The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

After this year’s presidential election I emailed my sister, a smart, super-competent, true-blue, bleeding-heart, save the weeds and snails liberal, who volunteered to do campaign work for Hilary Clinton in Colorado during the 2008 Democratic primaries and, of course, voted loudly for Obama in this last election.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “How can anyone who doesn’t have a carrot for a brain want more of the same? I don’t get it. Obama? How can so many Americans be that gullible? I’m totally baffled.”  And that puzzlement wasn’t rhetorical. I was seriously baffled.

“Are you kidding me?” she replied. “Mitt Romney? How could anyone vote for Mitt Romney?  Talk about baffled.”  She went on a rant listing all of Romney’s supposed deeds and positions of sooper evil and stupidity. Then she questioned how anyone could support that Hitler in his Mormon clothes.

Okay, she didn’t say “Hitler,” but she did claim he was “evil” and “despicable.” And when I think of evil, my first thought is always of folks like Mitt Romney.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juarez drug cartel, which is responsible for hundreds of gruesome murders each year and . . . Mitt Romney. Oh, yeah. They’re like brothers. In fact, wasn’t Romney’s dad born in Mexico? And, hey, one of Romney’s sons even knows Spanish. That boy wasn’t on a church mission there. No, he was making connections with the jefe!

Sonia Montoya-Cadena, the one who ran a human trafficking ring in Denver exploiting young girls for sex and . . . Mitt Romney. Yeah, Romney’s just like that. If he could run slave brothels, he’d do it in a minute to make a buck. In fact, doesn’t Bain Capital own a couple of slave brothels in Greenland?

I wanted to unload. I was prepared to destroy her with fiery analysis of the first order.

Thundering analysis.

Mountain crushing logic.

She was so freaking blind.


She had never actually considered what I had to say in any of my previous emails. It never mattered how powerfully vast my brilliant logic was. She’d demonstrated wax ear time and again. All of my intellectual might never made a dent in her liberal force field. I brought blood and thunder, and it always seemed to bounce off her like bullets made of styrofoam.

Nevertheless! Clinton? Obama? Save the gerbils?

I made a comment that sent Smart Sister into DEFCON 5. Foolish me. Eventually, her liberal ire cooled and she decided to order comrade Putin to stand down and not push the big red button.

Meanwhile, I started to think.

I noted that if things didn’t change, the Republicans wouldn’t be winning the presidency any time soon. If they couldn’t beat Obama when the economy was in the tank, then there really was no hope. Which meant we are going to end up like Greece, with continuing inflation (which is not only an intentional, government-led annual pay cut on the disgustingly rich, filthy rich, and annoyingly rich, but also on the middle class, poor, destitute, and various and sundry hoboes everywhere), huge debt, stupid taxes, ridiculous health care, Soviet-style redistribution, blah, blah, blah.

I asked myself, like all Republicans did, what could we conservatives do differently? Follow Obama’s example and improve our operations to get the vote out? Build up a conservative La Raza? Do the right thing with the children of illegals? Get someone willing to land more blows on the opposition (Romney could have decimated Obama in debates two and three, but he didn’t; he totally failed to define his opponent).

Maybe it was in the messaging. Maybe what we needed to do was develop something that actually changed minds.

At this point a faint ding sounded in the distance in my mind. A small light bulb suddenly flipped on and illuminated a dark cubby of my mind.

Hadn’t I just read about studies showing how a soap opera in Mexico, a radio play in Tanzania, and sitcoms in America actually changed viewer attitudes and behaviors about literacy, HIV, and abortion? Didn’t I already know about the power of concrete and vivid storytelling? Not sermon-telling, but storytelling.

Why, yes. Yes, I did.

Had I not witnessed the use of storytelling on U.S. television for, what, fifteen years by those wanting to build sympathy for homosexuals? (A good thing, even if I disagree with some of the gay agenda.) And the cheapening of sex by others? (A bad thing.) And the clearly conscious promotion of many other attitudes and beliefs via various media programs?

I determined there was something to this.

If people were going to vote for fiscal responsibility in Washington, something like this was going to have to be done. It wasn’t going to happen in flame wars.

