The Righteous Mind

righteous mind book

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Published in 2012. 448 pages.

The Benevolent Dictator took his kids to work today. It was allowed, so he did it just for fun and so that they can have some idea what he does all day. This means I have a bit of time to try and present a concise review of a book which tackles a pretty complex subject.

This book sets out to do exactly what its title implies, delve into the reasons and more importantly, the impulses, which send normally sane people off the deep end when the subjects of religion or politics are raised.

Haidt’s seminal focus is in the area of moral psychology, of which I understood little before I picked up his book. Nevertheless, many of his points resonated with me even though he clearly approached the topic through a very progressive lens. Even with this caveat, and with the additional note that this is not a Christian themed book, I still think Haidt did a sufficient job of presenting his case. His case can essentially be summed up in a few quotes.

“Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

As I read this book, I was keenly aware how often my reasons for even the most minor things were crafted after my initial instinct or emotional impulse had decided that it was the direction I wanted to go in or the argument I wanted to make.

“The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.”

Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider to describe this process, The elephant represents our innate leanings, whatever they are and on whatever they are based. Our conscious mind is the rider, which serves the purpose of articulating the rationale behind that which we already believe, or at least want to believe, is true.

“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.”

This hardly bears analysis for anyone who has faith in things beyond what we see. However, our culture and our psyches are complex and so:

“Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.

Given that this is exactly what our culture has evolved into, an altar to reason, that is, it makes perfect sense that people are easily divided into vitriolic camps based on whatever their moral reasoning has deemed the true and right way.

The Internet makes this possible on a level that our grandparents could never have imagined. Even when one considers the assertion that our dogma is based on reality and science we quickly figure out how to manipulate even that. Kellyanne Conway took a beating in the media for the use of the phrase “alternative facts”, but she was closer to the truth than anyone was willing to admit:

“science is a smorgasbord, and Google will guide you to the study that’s right for you.”

This book changed the way I view Internet commentary and debate in ways I will never forget. It was very instructive on how we become relative experts and feeding our respective elephants to the point that we are not open to the truth even if it becomes abundantly clear. We simply hunker down and regurgitate our “well-established” and”factually supported” beliefs using those facts, and time devoted to collecting them as evidence that what we believe is true:

“People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything.”

To be sure, there were plenty of nits to pick in this book, but there was also lots to learn. This is the takeaway for those not inclined to go through the 448 pages:

“If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.”

That includes me. And you too.

Grade: B-

gratuitous caveat: pretty sure Haidt’s an atheist, for those who care about it. There’s still some interesting stuff here, particularly in light of this age of constant debate and vilification of people who are different from us in myriad ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A worthy muse.

Muse: As a verb, to muse is to consider something thoughtfully.

Hearth recommended a reading of the introductory chapter of the book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. She has been heavily considering the increasingly divisive and vitriolic discourse which dominates political and religious discussion in our country and thought we might find it interesting. I did find it interesting, and am planning on reading the book sometime this spring. Yes, it is pushing other planned works further down the queue.

I am inviting anyone else who has an interest in discussing such a book to join me and read the book to completion by May 1. I will post a review of the book at that time. To -hopefully- pique interest, I am including a few quotes from the introductory chapter.

“This book is about why it’s so hard for us to get along. We are indeed all stuck here for a while, so while we’re waiting, let’s at least try to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness.”

“I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to “do” morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings. But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.”

“The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images that hogs the stage of our awareness. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”

Already in the introduction, I can find areas of disagreement with the book’s author, Jonathan Haidt. The point isn’t to promote the book as a solution to the problems. What I am hoping to find within its pages is a fairly detached exposition of the situation.

Even if it fails that test, I consider it a worthy muse.

Generation Me

generation-me-book

Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before,   by Jean M. Twenge. Originally published in 2006, updtaed in 2014. 304 pages.

At first glance of the title, you might think this is a book criticizing the character and behavior of millennials. Your first glance would be wrong. While millenials are certainly a part of Generation Me, the author makes it abundantly clear that the patterns and problems this book addresses encompass generations earlier than millenials.

It’s not about the boomers either. Although they take a bit of the responsibility for the mindsets they ushered in and the insanity that followed, they were raised by a generation of parents who had mostly instilled in them the tools to live a productive, reality based life.

