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"The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Tony Wagner/Marketplace
Make Me Smart With Kai and Molly

The Make Me Smart book club on the psychology of politics and religion

Tony Wagner Jul 14, 2017
"The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Tony Wagner/Marketplace

You might be watching cable news, or driving by a protest, or scrolling through a loved one’s Facebook wall, when you feel the question start to bubble up. It’s perfect for a time when the country feels more divided by politics and religion than ever before. It’s a question that’s all too common, though its more cathartic than helpful.

“What. The. Hell. Are. They. Thinking???”

Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” our first-ever Make Me Smart book club pick, takes a swing at answering that question. It’s a deep dive into moral psychology, arguing that our politics are driven by something in us that’s primal, genetic, and possibly immutable.

It’s important stuff in 2017, but it’s not exactly beach reading either. Kai’s been upfront about his struggle to get through the whole thing, and he’s not alone.

“I support Kai not reading the book club pick,” agreed listener and librarian (!) Hannah Killian. “Life is too short and the news is too gruesome to be slogging through a dense book you don’t want to read, even if it is for work. I, for one, will be blissfully reading ‘Startup: A Novel’ by Doree Shafrir.”

Never fear, we hear you and we made sure this week’s discussion would be interesting if you read the whole book, tapped out after a couple chapters or didn’t even start. (Also, not for nothing, Marketplace Weekend interviewed Shafrir about “Startup” back in April.)

There wasn’t nearly enough time to play all of our favorite contributions on the podcast, and the responses are still coming.

Let’s start with a long, thoughtful response we got from Andrew Riley, a listener in Virginia who identifies as “right-of-center,” politically. Here’s an excerpt of an email he sent us Wednesday.

One of the most significant trends I saw myself immediately after finishing the book was a tendency for left-leaning social media to follow this memetic pattern. “I don’t know how to explain [rationally, via argument or discussion] to you that you should care about other people.” On the one hand, this is frustration seeping out, on the other hand, it is a rallying cry for similar minds. But for me, there is the endgame of Haidt in a nutshell. How does this left-leaning person attempt to talk to someone about the item of the day (in this case a health care bill, but the reality is that the specifics of the policy almost do not matter) when their own moral matrix is blinding them because of a judgment that the person they are talking to is anathema.

The problem is not that we are having a discussion about whether 2+2=4 and trying to come to logical conclusions about what “addition” entails and whether we should use an equal sign, or some verbiage instead. The problem is that there is a disagreement over what the definition of “2” is. How do you have that argument? It is so obvious that 2 is 2, it always has been, it always will be. Dogmatism works in math, but not in much else. That is precisely because it blinds us, in the sense of being unable to communicate to someone outside that dogma about something that is fundamentally important to the totality of the system we have built.

That is why I have a little more confidence than you about the “solutions” that were lacking in the book. The solutions are internal. They are all about, “how do I, a reader of this book, explain the answer of “4” to a person who does not agree with me about what 2 is?” The answer is to find a different way of describing the problem. There are many math problems that lead to 4 as an answer.

Megan McCarthy, a listener from Philadelphia, wrote us an email with some really good points about Haidt’s own point of view:

The author makes a lot of noise about trying to find human universals using rigorous, unbiased research methods, and in many ways I agree he’s been really innovative and thoughtful.

BUT, he also has a couple big blind spots when it comes to some of the assumptions and biases he’s bringing to his arguments. As a young, non-heteronormative woman of color, some of the things he presents as truths don’t ring true to me, like, for example, his “realization” later in life that hierarchical/authoritarian power dynamics are actually mutually (and societally) beneficial relationships, and not, in fact, exploitative. Really? And you’re presenting it all under the guise of conclusions you’ve drawn purely from unbiased scientific research??? ARRRRRGGGGGG, HULK SMASH!!

I’m also not on board with his thinly-veiled kink-shaming or his weird, willful ignorance of the fact that various human societies have practiced eating human flesh many times throughout human history. The fact that cannibalism in particular is a practice mostly associated with people of color makes me feel like it’s easier for him to discount it as a thing normal, reasonable people might do. Maybe I’m crazy, I dunno.

Finally, here’s listener Monty Herr with a few more recommendations, ahead of our next book club.

“The Righteous Mind” seems very similar to a number of other books… I am thinking of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (and, for that matter, “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis) and “The Death of Expertise” by Thomas M. Nichols.

Got an idea for what we should read next? Leave it below.

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