On February 19, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and New York Times columnist Peter Wehner sat down—remotely—with Cherie Harder of the Trinity Forum, for an extended conversation on healing our fragmented society. The Trinity Forum seeks to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, to offer programs like this online conversation to do so, and to come to better know the Author of the answers. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Cherie Harder: One of the questions it seems that we all have to wrestle with is how to understand and respond to the deep divisions that have, especially over the last year, so poisoned relationships, split families, fractured our society, and even undermined the practices of our democracy such that the secretary of state recently called domestic division our greatest national-security vulnerability. How do we contend with the fear and the anger that we encounter both in our personal relationships and in the public square? And how do we envision and encourage means of bringing hope and healing to a hurting culture? Obviously, these are thorny issues, and there’s no easy answers to them, but it’s hard to imagine two people who have wrestled with those questions with more intellectual rigor, insight, or grace than our guests today.
Both of our guests are public intellectuals who hold very different religious and political convictions. They’ve both written prolifically, and sometimes provocatively, on controversial issues, and they’ve also developed a friendship over a shared commitment to the topic before us.
Deep Divisions and Social Media
Cherie Harder: We’ll just dive right in. Jon, as you know, there have always been divisions in the country. But you have argued that there is something different going on now: that the cleavages are not only deep but different in nature—more ideologically extreme but less coherent, and perhaps arising less out of a loyalty to a group or idea than simply an aversion to the other side. What’s going on?
Jonathan Haidt: I’ve been concerned about political polarization and how nasty things were getting, and my original research was on how morality varies across cultures or nations. Around 2004, I switched over to looking at the Left and the Right, which were becoming like different nations that lived in different worlds. And things have gotten a lot worse since then. There are many reasons, but I think the number-one reason why things just got so weird in the 2010s is changes in the media ecosystem.
The mid- to late twentieth century, the era of broadcasting, was the anomaly: for a brief time, there were only a few places—three major networks—where most Americans got most of their news. Before then, newspapers were partisan and nasty. And after that brief respite, you get narrowcasting: cable TV, with Fox News in particular having a big impact on Republicans. And then you get the internet. And now we have a situation where anybody can find “evidence” for any conspiracy they want to confirm.
Then came social media, and the key thing that I’ve been focusing on is the way that social media changed between 2009 and 2011. Before then, it wasn’t very polarizing. It was just, “Here are my friends, and here are the bands that I like.” But then Facebook adds the Like button; Twitter adds the Retweet button. Now, suddenly, both platforms are really engaging their users, and they use algorithms based on that engagement to optimize the news feeds for engagement. Engagement is driven by passion—and, most typically, anger. Social media connects us, which you’d think would be good. Historically, it’s good to be connected. But it connects us in a bizarre way: whatever we say is being rated by strangers. Now we are not just talking to each other, we’re also talking to strangers who are having opinions about us. This is changing the gravitational force of the social universe. Everything got weird after 2012.
The Epistemic Crisis
Cherie Harder: It seems like now, along with our polarization, we’re not only divided over what is right or wrong, but increasingly over what is true or false. Why are we having such a hard time sorting out what has actually happened? And what happens when we the people can’t figure out reality?
Pete Wehner: A lot of bad stuff happens. If you have an epistemic crisis, if you can’t agree on what’s true and false, if you don’t have a common set of facts, a common understanding of reality, then self-government gets very, very difficult because persuasion becomes impossible.
Social media added a kind of jet fuel to all of these issues, but the soil was, in a sense, prepared for some of this bad stuff to happen. The trend of polarization has been in motion for many decades. We’ve had geographic sorting. We’ve had two-party sorting. When I was growing up in the 1980s, you had liberal Republicans like Chuck Percy, Bob Packwood, and Mark Hatfield, and you had conservative Democrats like Joe Lieberman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. You don’t have that anymore. So the two parties began to polarize, and that was a problem. And then you have alienation, a loss of authority, isolation.
The social soil was ready for some of these more pernicious seeds to take root. The political conversations I have with people today are just profoundly different than they were fifteen or twenty years ago. Some of it is located in what Jon mentioned: conspiracy theories have always existed, but now people can create a community online that lives in a different epistemic universe. Links that people send each other: well, seeing things online makes it feel as though those things have the force of authority. There is also a phenomenon called affective polarization: what now binds people to their political tribe or religious tribe is not primarily a feeling of affirmation for their side as much as a distrust, alienation, and hatred for the other side. We demonize each other; we dehumanize each other. In the past, there would be a sense of, “look, we disagree on issues,” but it wasn’t an indictment of a person in terms of their character. Now it is, and our modes of discourse fortify those impressions we have of each other.
We don’t disagree more about policy matters or ideas, we just hate each other more.
Jonathan Haidt: The interesting thing is that Americans are not getting more polarized in terms of their beliefs about issues. We’re not really further apart. The polarization is affective—that is, it’s emotional. We don’t disagree more about policy matters or ideas, we just hate each other more. And that’s really important to keep your eye on, because when you really hate someone, you will believe anything that casts them in a bad light; you’re less likely to check sources. You could say that this made us uniquely vulnerable to Russian manipulation, but it turns out, the Russians, you know, they put some fake stuff in, but they didn’t actually need to put fake stuff in. They didn’t need the bots. We were doing this to ourselves more effectively than they could. A big study at MIT showed that basically Americans hated each other so much by 2016 that they used whatever ammunition they had.
The other new thing is the power of massively distributed video production. Watching a video about a conspiracy theory, with someone explaining it, tends to create a greater affective response than, say, reading a mimeographed sheet about that conspiracy. So the affective polarization, the hatred, is way up, and that drives everything else.
There are a couple of additional reasons for this increase in hatred. There are actually so many of them that it’s a really fun time to be a social scientist, and a really scary time to be an American. The media change that we were talking about is the first thing. The second major factor is the loss of a common enemy. The best way to unify people is to have Pearl Harbor be attacked, or to have a 9/11; throughout the twentieth century we had very clear enemies, and after 1989, thank God, that ended. And without a common enemy, things kind of come apart. Third, rising education levels are a risk factor for polarization: people with a college degree are much more involved in symbolic issues, while working-class people are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues. They’re less likely to get all involved in the nuclear freeze, or in things that don’t directly concern their interests. Fourth, there’s rising diversity. We had very low diversity and very low immigration for much of the twentieth century. And while diversity is great in many ways for the economy and for cultural and industrial creativity, it can reduce social capital and trust unless managed very, very well. And we have not often managed it very, very well.
Rising education levels are a risk factor for polarization: people with a college degree are much more involved in symbolic issues, while working-class people are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues.
So we have a more educated public on a more outrage-inducing media platform, without any common enemy, and with eroded levels of social capital and social trust. And now we are each others’ enemies. We’re always going to do the good-evil game, but we do it against each other rather than aiming it externally. And all this has come to a head.
Foundations of Identity
Cherie Harder: So our politics are growing much more extreme, but our identities are also growing more linked to our politics. I think it was a colleague of Jonathan’s who did a study recently which found that what used to be the foundations of our identity, the “unmoved movers,” were our religion, ethnicity, and gender identity: these shaped our politics. Now, the force is frequently in the other direction: political identity is primary, and politics can change those other identities. What has thinned out our nonpolitical identities such that they are now increasingly subsumed by the political?
Pete Wehner: There has been an attenuation of what might be called identity-forming institutions in people’s lives. Church is one of them, although it’s not the only one. Part of that is a broader trend of mistrust toward institutions and a movement toward radical, extreme individualism. And that’s a philosophical current that’s been in motion for a long time, but picked up a lot of momentum, particularly in the mid and late 60s. It wasn’t a trend that was without benefits. Some tremendous injustices were corrected by this movement. But I think it went too far. People became isolated, and institutions don’t have the shaping influence that they used to have. And then a lot of the people who run institutions, whether they’re political, religious, or educational, view them, as our friend Yuval Levin has talked about, as performative rather than formative. We have people leading institutions who don’t see their task as soul-shaping; instead, these institutions are platforms for their own performance.
