline either change their views or drop out?

  9. That over 40 wasn’t very clear. I don’t mean the number of profs walking around. I mean that around a third of the profs who appeared to have already celebrated their 40th or even 45th birthdays were extremely good looking and fit.

  10. Thank you for the reflections on Haidt. I contend Haidt’s column–including his references to natural selection, Durkheim, and “tribal times”–are a diversion from the real political and economic issues at stake.

    It seems mighty ironic that someone who bemoans a “liberal bias” in social psychology is presiding over an academic endorsement for an essentially conservative project.

    I’ve written more about this in a blog-post titled “Anthropological responsibilities on bin Laden celebrations”:



    I’ve had it up-to-there with faux evo-psych too, in case the irony in #10 wasn’t clear enough.

  12. Jason, I like your blog! I hope people have a look.

    SW, thanks for the link. Anyone interested in evolutionary psychology should look at his critique of this bad use of it.

    I didn’t pick up on the naturalistic fallacy part of Haidt’s, but it does appear that supporters of the celebrating do seem to argue “natural therefore good.” I queried this on an earlier post on the celebrations. The idea of the naturalistic fallacy is a bit difficult, though, for a student of Foot and Anscombe, because the fact-value divide looks quite different in their hands. And I still think they are more right than wrong.

  13. Yes, jj. I had trouble with some of the Aristotelian theorists, though I found Philippa the person, as she showed through her writing, and the writing of others quite likeable.

    I found that studying Aristotle’s Poetics helped a great deal with the clashes between what I understand as legitimate theories of biocultural adaptation, and religious fluff passed off as a ‘natural’ way to be. (Taking undergrad courses in anthro and philosophy at the same time is enough to give anybody an aneurysm!)Poetics was the missing piece of the puzzle that helped me better understand Virtue Ethics and some of the theories of mind I was studying. Our meta-narratives are just as legitimate as sources of value building (as long as they’re not maladaptive.) I enjoy religious works, just for the sake of listening to the poetry without getting caught up in the oughts. Gregorian chants and Muslim prayers sound as lovely to me as an Alabama gospel choir.

    I still feel strongly that much of the partying last week, and much of what creates the behaviour that I find most annoying in some Americans who have to be SO rude while they’re waving their flags is their Manifest Destiny doctrine. And that’s my spin on Durkheim’s “God as a Symbol of Society” thesis. Far too many Americans aren’t just turning to sacred rituals in times of need, and looking to the sacred as a unifying force. Far too many of them believe that they ARE semi-divine, that they’re God’s ‘chosen people’, to do with the rest of the world what they see fit. They try to pattern their lives and their values around a narrative arc from umpteen action movies, and then they think the answers to the hatred they generate come down to more guns and more invasions and more dancing around corpses hanging from trees.

    And THAT is dangerous. To the quiet Americans who just want to get back to their lives, to the cultures that these little ‘divine kings’ mean to conquer, and to the people who get caught in the crossfire.

    ‘Natural effervescence’ my tail-less bum! It’s ‘natural’ for us to nest in trees, poop in the woods, clean ourselves with leaves, and then take our breakfast by scavenging ungulate corpses left by other carnivores, too! :-P

    These youtube theorists who are always trying to pass things off as ‘natural’ are just trying to tell us that ‘natural’ is what god gave us, therefore it’ll never change and woe to anybody who tries to criticize it. It’s all BS used to justify apalling behaviour, and I’m not buying it.

    To answer the questions in the original post, The War On Terror was a far cry from WWII. And it was only a small victory. More Americans die every year from complications due to inadequate healthcare than the number dead on 9/11. And nobody’s declaring war on the anti Obamacare activists. Over TEN TIMES the number dead on 9/11 die as a result of gunshot wounds fired by AMERICANS in suicides, accidents and homicides every year. But nobody’s declaring war on Charlton Heston or his gun nut cronies. Bin Laden was a minor killer, less important than Radovic, or some of the other Serbian and Rwandan war criminals who are still at large.

