~ “Can’t We Get Along?” ~
by: Cindy Cake
Last summer a friend shared with me a problem with a long-time friend who holds views that are strongly counter to what the friend holds. Should you tell them where they are wrong? Say nothing but unfriend them? Bite your tongue and do nothing and suffer in silence? It’s an issue that has been coming up a lot these days. It’s widely believed that society is more polarized perhaps than at any time since the civil war. Were we really more united in times past? When I was in school the founders were portrayed as wise, full of foresight, courageous, almost saints. And the constitution is portrayed as perfect. It’s practically a holy text. But as I learned reading Ron Chernow’s book Hamilton that the musical Hamilton is based on, our founders were actually at each other’s throats. They didn’t agree. They fought. They made compromises. They didn’t have social media as we do today but they printed pamphlets and newspapers in which arguments and attacks were distributed on a daily basis – often under pseudonyms – the trolls of their day. In point of fact democracy is messy, imperfect. We need to learn how to live with and even embrace the mess. It has been said “The only way good change happens is through conflict.”
Have you ever tried to talk someone out of a strongly held belief? It’s next to impossible. The more you throw facts, justifications and counter arguments at them the more tightly they cling to their beliefs. Why is this? Shouldn’t rational thought prevail over groundless beliefs? Let me make an analogy for the way the human mind works. We are like an elephant and its rider. The rider thinks he is in charge, but really the elephant is going to do what it wants. The rider is our logical, reasoning mind. The elephant is our subconscious, our intuition, our gut feelings, and our hardwired impulses. Often, we are unaware that we have these feelings and urges. But they are powerful. Gut feelings can be useful but they are also the source of bias and prejudice. We often make judgements based on our elephant part and then use logical arguments to justify what we have already decided. We don’t even know that we are doing it! That is why it is hard to argue a person into changing views on an issue. Argument doesn’t touch the unconscious feelings that are basic to our beliefs. It is important to learn about these implicit biases so that we can strive to not be governed by them. It also helps to understand the subconscious beliefs of others when we try to reason with them.
I have been trying to understand how we come to hold such divergent ideas. I grew up in a small midwestern town. It was pretty conservative but they were basically good people. It lacked racial, ethnic and social diversity. Then I moved to the city. I was surrounded by all sorts of people. It was jarring at first. I had never seen men holding hands (or going about naked for that matter). I had never heard different languages spoken on the street and on signs in shop windows. I grew up with a bland, meat and potatoes diet. That seemed normal to me until I stepped out into the wider world and discovered curries and chilis and the panoply of fresh produce available in California. I went through an awakening and found I could get comfortable with these new things. Not everyone has had that opportunity and if they have, have not reacted to it as I have.
It’s easy to think that my ideas are the “right” ones but clearly there are other ideas that reasonable people hold. I am talking about reasonable people, not “stir the pot” type of people or trolls who just want to cause trouble. A clue to the source of divergent points of view came up in a book that I read recently: Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a psychologist who studies moral attitudes. He has found through his research that there are various moral values that people hold which are not universal or if held are not held to the same degree. He likens moral beliefs to tastes in food. Just as we all taste sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami, our preferred cuisine uses these tastes in different combinations. There is no right or wrong in food tastes. He states that there is no right or wrong in moral values. I’m not talking about basics such as found in the ten commandments. Murder is wrong in all major cultures for example.
Haidt finds that moral tastes fall into 6 categories:
- Care – protecting the underdog and avoiding harm to others
- Liberty – avoiding oppression, freedom to do what you want
- Fairness – avoiding cheating and deception
- Loyalty – being a team player, forming cohesive coalitions, patriotism; the opposite is betrayal
- Authority – respect, fear, obedience, deference, domination and submission
- Sanctity – purity, chastity, piety, cleanliness, avoiding contamination and degradation
We all probably see some value in each of these but some stand out as more important than others. Some may be alarming. Where do you stand on chastity? Obedience? Authority? Piety? These are very important to some people and not so much to others. Different religious denominations and congregations emphasize and deemphasize certain values: Unitarians are strong on care and fairness, Baptists may be stronger on loyalty, authority and sanctity. Noe Valley Ministry has a tradition of avoiding authority in the form of hierarchical language.
