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Thoughts from Linda:

The Righteous Mind

By Jonathan Haidt


“Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”


As I write this introduction, we are on the cusp of the 2020 Presidential Election in the U.S. in a very divided country, and emotions are high. Our books selected for this month of November both focus on the issue of ‘world views’ and explore them from two perspectives.


This book, The Righteous Mind, subtitled, ‘Why good people are divided by politics and religion’ is a terrific modern, science-oriented extension of the theory of the case and intersects with Hoffer’s work in some very interesting ways. That would be a great topic for a lengthy paper in a graduate class!


The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer, was written in the 1950s and is certainly a ‘theory of the case’ document. It is as relevant today as it was then, reflecting his thinking after WWII and looking at the world as it existed then, which seems in some ways quaint today, but in many ways eerily familiar.


We want to simply highlight both of these, as there are now in the United States numerous attempts to organize ‘movements,’ and of course, very few people want to venture into the topics of politics and/ or religion around the Thanksgiving table, be it in-person or virtual this year.


Even more significantly, there are now some 940 ‘Hate Groups’ identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center operating in the U.S. These domestic hate groups now have the internet as their vehicle and we are seeing a rise of activity, especially with heavily militarized groups. It is time for all Americans to pay attention to what is going on with groups such as the Oath Keepers, for example. (As noted by the SPLC “The Oath Keepers, which claims tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members, is one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today. While it claims only to be defending the Constitution, the entire organization is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans.”)


NPR just released a podcast of an interview with Mike Giglio, who has written an article for the November issue of The Atlantic, where he profiles this group based on two years of research. You can also Google the November issue of The Atlantic and it is on-line for free right now.


Both of these books provide insights into our current situation and give room for pause and reflection, as we all are in this together.


The Righteous Mind


Jonathan David Haidt is an American social psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, and author. His main areas of study are the psychology of morality and moral emotions. This book was written in 2013.


My husband and I once had the amazing experience of riding an elephant at an African refuge for elephants in South Africa. We spent a few hours with a very large male, riding on his back while it forged through the very large refuge. We had a guide with us thankfully, as we were holding on ‘for dear life’ while we ploughed through streams, over rocky ledges and while he consumed massive amounts of food—whole branches of trees among the diet that day! I will never forget that experience. They say our good friend the elephant will never forget us either, which is a lovely thing to contemplate as he was really sweet.  We enjoyed feeding him after the ride (I do not understand how he could still have been hungry ☺︎) and were able to hang out with him for some time. 


And, in this book by Jonathan Haidt, his main metaphor in the first part of the book is all about riding the elephant. In this section, which gets us started in this information-packed book, he wants us to understand that the 1st  principle we need to grasp is that intuitions come first, with strategic reasoning second to us humans.  As he notes, “moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.”


He notes that the mind is like the elephant with the rider and that the rider is our conscious reasoning while the elephant represents the other 99% of our mental processing. He is referring to those mental processes which occur outside of our awareness and actually govern most of our behavior. In this metaphor, the elephant clearly rules.


The book is divided into three parts and each part presents a principle of what he calls ‘moral psychology.’ The 2nd principle is that there is more to morality than harm and fairness. In fact, he lays out his research which points to a ‘righteous mind being like a tongue with 6 receptors.’ They include: care/ harm, liberty/ oppression, fairness/ cheating, loyalty/ betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. In what I find to be some of the most interesting research findings in this book, he lays out how all of us, through genetic propensity arrive ready to view the world and these values differently. Based on our upbringing and other events in our lives, we then, he argues, are drawn to a different combination which create a part of our world view.


Interestingly enough, he goes on to note why politicians on the right have a built-in advantage when it comes to ‘cooking up meals that voters like’ because certain types of individuals ‘taste’ certain elements or respond to them more than others. He notes why more right-leaning individuals respond to certain messages more than others. They can hit the mark on these receptors in more significant ways than can others on the political spectrum. In our deeply divided country and world, this information and analysis is quite profound and worthy of considerable study, reflection and dialogue.


And principle #3 is that ‘morality binds and blinds.’ He explains the development of homo sapiens through two tracks of natural selection, competition among a group and between groups which give us a duality of identity which requires some study, an understanding of various disciplines and some great story telling to understand. This book gives you all of that and more. 


You may actually be able to have some of those Thanksgiving conversations (virtually perhaps in 2020) thanks to what you learn in this book.

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