in favor of brainwashing

When I presented my “Thoughtful Gestures” paper to the emotion interest group on campus at UConn, we ended up joking (sort of) that singing in a choir could result in brainwashing.  If, as Dr. Buck surmises, empathy is a function of neurology, and neuroplasticity can change brains and minds, then the organized group experience of ensemble singing can make singers more empathic, more susceptible to influence, more vulnerable to suggestion.  Training the empathic response will increase empathic capacity.  High empathic capacity means you feel everything that people around you feel.  It’s a useful thing when you’re performing in an ensemble.

We all, to some degree, are susceptible to influence of people around us.  It’s to our evolutionary advantage, a survival adaptation.  When Mama Monkey gets nervous, we get nervous, too.  That triggers a certain set of chemical changes that allows us to run faster than if we were all relaxed and lazy, which means we get away from the jaguar pouncing into the middle of the clan.  It’s called emotional contagion, and I’ve already written about it.

A question I never considered before is, is this a good thing in a world where we’re no longer at risk of jaguar attacks?  And aren’t there some dangerous problems at stake if we all act as a group?

I’m asking this question today because I just read this article describing the work of Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.  Dr. Haidt describes a study in which suggests

‘that members of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) societies [the ones most likely to be studying morality, psychology, etc., and hence drawing conclusions about it] are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Overall, these empirical patterns suggest that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature, on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin and rather unusual slice of humanity.’

As I read through the article, in terms of summarizing the content, in what way are WEIRD people different, my summary is this: The WEIRDer you are, the more you perceive a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships, and the more you use an analytical thinking style, focusing on categories and laws, rather than a holistic style, focusing on patterns and contexts.

He also wrote:

Morality is a social construction, but it is constructed out of evolved raw materials provided by five (or more) innate “psychological” foundations [care/harm, fairness/cheating, group loyalty and betrayal, authority and subversion, sanctity and degradation]. In surveys and experiments I have conducted in the USA, Europe, Brazil, and India, I have consistently found that highly educated liberals generally rely upon and endorse only the first two foundations (Harm and Fairness), whereas people who are more conservative, more religious, or of lower social class usually rely upon and endorse all five foundations.

Each culture’s morality is unique, but an aspect shared by all five-foundation moralities is that they do not regard society as a social contract created for the benefit of individuals. Rather, they see society in more organic terms, as an entity that is of value in and of itself, and they think the building blocks of society are not individuals but rather groups and institutions. The point of moral regulation is to enhance the integrity of these building blocks and to improve the way the blocks fit together, in order to ward off the ever-present danger of social decay.

The Ingroup, Authority, and Purity foundations are moral foundations because they constrain individuals; they pull them away from self-serving, pleasure-seeking individualism by binding individuals into groups and institutions. (Think about the transformation of an 18 year old who enlists in the army.) Liberals do not see this binding as necessary or as desirable, hence they do not see a moral system based on these foundations as worthy of anything but contempt. They think their opponents are motivated by greed, fear, racism, and blind obedience to scripture or tradition.

What a shame. If liberals could only step out of their righteous bubble, they’d be able to solve these riddles, which at present befuddle their thinking and curse their projects.

Acknowledging my inevitable confirmation bias, I’ll talk you through why I think choral brainwashing, and participation in the arts in general, enhances WEIRD morality on those last three foundations.

His example of eighteen-year-olds in the army is the kind of thing I think happens in choirs over time.  Entrainment leads to cohesion, is a symptom of high empathic capacity.  Of course, the military does it under circumstances with much higher stakes, so the result is probably faster.  And choirs do it in the context of great art, so the result is not so much one of feeling bound just to the unit in which the cohesion is learned, but (potentially) to the whole of history and humankind through connection not only with each other, but with the essence of humanity communicated to us across centuries in great repertoire.

The kind of brainwashing that can get done in a choir is good for the world.  We learn to feel each other’s feelings, not just so we can bond and respond together as a unit in a room together, but it connects us with all humankind.

In the same way, the difference between WEIRD populations and the rest of the world may be simply perspective.  When we think of community, we can imagine the whole world, all races and nations being in communion with us.  So if you ask me, I might say that I value Harm and Fairness over Ingroup, Authority, and Purity simply because it seems to me that care and harm and as well as fairness and cheating can be measured universally, objectively.

For example, my loyalty to a group is complicated, because my Ingroup is tiny and huge.  My perspective is flexible, and that gives me complex decisions to make in terms of my loyalty.  Perhaps a non-WEIRD population simply don’t have access to the kind of perspective that includes an enormous variety of people, or the safety to allow themselves to think of all varieties as trustworthy parts of their communities.

I have mixed feelings about Authority because I have the luxury of questioning my local, federal, and global leaders in government, industry, and the arts.  My education and socio-economic status empower me to say whatever I think and feel confident that I can explain and defend my position.  (My work with people and exposure to great art humble me to be able to acknowledge when I’m wrong, I believe.)

My ideas about Purity, sanctity, and degradation are also complicated.  I know a little bit about a lot of different religions, and I know some philosophy.  I know a lot about what other people think, so I’m less likely to simply say “this is right, that is wrong.”  As a matter of fact, this is the one I have the hardest time with.  Like the Romans: when they conquered all of Europe, they didn’t insist that every community abandon their own religion and adopt Roman mythology.  No, the only religions they wouldn’t let you keep were ones that practice human sacrifice or insist that theirs is the only correct one.  Hence, Druids and Christians weren’t popular with the Romans.  I feel the same way.

Having said that, and having written just yesterday about my lovely church job, I must say that I like Christianity as it manifests in my little New England church.  It’s all about loving our neighbors as ourselves and appreciating the teaching and sacrifice of Jesus.  There’s very little crusading, very few attempts to convert the heathen.  So I’m good with that.  I would have a hard time with Catholicism and its rigid rules.  My Christianity is more about exploration of one’s relationship with God, less about following procedure and adhering to dogma.  It seems to me that dogma is a problem.  And here I prove the whole WEIRD thing: I see rigidity of perspective on the question of Purity to be inferior to my own, flexible one.  Sorry if that offends.  I agree with the Romans that the only bad religions are ones that don’t allow for others to be okay and the ones that tell us to kill other people.

And I’m heartily in favor of decorations and fancy music in the middle of winter.

To sum up: WEIRD cultures do, in fact, have better-functioning morality in a global society, because our education gives us perspective to incorporate more variety into our world view, to value strangers nearly as highly as loved ones.  It gives us the luxury of being able to consider the needs of entire cultures outside our own when we choose whether to buy the $2 tube socks made in a sweatshop and sold at a store whose monopoly over retail in a rural town have made it the largest employer and taken away the power of its workers to organize and insist on fair wages, or the $8 tube socks made of recycled cotton sold at the local fair trade boutique.

I reach this conclusion as a part of the experience of being a choral musician.  In the culture of a choir, care/harm and fairness/cheating are the least important of those five foundations in terms of producing an artistic performance.  Group loyalty and betrayal, authority and subversion, sanctity and degradation are major questions in the production of ensemble art because the individual doesn’t matter much except in how he acts in relationship to the group.  But discovering the balance needed in the social system of the particular choir can connect us with communities outside our little group because the repertoire we do comes from cultures outside our own, either geographical or historical.

In the same way, education (receiving information about the whole world and the many perspectives of people in it now and throughout history) works like excellent repertoire to a choir, allowing singers to bond with each other through the work they do and with the larger world through the information used.

So, moral truth from the experience of making music in an ensemble.  There ya go.

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