Monday, June 5, 2017

Readings about the tribalization of America — #8: Jonathan Haidt & Ravi Iyer, "How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics” (2016)

It'd help if those who bemoan America's tribalization would propose remedies. Here are two readings in a row that start to do so, albeit barely and with a narrow focus on interpersonal relations, not society's structures and processes as a whole.
Up first is Jonathan Haidt & Ravi Iyer's “How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics” (2016), published just before the election.
In it they fret that, because of "cross-partisan animosity" and other facets of tribalism, "Nearly half the country will therefore wake up deeply disappointed on the morning of Nov. 9, and many members of the losing side will think that America is doomed. Those on the winning side will feel relieved, but many will be shocked and disgusted that nearly half of their fellow citizens voted for the moral equivalent of the devil."
The authors then offer practical steps, based on three classic maxims they quote, "to turn it down, free ourselves from hatred and make the next four years better for ourselves and the country."
The first maxim is drawn from an ancient Bedouin saying: “Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” Haidt & Iyer choose this saying because it reflects that "Human nature is tribal", and because "The tribal mind is adept at changing alliances to face shifting threats". It makes sense to apply this maxim to today's hardened hate-filled America because "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."
Thus, the authors coax, "Democracy requires trust and cooperation as well as competition. A healthy democracy features flexible and shifting coalitions. 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."
Their second maxim comes from the Bible, Matthew 7:3-5, quoting Jesus: "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.”
Accordingly, the authors observe that "Our tribal minds are equipped with a powerful tool: shameless and clueless hypocrisy." The result today is an excess of what psychologists call “motivated reasoning.” Which helps explain "why partisans find it so easy to dismiss scandalous revelations about their own candidate while focusing so intently on scandalous revelations about the other candidate."
The new information technologies make matters worse, for "Motivated reasoning has interacted with tribalism and new media technologies since the 1990s in unfortunate ways."
Their third maxim is from Cicero's “On Friendship”, written in ancient Roman times: "Nature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but … this tie becomes stronger from proximity.”
What makes proximity so important, say Haidt & Iyer, is that "Humans are tribal, but tribalism can be transcended. It exists in tension with our extraordinary ability to develop bonds with other human beings." However, what's happening in today's America is that "tragically, Americans are losing their proximity to those on the other side and are spending more time in politically purified settings."
With these three maxims as background, Haidt & Iyer counsel that "If you would like to let go of anger on Nov. 9 without letting go of your moral and political principles, here is some advice, adapted from ancient wisdom and modern research." Some of the practical points they make are as follows:
"First, separate your feelings about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from your feelings about their supporters. …
"Second, step back and think about your goals. …
"[D]o what you can to cultivate personal relationships with those on the other side." …
"Another powerful depolarizing move is praise, as we saw in the second Clinton-Trump debate." So say something positive to, and about, whomever you're talking to from the other side.
In conclusion, they write, "Starting next Wednesday, each of us must decide what kind of person we want to be and what kind of relationship we want to have with our politically estranged cousins."
Theirs is a sensible reasonable effort to make helpful practical suggestions about improving interpersonal relationships — though I do not see much effect yet.

To read for yourself, go here:

[I posted an earlier write-up of this reading on my Facebook page, on April 6.]

No comments: