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The Hub for Important Ideas
The Hub for Important Ideas

Episode 45 · 5 months ago

A House Divided featuring Sheldon Solomon - Episode 45 – The Hub for Important Ideas

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

How can we get a better understanding of the divisions in our society? This episode features a conversation with social psychologist Sheldon Solomon who offers a unique perspective on our polarized country that goes beyond the standard political, social, historical, and economic explanations.

How can we get a better understanding of the divisions in our society? Welcome to the hub for important ideas. I'm Steve James and I'm Ken Swain. This episode is called a house divided. We're looking for an explanation for our divided country that goes beyond the standard political, social, historical and economic explanations. We want to look at our polarized society in terms of a social psychological perspective. We're going to play for you a recent conversation we had with Dr Sheldon Solomon. Sheldon Solomon, Ph d, is a social psychologist at skidmore college. He is best known for Co developing terror management theory with Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pazynski, which is concerned with how humans deal with our own sense of mortality. He is author or CO author of over a hundred articles and several books and has been featured in various films, television documentaries and radio interviews. He Co authored the book the worm at the cores on the role of death in life, with Greenberg and Pazynski. He most recently appeared in the documentary's planet of the humans and unfit. Here's the conversation with Dr Solomon Sheldon, welcome to the hub for important ideas. Great to be back. Oh great, high shelting. Well, can thank you for being our guest once again. It's a pleasure to have you back on our show. The title of this episode is a house divided. We're looking for an explanation for our divided country that goes beyond the standard political, social, historical and economic explanations. We want to look at our polarized society in terms of a social psychological perspective. Okay, so could we start with just a little bit about terror management theory and the whole theory of mortality salience and then move from there into the whole death thought accessibility theory, but if you'd start with the basics? Yeah, certainly, and a good idea, by the way, even for folks that are familiar with this work, myself included, I think from time to time good to step back to be sure we're clans and at the forest and not getting hung up on the proverbial trees, as it were. And so back to the beginning, and that cerness Becker who, in his book the birth and death the meaning, says I want to understand why people do what they do when they do it, and he wants to be intellectually achyomatical and ensure that we consider lots of disciplinary viewpoints, while at the same time insisting on empirical corroboration the ones that we'd like to retain. The denial of death is where Becker points out that what he believes to underlie most human behavior, whether we're aware of it or not, is the disinclination to die that results from our having the cognitive capacity to realize that we exist, which is magnificent in that at allso enables us to imagine things that don't yet exist and have the audacity to transform our dreams into reality. Realizing that we're here is tremendously uplifting. I'm glad to wake up every day and still be alive. And yet becker points out the the awareness of one's existence also necessarily in genders a concommitant recognition of the inevitability of one's death, compounded by the realization that you can be summarily obliterated at any time for reasons. You could never anticipate or control Becker's point, as you wouldn't be able to stand up in the morning if that's all you were aware of the you are a transient piece of respiring carbon based dust and the in order to manage the existential terror that would otherwise result, we embrace culturally constructed beliefs about reality. Becker calls them cultural world views that reduce death anxiety by giving us a sense that life has meaning and that we have value. And, from backer's perspective, whether we're aware of it or not, what motivates us most of the time is an effort...

...to maintain faith in our beliefs and confidence in our self worth. And when either of those psychological dimensions, our belief for our Selfworth, is threatened, the argument is that we will engage in compensatory behaviors that restore our beliefs and our feelings of self worth. Terror management theory was our effort to frame backer's ideas in a way that would allow us to derive hypotheses that we could then subject to empirical scrutiny English translation. We thought backers ideas were great in the s when we first stumbled onto them. Other folks did not agree with us. In fact, our first paper, as you know, was rejected and the reviewer, in a single sentence, just said I have no doubt that these ideas are of no interest to any psychologists, alive or dead, and we were like, all right, we're experimental psychologists. Let's see if these ideas have merit by traditional scientific standards. And so for the last almost forty years that's what we've been doing, and we have found three basic insights. One is just that self esteem does indeed buffer anxiety in general and about death in particular. When we raise self esteem, not to be confused with narcissism, people are less physiologically aroused when we threaten them with electrical shocks, more directly relevant, in another paradigm. We call this the mortality salience paradigm. This is where we remind people of their own mortality. Sometimes we say just write down your thoughts and feelings about dying. Sometimes we go outside the lab. We stop some people in front of a funeral parlor, of other people a hundred meters to either side, our thought being that if you're talking in front of a funeral parlor, death is on your mind, even if you don't know it. And then come to my office some day you can read your email and while you're doing that will flash the word death for twenty eight milliseconds, so fast that you can't see anything. And it doesn't matter how we remind people of their mortality, and it doesn't matter if you even know that death is on your mind. It influences you and profound and provocative ways. And so, for example, when we remind people they're going to die, they hate people who are different, they sit further away from them, you're more likely to vote for Donald Trump, den I that you're an animal, be uncomfortable in nature, smoke more cigarettes, drink more alcohol, eat more candy if that's what you're fond of, watch more television. In short, death reminders influence a pervasive range of attitudes and behavior, and there's now hundreds of studies literally that produce that effect in twenty five different countries and people as young as ten and as old as in their s. In other words, that's a very robust finding. And then the third paradigm is what we call death thought accessibility, and that's the flip side of mortality salience. So when we remind people that they're going to die, they become more defensive of their current beliefs. We call that world view defense. But then we said, well, let's turn out around. If your beliefs about the world and yourself serve to reduce death anxiety, then let's challenge those beliefs and if that's the case, then death thoughts should come rushing more readily. To mind, that's a very complicated and counterintuitive way of looking at this, but it's brilliant. Yeah, I well, I don't know if it's brilliant all, but it is. It is. It wasn't my idea, so I'm going to declare it brilliant without any hint of narcissistic self inflation, because basically, the way that we were taught, and this is a tribute to the folks who trained us, and it's based on Nietsche's idea. Back to Nietscha, who we like, because I need Nietzsche, said, Oh, we're always saying that people are courageous when they defend their beliefs, but it doesn't take any courage to defend your belief what really takes courage is to have the audacity to consider that you're wrong and to challenge them. So we had literally dozens of...

