Despite polarized Congress, we can still reach across the aisle

Posted Oct. 07, 2013, at 1:32 p.m.

Recently I was able to find an old friend via Facebook. We were best of friends as young mothers. But then she moved away to start a new life two states away and over time we lost touch.

Thirty plus years have passed and I was excited to find and contact her. But, as a few weeks passed, my friend’s postings were troubling to my liberal perspective: Name calling, generalizations and hateful hyperbole dotted her postings from various libertarian sources that were offensive to me.

Instead of getting angry, which is what I typically did when I saw something that inflamed my sense of fairness, I hurt terribly. How could this kind-hearted person I knew years ago post such offensive opinions? How could she really believe that what she was posting was true? And if she embraced these views, how could she not hate me because I am a liberal?

Finally I commented by saying, “This is insulting to those who do not share your perspective.” She messaged me, her tone defensive, saying she wasn’t about to change and if I didn’t like it, I could unfriend her. I almost did. But instead I wrote back, simply asking if we could “dial down the rhetoric” and “have a conversation.” Unfriending, I pointed out, would simply be imitating the polarization of our Congress. To my relief, she agreed.

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In his book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” moral psychology researcher Jonathan Haidt delves into how humans evolved what he terms their “moral intuition” and our human need to “be groupish.”

Through years of research, he has identified “Five Moral Foundations” that, when placed in polarizing opposition to one another, create a lack of communication and the inability to see the other’s side. For example, one is the “Fairness/Cheating Foundation.” His research shows an age-old human revulsion to cheaters in the social system. But he points out that it’s how the person perceives cheating that causes the polarization.

He demonstrates this principle by using two protest placards as examples. From the Occupy Wall Street movement the placard reads, “Marching for the … Hungry and Homeless: Tax the Wealthy Fair and Square,” while a Tea Party placard reads, “Spread My Work Ethic, Not my Wealth.” Both perspectives deal with fairness, a basic moral foundation, but they come from very different points of view.

Much of Haidt’s research demonstrates how emotionally and viscerally ingrained these Moral Foundations are. When it comes to the opposing side of a particular foundation, we do not just simply dislike, rather we tend to have more extreme feelings such as disgust and horror. Recently in the BDN there was an article about how disgust is a human response rooted in survival that protects us from disease. Combine disgust with a political perspective and we have just created an entrenched person, regardless of political leanings, who cannot begin to see a different way because at a very unconscious level the person senses all sorts of fearful “not safe for survival” messages.

In his last chapter, Haidt challenges the reader to reach out to someone who thinks differently by going into the discussion using the Five Moral Foundations. This is what I hope to do with my friend.

How I have started is not with a discussion on where we differ, but rather where we agree. I’m certain her vision is based upon the Five Moral Foundations as is mine. Perhaps each of us can soften to a place in the middle.

When I asked my friend to be more mindful of what she is posting, she admitted that she knew the hyperbole was not the truth and she promised to be more careful. She said she did not mean to hurt me.

Whew! A door has opened. I don’t know where this dialogue will take us and I do not have the goal to convert her over to my side. My goal is to listen, to understand where she is coming from based upon the Moral Foundations and to articulate to her where I am coming from with the hope that she can hear and understand my perspective as well.

In the process, we may find ourselves closer to a middle ground. If more people in this country could do this, history might record that the dysfunction in our government has been replaced with a new and productive way of governing.

Christine Talbott of Hampden is a psychotherapist in private practice in Bangor.

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