Surviving November, Pt 1: Political Divides, Intuitive Dogs, and Rational Tails

Maybe the non-stop and increasingly ludicrous “opposition ads” have started to make you dread turning […]

David Zahl / 9.12.12

Maybe the non-stop and increasingly ludicrous “opposition ads” have started to make you dread turning on the TV. Maybe you can’t read your (predominantly pop culture-focused!) Twitterfeed without getting depressed about the dehumanizing level of partisanship being so casually embraced by otherwise thoughtful people. Maybe you find blind loyalty to (or hatred of) a particular institution fundamentally alienating. Maybe you’ve “hidden” that portion of your friends on Facebook whose political inclinations diverge from your own. Or maybe you’ve lost the ability to sympathize even a little bit with those on “the other side” and have caught yourself characterizing a school of thought or candidate as “insane.” Maybe the across-the-board rage and blame have you seriously questioning the social cost of the Internet (and maybe that makes you nervous, since a big part of your job happens online). Maybe you’re just sick of people pretending that our national discourse hasn’t been hijacked almost entirely by emotional concerns, that all the “arguments” and “facts” and confirmation bias-soaked headlines aren’t just (transparent) vehicles of mutual disdain. Maybe you’re thinking very seriously about sitting this election out, for self-protection if nothing else (and maybe a little despair about human nature). Then again, maybe your cynicism about politicians has become just as cruel and dis-compassionate as anything they might be saying or perpetuating.

Well, if any of the above remotely resonates, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Jonathan Haidt’s moral psychology opus, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I’ve written about it on here before, but I can’t think of a better–or more hopeful–book to help us all, regardless of where we’re coming from, negotiate this weird season. In fact, I think so highly of it that I’ve decided to do a series of posts highlighting some of the main points, this being the first installment.

The Righteous Mind begins with the brilliantly titled section, “The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail,” in which Haidt breaks down some recent research about the mind, specifically how and what drives our moral sensibilities. What is the relationship between reason and emotion, head and heart? We know what Thomas Cranmer would say. We know what David Hume would say. And we probably know what Richard Dawkins would say. Haidt begins from the (Pauline) point of view that the mind is often in conflict with itself, that to be human is “to marvel at your inability to control your own actions” and that human nature is “not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.” In other words, our minds gravitate–by design–toward the concept of “righteousness,” hence the title of the book. To talk about the specific dynamics at play he uses the metaphor of the mind as an elephant and a rider, the elephant being automatic processes such as emotion and the rider being the conscious and controlled ones (the reasoning-why, if you will). Here are a few paragraphs from Haidt on the key distinction between intuition and emotion, taken from pages 43-50:

[What I have] seen in my studies: rapid intuitive judgment (“That’s just wrong!”) followed by slow and sometimes tortuous justifications. The intuition launched the reasoning, but the intuition did not depend on the success or failure of the reasoning… We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in that judgment…

Emotions are not dumb. Emotions are a kind of information processing. Contrasting emotion with cognition is therefore as pointless as contrasting rain with weather, or cars with vehicles… The crucial distinction is really between two different kinds of cognition: intuition and reasoning. Moral emotions are one type of moral intuition, but most moral intuitions are more subtle, they don’t rise to the level of emotions. The next time you read a newspaper or drive a car, notice the many tiny flashes of condemnation that flit through your consciousness. Is each such flash an emotion?… Intuition is the best word to describe the dozens or hundreds of rapid, effortless moral judgements and decisions we all make every day… Intuitions are a kind of cognition. They’re just not a kind of reasoning.

The social intuitionist model offers an explanation of why moral and political arguments are so frustrating: because moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog. A dog’s tail wags to communicate. You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments… If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.


Dale Carnegie was one of the greatest elephant-whisperers of all time. In his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie repeatedly urged readers to avoid direct confrontations. Instead he advised people to “begin in a friendly way,” to “smile,” to “be a good listener,” and to “never say ‘you’re wrong.'” The persuader’s goal should be to convey respect, warmth, and an openness to dialogue before stating one’s own case… You might think his techniques are superficial and manipulative, appropriate only for salespeople. But Carnegie was in fact a brilliant moral psychologist who grasped one of the deepest truths about conflict. He used a quotation from Henry Ford to express it: “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.”

It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friend and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too. If you really want to change someone’s mind on a more or political [ed. note: or theological!] matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way–deeply and intuitively–you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide…

If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuition, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch–a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.

If this sounds like a rather bleak (and strikingly Reformational) take on human autonomy, that’s because it is. But it’s far from a nihilistic one! Haidt is trying to establish a more humane, patient, and compassionate basis for talking about moral, political and, yes, theological differences. A slightly less automated mode of communication, if you will. Unless we understand the elaborate defenses and self-justifying mechanisms of the human mind, we will not be able to engage the human heart–and this applies to ourselves as much as those around us. Which means that any discussion of divisive issues must begin from a place of universal limitation, our own most of all. In this light, perhaps it is no surprise that Jesus rarely spoke in naked assertions. Or that those whose moral intuitions his grace transgressed, AKA all of us, reacted so viscerally and violently. It certainly puts our scapegoat-happy zeitgeist in perspective. In fact, speaking of scapegoats, I’ve been told he knew a thing or two about them. (He said… confirming his previously held intuition…)


Next up: When our inner lawyer meets our inner press secretary! Click here to read.