...studies saying, okay, if we remind people that they're going to die, here's what's going to happen. But then we thought now we got to turn out around. If beliefs are death denying, then we need to challenge the beliefs and see if death comes to the psychological foreground. And so we developed a very simple paradigm at first, and it just had to do with asking people to fill in words like you do on crossword puzzle pages. Is Back in the old days when there were newspapers, you know. So we're like, wow, here's CEO FF blank, blank. Your job is to turn that into a word. Coffee, coffee, and anybody like us who's passed the starbucks or have coffee next to us, we're more likely to say coffee. But if you passed the summetery on your way here, even if you don't remember, you're more likely to say coffin. There's a bunch of words that that could be true for. ASK BLANK LL. You passed a construction site, it might be skill. You pass the hospital, it might be skull. And we validated that measure by bringing people into the lab subliminally exposing them to the word death or pain, and then we ask them to just fill out those words stems. So anyway, subliminal exposure to the word death. Nobody saw anything, and yet they fill in more death related words. So all that establishes is that our measure works. Does that make sense? Yes, I so. Having established that, other people took over. So these great researchers in Texas, they got fundamentalist Christians and they showed them logical inconsistencies in the Bible and then they measured what we call death thought accessibility whole. And so Christians shown one illogical classages in the Bible, death thoughts came more readily to mind. In other words, you're crushing their fundamental beliefs and their psychological landscape is now inundated with thoughts of death. So you didn't remind them of death, you didn't say think about what happens when you die, any of that. You didn't interview in front of a funeral parlor. You just show them inconsistencies in the Bible and they reacted as if you had said exact think about your own death. No, nicely done. And in our point, Steve, is that this is suggestive that our beliefs are psychodynamically loaded. They serve as bulwarks, set a word, they serve. Yes, I can read, but I can't talk anymore anyway. They serve as mechanisms that minimize death related worries. But it's not only religions. So another group of great scholars. They showed Canadian citizens just an article of Australians mocking Canadian culture. Same thing happens that when Canadians world views are being threatened, death comes more readily to mind. We did an experiment at skidmore and at Rutgers where we just told American students. We ask them to just think about aspects of themselves that they're not particular, thoroughly proud of. We call that the undesired self. That raised death. Thought accessibility. We told other college students that while they're going to be very fine in their vocational lives, and don't worry, you're not going to starve, but you're unlikely to necessarily end up in the pursuit that you have chosen, that raises death. Thought accessibility, in other words, anything that challenges our beliefs or our Selfworth on our defense for our defenses, and my favorite one, and you guys have heard me talk about this before, is atheists, and this is in due disrespect of Christopher Hitchens, who I admire. By the way, he's dead. But what is it? God is not great. God is not great. Yeah, so in that book Hitchens is like, look, I used to be religious, but that's before I saw things as they are. So all the rest of you poor bastards are totally deluded. But I, along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harrison, maybe two other people on Earth, we're not deluded. We're atheists, so we see things as they are. Well, grouping Canada, they showed atheists a fake article by a supposed Harvard archeologists suggesting that Jesus may have actually existed, and that brought death thoughts more readily to their mind, showing that atheism is also a death denying world. Of You.

