As I See It: How Can You Think That?
October 8, 2018 Victor Rozek
While Congress, by constitutional fiat, may not abridge your right to free speech; your employer can and does. Of necessity, corporations worry about being accused of tolerating or, worse, promoting a hostile work environment. And because harassment laws draw no practical distinctions between sexual innuendo and pornography, or religious advocacy and political endorsement, or insults and threats, or jokes, cartoons, or any other form of expression for that matter, corporations generally wish you’d just shut the hell up.
Legally, corporations are liable for the aggregate of all their employees’ speech.
Even something seemingly benign, if repeated often enough by enough people can morph into some flavor of institutional discrimination. Consequently, corporations err on the side of over-suppression. Employee handbooks are full of restrictions on what you can say, wear, or do in the workplace.
But they can’t control what you think.
Sorry to say, brains are leaky organs. If you think long and hard enough, the pressure of all that thinking and the cumulative weight of all those deep thoughts will cause some of your opinions to leak out. And if those opinions are radically different from – or insulting to – your colleagues, their brains will spawn a reactive thought. It will be heaped with judgment and disdain – which they may or may not express – but which will mark you with contempt: How can you think that?
That is precisely the question Jonathan Haidt proposes to answer in The Righteous Mind, a book that, with or without humorous intent, has to be described as thoughtful. Haidt is a social and cultural psychologist, with a stubborn fascination for why people think the way they do. His specific topic of inquiry is moral psychology and his research spans from pre-historic speculation to present day trials, and incorporates the work of other notable thinkers and researchers.
In this time of extreme polarization, the tone and content of what is said in the workplace has consequences, often disproportionate to the speaker’s intent. Haidt pulls back the curtain on our righteous proclivities and explains why we are all so passionate and so stuck.
His first premise is that Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. In other words, we have an intuitive hit, a gut feeling about what’s right or wrong, good or bad, and then we supply post hoc arguments to support our feeling. For example, someone comes to work wearing a T-shirt made to look like an American flag. Are they displaying their love for the country, or are they being disrespectful to the flag? Reactions will be instantaneous, followed by all the reasoning necessary to justify the reaction. The invitation here is to question our initial responses.
His second premise is that There is more to morality than harm and fairness. Concern for fairness and care (i.e. avoiding harm) gained widespread traction after the Enlightenment and became the gold standard for liberal advocates. By comparison, Haidt notes that social conservatives have a much broader moral matrix that includes Care and Fairness but also embraces Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. (Which is not to say that these values are exclusive to conservatives, but that they hold a place of greater import). Based on these preferences, the most sacred value for liberals is “Care for victims of oppression.” For conservatives, it’s “Preserving the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community.” Thus, for conservatives, the corporation as an enduring symbol of free market capitalism that supports the community will be more important than the transitory people who work for it. The reverse will be true for liberals. Individual morality will lead to individual conclusions.
The contempt we heap on one another stems from perceived violations of our particular moral matrix. From a liberal perspective, the opposite of Care is Harm, which includes exploitation of workers and environmental degradation. The opposite of Fairness is Cheating, which for liberals includes corporations that don’t pay their fair share of taxes, and for conservatives, people who receive welfare.
For conservatives the opposite of Liberty is Oppression: government regulations fall into this category. The opposite of Loyalty is Betrayal: people who leak government secrets, championed by the left and vilified by the right. The opposite of Authority is Subversion: which could include anything from whistleblowers to disrespect for the police. And the opposite of Sanctity is Degradation: kneeling for the anthem, and the secularization of social institutions.
Finally, Haidt posits that “Morality binds and blinds.” We are, he claims, selfish and groupish creatures, and the price of admission to many groups is adopting the group’s belief system without question. That is perhaps most clearly evident in competing religious factions, but to a lesser degree it is also true in business where, for instance, the sales force is always promising things manufacturing can’t deliver. Our minds, says Haidt, “are designed for groupish righteousness,” that dismisses and disdains opposing views, and in some cases finds them threatening. The desire of employees to unionize, for example, is often perceived as a threat. Or watch the fans of a particular sports team screaming at the television when a referee’s call goes against them. Group righteousness often leads to irrational judgments about outsiders.
Why we think the way we think also has an evolutionary component. Haidt reports that: “After analyzing the DNA of 13,000 Australians, scientists recently found several genes that differed between liberals and conservatives.” (Something we long suspected from our own righteous perspectives.) Most of the differences involve two neurotransmitters glutamate and serotonin that influence the brain’s response to threat and fear. Those findings, says Haidt, fit well with many other studies that show “conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger,” and therefore put higher value on structure and security.
Still other studies implicate dopamine, another neurotransmitter tied to “sensation-seeking and openness to experience, which are among the best-established correlates of liberalism.” Liberals typically have less need for order, structure, and closure. In the workplace they may be slightly less conscientious and impeccable than their conservative counterparts.
These minute differences in DNA create an uncharted pathway along which future decisions are made: a preference for extreme, high-risk sports versus more traditional activities; leaving home to go to college overseas versus preferring to study closer to home; working for IBM versus working for Apple; writing apps versus developing enterprise systems; favoring a dog that is gentle over one that is loyal and obedient.
These tiny variances in DNA eventually produce adults who gravitate to opposite ends of the political spectrum; one championing change, the other stability. We seem to have forgotten that both are vital.
It is humbling to note that, to some degree, the way we think is not totally our fault. Or at least it is a far less conscious and well-reasoned choice than we would care to believe. Tribal moralism, so righteously defended, blinds us to the greater possibilities found in collaboration.
In his introduction, Haidt includes a poem from the eighth-century Chinese Zen master Sen-ts’an, a portion of which is reproduced below.
If you want the truth to stand clear before you,
never be for or against.
The struggle between “for” and “against”
is the mind’s worst disease.
A disease begging for a cure.