So the institutions began to fail in their tasks of identity formation, and at the same time, political movements and parties began to take over those tasks. I’m sure you’ve both had this experience: when you have conversations about differences on political issues today, frequently you get a sense with a lot of people that they feel their identity is under attack, by your disagreeing with them. That’s very tricky: if you as an individual feel like your core identity is being attacked by somebody, the armor goes up. The swords are drawn. And it’s not going to end well unless one of the people involved in that conversation has the capacity to steer it in a more constructive way.
A God-Shaped Hole
Jonathan Haidt: Political scientists called attention in the 2010s to an increase in the degree to which politics is identity and performance. This is the theme of Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. Politics has become identity. What we haven’t talked about so far is the psychology of religion. The subtitle of my book is Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, because I trace both back to our original human nature and the evolutionary processes that made us good at being in groups and at competing with other groups. And we see that play out in the arenas of both politics and religion. Even though I’m a Jewish atheist, and I say so in the book, I’ve been invited to speak at a lot of Christian colleges and organizations, and it was in preparing to speak at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities that I finally looked up that quote I’d heard from Pascal, “There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of each man.” It’s a commonly cited quote, but it’s not complete, and the translation is off. Here’s what Pascal actually wrote, which is even more helpful. He said, “There was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace. This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, though none can help since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object, in other words, by God himself.”
That quote gives you a much richer sense of that hunger; people are trying to pull something in. They have an emptiness, and I think that’s what we’re seeing as Christianity has receded from not just public life but individual people’s lives: Churchgoing is down. The numbers for participation in religious congregations in America are down. By far the fastest-rising category is “spiritual but not religious.” Well, if you’re spiritual but not religious, you’re probably seeking out that ultimate meaning somewhere, and it’s going to be hard for you to see the political campaigns to fight injustice as anything other than ultimate. As traditional religion has receded from the lives of people who still experience themselves as spiritual—well, they’re hungry. As I see it, politics has taken that place. We can see that in the cultish nature of some of today’s Right. Donald Trump was a cult of personality. In my world, in universities and on the left, wokeness is playing a similar role, though without the personality-cult aspect. John McWhorter and many others have been writing about how this new political movement on the left has all the signs not just of religion but of Christianity specifically: of original sin, and the quest for absolution.
Slivers of Truth
Cherie Harder: Let’s talk about truth-telling. One of the things you have both written about is something you’ve called epistemological modesty. It sounds a little bit like squishiness or relativism, like: who’s to say what is true? And yet both of you are well known for at times rather fiercely articulating a point of view you believe to be true. So what is epistemological modesty? Pete, how in your mind does it relate to faithful ways of knowing?
Pete Wehner: Steve Hayner was a key figure in my life, a very close friend. He was a minister at University Presbyterian Church as I was beginning my Christian journey. Steve was there for me at every key moment in my life, and through periods of hardship and grief too. Steve died in 2014 of pancreatic cancer, and in the last conversation, Steve said that he believed in objective truth, but he held lightly to his ability to perceive truth; that one way to be able to get at truth more closely is to make room for other perspectives, to make room for others at the table. Cheryl, my wife, said that she had grown up in a period in which there was a sense that being right was what mattered most, but that in order to find reality, we have to be open to being wrong.
So the way I understand this is that there is an objective truth, but there’s a subjective means to that pursuit of truth. And none of us has it completely right. This is a biblical concept, by the way. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that we see through a glass darkly, but then, after death, we will see God face-to-face. Until then, our understanding is provisional. Indeed, Christian theology notes that our ability to perceive reality has been touched by some degree of corruption, as every part of us has, and in any case we are limited creatures: none of us can see truth as it fully is. The best we can do is to see slivers of truth or part of truth.
