Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Compassionate Patriotism

Over at Berkley's Greater Good, writer Jeremy Adam Smith discusses what he calls "compassionate patriotism." Even though patriotism can lead to the dehumanization of outsiders, it can also breed altruism. Drawing on the research of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Smith points out that one of the five foundational moral values in human beings is ingroup loyalty. Smith is certainly short-changing political conservatives by describing patriotism as "a special property of the Right" due to their "morality rest[ing] upon the Loyalty foundation." This is especially true given that Haidt thinks "conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals," drawing on all five values rather than just two (i.e. Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity) like political liberals.

Nonetheless, Smith provides four ways to avoid the negative effects of patriotism:

  • Make love of humanity an explicit goal.
As John F. Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man." As Smith puts it, "Group formation and loyalty are indeed natural and supported by our bodies, but we are also very well equipped to overcome our kneejerk fears or prejudices. We just need to give ourselves opportunities for reflection on our biases—and dedicate ourselves to overcoming them." The Prophet Joseph Smith said, "Love is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race."[1]

"Knowing this to be true is one of the steps that allows people to extend their fellow feeling beyond their immediate circles, to encompass a broader swath of humanity."

  • Extend self-compassion to America.
"For the Right, these are all qualities that could help build a kinder, gentler, less defensive patriotism. For the Left, feelings of shame can make us come down harshly on ourselves and our countrymen without also recognizing our nation’s positive qualities—the values and accomplishments that motivate us to connect with other Americans and celebrate our shared identity. For both groups, research by Neff and her colleagues finds that self-compassion actually leads to greater compassion for others. If you know how to identify and address suffering in yourself, you are better able to do the same for other people."

  • Embrace authentic, not hubristic, pride.
"If we feel pride, it should be in the accomplishments of our fellow citizens and in any contributions we ourselves have made toward making our country and community a better place, however small and local. Pride of simply being born American leads to hubris, which leads to bigotry and belligerence. For pride to be authentic, it must be something we feel we have earned." C.S. Lewis explained (and was later paraphrased by Ezra Taft Benson), "But pride always means enmity--it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God."[2] Noting the unintended consequences of President Benson's original address, President Uchtdorf tried to draw the distinction between righteous and unrighteous pride: "I believe there is a difference between being proud of certain things and being prideful. I am proud of many things. I am proud of my wife. I am proud of our children and grandchildren." In a roundabout way, this seems to be encouraging some much-needed humility.[3]

So, this July 4, be proud of your country. Be compassionate toward it. Then, take that compassion and place it within the larger context of global humanity. Happy 4th everyone.

And with that, Jimi Hendrix.

1. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 174.

2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters: Complete in One Volume (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 122.

3. See John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Love, Life, and Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

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