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Why good people are divided by politics and religion.

Why do we speak past one another? Why do we think those who differ with us are evil?

Jonathan Haidt says that fundamentally it’s because we’ve built our understanding of what matters to us on different foundations. It’s not just that we come to different conclusions but that we get there for different reasons. We can’t see why someone would see the world a different way because their perspective is based on values that we don’t hold, which may even conflict with ours.

I’d seen psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book cited in several articles and I engaged with that here. But, I’m really glad I followed up the footnotes to get a copy.

In the end, Haidt is appealing for us to seek to understand one another better, not to demonise those with whom we differ, and even to work together – each bringing our different strengths to the table.

The book is compelling and accessible if not brief – 375 pages plus 125 pages of footnotes and bibliography. I’m reminded of the Malcolm Gladwell book’s I’ve enjoyed in recent years. But, this feels better constructed, less anecdotal and more rigorous. Written in three parts Haidt outlines in his introduction the key idea of each section.
1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness.
3. Morality binds and blinds. 
Each part is illustrated by a central metaphor. Each image is easy to understand and illustrates the point clearly. Take note fellow communicators! And consider the message of each of them too...
1. An elephant and its rider – the rider is influential for where we go, but the elephant more so. Influencing the rider is important, but more so the elephant...
2. Tastebuds – our moral decisions are shaped by our ‘tastes’ – six foundations. Appeal to tastes people don't have and they wont bite...
3. Our human chimpishness and beeness. A hive mentality is part of being human. We form communities. Essentially to emphasise our groupishness and the way that the groups we're part of shape and strengthen our beliefs, and even the importance of an in-group to improve our attitude to those who aren't part of our group.
Lots to ponder from these observations alone, before getting into the detail!

When people "don't get" what we're saying how much is that because we were speaking to the rider not the elephant, that we hit the wrong tastebuds, or from the strong influence of their community... how could we convey the same message but to the elephant, to a different tastebud, and how much might community influence. What's the place of the inter-relation between believing, belonging and behaving (or "doing", as Haidt's diagram on p291 has it)?

My basic assumptions, religiously differ from Haidt's atheist/Jewish background though politically we both lean left. What’s fresh for me is his desire to understand where the two branches of right (libertarian / social conservative) are coming from and to value the perspectives of others.

I can’t always be bothered to do that, and I’m challenged by Haidt’s own journey and his scholarship to work harder.

He quotes the secret of Henry Ford’s success: 
the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own. 
Haidt applies this, self-consciously to the way he writes early on in the book (p59-60), in his use of stories, to deliberately address our intuitive elephant rather than shooting first for our reasoning rider. His professional experience means he's excellent at painting scenarios that probe deeply and bring out what we think and feel and believe.

Reading Haidt I find an interpretative grid falling over my facebook feed. I was reading it during the week Martin McGuinness died and Haidt made sense of the varied responses my friends made. See also status updates and tweets about US politics or the triggering of Article 50...

I’m querying my own views too.
How have I come to these convictions?
Why do I hold them? What shaped them?
What are the unintended consequences of my views?
Who do I need to learn from?
What might I discover?

I feel the need to go back over some sections to dig into the detail because the book delivers on its blurb claim that this “book will help you to understand your fellow human beings as never before.” The book doesn’t give a complete understanding of humanity – how could it? But I hope it will help me to be more diligent in seeking to understand others.


  1. I am amazed at how those who I grew up with in the same neighborhood, with the same religious views, can be so radically different politically.I've not seen this much division in the U.S. since the Vietnam war.


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