Me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; me and my brother and cousins against the stranger.

–Bedouin proverb

I’d come across Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”), a social psychologist at NYU’s Stern School of Business, a few years ago when he used the learning in his field to better delineate the differences between liberals and conservatives.  Given his particular point of view, I was glad to discover this conversation he had in November with TED curator Chris Anderson.  The conversation is about how to heal our divided nation.

We’re certainly in new territory these days, and we have been over the past few years.  Americans no longer disagree with each other.  Rather, both sides see the other as despicable and evil.  Haidt cites Pew Research studies that show that we think people on the other ideological side are a threat to the nation, and that percentage is now over 50% on both sides. Yikes!

At the root of our challenge is that humans are tribal by nature, as the opening quote shows.  Haidt says this is baked into our DNA, but that we’re also capable of cooperation, trade, etc., as has been shown by the advancing of civilization.

Some ideas worth noting that came out of this discussion that I hadn’t considered:

  1. Part of the challenge is that there are two basic outlooks at play.  There’s the first view that’s cosmopolitan, has a global outlook, and generally believes in one world–Haidt thinks of it as the world John Lennon was talking about in “Imagine”.  On the other, there are people whose view of the world stops at their town, the community, their nation.  And they think those who view the world the way Lennon did aren’t just silly, but dangerous.  This tension is at play across Europe and, of course, here in the United States.
  2. There are negative effects of diversity and, particularly, immigration.  Haidt notes: “Now, diversity is good in a lot of ways. It clearly creates more innovation. The American economy has grown enormously from it. Diversity and immigration do a lot of good things. But what the globalists, I think, don’t see, what they don’t want to see, is that ethnic diversity cuts social capital and trust.” Whoa.
  3. The counter? He points to further research databases that indicate that the more people feel they’re the same, the more they trust each other, and the more likely they are to be in favor of a robust welfare state.  The key is to emphasize that, culturally, everyone is the same, i.e., we’re all Americans.
  4. Another interesting point–and I think we on the left learned this the hard way–is that, in cognitive psychology, intuition (feelings) comes first, then strategic reasoning.  Intuition forms, among other things, confirmation bias.  Which is why it’s nearly impossible to win a political argument with someone.

The good news is this: Haidt says that the way you can close the divide is to form strong personal relationships.  When you get to know people as individuals, that can change your view of the group they’re part of.  The question, of course, is how do you scale this?  Especially when it requires that effort be made to cross the divide.  Remember, too many of us see folks on the other side as downright evil. So, yeah, problem.

We’re at a point where all Americans need to figure out what can be done to heal this deep division.  I worry about the future of our republic, and I’m not sure what the path forward is.  However, I’m reminded of the words from Sade’s “Nothing Can Come Between Us”:

I always hope that you remember
What we have is strong and tender
In the middle of the madness
Hold on

Check out Jonathan and Chris’s conversation below.

Additional link:


Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.