Why it's hard to talk about The Righteous Mind

It's strange: Most everyone at the Reading Through It Book Club last night agreed that Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion was the most useful book we've read so far in our quest to understand the presidency of Donald Trump. One book club member even said that she felt if she had read The Righteous Mind before the election, she'd probably have been able to predict that Trump would win. Just about everyone loved the book.

But the thing is, The Righteous Mind is an incredibly difficult book to discuss. Haidt digs deep into theories of division and supposition and morality. With remarkable clarity, he explains why we believe what we believe. But when I try to explain what Haidt proves in the book, I'm left repeating bland platitudes: You must find common ground in order to bridge political gaps. Our beliefs aren't constructed solely on logic. We place ourselves in ideological bubbles, and we use confirmation bias to "prove" our beliefs to ourselves.

You see? This is all stuff you've heard before. But the depth of Haidt's arguments is what matters. He's a dense thinker who can convince a reader to reassess even her most closely held beliefs.

Sure, Haidt demonstrates a deft mastery of metaphor. Book club members throughout the night employed some of Haidt's best images as shorthand for real-world phenomena. We referred repeatedly to taste buds of morality, and talked about riding an elephant as a metaphor of what it's like to guide our own worldview through the real world. In the end, though, I felt as though the comments I brought to the discussion never truly lived up to the high quality of the book.

But over the course of the evening, I realized that what we were saying mattered less than how we were saying it. For maybe the first time since our book club first got together, we were sincerely discussing actively reaching out to Trump voters, and understanding them as human beings. Statements didn't carry the same disgust, or outrage, or confusion that it has in months past. The number of conversations relating to how "we" are going to get "them" to think "our" way declined dramatically.

What the book club last night demonstrated was Jonathan Haidt's theory in action. By reading a book about how to have conversations, our conversation changed. It was a remarkable proof of the healing power of books, of the way a very sharp thinker can take a worldview apart and put it back together again, better than before.

One of the book club members last night discussed this TED appearance by Haidt as a great update to the ideas in The Righteous Mind. If you haven't read the book, this video should convince you to check it out:

The next Reading Through It Book Club meets at Third Place Books Seward Park on Wednesday, June 7th at 7 pm. We'll be discussing Masha Gessen's The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. It's free. I hope you'll join us.