But what’s essential is to have people in your life who can help you to see what you would otherwise not see. We all have blind spots, and we all have a certain life experience, family of origin, countries that we come from, race, gender, and all of those things shape us, and they shape the way we perceive things. I think our problem is the notion that the way I perceive things is the way they are and the way other people perceive them is not. Taken to its extreme this can become relativism; the idea that there’s no objective truth or that it’s utterly inaccessible. Everything depends on perspective; we create our own realities. I’m certainly not there. But—and this too is a biblical idea—it’s important to have people in your life, and they have to be people who have standing in your life that you trust, who can help you to see things you wouldn’t otherwise see.
Part of this is the question of how you view the enterprise of truth-seeking itself, right? Take C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield. Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy about the idea of “first’’ and “second” friends. For him, Arthur Greeves was the first friend. That’s your alter ego: You start the sentence and your friend can complete it. Owen Barfield was a very different person, a second friend, and Lewis described kind of friend as the anti-self: a friendship where you read all the same books, but your friend draws what you see as all the wrong conclusions from the books. These are the kinds of friendships we have with people of very different habits of mind. Lewis and Barfield had a deep, forty-year friendship. Lewis describes the conversations they had: they would “go at it hammer and tongs” late into the night. You could feel the weight of the power of the blows of the other person. But over time, they developed this mutual admiration and affection, and Barfield said that Lewis and he, through all of those debates, never debated for victory. They debated for truth.
That’s a huge difference. We debate most of the time for victory. We think, “I’ve got to defend my position, and I’m going to go at anybody who’s against it,” rather than thinking, what does that person see that maybe I need to hear? Maybe they won’t fundamentally change my view, but maybe I’ll understand them differently. Maybe their hierarchy of values is different from mine, and that’s why they end up at a different position. But Jon knows more about this stuff than I do.
Arguments for the Sake of Heaven
Jonathan Haidt: The Jewish tradition is based very much on argumentation; the talmudic tradition is scholars arguing. And they have a phrase that translates to “arguments for the sake of heaven.” So they recognize that through argumentation—in the right circumstances and by religious scholars who are bound together, with their daughters probably married into each other’s families, all of that stuff—if you have the right relationships, then arguments get you closer to divine truth. But they’re certainly cognizant that most arguments are not like that.
I think that the key concept here is confirmation bias, motivated reasoning. Once you recognize that we all do it, that we all do it automatically and passionately, then you think, okay, what’s the cure for that? And nobody has ever found a kind of training that makes people stop doing that. The only cure for it is other people who have a different confirmation bias. And if you’re in the right relationship with them, and Pete was describing those relationships, then you make progress toward heaven, as it were.
Thinking this way has really helped me understand what it means to be a centrist. I consider myself a centrist, a centrist Democrat, I would say. You know, people think, oh, centrist, so we’re going to, you know, half-condemn Nazis or we’re going to be in the middle on everything? No, it’s a realization that when you are a member of a team that’s passionate, you’re almost guaranteed to not find truth. Those epistemic correction mechanisms are not working in your passionate team. This is a modern restatement of John Stuart Mill’s case for free speech in On Liberty: you have to have that competition of perspectives. It doesn’t mean you always come out in the middle, but you’ve got to consider multiple perspectives.
Hope and Healing
Cherie Harder: We’ve talked a lot about some of the centrifugal forces pulling us apart. There are a lot of people hurting, a lot of people who have experienced eroded or broken relationships as a result of conflict and difference. How can we individually, and also within the institutions and communities that we are in, be agents of hope and healing?
Jonathan Haidt: One of the insights that I got from reading conservative writers is their emphasis on low- and mid-level institutions. People on the left tend to focus on the federal government, and then there are individual activists. This is the vision of the French Revolution, where they tried to wipe out everything in between: guilds, religious institutions, and so on. But those are the things that make for a good civil society.
With this culture war that we have now, the politics that had so invaded college campuses—they’ve been there all along, but they really blew up in 2015, and I wrote an essay, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” with Greg Lukianoff in 2015 about these things—have now flooded into companies, into high schools, even middle schools.