It is a particularly impoverished and not always useful amen to that. Yeah, although I do suggest John Gray's book about atheism, where he reminds us that there's different flavors of atheism historically and that the kind of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins Christopher Hitchens atheism is probably the most feeble and intellectually dissatisfying. But haven't read the book yet. It's in my office. But there's a difference between militant atheism that you're talking about there, with that's right, versus passive atheism. Yeah, so we had spoken briefly about some of the issues that divide the country that we're seeing in our current culture war, and we know that, surprise, so many of them relate to death and we're thinking, well, maybe these engender death thought accessibility. If that's the right engender, I don't know, but if I think that works. So we just want to look at them one at a time, because I don't hear anyone talking about the issues in our culture war from this perspective, and I thought we could take a couple minutes and just look at them. Let's start with abortion. Do you think this would produce death thought accessibility in some people? Sure now, Dan, my answer is going to be Yes for every one of these, because the general point is that we each subscribe to a world view where there's a lot of commonality but where there are idiosyncratic variations that depend on individual predilections. And yes, so, for example, for fundamentalist Christians in America today, abortion is a core issue. Now, this is complicated. I don't want to go cycle babble on you, because abortion actually does involve death and therefore it should not surprise us if intimations of Mortality Arise. But my point when I talk to folks about the abortion issue is to remind them that until the middle of the last century, religious people didn't care much about abortion. We all know this right that it was a political contrivance by a right wing conspirator in order to get the moral majority out of the gate, in order to assure the Republican hegemony culminating in our current circumstances, and so abortion got turned into crystallized death. Denial. I would submit yes, but my short answer is yes, abortion is psychodynamically loaded. It's psychodynamically loaded in like three different ways that you could that's correct. I mean there's the whole heroism part where you're protecting the unborn, you're fulfilling your role in society as the defender of the young people, which is kind of baked into every everyone in every society. But if you take that to mean you're protecting the unborn, then this opportunity for heroism is denied to you by row vaide, which chills you with dread and then outrage. That whole complicated sure, fair enough, but also you're right. It reminds you of death because it does involve something dying, whether it's a collection of cells or, yeah, an embryo, although I would submit, Steve, that psychodynamically, this is driven more by the heroic pursuit of symbolic immortality than it is by a genuine concern for the actual life that is sacrificed in the context of an abortion. And I I just say that on the grounds that most people, as a demographic fact, who are opposed to abortion in the US or not particularly concerned about the welfare of people wants alive, that there are folks who oppose abortion. That I might disagree with, but I do respect. Sure they tend to oppose the death penalty, they tend to be in favor of eradicating conditions that make abortion...

...necessary or desirable in the first place, and so on and so forth. What is appalling and suggestive that abortion is literally a crystallized instance of death denial, is just the fact that the folks who are most ardently pro life, as they describe themselves, seemed cavalierly indifferent to life wants. It's some of them, some of them, suns of them. Yeah, some of them one of our listeners pointed out to me that that's a generalization. Well, everything that I've said today is a generalization. And but this is important. Yeah, but any idiosyncratic or individual deviation from the norm is not sufficient grounds for challenging the general principle. In now the words in this something, not to go all back to coniment, but one of the biggest mental errors that makes the life of reason difficult to maintain. He want to know about price for pointing out that most of us are more affected by one personal experience then by the aggregate of millions of cases. Yeah, so then the most obvious one in my mind, is gun ownership. We've got four hundred million guns in this country. Yeah, there are some of us who bravely stand up and say, well, repeal the Second Amendment, but you know how far that's going to take. You this idea that we're going to have a mask killing every three weeks. We're still responding to the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, just down the road from where can lives. Is the whole question of garnership. Does that in your mind, in gender, death, thought accessibility? Yeah, sure it did. Oh, for the same reasons voting. There are actual lives at stake, but the gun is a symbol as well as reality, and I've no doubt, although I don't know that this has been done, but yeah, asking a second amendment supporter to imagine being divested of their weapons should suffice to amplified death thought. Excess disability off the proverbial scale, and probably the best example since the history of TMT is the current pandemic. It's almost goes without saying, right, isn't this the biggest death mortality? Yeah, well, you know, I reminder, it's certainly pervasive and therefore we should be seeing all these things. So, for example, gun sales are through the roof, as one might expect, and so are more extreme views in all of these domains that I suspect will be traversing momentarily. Yeah, so then white supremacy bias. It's not readily apparent that this involves dying death, but it depends on who you are. If you're an African American, if you're a Jew, if you're a minority, if you're a recent immigrant, then the notion of white supremacy could what if you're a garden variety white nationalist, if you bring up the notion of white supremacy in the context of Oh, we don't approve of that. Is that a threat that would engender death thought accessibility? Oh, absolutely, yeah, yeah, and, in fact, not to be overly historyonic, if that's a word, hysterical, theatrical. You know, most of the discord in our country right now we are witnessing the death throws of white supremacy, and I say this as a demographic fact. The most significant determinant of support for former president trump is whiteness, and it has nothing much to do with anything else. So there's a guy named Robert Pape, I think he's at the University of Chicago, and they just did an amazing study of the people who are at the insurrection at the capital on whatever January sixth, and you'd think that they were mostly, like on, educated trailer trash, but that wasn't who was there. They were older, they were more educated, their average income was higher than the average American and there were lots of small business owners. What they had in commoners that they overwhelmingly lived in communities where the percentage of...