No, this book takes aim first at my generation ( GenX), and then subsequent generations who drank our self-interested, self-centered Kool-aid and enhanced it with steroids.This author hits on some important insights about the way most of us have been conditioned to live, how unrealistic are our expectations of life, and how we are ill prepared for the realities of the way most of us will go through life: living an ordinary existence doing ordinary things.

Unfortunately for me, my curiosity was so piqued by this author’s work, that I went looking for other articles she had written only to find that while she did a superb job of diagnosing our post-modern problem, she is no closer to a solution to it than anyone else. Nonetheless, her book has several quotable points:

Why the label Generation Me? Since GenMe’ers were born, we’ve been taught to put ourselves first. Unlike the Baby Boomers, GenMe didn’t have to march in a protest or attend a group session to realize that our own needs and desires were paramount. Reliable birth control, legalized abortion, and a cultural shift toward parenthood as a choice made us the most wanted generation of children in American history. Television, movies, and school programs have told us we were special from toddlerhood to high school, and we believe it with a self-confidence that approaches boredom: why talk about it? It’s just the way things are. This blasé attitude is very different from the Boomer focus on introspection and self-absorption: GenMe is not self-absorbed; we’re self-important. We take it for granted that we’re independent, special individuals, so we don’t really need to think about it.

This is a pretty good introductory synopsis to what follows as you read through Generation Me. It is simply expanded upon through interviews, extensive research of generational surveys, and commentary from fellow cultural critics. One of the first things we note is the way media has shaped our collective delusion with respect to our specialness:

In the animated movie Planes, Dusty wants to be a racing plane. “You are not built to race; you are built to dust crops,” his friend Dottie warns him. But Dusty enters an international flying race—and wins. In another movie released the same year, Turbo is a snail who yearns to race. Close to the finish line in the Indianapolis 500, his once-skeptical brother urges him on: “It is in you! It’s always been in you!” Turbo wins, “proving,” as Luke Epplin observes in the Atlantic, “that one needn’t be human nor drive a car to win the country’s most prestigious auto race.” Epplin notes, “The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can’t fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it’s the nay-saying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community.”

These movies are just the most recent example of the relentless cultural message to young people: you can be anything you want to be, as long as you believe in yourself. In the Google database of American books, the use of the phrase you can be anything increased 12 times over between 1970 and 2008.

Thankfully, there are parents out there who are cognizant enough of the realities of life to help temper their children’s delusions and try to guide them into a path commensurate to their abilities and talents, but for the most part, we are a generation (or three generations) trapped in a maze of circus fun house mirrors:

This ethos is reflected in the lofty ambitions of modern adolescents. In 2012, 58% of high school students expected to go to graduate or professional school—nearly twice as many as in 1976. Yet the number who actually earn graduate degrees has remained unchanged at about 9%. High schoolers also predict they will have prestigious careers. Sixty-eight percent of 2012 high school students expected to work in professional or managerial jobs, compared to 40% in the 1970s. Unfortunately, these aspirations far outstrip the need for professionals in the future; about 20% of Americans work in professional jobs, about the same as in the 1970s. Short-term ambitions fare little better: In 2012, 84% of incoming college students in the United States expected to graduate in four years, but only 41% of students at their universities actually do so. In The Ambitious Generation, sociologists Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson label these “misaligned ambitions,” and another set of sociologists titled their paper “Have Adolescents Become Too Ambitious?” Apparently the kids learned the lesson “you can be whatever you want to be” a little too well. This might benefit some, but many others will be disappointed.

Our young adult kids are in that lofty 41% of 4-year or less graduates (one graduated at age 20 and the others will be done by 22), but they did it on the cheap and at a social cost. Of course, they’ve known since they were pre-teens that none of us get to have “it all”. Despite economic realities, many people of our generation and subsequent generations have lofty career goals:

Young people also expect to make a lot of money. In a 2011 survey, 16-to-18-year-olds expected their starting salary to be $73,000, which they assumed would rise to $150,000 once they were established in their career. However, the median household income in 2009—for all adults—was $50,000, or around a third of the teens’ aspirations. Overall, young people predicted a bright future for themselves, even during the years of the late 2000s recession and its aftermath. Fifty-seven percent of high school seniors in 2012 predicted that they would own more than their parents; only 10% thought they would own less. In the 2011 survey, 59% believed they would do better financially than their parents.

Some people might argue that this is just youthful hope—after all, hasn’t every generation dreamed big during adolescence? Maybe, but GenMe’s dreams are bigger. While our parents may have aimed simply to leave their small town or to go to college, we want to make lots of money at a career that is fulfilling and makes us famous.

In other words, reality bites, and too many of us don’t know it because we’ve been fed a media diet for the past 40 years that has told us that reality is what we make it.

One of the most popular television shows among Christians from the mid-90’s until it ended in 2007, was the religious family television show 7th Heaven. The show, based on the family and life of a Christian pastor, his wife, and family of seven children was not immune to the propaganda:

In an episode of the family show 7th Heaven, 21-year-old Lucy gives a sermon to the young women in the congregation: “God wants us to know and love ourselves. He also wants us to know our purpose, our passion. . . . So I ask you . . . ‘What have you dreamt about doing?’ . . . What you are waiting for is already inside of you. God has already equipped us with everything we need to live full and rich lives. It is our responsibility to make that life happen—to make our dreams happen.” So if you want to do it, you can make it happen. But what if your dream is to be a movie star or an Olympic athlete? Or even a doctor? What if we’re not actually equipped with absolutely everything we need—say, a one-in-a-million body, Hollywood connections, or the grades to make it into med school? Well, you should just believe in yourself more. Yes, some people will achieve these dreams, but it will likely be due to their talent and hard work, not their superior self-belief.

One professor encountered the GenMe faith in self-belief quite spectacularly in an undergraduate class at the University of Kansas. As she was introducing the idea that jobs and social class were based partially on background and unchangeable characteristics, her students became skeptical. That can’t be right, they said, you can be anything you want to be. The professor, a larger woman with no illusions about her size, said, “So you’re saying that I could be a ballerina?” “Sure, if you really wanted to,” said one of the students.

The book will hardly provide revelatory information for many of the people who read here, but it is something most young people read as they strike out into the world. A little grounding is always in order so that we can do the best we can with hard work and ethical behavior within the scope of our reality.

Grade: B for good content.

 

The Problem of Pain

problem of pain The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis. Orignaly published in 1940.

It’s a question as old as time and religion themselves: How do we reconcile the truth that God is good with the counter truth that life is often filled with pain?

“If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.- p.26

With this statement at the beginning of the second chapter of his short book, C. S. Lewis begins to take his readers on a mental exercise in which we arrive at the ultimate conclusion that God is good, even when life doesn’t appear good. Good that is, from the context of what the human creature defines as good.

Lewis makes it clear that any acknowledgement of God as all knowing, all loving and all powerful must necessarily coexist with an acknowledgement that we can’t possibly be so arrogant as to assume our definitions of good, bad, right or wrong can ever perfectly match God’s. Selah.

Ultimately he comes to the conclusion that greater men and Biblical writers before him have reached, and anyone who reads here certainly knows the answer.

However, Lewis does -in contemporary language- offer many notable thoughts we can take with us as we round out our journey with him through the “problem” of pain. Pain serves a purpose and a loving one at that:

The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt.

He points out the inherent problem with assuming that God’s allowance of pain speaks to some limitation of His goodness or power:

If you choose to say, “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,” you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do  not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix them with the two other words “God can”.

On the nature of pain Lewis writes:

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.
In the end we all have a choice to make whether to glorify God in the midst of this seeming paradox which is not. The conclusion of the matter remains the same regardless of our choice:
A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.
The Screwtape Letters has no been supplanted as my favorite C.C. Lewis work on the nature of the relationship between human frailty  and the Divine.
 I always appreciate the opportunity Lewis affords me to think about things from vantage points and in ways I hadn’t considered.* Even if I had considered them, Lewis expressed it so much more eloquently.
Grade: B+
* Speaking of eloquently expressed questions of life and faith, I will leave y’all  with the question my husband asked me today on the nature of pain and grief:
“How much more time would any one of us need with our  loved ones where we would say was ‘long enough’ before they leave us? How much more would we be satisfied with?”

 

 

 

Character Building

booker-t-washington-reputationIn keeping with the theme of  books by men who were committed to true education rather than simply  filling the head with facts, I give you Character Building,  by Booker T. Washington.

This is actually a series of 37  lectures Washington gave to students at The Tuskegee Institute, which he founded in 1881. Most of those students were dispatched around the South to start new schools to educate Negro* children.

Fun fact: The elementary school I attended was founded in 1888 by a couple who had attended Tuskegee Institute. By the time I got there in the 1970’s, it had been long sucked in to the public school system, but it still bears its original name.

You can read Character Building for free here , as is true of almost all of Booker T. Washington’s writings.

