…and so, dear reader, let me conclude this national newsletter with one simple affirmation: the sky is indeed blue. Stay curious my friends!
Suzie: Bob, IMO, people with student-loan debt should have counted the cost of their education first. It’s basic math.
Bob: Student loans?
Suzie: Yes, you’re saying tax-payers must accept that we all live under the same blue sky. In other words, Marxism!
Bob: I was only talking about the actual sky.
Suzie: Well you sound like a Marxist.
James: Given your point, Bob, I assume you’re a Tarheel, but there’s no disclosure in your bio that you live in North Carolina.
Bob: I do live in NC, but that doesn’t turn the sky blue.
James: Uh-huh, why else would you bring up that particular color?
Bob: I’m originally from Cleveland.
James: I said what I said.
Learning to have the conversation
Ever wonder how people can disagree with your well-formed opinions? In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains. Maybe you’ve noticed that when someone stands for “x” you can probably guess what they think about “y.” If you’re honest, sometimes you just think they’re a little coo-coo for cocoa-puffs. Haidt shows how that’s probably not true.
Values drive opinions. Imagine a little boy running towards traffic. The mother grabs him by the arm, swats him on the fanny, and says, “No!” Reactions from eyewitnesses range from affirmation to disgust.
The affirmation crowd feels gratified the parent chose hurt over potential harm, instilling a healthy fear of danger. The disgust crowd is upset about the potential harm from such hurt.
Public discourse cannot seem to get under the top layer of disagreement down to the reason why we see things differently. In the scenario above, you can see the competing values of boundaries vs. compassion, physical safety vs. emotionally safety. But we’re not talking on that level. That kind of conversation rarely happens. Why not?
Speak to the elephant
Haidt’s books explains today’s predictable over-reactions with the image of a rider on top of an elephant. That is, reason riding on top of passion. For example, when you’re uncle forwards a long chain email from a four-star general under Bush or the HUD secretary under Clinton, his rider is trying to have a chat with your rider. He needs to learn to speak “elephant.”
The elephant part of our intuition is powerful and passionate and hard to convince. Once it’s headed in a certain direction, reason rationalizes that choice. A rider trying to talk reason to an elephant is a little like using a squirt gun against a fire hose.
Imagine the scenario above with the child running towards traffic. The mother has just barely snagged the child by the shirt right at the curb of a busy street. Her fight-or-flight acute stress response is fully engaged. Now imagine at that very moment a three-sentence text trying to explain the merit of using time-out instead of a spanking. Not a teachable moment.
This scene sums-up a lot of our civic discourse, reporting, and policy-making. It explains the fireworks at your family reunion and why the guy from your high-school does not actually read articles he’s commenting on.
Name the value
At risk of triggering your elephant, let’s get more specific. Most people have an opinion about the reversal of Roe v. Wade. What does each side actually value, looking at it from a neutral point of view? One side values fairness, as their elephant considers a pregnant teenage girl caught in a generational cycle of poverty. It feels to them like our culture’s rules are stacked against that girl. The other side values life inside that girl’s womb, as their elephant feels a sense of awe for human life at any stage.
With these underlying, opposite, passion-fueled reactions, each elephant’s rider goes looking for reasons to justify their elephant’s direction. These reasons become their assumed, moral basis for thinking ill of their opponent—that they’re not only wrong but ignorant and possibly evil. It’s why people talk past each other on the nightly news, social media, and around the water cooler.
Get curious about people’s opinions. Find out more. See if you can name the value under their position. Give them a wide birth to tell you about their background. Draw out their stories. Put a check on your reactions by giving them permission not to agree with you, at least for one conversation.
“The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly” (Prov. 15:14).