...white people was declining to the point where it would no longer be a majority for long and this is what's happening. We talked about how we want to avoid identity politics, but we're a white nation. We're steeped in identity politics. We just don't want to admit it. In fact, the average American, if you say the word America, that act debates in the neural net white. In other words, there's an implicit connection between white and America, and this is true for people of Color also. And so yes, and this is why the trump Ismm is particularly virulent, because any effort to foster gender or racial equality is basically pissing on the prototype of what it means to be an American. It's to be white and to be male, which engenders death thought accessibility, which exposes you to dread. That's correct, and to which we respond by increasing hostility and disdain, thus putting us in the same death spiral that we've seen in other circumstances. Sheldon, what about the rising tendency to violence that's happening now? Yeah, again, not to be silly, but that's correct. So basically, we're seeing, you know, violence spiraling out of control, even though it again here. I'm I can't help it, because I'm biased a little bit or a lot of it, rather, because a lot of the violence on the right, and let's remember that that's where most of the actual violence is is. You know, if you like being alive, it's right wing Christian Americans that are more likely to kill you than an Islamic terrorist and so on. But there's violence and some of the black lives matter protests, some of these minuscule compared to write the other violence. And my point is is that, again, I'm not pushing this and Nord do I insist that I'm right, but I think some of the protests that were sparked by George Floyd's death, that that was mortality salience nudging progressives to get off of the bench and to actually do something. So there can be a mortality salience induced called to arms that I would defend as virtuous, even if it's driven by the same existential concerns, the turns other people in more unfortunate directions. So then you get into wars and obviously let's just stop over that one. But environmental crisis, like I bring up environmental crisis to Kennedy, goes well, that's something that's going to happen in fifty years I'm not worried about it. I'm sorry, can you know that's not right? But no, I was not a distinction between you. And then I say, what about rampant wildfires? What about drought? What about hurricanes and flooding and tornadoes and all of that? A kind of won me back over with that. Yeah, well know, a year ago I would have been with you, Ken, and now it's like Yo, I hope we make it another year. So yes, and we may talk about this, but I don't remember. Have a skin more student who did just the tiny little study remind people would and ask them about climate issues, and it depended on one's political predilections, as you might imagine. People who voted for Hillary Clinton reminded of death. They said, we need to attend to the environment and humans are responsible for a lot of the changes. Trump people said no, it's not a problem and they were less inclined to believe that humans had anything to do with it. So here's a situation where the same phenomenon has existential connotations, but in different directions, depending upon your worldview to begin with. But then the question is, if you don't remind them of their mortality, but you just bring up environment environment crisis. Does that engender death thought accessibility which leads people to the same kind of response that the mortality sailings reminder does? Yes, and there's some very able folks in Canada trying to sort out the implication of that fact for how we tailor efforts to engage people constructively in...

...terms of these matters. Okay, so then the question, you know the back of my head anyway, is you've got people, you ask them to reflect on abortion, gone ownership, these other death related issues. That produces a higher death thought accessibility. But then does it make sense that being reminded of their mortality by thinking of these issues would stimulate unconscious higher levels of defense of their worldview and increase their conscious opposition to someone with an opposite position? Now, not talking about left and right. Yep, I think you're absolutely right and I think this gets back to canneths proposition of we have to get out of that frenetic cycle of in condiments terms, being in mashed in that system one heuristic thought in order to rationally detach ourselves from ourselves, to admit of the possibility that we as humans are also subjected to the same phenomenon that we're using to explain other people's behavior. In other words, I think that we will get caught in this inexorably or separating cycle of escalating death denial in less week. Can pull out of that somehow. I say, well, the environment, that's not an emergency, and you say, Oh yes, it is. Now I'm defending a world view. Now I've been exposed to dread. Yeah, my defense against death anxiety has been undermined, even though we haven't talked about mortality, I haven't talked about dying. Yep, we're just talking about environment, but now my position hardens in response to your position. Might Harden. Ye Know. Well then we're we're talking past each other. We're not reasoning the facts or the data. That's right. We're operating on an unconscious emotional level that has nothing to do with rationality at that point. That's right. So back to Freud. The purpose of cycle analysis is to make the unconscious conscious, and that's where the death cafes, I thought, were right minded producing environments that are conducive to these kinds of often difficult conversations. And I think we have talked about this before. But again, no matter, one of the things that my buddy Tom and his colleagues have done is to show that the common humanity prime eliminate defensive reactions to death reminders with regard to hostility towards those who are different. In other words, if we bring people into the experiment and we start by saying, you know, people are more alike than we are different and we're part of one big family, which sounds like sly in the family, stone and Corny, but it happens to be true. Well, when you do that and then you remind people they're going to die, they don't hate somebody who's different because they have defined you as part of the tribe. My thought, no, I'm not the only one that goes this way, is that in order to have constructive conversations between competing world views, they have to occur in the context of acknowledging a mutual relationship to begin with. In other words, if we could start by saying we are all American member, after eleven lamand, is that the French papers, and we are all Americans member. How for like half a day it didn't matter. You love black people, and lasted about a week. That last. Yeah, flags everywhere. Yeah, yeah, well, the first guy in a turban was killed in Arizona Day later, but all right. But anyway, for a while we were able to literally establish an overriding identity that had something in common. I believe that to be the key, because if we start that way, then there's some grounds to not necessarily be immediately and reflexively defensive. I could be wrong, but I think that would be an important way to begin any kind of conversation that might end up abrasively undermining a cherished belief. is to establish that you have other wants that you hold in common. We've been talking with Social Psychologist Sheldon Solomon about our...

