Have a look at the cube above. Now look again and see if you can see it from a different perspective. Most people can – but not see both views at the same time. It’s lucky we can still do this with the cube because as political animals Americans seem to have lost it.
It gets worse. Presidents and newscast hosts get involved in slanging matches and start competing for the “Bully of the Year” award. People become very self-righteous for different reasons and with different reactions. Some of us have high expectations of appropriateness and when we don’t see it, we become outraged. Others follow the Twitterverse for its entertainment value. Values are clearly in play. Some feel discouraged, others feel helpless. It’s one thing to deal with a surly adolescent or screaming child at home. It’s another when you’re dealing with a leader of the free world.
As Tom Friedman observed recently in a New York Times article, “I fear we’re seeing the end of ‘truth’ — that we simply can’t agree any more on basic facts. And I fear that we’re becoming Sunnis and Shiites — we call them ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans,’ but the sectarianism that has destroyed nation-states in the Middle East is now infecting us.”
It’s more than disagreeing on facts. We seem to have graduated to disagreeing on values. How can people who have so much common history seem to be living on different planets? The clue may lie in how we determine values as much as we do facts. While even expertise is distrusted these days, a bit of expertise might now come in handy. I turn to Jonathan Haidt and his book, The Righteous Mind.
Haidt’s premise – that we are intuitive first and rational second – has much in common with Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Haigt as a social psychologist framed this concept in an earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis, using the analogy of the mind as a rider on an emotional and instinctive elephant. He sees moral judgment based more on more on intuition than on conscious reasoning; it is automatic. If we want to change other peoples’ minds, he says, we talk to their elephants. It is through relationships with others not our arguments that different points of view have a chance of making an impact. There is more than one way of looking at things and if you return to the original image and looks at it long enough, you can see it in two different ways.
After in-depth research on moral thinking, Haidt has identified these moral foundations arising out of different cultures and historical traditions but now almost universal in presence – if not in emphasis:
- Care: Ability to “feel the pain” of others, to show a nurturing kindness. The opposite is harm
- Fairness: it can be interpreted in more than one way- equal treatment for all or proportionality. The opposite is cheating.
- Loyalty: our ability to form groups and put the needs of the group first. The opposite is betrayal.
- Authority; respect for leadership and traditions. Its opposite is subversion.
- Sanctity; respect for the physical body and the need to keep it pure and clean. Its opposite is degradation.
- Liberty; individual freedom and hatred of bullying and domination Its opposite is oppression.
It gets interesting when you start to apply these foundations to politics. Haidt notes that Democrats and Libertarians are strong on the first two and Libertarians especially on the last one – while Republicans value all six – giving politicians more road maps in how to appeal to voters. The “facts” may matter a good deal less to the elephant than the emotional response they arouse and we see lots of that going on right now.
I’ve also been reminded of another book whose title seems prescient – Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, published after his death. A rabbi and psychotherapist, Friedman served as an advisor to six US presidents and it would be interesting to think what he would have to say to the current one. Long before the current turmoil, be saw America as overcome by anxiety. Both presidents and parents need to understand different roles as leaders. I have zero confidence that the current leader would take Friedmans’ advice, but it might have some usefulness for the rest of us. There’s room for more than one leader among us.
The leader’s role, Friedman says, is to be a non-anxious presence – to maintain one’s own integrity when facing sabotage – which any rise to power will automatically bring. The real job is to maintain a sense of self while at the same time remaining connected to the opposition. The very time one is under attack is the time not to react by hitting back in the same way.
Any emotional relationship involves a triangle. It can be three people – any parent has seen how the game plays out among mom, dad and teenager – or any two people or groups with an issue in which they disagree. In an earlier work, Generation to Generation, Friedman explores how earlier generations become part of our triangles even after their deaths. Friedman notes that we are all part of multiple triangles simultaneously involving our jobs, our parents, our significant others, our finances, our health – and even our vacation preferences. Three levels of government present another set.
Any triangle is a recipe for high anxiety – so the ones we are dealing with right now a perfect storm. In human terms, trying to change the relationship of the other sides of the triangle hardly ever works. All of us, I suspect are trying to be more responsible than the other players. That doesn’t bring a solution – what it does bring is stress. Anxiety is contagious and we are in the midst of an anxiety epidemic.
What to do? Friedman would say –
- Self-differentiate. The only person’s behaviour we can change is our own.
- Maintain a sense of humor and be playful. If this were a play or a novel, the modern scene would win prizes for farce of a very high order. The fact that it is happening isn’t so great – but life is long and things change.
- Focus on personal strengths and do what one can to enhance them. Let other people work on theirs.
- Stay in touch with what’s going on. There is a tendency to want to hide under a rock, but we can’t.
- Be honest. Speak your piece but don’t fall into reciprocal slurring.
- Question beliefs. Haidt notes that there is a difference between “What can I believe?” and “What must I believe?”
- Live in the real world – not just the digital one – liars and cheaters are easier to spot there.
I like a quote from a recent memoir Safe Passage, by Ida Cook. She and her sister helped many Jewish families escape the ravages of the second world war before it started. She notes that when the war began, her 70-year-old father told the family that he was going to enroll as a stretcher bearer. His wife replied that he was more likely to be on it than carrying it. One of the sisters was worried about her father’s silence and projected that his feelings were hurt. She said, “We think it is fine for you to want to be a stretcher bearer, Dad, even if mother thinks it is impractical”. His reply would have gladdened Ed Friedman’s heart. He said, “I don’t care in the least what any of you think so long as I do what I think is right”.
We can stop being outraged. We can stop being entertained. We can stop expecting others to change. We can stop being tired of foolishness. We can start working on our own integrity and acting on it. We can also recognize that there is more than one perspective on the right thing – giving some the right to emphasize some more than others and follow our own.