These institutions used to be places where people have a job to do; and it is okay to do your job alongside people with different political opinions. But when we make everything about political identity, as is now happening in a lot of companies and schools, things go sour. High schools and middle schools commit to “anti-racism.” This sounds good, and it is of course great to be against racism, but what is meant in this context is “anti-racism” as it is understood in the particular ideology of, for example, Ibram Kendi, in which the whole of reality is understood as conflict between groups, which is an ideology with which it’s perfectly legitimate to disagree: not to agree with Ibram Kendi’s particular analysis does not mean that you’re a racist or that you are not against racism.
We need to find ways to address racism that don’t polarize people. We need to find ways in which employees can have a voice in their companies, but yet they don’t bring in all of their personal political agendas and demand that the leadership acknowledge their values. We are in danger of really blowing apart here. And we need to take action to avoid that, in our places of work or our schools, in our churches or synagogues.
There are so many cases where there’s a conflict with someone, but part of us wants to make up, or will readily accept an overture. So the best piece of advice I can give is to be the first one to make that overture. In every argument, the other person is right about something. They might not be right about the thing that you’re centrally focused on, but that’s kind of the point: we’re always centrally focused on slightly different things. So if you can acknowledge, you know, “I was pretty harsh with you, and I think when you said ‘X’ you’re actually right about that.” It’s amazing what happens when you acknowledge that the person is partially right. By the power of reciprocity, they will often come right back and say, “Yeah, you know, I overreacted. I was angry and I’m sorry; you were right about Y.” Humans are tribal. We are easily provoked into conflict, but part of being tribal is also being really good at reconciliation. Be the first one to make the first move.
Pete Wehner: One thing we can do is simply to ask questions; try and understand where they other person is coming from. Don’t assume you know what they think or what their motivations are, and when they tell you, don’t assume bad faith.
Relationships that Survive Difference
Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. Michael Murray asks, What’s involved in building relationships that are strong enough to deal with intense differences?
Pete Wehner: Sometimes you find out in intense political times just how deep those relationships go. If you’re in a relationship that is only about political agreement, that can be shifting sand. Another story about Steve Hayner. At one point, Steve and I had what I thought was going to be a difference on a political matter. And I wrote Steve because I was worried about it, and he wrote me back and he said, “Pete, I can’t imagine there’s any issue I would ever not love you over.” If you have a relationship like that, it’ll survive political differences.
Cherie Harder: From Randall Paul and Deborah Christiansen: How do we debate the most important issues of the day, especially issues on which there are irreconcilable ideals that can’t honestly be compromised involved? How do we do it with civility in the midst of such a highly polarized and hyperbolic environment?
Jonathan Haidt: The older ideal of “let’s all get together and talk,” an all-company meeting where everyone’s encouraged to speak up, that kind of thing, is no longer really possible or advisable. People come to every public conversation knowing that what they say might be tweeted out of context; the cost can be very high. That line between what we’re doing here in our company or our school, and my life on social media, well, there’s no longer a lot of a wall between them. I think Pete used the phrase “performative politics.” Especially for young people who grew up with social media, everything is performance, and so there’s really no point in having a debate or discussion with a lot of people because it’s going to turn into a performance and people can’t be honest. So you have to have very small groups and a commitment that nobody’s going to record this or nobody’s going to report it out. It’s very hard. The more we are tied together, the harder it is to talk, unfortunately.
Pete Wehner: One very good exercise in discussion is that before a debate, each person debating has to express the view of the other person in a way that the other person will say, yes, you understand what I believe and why. The second exercise is simply to be able to identify what the differences are and name them, not necessarily to reconcile them, but to say: this is where our points of departure are. The third is more of an understanding: the understanding that disagreement is okay: you can hold a different view and still be a good person.
A Question from Middlebury
Cherie Harder: Maggie Connelly writes from Middlebury College that she’s in the middle of your book, Jonathan, The Coddling of The American Mind, the section in which you discuss an incident that took place at Middlebury. “I find your book to be extremely insightful to my current environment,” she says. “What is your best advice for a student like me, in the heat of it, who seeks to find truth and fight against extremism, but also fears social alienation?”
