Righteous Minds

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 12 January 2014 - Audio available

We began with a brief video of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preaching about moral courage at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta Georgia, five months before his assassination.

It’s hard, isn’t it, to see the footage in that video:  The faceless Ku Klux Klan in their white robes and pointed hats, the police with their dogs and their water hoses menacing African Americans who are standing up, marching for their civil rights.  It is hard to understand how one group of people can band against another group of people and believe that what they are doing is right, that it somehow serves humanity.

Many years ago, a friend of mine put together a photography exhibit using historical photos set into frames.  Each photo depicted a different historic moment, and each frame was equipped with a little wooden door that closed off part of the picture.  As you looked at each photo, you would see what seemed to be a normal scene: a crowd out for a Sunday stroll or a family at a picnic.  But open the little door to the frame and the full context would be revealed:  A limp figure hanging by a rope from a tree; a black man hanging lifeless while white spectators enjoyed their day.

As Billie Holiday would write and sing:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees

What shock, what horror, these stories, these pictures, this film footage.  How else can we react than to see these white American Southern spectators as inhuman, just as they saw the men they hanged as not human?  What keeps us, us right here, from crossing that line?  What could ever have made it possible for those spectators to walk into that horrible place and see it as acceptable? 

I think of a friend who confessed that she has remained silent here, right here in this city, as racist jokes were told in a large group.  She knew that she would be the single voice to speak out, and she was afraid of the reaction of her friends.  She remained silent.  How often have any of us stayed silent to protect ourselves?  How many of us can really say that we have never, ever found our moral courage lacking?

I’ve recently immersed myself in this book by Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “hite”) called The Righteous Mind.  Haidt is a moral psychologist who talks a lot about how our minds work and how we have evolved to be both selfish and social or, as he says, “groupish” beings.  He talks about the difference between liberals and conservatives and how people in each group are actually wired to see the world differently.  He also talks about our predisposition to react with our intuitions first; that it is a delusion to imagine that we can be dispassionate, rational beings.

There’s one particular story that Haidt included in his book that reviewers love to reference.  It’s purely fiction.  A brother and sister, both adults, are on vacation and decide to get to know each other – in the biblical sense.  It is an informed choice they make together, neither one forcing the other.  They take precautions.  So is this wrong?  Finding the single, moral answer to this question is not what Haidt’s book is about at all.  He purposefully wrote this and other stories for a research project to be as distasteful as possible (these are stories you really wouldn’t want to hear on a Sunday morning).  But Haidt wanted to test a theory that we humans do not have an inborn, single sense of what is moral. Through his research he was able to demonstrate that morality is in fact different from culture to culture and within societies. Our response to the question, “Is this morally wrong?” is very much dependent upon what culture, what place, we come from. 

Chances are, if you are from a Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic culture (which happens to conveniently spell the word “weird”) you are likely to say that what matters in any given situation is that no harm be done.  If no one is hurt, then individuals should have the right to do what they want, even if it seems bizarre to us.  Sure, it may make us uncomfortable that a woman secretly uses our national flag as a rag to clean her toilet, but if no one sees her, then what harm has really been done?

If you are not from a Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic culture, your answer is likely to be very different, according to Haidt’s research.  In other cultures there is a strong feeling that people’s individual actions can be harmful to the whole of society — even if those actions do not directly hurt someone or aren’t seen in public. There is a strong cultural sense that rules about the sanctity of the body or the flag, respect for the order of things, protects the community and holds together the whole social fabric.

So who are we, as evolved human beings? Are we capable of the worst, just as we are capable of the best in our nature?  What is morality and how do we understand the morality of others who do not see the world as we do?  “Take the log out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)  Easier said than done.

I want to assure you that I am not going to argue that those white Southern families were simply innocent victims of the cultural morality that they had been born into.  But I have this need – I have always had this need – to understand why we humans can band together to do the unspeakable. I want to know how I can change the mind of someone who stands firmly in opposition to the very things I value and hold dear. 

And I have always wanted to find this Holy Grail, to find the answer to how we can rise above our own selfishness and the culture that we live in, to rise above the culture that can blind us or keep us from having the courage to do what we know in our hearts to be right. Do you know what I am saying?  Has nature played a cruel trick on us, making us more heartless and selfish than we’d like to admit? 

Jonathan Haidt says we are less rational than we like to imagine. Our conscious minds are like a rider on an elephant.  He carefully demonstrates how clearly our rational minds function in service to the rest of us, to the large elephant that is really made up of the intuitions that come first in our response to everything.  We are constantly reacting intuitively to everything around us without realizing it, without thinking about it.  This is the great elephant our rational mind tries to control.  The elephant leans toward things or away from them.  We like or we dislike, we agree or we disagree on a gut level first, then we consciously think.  Our reaction comes first, and then we rationalize to convince ourselves that we are right, without even realizing that’s what we’re doing. If you remember me talking about the work of behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman and System 1 and System 2 thinking, Haidt confirms that the elephant and the rider are the same thing.