In Haidt’s research, it turns out that liberals, conservatives and libertarians tend to resonate with different elements of morality to different degrees. They have a distinct moral profile. This is a source of conflict between groups with differing tastes. Liberals often accuse conservatives of not being caring. Research shows that conservatives consider themselves to be caring but in a more equal balance with the other 5. Libertarians tend to resonate on liberty, sometimes to the exclusion of much else. Most people fall somewhere in between.
We forget that others around the world live in different circumstances, with different cultures and traditions. Haidt had an awakening when he spent a year living in rural India. In India, people have different challenges and expectations. Our expectations of our fellow citizens are different from what an African, Asian or Latin American would expect.
We Americans are what Haidt calls W.E.I.R.D.:
We make the assumption that what goes for us should go for everyone. But that is a form of intolerance in itself. In India the left hand is unclean for good historical reasons. Even when the reason no longer applies the practice may remain. In some cultures you remove your shoes before entering a home. American society is very individualistic so authority may be suspect. Loyalty to a group can be the basis for racism. Authority can turn into oppression. One person’s sanctity is another’s homophobia and suppression of female sexuality. An organization with too much individualism can be torn by infighting at the expense of group cohesion and achieving larger goals. We need to have balance.
Back to the original question: what are we to do about our polarization? Haidt has some interesting ideas. A society can transcend self-interest when we lose ourselves to something larger than ourselves. This can be seen at a sporting event. Our society has largely lost most of these collective activities. Examples in times past include collective ecstatic dancing such as maypole dancing or the native American powwow. The modern equivalent might be the rave. Military training which includes marching cements group cohesiveness but military experience is now in the minority.
Here in San Francisco we are in an echo chamber. We mostly hear views that are similar to our own beliefs. However, if we look deeper, I think we will find a diversity of opinion within our congregation and within our community. The diversity is often left unspoken because we fear a backlash of not being ok or “right” or “enough” of something. As we branch out from our immediate community, views are widely varied. Many of us have friends and family members who differ radically in their “cuisine” of morality. How do we handle these differences and remain true to our own beliefs? If we aren’t doing collective dancing what can we do?
Listening is a good place to start. It is more productive to learn about a different viewpoint from a person who holds that view. Sure, you can read about it in the paper maybe from an op ed. But you can’t ask questions of a written viewpoint. When talking to an actual person, you can ask follow up questions. And you get information from their facial expression and body language.
Listening should be deep listening. Suspend the impulse to counter the speaker with your own arguments. It costs us nothing to listen. Try to acknowledge that they are basically good people who have a different perspective and have had different life experiences. Try to avoid the “I’m right, you’re wrong” stance. Keep it civil.
Start with areas you agree on, things you have in common. This establishes trust. Give validation where you can but don’t agree it if isn’t true to your real feelings. Be willing to be changed by the other person – not to agree necessarily – but to learn about the other person and their life. Stanford neurologist Robert Sapolsky suggests that you try to find out why their facts are so important to them. Those facts may be coming from the elephant rather than the rider.
Don’t embarrass them in front of others. That just makes a person defensive. And no one was ever convinced by being yelled at. As Kwame Anthony Appiah pointed out in a recent Ethicist column in the New York times, a person who makes bigoted comments may not consider himself a bigot. Until he has an awakening there might not be anything you can do. Will challenging the person do any good anyway? Pressuring someone can make it into a battle and their views can become entrenched. Being forced to change can feel like a loss of honor.
Try to avoid unfriending anyone and everyone who disagrees with you. There is a current meme among Gen Zers called “cancel culture”. Practitioners simply “cancel” anyone that they find disagreeable. That means they erase any mention of or contact with that person. That person doesn’t exist to the canceller. But that just isolates us more. It’s akin to shunning. It just amplifies the echo chamber.
Grant people the validity of their experience.
Keep the lines of communication open. Dialog where possible.
Often conflict is sourced in fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of loss of the familiar. Seek to understand their inner elephant and be in touch with your own. Share your inner elephant. Talk elephant to elephant. Talking rider to rider hasn’t been getting us very far when the elephants disagree.
This takes courage! This is hard!
My mother had a saying when facing an insoluble problem:
There is no answer.
Seek it with love.
May it be so.