“Can you believe those crazy liberals? What a bunch of whiny snowflakes! All they want is free stuff, and the second you ask them to be accountable they flood the streets with protests. Damn commie socialists want the government to provide everything for them. Get a job you dirty hippies!”
“Holy crap. Republicans are so stupid! Just a bunch of bible thumbing, uneducated hillbillies. Why can’t those racist bastards open their eyes to their hypocrisy. They spout proven lies as facts and will not listen to reason. People that aren’t exactly like you are here to stay. Get over it!”
I am sure it comes as no surprise to any of you that I have recently read, and heard, rhetoric sounding very much like the two quotes above. If we can all take a couple of deep breaths to remove the emotion such inflammatory comments create deep in our psyche it might help. I know cleansing breaths might seem a little “new agey” to you conservatives out there… (ooh see what I did there? It was so easy to slip into a judgmental trap.) … but I hope we are all feeling a little calmer.
So we come back to my question. Why are you so angry? Are you shocked to find in this nation, with such scope and diversity, there exist a large variety of thoughts and opinions on how our country is supposed to be run? Does it make you mad that everyone doesn’t think exactly like you?
Now, please think very carefully about the above questions. Many times over the past few years, I have shouted these questions in my head as I have seen a widening gap in the political and moral discourse in my country. Recently, with the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I have seen the discussions (and arguments) flare up on social media, in my classroom, and even within my family. My mother is a self-identified liberal and any time I mention that fact to my students here in Georgia they groan and offer words of sympathy to my plight. My brother, who lives in a hipster part of San Diego, often wonders how I can live in a backward red state without going crazy. My wife, who is as apolitical as they come, is now getting frustrated politically. To me, it has come to a boiling point, so much so that I am writing this today.
To help you understand the way my brain operates, when I get to the point of frustration and confusion, I start to research. I wanted delve into conservatism and liberalism and find out the origins of this current strife. During my intellectual journey, I came across Jonathan Haidt. Dr. Haidt has done extensive research into the psychology of morality and applied his research to the very interesting, and dynamic, field of politics. During his years of research, he has arrived at three conclusions about how our brains are wired. He has found the programming of our brains causes us to unite into teams, divide against other teams and be blind to truth for protection. To me, this makes sense. Our brains come wired for survival and we have evolved from tribal societies. Finding a team and elevating it over all others is a great way to survive.
Dr. Haidt’s one major problem with teams, and if you know a sports fan you will understand immediately, is that the formation of teams shuts down open-mindedness. When you become part of a team your brain filters everything with two questions These questions are simple. Question 1: Is it good for my team? Question 2: Is it bad for my team? Every action, every statement, and every person gets mentally filed away based upon the answers to the two questions. Two neighbors could walk out their front door one spring morning on the way to work, one of them proudly wearing a Yankees jacket, the other a Mets wool cap. The look at each other and give a neighborly wave and both think, “How do they sleep at night supporting such a crappy team?” Neither of these neighbors is a bad person for thinking those thoughts; it is just how we are wired mentally. (Although, I know half of you are probably thinking bad thoughts about the Yankees fan. Again, that is perfectly understandable behavior.)
For those of you who have made it this far, thank you, and now I will get to my main point. Let us extrapolate the sports analogy into the realm of American Politics. In the United States, we have two main teams, let’s call them the Red team and the Blue team. There are a few minor teams, such as the Green Party and Libertarians, but for this blog we are going to focus on the two largest teams. I think it would be safe to assume that most of you reading this know the team with which you most closely identify. Dr. Haidt, in his 2008 TED talk states, “When people all share morals, they become a team.” Think about that quote for a second and remember that teams are not exactly the best method of cultivating open-mindedness. So, the Red team has their own morals and the Blue team a different set and each team thinks the other is wrong. Each team thinks any moral that does not line up with their team’s morals will cause ruin. We hear it “shouted” across social media each day. “Look at what so and so is doing (or thinking). They are out to ruin our country.”
But are they really? Are Liberals really out to ruin the country? Are Conservatives really out to ruin the country? I think, if we find the small, hidden, piece of rationality in our brains we would understand how hyperbolic those thoughts are. When we say, “Liberals are out to ruin the country,” we mean, “Liberals are seeking a society that does not strictly conform to the morals championed by my team.” When we start to think like this and find ourselves in the team mindset, we trap ourselves in what Dr. Haidt calls “a moral matrix.” We seek out factoids and experiences that affirm our team and disparage anything that does not affirm our team. Yay Red Team! Boo Blue Team! (or vice versa of course.) In order to really understand what is going on, we need to step outside of the matrix.
In order to help you spend some time out of your own moral matrix I will share with you the traits Dr. Haidt discovered was important to each team. The Red Team (read conservatives) are more concerned with moral order and authority. Most on the Red Team will seek out the creation or maintenance of order even if there is a cost to outliers, i.e. poor, immigrant, etc. The Blue Team (read liberals) are more concerned with moral harm and fairness. Most on the Blue Team will seek better for all, including outliers, even at the risk of chaos and change, to achieve fairness for all. To sum it up, Conservatives will make sacrifices to maintain order and Liberals will sacrifice order to seek fairness. I think we can all see why there is such political dissonance in our country.
Ok, take a second to let that last thought sink in.
Now we get to the hard part. What if we need both teams to make our country work correctly? What if the moral tug of war that exists between the two political ideologies is actually beneficial? If all we did as a country was to seek order, we might miss out on beneficial change. The liberals pull conservatives towards those beneficial changes. If all we did as a country was to seek change, we might descend into unstructured chaos. The conservatives slow the change championed by liberals to ensure the change is manageable. Too much of either philosophy is bad. Remember, the Empire sought Order in the Galaxy using threat of destruction. (Yes, that was a Star Wars reference. If you are on team Star Trek, step out of your moral matrix and get over it.) This would be as if you broke all your dishes and threw them in the trash so that you would not have dirty dishes. On the flip side, unchecked change (entropy) can result in destruction as well. To return to the dishes analogy, if you wanted to be fair to all dishes and not show favoritism by washing one first, all the dishes would sit dirty for all time.
Think of the Yin and Yang symbol. Yin and Yang is a philosophy which states forces that might be opposite or contrary are actually interconnected. Examples of this are life and death or day and night. Without death to define it, life has no meaning. Without night, there would be no contrast to define day. Could it be that without liberalism there would be no conservatism? If everyone thought the same way, the world would be a very boring place, even if that false utopia is what we subconsciously seek. Dr. Haidt’s TED talk helped me realize a lack of moral diversity makes general understanding more difficult. If you want to make our society function properly, we must step away from our own team. We must challenge ourselves to listen to what the other teams are saying. We must realize the role we all play in the Yin and Yang of political and social discourse.
As I wrap this up, I want you all to continue to strive for the best, but realize we all have a team bias. Anytime we seek political or social action that benefits our team at the expense of the other team, we all lose. After the last few presidential elections I have heard people say from both teams say, “You lost, get over it.” This is tribal, team centered thought and it does our country no good. I will leave you with a quote from the philosopher Sent-ts’an. (Don’t worry, I can’t pronounce the name either.)
“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.”
To view Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk click HERE
To find your own moral outlook go to www.yourmorals.org
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune