In a recent paper presented at the NCAPSA American Politics Meeting, researchers Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason shared findings from a nationally representative survey: 40-60% of Americans express moral disengagement with members of the political party opposed to their own.
Let’s break that down.
Moral disengagement is a phenomenon defined by Al Bandura and colleagues in an article for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1996 . The gist is that since human beings like to think well of themselves — “I'm generally a good person” — they need to rationalize harbored feelings of animosity towards other humans in order to maintain the positive self-perception. You can see yourself slipping into moral disengagement when you vilify, dehumanize, or blame others, and when you minimize your own responsibility for a bad situation or harbor self-righteous views about yourself. To illustrate with our school settings:
- Moral disengagement in a student can sound like, “Teachers are terrible. Adults are the worst. This whole school system is garbage and so is everyone that works within it.”
- Moral disengagement from a teacher can sound like, “X student today did Y thing in class. He’s terrible. Here I’ve done all of these things for him, and yet he still treats me like this.” Or, “Administrators are the worst. I've never met a competent administrator. Nobody entering administration does so because they love education. Administrators are only in it for the money.”
While your words and thoughts may not be to those extremes, note the through-lines: X person is a villain; Y group is inferior to my group; Z profession is to blame for the pain I am experiencing.
In other words, when we catch ourselves habitually emphasizing our innocence/goodness and emphasizing the guilt/badness of the people or groups against us, we’re morally disengaging. We magnify our goodness and our enemy's faults.
Moral disengagement matters in part because it facilitates behaviors that harm the individuals or groups we disengage from — it makes it easier for us to do or say cruel things because we can still think of ourselves as generally good people while we do them. Moral disengagement fuels brutality and is the lifeblood of oppression; upon this rock are built hate and murder. In the extreme, moral disengagement metastasizes into horrors like Rwanda or Kristallnacht: neighbors harming neighbors.
But the harm of moral disengagement is internal, too — it harms the one who disengages. When we morally disengage, we atrophy our ability to reason, to empathize, to love. Moral disengagement over time produces the same internal state that smoking a cigarette and refusing to exercise produces in the body: we lose our fitness, becoming weak. Thus is wrought the human being: we become what we do.
In the United States, you see moral disengagement in social media flame wars between two ideologies; you see it articulated by talking heads on Fox News or MSNBC. “So-and-so people are the worst! Y group is what's wrong with this country. Can you believe how criminally stupid Z is?” At the large group level, moral disengagement expresses itself as things like the resilient evil of systemic racism.
But Dave, isn't moral disengagement inevitable? Isn't it necessary to view an oppressor as evil in order to fuel movements against oppression? I don't think so.
In two of the most oppressive circumstances of the past 100 years, leaders of effective resistance practiced the opposite of moral disengagement. Let's look at them:
- Gandhi's writings speak to moral engagement — the humanization of his enemies. “In the dictionary of satyagraha, there is no enemy…” Gandhi writes. “One must believe in the possibility that every person, however depraved, can be reformed under humane and skilled treatment” (Wit and Wisdom of Gandhi, p. 96). But Gandhi's moral engagement wasn't blind — “My love for those who consider themselves my enemies doesn't make me blind to their faults” (Collected Writings). Nor was it passive — over six years of his life were spent imprisoned for the earnestness of his resistance. What fueled such longevity and power? Moral engagement.
- King had this same penchant for the humanization of his oppressors. In Chapter 5 of Strength to Love, he argues that “we must recognize that the evil deeds of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy. Each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against ourselves. A persistent civil war rages within all of our lives” (p. 45). Do you see it? The man was a heavyweight bodybuilder in the realm of morality. For King, the “love of one's enemy” wasn't trite sentiment: it was practical instruction. Like Gandhi, King didn't excuse oppressive systems, nor did he protect his life in resisting them. But his strength came from the humanization of his enemies.
Gandhi and King agreed: moral disengagement must have no quarter with us if we aim to produce a more just society. And this is why the Kalmoe and Mason survey is so troubling — 40-60% of Americans expressed morally disengaged sentiments about the opposite political party.
So I've tried for days to put a helpful end to this post, something that ties it all back to education and makes it practical. This morning I'm pressing “Publish” out of an acknowledgment of my finitude. I'll just close with several observations:
- King and Gandhi are not remembered because of the seriousness and rigor of their moral engagement; they are remembered because they taught millions of other people to morally engage like this, too. This is a truth worth trying on for size. If you and I would seek to be impactful teachers in the tradition of Gandhi or King, we can consider two steps. Step One: Rid ourselves of moral disengagement. Step Two: Teach our students to do likewise. But be warned: you can't skip Step One. This would be like an Algebra II student thinking they can skip understanding multiplication, or a college basketball player thinking they can skip practice. The quality of our teaching depends on the quality of the training we submit ourselves to. When we skimp on Step One, we end up teaching our students our politics — not the kind of moral engagement that allows them to develop a humane politics of their own.
- To speak very practically, the person wishing to put off moral disengagement and put on moral engagement can start by examining themselves for the kinds of rationalizations that make it easy to call one's opponents ‘stupid' or ‘evil.' In the Jim Crow South or the British Raj, Gandhi and King had a thousand pieces of evidence to support such rationalizations. Were not bigoted segregationists begging to be labeled stupid? Were not socially Darwinistic colonizers the walking definition of villain? Yet the movements King and Gandhi catalyzed were built on moral engagement — on the intellectually rigorous acknowledgment and articulation of the humanity shared by all the participants in their respective struggles. The deep engine here — love — outperforms the engine of hate.
- Moral disengagement is a cancer in the flourishing life. If we have a philosophy here on the blog — a systematic way of thinking about our work — then it's that the purpose of education is to promote the long-term flourishing of young people by teaching them toward a mastery of the disciplines. Schools do this best, I've long argued, when their teachers are flourishing, too — when their teachers are experiencing relatedness, engagement, meaning, achievement, and positive emotion (i.e., a reordering of Seligman's PERMA.) But ignoring the moral dimension of human life is folly. American society is uniquely troubled here — steeped as it is in what amounts to a moral anarchy. Our children suffer for lack of instruction in moral knowledge; you and I do, too.
Best to you.
Note 1: Bandura, Albert, Claudio Barbaranelli, Gian Vittorio Caprara, and Concetta Pastorelli. 1996. “Mechanisms of moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency.” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 71: 364-374.