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Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Third Story

An elephant crashing through the jungle undergrowth with a dizzy rider hanging on by the finger nails.   Jonathan Haidt bases much of his argument in The Righteous Mind on an analogy depicting human reason as a small rider whose elephant is wildly out of control.  

So what is the elephant?  All the agenda-funnelled assumptions that motivate "forward."   Haidt identifies emotion, alliances, teams, gendered affiliations, coalitions, and maintaining a reputation as the elephant.   We now have opposing teams that no longer have members whose values overlap.  The tribal ridicule and rhetoric and moral division shoves out a space for moderates who once mulled each side over, fence sitters who crossed over into enemy territory and stumbled upon shared values

Maybe genuine discussion cannot happen because the elephant is deaf to certain appeals?   That seems to be Haidt's view.  Far from the lofty goal of truth seeking, most people seem content with reaffirming an alliance, repeating the party line, holding subjectively defended territory.  Do we accept any grounds as sufficient?   When I do see debate occur, I notice the willingness to credit any claim-- so long as any expert can be trotted out. Haidt lists six origins for moral impulse: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.  

He identifies a short list of priorities or values of members who align as progressive-- care, fairness and liberty-- and a longer, more inclusive one for conservatives who cherish as well loyalty, authority and sanctity.   The elephant is seriously committed to certain impulses, charging over opposing values with reckless abandon.  Haidt acknowledges that progressives like himself typically are less interested in recognizing the claims of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. 
Sensing the elephant in the public "room," people now mostly avoid the effort required to carry on genuine dialogue, recognizing the difficulty of appealing to the elephant.  In his book, Difficult Conversations, Douglas Stone, et. al.  shows how assumptions frame information and determine how it gets interpreted.   We all know this, but the book gives  examples of conversations to show how conflict typically plays out and how we can reserve judgement, try to imagine the other person's reality, and prolong a nonblaming frame of reference while collecting information.  

A practical-minded approach, Stone's goes further than Haidt to illustrate the slow listening needed to tame the elephant; whereas, it is more common to see single-commenters dash in and out of a conversation.    If we were to diagnose our public debates from his perspective, Stone would no doubt point to the blame game that anchors much public talk.   

Maybe we need is conversation police--or at least referees to call foul when there is distraction, transference, or other forms of erroneous thinking derailing our public debate.  Instead, we often see today a more pronounced taking of sides and ganging up--both in online discussions and in mainstream media.  Stone refers to the necessity of a third story--one that is not anchored to any position but mediates the conversation by describing the facts as a third party not directly involved might.  There is no third available these days.


the philosopher's daughter


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