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An Open Letter to the Generals in “The War On Partisanship”

An open letter to Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Liz Joyner, Steve McIntosh, David Blankenhorn (via IAV “contact” page), and David Brooks,

In The War On Partisanship by Rebecca Nelson, Steve McIntosh is quoted as saying “We’d like David Brooks to be able to say, ‘Here’s this interesting idea about a future left and a future right that’s a fresh way of thinking about the problem of polarization.’”

I humbly propose that the central idea McIntosh is looking for is the one I’ve been writing about ever since I reviewed the manuscript of The Righteous Mind for Jon Haidt before it was published.

A draft summary of my idea follows, a link to a longer version and the rest of my writing is below.  I hope you’ll be able to take the time to investigate both:

Jon, you recently said that your nephews and I convinced you that the problem “starts before students arrive on campus – in elementary school and at home.”  It is for that reason that I believe efforts like No Labels – while I applaud and encourage them because The War on Partisanship is a multi-front war that should be engaged on all sides – to a large degree are efforts to close the barn door after the horse is gone, and further, seem to address symptoms and effects rather than root causes.   If the problem really does begin in elementary school then that’s where the root causes, and therefore the solution, are to be found.

Many of the factors that contribute to partisanship are natural and inevitable consequences of fundamental human nature, as Jon describes it in The Righteous Mind.   But one very important factor is not.  That factor is that The Social Animal has a very poor understanding of itself.   It is essentially unaware of Haidt’s three principles of moral psychology, the moral foundations, the Rider and the Elephant, The Argumentative Theory, etc.  Liberals think morality starts and ends with care, and conservatives think there’s more to it than that but they’re not quite sure what the “more” is and they have difficulty articulating it.  And both sides are stuck in their own version of some variation of The Rationalist Delusion or emotional reasoning or naïve realism;  we basically fail at critical thinkingAs a result, many of the presumptions and assumptions we believe about ourselves and about each other –  which is to say, about human nature itself – that underlie practically all political debate, are myths.  We characterize each other as something we’re not, and then we vilify each other for being that something, which we’re not.  We even go so far as to attach entirely different, and in some cases mutually exclusive, meanings to words like liberty, equality, fairness, and justice, and then we’re baffled when the other side comes to different conclusions about how to achieve those things.  We talk past each other.  We think the other side “doesn’t get it.”  Our mutual ignorance about ourselves and about each other exacerbates partisanship; it worsens the naturally selected innate “groupishness” Jon describes in The Righteous Mind.

The solution, therefore, is to bust the myths.  Use the education system to furnish our future leaders on both sides of the political aisle with the common ground of a mutual and accurate understanding of human nature and therefore of each other; of why we think, talk, and act the way we do in the social realm.  It would not require a massive overhaul of the education system.  It would require only a module here, a module there, inserted into the current curricula of K-12 (and beyond) education in America.  I explain this more fully in my more complete thesis, linked below.

There will always be liberalism and conservatism.  I think mother nature, or natural selection, has seen to it that the compulsion toward compassion and the compulsion to preserve social capital will always exist, and therefore so too will some amount of antagonism always exist between the two sides.  And that’s a good thing.  We help each other see the planks in our own eyes.  We “check and balance” each other.   It’s how evolution wired us to operate.

But there’s no reason in the world that both of those compulsions cannot be equipped with a full and accurate grasp of fundamental human nature and an understanding of why it can be so difficult for humans of differing moralities to “all get along”  (Jon quotes Rodney King in the opening of The Righteous Mind) rather than with the myths which are to blame for so much of the partisanship and rancor we see today.  That mutual understanding could then be the common ground upon which we all agree, and thus the platform from which our political debates and plank finding can ensue.

This is where, in my opinion, efforts like No Labels fall short.  They seem to try to set issue-oriented goals and agendas seemingly without considering the underlying root causes for why people of different political persuasions see issues, agendas, and goals so differently;  and why they talk past each other. They seem to ignore the real root causes of partisanship – that left and right operate on different ground truths –  almost in a John Lennon-esque “Imagine there’s no countries, and no religions too” sort of way.  They seem to think the lion and the lamb will lie down together and partisanship will be ameliorated simply because reason tells them they should.  I think this approach, if it’s really what’s happening, sets itself up for failure because when push comes to shove people inevitably return to type, and end up mired in throwing the same arguments back and forth at each other that we’ve heard for decades, if not centuries.  Reason does not rule the passions.  The passions rule reason.

This is why my recommendation is, as Jon Haidt would say, to “talk to the elephant first,” or as Chip and Dan Heath would say, to “shape the path” through the education system.   I think a more accurate and mutual grasp of human nature on both sides of the political aisle would, as Jon Haidt says in The Righteous Mind, “drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder, and curiosity. “ (p. xviii).   In a way, what I’m recommending is to initiate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, of sorts, right from the starting gun.

As The War On Partisanship suggests, my idea won’t be easy and it won’t be quick.  But I believe that my idea identifies and addresses the real root causes of the problem of partisanship more directly and more effectively than most of the other efforts, save one.  I’ve had some conversations with Liz Joyner about all of this.  I think The Village Square comes closest to this idea, and might be its most natural home.  If I understand that effort correctly, I’d paraphrase its goal as that of teaching the human social animal about itself so that it can look with more empathy and understanding at the world it creates for itself and the other people who inhabit it.

I also think there’s more than enough material, evidence, science, behind my idea to develop it into a book, but I can’t do it alone.

With a more accurate grasp of human nature liberalism and conservatism as we currently know them will be forced to morph into precisely the “future left and future right that’s a fresh way of thinking” that Steve McIntosh would like to see David Brooks write about.  They’ll necessarily look very different from the way they look today.

I am confident that if our children had a more realistic understanding of how our righteous minds influence the way we think and how we relate with one another in the social world then future generations would have a deeper grasp of human nature and would thus be better equipped to get along, and the leaders who emerge would make better decisions and devise better social policies by virtue of an increased empathy for how The Social Animal and human civil society actually operate.

One thing’s certain: We cannot possibly expect future generations to get along unless we “shape the path” in a way that gives them a truer grasp of why getting along can be so hard to do.

Thank you,

The Independent Whig

More complete thesis here: https://theindependentwhig.com/thesis-of-the-independent-whig/

Thesis has gradually evolved during more than four years writing anonymously on related topics at www.theindependentwhig.com


4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Generals in “The War On Partisanship”

  1. I love the idea of starting early in educating our children about human behavior as it relates to our getting along or rejecting each other. But I also see many roadblocks to this approach that would have to be overcome. The first one is the goal of curriculum development. Will we be open about the ultimate purpose(s) for doing this type of teaching, including the political? Legislators, parents, educators–all of them will be leery about presenting aspects of human behavior of which they are not aware, don’t agree with, or outright reject. But let’s say we overcome that hurdle. We actually get this type of education into the schools, even in a modest way. Then the kids come home and talk about what they’re learning (although one wonders if parents and kids have those discussions anymore). Even though what they’re learning isn’t political, as such, there will be parents who are in denial (you’ve already mentioned the lack of understanding of human behavior, as adults) of those attitudes that they consider unacceptable and will not be happy about those ideas being potentially applicable to them, or will reject them completely. So I’m more worried about the parents than the kids in trying to bring understanding to our kids in this way. Am I way too worried?


    Posted by Susan Quinn | November 5, 2015, 2:36 pm
    • You’re not too worried. I think you’re 100% correct. I share your concerns.

      One of the reasons I’m blogging is to get feedback and advice like yours in the hope that it might help this initiative avoid the worst of the potential land mines. I’m crowdsourcing ideas, so to speak. Or maybe “crowdthinking” would be the better expression. I need other people to help me see the planks in my own eyes. I may be involved with The Village Square soon. Their objectives seem simpatico with mine. That will help.

