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Unlearning the Worst Parts of Ourselves
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Unlearning the Worst Parts of Ourselves

We have to be taught not to hate, or at least to hate the right things. Like racism.

Let’s talk about babies, baby. 

One of my favorite books is Dune, but that’s not important right now. Another (very different) book on my list of favorites is Paul Bloom’s Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

Since I am probably not doing Bloom any favors with some of his colleagues by plugging his book, let me say up front that you’d be hard-pressed to find a nicer or more progressively liberal academic. I mean, he’s Canadian for Pete’s sake. He’s also the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University and co-editor-in-chief of Behavioral and Brain Sciences  (“I subscribe for the recipes!”—Hannibal Lecter).

Anyway, Just Babies is a fascinating survey of what we know about the programming babies come into the world with. More on that in a second, but I should first explain why we’re talking about babies. 

Yesterday, I heard an anti-racism activist on NPR say that all babies are born colorblind, so clearly they have to be taught to be racist. 

I wish I could find the direct quote, but no doubt you’ve heard some variation of this recently, or perhaps for your entire life. Part of the argument behind notions of “systemic racism” is that there are embedded concepts of racial animus or inferiority in our culture and institutions. And long before critical legal theory pervaded the racial debate, the idea that children need to be “taught to hate” was a staple of the “national conversation” on race. They even put it to music. 

Here’s the song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific.

In case you don’t want to watch the whole thing, here’s the first three verses.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

Now, I don’t really disagree with the basic sentiment here. Racism and bigotry are definitely “taught,” to a certain extent. We’ll come back to that. But let’s first circle back to the babies. 

Just Babies summarizes the psychological experiments conducted on babies and very young children. (Note: No babies were harmed in the course of these experiments.) It turns out that babies are shockingly complicated little critters.

For instance, babies have a preference for their own language starting almost at birth, even though they can’t speak or understand it. Bloom:

Young babies can recognize the language that they have been exposed to, and they prefer it to other languages even if it is spoken by a stranger. Experiments that use methodologies in which babies suck on a pacifier to indicate their preferences find that Russian babies prefer to hear Russian, French babies prefer French, American babies prefer English, and so on. This effect shows up mere minutes after birth, suggesting that babies were becoming familiar with those muffled sounds that they heard in the womb.

In fact, there’s even research showing that babies cry with an accent within the first week of being born. All  right, so French babies don’t cry with a “le wahh,” but they do cry differently than Russian or Chinese babies. 

I want to be clear: There’s no reason to believe these differences are genetic. It’s just that babies are genetically programmed to sponge up information—including in utero—and adapt it to factory-installed wiring. If a “genetically” French baby (whatever that is) was born to a Chinese speaking family living in China, it would cry like a Chinese baby. 

Babies also come into this world with innate notions of fairness. It may take a little time for the programming to kick in, but it’s there and well before anyone teaches them the concept, at that. A “rudimentary sense of fairness—a tendency to favor equal divisions of resources” is just one of our “natural endowments,” in Bloom’s words. 

Others include:

•  A moral sense: Some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions.

•  Empathy and compassion: Suffering at the pain of those around us and the wish to make this pain go away.

• A rudimentary sense of justice: A desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished.

Now, this sounds great. Babies are born nice and good, right? Not quite. Yes, we come into the world with these instincts for decent behavior, but we also come into this world with instincts for the categories of “us” and “them”—and those categories drive a lot of our thinking about who deserves fairness or punishment, or, in some experiments, cookies. 

Babies imprint on their mothers very quickly. A white baby will look at her white mother and conclude, “This is what ‘we’ look like.” Ditto black, Asian, and every other similar category of baby. Interestingly, this tendency isn’t as powerful as the accent thing. “This is what ‘we’ sound like” is actually a more powerful driver of the us-vs-them thing, at least very early on. Indeed, there’s ample reason to believe that skin color isn’t a very significant means of dividing strangers from friends for young children—if it’s not socially reinforced. 

None of this changes the really important factor that we are born to distrust strangers. This drive, or tendency, or instinct—call it what you like—is extremely powerful. But it’s also extremely malleable. 

Humans have a “coalition instinct” from birth. What counts as “our” coalition isn’t biologically or genetically determined. We make those calls on the fly, as it were. (As I’ve written several times before, one way of understanding why our politics are so shot-through with double-standards and hypocrisy is that once you’re a member of one coalition, it’s very easy to forgive members of your own coalition for behaviors and attitudes you’d condemn in an opposing coalition. This is why leftists are so much quicker to identify and denounce, say, anti-Semitism on the right, and vice-versa.).