...divided country, culture, war issues and related subjects. We're going to take a short break. Don't go anywhere, we'll be right back. We're having a conversation about our divided society and our culture war issues with Social Psychologist Sheldon Solomon. Sheldon, I want to talk about activism, since it's everywhere now. Does activism meet an emotional need and defend against death anxiety? Absolutely, and therefore can be, I think, a keytode into something that is genuinely heroic and uplifting individually and foster social progress. Equally, true that it could become a more Morbid preoccupation, where your commitment to whatever it is that you're activating on behalf of is more of a fetish than it is a genuine desire to do something pro social and beneficial, or someplace in between. Is it possible that light? Wait, wait, wait, it's more of a fetish. It is. You could say I'm in favor of I'm a green person, but it may be just identifying as being environmentally friendly that that is of greater overriding importance than actually doing something. So throwing up on the street and being surrounded by thousands of other yeah, like minded people, you go wow, this is my tribe. Look how big this tribe. Yeah, so again, people being people. We should be willing to admit of the possibility that anything can serve as a vehicle to enhance meaning and value. Steve and I were talking. Is it possible that other concerns that are not as directly related to death could engender death? Thought, accessibility, just for one example. Immigration. Absolutely, we already know this is true because there's been research in this domain. So we know that if you remind people of death, they become more hostile to immigrants, at least in the sample is that we've looked at. I did this study with some other folks when I was at Brooklyn. We know the reminding people who live in New York, or actually just asking them to think about an immigrant moving into their neighborhood, increased death thought accessibility. Now, remember this was a well, you don't remember. This was around the time when trump was running for president, and we did another study asking New Yorkers to imagine a mosque being built in their neighborhood. This also increased death thought accessibility, and our point is that that is how much trump and his minions have successfully demonized and dehumanized immigrants and Muslims that the mere thought of them being in proximity to you is enough to bring death thoughts more readily to mind. Right. And then, just to close the empirical circle, in another study we ask people to imagine a mosque being built in their neighborhood or immigrants moving into their town, and then we showed that after that they liked trump more, regardless of their political orientation, just like they do if we remind them of death. So I hope that makes sense, that this establishes that anything that increases death. Thought accessibility has the same ultimate effects as being asked to think about dink directly. And so then if you made them aware of something that would then produce death. Thought accessibility, then that would kick in by making them more defensive of their world views, increase their conscious opposition to someone with an opposite position, not just opposition to the immigrants, but opposition to pro immigrant people or people who are more tolerant. Say Yes, raising the important question for future research, and Kenneth and I have talked about moving in this direction, and that is let's see if been so o's on the right track when she says that tenderness as a stance towards life is the solution to non neurotic reactions to our mortality. And so a very important next step for us is to think about how do we operationalize tenderness,...

...because once we can, it would be fairly straightforward. If we can induce tenderness momentarily, then raising these issues should not increase death. Thought accessibility and humility and gratitude, and humility and gratitude. We already know that they work. Yeah, but of course in Benz's account of tenderness, humility and attitude necessarily will result from that overall stance. Okay, so here's some other examples of issues in the culture war that don't spring to mind immediately when you think about death and dying, but they're very prevalent in our public discourse. Conspiracy theories, hyperpartisanship. Would being exposed to q and on type conspiracy theories. Is that something you think would produce death? Thought accessibility and other response. Absolutely similarly, reminding people of death should increase their affection for conspiracy theories. Crazy. What about high level of inequality? That's one of our ch issues and I think it's one of the most divisive things that's ripping the place apart. Yeah, good question. I mean it again in principle. Yes, it's a tough question because there are many libertarians that think inequality is wonderful. Yeah, well, they have a right to be wrong, and the reason that I say that is that there's a huge literature that shows the devastating effects of an equality. Now, let's not be simpleton. So the World Bank has a great report on any quality where they say they're the two most dangerous situations is total equality and massive inequality. Yeah, a little bit of inequality as probably well capitable. Well, it's not only inevitable, it's desirable, desirable. But you know, this goes back to John Locke, who said that because money doesn't spoil we are entitled to have as much of it as we would like. Even says he uses the word horde. He says you can hoard up as much money as you'd like without doing any harm to those around you. But that, as the World Bank points out, as factually incorrect. I don't know that, Jenny, coefficient. But once any quality gets to a certain point, social unrest invariably results, and it is mediated by a lack of trust. That any quality gets to a certain point and people then begin to lose trust in government institutions. And we know that happiness in the United States varies as a function of any quality. It goes up as any quality goes down. Most importantly, perhaps, or public health outcomes. Everybody thinks that poverty is bad for you, and it indeed is, but most bad is to be poor in physical proximity to people who are obscenely wealthy, and so mortality rates are highest not an impoverished communities, but an impoverished communities surrounded by opulence. So if you wake up one day, turn on your TV and there's Jeff bezos flying into space with Captain Kirk Yep and you say to yourself, what's wrong with this? It's not a conscious thing. It's an unconscious response produced by this death thought accessibility that's coming into play. You might then not think, Oh, I hate Jeff bezos. No, you think I hate myself. Yeah, so that we talked about this Michael Sandel Guy, the tyranny of merit, at any point. He's a Harvard professor. He just wrote this book the tyranny of Merit, and it's a great book because he talks about meritocracy and how that is superficially very good because everyone is encouraged to pursue their interests and goals, and that that's a good thing. And what's Sandel says is it would be, except that we have gotten to the point where if you're not the best and whatever you do, you're a failure. And this is unique to America, and his point is due to the math. That means that end one people in every social category are deficient. And what he then says is that the inevitable result is you'll be either depressed or enraged. What does that not describe? America is entirely. We are either brutally demoralized or agitated to the point of rage.

