Monday, November 07, 2016

After the worst election since 1860, is unity possible?

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord”

Isaiah 1:18

Social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Ravi Iyer, writing in the Wall Street Journal, ask if after this election, “Is it possible for Americans to forgive, accept and carry on working and living together?”

Haidt’s and Iyer’s answer, extrapolated below from their essay, is “Yes.”

Why? “Three time-honored quotations serve as guides.”

1. “Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.”

—Bedouin saying

Human nature is tribal. But this year, for the first time, more than 40% in each party now see the policies of the other party as being “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Something is broken in American tribalism. It is now “my brothers and me against my cousins” all the time, even when we are threatened by strangers and even when there is no threat at all.

We must find a way to see citizens on the other side as cousins who are sometimes opponents but who share most of our values and interests and are never our mortal enemies.

2. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

—Jesus, in Matthew 7:3-5

Our tribal minds are equipped with a powerful tool: shameless hypocrisy. When we think with a particular purpose in mind, often that purpose isn’t to find the truth but to defend ourselves or attack our opponents. Psychologists call this “motivated reasoning.” It is why partisans find it so easy to dismiss scandalous revelations about their own candidate while focusing intently on scandalous revelations about the other candidate. Social media, hackers and Google searches help us find specks in our opponents’ eyes, but technology hasn't forced us to acknowledge the logs in our own.

3. “Nature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but…this tie becomes stronger from proximity.”

—Cicero, “On Friendship”

Humans are tribal, but tribalism can be transcended. The key is proximity. Students become friends with the student whose dorm room is next door more than with a student four doors away. People with one friend from the other party are less likely to hate.

But Americans are losing proximity to those on the other side, spending more time in politically purified settings. Democrats pack cities while rural and exurb areas attract Republicans. Churches split over culture. Social life exists online, in homogeneous virtual communities. Meeting the other side anonymously online often leads to extreme incivility.

Yet we have lasted 240 years so far. Both sides agree America is worth fighting for.

Those who would like to let go of anger November 9 without letting go of one’s moral principles might:

a) Separate feelings about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from your feelings about their supporters. Don’t assume others like or even agree with their candidate on any particular issue. They may be voting out of fears you don’t understand, and if you knew why, you might empathize.

b) Step back and think about your goals. Would you rather change people or hate them? If you actually want to influence people, know that it is nearly impossible to change people’s minds by arguing. When there is mutual antipathy, there is mutual motivated reasoning, defensiveness and hypocrisy.

Open the heart and open the mind. Cultivate personal relationships with the other side. Spend time together, and let Cicero’s proximity strengthen ties.

As our hearts harden, thinking also calcifies, and we become dogmatic. John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” So cultivating a few cross-partisan friendships will make you smarter and calmer.

To have a real conversation, approach it skillfully. Open by pointing to a log in your own eye. That signals you aren’t spoiling for combat. Another powerful depolarizing step is praise.

Each of us must decide what kind of person we want to be.  And we must think about the relationship we want with our politically estranged cousins.

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