Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Author: Jonathan Haidt

Reviewer: John Cowan

At the close of a recent Meeting for Worship, someone offered a book that she said was written for our times, precisely to this moment, despite being written in 2012.

I went home and ordered it and now have read it and agree completely.  The Righteous Mind is a book that will cure what ails us, particularly if those of us who read it not only apply it to the strange bends and twists of the minds of others but also think through what it says about ourselves.  

The topic is complex. The book is long. Fortunately the author writes in an interesting manner and is clear as the proverbial bell. For instance, I have spent much breath over the years offering what I saw as convincing arguments to people who then with little and feeble counterargument went on to do precisely what I had just clearly established as not worth doing. Or not doing what I had convincingly proposed.

  Haidt’s first principle is that each and every one of us is both an elephant and its rider. In arguing with another elephant and rider our rider talks to its rider and that rider talks back to ours. But, unacknowledged, is the fact that the riders may argue or may agree, whatever, it is the silent elephant who will decide where the elephant and rider go. 

The rider is some of the time the elephant’s lawyer who without really knowing what motivates the elephant is ginning up arguments for the correctness of the elephant’s decisions and then spinning whatever occurs to the glory of the elephant. (Think of yours as your very own Rudy Giuliani.)To succeed in making peaceful progress I must understand the other’s elephant. And my own, for that matter.

To use a recent example, Mr. Trump surprised the world by winning in 2016. He waves the flag gratuitously. He ignores what appears to be reasonable attempts to rein in his flagrant behavior. He invents his own truth. He chased Hilary around the debate stage and nobody intervened. The progressives were surprised to learn that a large demographic values that behavior! And even larger one will tolerate it to accomplish other ends.

For some his behavior was faultless Just a dominant personality dominating, and just what some want in their president. “He will not take any guff from the fuzzyheaded progressives and liberals who keep figuring out ways to block my freedoms in favor of their Pollyanna fantasies.” That’s what my fellow construction workers would have said back in the fifties.

This does not imply that a demographic that values dominant behavior is subhuman. Because it is not. They just were soaking in a different petri dish than you are. as the same dish as my father, who I considered not subhuman at all. In writing the above I just imagined what my father might say. He was a life-long passionate Democrat who I think would not recognize or belong to that party now. 

During the Vietnam War when my friend Al became one of the Milwaukee Fourteen and ruined some draft records with blood, dad figured that I should cut myself off from Al. I shocked him when I did not. Quite the contrary, I was part of a movement that had him officially supported by the priests of the Roman Catholic diocese of St. Paul – Minneapolis. That was difficult for dad to swallow. 

In that day, he would often say, “I do not know what you kids know. I did not get to go to college.” Since I went to college and more on his paycheck, I granted this as sufficient excuse for his altitude. Or better, his attitude does not require my excuse. But nevertheless…

Years spent standing at the same workbench testing meters  (one of the more mind-numbing tasks invented by humankind) for forty hours a week teaches you something that the study of philosophy does not, and makes you quite passionate about having rights that should not be stepped upon, and very respectful of the nation and military and draft system that protects those rights. The status quo!

How far apart were we? He snuck up to me once at the family cabin when Edith, my wife to be, was along, and told me in an embarrassed whisper that she was working her way down the public road, (a two-car-wide strip of shoulder-less asphalt linking the lakeshore cabins,) with a large gunny sack picking up cans from the drainage ditches. Although he liked her a lot, he thought perhaps she had mental problems. Just small ones. (This was 1970, so picking up cans had not yet come into vogue.)

Another learning. There are six foundations for moral behavior. Liberals understand two of them. Conservatives understand all six. Haidt’s example is a presentation he gave to Democrat politicians in 2004. His thesis was that Republicans understood moral psychology and Democrats did not. He was not criticizing Republicans. He was criticizing his audience, Democrats. 

I listened to a television interviewer testing a passerby who declared herself conservative, trying out various scenarios in which the passerby might decide against Trump. In exasperation, he finally snapped, “You mean to say that he can do anything and you will still vote for him?” She calmly answered, “Yes.”

When responding to a questionnaire, Progressives scored low on valuing loyalty. For what they see as a greater good, Progressives will free themselves from bondage to past commitments. On this same questionnaire, Conservatives scored high on loyalty. They kept their commitments to others even when doing so defied reason.

That’s what conservatives do. They are loyal. Blindly loyal! The loyal part is pretty useful. The blindly part not so much. Says my progressive I. 

 Trying to force a conservative to be disloyal may be a dead-end alley. Because it is their elephant that is blindly loyal, it is unlikely that their lawyer will bring up “loyalty.” You Rudy is as unaware of the real motivation as you are. The lawyer will engage in forty other puerile reasons for doing what the elephant will inevitably do because of a moral disposition, overriding intellectual argument. Want a better chance for changing her behavior? Tap a deeper loyalty. “What if Trump is making difficulties for your mother?”

Meeting one another. Healing the wounds. Digging ourselves out of this mess we have made of the planet, will require understanding elephants, other peoples’ elephants and our own. We all will work better together when elephants talk to each other, instead of sending their lawyers.

My examples in this review come from the first quarter of the book. You will receive much more for your money.