Yesterday President Obama spoke of the need for conversations “in families and churches and workplaces” as we deal with the Zimmerman verdict. We call that Fred Whispering, and it works because it accepts how humans really think. (More)

Red Letter Law, Part III: Values, Conversations, and Change (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature revisits Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind by focusing on the death of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman murder trial. Thursday we looked at harm and fairness, the two of Dr. Haidt’s six moral foundations that progressives hold paramount. Yesterday we examined liberty, the libertarian touchstone, and the conservative core values of loyalty and authority. Today we see how our moral values steer our intuitive reasoning, and fragment the public dialogue, in the Martin-Zimmerman case.

Feeling and Thinking: the Elephant and the Rider

In The Righteous Mind, Dr. Haidt offers the metaphor of The Elephant and the Rider to describe how we make moral judgments. The elephant is your unconscious mind, what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1. The rider is your conscious reasoning, what Kahneman calls System 2. The elephant makes immediate decisions, often without our awareness. The rider is your conscious mind, forming feelings and fragments of ideas into logical thoughts.

We imagine the rider as the pilot, looking at the path ahead, evaluating conditions and consequences, and steering the elephant based on analysis and reason. Most ethicists and philosophers back to the time of Plato have said that’s how our minds should work. And because we like to believe we think well, we think that’s how our minds do work.

Yet research in neuroscience shows that only the elephant – our emotional intuition – can make decisions. Dr. Haidt argues that, as what he calls an “ultra-social species,” we evolved less to find truth than to form and maintain social bonds. For most of human history, and often still today, a group united around an incorrect idea have better survival odds than a lone individual with a correct idea. The rider of conscious thinking is less a pilot than a press secretary, selecting evidence and creating stories to justify our emotional, intuitive decisions to ourselves and others, so we can build and maintain the social bonds that help us survive.

Core Values, Feelings, and Stories

On Thursday we saw a story of Trayvon Martin’s death as a senseless tragedy that cries out for justice. Yesterday we saw a story of George Zimmerman’s life ruined by a violent teenager, a liberal media, and a malicious prosecutor. Progressives bonded around the first story, while libertarians and conservatives bonded around the second. Members of each group will insist – and sincerely believe – their story is based solely on the facts of that tragic night in February, 2012. Yet cognitive science holds that both groups’ stories are more about the feelings evoked by their core moral values:

  • For progressives, whose core moral values are harm/care and fairness, the case is about a teenager who was unfairly targeted for suspicion based on his race, killed as he attempted to fight off a man he believed might be a predator, and unfairly tried for his own death.
  • For libertarians, whose core value is liberty, the case is about a grown man’s freedom to walk around and observe people in his community, to own a gun, and to defend himself.
  • For conservatives, whose core values are loyalty and authority, the case is about a good neighbor trying to protect and serve his largely-white community, and a black teen who violently defied that adult’s authority.

In Dr. Haidt’s metaphor, progressive elephants’ feelings favor Martin, while libertarians and conservatives elephants’ feelings favor Zimmerman. Analysts and pundits in all three groups have written millions of words to justify their groups’ intuitive, feelings-driven moral judgments – based on their different core values – and reinforce their groups’ bonds.

Conversations and Change

I am not a moral relativist. I am a progressive, and I believe our core values of harm/care and fairness help create a better society for everyone. A society with liberty as its single core value will too often ignore those in need. A society with loyalty and authority as its core values will oppress and exploit out-group Others. While liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity are moral values, they are secondary and should be invoked only when they help to prevent harm, provide care, and/or foster fairness.

I’m willing to advocate for those core values, and yesterday President Obama encouraged us to do that:

And then, finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

I applaud his emphasis on conversations “in families and churches and workplaces,” what we at BPI call Fred Whispering. These one-to-one, face-to-face conversations are far more important than anything our elected leaders or media pundits can say. Leaders and pundits “preach to their choirs,” telling stories that please and unify groups who already agree with them …

… because they cannot reach other elephants. Research shows that giving people contrary evidence will not change their minds. Indeed the researchers found a backfire effect: when presented evidence that our feelings-based elephant is on the wrong path, our conscious-thinking rider constructs ever more compelling stories to defend that wrong path.

To change minds we must reach Fred’s elephant, and that requires a personal relationship that feels more important than staying on a previous path. That’s why Fred Whispering is one-to-one and ideally face-to-face, and why active listening is such an important element in that process. As we find shared values and build bonds around them, our elephants start to want to walk together … and our conscious-thinking riders find reasons to justify walking a new path.

Yes, that implies that Fred may also change your mind. I’ve learned a lot from my conversations with Freds, insights I might never have found conversing with other progressive Democratic activists. But my conversations with other progressive Democrats activists are also important, as they help me stay anchored in my core moral values. Inviting Fred into those groups also helps strengthen Fred’s values, and Fred helps to revitalize our groups.

This is what President Obama meant by “change comes from the bottom up.” That change will not happen quickly, and at times the road may seem endless. But that is our calling as progressives, a call President Obama repeated yesterday. It’s the best way to deepen and spread our progressive moral values … and the best way to honor Trayvon Martin.


Happy Saturday!