A righteously good read: Jonathan Haidt on why good people are divided by politics and religion

There I was, sitting on the Zoom call, feeling something I never expected to feel–I wanted to defend my classmate’s vote for Donald Trump. Another student, an underclassman and Joe Biden supporter who had taught elementary school on an Indian reservation before pursuing a medical career, spoke with a sharpness in her voice: “People have a right to be angry with you for voting for Trump. People are dying out here.” I bit my tongue, tilted my head slightly, and and felt an eyebrow raise a hair. During college and my gap years, most of my time not studying was spent in community service, and I saw a piece of myself in this liberal underclassman. However, she did not seem for a moment to seriously consider any of the several reasons that my classmate had given explaining her vote. Rather than jumping in, I opted to let things play out, and thankfully the conversation soon returned to a more civil tone.

I was grateful to my classmate–a curious conservative Christian less than enthusiastic about Donald Trump the man–as she had bravely brought the five of us together here, in an environment typical of many universities with an overwhelming liberal majority. I hoped that all of us would do our best to understand our fellows, rather than just respond, and I think the meeting was largely a success. This group had a refreshingly diverse range of political values, and I found myself more curious than anything else. We discussed topics ranging from physician unions to the recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. I was fascinated that young people in the same profession could interpret events so differently, and I was reminded of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.

The next day, I rewatched the talk, and I was so interested in Haidt’s hypothesis, I immediately turned to his book on the subject, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. This author-narrated audiobook was not only enjoyable and addictive, but the important lessons were outlined in ways that were quite understandable–I can tell that Haidt truly enjoys teaching. Plus, I believe that it is very important that he, as an intellectual, is writing within his area of expertise. Kyle Roberts writes a great brief review, complete with memorable illustrations, that summarizes the main points of the Moral Foundations Hypothesis that Haidt and colleagues helped to establish.

If you are like me, you are interested in becoming more mindful, but you may not have thought about how to bring mindfulness to understanding your political views. And as we get to know ourselves better, I believe that we will be able to have more productive, more empathetic conversations that benefit all. Of course, I recommended the book to classmates, friends, and a cousin with whom I disagree on most political issues. I am looking forward to discussing with more people curious about how our minds work. Haidt helped me understand what I was feeling on that Zoom call. Through their exchange, I could see at play the values of both my Trump-supporting classmate and our Biden-supporting underclassman. I could start to better recognize my own biases and identify ways I might be a better listener and leader.

If you are interested in learning more about how liberals, conservatives, and libertarians might work together on policy, I highly recommend reading the multi-issue domestic policy recommendations for decreasing poverty and restoring opportunity that were drafted by a bipartisan group spearheaded by Haidt. And be sure to check out Haidt and colleagues’ website, YourMorals.org, where you can see how your answers to scientific surveys compare with other participants, whether liberal or conservative, men or women. I’ve already signed up and have answered a few surveys!

What about you–do you think you align more with liberal, conservative, or libertarian beliefs? What has been your experience discussing politics or religion with friends or family who disagree with you? Have you read The Righteous Mind, and, if so, how did you agree or disagree with Haidt’s ideas?

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