Almost nothing that Washington says here would be readily accepted or embraced by today’s university students. There would be cursory nods given to portions, but Washington was far too invested in personal responsibility, discipline, and moral uprightness as a precursor to a good life for today’s generation at large, and today’s black culture in particular.

I stress today’s black culture because there was a true and excellent, a golden age if you will, of black American culture. One that is mostly absent today. Indeed, Washington’s understanding of what a good life entailed was much simpler, far less glamorous, and required more hard work than today’s culture would tolerate.

Rather than blather on, I’ll give you man’s words for himself, with the hope that you will be inclined to read further. On the uselessness of dwelling on negatives:

It is often very easy to influence others in the wrong direction, and to grow into such a moody fault-finding disposition that one not only is miserable and unhappy himself, but makes everyone with whom he comes in contact miserable and unhappy. The persons who live constantly in a fault-finding atmosphere, who see only the dark side of life, become negative characters. They are the people who never go forward. They never suggest a line of activity. They live simply on the negative side of life.

On the importance of thinking:

Now no individual can help another individual unless he himself is strong. You notice that the curriculum here goes along in three directions along the line of labor, of academic training, and of moral and religious training. We expect those who are here to keep strong, and to make themselves efficient in these three directions, in each of which you are to learn to be leaders.

Some people are able to do a thing when they are directed to do it, but people of that kind are not worth very much. There are people in the world who never think, who never map out anything for themselves, who have to wait to be told what to do. People of that kind are not worth anything. They really ought to pay rent for the air they breathe, for they only vitiate it. Now we do not want such people as those here. We want people who are going to think, people who are going to prepare themselves.

On the importance of respecting authority (uh-oh!):

Some of you are going to find it difficult to obey orders. Sometimes orders will be given you which you think are wrong and unjust. Perhaps orders will be given you sometimes that really are unjust. In that respect no institution is perfect. But I want to learn this lesson in respect to orders – that it is always best to learn to obey orders and respect authority – that it is better ten time over for you to obey an order that you know is wrong, and which per- haps was given you in a wrong spirit or with a mistaken motive. It is better for you to obey even such an order as that, thank it is for any individual to get into the habit of disobeying and not respecting those in authority.’

Make up your mind that if you want to add to your happiness and strength of character, you are, before all things else, going to learn to obey. If it should happen that for a minute, or five minutes, one of your fellow students is placed in authority over you, that student’s commands should be sacred. You should obey his commands just as quickly as you would obey those of the highest officer in this institution. Learn that it is no disgrace to obey those in authority. One of the highest and surest signs of civilization is that a people have learned to obey the commands of those who are placed over them. I want to add here that it is to the credit of this institution that, with very few exceptions, the students have always been ready and willing to respect authority.

On staying busy, out of trouble, and the virtues of country life. I am resisting the urge to paste this entire chapter. If you read nothing else, read this:

A large proportion of you are to go from here into great cities. Some of you will go into such cities as Montgomery, and some, perhaps, will go into the cities of the North-although I hope that the most of you will see your way clear to remain in the South. I believe that you will do better to remain in the country districts than to go into the cities. I believe that you will find it to your advantage in every way to try to live in a small town, or in a country district, rather than in a city. I believe that we are at our best in country life-in agricultural life-and too often at our worst in city life. Now when you go out into the world for your-selves, you must remember in the first place that you cannot hold your-selves up unless you keep engaged and out of idleness. No idle person is ever safe, whether he be rich or poor. Make up your minds, whether you are to live in the city, or in the country that you are going to be constantly employed.

In a rich and prosperous country like America there is absolutely no excuse for persons living in idleness. I have little patience with persons who go around whining that they cannot find anything to do. Especially is this true in the South. Where the soil is cheap there is little or no excuse for any man or woman going about complaining that he or she cannot find work. You cannot set proper examples unless you, yourself, are constantly employed. See to it, then, whether you live in a city, a town, or in a country district, that you are constantly employed when you are not engaged in the proper kind of recreation, or in rest. Unless you do this you will find that you will go down as thousands of our young men have gone down-as thousands of our young men are constantly going down who yield to the temptations which beset them.

Refrain from staking your earnings upon games of chance. See to it that you pass by those things which tend to your degradation. Teach this to others. Teach those with whom you come in contact that they cannot lead strong, moral lives unless they keep away from the gambling table. See to it that you regulate your life properly; that you regulate your hours of sleep.