    To your last question: yes, oh yes. I believe that the celebrations, for the most part were about power over others. But the only way to tell for sure is to put out a new questionnaire aimed specifically at the kids doing the partying. Questionnaires from 9 1/2 years ago just don’t cut it, imo.

  14. I’ve made three attempts to make a brief comment, all of which seem to attract the blog’s spam dumpster. ;>

  15. Rob, the spam checker can take against links, which it assumes are commercial and/or porn.

  16. Rob, I checked the spam box. I’d appreciate you locating the disagreement you think your cited authors have. Coyne summarizes his objection with “He simply asserts without proof that our “hive-isheness”, including religion and sports, has an evolutionary basis similar to that of colony behavior in bees and termites.  This is not only foolish, but positively misleading.  When I beef about the excesses of evolutionary psychology, it’s this sort of thing that comes to mind.”

    Do your authors really think it is the same?

    I should think many of us think cultural traits MAY in some cases have a strong evolutionary basis. The question here is about who has described successfully what we do know, as opposed to assuming evolution fits their political agenda.

  17. Coyne updated his post, pointing out the Haidt received a 100,000 dollar Templeton Award for Positive Psychology in 2001.

    There was a good article on the Templeton Foundation in The Nation a few months ago. I’ll not send the link for fear of having this lost in the spam filter, but others can look for it, if they wish. In any case, Templeton funds rightwing and religious causes.

    Haidt appears to be the “progressive” intellectual, whom the far right loves.

  18. SW: one links usually gets through. I suspect that there’s quite a kerfuffle on the web about Coyne on Templeton.

  19. JJ: All the stuff I cited can be Googled. The first item, in regard to Coyne’s post, was ‘Multilevel Selection Theory and Major Evolutionary Transitions: Implications for Psychological Science”, co-authored by (yes, a Templeton recipient) DS Wilson, in Current Directions in Psychological Science. It neatly lays out what Haidt is drawing upon.

    I also cited Robert Boyd and Christopher Boehm, bio anthropologists whose work both Wilson and Haidt inoke, and I referred to a Psych Today blog post about the recent controversy over the American Anthropological Association’s change to its mission statement, “The remains of the AAA” by Alice Dreger, since Professor Antrosio’s blog suggests to me that his vision and practice of anthropology might be at odds with that of Boehm and Boyd’s.

    (For really interesting example, in today’s news, of convergent interests among bio anthros and evo psychs, do a Google search on “The tricky chemistry of attraction.)

  20. http://www.thenation.com/article/god-science-and-philanthropy?page=full

    I had to look up “kerfuffle”.

    Coyne may stray from the Aristotelian mean when it comes to the subject of religion, but he seems to have seen through Haidt.

    Haidt, as I recall, is the fellow who always lectures us about how the big difference between left and right is that they have different values, both equally valid. Nothing about some people being powerful and some people being powerless.

    Now that Coyne nails Haidt on not understanding evolutionary theory
    (a subject that Haidt constantly talks about), I’m liking Coyne more.

  21. Rob, I don’t see anything in the Wilson argument that Coyne or indeed I would disagree with. I was hoping you could locate where you thought he supported Haidt over Coyne. I can’t see anything that addresses the disagreement between Coyne and Haidt. Perhaps I skimmed too quickly, so please let us know more.

    Was it the claim that universal features probably evolved? I don’t think Coyne denies this either. What he does not like is confidence about the precise survival value of religion and the mechanisms of that evolution when there is scant empirical evidence, and indeed some considerable contrary evidence to some of the claims.

    This is important, because it addresses the question of the level of disagreement that this blog is supposed to be about. We try to get precise issues, and not merely trade the titles of journal articles.

  22. SW, I love “kerfuffle.” It is not an instance of onomatopoeia, but it feels close to me. One can almost hear the noise of the ruffled feathers, to employ a standard metaphor.

