So this is it. The end of another year.
And I’ve got to admit, I can’t remember one when we have been more divided as a community (I’m speaking of my American readers here). The 2016 Election was the most rancorous election cycle in living memory. The two major parties and their electorates increasingly view the other party as the enemy in a Manichean struggle of Good vs. Evil. Righteous anger seems to be the prevailing sentiment on both sides, and it’s only getting worse. So I’d like to take this moment to suggest, or even plead for, a New Year’s resolution.
To explain what I mean, here’s a counterexample.
“No U.S. president, I expect, will ever appoint a Secretary of the Imagination. But if such a cabinet post ever were created, and Richard Foreman weren’t immediately appointed to it, you’d know that the Republicans were in power. Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.
“This opinion is presumably not shared by Foreman; you can gauge the breadth of his imaginative compassion from his willingness to extend it even toward George W. Bush, idiot scion of a genetically criminal family that should have been sterilized three generations ago.”
This quote comes to us from the relatively temperate year of 2004, and the pen of Michael Feingold. I could dissect Feingold’s hyperbole in all sorts of ways, but here I’ll simply point out that he himself perfectly illustrates the singular lack of “imaginative compassion” he ascribes to Republicans. To him, they aren’t human beings. He thinks they should be exterminated before they can do more damage.
So spoke the Nazis and the Bolsheviks; you could change a few nouns and the paragraph would read like a familiar anti-Semitic or anti-capitalist screed.
This is the failure of the imagination; reducing others whose beliefs and motivations you don’t understand to a literally subhuman category. You can use other words: barbarian, bigot, racist, sexist, hater, etc. I’ve talked a bit about this human tendency with The Syllogism:
- I am a rational/good human being.
- Because I am a rational/good human being, I believe X.
- If you do not believe X, you are either ignorant, stupid, or evil.
- Because you are ignorant, stupid, or evil, it is useless to debate with you and pointless to listen to you.
I don’t often talk about non-fiction books in this blog, but I have a book I strongly urge everyone to read, one especially appropriate to this year and our modern political climate; The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
It is written by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. Haidt is a self-described liberal, but his research focuses on morality – its emotional foundations, cultural variations, and development. To quote the blurb, “He began his career studying the negative moral emotions, such as disgust, shame, and vengeance, but then moved on to the under-studied positive moral emotions, such as admiration, awe, and moral elevation. He is the co-developer of Moral Foundations Theory, and of the research site YourMorals.org. He uses his research to help people understand and respect the moral motives of their enemies.”
Haidt basically argues that conservatives and liberals disagree because they are being motivated by different moral matrixes. When they see each other as “evil”, it’s because they don’t understand the moral matrix the other is operating from (Haidt is not a moral relativist, and does believe in evil, he just doesn’t apply the word to most political or philosophical disagreements).
I don’t agree with everything that Haidt says, but I recommend this book to everybody. Why? Because he does tremendous job of explaining liberals to conservatives and conservatives to liberals. Not in terms of specific political policies, but instead in terms of morality and ideology. He develops and works with a few axioms, two of which are:
There’s more to morality than harm and fairness.
Morality binds and blinds.
The second axiom sounds purely negative, but it’s not; rather it’s the acknowledgement that while a strong moral code can be a powerful tool for personal happiness and social order, at the same time it blinds us to the validity of competing moral codes. I could go on, but Haidt’s entire book is an exercise in the scholarly and scientific application of imagination to the problem of moral social conflict, and especially to the necessity of understanding the other side.
And this is important. Understanding does not mean agreement, and The Righteous Mind does not attempt to proselytize conservatism to liberals or liberalism to conservatives. Instead, I think anyone who reads this book will come a long way toward understanding how people he knows, family, friends, who he thinks or thought were good people, voted differently than he did in this divisive election.
If you’re a Democrat who wants to know how a good person could have voted conservative, read this book.
If you’re a Republican who wants to know how a good person could have voted liberal, read this book.
Because understanding doesn’t mean agreement, but it can help with acceptance.
And in 2017, we’re all going to need it.
Happy New Year.
Marion G. Harmon