Polarized politics, righteous minds, and Dr. Who

6 Feb

Working on a project the other day, I came across this quotation, courtesy of that brilliant British social critic, Dr. Who (circa 1977):

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views—which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”

The quote is out there. When I searched on the Internet to confirm the source, I found it at several other web sites, including this one and this one.

See? The left and right really can find common ground. Except I have a hunch they’ll differ about who exactly are “the very powerful and the very stupid.”

But seriously, folks …

Bill Moyers broadcast a fascinating interview on Sunday with philosopher and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt about why American liberals and conservatives see the world so differently, to the point that our current political polarization seems inevitable. While U.S. politics has always been rough and tumble, the consensus is that we’re witnessing something different in our time, something toxic. It seems that most public debates don’t stop at disagreement these days. Now we push on to personal demonization. I’m not talking only about recent televised debates among professional politicians. I’ve been tempted to cancel my Facebook account a few times in the last six months because of the rancor coming from some amateurs.

Jonathan Haidt, appearing on "Moyers and Co."

“When it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but … the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise,” Haidt told Moyers. “Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

Haidt, who teaches social psychology at the University of Virginia and is a visiting professor of business ethics at NYU-Stern School of Business, traces the roots of our current state of affairs to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Moyers himself was involved in those pieces of legislation, as President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary.) He also offered a couple of realistic suggestions about how we might start reducing the temperature and return to more civil discourse and a more functional public life. To view the Moyers-Haidt interview, go here.

If you’re wondering where Haidt himself stands, he said he began his research as a confirmed liberal but now describes himself as a moderate. In his opinion, he said, conservative intellectuals understand basic human nature better than liberal intellectuals. That statement alone could prompt a good conversation either in a classroom or a dining room. (Go ahead. Don’t let me stop you.)

He has a new book coming out in March that explores the connections between morality and politics, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). I don’t pre-order many books, but after listening to Haidt, I think I’ll make an exception.

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Coming soon: Notes about the new rule from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will require all health-insurance providers–including religion-based organizations–to provide contraceptives to women, even if the religious organization believes it is wrong. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a growing number of other church leaders are calling this an infringement of religious liberty.

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