Jonathan Haidt

Testing American Righteousness

Air Date: June 17, 2019

Jonathan Haidt, NYU professor of ethical leadership, discusses Charlottesville, pluralism, polarization, negative partisanship, and the moral choice in 2020.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Jonathan Haidt is the Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership, based in the Business and Society program at New York University, a social psychologist whose research examines the intuitive foundations of morality. He’s coauthor of “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure” as well as author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.” He studies the origins of the human moral sense and their relevance to polarization and dysfunction, American politics, intellectual life, and our everyday lives and debates. Before coming to NYU, Professor Haidt taught for 16 years at U.Va., University of Virginia. Welcome. I’m glad we’re finally doing this.

HAIDT: Me Too, great to be here. Alexander.

HEFFNER: Congratulations on both books.

HAIDT: Thank you.

HEFFNER: I wanted to start with that last biographical detail, U.Va., because the way that our moral vision as Americans has evolved in recent years, in some ways relates to Charlottesville, the domestic terrorist incident there and the normalizing, the legitimizing of a terrorist organization, the KKK, in a modern incarnation. And I wanted to start there because we have an old adage that was the influence for naming our program, “Keep an open mind but not so open that your brains fall out.” And that is the essence of what we have to do here each week because we don’t want to tolerate on the open mind, totalitarianism, racism, bigotry. That’s not part of a spectrum of ideas that we want to give credence to. What say you about the events in Charlottesville and how it relates to our ability to not coddle our minds and to preserve righteous minds?

HAIDT: Great question. First, let me make a philosophical point, which is, many people seem to think that either there are facts or there are just subjective opinions and there’s nothing in between and that if you grant that there’s more than one right way more than one truth, well then you must be a relativist, as you must be someone who believes there is no moral truth. What I’ve become philosophically is a pluralist. I learned this from my, my mentor at the University of Chicago where I did a post doc, Richard Shweder, who’s a brilliant anthropologist who taught me that each culture is expert in some things, but they can’t see everything.

And so the only way I think we can deal with diversity in our modern lives is to be pluralists, which means there is more than one right way but that doesn’t mean anything goes and hey, a bunch of guys in pointy hats, want to march around and burn crosses, well, that’s what they want to do, you know, so I’m not a relativist there are things that are right and wrong, but there’s often more than one. Okay. Next point: U.Va. It just, it’s so sad that my, the school that I love this school that has such a, such – enlisted such passion in its students is now associated in the world’s minds with Nazis. And this was Thomas Jefferson’s beloved university. It was a tragedy what happened there. It was picked on because I think one of the guys who organized the rally had gotten a degree there and he was from the area.

I would not say that the events normalized the Klan in any way. What we are witnessing is the breakup of any sort of public shared space into multiple, multiple sub worlds. And yes, there is a larger world than we realized in which Nazis and the Klan are fighting for goodness or righteousness. But I think the United States still strongly rejects that. I don’t think they’ve been normalized.

HEFFNER: The idea though, Professor, that there was any pluralism among those very fine people, not very fine people, right, so there isn’t a pluralism in acceptance that we want to tolerate viewpoints within a modern day Klan. But my point to you, I don’t want to associate those events with the institution of U.Va. whatsoever. What I want to do is associate them with the decision of a governor or a mayor to grant a permit to a domestic terrorist organization.

HAIDT: Yes. Well the First Amendment grants wide rights to association. I can’t weigh in on whether the mayor or police chief whoever was granted the rights, whether they were grounds for blocking them entirely. I used to live, for my first eight years in Charlottesville I lived three blocks east of where those protests were. And that space was way too small for a giant protest. Had it been shunted off out of the center of town, things might have been not so ugly at least. So, but I would just want to make the point that it’s very difficult to do any good thinking when there are Nazis on the table. If we’re going to try to derive principles here from a discussion of Nazis and the Klan marching in Charlottesville, we’re not going to do a very good job of it.

HEFFNER: Why is that? Why are we poised to eliminate a subset of constituents?

HAIDT: Because our minds are intuitive and emotional. We are capable of making fine distinctions. We are capable of weighing things when we’re not thinking about Nazis or, or nuclear war, or sex.

HEFFNER: But are you saying that because we have the capacity to have distance from those events and therefore we shouldn’t be informed by a philosophy of Francisco Franco or Adolf Hitler. And, because there was a moment when our moral worldview, the definition of righteousness would be informed by service in World War II.

HAIDT: Right.

HEFFNER: Combating Fascism. We shouldn’t think about it that way anymore?

HAIDT: Oh no. No. I see what you’re saying. I believe we are now in a condition that we could call babble, in which there is no overarching moral framework. There was a wonderful overarching framework in the United States for much of the 20th century and it had problems all along, but we kept improving it and now it seems to have broken up. So much is happening that was just inconceivable before. The only point I was trying to make is that I thought you were going to say there can be no doubt, no other side on the events in Charlottesville and since the Nazis are on one side with the Klan, it seems like yes, we have to agree there can be no other side and certainly about the Nazis and the Klan, yeah, I’m not going to say that there are in any way morally legitimate. I just mean that if you look at the way there, that half the country’s interpreting those events, now I’m a centrist and I get lots of emails from friends on both sides trying to convince me that I need to side with them against those monsters on the other side. So the way a lot of the country is seeing the events is this was about what to do about statues and on that there should be, there are two sides.

That’s something that we should at least talk about. But once Nazis come into it, there is no other side. Now I’m fine with that. In this case, I think the right thing to do, you know, we all learned about these with these, the history of these statues that they were not put up right after the civil war, that they were put up in a period when white supremacists laws were being… So I’m not defending the statues.

HEFFNER: We reunited and that confederate blood retained its place in our history after the civil war in the aftermath of those events. And therefore we are a union that is composed partially of disunion.


HEFFNER: That’s all true.

HAIDT: Yeah, no I think that’s right.

HEFFNER: I was talking more about amnesia and whether amnesia in our psyche, the lack of historical knowledge and moral frames that are more definitive is connected to this babble, this idea of babble that you’re talking about.

HAIDT: It’s thinking about how we think about history. History is always contested and always will be and always we should be. I didn’t fully understand the history of those statutes even though I lived near them. I didn’t understand it until we went through the events in Charlottesville and I didn’t understand the larger history until I visited Montgomery, