Our rational mind uses stories to understand the world. It’s our way of processing information into a sequence that “makes sense”, at least, that’s what I believed to be true.
Enter Brexit and Trump. Two unfolding stories that I could genuinely make no sense of. Bewildering, confounding, just so wrong. And more alarming, I suddenly found my ability to tell positive stories about my own future had been compromised. It’s as if positivity itself had become scrambled and I couldn’t even assemble a narrative that I could believe. My head was an interior war-zone waged against every move Donald Trump or Jacob Zuma or Theresa May would make. It was exhausting. Depressing. And it had to stop.
So I went looking for reasons to explain the madness. And I found them, in a book written in 2012 by Jonathan Haidt, called The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion.
This TED talk was filmed in 2008, and is a good overview of some of the major themes Haidt discusses in the book.
So take heart, because there is a completely sane explanation for all of the apparent crazy; quite literally a moral to the story. For Haidt, our decisions are guided by (at least) 6 moral modules, each of which evolved to answer a specific challenge that our ancestors faced in the environment. They are: 1. The Care/Harm Module; 2. Fairness/Cheating; 3. Loyalty/Betrayal; 4. Authority/Subversion; 5. Sanctity/Degradation; and 6. Liberty/Oppression. Liberals and conservatives weigh in very differently on these moral roots (liberals weigh-in heavily on care/ harm and liberty/ oppression, while conservatives are more likely to be triggered by the full range, with a focus on loyalty, authority and sanctity modules).
So you think you can’t understand Tump’s supporters? Until you start looking into areas that are not featuring in the way you reason at all, you actually can’t. You see, I thought evolution had created reason to make decisions, until I discovered that reason was built around justifying the decisions you have already made. As Haidt says,
Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgements to others.
And those decisions, argues Haidt, are on a moral spectrum that is very different between liberals and conservatives.
Liberals are experts in thinking about issues of victimization, equality, autonomy, and the rights of individuals, particularly those of minorities and nonconformists. Conservatives are experts in thinking about loyalty to the group, respect for authority and tradition, and sacredness.
When I read Haidt’s book, my overwhelming sense is not that I could suddenly see Donald Trump as more than just an orange turd; that opinion hadn’t changed. But, it gave me the ability to comprehend that there is a completely different story which I am unable to hear or see. It’s like reading a book written in different languages: to me nonsensical, to someone else, perfectly easy to understand.
I saw for the first time that it is nigh impossible for me to shake my deep seated sense of “wrongness” for the political right’s decisions, but also that they are unable to do anything but reciprocate that belief. There is no appeal to reason here, we need to connect to a vastly different moral landscape if we want to make our stories understood.
The gentle genius of good storytelling allows us to ease beneath the skin of somebody else, that’s how we can connect with other’s motivations. So, if you want to ignite the passions of a liberal, then weave a story that foregrounds the rights of, or harm to, an individual. If you want to reach across to someone on the conservative side, tell a story about the impact on the group or the value of the nation. Because it’s in the smallest of words or the simplest of phrases that we trigger the most dramatic responses. Or, if we ignore their moral code, it’s just the babble of white noise.
We are all storytellers, it’s what we do as human beings; but if you want to be understood by those with opposing viewpoints, you need to learn a common language. Otherwise, we will all keep on preaching to the choir.
Brett Lotriet Best is the Founder & Creative Director of EdenRage Media, check out their Immersive Storytelling work at www.edenrage.tv. Image by Dimitri Ratushny, courtesy of Unsplash.