And his point is that this is a function of cultural values and that, by the way, he's not Marxist by any means. He's just suggesting that you can have a market economy in which it is not necessary to be the best at what you do in order to deem yourself a person of value. So you're sitting there watching the TV. There Goes Jeff bezos. You're sitting there saying what's wrong with me? Like you say you hate yourself, and then Tucker Carlson comes on or racial NATO comes on and they go, Oh, the Republicans, blah, blah, blah, the Democrats, blah, Blah Blah. Yeah, and your response is, God damn, I hate those bastards. Is that what we're talking about here? It's just an unconscious emotional response that's got nothing to do with anything. All you're doing is watching Jeff Bezos fly into space and you're now primed to hate the other team. That's right. Wow, what do we I mean? Back to what we were blobbering about, but this is horrible. It's human. You know again that this is back to Nietzsche. We are all too human and that's why he referred to humans as the disease called man, and not a particularly optimistic way to start deliberation. It's about the viability of human kind. But Yeah, yeah, we've got some other ones here. We don't have to dwell on each one, just yes or no. Yes, because finding, finding faith in our institutions, well, that's an absolute and the idea that just about every politician is corrupt, election integrity, absolutely, oh my God, the tyranny of woke ISM and cancel culture. Yeah, even though again, and I do agree that there's some there's tyranny there. MMM, but I feel like there's there's also some valid yeah, I feel and again this will yeah, there's there's too much equality of seeing. This is balanced on both sides and to a degree I agree with that. But I am sympathetic. Like one of the questions you didn't ask me was about the professor resigning. Yes, yeah, yeah, the environment right now and the woke thing, and I see it both ways. You know, I work at a small school at skidmore and when the international students in the students of color, when the power goes out in the dorm and the guy who comes to fix it pulls up in a pickup truck with the trump hat, with the sticker, you know, having a fucking machine guns, and trump won, and when they say that they feel threatened by that, they're right. I'm not saying I know what to do about it. I'm saying that for many people, myself included, we are cavalierly indifferent to the extent to which we are a white world and we're insufficiently cognizant of what impinges upon lots of denigraded minorities minute to minute. And it's just not as simple as it sounds. Having said that, I'm still in favor of free speech and US two in opposition to a lot of what is now passing under the guise of lookeness and cancel culture. Yeah, it's not cancel people. Yeah, but let us understand that when the white nationalist show up with their entourages on college campuses, that that is by no means benign to a lot of folks. We did a whole episode on free speech and we got into wokesm and you haven't heard. Yeah, is it just came up? Yeah, and cancel culture and all of that. It's a real issue. and Oh yeah, and it's definitely concerned. So, according to Leotard, met narratives are grand narratives. Is a theory that tries to give a totalizing, comprehensive account to various historical events, experiences and social cultural phenomenon based on the appeal to a truth or universal values. Are we losing the AM Erican Meta narrative that we all grew up with? Yes, we have no common under memory. Yeah, we don't remember Lincoln. You know, we must be friends. Remember for most of human history we could have vast disagreements but still agree on our American identity. And while trump is not solely responsible, he certainly pushed us over the edge...

...by at no point in his presidency and to this day, making any pretense of uniting us under a common narrative. In fact, basically his like you either support me or you're not an American, and this will, in retrospect historically, I believe, to be the worst injustice that he has perpetrated on others of the ABA. God roast number of atrocities that he has we like aged him when he's mentioned historical we like to go back to Jacques Bars and dawn, the decadence and bars and saying we hit the end of this five hundred year era with the end of World War One and since then we've been in this era of decadence, this era of decline, and it's not like an immediate thing it but just a slow rolling thing. So you think about the s, the Meta narrative was pretty solid, it's pretty secure. got into the S and it was up for grabs. All of a sudden, now we're saying Hell No, we won't go and I'm going to fight the Vietnam War. No, you're wrong about white nationalism. We're with a freedom marchers. And then what does it tune in? Turn on, drop out, up, out, whatever our mantra was in the s. But now here we are where the wheels are coming off. Now we're looking at this whole era of decadence as the what, the beginning of a collapse, and we're looking at rising levels of virulence. I mean Kyle Rittenhouse goes and just shoots people and gets away with it incredibly. You want to give them a metal that's right. Yeah, no, each other dream was I've heard this race. I forget who said a cascading cultural system collapse. Would you respond to this? Do you have any feeling one we're or another about bars in and this whole idea that we're in this era of decadence? Well, again, back to Spangler, sure sounds fine. Noting, though, again back to nature, if I understand him, and that is that these moments of existential uncertainty can be devastating and propitious. So opportunities for radical transformation, and that's what I'm pinning my hopes on. All of the things, not all of the things, but a lot of what I admire about American culture happened in that aftermath of reconstruction and in response to the Great Depression. Not to sound to Glib, but I think Martin Luther King was on the right track, and the letter from Birmingham jail when he says that vested interests do not relinquish power or resources willingly and that the mere passage of time has never done anything to foster positive change. Yeah, you got to do something. You got to do something, and I like Kennet's point. Awareness comes for hope and I would like to think we're making good faith efforts to disseminate these ideas more broadly in the hope that some people might find them compelling enough to engage with them. So the bottom line is, you know Henry Miller, one of my favorite authors of Yester Year. You know he quotes creation Emerte, but he's like, everybody wants to change the world, but nobody wants to change themselves. And so I don't we start at home, for one thing. And then Miller goes on and he says, yeah, look, we all want to be Jesus or Buddha or Albert Einstein, but it is the rare person who does something life altering that is recognized in their lifetime or even afterwards for anything that they've done. But we can't know and it is arrogant to assume that we're not doing anything. How do we know that the next Martin, Luther, King, Jesus Mother Teresa isn't an alienated youth about to kill him or herself who hears US blubbering and as like those guys are morons, but their jokes are good and I think these ideas are something to think about. Well, we may all be dead or I'll be in a jar from out hide in front of the Psychology Department at Skimmore, and we may not know that that guy did not kill her or himself that night and then...

