I've been reading a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, where I found the poem that leads this post. It should be no surprise that the poem struck me as a huge reason people are so divided these days. I don't know about you, but whenever a potentially divisive topic comes up in conversation, like vaccines, school choice, parent's rights, pro-life/pro-choice (I could keep going), I feel I should take a side. And if I won't, I feel judged as having taken one anyway!
People, we have to stop. Stop taking sides, stop feeling we have to come down "for" or "against". And instead start asking curious, reflection-inspiring, nuance-seeking questions. Questions that appreciate and expand the topic rather than minimizing everything into polarizing opposites. We could stop seeing the issue and start seeing the person.
In fact, the answers to today's vexing questions lie somewhere on the continuum between "for" and "against", and most include both. Compromise is not always the answer, although it wouldn't hurt us to try it once in a while. What we really need is deep conversation about what values lie at the base of our intuitive leanings.
In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt tells us that we in fact don't make important decisions about what we believe by consciously reasoning them out. We have an intuition about what we believe to be right or true or moral, then we look for reasoning to support that intuition. He uses a powerful analogy: An elephant and a rider. The elephant is our intuition, our gut feeling. The rider is our reasoning. The elephant heads in a direction and the rider goes along.
A personal example: I've had two Covid vaccine shots and one booster. I may not get the second booster because everything I read tells me it may not be needed and might not be advised. I have a friend who's already received their second booster, because everything they've read said the booster was advisable and necessary. We are the same age and in relatively similar health. Wow--is this my reasoning only looking for criteria to support my elephant?
Between "For" and "Against"
We open up to new ways of thinking when we find commonality with others. Maybe we belong to the same social, work, or hobby group, or we root for the same sports team, for example, and we learn about each other. We see what we have in common. We develop trust. We don't bring up right away how we think differently. And when (or even if we do--we don't have to, you know), we do it from a place of respect and interest.
The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.
How this poem speaks to me is that I need to remember that my gut--my elephant--has a mind of its own. It behooves me to learn about other elephants' paths. And if I want to affect someone else's thinking, I won't do it through reasoning--at least not reasoning alone. The elephant is much stronger and already knows where it wants to go.
I don't have all the answers, but The Righteous Mind does offer some possibilities to help us take charge of our elephants, to begin to be able to hear others' values and what they hold sacred. I'll end with another quote from the book:
And if you really want to open your mind, open your heart first. If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the "other" group, you'll find it easier to listen to what they're saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light. You may not agree, but you'll probably shift ... to a more respectful and constructive ... disagreement.