After summarizing the Christian exhortation to love the stranger as a neighbor, Bloom writes:

This is a radical position. For much of human history, and for many societies now, our moral obligations extend only to neighbors whom we already know. The geographer and author Jared Diamond notes that in the small-scale societies of Papua New Guinea, “to venture out of one’s territory to meet [other] humans, even if they lived only a few miles away, was equivalent to suicide.” The anthropologist Margaret Mead was famously romantic about the lifestyles of small-scale societies and viewed them as morally superior in many regards to modern societies—but she was blunt about their feelings toward strangers: “Most primitive tribes feel that if you run across one of these subhumans from a rival group in the forest, the most appropriate thing to do is bludgeon him to death.”

Bloom suggests this might be overstating things slightly, but he does concede that, “We are by nature indifferent, even hostile, to strangers; we are prone toward parochialism and bigotry. Some of our instinctive emotional responses, most notably disgust, spur us to do terrible things, including acts of genocide.”

Human nature has no history.

So why am I bringing all of this up? Well, for two reasons. 

First, because all of this fleshes out a profoundly conservative principle—arguably the first conservative principle: Human nature has no history. As a species, we have not evolved very much if at all from the human beings we were 1,000, 10,000, or even 200,000 years ago. Some Remnant listeners are getting tired of me quoting Hannah Arendt, who once said that every generation Western Civilization is invaded by barbarians—we call them children. The things that separate us from those primitive tribes bludgeoning strangers isn’t in our genes, but in our culture, our laws, our civilization. Conservatism—both as an ideology and as a general temperament—understands this. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” Immanuel Kant said. “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.” 

What distinguishes the conservatives from the radicals (for the most part) in every age is this basic insight. The conservative understands that we are not born blank slates. We are not born noble savages. We cannot be made perfect, at least not in this life, because we are flawed creatures. Whether you want to file those flaws under the category of original sin, or evolutionary psychology, or just common sense, is up to you. But this insight is why we have the constitutional system of checks and balances—“if men were angels …”—and it is why every decent society has laws that govern behaviors, not beliefs. 

But while the law should be largely blind to beliefs, the culture must not be. We all enter this world as barbarians with a pre-wired propensity to distrust people who look or sound different than us. That means this slogan, that people have to be taught to hate—which is fine as a slogan, I suppose—is in reality wrong. We have to be taught not to hate. Or, to be even more precise, we have to be taught to hate the right things, including racism. People who say “Hate is not a family value” miss the point that good families teach the little barbarians to hate cruelty and bigotry.

We’re going the wrong way.

The second reason I bring this up is that racism or simple distrust of The Other is not a “white” thing or even “Western” thing. It’s a human thing. Whatever merit there is to notions of systemic racism—and I’m fine with conceding some—white people didn’t invent bigotry. They were not the first or only people to distrust other people. 

These days, a lot of the talk about “white people” seems grounded in a kind of essentialism that would be recognized as bigoted if deployed against non-white people. No, it’s not biological racism for the most part, though that sort of thing does pop up from time to time too. 

There are many problems and more than a few dangers in talking about “white people” as if it is a label with immense explanatory power, never mind as if it is a pejorative. But I’ll just focus on one. It triggers the coalition instinct where it didn’t exist before. Here’s what I mean: The more that the catchall “white people” is used, the more people will start identifying as white—and not just the people who performatively apologize for their whiteness. People will become defensive. They will see the denunciations as a threat and an insult. “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads,” writes Jonathan Haidt, “and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group.”

This dynamic should be painfully obvious to everybody—and yet it’s not. There’s an enormous range of views, faiths, ideologies, personalities, and cultural norms within the African-American community, but these distinctions fade in importance when white people start denigrating “black people” as a group. This is a natural, understandable, and utterly defensible response from black people. 

Well, the same goes for immigrants, Jews, police, billionaires, Southerners, poor people, Asians, journalists, Poles, Hmong, Somalis, Italians, Republicans, and Democrats—and every other form of coalition you can think of. Why it should be different for white people is beyond me. 

The problem with identity politics isn’t merely that it reduces the “us” into a single undifferentiated mass, it’s also that it reduces the “them” into a similar mass and persuades both to see politics as a zero-sum contest between the two. Identity politics empowers the asses in the masses.  

The best part of American society—culturally, constitutionally, and civically—is the norm that says we should judge people not by the group we ascribe them to, but by their individual actions. Collective guilt, particularly intergenerational collective guilt, is a pernicious and poisonous form of argumentation because it holds blameless individuals guilty for actions committed by others. 

And that is something that has to be carefully untaught, in every generation.

Photograph by Megan Jelinger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.