Finally, a book I can be proud to admit I read.
The Author – Jonathan Haidt
The Book – The Righteous Mind
Subtitled – Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
I might as well start with the book itself. The dust cover is printed with what looks like a knife slash from corner to corner, with a black gap, showing how “good people” are “divided.” Despite the subtitle promising to tell why people are divided, nowhere in the book is it explained. That folks are divided on many topics is emphasised, and the How and Where is demonstrated, but the Why is never given.
On the blurb page, a promise is given to show how to win an argument against someone whose views you do not agree with. I read it very carefully. It involves empathizing with your opponent until you Become them, and then slowly and gently lead them away from their position, towards yours.
Sort of like, if I want my neighbor to stop kicking his dog, I bring him over to my place to watch me kick my dog, to show him how much the dog hurts. I don’t want to lose my morals and empathize till I become the narrow-minded asshole I’ve come to hate. I’d sooner use the direct approach, and just kick the neighbor till he agrees to stop.
The book itself is a hardcover, each page with twice as much printing as my little paperbacks. A quick check at the back shows 420 pages, equal to 840 pages of my normal reading. If I’m not careful I might end up learning something before I’m done.
But wait, it’s been a while since I read a book like this. The final 110 pages aren’t actually part of the book. A third of it is a list of people and their research that he stole from, to formulate his theories. Another third is notes to explain how he twisted their square ideas to fit his round pigeonholes, and the final third is an index to guide you to where you can worship his multifaceted brilliance.
That leaves only 310/620 pages of real reading. Perhaps I’ll only get a clue when I’m done.
The author is a moral psychologist. This doesn’t mean that he gives a damn if you’re screwing the neighbor, drinking, drugging, or even dancing. He’s the guy who explains why and how we make decisions about what we feel is acceptable and non-acceptable behavior, for ourselves and others, even in the face of conflicting opinions, or facts.
The Atheist/philosopher, Richard Dawkins wrote a book called The Selfish Gene, in which he claimed that evolution insists that everything we do, from love, to altruism, to charity, must somehow benefit the individual.
Haidt raises this thought a couple of levels by comparing human society to biological evolution. Single-cell organisms united to create multi-celled ones, right up to humans and large animals. Groups of specialized cells and organs allow achievements that single cells could not achieve.
Humans first grouped by family, then by clan, then village, right up to nation. Things like sports, politics, religion and armed forces create focused groups through synchronized sounds – prayers, hymns, chants, etc., movements – dances, marching, calisthenics – rituals and sacred totems – salutes, uniforms, crosses, even cheeseheads.
Successful groups outperform, and absorb or drive out lesser ones, and can cause actions that are not beneficial to the individual (suicide bombing), but are, to the group (Islam).
To the scientist, for any group, hypocrisy is a good thing. For the liar, whether group or individual, it gives them a chance to reap their desired ends and feel good about it. That makes for more confident leadership and an increase in following and obeying.
About the strange, often conflicting beliefs of every religion, including Christianity, the author says:
The memorable nymphs and fairies and goblins and demons that crowd the mythologies of every people, are the imaginative offspring of a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us. This mindlessly generates a vast overpopulation of agent-ideas, most of which are too stupid to hold our attention for an instant; only a well-designed few make it through the rehearsal tournament, mutating and improving as they go. The ones that get shared and remembered are the souped-up winners of billions of competitions for rehearsal time in the brains of our ancestors.
Haidt shows that, once we learn something, even if it’s wrong, it takes more mental energy to unlearn it, than to merely absorb the correct information.
The researchers saw similar results when they told participants that pressing a button would reduce the chance of shock by as much as 90%. Those participants who had to make a proactive choice to press the button opted to leave it untouched about half the time, even though it meant they had to withstand shocks they themselves rated as highly undesirable.
It gave me a slight, momentary sympathy for those I’ve viewed as merely too lazy or bull-headed to accept apparently clear proof of their invalid stances. Then, he went on to state that, having taken a stance, we will expend even more energy to come up with, sometimes very convoluted, justifications for it, all in the name of support from and for, “our group.”
Since there are limits to most people’s ability to reach outside themselves, there are limits to how large the groups may grow. The book crystallized and explained why I am a non-joining loner, just shy of being a psychopath; yet rail at Quebec for not “joining” Canada, or the Baltic States for each wanting to rule their own little valley.
This was deep and enlightening reading. My hopes for an informed quick-fix were soon dashed. Rather, as I wrote in a long-gone post, if we can keep the momentum in the right direction, thousands, millions, billions of tiny steps and nudges may make mankind a better race.