Feinberg and his co-author, Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer, have extensively studied how it is that liberals and conservatives—two groups that now seem further apart than ever on their policy preferences—can convert people from the other side to their way of seeing things. One reason this is so hard to do, they explain, is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethical code of their own side, rather than that of their opponents.
For example, when Feinberg and Willer asked liberals to write an op-ed aiming to convince conservatives of the value of same-sex marriage, most wrote something to the tune of, “Why would we punish these people for being born a certain way? They deserve the same equal rights as other Americans.” The problem is, research on thousands of people around the world, summed up in something called Moral Foundations Theory, has shown that liberals are more likely than conservatives to endorse fairness-based arguments like these. Meanwhile, just 8 percent of the liberals in Willer and Feinberg’s study were able to craft an argument that would appeal to conservatives’ value of loyalty toward your own kind. (So something like, “Our fellow citizens of the United States of America deserve to stand alongside us ... We should lift our fellow citizens up, not bring them down.”) What’s worse, some of them picked an argument that directly contradicted what many conservatives value, with arguments like, “your religion should play no part in the laws of the United States.”
Bryan Caplan has proposed the ideological Turing Test: if you disagree with something, can you articulate the opposition's case as correctly as if you agreed with it? Whatever your belief in the merits of such a test, I find it a useful test by which to start a blog post. If I'm putting forth a position, have I thought through the counter and advocated for it intellectually? If I have and still feel resolute, I have enough conviction to proceed.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand the feelings of another, but perhaps what we need is a form of empathy of values to bridge the current culture wars. However, as Haidt notes, the challenge is that hopping outside your own value framing is extremely difficult.
So if it’s so easy, why don’t more people—either in studies or in real life—try this strategy?
“We tend to view our moral values as universal,” Feinberg told me. That “there are no other values but ours, and people who don't share our values are simply immoral. Yet, in order to use moral reframing you need to recognize that the other side has different values, know what those values are, understand them well enough to be able to understand the moral perspective of the other side, and be willing to use those values as part of a political argument.”
Some people just can’t bring themselves to take that last step, he said, even if they know it’s more effective. And perhaps the reason it’s so difficult is because politics is so deeply intertwined with our personal values. When something is important to us, it’s usually for a reason, and it’s hard to break free of those reasons, even for political expediency’s sake. To do so would take an abundance of empathy, and that’s in short supply all around these days.
That is, it might be ideologically appealing to have some version of "strong opinions, loosely held" for values, but people tend to only have strong values, strongly held. It's difficult for someone to be against abortion, for example, and say they only loosely subscribe to that principle.
Once we have strong opinions, we're likely to hold them tightly just reflexively, defensively, because that's one of the quirks of human programming. Also, it feels good to be part of the mob, holding a pitchfork. The blood races. Viva la revolution.
To bridge to the other side, however, it's likely more effective to focus on Trump's general incompetence than his repugnant values, as disgusting as that might be to the opposition. There will be more than enough evidence on both fronts.