Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Haidt’

Well, they’re over. Political conventions these days hold no special surprises; the decisions have already been made. Rather, they are occasions to rally the troops and persuade a watching public why they should place their trust in one party or another, one candidate or another. Ever so often some substance creeps in. But the content of such televised events is most usually light, with oratory and rhetoric heavy.

To make sense of the increasing polarization – and there is – I revisited Jonathan Haidt’s insightful book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

In 2007 Haidt and others sponsored a conference at Princeton that addressed this issue of polarization. Part of the outcome was a clear description of everything in American politics that led to our present dilemma. It resonated as true to form with me.

“We learned that much of the increase in polarization was unavoidable. It was the natural result of the political realignment that took place after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The conservative southern states, which had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War (because Lincoln was a Republican) then began to leave the Democratic Party, and by the 1990s the South was solidly Republican. Before this realignment there had been liberals and conservatives in both parties, which made it easy to form bipartisan teams who could work together on legislative projects. But after the realignment, there was no longer any overlap, either in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. Nowadays the most liberal Republican is typically more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. And once the two parties became ideologically pure – a liberal party and a conservative party – there was bound to be a rise in <polarization>.”

This trend has only been reinforced by our present ability to isolate ourselves within cocoons of like-minded individuals – either electronically, according to news channels, or physically, in a Whole Foods culture or a Cracker Barrel one.

Hence, one of Haidt’s key ideas of the book: Moral systems both bind and blind. They stick us together and simultaneously screen out any truth that might be outside our narrow worldview.  In a polarized world, everyone goes blind.

We still need people of conviction, to be sure. Fighting for the good cause is important. But in this time we also need to find ways to heal our democracy. “Blessed are the peacemakers” could be our marching orders. Who is willing to stand in the breach and articulate a the third way, creative solutions and values common to all? It’s not easy. You’ll catch flak for it. But how else can we move away from this stalemate?

Some of my young friends shrug their shoulders and say it’s irreparable, the product of history that can’t be fixed. Maybe they are right. They are some of the same ones who are just creating parallel solutions alongside the old ones. Maybe they have something. Maybe we need to demonstrate a third way rather than be part of the intractable problem. Centrifugal force spins us to the edges. But some will be called to stand in a dynamic center of the revolving turbine. They, along with the Spirit, may be our hope.

There are lots of good books out there of various genre. But in the land of non-fiction I have to hand this year’s gold seal to Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012). I just spent a few days reading it. Haidt and a few others, in my estimation, are getting to the crux of our present social polarization, which is a mighty one indeed.

The researcher and professor from the University of Virginia delves into what he calls moral psychology. His work, rich in its texture, draws on sociology, anthropology, brain research and evolutionary psychology for its sources of knowledge. The conclusions of research are in many ways surprising, unexpected. They certainly do not confirm popular assumptions about the way we are as persons or groups of persons.

He first delivers us from certain rationalistic delusions. The deep, subconscious intuitions about life make most of our decisions before we know it. They are the “elephant” in the room and our reasoning is the “rider” that either explains the elephant or makes mild adjustments to its course. That elephant includes assumed notions about the way we think the world should be. Those notions come from lots of places, but in the end, they take the day.

There is no such a thing as a singular moral index by which all personal and social good should be evaluated. Rather, there are a handful and people do not embrace the same ones. There is the flash point of division: everyone is believing and acting according to assumed moral principles, it’s just that they are different ones. How could the other not see this issue, it’s plain as day! Well, from their identified moral priorities, they are. We just don’t agree on which moral principles are the primary ones.

For instance, there are a handful of moral principles that guide individuals and societies such as

Care for the Needy
Fairness and Justice
Respect for Authority

Different social or political systems embrace some and not others, weight some as more important than others, and in some case exclude some from moral decision making altogether.

Libertarians, descendents from our Enlightenment ancestors who wanted to throw off the shackles of kings and bishops, have an instinctual suspicion of government and its meddling. Free markets are sacred. But their Care scale is low, as is Authority and Sanctity. The market will sort out the story for the needy; don’t meddle and make it worse. Authorities are to be questioned and kept in check.

Social Conservatives have quite different configurations than the Libertarians. They hit on all six of the principles with fairly even weight. They Care for needy, but with a suspicion of government doing the caring. They hold loyalty and respect authority unless it is intrusive. A sacred moral thread informs their decisions even when it is not financially or socially convenient. They value fairness, but it is usually not fairness for the underclass, but rather fairness for the people as a whole, especially when it comes penalizing people for hard work and success. Freedom is important as neither government nor external nations or forces should get in the way of pursuing the right to life and happiness.

Classic Liberals fire on primarily two of the moral indices: Care and Fairness/Justice. They arose as a powerful movement in the wake of industrialization and the abuse by captains of industry. Care for the downtrodden became their marching orders, especially those abused not by the government (as libertarians would most fear) but by large super-organism corporations. Only governments have the power to hold back and control their tyranny, as is believed today in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Establishing social fairness and correcting wrongs moved from industrialization to the great depression to the civil rights movement. Care for the downtrodden and establishing justice became the two moral principles by which everything else was to be judged. Like the Libertarians, loyalty and authority were to be questioned; they were the seeds of tyranny.  Sanctity, usually, became limited to the adoration of nature.

Haidt is clear that for Liberals, two indices for moral argument and reasoning are not sufficient. Social Conservatives fire on all six, though weighting them differently. And Libertarians are single-minded in their pursuit of unrestrained freedom (which is why they differ so greatly from both Liberals and Social Conservatives, depending on the issue).

These moral foundations, often found in the unconscious elephant people ride, are highly significant in shaping the social contracts by which we survive and cooperate. We disagree on which foundations are most important, however. Unhealthy systems position conserving and progressive people as dualistic opposites waging a cosmic battle. Healthy systems recognize that both provide the yin/yang, the balance needed for cohesive and growing society.

Though natural selection and the survival instinct may make individuals highly self-interested, we humans are also remarkably “groupish” – willing to serve along side one another for the good of the many. That tribal sense is what contributed to the dominance of our kind in the last 12,000 years or so. Moving beyond reciprocal care within the tribe to those outside it is the mark of a very unique and advanced consciousness (something spiritual masters and, yes, Jesus talked about all the time!). But it doesn’t come naturally. The bee hive takes care of the bee hive, and magnificently so. Cities, states and even countries can do the same. Even collections of countries may act “hiveish” under the right conditions.

Religion – far from being dismissed as the thing that divides and harms (though it has) – is most usually a galvanizing force that provides the central guiding metaphors, ideas and practices of a people. It is the “sacred” moral index that provides transcendent meaning. Societies that have lost that are less effective, less cohesive and prone to failure, throughout history.

But “what binds us blinds us.” If we live on the inside of a moral system we come to evaluate all others through a particular unsympathetic lens. That is true of every person, regardless of what worldview they assume. The question is: Can we suspend our own moral judgement making long enough to understand the systems of the other? We will often not agree. But to know that different people are operating by different rules is the beginning of wisdom.

I leave you with his concluding paragraph:

“This book explained why people are divided by politics and religion. The answer is not…because some people are good and others are evil. Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness…that makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.

So the next time you find yourself seated beside someone from another matrix, give it a try. Don’t just jump right in. Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some other way established a bit of trust. And when you do bring up issues of morality, try to start with some praise, or with a sincere expression of interest. We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”