About this same time I was browsing through the recent Radio West programs. I saw one called “The Righteous Mind.”  It was an interview of Jonathon Haidt about his new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Hey, wasn’t that addressing my question?

The program blurb states: “Monday, our guest is the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose latest book sets out to explain the root causes of the divisions in our society. At the heart of his argument is the idea that the human mind is designed to “do” morality. But when we separate into tribes – say political affiliations or religious denominations – we focus on different moral foundations. Haidt joins us to explain why he says we need the insights of liberals and conservatives to flourish as a nation.”

I listened. And loved the program.

Haidt shared a number of deliciously insightful things about how our mind works and how we choose our affiliations. He shared so many insights that I immediately requested his book at my library. The library ordered a copy for their collection. I, of course, was first in line to read it. I just finished the book.

It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year.

Haidt explains why my sister and I were both baffled by people who voted for the opposition candidate. He explains how human morality works. How our reason does not lead us to make the judgments we do, but instead more often acts like a lawyer to justify our positions to others.

As soon as he explained that I saw how I had done that time and time again. For example, in this election cycle I blamed Obama for the economy. In the Bill Clinton re-election I vigorously argued that the President doesn’t have any effect on the economy and is lying if he takes credit for it. I’m not saying that Obama didn’t do things that might have hampered the recovery, but how did I know his actions exacerbated our problems? What evidence did I really have?

Haidt explains that there are six basic moral bases then points out which ones drive liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, and how we can use that knowledge to disagree more constructively. He provides strong insights into how our reason and intuitions and judgments work, the evolutionary function of our morality, and how our wiring for group affiliation affects it.

I didn’t agree with some of his conclusions. He sometimes takes his points too far. For example, he seems to suggest that people in cities are pre-disposed to be liberal. And that’s why they live there. Um, no. That’s not why they live there. They live in cities because that’s where the jobs are. The agricultural revolution made sure of that, remember? In his effort to explain the smaller biological basis of our beliefs, he also downplays the larger effect our families and groups have. But despite these excesses, he shares so many fresh and exciting ideas that they don’t matter. And he shares them all in such a fun and clear way that I couldn’t help but stay up late a number of nights reading this book.

Do you know how much I wanted to trash Obama to my sister?  That Soviet-style central planner.  That drunken sailor spender.  That choom wagon pot head.

And yet, you and I also know that will never work. I now know better why. Because of Haidt, I think I see a better way. I certainly see how I have done exactly what drives me mad about those who have drunk the opposition candidate’s Kool-aide. I see that I have my own conservative force field that deflects liberal bullets (and perhaps even blinds me to the truth sometimes). And why I need to watch my reason, that cunning lawyer part of my brain, as well as my intuition.

Haidt, a liberal, has given me, a conservative, a great gift. I intend to use it. If you are interested in the two taboo topics of politics or religion, if you enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink or the Heath brother’s Made to Stick, if you want to find a better way to influence than flame wars (as fun as they can sometimes be), then I think you will enjoy the wonders Haidt shares in his fine book.

Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to the Radio West program for a taste of what awaits you.

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2 Responses to The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

  1. Shane says:

    This book has been recommended to me by a lot of friends, all of them left-of-center people, so I dismissed it as their attempt to diagnose me with some malady that explains my political beliefs. Now that I’ve read your review; however, I’ll have to give it a chance. It does sound interesting.

    I was pretty disappointed with the President’s reelection, not because I think he is so terrible as much as because I think Mitt Romney was such a qualified candidate to lead during our present-day economic situation. He probably won’t run again, and I can’t help but feel we missed our opportunity to have a truly decent man with an extraordinary skill set, guide the nation’s course back to prosperity.

  2. John Brown says:

    I hear you. And, surprise surprise, we’re right back into the same fiscal wrangles we were before Oh, well. I think you’ll like the book.
    Sometimes Haidt didn’t capture me as a conservative as well as I would have liked. It seems he suggests sometimes that harm and fairness don’t matter to me, which they do very much. You read the other issues I had with the book. But the framework he presents, I think, is a good one.