I am 69 years old and have been an active observer and participant in the political process for 50 years. I think I know a lot – and maybe I do. But I recently read psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt’s analysis and my reaction to it raises a key issue, the subject of this Reflection.
Seeking to do better – to be a constructive force for change – we need to be humble before our chosen task. Why? Because every one of us is deeply immersed in the mainstream culture and, thus, in its problematic values. That is the water we swim in; the base line set of values we are weaned on as we move through our grade and test obsessed schools, and seek a vocational home in a world that honors, above all else, those who “win.”
An inevitable corollary to this deep and thorough embedding of the mainstream culture’s values is their tenacious pull in, and over, our lives. In a myriad of ways – some obvious, some surpassingly subtle – we have internalized the mainstream culture’s ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. And because we are creatures of habit, neurologically wired to do in the future what we’ve done in the past, weaning ourselves from these ways of being is enormously difficult. We push unwanted habits out the front door only to find that they have slipped back in through a side window.
That is why, when it comes to Radical Decency, one of my consistent mantras is this: We can never leave kindergarten. We need to constantly review the philosophy’s basics and always be open to seeing still another way in which the culture’s mainstream habits have reasserted themselves in our lives.
Haidt’s book reminded me of this crucial lesson in the following way.
Drawing on a massive body of empirical data, the author suggests that we humans are programmed, by evolution, to make moral judgment along six dimensions: (1) Care/harm; (2) liberty/oppression; (3) fairness/cheating; (4) loyalty/betrayal; (5) authority/subversion; (6) sanctity/degradation. He then goes on to theorize that, while liberally inclined people (like me) emphasize the first 2 areas conservatives are influenced by all 6, with a reduced emphasis on items 1 and 2.
Haidt’s analysis brought me up short. Continually exposed to the shrill, opportunistic and debased versions of conservatism (and liberalism) that dominate our politics, I too easily lose sight of the important moral considerations that motivate conservatives. My distressingly strong tendency is to dismiss the positions – even of thoughtful conservatives – as disingenuous makeweights, designed to manipulate the public’s ignorance and prejudices, so that unaccountable elites can accumulate ever-increasing amounts of power and wealth.
Haidt’s book didn’t shake my belief in a political agenda that stresses decency. To the contrary, living in a culture in which all 6 of Haidt’s moral dimensions are consistently marginalized to an ethic that rewards “winners” – those who, by whatever means, dominate and control others – Radical Decency is the strong medicine we need to effect fundamental change.
But it did remind me of how easily – like a good, card-carrying member of the mainstream culture – I judge and dismiss the beliefs of people who differ from me.
So, for example, Haidt reminds me that “sanctification” – rules and rituals such as those that enjoin Jews to eat kosher or limit their activities on Shabbat – reflects a deeply human instinct that is, at its best, a wonderfully creative way to make our chosen morality a living, day by day reality. With this understanding, I can better appreciate the reaction of fundamentalist Christians to policies that seem to disregard sanctified aspects of their lives, including celibacy before marriage, monogamy, and the holiness of procreation.
Haidt’s insights are a powerful “back to kindergarten” reminder of how easy it is to lose my decency focus; to honor its principles only with “people like me.” to say, in effect, to people I disagree with: Radical Decency is a vitally important life and world changing perspective – and as soon as you offer it to me, I will be sure to return the favor.
Needless to say, “back to kindergarten” reminders regularly come up in our more intimate relationships as well, often around our gender-trained roles.
Take Robert and Marge, for example. They totally get that they are partners – both working, raising the kids, creating a family and life. Given this understanding, Robert realizes that judging his wife’s performance is not a part of his job description. To the contrary, while their styles differ, they are both fully competent managers of the enterprise. In short, Robert (like Marge) understands the pitfalls of our cultural engrained patriarchal patterns and knows how to take effective countermeasures.
But despite their good efforts, situations such as this one occur with depressing regularity – even with Robert and Marge.
For months, the need to find a more economic phone plan had been one of those chores – on his list, in theory – which never quite getting done. Seizing the moment, she called the phone company, talked to the kids, and dealt with the problem. His response when she told him? A series of questions and suggestions: Did you think of this? Did you do that? Maybe you should have done it this way.
If we didn’t live in a patriarchal culture this interaction might be unexceptional. But notwithstanding all of the changes that have occurred over the last 40 years, gender-based authoritarian patterns reassert themselves with remarkable persistence. Raised as men, Robert (and I) slip unawares into authoritarian tones and perspectives. And when our spouses complain, we far too often plead innocence in an aggrieved tone that only perpetuates the pattern: “I was only making a suggestion.” “Why are you so sensitive?”
In other words, we men need always to remember how engrained these patterns are and how easily they can reassert themselves. On this issue, for most of us men, staying in kindergarten is vitally important.
And the women we love – equally products of our patriarchal culture – need to be humble kindergarteners as well.
If patriarchy were simply an artifact of the past, Marge wouldn’t feel oppressed by Robert’s comments. Instead, she would brush them aside as my friend did when, newly living with her romantic partner, she was given to do list as he left for work. Her response? To tear the list in two and return it to him with these words: “If you ever give me another list, I’ll be out of here so fast it will make you head spin.”
But things are seldom that simple for women. Groomed by our culture to tend to the needs of others, their gut emotional reaction to a partner’s sharp comments is, all too often, one of inadequacy. “I have fallen short.” “I have failed to meet his needs.” Consistently leaning against these engrained patriarchal reactions is important, ongoing kindergarten work for so many women.
And, for most all of us, there is the vital kindergarten work that needs to be done as we deal with the endless ways in which the culture pushes us to ride roughshod over our wants, needs and emotions:
- To hide and suppress every blemish and vulnerability – to be a winner;
- To shirk on sleep, leisure, and time with the kids – to get ahead;
- To slip into devastating self-judgment – when we fall short.
The lesson in all of this? We need – always – to remain humble before the extraordinarily difficult work of weaning ourselves from our culturally engrained habits; habits that, unawares, repeatedly pull us away from our practice of decency in our politics, our intimate relationships, our relationship with ourselves – indeed, in virtually every other area of living.
As we move through each of our days, one of Radical Decency’s great challenges is to notice the many situations in which the culture’s norms reassert themselves and, then, to lean hard against them even as we cultivate new habits of living that allow them to recede and wither.
With intention, imagination, persistence, and lots of support – who knows – we may even graduate from kindergarten. But don’t count on it!