The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
I read this book after a Facebook friend posted it to his page and said it was the best book he’s read thus far this year. My husband often teases me (and probably rightly so) for my Facebook addiction. And admittedly I post lots of silly or trivial stuff, such as pictures of the cookies I baked this morning. But. I actually found that delicious cookie recipe after a friend posted it to her Facebook page a few days ago. I’d never have known about it otherwise. I also learn about a lot of great books this way, when friends post what they’ve read. I’d never have stumbled across book otherwise and, if I had, I’d never have chosen to read it.
Those who know me – at all – know I’m a left-wing liberal. I make no secret of my political persuasion. As for religion, the story becomes more complicated and personal and messy. I have friends who are as left-wing as I am and friends who are on the opposite end of what can be a very divisive spectrum. This presidential election feels to me about as nasty and divisive as is sadly possible.
From where I stand, the other very wrong side (now before you get your underwear all in a knot if you belong to this side, I’m being facetious; my humor has been known at times to get me in trouble) wants to give tax breaks to the already uber wealthy, persecute those whose definition of family does not fit into their narrow view, cut services to those who need it most and take even the most basic of healthcare away from anyone who is not either independently wealthy or blessed enough to work for an employer who provides good coverage as part of the benefit package. That other wrong side probably views me as wanting to take what they have worked hard for and give it to lazy folks who just want to kick back and enjoy a free ride, driving their Mercedes and collecting food stamps. Like most things, I’m sure the truth falls somewhere in the middle.
I have moments when I get frustrated with folks who I perceive as expecting an awful lot while taking little personal responsibility. And at those moments I will say, “Forgive me, I’m having a Republican moment.” One of my best friends, who lies on that very wrong end of this spectrum, will laugh at me when I say that and tease me about finally coming to my senses.
The author is a psychologist and he makes the very interesting (and I think correct) point that we first make up our minds about things and then try to come up with good, persuasive arguments to support our opinions. The feelings come first and we then use logic and reasoning, not to objectively decide if our opinions are valid, but rather to support what we already believe. I tend to be an emotionally based person and I am often challenged (fairly and helpfully so) to try to be more objective in my view of things. Some would argue that reasoning and logic ought to be the main force that drives us and not crazy emotional stuff. I can see the validity in that point of view. But here is this. The author points out that psychopaths reason perfectly well, but fail to have any moral emotions to guide them in the carrying out of this logic. WOW.
He also talks about the tendency of humans to be very “groupish”. We naturally associate with others who are similar to us and fight for our turf against other groups that are different. This is true of religious groups. I tend not to be a very groupish person by nature. I became frustrated with organized religion many years ago for what I felt to be judgmental and hypocritical attitudes towards others who believe differently. So, his explanation of the many benefits of this groupish-ness was especially interesting to me.
He talks about nature vs. nurture. This is a subject I’ve thought a lot about, but never when it comes to political beliefs. He says the mind is like a book, the first draft written in our mother’s wombs by our genes. He says those chapters are rough outlines and are later filled in by our life experiences. He says that first draft then affects how we come to perceive those later experiences and what we come to believe, politics included. He talks about how the neurotransmitters of liberals and conservatives function differently. Fascinating perspective.
He begins and ends this book with a quote by Rodney King, the black man who was nearly beaten to death by Los Angeles police officers in the late 1980’s, an event which led to horrible riots. “Can we all get along? We’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.” Whatever side of the political spectrum you fall on, I think this is a needed plea. We are all stuck here together and all must live with the consequences of our decisions and actions, political and otherwise. And here is this about my good friend who happens to be right-wing Republican. She is a good person. As am I. We manage to be close friends despite our very differing political views. We agree to disagree but also, we try our best to understand the other side, even when we do not agree with it. Like most things in life, I believe it is messy and complicated and not neatly black or white, right or wrong. I think both sides have valid points and areas in which they see things not so well. This book helps explain the other side and how they’ve come to believe what they do. And understanding and learning from the other side, whether or not you agree with it, is a good thing indeed.