by David B. Cozad
With competing claims heating up in the presidential election, it’s time to steel ourselves not just for conflict but for bewilderment as well. On one hand, we collectively bemoan the political (and theological) polarization in our nation. With Rodney King’s famous lament, we ask, “Can’t we all just get along?” Even if we count ourselves as partisans, most of us wish for a more constructive and civil public discourse.
Yet on the other hand, most of us find ourselves offended on a daily basis by claims coming from an opposing point of view. We ask: How could a rational person come to such conclusions? Or if you are one of those rare citizens who are truly unaligned, my guess is that you frequently wonder: How do I even begin to unpack these conflicting arguments — especially when each of them, on their own, may bear a certain plausibility?
The problem is that even our best efforts at civility and dialogue can take us only so far. Hearing and honoring the good intentions of those who feel differently from us may be an important first step toward lowering the temperature, but seldom do they change the fact that we remain in fundamental disagreement. We may come to better understand motives and perceptions in a way that makes us less likely to demonize opposing points of view, but we are still apt to regard them as profoundly (and dangerously) wrong.
In their 2007 book “Spontaneous Evolution,” Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman ask, “What if everything you think you know is wrong?” While that proposition may sound extreme, a number of pieces in the Outlook have in fact already identified what seems to be the most plausible antidote to our polarization: an epistemological humility that recognizes the limits of human understanding, the nature of sin and self-interest, and the fact that we do not see as God sees. PC(USA) pastor and college professor James Calvin Davis concluded his 2010 work, “In Defense of Civility,” by citing such a need. But perhaps the quest for such evenhandedness may also benefit from a closer look at how we come to form such strong opinions and standards in the first place.
Toward that end, some recent research findings shed light on how well-intentioned people of conscience (especially persons of strong moral standards) can come to such opposing and intractable beliefs. These findings fall in the areas of first, cognitive and neurological processes that guide moral decision-making and, second, the manner in which our processing of narrative drives our moral decision making and feeds into the phenomenon of polarization. Can this relatively new field of inquiry provide us with some tools that might augment our spiritual quest for forbearance and understanding? In the end, it brings us back to the same need for humility, but with a fuller sense of how we might achieve it in ourselves and evoke it in others.
The event that appears to have popularized such awareness was the 2012 publication of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathon Haidt (then a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia). Although Haidt’s volume presents his own uniquely helpful research findings, it also compiles nearly a quarter-century’s research by many figures in a new realm called “moral psychology.” This recent subspecialty employs traditional methodologies of the cognitive sciences in the search for a better understanding of moral decision-making. (Interestingly, the preferred subject matter for much of this research is political preference, the culture wars and — to a lesser degree — the tendency of religious groups to devolve into ever smaller enclaves of the like-minded).
The central, consistent finding is that what we think of as our rational decision-making process is, in fact, heavily influenced by intuitively driven emotions (a phenomenon called “affective priming”). Scholars such as Haidt theorize that eons of evolutionary adaptations have left us with a heavy intuitive “lean” that is instantaneously activated by any stimulus, whether it be a car pulling out in front of us or some argument of theology or politics that enters our perceptual field. This “lean” is powered in particular by the evolutionary survival need to be right, to persuade others of our rightness and to coalesce “tribally” with others of like mind. Haidt concludes that what we call “reason” arrived quite late in the developmental process, and that it functions primarily as an after-the-fact “lawyer or press agent” for these instantaneous leanings that stem from our intuitively driven emotions.
Two important qualifiers are necessary here. First, the process discerned in such research amounts to far more than the stereotypic battle between the fear-driven instincts of the primitive reptilian brain (amygdala) and the more reflective prefrontal cortex; neurologists have long known that emotion and intuition are processed in the upper regions of the brain as well, and play a crucial part in mature moral decision-making. Second, Haidt and others have shown how a variety of factors (including familial and cultural norms, group or “tribal” affiliations and even genetic predispositions in brain chemistry) point toward the possibility of distinctively different perceptual characteristics for liberals and conservatives. Any attempt to understand polarization and incivility must come to grips with these factors that so heavily influence our sifting of right and wrong, wise or foolish, friend or foe.
However, for a faith community that values the function of narrative, what should most catch our attention is the manner in which these aforementioned dynamics combine to generate narratives that organize and justify our characteristic leanings. Indeed, Haidt cites researchers and theorists who propose that when humans attempt to employ logic or reason in matters of opinion and principle, what we are in fact doing is constructing plausible narratives. With the consistent reinforcement of like-minded persons, these narratives in turn become more tightly wound and eventually are perceived by their proponents as being impregnable.
Is there a way to help partisans become more insightful (and less tribally reinforcing) about the narratives that buttress our preferences? Will a better understanding of our intuitional, emotive and predisposed leanings make us less likely to insist that we are right and our opponents are wrong? Here is the point where one would like to see some dots connected between these insights of moral psychologists, and the philosophical work of Alasdair McIntyre on how competing ideological narratives get formed.
In “After Virtue,” McIntyre analyzed classic opposing stances on various hot-button issues (abortion, federal social safety net programs and the then nuclear arms race). He concludes that for each of these issues, the arguments on either side make perfectly good sense from a logical and philosophical viewpoint. What divides the two sides, he suggests, is that each begins at a different point that seems, in the view of its adherents, to be the intuitively obvious place to begin. Adherents of each then proceed to add logically coherent layers of conclusions in order to strengthen and defend the position.
While McIntyre does not employ the word “narrative,” the process that he discerns offers a clue to understanding the narrative dilemma. First, there appear to be no grounds on which to determine that one side has chosen a better starting place than the other. But on any given matter of moral judgment, once we have constructed a narrative that seems logically consistent, we tend to assume therefore that a competing narrative must necessarily be irrational, morally deficient and less informed!
Here, then, may lie the key to making a dent in polarization and incivility. Understanding the psychological underpinnings of our leanings and the limitations of narrative “reason,” how can we in a non-confrontational manner challenge and deconstruct these competing narratives?
In a way, this query brings us back around to epistemological humility and the question posed by Lipton and Bhaerman. The authors suspect that we have reached the limits of how far our consuming need for certitude can take us, and speculate that we are in for some sort of evolutionary breakthrough in our collective processing of moral issues. But for those of us in the faith community, that insight sounds like a clarion call for “trusting in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.” (Re-reading some Teilhard may prove helpful here, as well.)
Such insights might plausibly aid us in reining in our own contributions to polarization. But can they also assist in nudging others to do their part? There is indeed some promising work being done on just that task. In particular, Harvard professor of psychology and philosophy Joshua Greene (see “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them”) proposes parameters for dialogue that might succeed in rendering truth claims more modest and self-effacing. Once again, the key lies in realizing that most such claims are narrative rather than “logical” in the true sense of the word. When proponents are calmly invited to explain the logic of their arguments, researchers find that truth claims tend to become more modest and self-effacing.
The remainder of 2016 will bring endless opportunities to practice epistemological humility in politics, culture and church. Learning to intercept the narratives — in both ourselves and others — may offer a modest step forward.
David B. Cozad, a retired pastor living in South Carolina, is currently doing interim ministry. His longstanding interest in the subject matter of this article stems from teaching experiences in the college classroom on matters dealing with social policy preferences.