In his essay titled CAN’T WE ALL DISAGREE MORE CONSTRUCTIVELY, Jonathan Haidt tries to explain how we develop our political views. In the well-researched piece, Haidt explores psychological, sociological, and economic theory to best explain liberal and conservative beliefs. Haidt searches for a way to mend America’s political divide. For those seeking to heal the country, the first step is working towards mutual understanding. In the essay, Haidt simplifies political beliefs into six main values, outlining what makes a belief so strong.

CAN'T WE ALL DISAGREE MORE CONSTRUCTIVELY?
Cover of Jonathan Haidt’s essay, CAN’T WE ALL JUST DISAGREE MORE CONSTRUCTIVELY?

Belief Construction

In the first section of CAN’T WE ALL DISAGREE MORE CONSTRUCTIVELY, Haidt explores how we may be genetically predisposed to affiliate with one party. He does this by looking into how different social factors strengthen that decision, such as which groups they associate with. This may sound strange, but genetic research backs up this claim.

Haidt references a study which found that generally, “conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger.” According to the paper, this is due to differences in serotonin production. Liberals, on the other hand, are generally more receptive to “sensation-seeking and [an] openness to experience.” This is largely due to a difference in dopamine production. Each of these differences in neurotransmitter production affects a person’s response to fear and their acceptance of change.

These small but innate differences in chemical production go on to shape our reactions to different experiences. A person with a typically conservative, fear-reactive mindset may be more hesitant to leave their childhood town, which shapes their social groups and activities. A person with a typically liberal, experience-based mindset may be more open to leaving that town, which then influences their social groups and activities. This may seem very abstract. However, the larger point is clear: our genetics may leave us predisposed to reacting to a situation in a specific way. Indeed, these reactions go on to change social factors that could shape political belief.

The symbols for Democrats and Republicans butt heads.
Image courtesy of Insidehighered.com.

Haidt’s Moral Matrix

In his essay, Haidt also identifies what he calls six “sacred moral values”: Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. These, he claims, are the basis of political beliefs. People combine these values in different ways to make up an overall image for what someone believes is most sacred.

Haidt’s larger point is that a person holds each of these values in varying levels of importance, and that one can determine a political affiliation depending on where they rank these values. For example, Haidt claims that a liberal’s most sacred value tends to be caring for victims of oppression. He also mentions that liberals generally reject ideas of tradition and possess a distrust of authority. Social conservatives, he says, generally hold a desire to protect existing traditions and institutions. Additionally, perceived social changes to these institutions should be met with resistance. Haidt does this in an effort to simplify what is an extremely complicated and nuanced topic. That way, we can more easily understand how the other side thinks.

Haidt's desire for Democrats and Republicans to come together among a crowded field.
Image courtesy of Politico.

The Importance of Mutual Understanding

CAN’T WE ALL DISAGREE MORE CONSTRUCTIVELY successfully defines what makes up a political belief. Using this system makes it much easier to understand different stances on the same issue. Haidt believes this is the first big step in creating a more constructive political landscape.

Haidt’s other idea is much less abstract, and addresses the behavior of our politicians. He suggests that structuring politics in Washington to create more social ties across the aisle would help. In order to accomplish Haidt’s goal, politicians should move their families to the District of Columbia — something that hasn’t been done since 1995. This, he says, promotes social ties between parties because their families then have the chance to mingle and become friends. Additionally, he mentions campaign finance reform and redistricting as ways that divisiveness could be reduced, but he doesn’t explain further.

The fact that Haidt has suggestions for political unity beyond “let’s all be nice” is very refreshing. Too often I see calls to come together as Americans and be nicer to each other. This approach is ultimately naive and brings little value to the conversation. Indeed, those assertions usually feel like they’re claiming moral superiority over those who dare to have an opinion, which does just as much harm as those they’re trying to dissuade.

Modeling Haidt's Problem.
Image courtesy of The New Yorker

A Refreshing Take on Partisanship

CAN’T WE ALL DISAGREE MORE CONSTRUCTIVELY is valuable in that Haidt doesn’t seem to assume that the answer to a problem always lies between two views. Rather, he says that liberals and conservatives each have their own values. He sees them more as a yin to a yang than two extremes that we should look down on. For example, Haidt mentions that the government should restrain the power that corporations hold. He also brings up how the government successfully passed regulations to remove lead from gasoline. This led to a massive boost in IQ and a massive reduction in crime. Government regulation is not a typically conservative trait, according to Haidt’s moral matrix.

Haidt also brings up the importance of many institutions and traditions that liberals sometimes struggle with. These include the importance of religion as a social institution, and how exclusionary group membership can help people strive to become better versions of themselves. He backs this up by saying that the political scientist Robert Putnam found this to be true; that religion forges bonds between neighbors and creates closer communities.

The fact that Haidt dismisses the traditionally moderate view that the correct solution lies between liberal and conservative points of view is perhaps the most important part of his work. At the end of the day, the moderate approach can be just as dogmatic as the positions they’re trying to avoid. Despite common belief, this also contributes to an unhelpful discourse.

CAN’T WE ALL DISAGREE MORE CONSTRUCTIVELY? Well, Can’t We?

The yin-yang perspective is important in our day and age. Indeed, has been shown that trying to change someone’s core beliefs is an exercise in futility. The way we debate must adapt with the 21st century, and that change begins with mutual respectful understanding. Of course, this approach has major flaws. For one, being respectful toward those who wish harm on other groups is a meaningless endeavor. In this instance, simply agreeing to disagree equals an indifference of justice. Famed author and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke on this issue in 1999:

Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.

For this reason, creating an understanding of different views should not be confused with a tolerance for intolerance. We must always speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and defend those unable to defend themselves.

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