In high school, I had political aspirations. How could I not when the teacher for all of my A.P. history and governments classes was the Speaker of the House in the Utah House of Representatives. Thanks to him, my friends and I caught the political bug: we visited the Capitol during the legislative session, attended political meetings for extra credit, and even campaigned for local and state politicians. I soaked up politics.
Two decades later, I can’t stomach politics. I get genuinely sad watching campaign coverage or reading Internet news reports. It’s the polarization and the hurtful rhetoric, from candidates, from supporters, from TV analysts, from internet comments, and even from my own friends and family, that bother me so deeply.
After all, much of my scholarly work has been driven by the question, “How can people become more open to others’ perspectives and more understanding of others’ stories?” During my master’s program in the late 90s, I first sought for solutions in Martha Nussbaum’s work on the narrative imagination. Nussbaum argued that we can develop the ability to identify with or sympathize with others (our imaginative and moral intelligences) by engaging with imaginative literature. I recognized in that argument the results of a lot of the books I read as a kid and a teenager. But when the means of conducting qualitative studies on narrative imagination dead-ended, I studied service learning as another possible way to help people see from others’ perspectives and sympathize with their plights.
Over 10 years ago in my dissertation research, this issue emerged again. As I interviewed some of the 150 LDS women who participated on a private discussion board, I was surprised at how many told me that, thanks to their participation on the board, they had become open to differences—from methods of having children, to specific decisions about how to raise them; from beliefs about evolution, to beliefs about, yes, politics. Their ideas about what a “good” LDS woman did and thought and looked like had changed.
This wasn’t supposed to have happened. In an enclaved group of like-minded people, the expectation is that those people will become more extreme in their beliefs. So what was going on?
Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has given me many explanations to apply to the women in my study. But more importantly, I think his insights are valuable to our political atmosphere today and our attempts to get along with and understand others. Haidt explains that, first of all, we must understand that we are primarily motivated by our intuitions rather than strategic reasoning. This makes more sense if you think about the last time someone tried to change your mind by simply rebutting your arguments, particularly if they were aggressive. Haidt says, “If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding . . . a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed” (59). To change someone’s mind, we must instead “elicit new intuitions, not new rationales” (57). This happens through positive social connections. If we have affection or admiration for someone, we’re more likely to try to see truth in their arguments or at least more likely to listen to what they’re saying and have a more respectful and fruitful disagreement.
What does that mean for you and me in today’s politically charged atmosphere? For me, it means that I should probably stop avoiding politically engaged discussions and put effort into having, as Haidt says, “a friendly interaction with a member of the ‘other’ group” (364). Not just with the goal of changing their mind, though, but also of opening my own mind to understand or listen to what they’re saying and why they are saying it. (Haidt’s book gives more practical tools and knowledge for how to do this.)
When was the last time you changed your mind? What do you think about Haidt’s ideas or about civility in disagreements, political and otherwise?