Haidt gives a simple example of his wife criticizing him for having put dirty dishes on the wrong place on the kitchen counter.  Before she’s even finished asking him to put the dishes somewhere else, he’s automatically concocted a story about why he misplaced the dishes, and he’s convinced himself he’s right – even though he has to later admit he’s told himself and his wife a lie.  But we never do that, right?

Imagine someone you distrust walking up to you.  Honestly, can you feel your inner reaction?  Now imagine that person saying something you might even agree with.  Are you already predisposed to discount what they have to say? Are you now telling yourself a story about why your negative response is reasonable?

I have this image of all of us riding around on these big elephants that we can only partially control.  Consider it a game of polo on elephants.  There are scientists who say that we are in this game exclusively for our selfish needs.  In fact, Haidt says, what others think of us matters to us more than anything else.  Appearance and reputation are everything.  Even when we say we don’t care, we do. To admit to this would be to reveal our weakness, but Haidt assures us that every one of us is motivated this way, except for sociopaths who are incapable of caring. If you want to create an ethical society, Haidt says, just make sure “that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behaviour will always bring bad consequences.”

One thing that Haidt says that really stands out for me is just how very hard it is for us to change our position on things.  We have these intuitions that firmly tell us what is right and what is wrong. Those intuitions can be as far as possible from reality, but that doesn’t matter. It is still very rare for us to be able to change those basic gut feelings on our own, through our own rational thinking.  Even the philosophers and thinkers we choose to follow give lip service to the stories we tell ourselves.  This is how people can be so woefully misinformed.

Here’s the reality.  If we come from very different sides of the political spectrum or a particular issue, we will never persuade each other through argument. Never, Haidt says.  Give it up.  We simply get more entrenched in our positions.  We recoil at each other’s pressure.  Our elephants have already made up our minds for us.  And yet, the only way to change our gut feelings is through our interactions with other people – if we trust them, if we have admiration for them and want to please them.  Then the rider can start to move the elephant in another direction.

You can’t change the elephant itself, but you can change its environment.  That’s the good news.  We have not evolved as disconnected individuals.  We have evolved as families, as tribes, as communities, as societies.  Forget about survival of the fittest individuals.  Historically, groups of humans that learned how to cooperate in times of stress survived, while groups of competing individuals died.  Even religion — or especially religion, which has gotten such a bad reputation among some evolutionary biologists — has had a central, evolutionary purpose, says Haidt.  People survive when they are bound together. Tribal beliefs served – and still serve – to bring the community together in competition with other communities. Religious emotion and expression moved people into the realm of the sacred, allowing the self to disappear into the service and creation of community. It was the solution to creating cooperation without kinship.

This can be both wonderful and dangerous.  Haidt argues that we are not saints.  We have evolved to care about our own tribes and not about the tribes of others.   He says people are happiest when they are in groups of people who look, act, sound and think like them.  Diversity makes it very hard for people to bond with each other.  And there, of course, my own inner elephant is thrown off balance.

Our tendency to seek out our own group, our “groupishness”, if you will, has made us humans do terrible things.  We are social for selfish reasons, for the supremacy of our own group.  Yet, says Haidt, this is also “one of the magic ingredients that made it possible for civilizations to burst forth, cover the Earth, and live ever more peacefully in just a few thousand years.”

In the United State, racial segregation was made illegal in 1964, but it would take many years, and the assassination of Dr. King, before public opinion and action would really change direction. Apartheid ended in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa. These are but two examples of change, of one group taking its rightful place beside another. There is still so much more that needs to happen for true economic equality in both countries, but still, most of us look back and can’t believe such systems ever existed. Sadly, I know we can each name examples of injustices, of one group denying the rights of another, all over the world.

Can we ever rely on the reasonable and rational behaviour of humans?  I think of those people in my friend’s photos, sitting happily in the park, the reality of the day hidden by a little wooden door.  How many participated with regret and disgust, but remained silent?  How many truly bought the myth that their people were superior, and that what happened was for the good of the overall society?  Do not vilify the other side, Haidt warns.  “If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants… Empathy is an antidote to righteousness.”  I ask myself, if I had been there, what would I have done?

“One day some great opportunity stands before you,” says Dr. King, “and calls upon you to stand up for some great issue, some great cause, and you refuse to do it because you are afraid.  …Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90, and the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.  You died when you refused to stand up for right.  You died when you refused to stand up for truth.  You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”

Here’s to life and moral courage with empathy.

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