Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Activating our imaginations to understand our political opposites

I have been focusing on trying to understand the political tribes in America - what they believe and why.  More to the point, I am trying to see the goodness and morality that each tribe represents.  I think that one of the biggest toxins in America today is the inability of those in each tribe to be able to use their imaginations and see the goodness in the people of the other tribe. 

I just finished a very insightful book on this issue:  "The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Dr. Jonathan Haidt, moral psychologist at the University of Virginia. 

His basic presentation is that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians each view the world in the light of six moral yardsticks:
  1. Care/harm - the ability to empathize with the pain of others, to care, and react to react against those who do harm to others;
  2. Fairness/cheating - wanting things to be fair, and react against those who cheat;
  3. Liberty/oppression - wanting liberty, and react against oppression;
  4. Loyalty/betrayal - wanting loyalty to your own "tribe", and reacting against those who betray it;
  5. Authority/subversion - wanting to honor authority, and reacting against those who subvert it;
  6. Sanctity/degradation - wanting to live in a world that is sanctified and pure in a spiritual sense, and reacting against the degradation of life and the spirituality of the world.
An interesting side note is that to liberals, the fairness/cheating yardstick is about equality, whereas to conservatives it is about proportionality - i.e. people should be rewarded in proportion to their contribution, even if it produces unequal outcomes.

One of his basic points is that our sense of right and wrong is not based upon our rational, explaining mind, but rather is based upon our subconscious, unconscious, intuitive mind.  We can consciously make changes, but our psychologies that infuence our morals are deep and usually unexamined.  And, more to the point, our judgments of others' morality is instinctive, intuitional, and not based upon our rationality.  It is a gut reaction to those who disagree with us as being immoral.  This is the toxin in today's political climate, in my opinion.

Another point that he makes is that the tribes cannot change each other's points of view by combatting them.  It takes empathy and human connection to be able to get past the rational part of the mind which functions as a rationalizer of our moral commitments.  Once we can see each other as real people that we can identify with on basic human terms, we can start to see the goodness in the moral values that they hold, even though they are different than our own. 

He cautions against "confirmatory thought" which just confirms and justifies our own moral view of the world, and encourages "exploratory thought" which explores other points of view.  When we want to confirm a belief, we ask ourselves if we "can" believe it, and the answer is almost always yes.  When we want to discredit someone else's belief, we ask if we "must" believe it, and the answer is almost always no.  So, we just live inside the bubble of our own tribes, judging others as evil who must be destroyed.  Such is the nature of our political world today.

As to how this works in our political thinking, he demonstrates, through experimentation, that Liberals focus almost exclusively on the Caring and Fairness (equality fairness) values; Libertarians focus almost exclusively on the Liberty value; and conservatives focus fairly evenly on all six of the moral values.  Dr. Haidt started his journey into the study of moral psychology as a liberal trying to find ways for liberals to persuade conservatives.  He ended up having a much greater respect for conservatives, much to his surprise apparently, and became more conservative himself as he recognized the value of the yardsticks other than just caring and fairness/equality.

Haidt concludes by chosing positive contributions to society by both liberals and conservatives that he thinks can be a starting point to help understanding. 

He sees two indisputable contributions from liberals:
  1. Governments can and should restrain corporate superorganisms, who would otherwise operate only in the interest of profit and have no incentive to care about their impacts on people or society;
  2. Some problems really can be solved by regulation, for example the defiling of the environment or harming the health of people.
He sees an indisputable contributions from libertarians:
  1. Markets are miraculous, and they set prices, establish efficiencies, and foster creativity and innovation that a controlled, planned economy never can.
He sees an indisputable contribution from conservatives:
  1. You can't help the bees by destroying the hive, i.e. by weakening cohesive groups you destroy the moral capital that binds them and the people withing them are diminished.
By respecting each other's moral values, by respecting each other's human value, we can differ with each other without demonizing each other, and we can create  political climate that is not kill or be killed, but rather is one that allows and encourages disagreement that can lead to negotiation, compromise, and a functional political system that is not stuck in the gridlock of extremist ideologies bent on the destruction of The Other, who is Evil