Jonathan Haidt: The background to this is that Middlebury had one of the major widely reported blow ups; the mood is very similar at a lot of America’s top liberal arts colleges. What I would say is, if you are not part of the dominant political group, or even if you are, but you see that there are issues or difficulties, don’t just keep your head down and say nothing. I met one student who said her motto is “silence is safer”; just don’t say anything. Don’t let that be your motto. But be careful about speaking up in a public setting where everyone else is performing, or you could be strung up as a witch. If you speak to people privately, you’ll find that people are actually much more open and nuanced in their thinking one-on-one than they are when they’re performing. Be very wary of that. If you’re on the right, you can’t avoid talking to lots of people on the left. But if you’re on the left, you’re going to have to seek out those smaller groups: seek out the people on the right because they’re the ones who are going to help you grow. It’s those differences that help you grow.
Christians in the Public Square
Cherie Harder: Brad Edwards writes that it’s very popular to beat up on social media as the cause of polarization. Is it a cause, or is it only amplifying what’s already there? And can you talk about how the church, how Christians, can mitigate those effects in the public square?
Pete Wehner: So many of these problems predate this moment, or the last five years. Geographic sorting, the political parties becoming more polarized, and the fracturing of information, as we discussed. What can Christians do about it? I think the first thing I would say is, I would be grateful if Christians first stop making things worse, stop being accelerants to these worse tendencies. What can be done to actually heal the breach? Paul uses the phrase “ministry of reconciliation,” and Christ is referred to as breaking down the dividing walls between peoples: this is part of what we need to do.
Then, of course, there’s this concept of grace. As far as I know, grace in the technical theological sense is an idea that’s specific to Christianity. We have received grace, in that sense, and in the more ordinary sense, that should allow us to demonstrate grace in how we conduct ourselves. Philip Yancey is a friend of mine; we were exchanging notes the other day, and he referred to a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr.: We need to be “weapons of grace.” When a watching world sees people of Christian faith manifest grace, it is the thing that most breaks through. Even if they themselves aren’t Christians or don’t become Christians, they see it, and they will say there’s something to that that’s important. That involves having one’s affections and hearts won over to Christ.
Jonathan Haidt: Well, if everybody on social media were to radiate grace, I do agree that it would be a lot better. But short of that, I think that major structural reforms are probably what we need. I think the questioner is right that people love to beat up on social media, and I’m one of those people. I always note that social media does a lot of good things. It creates a lot of value for others. So I’m not saying, oh, it’s terrible, we’ve got to go back to the 1990s. But I think that we are wired up now in a way that is radically different from how we were even in 2007 or 2008. It really changed between 2009 and 2012. The optimistic view is that this is like when they invented the printing press and we had a couple hundred years of religious war, but ultimately we learned to deal with information flowing all around, including propaganda. So odds are that in ten or twenty years, things will be better in most ways, as Steven Pinker has argued has been the trend in general. And odds are social media, I think, will be more constructive. But we have been on a rough ride these last five to eight years, and I think that could go for the rest of the 2020s. It remains to be seen. So for now, I will continue beating up on, while also praising, social media.
The American Elite and the Populace
Cherie Harder: Patrick Wilson asks, and I paraphrase, The great historian Gertrude Himmelfarb made much of the Victorian elite’s desire to reform themselves and remoralize themselves. She argued that this effort, much maligned today, was actually a healthy revulsion by learned Christian people, by what we might call elites, against decadence and coarseness, and was oriented toward the idea that the poor had a claim on us, and were even in some ways moral superiors. Does this apply to your understanding of our current moment?
Jonathan Haidt: Just in the last month or two, I’ve realized that I have left out the role of corrupt and incompetent elites in my list of reasons why we’re getting more polarized. The reason I’ve seen this is due to the work of three great thinkers who have really been pointing to elites as part of the problem.
Peter Turchin, with his mathematical analysis of history, says that a repeated historical pattern is that you get these periods of dislocation and conflict with three conditions, one of which is a surplus of elites. Too many college grads and not enough places of prestige for them. So they try to get followers, try to make a name for themselves. Michael Lind, a really brilliant political commentator, is savage on the current elites and how they’ve left working people behind. And the third is Martin Gurri; his book The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium is extremely good on this.
