The Righteous Mind

The best book I read during 2020, this “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad” Year: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. In it, the author explains why we believe as we do and suggests what we might do to self-improve in navigating the troubled water of our different-from-others’ beliefs, “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. We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. This 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 foundation” (370-371). Getting along with people whose beliefs and values are different than ours is much harder than getting along with people whose are similar. And, at least based on the presidential election during the past twenty-five years, we are definitely different, “On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality–people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes” (161).

Moral Matrices from The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt (Pp 351-352 of paperback)

Research shows that a significant amount of our political beliefs is innate, “Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less” (324). While Democrats stress certain so-called pillars, specifically Care-Harm, Liberty-Oppression and Fairness-Cheating, Republicans stress these three and several others, Loyalty-Betrayal, Authority-subversion and Sanctity-degradation somewhat equally.

List of United States presidential elections by popular vote margin

After reading The Righteous Mind, I felt better armed to understand my friends’ and better than acquaintances’ beliefs, which are often different than mine. With friends, we are usually able to agree to disagree and focus on our commonalities. With better than acquaintances, it’s easier to say “Let’s not talk about this” when controversial subjects come up unless I know that this or these person(s) are open-minded enough to carry on an adult conversation about the topic without leading to misunderstandings and resentment. I pride myself with nurturing friendships with people who are different than me, and I can’t understand why near-strangers are so willing to profess and defend their beliefs and debate them with fellow near-strangers (which is one of several reasons I deactivated my FB account months ago), when nothing good is likely to come of it.

Having quit Facebook because of what I believed were wasted political rants (plus bragging and virtue signaling), it shocked me to learn that, “For most of us, it’s not every day or even every month that we change our mind about a moral issue without any prompting from anyone else…Far more common than such private mind changing is social influence” (56). And we think that we are open-minded, but most of us aren’t. For one thing, I think that when it comes to politics, most of us too readily engage in confirmation bias. Haidt suggests that we engage with others who believe differently than us, not in the usual antagonistic way, but rather in an empathetic way. I imagine that a Haidt-approved conversation between two differents might go something like this, “If you feel comfortable doing so, please share with me your beliefs about (fill in the blank).” Let the person speak, and then simply listen. Instead, most people tend to share their “morally superior” beliefs, hold firm, and judge others for their “morally inferior” views. He suggests, “If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way–deeply and intuitively–you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide” (58).

Case in point: earlier this year, a friend who I’ll call Kevin (because it’s his name) decided that he had the moral high ground and was prepared to defend his position and profess it to be superior to mine (and, especially, my husband’s) and chose to push the issue even though he knew that he was walking through a political minefield. Without getting too deep into the weeds, his religious and political views align pretty well with mine, but less so with my husband’s, and even though I’ve been able to sustain friendships with those who hold different views than me over the years, with him, it didn’t happen. He just couldn’t let politics go. As we approached the 2020 election, he started sending me texts that maligned my husband’s different-than-his beliefs. Eventually, I suggested that he decide whether or not he could separate the sport through which we connected (pickleball) and politics, and when it seemed like he couldn’t, I suggested that we might need to break up. And we did. To readers of The Righteous Mind, this should come as no surprise, “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds” (xxiii).

In seems to me that the choice is to take the safe, easy route and decide not to bring up or engage in discussions with others who have views different than ours, or to lay down our cards and offer to simply listen to another’s point of view to see if we might gain insight into what they believe and why. Haidt suggests (p 371) that you “find a few points of commonality,” “establish…a bit of trust,” “try to start with some praise,” and do so “with a sincere expression of interest.”

If we could made it through a particularly difficult, contentious 2020, I know that with a little empathy and effort, we can choose to believe in the goodness of others, find common ground, and become more united.

West Beach at Deception Pass State Park

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage Books, 2013, pp. xxiii, 56, 58, 161, 324, 351-352, 370-371.


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