      What follows could be considered “thinking out loud.” But I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, so I hope what comes through is a more or less coherent vision.

      I see this as a long, patient, persistent, cheerful, positive effort requiring attention in several areas.
      Demeanor and approach are important. I think Jon Haidt in his original TED Talk presents an excellent model to follow.

      Haidt’s other admonitions are also valuable. Talk to the elephant first. As the police chief who started the police-run peewee football league in the neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles where there has long been animosity between police and residents says, “We humanized them, they humanized us. After you humanize someone is difficult to have a dysfunctional relationship.”

      Appeal to the moral foundation of care, and to the principles and values of education. Or maybe to their inverse: We fail as parents and educators if we don’t give our children and future leaders an accurate grounding in why we humans do the seemingly crazy things we do.

      Try for small victories and build on them. The sports analogy is to win the baseball game one base-hit at a time, or the football game ten yards at a time. Maybe start with one school, or one small school system. Learn. Refine. Enhance, based on the experiences there.

      Work with educators. Develop learning objectives. Develop lesson plans for the tweaking. Develop short presentations, like TED Talks, for each of the objectives. Develop suggestions for every-day things teachers can do to help our students better understand who and what we human really are.

      Start small. Grow organically, building on small successes. Maybe find one school, or one small school system that is willing to give this a go. If successful at one place then maybe others will get on board. Maybe one day a tipping point, or a critical mass, will be reached where this effort takes off on its own.

      Maybe work with the education department of a university that’s interested in intellectual diversity of the sort Haidt’s HeterodoxAcademy.or wishes to build.

      Here’s an excerpt from my “Imagine” page (in the main menu at the top of my home page) in which I lay out this vision a little more: So here’s how I imagine we can accomplish the daunting task of ameliorating the size and venom of the political divide:

      This part of my tale applies the lessons of The Righteous Mind , in which the definition of morality is not offered until after all the necessary groundwork has been laid out in a way that prepares the reader to fully grasp its meaning:
      • Imagine if, through the course of a school year, the stories read to our preschool and early elementary school kids in class touched on the virtues and ethics related to all the moral foundations.
      • Imagine the same for the bulletin board messages about good behavior the teachers craft out of construction paper.
      • Imagine that, in the later elementary grades, by the end of the school year, the virtues and ethics of all the moral foundations were touched upon in the readings that are assigned to our kids.
      • Imagine that, upon reaching the age at which thinking about abstract concepts begins to become possible (around puberty), a module that could be covered in a day to a week of classes were to be included in English and Social Studies, in which the moral foundations and the virtues and ethics associated with each were presented to our kids, and the kids were asked to be aware of when and where the foundations, virtues, and ethics might be observed in operation.
      • Imagine that, in high school, similar modules were included in each subject to which moral foundations apply; English, History, Government/Civics, Economics, and even Health, with the added requirement that our kids write a paper, for example a book report in English or a summary of an event in History, in which they identify the moral foundations that were in play and how they influenced the action.

      That’s all for now. Maybe more later.


      Posted by The Independent Whig | November 5, 2015, 4:42 pm
      • Your passion and dedication are contagious! I am excited for you, even though I know it will be a long-term effort, a process. I try to practice the tenets that you and Jon Haidt talk about in my everyday life, and it gets more and more challenging. I admire your patience, and look forward to hearing more about your plans. I think the Village Square is heading in the right direction. Keep us posted!


        Posted by Susan Quinn | November 6, 2015, 9:46 am
      • First of all, metaphors matter. War on anything invites all aspects of generalized violence to be come part of the dialogue. Terms like peace and love and non-violence are squeezed out of the conversation. The ritualized violence of sport isn’t any better at leading the reader to conflict resolution strategies.


        Posted by Richard Onsrud | March 3, 2017, 11:25 pm

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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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