Sometimes we can all be pretty dumb. Seriously, we make assumptions based upon our belief that our positions are well thought out and we wonder how those with opposing views can be so naïve. I’ve encountered a lot of this lately, as a conservative mindset sweeps across much of the world. Those holding to such views who I encounter every day and work within our community think it’s high time that liberal thinkers started waking up to reality. Liberal thinkers feel exactly the opposite. How can they be so dumb? Why can’t conservatives be open to research, to rational thinking?
Those, like me, who work in community organizations, observing both views nevertheless working together for various initiatives across the city despite their differences, frequently attempt to adroitly steer a precarious path down the middle in order to see their goals accomplished.
To assist me in understanding this a bit better, I took to reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind while out of the country recently. Released back in 2012, before the conservative sweep and the Trump era, it helped to frame the context for much of what is happening in Canada, to our politics, and to each other.
Haidt declares right off that his goal for the book is to help people better understand and dialogue with each other as they work their way through their differences – a task seemingly impossible in our modern world where everything is about politics. But the reader needs to beware that Haidt believes that all of us act more by intuition than rationality, so if you’re going to use reason to debate others, you might not get far. In doing so, he provides plenty of research, as we would expect from a social scientist. It’s more important to understand the other point of view than it is to defeat it, he says, adding that we were never designed to listen to reason:
“When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve already decided.”
Haidt believes that people reason all the time, but that they base it upon their preconceived intuition or value systems – filters that make movement in thinking a pretty difficult thing. And, yet, we all think we’re smart and capable people. There’s a significant disconnect here and it has its effects not only on our relationships, but ultimately on our politics – how we reason, vote, and collaborate together to face our greatest challenges. Americans have always remained divided along partisan lines, while the Canadian context has been more of accommodation along general principles – a hegemony usually kept together by political parties usually hewing close to the political centre. That national coherence is now fraying in light of more extremist tendencies weighing heavily on our traditional parties.
To Canadians, Haidt, acknowledging our abilities to work together despite our divides, would nevertheless ask: “If you merely go by your intuitions, your time-honoured values and prejudices, how will you come together when forces are present in your country that would seek to destroy what you have built together for over 150 years? And how will you respond when your parties of choice seek to construct their mandate on the outright denunciation of their competitors?
These are vital questions for every Canadian. Yes, our politics has always been fraught with tension, but somehow we build a shared life out of respect for others, not for our recriminations of them. Jonathon Haidt would wish Canadians to reflect on this particular moment in time, when politics has become too angry, too divisive – too everywhere. He wishes us to fight for a place where “fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means.” His caution couldn’t be more timely.
People of varying intuitions work together every day in our communities and in our national life, through companies, non-profits, NGOs, citizen actions groups, cultural associations – anyplace where the accomplishment of our efforts together transcend our politics. If goodness and the pursuit of collective purpose are to be found today, they are more likely to be found in our civil societies than our political allegiances. Why? Not because we were able to persuade one another of the correctness of our political opinions but because such organizations taught us to work together in respect despite those partisan leanings
The Righteous Mind reminds us that our certainties could end up being dead ends, leaving us little room to maneuver when the time comes for compromise. We don’t necessarily have to agree about our political directions, but we do have to respect that we all – millions of us – hold to core beliefs that require one another to achieve together instead of dividing into rigid camps that could put the lie to what we have historically constructed together. As DeShanne Stokes would put it: “We owe our loyalty to each other and to our children’s children, not to party politics.”
Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 32 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @.