Don't Give Up on Each Other

For a supposedly open-minded person, it turns out that I'm a very predictable human being, with a huge blind spot.

I love to hold up the sweetness of life no matter the circumstances. My focus is that biggest kind of love that some people call the divine. Yet, when it comes to the recent election, I, too, was reduced to angry thoughts and finger-pointing. I was surprised by my own righteous anger. I wondered why the guiding philosophy for my life failed me.

Why did I suddenly feel so sure that I was right and others were wrong? 

When I saw this book, I had to read it:

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There is so much research and clarity in this book. If you don't want to read the rest of this post, simply know that Haidt says we villainize each other because we have different ideas of fairness. Each group sees their own idea of fairness as the only possible morality. To compromise, we'd need to appeal to each other's moral foundations. 

The passages I share below went a long way in healing a wound the election had created in me. I still have some hard lines that may never go away. 

They have little to do with the election and more to do with the stories I tell myself about my life and the world. They are the stories that hang on for dear life in my psyche no matter how much I meditate, over eat, run, or write.

After reading this book, I have to ask myself: How does hanging onto these stories serve me?

I rationally understand that I could let them go, but I haven’t yet. What does my subconscious mind believe the stories are protecting?

The visceral reactions I have to situations that bounce off these hard lines don’t make me feel tougher. I feel drained, in fact, and even weakened by the fight or flight response triggered in my body.

After reading The Righteous Mind, It's clear that I've attached my negative childhood experiences to Republicans, the South, Evangelicals, and the like. These attachments (whether or not they are deserved) feed my intuition. They make me feel punished, shamed, and belittled when I see a Trump sign in someone’s yard, as much as if that person were complicit in my childhood traumas. 

These underlying stories form the basis of the moral absolutes I use to confirm my righteousness as a Democrat and to judge anyone who isn’t.


I ask you now to get a cup of coffee, put your feet up, and come to these words prepared to be challenged. 

From The Righteous Mind:

When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means. Not a very romantic wish, but one we might actually achieve. (p. xx)

 As the eighth-century Chinese Zen master Sen-ts’an wrote:

The Perfect Way is only difficult
          for those who pick and choose;
Do not like, do not dislike;
all will then be clear.
Make a hairbreadth difference,
and Heaven and Earth are set apart;
If you want the truth to stand clear before you,
never be for or against.
The struggle between “for” and “against”is the mind’s worst disease. (p.  xxiii-xxiv) 

We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment. (p. 52) 

A dog’s tail wags to communicate. You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments […]. If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to […] elicit new intuitions, not new rationales. (p. 56-57) 

Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide. (p. 58) 

If you ask people to believe in something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch—a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed. (p. 59) 

People care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality. (p. 86) 

Reasoning (and Google) Can Take You Wherever You Want to Go (p. 97) 

Westen found that partisans escaping from handcuffs (by thinking about the final slide, which restored their confidence in their candidate) got a little hit of that dopamine. And if this is true, then it would explain why extreme partisans are so stubborn, closed-minded, and committed to beliefs that often seem bizarre or paranoid. Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive. [Emphasis added.] (p. 103) 

Liberalism seemed so obviously ethical. Liberals marched for peace, workers’ rights, civil rights, and secularism. The Republican Party was (as we saw it) the party of war, big business, racism, and evangelical Christianity. I could not understand how any thinking person would voluntarily embrace the party of evil, and so I and my fellow liberals looked for psychological explanations of conservatism, but not liberalism. We supported liberal policies because we saw the world clearly and wanted to help people, but they supported conservative policies our of pure self-interest (lower my taxes!) or thinly veiled racism (stop funding welfare programs for minorities!). We never considered the possiblity that there were alternative moral worlds in which reducig harm (by helping victims) and increasing fairness (by pursuing group-based equality) were not the main goals. And if we could not imagine other moralities, then we could not believe that conservatives were as sincere in their moral beliefs as we were in ours. (p. 126)  

