The wisdom of people who disagree with us

More people turned out to vote than in the equivalent elections last time.  Across the internet people are denouncing, arguing, celebrating and commiserating.  The last few days have been a barrage of people wanting to send some message or other, usually in the fine old Anglican phrase “preaching to the choir” – whatever their particular choir might be.

The issue I keep coming back to is, what is it with those people who think differently from me.  Those people who vote for, you know, Them!  or even worse, That Lot!!  How could they?  They must be wicked people, or perhaps very stupid.  Maybe not.

There is now interesting research into why people think differently about politics.  An excellent writer called Jonathon Haidt, coming from a secular liberal (left) American perspective, has done real research into how other perspectives think, analysing what people say matters to them, and combining that with other research into neurological reactions to stimuli.

To summarise The Righteous Mind quickly and fairly would be hard.  But in essence, progressives and conservatives are motivated by different concepts to different degrees.  Generally conservatives are more motivated by themes of sacredness, authority and tradition than progressives are.  (Although hear green people talk about the environment or anyone progressive about the NHS, you get these themes come through very strongly.)  Conservatives are interested in fairness, they just define it differently from progressives.  Progressives are a bit more interested in new experiences and a bit less alarmed by threats (brain studies show) and this suggests some ways how people can tilt one way or another in a political argument.   This is not just a nice theory, Haidt has interviewed many thousands of people.  He has graphs!

People may vote for bad reasons, or they may vote in ignorance of the issues.  Or, they may process reality differently; they may be worried by different threats, or have different definitions of fair.  One reason this matters is, all political life requires negotiation, discussion and coalition building.  If we start from the premise They are evil, we close that possibility off.  Worse still,  that makes it more difficult for us to convince them to change, or even to vote differently.

In America, political sectarianism has reached the stage where many Congresspersons have no friends in the other party, and no social links.  Many years ago, Democrats and Republicans might send their kids to the same schools in DC and their families might know each other.  Now the ideologues leave their families at home in the district to avoid such contamination.

Britain faces some pretty impressive challenges.  We need to speak truth to power but we also need to listen, and to understand how the other person may be seeing it.  Particularly if our feeling is this morning, we want them to vote differently next time.  Shouting exactly the same message, in exactly the same way, isn’t communicating and Haidt suggests it might not work.

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