Why do I hate thee? Let me count the ways
The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Jonathan Haidt. Pantheon Books. 2012. Cloth, 420 pages. $28.95. www.pantheonbooks.com.
Parents teach their children, “If you want to keep your friends, you need to remain civil and polite. So don’t discuss politics or religion.” (This advice can be ignored, of course, if you know in advance that you agree with the person with whom you’re conversing.)
How sad is that?
More to the point, why is it that people automatically pick sides when it comes to politics and religion? Why are we so polarized on these topics? Why are people willing to spew hateful things about their “enemies” when it comes to matters of faith and policy?
Jonathan Haidt thinks he knows the answer. It has to do with the way people really process information, not the way they think they do. This social scientist, who teaches and does research at the University of Virginia, believes that, ever since the Enlightenment (a movement celebrating science and rationality, flowering in Europe beginning more than 200 years ago), people in the West made a mistake. They decided that you could “think your way” into logical, sensible, persuasive arguments about practically everything. That should include politics and religion.
Of course, it hasn’t worked out that way. In areas where people have heart-felt convictions, intuition always trumps intellect. Even the most careful scholar, who tries to be objective when exploring a thesis, brings emotional baggage along.
In his recent book The Righteous Mind, Haidt uses the interesting analogy of a rider on an elephant. He asks readers to imagine that the elephant, by size and sheer force, controls 90 percent of our decision-making process, while the rider, who sits on top and can lean or nudge, thus influencing (but never mastering) where the elephant ends up going, controls about 10 percent.
Can Lutherans add to public civility?
If we think of the elephant as representing our intuition (gut instinct) and the rider as representing our thoughtful, rational, intellectual side, we have, Haidt thinks, a good picture of what’s really happening. Liberals, he says, think conservatives depend on instinct but eschew rational thought, while liberals really don’t. Ah, but not so fast. Both sides do this.
The bottom line, Haidt argues, is that people generally know what they believe in areas of deeply-felt and deeply-held conviction. When they hear arguments refuting their position, they look for ways to refute the refutation. When they find arguments supporting their views, they glom onto them.
Why do we default to intuition when God gave us our brains and expects us to use them?
Why do we default to intuition when God gave us our brains and expects us to use them? Part of it is fear, which is a healthy survival mechanism — but which can take our decision-making hostage. How do people respond when they realize they may be seriously wrong about something? In the first instance, they panic. In the second, it is either defensiveness or rethinking. It depends on what’s at stake. (As someone wisely said, “It’s difficult to change the way you behave when your salary depends on your not changing.”)
Intuition counts for a lot, but should we trust it to tell us the truth? If not, what are the alternatives? One might be to ask the Socratic question: How do you know what you think you know? One of my college professors once wisely said, “People believe a great many things; they know very little for certain.” So, maybe we’d do ourselves a favor if we spent more time talking to people who disagree with us and asking, from both sides, “What’s your best evidence for what you’re saying?” (If you believe government is a good thing, can you own up to ways it can be an abusive force? If you believe government is bad, can you conceive of ways we’d be worse off without what it does best?)
Haidt seems to give short shrift to dispassionate, rational, logical thought. (He says there is always the elephant to contend with.) But recognizing my gut feelings are in play doesn’t mean I have to yield to them. Sometimes people examine their own views critically and end up changing religions or political parties. Ronald Reagan started out as a Democrat. What changed? C.S. Lewis was an agnostic early in life. What caused him to become a Christian apologist?
Lutheranism was born in a university. We embrace education, which includes critical thinking. The rider should have more brainpower than the elephant. And what’s wrong with climbing down and walking in front with a tether once in awhile?