...goes on to lead the world to a better moment. And so it's not for us to judge. Now we've got to do what you think. It is hurtful. Yeah, you got to show up and you got to show up. But, and you know, one of the things when Kenneth and I started working together was our common affection for a pragmatic approach, and purse is one of our favorites, since he just says beliefs are the basis of action and if that's not the case, then you're just schizophrenic. It's easy to have florid ideas, but we need to act on them in good faith. And back to Nietzsche, which is yeah, it looks like the world is being reduced to a smoldering heap, but it may be that those are precisely the conditions that we need in order to foster change. In the other words, back to George Floyd. The outrage the that sparked was momentarily optimistic. The white backlash has been less so, but it could be the case that this is bringing these matters to a head where they have to be confronted and resolved. And so, just like World War Two. Again, back to from I'm talking to the students last week and I'm like, okay, what are the things that Americans like the most about America? And I'm like, I'm not asking your opinion, I'm like what Americans like most about America? Well, they like social security, they like Medicare socialism. Well, that's my point, though. They like the interstate highway system, our national parks, the Internet, all created in order to address very real needs at moments of crisis where they never could have been enacted otherwise. And so here we are in a moment of turbulence and uncertainty, and not suggesting that any particular political orientation has a privileged position here. I'm just saying that this might be a good moment for the constructive changes which will also be more likely. I would submit, not to go too far adrift, but just like we need to stop seeing like absolutes and relative as different points on a single continuum, we need to stop seeing liberal and conservative as different and point holes of the same continuum. So if you're liberal, you can't be conservative or vice versa. I get back to my students, I'm like, okay, who started the National Park System in America? And they don't know, of course, and I'll be like, okay, that was Teddy Roosevelt. He was a Republican. And who started the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, as Richard Nixon, he was a Republican. We shouldn't be thinking left or right. How about if we think what's good for people and that there are some instances where a conservative viewpoint remembering, I say to the students, get a dictionary. To conserve means to save. Surely that's not a terrible thought. And look at the word Liberal, which you think is like gallons of puss using out of all your bodily orifices. But that means to be tolerant and openminded. And so what would be wrong as Americans, to step back and say what is it about our history and traditions that are truly worthy of respect and admiration and therefore should be cherished and conserved, and what is it about what we've done that fall short of our principled aspirations, and how can we therefore make progress in that direction and again. This may just sound naive, but I would like to think of a progressive individual and some vaguely unspecified future as being more ecumenical in terms of recognizing circumstances were conservative ideas are potentially great value. Yeah, Ye, way forward, folks. We've been talking with Sheldon Solomon about our divided country and a lot of related issues. Sheldon, thank you again for terrific conversation. It's my pleasure, cannon, Steve, and thanks for having me. We hope we're going to get you back. You're never leaving you alone. I will be that. Thank you. All...

