When US psychologist Jonathan Haidt published The Righteous Mind in 2012, he himself may not have known how prescient it would be. The book’s subtitle is Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Though such divisions were clearly visible even then, they were just a foretaste of what was to come. Trump, Brexit and the global surge of populism have created more politically divided societies than at any time during the past half century.
Against this polarisation, Haidt’s book was a passionate plea for dialogue across all divides. A plea that is even more relevant today than when it was published. This is why the Initiative is proud to support Haidt’s first tour of Australia and New Zealand.
Based on psychological research, Haidt shows how people who perceive themselves as reasonable, kind and well-meaning can and do vehemently disagree with one another – especially on politics and religion.
The key to understanding this phenomenon is morality.
As Haidt puts it, “Morality binds and blinds.” On the one hand, morality allows us to form stable groups based on shared views. It brings social order to an otherwise atomistic society.
On the other hand, morality inevitably pits different groups against one another. In classic psychological experiments, even randomly assembled groups soon begin to develop animosities towards others. This process can be stronger when group membership is based on shared values or beliefs.
For Haidt, morality thus “binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle.” And worse: “It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
In his most recent work, The Coddling of the American Mind, Haidt applied his analysis to the state of American universities. He demonstrated how the moralisation of academic disputes threatens both academic freedom and students’ learning.
Haidt is one of America’s most important and innovative thinkers, contributing regularly to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. With his plea for people to disagree more constructively with one another, he has an important message for New Zealand as we deal with our own divisions.