Our minds have the potential to become righteous about many diferent concerns, and only a few of these concerns are activated during childhood. (p. 128)

Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This makes it very difficult for people to consider the possiblity that there might really be more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging people or -running a society. (p. 129-130)

Virtues are social constructions. The virtues taught to children in a warror culture are different from those taught in a farming culture or a modern industrialized culture. There's always some overlap among lists, but even then, there are different shades of meaning. Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad all talked about compassion, but in rather different ways. (p. 142)

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fariness often implies equality, but on the right in means propotionality--people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes. (p. 160-161)

Liberals score higher on measures of neophilia (also known as "openness to experience"), not just for new foods but also for new people, music, and ideas. Conservatives are higher on neophobia; they prefer to stick with what's tried and true, and they care a lot more about guarding borders, boundaries, and traditions. (p. 172)

Republicans understand moral psychology. Democrats don't. (p. 181)

...American left fails to understand social conservatives and the religious right because it cannot see a Durkheimian world as anything other than a moral abomination. (p. 193)

Anything that suggests the aggressive, controlling behavior of an alpha male (or female) can trigger this form of righteous anger, which is sometimes called reactance. (That's the feeling you get when an authority tells you you can't do something and you feel yourself wanting to do it even more strongly.) (p. 201)

We all recognize some forms of authority as legitimate in some contexts, but we are also wary of those who claim to be leaders unless they have first earned our trust. We're vigilant for sign that they've crossed the line into self-aggrandizement and tyranny. (p. 201)

Liberal moral matrices rest on the Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, and Fairness/cheating foundations, although liberals are often willing to trade away fariness (as proportionality) when it conflicts with compassion or with their desire to fight oppression. Conservative morality rests on all six foundations, although conservatives are more willing than liberals to sacrifice Care and let some people get hurt in order to achieve their many other moral -objectives. (p. 214)

Does religion make people good or bad? The New Atheists assert that religion is the root of most evil. They say it is a primary cause of war, genocide, terrorism, and the oppression of women. Religious believiers, for their part, often say that atheists are immoral, and that they can't be trusted. (p. 307)

Common sense would tell you that the more time and money people give to their religious groups, the less they have left over for everything else. But common sense turns out to be wrong. Putnam and Campbell found that the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board. Of course religious peeople give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as the American Cancer Society. They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts. (p. 310)

The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how emmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It's the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasize selflessness. That's what brings out the best in people. (p. 311)

Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralisitc killing, and many religions are well-suited for that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity. (p. 312)

If you think about religion as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you're bound to misunderstand it.  You'll see those beliefs as foolish delusions, perhaps even as parasites that exploit our brains for their own benefit. But if you take a Durkheimian approach to religion (focusing on belonging) and a Darwinian approach to morality (involving multi-level selection), you get a very different picture. You see that religious practices have been binding our ancestors into groups for tens of thousads of years. That binding usually involves some blinding--once any person, book, or principle is declared sacred, then devotees can no longer question it or think clearly about it. (p. 317)

All this information hit me like a freight train. I came to the book wanting to understand myself, poke holes in my own beliefs, and understand others in the process. I believe it worked.

My 40-year-old narrative definitely tried to assert itself by asking: Am I just seeking the ultimate validation? Is my confirmation bias overruling my common sense? Am I looking for a reason not to despise Trump-supporters so I can carry on without my bleeding heart bleeding to death?

I can't be sure of the answers, but I know this book was worth reading. I see why my neighbors could have voted the way they did. They started with different genetic predispositions. They had childhoods that activated a different moral focus, and they've been telling themselves their own equally important life stories. 

I don't want to be an angry, paranoid person. I don't want to give up on the belief that we're all capable of good and worthy of joy. To do that, I need to see as clearly as I can. 

Looking for more?

Sam Harris tweeted a link to this study about why we're wired for stubbornness:

Maria Popova of wrote this article:

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