Mark Sherman Ph.D.

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A Brilliant Young Woman’s Message for These Polarized Times

Journalist Bari Weiss’s “New Seven Dirty Words” is a good guide for all of us.

Posted Dec 22, 2018

In this time of incredible polarization in our country — which certainly includes the academic world — I am most impressed by people who earnestly try to see both sides of issues. The most well-known such person in psychology is Jonathan Haidt, but another who deserves our attention is 34-year-old New York Times opinion writer, Bari Weiss.

In her July 2018 presentation at the prestigious Chautauqua Institution — which has hosted many famous people, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt — Weiss said so much that could be helpful to all of us, both in and out of the academic world. Her title was “The New Seven Dirty Words,” a play on George Carlin’s famous 1972 bit, “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television.”

 Photo courtesy of Chautauqua Institution
Bari Weiss speaking at the Chautauqua Institution (July 2018)
Source: Photo courtesy of Chautauqua Institution

However, she wasn’t talking about obscenities, but rather concepts that, in her mind, were often not welcome in today’s world. And while academic psychology was not her focus, these concepts could very well be applied to our field.

In a short piece, one cannot do justice to Weiss’s highly engaging lecture, which lasted more than 40 minutes. But here are the words on which she focused, with brief explanations, and, for a couple of them at least, what I see as illustrations of them in psychology.

The words are imagination, humility, proportion, empathy, judgment, reason, and doubt.

1. Imagination 

Weiss quotes Abraham Lincoln in an address he gave on July 4, 1858, where he referred to the Declaration of Independence and its notion of “all men are created equal” (of course, that would be “all people” today), as the blueprint for a civil society. Weiss cites this in contrast to today’s identity politics, which, in her words, refute "the most foundational and beautiful American idea, which is that there is something that binds every one of us together, which transcends our genders, our sexual orientations, our races, and our religion.” This is the idea of America, as voiced in that great document. We should imagine America as Lincoln saw it, with its great possibilities for freedom and unity.

And, taking issue with those condemning “cultural appropriation,” she says that imagination does allow us to begin to understand how others very different from us feel, and it is not unreasonable for that to allow us to use our art to capture experiences which we ourselves have never experienced.

Indeed, doesn’t psychotherapy involve people listening to and helping those inevitably different from themselves, often in important ways? Would we say that therapists only help those of their own gender?

2. Humility

Here Weiss is talking about evaluating people’s words, art, and behaviors from years ago through the lens of today’s awareness. Her main example is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1930s series, Little House on the Prairie — children’s novels, based loosely on Wilder’s experience growing up in the rural West in the 1870s and ’80s. There are clear anti-Native American sentiments expressed in the novels, and this recently led to Wilder’s name being removed from a prestigious children’s book award.

But as Weiss points out, Wilder was born in 1867 and lived in a time very different from ours. A main point she makes is that we in the present have little idea how our principles of goodness and morality will be seen in the future. So we should be humble about how we chastise the people of the past.

Basically what Weiss is saying is that we should give up the “hubris” we have about what is morally acceptable today (versus yesterday), since decades from now, much of it will look indefensible. One example she cites is having any animal on a leash.

And again, one could extend the argument to psychology. I am old enough to remember when autism was seen as the result of inadequate parenting, especially from mothers not seen as warm enough — “refrigerator mother” was the term that was used. Today, we recognize that parenting has very little (if anything) to do with it, and we talk about the “autism spectrum”; but who knows whether in 30 years from now, it will be seen as a highly valuable intelligence well beyond our ordinary, “normal” human one.

3. Proportion

Here she cites the “Halloween” incident from Yale University in 2015, where a faculty member, Nicholas Christakis, who — with his wife, Erika — presided over one of Yale’s residential colleges was bullied by a circle of students after his wife, in a careful email, suggested that students use their own judgment in deciding what to wear for Halloween, rather than following a dean’s guidelines about non-offensive attire.

Weiss feels the reaction was out of proportion to the incident itself. She is not objecting to the students expressing their dissent, but feels it could have been much better handled in a manner in which students felt free to express their feelings without bullying the professor and even screaming out obscenities — by either ignoring the costumes they deemed insensitive or, presumably in a civil fashion, letting the costumed person know why they felt what they wore was offensive.

But the worst effect of this verbally violent attack, and similar incidents, said Weiss, isn’t  the damage to the reputations of those attacked — which is bad enough — but the “moral flattening” of terms like fascist, racist, and misogynist, which should be reserved for those who are genuine threats.

4. Empathy

This one is basic to civility. It’s the ability — or at least the openness — to see the other person’s point of view. Weiss goes directly to one of the most difficult issues we face as a society: abortion. “I am a pro-choice feminist,” she says (“strongly pro-choice,” she says at one point).

And then she cites an article in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan (from 2007), titled “The Sanguine Sex.” In talking of the horrors of back alley and kitchen table abortions, Flanagan refers to her mother, who was a nurse: “At Belle­vue, my mother had twice attended dying young women who were victims of botched abortions, young women — ‘girls,’ she called them — who spent their last hours on earth being interviewed by policemen. Terrified, alone, dying, neither would reveal the name of the abortionist; ‘They were too frightened,’ my mother said…”

But the reality of abortion is something Weiss feels we must acknowledge as well, and for this, she again quotes Flanagan: “But my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day. An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle.”

Weiss then talks more generally about what is happening now, where those who do try to understand those on the other side are often vilified for it, specifically mentioning what happened when actor Mark Duplass said it might be worth listening to Ben Shapiro, a well-known right-wing pundit. Attacked by those on the left, Duplass apologized, but to Weiss this was like a “confession” that might happen in a modern “struggle session.” (“A struggle session was a form of public humiliation and torture that was used by the Communist Party of China in the Mao era, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, to shape public opinion and humiliate, persecute, or execute political rivals and those deemed class enemies.”)

5. Judgment

I take some issue with Weiss on this one. She does not like the idea of cultural relativism (“Cultural relativism is the idea that a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another”), and feels it is often quite reasonable to say that some cultures are better than others. She makes good points, but those who live in a different culture may see things about it that will not be visible to the outsider.

6. Reason

Here she is talking about facts. While she does not specifically cite him, the work of Jon Haidt inThe Righteous Mind shows why we have so much trouble with this one. We are all strongly influenced by our emotional reactions, and as Haidt puts it, our rational minds try to act as press agents for our emotional selves. But all of us are caught up in the beliefs of our reference groups, so, for example, as Weiss says, feminists feel that the reason women are not as well represented in STEM fields as men is because of issues like sexism and gender expectations.

But the fact is that in places where gender equality is the highest — specifically countries like Sweden, Norway, and Finland — we see the largest gender gaps in STEM fields. In other words, when women feel most free to choose what they want to do, they do not opt for STEM the way men do.          

7. Doubt

Doubt is essential for freedom, says Weiss, and she quotes a famous address by Judge Learned Hand in New York City in 1944, in which he talked of “the spirit of liberty.” “The spirit of liberty,” said Hand, “is not so sure that it is right.”

It is the insecure person, says Weiss, who never changes his or her mind. A better way to be is to feel, “I think I’m right, but not 100 percent sure.” But how many of us really run our lives that way? Isn’t our current polarization largely a result of our certainty about our point of view?

Is it easy to be open to different viewpoints? No. But change only occurs when we are. As Weiss says, once upon a time, it was accepted by most that the Earth was flat, or that women shouldn’t vote, or that the people of different races shouldn’t marry.

And finally, I would add, isn’t doubt the essence of what motivates research, including that which we psychologists do?