can i believe that? must i believe that? - shari miller photography

can i believe that? must I believe that?

In this time of such divided politics and so much vitriol, I am reminded of a book I read several years ago: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics & Religion. If you're at all interested in attempting to understand people - particularly those with whom you vehemently disagree - I highly recommend this book.

When I read the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics & Religion (by Jonathan Haidt) several years ago, the way I saw & understood people was shifted dramatically. I've always been fascinated by diving into the "Why?" of humanity and am on a constant life-long search for greater understanding of how we become who we are, why we behave the way we do, and why it can be so challenging for people to get along. With Haidt's book I found something that began to offer me a bit of clarity - and helped crack open my own compassion for seeing those with whom I disagree in a new light.

Haidt is a social psychologist whose team developed the Moral Foundations Theory. Essentially, it is the idea that humans across cultures, languages, and geographic areas demonstrate shared moral foundations. The five with which he worked initially were:

Care (kindness, gentleness, & nurturance)

Fairness (justice, rights, & autonomy)

Loyalty (patriotism & self-sacrifice)

Authority (leadership & followership with deference to tradition and legitimate authority

Sanctity (shaped by the psychology of disgust & degradation - it is striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, and more noble way)

Through his research, he discovered that those who consider themselves liberal place the highest priority on care - with fairness coming in as a close second - while giving very little attention to the other three. Conservatives, however, stress all five almost equally. Thus, for liberals, care and fairness trump everything else which means that, in their view, any final decision ought to be made exclusively through those two lenses. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that decisions should be made by examining the solution through EACH of those lenses - giving each moral foundation its equal due.

This divergence between the two groups can't help but create issues. Whereas one group addressing a solution asks: "Is it caring? Is it fair?" the other group continues to evaluate using the next three questions: "Does this express loyalty? How does it take into consideration authority and tradition? And is this the most noble decision that we can make?" It becomes easy to see why a solution which seems brilliant to one side might not even come close to someone on the other - the solution is being evaluated by two completely different measuring sticks.

What happens too often, then, is that we, on one side of an issue, attempt to get the other side to change their mind by approaching them the way that would make sense to US. But what makes sense to us may seem illogical - or even offensive - to the other side. For example: imagine that a liberal group wants to make a statement to the military about considering options other than war. They trespass into a military site and throw paint all over a missile or a tank. In all likelihood, the moral foundations of those on the military site include not only care and fairness - but also loyalty, authority, and sanctity. In an attempt to be heard by the other side, the liberals have quite vigorously shown disrespect for several of the moral foundations the others hold dear. How likely is it that there will be any movement forward in coming to an agreement between these two sides? How likely is it that those at the military site would even want to enter into a conversation with those who have defaced their property? (And liberals, the opposite happens frequently as well when conservatives approach a solution without taking into account the degree to which you see care and fairness as important measures.)

Haidt's research also included fascinating brain and behavior studies that show that conservatives and liberals are, indeed, wired differently. Though I won't go into extensive detail, one piece that I distinctly remember is that when tested for their "tolerance of disgust" (the moral foundation of sanctity), the emotion of disgust was evoked far less frequently in liberals than in conservatives when they were read certain statements or shown particular images. They actually saw that there was visible and different activity seen when comparing a liberal's brain scan to a conservative's when given the same stimulus. (If our tendencies are, indeed, wired within us, no wonder it is so hard for us to understand one another!!)

With this information, Haidt proposes that people's beliefs have less to do with the information or knowledge they have - and far more to do with an intuitive feeling they have about something. With a topic or an issue, the way we are wired gives us a "gut" feeling about which way to lean. What we do then is find the evidence to support it - yet this seeking of evidence is secondary. It is not a matter of "well, if we simply give them more information they'll GET it." We "believe" something because it seems right to us down into the core of who we are.

As we continue to gain information about either side, Haidt discovered that we approach the evidence from different perspectives. When we hear support offered for our own beliefs, we ask ourselves the question: "CAN I believe this?" In contrast, when listening to another side's arguments, we ask ourselves the question: "MUST I believe this?" "Can I believe that?" Well...sure. Yeah, I can make that work. "Must I believe that?" Well...no. There's no way I must believe that because..." The difference in nuance is huge.

When two sides are in disagreement, this makes an impact - but not necessarily an impact that leads to the likelihood of each side being content with the end result. Each side continues to throw evidence that supports its own belief - but what we're doing is attempting to change a belief that came to our "opponent" intuitively. We are trying to change a "deep within the core" belief though logical, evidence-based reasoning. I don't know about you, but if there is a belief that I have and hold strongly within the core of my being - that seems to be there at a "gut" level - no amount of information or knowledge from the other side will ever make me change my mind. Besides, as Haidt says, if I'm asking myself, "Must I believe this?", I will always look for any loophole to be sure that my answer will always be "no." Unless I have some sort of lived, embodied experience that shifts this gut feeling within me, my initial belief will not shift. Not through more information, not through greater evidence, not even through proven facts that may be given to me.

In disagreements with others, when we are spouting evidence to the other side about the logical "rightness" of our belief, Haidt found that our words are very effective at one particular thing - at our creating greater solidarity with those already considered to be on our own side. Our arguments do little, if anything, to create better understanding with those who hold the opposing view.

So how do we move forward? How do we even attempt to come together and connect? How do we ever find solutions that satisfy people on all sides? I have no surefire answers. (If I did, there might be a Nobel Peace Prize awaiting me, and I don't see that happening...) I will, however, offer further musings on these questions next time...