Why is politics so emotionally fraught? Why this seemingly endless, pointless war of attrition between Left and Right? Why do we hate each other so much? Jonathan Haidt has developed a very elegant and persuasive theory addressing this perennial question in his excellent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, where he makes the case that people’s political orientations are primarily the expression of deep-seated moral values.
Haidt identifies six moral foundations: “Care”, “Fairness”, “Loyalty”, “Authority”, “Sanctity” and “Liberty”, which he derives in a bottom-up approach from quite plausible speculations about the survival strategies of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. I won’t go into the details here, but will just give you the main finding of the book (spoiler alert!) which is that left-wing liberals are currently almost exclusively interested in the “Care” dimension (with a dash of “Fairness”) , whereas social conservatives have more evenly spread moral commitments across all six foundations.
This is an excellent model for thinking about morality and politics. However, I would like here to propose another, even simpler analysis of the relationship between morality and politics, with reference to the infinitely versatile “Wheel of Samsara” (Tibetan Wheel of Life) model. From this vantage point, politics is not only an expression of what we value, but also of what we reject; it’s not so much about what we recognize as moral as what we recognize as immoral. Because it manifests in a disgust response, it is closely associated with Haidt’s “Sanctity” moral foundation.
The Tibetan Wheel of Life can be understood as a depiction of the sins of fallen humanity, a graphic Buddhist alternative to the traditional Aristotelian or Judeo-Christian lists, such as the Seven Deadly Sins. In Repentance and Faith, I lay out the characteristic sins associated with each of the six positions on the Wheel, as I understand them.
My version, which I call the “Wheel of Samsara”, describes six sins (or vices) associated with six ego states – three intellectual and three emotional. The three intellectual states are represented by the muggle, diva and muppet archetypes, associated with the sins of Ignorance, Pride and Delusion respectively. The three emotional states are represented by the addict, demon and victim archetypes, with their corresponding sins, Greed, Hate and Fearfulness.
So how does this model shed light on our moral responses to the political landscape?
Well, let’s start with the supposed immorality of the president of the United States, Donald Trump. He is variously portrayed as a sexist, a racist, a crook, a philanderer, a narcissist, a fool, a dunce, a fascist, a bully, an evil mastermind and, of course, a greedy capitalist pig. One or several of these accusations may very well be true for all I know – I remain agnostic on the content of his character (as opposed to the colour of his hair).
What I am really interested in is the moral psychology behind the image. Who is this monster so vilified by TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome) enthusiasts? It seems to have elements of the addict (greedy, lascivious, hedonistic) but also of the muggle (ignorant, simple-minded, materialistic). But it also has lashings of the demon and the diva: not only is he Greedy and Ignorant, he is also Evil and Full of Himself.
The same image seems to stick to our very own “British Trump”, Boris Johnson. It’s not just the hair and the eccentricity he holds in common with Trump (let alone the politics), it’s the monster image: Boris is also portrayed as a monster by his political enemies (or, as I heard a nice well-spoken middle class mother assure her twelve year old daughter on Hampstead Heath the day after his election as Prime Minister, “a prick”).
People on the left side of the political aisle look down on muggles. They call them “hicks”, “red-necks”, “deplorables”, “trailer trash” and “racists” in the US. In Britain they are called “twats”. But worse than mere muggle simpletons, who are just plain Ignorant, are muggle-addicts, who are both Ignorant and Greedy (and probably sexual predators to boot). And worse than muggle-addicts are muggle-addict-demons who are secretly driven by malevolence and evil. Worst of all are the muggle-addict-demon-divas who are not only Ignorant, Greedy and full of Hatred and Evil, but Proud and Arrogant and all too often unconscionably Rich and Famous.
There is a kind of puritanism underlying all this moral outrage. We’ve been here before. Remember Cromwell? Remember Danton and Robespierre? Remember Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Hitler? Remember the Der Stürmer anti-semitic propaganda cartoons? The Nazis held up the moral depravity of decadent money-grabbing monsters for all to see. And hate.
Clearly, it’s much easier to kill monsters than people. Which is why painting people as monsters should ring some warning bells. A muggle-addict-demon-diva is a monstrous creation which can be destroyed without compunction. But so is its political rival, the muppet-victim-diva-demon. This is the monster held up for ridicule and attack by Right-wingers. In the US they call them “liberals”, “radicals”, “commies”, “hippies” or “social justice warriors”. In the UK they’re called “twats”.
Worse than mere muppets, who can be pitied and patronised (they’re usually too young to know any better) are the muppet-victims, who play into the whole “victimology” narrative of Identity Politics and Intersectionality. Not only are they Deluded, they are also Paranoid and Pathetic. Right-wing pundits refer to this kind of social activism as the “Oppression Olympics”, where those regarded as the most socially marginalised and victimised enjoy the greatest standing in the muppet social economy.
This is not traditional left-wing politics of course. It is “neo-progressivism” or “progressive liberationism”, a kind of “applied post-modernism”. The basic premise is that everything of value in life is socially constructed, so everything can be deconstructed. With enough political will (ie. force) humanity can re-create itself as a blank slate (everyone equalised and neutralised).
The Right experience this kind of thing with intense moral disgust. The most prominent and vocal exponents of muppet ideology then come to be seen not only as muppet-victims but as muppet-victim-demons, whose activism is fueled by intense self-loathing and hatred, with their sole aim the destruction of the family and Western civilisation. Worst of all are the self-congratulatory, virtue-signalling Proud and Arrogant leaders, the muppet-victim-demon divas, on whom the Right can vent all their spleen and outrage.
Just as the Left project all the sins of the muggle and addict (Ignorance and Greed) onto the Right, and then pump the monster up with extra diva-demonic steroids, so the Right projects all the sins of the muppet and victim (Delusion and Fearfulness) onto the Left and pump their monster up with the same diva-demonic cocktail of hubristic evil.
The Left find Donald Trump and Boris Johnson disgusting because they epitomize the heinous sins of “Capitalism” and the Right find Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jeremy Corbyn disgusting because they epitomize the mortal sin of “Socialism”. But it’s got nothing to do with politics really: it’s all about moral disgust for contrasting negative human archetypes. Trump is the archetypal muggle-addict-demon-diva in the eyes of the Left and AOC as the classic muppet-victim-demon-diva in the eyes of the Right.
The moral of the story? “Neither a muggle nor a muppet be”. If you spend your time shouting down muggles, you’re probably a bit of a muppet and if you get off on shouting down muppets, you’re probably something of a muggle. Of course it’s important that we call out the errors and excesses of both sides, but please, please, please, not out of hatred and disgust. Mild distaste is fine. Because if we carry on like this, we shouldn’t be surprised if it’s us that turn out to be the monsters.