The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion wouldn’t be everyone’s choice of holiday reading, but it somehow felt appropriate as I sat in the Las Vegas sunshine in presidential election year.
Whenever politics was discussed, even among friends, views were clearly polarized between liberal and conservative. Not to mention those left/right hybrids, the libertarians.
But while friends can choose to disagree and yet remain friends in a circle of diverse political opinion, more and more people are being drawn into communities of like-minded people who see the flaws in other people’s arguments, but not their own.
The author, Jonathan Haidt, is an American psychologist and a leader in the developing discipline of cultural psychology that attempts to explain how and why we think and act as we do.
He is also a self-confessed Democrat and atheist and his book has its origins in John Kerry’s presidential campaign of 2004. Haidt recognised that Kerry was somehow failing to appeal to a broader electorate.
It is a question that has long baffled the liberal left – why is it that some working-class people are prepared to ignore self-interest and cast their votes for the party of big business that supports tax cuts for millionaires?
Are they stupid or have they been brainwashed? That would be the easy answer, but Haidt argues that it is because the right hits more of the emotional and moral buttons that the left can only dream of.
Don’t get me wrong, Haidt hasn’t written a partisan tirade – it can make uncomfortable reading whether you lean left or right – but what he tries to unravel are our innate emotional and moral proclivities that make us think and act as we do as individuals and in groups.
Others have put forward the idea that we think on two separate levels*. There is the instantaneous reaction to events, or our gut instinct, followed by our slower, rational selves that tries explain why we think what we do.
Haidt’s analogy is of an elephant and its rider. The former is large, lumbering and hard to knock off course while the latter is the brains of the outfit.
Except the rider isn’t in charge, the elephant is. The rational man on top serves the elephant by giving reason to what it does and where it goes and is little more than its press secretary.
All of which no doubt sounds flaky and off the wall, but then I am trying to synthesise this into a few paragraphs!
At the heart of Haidt’s thinking is that morality is hard-wired in us all through evolution. That does not mean that we are born knowing right from wrong, rather that we are inclined to certain behaviours and that certain aspects of morality can become more or less important to us depending on experience.
And as the sub-title of his book suggests, Haidt believes that there are good people on either side of the political divide with solutions to offer and that automatically discounting or mocking the attitudes of others is ultimately counter-productive for society at large.
Towards the end of the book, he tells of the time when a politician elected to congress would move their family to Washington. Their wives, husbands and children would move in the same social circles as their opponents and while they may not necessarily agree on the big issues, there would be a mutual regard and they would learn from each other.
Today, those politicians leave their families at home. They fly to Washington on Monday and home again on Thursday and fraternisation with ‘the enemy’ is actively discouraged.
Politics has become tribal trench warfare and presidential candidates now put as much effort into discrediting their opponents as in promoting their own policies.
It has turned the political divide into a chasm and supporters either polarise to the extreme or are turned off by the democratic process. Both are equally dangerous.
I suspect that I haven’t really done this book justice, but it deserves an audience wider than the Washington and Westminster villages and debate beyond the pages of Guardian Society.
It is enthusiastically written and the ideas are easily absorbed and it is recommended reading for anyone with an interest in politics or looking for a better understanding of themselves and others.
* Dan Gardner’s Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear springs to mind.