Binding and blinding

Jun 21, 2017 by

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Back in February, I remarked that Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind should be required reading for all who spend time on social media, particularly those who like to go to war over ideas. I said that this is a book for our cultural moment if ever there was one. These were not throwaway comments or exercises in hyperbole. I meant it then, after reading half of the book, and I am even more convinced of it now, after finishing it.

If you are prone to heroically wading into the ideological trenches armed with unshakeable convictions about your rightness and your enemies’ wrongness, if you are convinced that your political/religious/ideological team is the rightest of the right and that your mission in life is to educate your unenlightened neighbors, you really must read this book. Go to your library, go to Amazon, go to your favorite local bookstore — even drop by my office and I’ll lend you my copy. Just read this book. You might have to sacrifice a few hours otherwise spent on Facebook or Twitter, but perhaps after reading Haidt’s book, you’ll be persuaded that the trade was a good one.

Part one discusses what I was reflecting on back in February, Haidt’s memorable image of the elephant and the rider. This image describes how we make moral judgments. The elephant is our emotions and intuitions, the rider our faculty of reason. Haidt says that we tend to assume that reason leads and emotions follow, but this is exactly backward. Our emotions and intuitions are the driving force in our moral behavior and discourse, with reason coming in the back door to provide post-hoc justification. We are not nearly as rational as we think we are. We are more like a bunch of out of control lumbering emotional beasts careening around into one another, with a bunch of mostly helpless rational riders hanging on for the ride and telling stories about what we think is going on along the way.

In part two, Haidt brings up what he calls “Moral Foundations Theory.” He compares “the righteous mind” to a tongue with six taste receptors.

  1. care/harm
  2. liberty/oppression
  3. fairness/cheating
  4. loyalty/betrayal
  5. authority/subversion
  6. sanctity/degradation

Each of these six “receptors” can play a role in how and why we form moral judgments about a given issue. Haidt makes the perhaps contentious claim that one of the reasons that liberals often find conservatives so incomprehensible is because liberals tend to operate with mostly, if not exclusively, receptors 1-3 (which focus on the individual and his/her rights), while conservatives tend to draw from all six, however unequally. In other words, liberal progressives tend to have fewer moral resources to draw from in the absence of an obvious victim of harm, oppression or unfairness. Conservatives can take on board receptors 1-3 (if insufficiently, from a liberal perspective) while also drawing on concepts like loyalty to nations and institutions and appealing to something like a “sacred order” of things in a way that liberals often aren’t comfortable with.

One memorable example that was given to subjects in the book was the scenario of an adult brother and sister who decided to have sex. Conservatives had little trouble describing this action as immoral, largely using receptors 4-6. Liberals had more trouble. In the absence of an obvious victim who was suffering harm or oppression, they struggled to find adequate grounds to describe the action as immoral, even if they were intuitively convinced that it was.

The last part of the book discussed a feature of our moral discourse that anyone who has spent five minutes on Facebook or has labored through a family gathering where different theological or political perspectives will instantly recognize. Morality, Haidt says, “binds and blinds.” It binds us to those on our team, whether that team is “liberals” or “conservatives” or “Christians” or “atheists” or “Muslims” or any of the other lines that we so eagerly draw, maintain and police. It also blinds us to perspectives that we do not share.

Here’s how Haidt puts it:

Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.

The big picture Haidt paints is not a flattering one. Not only are we a bunch of out-of-control emotional elephants crashing into each other with reason dangling perilously from its perch; we are doing all of this while being bound to elephants whose emotions and intuitions run similar to ours and mostly blind to the existence of other elephants lurching and stumbling around the same spaces. Sounds like one hot mess. Or, like your Facebook wall on any given day (assuming you haven’t just un-followed everyone whose views run counter to your own). It’s enough to make one despair. Or unplug.

But as depressing as all of this is, we do possess the resources to do better. We can start by actually trying to imaginatively enter the moral space of those whose views we find most noxious. We can start by refusing to simply trade in pedantic insults (i.e., resisting the temptation to hurl around terms like “bigot” or “snowflake” or “____-phobe” or “bleeding heart” or any of the other terms we love to use to congratulate ourselves on our rightness and condemn others for their wrongness) and ask questions like, “I wonder why they think what they do? Are there any legitimate moral concerns that might be lurking beneath the surface that are worthy of affirmation (i.e., loyalty, or concern for order or compassion), even if I don’t necessarily like where those concerns lead?” We can pause before sharing the latest screed that conveniently (and blisteringly) parrots our own views or before indulging in that cheap laugh made at the expense of our ideological enemies. We can read another viewpoint with charity, having the courage to assume that there is a human being on the other end with hopes and fears and anxieties similar to ours.

From a Christian perspective, none of this should be exactly revelatory. The approach gestured toward above should represent a kind of minimal baseline. Alas, it far too often does not. Christians are, regrettably, just as prone to slinging mud and trading in caricatures and preening and posturing on social media as anyone else. This should not be so. It seems to me that we who have truly encountered Jesus of Nazareth — the Jesus who opened eyes and loosened chains — should be most determined to resist the binding and blinding that comes so instinctually to us.

In the end, Haidt is simply using the language of moral psychology to describe what Scripture describes using words like “sin,” “idolatry” and, of course, “love.” At the very core of our faith, remember, is the imperative to love God and neighbor as ourselves (and the category of “neighbor,” Jesus inconveniently reminds us, includes our enemies). It is impossible to love people without making the attempt to understand them. It is impossible to love people while treating them as an object of ridicule. It is impossible to love people while using them as little more than a prop in the theater of your heroic virtue. It is impossible to love people while you are bound to your rightness and blind to what they might have to offer you.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.

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