...is a pleasure. Thank you. Thank you. We've been talking with Social Psychologist Sheldon Solomon about our divided country and related subjects. Ken. What are your takeaways? Well, Steve, we started with the basics. Ernest Becker writes that the recognition of the inevitability of one's death, compounded by the realization that you can be obliterated at any time for reasons you could never anticipate or control, causes us to embrace culturally constructed beliefs about reality. Becker calls these cultural world views that reduce death anxiety by giving us a sense that life has meaning and that we have value. And, from Becker's perspective, whether we're aware of it or not, what motivates us most of the time is an effort to maintain faith in our beliefs and confidence in our self worth. when either of those psychological dimensions, either our belief or our Selfworth, is threatened, we will engage in compensatory behaviors that restore our beliefs and our feelings of self worth. Terror management theory, or TMT, is is commonly called, is an ongoing effort over almost forty years to see if Becker's ideas have merit by traditional scientific standards. When reminded that we're going to die, we become more defensive of our current beliefs. TMT calls that worldview defense. Our beliefs about the world and ourselves serve to reduce death anxiety. When TMT researchers challenge those beliefs, they have found that death thoughts come rushing more readily to mind for their subjects, what researchers call death thought accessibility. This suggested that our beliefs are psychodynamically loaded. They serve as mechanisms that minimize death related worries. We talked about many of our culture war issues. Abortion, gun ownership, the current pandemic white supremacy, bias, the rising tendency to violence, wars and environmental crisis. These are all death related issues that produce higher death thought accessibility for many Americans. Being reminded of one's mortality by thinking of these issues would stimulate unconscious higher levels of defense of some people's worldview and increase their conscious opposition to someone with an imposing position. For example, the gun is a symbol as well as the reality. Asking a second amendment supporter to imagine being divested of their weapons should suffice to amplify death thought accessibility off the proverbial scale. When we Americans consider these issues, we're not reasoning the facts or the data. That's the point that we're trying to make here. We're operating on an UN in conscious emotional level that has nothing to do with rationality at that point and that can push us into unfortunate directions, including violence. And we discussed other culture war issues that are not so obviously linked to death, dying or killing, but that engender death thought accessibility. These include immigration, conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship, high levels of economic inequality declining faith in our institutions, the integrity of the election and the tyranny of woke ISM and cancel culture. Anything that increases death thought accessibility has the same ultimate effect as directly asking someone to think about dying. If you made someone aware of something that would then produce death thought accessibility, then that would make them more defensive of their world views and increase their conscious opposition to someone with an opposite position. Sheldon notes, for example, the demonizing and dehumanizing of immigrants and Muslims results in the mere thought of them being in proximity to you as enough to bring death thoughts more readily to mind. TMT studies show that for some people, thinking about an immigrant moving into their neighborhood increased death thought accessibility. Another study asking New Yorkers to imagine a mosque being built in their neighborhood also increased death thought accessibility, producing not just in opposition to the immigrants, but opposition to pro immigrant people or people who are more tolerant. Being exposed to queue and on. Type conspiracy theories would produce death thought accessibility. Conversely, reminding people of death should increase their affection for conspiracy theories. Everybody thinks that poverty is bad for you, and indeed it is, but even worse is to be extremely poor in close physical proximity to people who are obscenely wealthy. Mortality rates are highest...

...not in impoverished communities but in impoverished communities surrounded by opulence. The inevitable result of inequality is you'll be either depressed or enraged. Sheldon asks, DOES THAT NOT DESCRIBE AMERICA ENTIRELY? We are either brutally demoralized or agitated to the point of rage. This is a function of cultural values. We brought up Jean Francois Leotard's notion of a society's met narrative, that we're losing the American met narrative. Sheldon noted that there has been little or no recent attempt to unite us under a common narrative. Sheldon says ultimately you gotta do something. He likes our friend in colleague Kenneth Miller's point that awareness comes before hope. Sheldon would like to think that we're making good faith efforts to disseminate these ideas more broadly in the hope that some people might find them compelling enough to engage with them. He says we can't know and it is arrogant to assume that we're not doing anything. How do we know that the next Martin Luther King is in an alienated youth about to kill him or herself who hears us and thinks these ideas are something to think about? It's not for us to judge. As Kenneth says, beliefs are the basis of action. I like that one. Yeah, and Sheldon notes that Freud said the purpose of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious. If researchers bring people into an experiment and they start by saying, you know what, people are more alike than they are different and we're part of one big family, which sounds Corny but happens to be true. When you do that, and then you remind people the going to die, they don't hate somebody who's different because they have defined them as part of their tribe. In order to have constructive conversations between competing world views, they have to occur in the context of acknowledging a mutual relationship to begin with, an important way to begin any kind of conversation that might end up a brasively undermining a cherished belief is to establish that you have other ones that you hold in common. Sheldon would like to determine if philosopher Sylvia Benzo, author of the face of things, is on the right track when she says the tenderness as a stance toward life is the solution to non neurotic reactions to our mortality. The research needed would first have to determine how to induce tenderness momentarily so that raising these issues should not increase death thought accessibility. We've discussed humility and gratitude and prior episodes. We already know that they work to deflect death anxiety. In Benzo's account of tenderness, humility and gratitude will necessarily result from that overall stance. We'll get into Benso's ideas in more detail in another episode. Sheldon believes we shouldn't be thinking left or right. How about if we think what's good for people? What would be wrong for Americans to step back and say, what is it about our history and traditions that are truly worthy of respect and admiration and therefore should be cherished and conserved? What is it about what we've done? The false short of our principled aspirations and how can we therefore make progress in that direction? He says this may sound naive, but he would like to think of a progressive individual in some vaguely unspecified future as being more ecumenical in terms of recognizing circumstances where conservative of ideas are of potentially great value. This gives me a lot of hope. Me Too, and these are important ideas, Steve, important ideas as always. Folks, join US next time. Like us on facebook. Please recommend us to your friends, email your feedback or leave a comment on an apple podcast review. Let us know what you want and how we can improve. Become a part of our community of people who value these important ideas. You can find us at www for important ideascom and support us on Patreon at wwwcom front, the hub important ideas. We are one hundred percent listeners. Support it, and please check out our documentary video series conversations with Solomon exploring human motivation on Youtube. Thank you for listening to the hub for important ideas. I'm Steve James and I'm Ken Swain. Special thanks to our friend and colleague Kenneth Miller for...

...his thoughtful contributions and to Goldie James for audio engineering and Pal Laura C for her photography. Stay safe, everybody, stay well. This has been a contemporary heroism initiative. Production,.

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