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Why are Americans so politically polarized? For June’s Masthead book club, members chose a read that addresses the question from a psychological perspective: the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. (Haidt, by happy coincidence, is also a Masthead member.) He argues that political divides are abetted by the fundamentally intuitive, instead of rational, nature of our minds. Using the metaphor of a mind divided into an elephant and a rider, or its intuitive and conscious parts, he demonstrates how much the intuitive part controls our thinking.

Haidt joined members on the forums for a question-and-answer session about his book.


Training the Elephant

Here’s a selection of Haidt’s responses to members’ questions. The questions have been paraphrased, and the answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity. For members who want to dive in and see the full context, we’re including links back to the original forum posts like this: [Forum link].

Could you explain, in layman’s terms, asked Masthead editor Caroline Kitchener, the metaphor of the elephant and the rider? [Forum link]

The mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. I thought of using the metaphor of a horse and rider, as many others have done. But I wanted the intuitive part of the mind to be much larger and smarter. The elephant represents 99 percent of what our minds do. The rider represents 1 percent and is the part of our minds of which we are most aware, in which our verbal thinking takes place.

We cannot understand why we do things ourselves when we attend only to conscious thinking. There is a quote from Ovid, roughly: “I see the right way and improve it. Alas, I follow the wrong.” If it is hard to change ourselves, then it is even harder to change others. Until we see them as mostly “elephant,” responding to social forces and unconscious cues and desires, we cannot understand others, or why they fail to respond to our brilliant reasoning.

The metaphor is really a way to make us all more modest and more understanding of others. We are, in a sense, animals living way above the environments for which we evolved. We are not very rational as individuals. But when you put us in good systems, then the system can produce much more rational behavior. [Forum link]

In this political moment, it can often seem like the “other side” is doing or saying terrible things. A member writing under the pseudonym MiddletonWordsmith wondered, how can someone who wants to stay informed interpret the news rationally rather than reactively? [Forum link]

We all need to seek out the best thinking and writing on the other side. If we don’t seek it out, then the worst examples of the other side will find us, courtesy of our friends. I find reading the Buddha or Marcus Aurelius is helpful right now in retaining sanity amid the deluge of bad news and outrage. I was anxious last year, in particular when we all had the real risk of nuclear war. I live in New York City, and I started stockpiling water and dry food. I found Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to be so helpful and wise. Many ages have seemed as frightening and confusing as our own. I read a few Meditations quotes on many mornings, and then meditate for 12 minutes. I find that really helps me stay calm in this anxious age. [Forum link]

Member Rob.hart.ri was interested in the framing of an action or a policy. How can people on the right or left better communicate across aisles the issues important to them? [Forum link]

Much can be done to frame issues better. But before we get to that, my concern is that too many people on the left place too much faith in framing. They seem to think that if they can get the right frame, then the ideas will go up into the messaging space, come down into the ears of Trump supporters, and turn the key. But in general, the messenger is more important than the message. I think it would be more effective to recruit many people from religious denominations, the military, and business. I would focus on who is speaking, as much as what they are saying. [Forum link]

If you were to write the book now, asked Jazzaloha, what would be different about it? [Forum link]

I would have raised the alarm much more loudly about the threat of rising polarization, and declining political civility. I predicted that things would get worse, but I had no idea how quickly they would get so much worse. I would have people focus on the processes of democracy: reforming Congress, depoliticizing as many institutions as possible, and strengthening spaces where we can meet and talk with those who are different from ourselves. For me, it began with some pen pals on the internet. Two conservatives wrote to me as I was writing The Righteous Mind. They had some respectful criticisms of my work. As we went back and forth, we developed a kind of friendship, or trust. [Forum link]

Haidt had a question of his own: What was your reaction to the Red Hen incident, in which a restaurant refused to serve the White House press secretary? Here’s his take. [Forum link]

I fear a bright line was crossed at the Red Hen. Polarization is here to stay. We must find ways to adapt our democracy to rising levels of hatred. We must not let politics infect every institution. If we lower elementary-school teachers to bringing their politics to work, and university professors, and judges, and shopkeepers, and dentists ... We are opening Pandora’s box. Long after Trump is gone, we’ll be left with norms that say, “all politics, all the time, everywhere.” I don’t think our democracy will survive that. [Forum link]

Members are actively discussing the above question. You can jump in on the forums.


Further Reading

Haidt also recommended several resources for those interested in learning more about the psychology of morality and partisanship—including a few more of his own writings.

  • How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb. “A great book that really teaches you how to use your rider to train your elephant. My MBA students love it—it is ideal for improving yourself at work.”

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. “It gives you superpowers. It allows you to turn what would become an enemy into a friend.”

  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. “I strongly recommend the translation by Gregory Hays.”

  • Works by Karen Stenner. “I am a big fan of the Australian political scientist Karen Stenner. She taught me to see the three different psychological groups who vote for the right.”

  • When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism by Jonathan Haidt, on the moral matrix of nationalists.

  • The Ethics Of Globalism, Nationalism, and Patriotism by Jonathan Haidt, on the various forms of patriotism.


Today’s Wrap-Up

  • Today’s question: We’re still discussing the issue on the forums with questions such as, how does a society’s level of individualism affect its morality? Join the conversation here.

  • What’s coming: On Friday, we look into nontraditional students who attend college later in life.

  • Your feedback: Click below, or reply this email, to share your thoughts on this email.

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