Haydee Morales, vice president for education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City, said the organization was “shocked and taken aback” by the tone of the new campaign. “Hurting and shaming communities is not what’s going to bring teen pregnancy rates down,” she added. She said that the campaign’s message — that teenage pregnancy leads to poverty — was backward. “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy,” she said.
The other night at our Center for Public Conversation I interviewed the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In the book, Haidt argues that every group (liberals, conservatives, environmentalists, evangelicals, you name ’em) has “sacred values,” by which he means ultimate or primary values. Values that matter the most. Values so important that, if you repudiate or fail to protect them, you are no longer an acccepted member of the group.
Haidt lays out a body of social science evidence showing that, when it comes to my group’s sacred values, my capacity to see or think clearly is radically compromised. As he puts it, if truth gets in the way of one of my group’s sacred values, then I will almost always find a way, in good conscience, to throw truth under the bus, in order to protect the value. He presents much scholarly evidence to justify this claim, and I for one am largely convinced.
In my view, what we see above in Ms. Haydee’s comment is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Clearly her group’s sacred values include non-judgementalism and inclusion. And to protect them, she (intelligently and no doubt perfectly sincerely) engages in what can only be called magical thinking: “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy.” What is she alleging here?
She is stating her belief the the experience of being poor can can have an independent causal effect when it comes to the likelihood of teen pregnancy. Being poor can help to “cause” this particular outcome. But — and here we get the magical thinking — causality flows one way only! Being poor can have something causal to do with getting pregnant or getting your girlfriend pregnant, but getting pregnant or getting your girlfriend pregnant can have nothing causal to do with being poor! Being poor can help to explain an outcome. Becoming a teen parent cannot! Becoming a teen parent has zero meaning as an independent causal factor; that is, it does not explain or cause anything that is not already explained by the fact of being poor.
One doesn’t want to be rude, but to make this claim is to invoke magic. As an empirical assertion, it’s obvious gibberish. It requires, as Haidt says, throwing our rational capacity under the bus in order to protect a sacred value.
I not trying, here, to pick on one person or one group, or to score a partisan point. Conservatives do this all the time. Liberals do it all the time. We all do it, all the time, says Haidt. I strongly agree. Except for me, of course. I never do it.