The elites in the Victorian times, you can say well, they were aristocrats; or at least inherited bourgeois: they were elite because of their heritage and who their father was, and isn’t that undemocratic. But in America and the UK and other countries since the 1980s or 1990s, the elite are the people who did really well on exams. We sort people on this basis beginning in high school. By the time you get to the top, you think you earned it, that you deserved it, that you are smarter and worked harder and are better. Today’s elites aren’t aristocrats: they’re meritocrats. They really have a sense that they earned it. And that means that they have no sense of obligation or of being given something: they can go off to their gated communities or their islands to wait out COVID with a clear conscience. So, yes, I think it would be great to look back to previous periods where the elites took responsibility and took some blame upon themselves and stopped having so much contempt for the masses.
Pete Wehner: Elites have gotten a lot wrong. Some of the social divisions we’ve been talking about during this conversation are due to the failures of elites, including in the political class, which created a major counterreaction. There is an attitude of the elites toward the populace—and particularly conservatives and often people of faith—that can be patronizing and contemptuous.
There were so many projects after Trump: people trying to understand Trump voters. I was at an event in November 2016 with Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist who had gone to the bayou country in Louisiana and then wrote a book called Strangers in Their Own Land. She was struck by how kind they were to her personally, but they feel dishonored and disrespected. And she said that Donald Trump for them is an antidote to that kind of dishonor that they feel. So there is undoubtedly an attitude of elites toward others that has contributed to this.
There’s a tendency to pick sides. It’s the elites or it’s the masses who are to blame. And, you know, the masses have a lot to answer for too. I’m a conservative, not a populist. And if you go back from Burke to the founding, to Madison, Burke, and then to Lincoln’s Lyceum speech in 1838, all of them warned about the danger of mob mentality and the masses. The reason we’re a republic and not a democracy is so that we “filter, enlarge, and refine,” in the words of Madison, the public view. I think there’s a tendency sometimes on the right to excuse some inexcusable behavior among the masses and say, well, they’re angry, they have grievances. Well, yes and no. In the end, people are responsible for their actions, grievances or no, and I think some of this has just gotten out of control. Everybody is a part of the problem, everybody has a piece of the action, which means everybody has to be a part of the solution.
Cherie Harder: I’d like to give each of you a last word to close out our conversation. Jonathan, the floor is yours.
Jonathan Haidt: So, given that what you are trying to do here is to bring forward the best of Christian thought, I could certainly end with the quote that I’ve used throughout my career studying moral psychology, which is, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but you did not notice the log in your own?” And that is such a deep piece of wisdom. But I think it’s important to note that this is a great truth that we get from many of the world’s religions: we are too judgmental, too quick to attack each other. We need to slow down and be more forgiving. So I’ll end with this wonderful quote from a Chinese Zen master, Sengcan, in the eighth century. He wrote, “The perfect way is only difficult for those who pick and choose. Do not like, do not dislike. All will then be clear. Make a hairbreadth difference and heaven and earth are set apart. 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.”
Pete Wehner: Cherie, thanks for hosting this. In an era in which institutions are failing, the Trinity Forum is a beacon. I really appreciate what you’re doing, and it’s been a real honor to be with you and with Jon. My quote is from a poet, Christian Wiman, who wrote a book called My Bright Abyss. Wiman says,
“The spiritual efficacy of all encounters is determined by the amount of personal ego that is in play. If two people meet and disagree fiercely about theological matters but agree, silently or otherwise, that God’s love creates and sustains human love, and that whatever else may be said of God is subsidiary to this truth, then even out of what seems great friction, there may emerge a peace that — though it may not end the dispute, though neither party may be ‘convinced’ of the other’s position — nevertheless enters and nourishes one’s notion of, and relationship with, God. Without this radical openness, all arguments about God are not simply pointless but pernicious, for each person is in thrall to some lesser conception of ultimate truth and asserts not love but a lesson, and not God but himself.”