  23. ZAP! BLAM! KABLOWEY! I love kerfuffle too. If I could be a superhero I’d want to be Onomatopoeia Girl. Blasting evildoers with the word that becomes the force. POP! :-D

  24. JJ: I took Coyne’s basic issue with Haidt to be over group selection, but now I see this:

    >> Are there genes (and evolutionary bases) for being religious, or for tendencies to form groups that believe in the supernatural? We don’t know. Yet Haidt blithely tells us that this is so, and is a “key” element to understanding much human behavior. <<

    Sorry, but I honestly don't think Coyne has bothered to read any of Haidt's work, and I don't know what else to do here but call attention to the growing body of work by the likes of Haidt, Atran, Henrich, Shariff, Norenzayan and others who argue, based on data from a wide array of disciplines, for the crucial role of religion (and "high moralizing gods") in the pro-sociality-promoting coevolution of complex societies. My personal hunch, well expressed by Philip Kitcher in his essay "Modern Militant Atheism", is that Four Horseman-type atheists like Coyne, who take a cognitivist, belief-model view of religion (i.e. as if it's basically just a complex of stupid beliefs) are loath to engage the social-functionalist, dual inheritance approach to religion because it doesn't provide grounds for encouragement of their activism (as illustrated in skirmishes between DS Wilson & Dawkins, and Atran & Harris). (Dennett is apparently coming around, with his next book.)

    Lastly, about Templeton, I'm wary, too, and especially find their Big Questions web site occasionally obnoxious with some of its quasi rearguard apologetics type features (trotting out a wishy-washy scientist to address "Can Materialism Explain the Soul?" stuff, etc.), and does fund more stuff than I wish theistic philosophers dig, but it clearly supports quality research, like that of Boehm, Mele, Wilson, Baumeister, and many others; so unless it can be shown that the funding is impacting the results of research, in contrast to having an influence on some of its directions, I don't think it's reasonable to use the association to impugn scholarship.

  25. I’m not entirely in BF Skinner’s Dancing Pigeons camp, myself. I prefer the theories that point to hypnotic states kicking in when certain stimuli are present. eg:chanting, ritual dance, as I mentioned above. Ecstatic visions are common across cultures, no matter what godforms are being worshipped by which group.

  26. Rob, it seems to me there’s a problem with your understanding of the debate. The question with the Haidt article was about whether we know religion is part of a supposedly thin coating of culture passed on by the mechanisms that establised hives for bees.

    That really is the issue Coyne raised. There is all sorts of other stuff we can conjecture about, form possible models of, and so on. What is of concern is when we stop trying to form fruitful hypotheses and start to talk about what we know is true.

  27. Just to be clear, Coyne’s criticism of haidt in the linked to article is about the claims to know how religion is transmitted evolutionarily. For this debate, whether religion is crucial or not is beside the point.

  28. Yes, and I’m pointing out some of the research evidence from multiple and varied source behind Haidt’s op-ed that is responsive to Coyne’s criticism of it. (By the way, Haidt had some kind of conversation/debate with the Dali Lama last week, the video for which can be accessed from Haidt’s web page.)

  29. Just for the record, what Atran has to say does not address the issues inder dispute. At least as far as his abstract goes. It would be interesting to know why you think it does.

    I think that you are under an illusion of disagreement and that that might arise from rather disrespectful assumptions about us. I have mentioned specific issues a number of times and you just keep on piling on fairly irrelevant stuff. Since thtis is under the guise of disagreement, but no desire to actually engage in arguments, itis distracting, trollish behavior.

  30. DS Wilson on Coyne on group selection:

    “Give me a social psychologist [i.e. Haidt] who does his homework over an evolutionist in righteous indignation mode any day. If Jerry were functioning in scientific mode, he’d acknowledge that Jon’s thesis is based on the work of mainstream evolutionists…” (Source

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