The Failure of the Liberal Imagination

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© 2015 Robert Osburn

A brilliant American student mentee, currently in pursuit of a PhD, told me recently that her biggest challenge is the “ignorance” of fellow grad students and assorted academics she meets.  She’s a conservative Christian; her colleagues are sincere liberals.

Huh?  Ignorant academics?

I suggested to her that New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has uncovered, through his research which he reports in the 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, a stunning insight into the very different ways that American[1] liberals and conservatives imagine reality as seen through others’ eyes.  Conservatives, he found, are very adept at imagining the lifeworld of liberals.  By contrast, liberals are stunted when it comes to imagining life through the lens of a conservative. 

Are all liberals blind to conservative perspectives? The argument I am making, which relies on social scientific research, is probabilistic, that is, the research indicates a higher probability that liberals cannot imagine a conservative’s life world, not that all liberals lack empathy or self-awareness.

Why the failure of the liberal imagination, according to Haidt, who is hardly a conservative himself?  His research reveals that American conservatives have a wider palate of moral ideas (such as respect for authority, loyalty, sanctity of certain ideas or institutions, fairness, etc.), whereas American liberals are motivated by only two moral ideas (care and fairness).  It appears that we imagine others’ lifeworlds to the degree we share their moral concepts.

Maybe that is why many liberals simply don’t hear conservatives when they advance, to any reasonable observer, smart and astute observations and policy proposals.  Another brilliant conservative friend here in Minnesota shared how she simply could not get a well-known liberal scholar at the University of Minnesota to hear the points that she and fellow conservatives offered at a meeting of policymakers.  It was as if, said another, conservatives were talking to a “wall.”  The scholar simply ignored conservative proposals and went on with his tried-and-failed liberal solutions to public problems. 

Let me be clear.  American liberals sometimes have very helpful ideas that ought to be considered carefully.  It never helps when some rigid conservatives react against ideas simply because they come from liberal mouths.  An example concerns current US immigration policy.  The very rigid stance of some conservatives is actually undercutting sensible and compassionate responses that offer hope from a Christian perspective.

But, what Haidt’s research reveals is something else: American liberals simply cannot imagine how American conservatives can see reality through a lens that honors God, values political and economic freedom, cherishes moral order, and seeks to enlarge the civil society institutions of the family and church. 

Haidt’s research is powerful.  But, how does Christian theology explain this reality?  First, human fallibility shrinks our capacity to know as well as we ought.  Since the intellect is darkened by sin, conservatives and liberals should offer their solutions with a measured dose of humility and an extraordinary willingness to hear from those with whom they differ.

Thus, absolute certainty about the truth of the liberal worldview, one that treasures moral relativism, radical individualism, expressive freedom, libertarianism, materialism, progressivism, and bureaucratic and policy solutions for human problems, ought to be suspect.  Though I haven’t read his classic text, Lionel Trilling’s 1950 masterwork The Liberal Imagination hints likewise when he critiques the idea that pure rationality and science can create the perfect world.

Jesus offered a second reason rooted in theology: Humans choose to hear and see what they want, also because of fallenness.  He was harsh toward those who were selective hearers and seers (Mark 4:12).   This attitude, particularly prominent among Pharisees in His day, seems to arise from a kind of epistemological imperialism that demands the poor, ignorant supernaturalists of our day get into line.

This selectivity relates to the “filter” function of worldviews.  That is to say, every worldview tends to filter out the data of reality that does not match the pre-existing worldview that one possesses.  This is precisely why conversion is so extraordinarily difficult, and why often it takes a severe crisis to undermine the filter function so that we see and hear what previously we had filtered out.  Sometimes we say that a conservative is a liberal mugged by reality.  Only then can many liberals imagine how other solutions and insights may be valid and helpful.

The third theological factor that explains the failure of the liberal imagination is the problem of pride.  This deep, deep flaw in the human soul strides about as arrogance and conceit.  Chest puffed out, chin held high, it comports itself with presumed dignity.  It is a problem of any authoritative structure or institution that claims to have all the answers, or threatens any and all who dare to question.   Pride is an equal opportunity sin that stalks conservatives and liberals alike, but, in our late modern 21st century American context, its finest carrier tends to be progressive liberalism.  Should conservatives have their day in the sun, pride will find them equally amenable and pliant. 

John West, author of Darwin Day in America (rev. 2015), gives an example of “arrogance cloaked in humility” when he cites testimony by an academic scientist at a government-sponsored hearing on abortion.  The professor refuses to comment on the point in fetal development when human life begins, because science has no way to define this matter (which is true).  He then adds, “As a citizen, I find it abhorrent to contemplate the force of law being given to one set of religious beliefs” (referring to Christian demands that law protect the rights of unborn human beings).   West astutely notes: “Far from acknowledging the limits of scientific materialism, the ‘science cannot decide’ argument (is) merely a more sophisticated way to assert its primacy” (p. 334).  Beware the masquerades of pride.

Fallen intellects in need of redemption, minds that sift out data inconsistent with pre-existing paradigms, and that old sin called pride stunt the American liberal imagination.  Rather than throw stones, Christians ought to create arguments marinated in prayer and love that point to what we humbly recall on this Good Friday: the Cross.

And, yes, I look forward to the day when liberals can imagine the conservative lifeworld with the same clarity as today’s conservatives imagining what it’s like to be a liberal.  O blessed day!

[1] The labels “conservative” and “liberal” can be very confounding in a global context.  Outside of North America, “conservatives” often want to maintain unjust privileges, ancient traditions, and allegiance to non-religious authorities, while the “liberal” may advocate greater economic and political freedom (thus mirroring an aspect of American conservatism).  As for those evangelical or orthodox American Christians who prefer the label “liberal,” they are probably best considered, for our purposes, “moderates.”