On the reading list: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

After I finish reading the book that sent my MBH into a wracking fit of uncontrolled sobbing, and after I read Robert Freeman Wexler’s Circus of the Grand Design, I want to read The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt

The subtitle of the book, “Why good people are divided by politics and religion,” suggests that it seeks to answer a question I’ve been wondering about more and more lately: How do we get from where we are as a country to where we need to be, when our society only seems to be becoming more and more fractious?

Look, on the liberal-conservative continuum, there’s no question I’m a liberal. And the fact of the matter is, virtually my entire social circle is, too. I don’t think I have a single close friend who voted for John McCain. Or at least none who will admit it.

And yet, in the course of daily living I know I have met and liked people who probably did vote for John McCain. In my family, I suspect that people I love dearly voted for John McCain.

When I read or hear articulated the policy positions of the right, they seem idiotic, ill-considered, short-sighted, and even malevolent. 

Yet the conservative voters I’ve met and gotten along with or whom are beloved members of my family are not stupid and mean-spirited. Aside from our political convictions, we are so very much alike. 

But our politics are only becoming more and more polarized. It’s to the point where divisiveness is almost paralyzing our government’s ability to function. (And, yes, I recognize that that is more or less the aim of some in the ultra-conservative movement.)

But clearly, if we are going to make things better, we have to cooperate more, not less. And underneath our protective sheaths of liberalism or conservatism, most of us are good people who want the same things. But this outer layer of antagonism and disdain keeps us from working together for our common good. 

Look, I’m not being naive. Like Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, when it comes to the worsening polarization that is dividing us politically, I believe the Republicans are the problem. But true or not, where does believing that get us? As Mann and Ornstein point out, it only causes Democrats to hew further to the left, taking us even farther apart.   

Indulge me: Imagine you are driving across town during rush hour. You’re going watch a baseball game. By the time you reach the stadium, it’s pretty likely you’ll be stressed out. You will have encountered countless idiot drivers along the way. Inside your car, your little mobile universe, you pass judgment on those stupid, inconsiderate, inattentive beings rolling along in their own little mobile universes, slowing you down, cutting you off, making you miss that green light. You hate them. To you, in that moment, they are sub-human scum. 

The stadium is packed, and it turns out to be a close game. By the end of the game, you feel an intense camaraderie with your fellow fans. They’re your peeps. You’ve even struck up conversations with a few of them. 

The game is over, your team wins, and as you and your fellow fans walk to your cars in the afterglow of shared victory, you recognize that quite a few of them are some of the very same idiot drivers you learned to hate on your drive to the stadium. It turned out that when you take them out of their cars, their private little universes, they aren’t sub-human scum after all.

This is the parking lot we live in.

Haidt opens his introductions to The Righteous Mind with Rodney King’s infamous and seemingly naive plea, “Can’t we all get along.” He explains why:

“First, because most Americans nowadays are asking King’s question, not about race relations but about political relations and the collapse of cooperation across party lines. Many Americans feel as though the nightly news from Washington is sent to us from helicopters circling over the city–dispatches from the war zone.

The second reason I decided to open this book with an overused phrase is because King followed it up with something lovely, something rarely quoted. As he stumbled through his television interview, fighting back tears and often repeating himself, he found these words: ‘Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.’”

This book is about why it’s so hard for us to get along. We are indeed all stuck here for a while, so while we’re waiting, let’s at least try to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.”

Let me know if you’ve read this book and what you thought of it.