Have the proper kinds of recreation. Quite a number of our young men in the cities stay up until twelve, one and two o’clock each night. Sometimes they are at a dance, and sometimes at the gambling table, or in some brothel, or drinking in some saloon. As a result they go late to their work, and in a short time you hear them complaining about having lost their positions. They will tell you that they have last their jobs on account of race prejudice, or because their former employers are not going to hire colored help any longer. But you will find, if you learn the real circumstances, that it is much more likely they have lost their jobs because they were not punctual, or on account of carelessness.

On keeping good company and being content at home:

You cannot hope to succeed if you keep bad company. As far as possible, try to form the habit of spending your nights at home. There is nothing worse for a young man or young woman than to get into the habit of thinking that he or she must spend every night on the street or in some public place.

On what it means to be truly educated:

I want you to get it firmly fixed in your minds that books, indus-tries, or tools of any character, no matter how thoroughly you master them, do not within themselves constitute education. Committing to memory pages of written matter, or becoming deft in the handling of tools, is not the supreme thing at which education aims. Books, tools, and industries are but the means to fit you for something that is higher and better. All these are not ends within themselves; they are simply means. The end of all education, whether of head or hand or heart, is to make an individual good, to make him useful, to make him power-ful; is to give him goodness, usefulness and power in order that he may exert a helpful influence upon his fellows.

The great Booker T. Washington offers practical, simple wisdom in these lectures to  young people so blessed to be under his tutelage barely one generation removed from slavery. Some of it seemed so rudimentary as I read that were I not privy to what has become of us in this era I would marvel that he bothered to lecture on the subject. It’s timeless.

Grade: A

* I use the word Negro when reviewing works written by black authors of the Harlem Renaissance and earlier generations because that is the word they used. I will most often use the terminology and language of the author. Except for African-American. I will never use that. Black is as far as I am willing to go.

A Grief Observed

a grief observedA Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis. Originally published in 1961 under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk. You can read it for free here.

This was one of only two of C.S. Lewis’ non fiction works that I had never read. As I read through this very short journal that Lewis used to process his grief in the wake of the death of his beloved wife, I was struck with two thoughts.

The first was that for a man who was married so late in life for so brief a time, he had a very deep and rich perspective on the one flesh relationship. Perhaps this was precisely because he was married so late in life for so brief a time.  The second was that this was the stuff Lewis jotted down in a journal at night, at least this was often how the musings seemed to read, as he writhed in the agony of grief and bewilderment that a good God would allow such suffering and pain in the life of His children.

Who writes so eloquently at a time like this, while banging on Heaven’s door only to feel as if he’s not getting a response?

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?

The disquieting and discomfited feeling of wondering whether everything you have grown to believe about God could possibly true is palpable in Lewis’ journal. One of the most true and pitiful thoughts was that we often, in our distress, forget completely about the one we are supposedly distressed for. Their pain, their suffering (or the end of it) most assuredly takes a back seat to our feeling about the matter. Lewis realized how horrible that was, but at least he acknowledged it:

For the first time I have looked back and read these notes. They appall me. From the way I’ve been talking anyone would think that H.’s death mattered chiefly for its effect on myself. Her point of view seems to have dropped out of sight. Have I forgotten the moment of bitterness when she cried out, ‘And there was so much to live for’?

As Lewis determines to buy no more notebooks in which to chronicle his grief, it reminded me of how David came full circle in the Psalms:

And now that I come to think of it, there’s no practical problem before me at all. I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them. Indeed, H.’s death has ended the practical problem. While she was alive I could, in practice, have put her before God; that is, could have done what she wanted instead of what He wanted; if there’d been a conflict. What’s left is not a problem about anything I could do. It’s all about weights of feelings and motives and that sort of thing. It’s a problem I’m setting myself.

I don’t know how many times I myself have said the very words indicated in bold above, and I am nowhere near the thinker or writer that C.S. Lewis was. Those who know me well have certainly heard it often enough, and it really is what life is all about when you get down to it. It can be a bitter pill, and it does nothing to alleviate our immediate suffering, but it’s good medicine that heals the soul and gives us purpose as we move forward through the challenges of life.

I give this book and A, but certainly not because it’s anywhere near the best C.S. Lewis book. It isn’t. I give it an A because if there were ever such thing as a philosophical rock star, Lewis fits the bill. And if there were ever such a thing as a literary groupie, then I have fit that bill in regards to Lewis for a good long time now.