Politics feels more polarised than ever before.
Despite unprecedented access to information, as well as the means to verify, disseminate and discuss it, we feel no closer to the truth. In the absence of the old certainty, we have come to depend on others to reframe events for us and find common ground only in our nostalgia for a simpler, less adversarial era, when facts were facts and disagreements were noble – taking place in the sanctified symposium of an agreed reality.
Instead, reality itself is now the subject of debate and life is a puzzle to be solved; an optical illusion, comprised of dysfunctional families of ideas and warring parallel cultures, that only make sense when we let our wild imaginations fill in the blanks.
If only the people we disagree with were as upright and insightful as us, right? Well, not quite.
American psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his stunning 2016 book The Righteous Mind, sets forth the compelling – and timely – case that much of the intractable breakdown in dialogue we are experiencing is due to our misfiring social instincts – which haven’t evolved much since the early days of our species. Haidt contends that human beings, when faced with increasing levels of political and cultural complexity, intuitively “bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives” and that once we buy into these ideas we “become blind to alternative moral worlds.”
Hang on a minute, pal. Alternative moral worlds? But isn’t there only one kind of morality? What’s this ‘moral worlds’ malarkey? There’s right and there’s wrong and that’s it. Perhaps we’d like to think so, but according to Haidt this instinctive urge to dismiss, undermine or monster alternative ways of perceiving the world, is an expression of our relatively unevolved, tribal nature.
“If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth,” he writes, “you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.”
I’m sure many of you need look no further than your own experience to find evidence of this.
Exacerbating the deep feelings of uncertainty and confusion are the conclusions we draw about the people with whom we disagree. We no longer assume our antagonists arrived at their contentious positions because of careful, if subjective, consideration. We no longer believe in the basic integrity of their methodology, even if it differs from our own. Instead, we assume they are deliberately avoiding the real facts of the matter, which indicates either a naivety unbefitting of our respect or some other, more sinister, motive. Naturally, we form low opinions of them; everything they think and say, not only risible, irritating and offensive but revealing yet more of the cognitive bias, wilful self-delusion, resentment and contempt for truth so typical of their sort. This intellectual treachery is, coincidentally, in stark contrast to our own thinking process, which effortlessly squares-off the delicate balance between moral clarity and rational objectivity in a perfect symmetry of absolute reason that holds the world together.
In drawing such far-fetched conclusions about our unending capacity to be correct – and others to be wrong – do we not push ourselves farther from the truth? For example, why is nobody responsible for Brexit, Trump or the rise of the far-right? Why does the spectre of fascism, lurking ominously on the Western horizon, somehow prove everyone right – again? The answer is: it doesn’t and we’re fools for believing it so.
Thankfully, it’s not all our fault and these logical inconsistencies that constitute our belief systems are, according to Haidt, merely “expressions of our tribal, groupish, righteous nature.”
Haidt offers a vision of human beings, not as the high-minded moral crusaders we proclaim to be, but as fragile and fallible creatures, uniting around principles instinctively, often out of a self-interested fear of being socially punished or exiled by our tribes. This may not sit well with some people, especially those who have constructed an elaborate identity – or career – around their personal politics, but we need only look honestly at some of the other behaviours we humans engage in, which despite feeling ‘real’ are, in fact, the product of a deeper instinct, largely elusive to our conscious minds.
We find people attractive to potentiate sex and thus pro-create but believe in myths about ‘chemistry’ and ‘love at first sight’. We fall in love, primarily, to rear and nurture kids, to perpetuate our genes but indulge platitudes about ‘soul mates’, ‘perfect couples’ and ‘happy families’. We enjoy the taste and texture of food and have created whole cultures and industries around it, when really the pleasure and interest we take in it is rooted in the fact that we’d die if we didn’t eat.
It’s stupid and self-aggrandising when you think about it, isn’t it? The idea that you and your mates just happen to be right about everything? How can it be that you always just happen to fall on the right side of history? How can it be that your previously stated opinions and deeply held beliefs are always vindicated by whatever political event transpires?
Yes, it’s counter-intuitive to regard ourselves as fallible mounds of bone and flesh on ethical auto-pilot but we should at least attempt to integrate the small matter of our human fallibility into our understanding of why life feels so impossibly confusing. Or shall we persist with these delusions of righteousness to the gates of Armageddon, if need be, rather than concede an inch to the enemy – or our own niggling consciences.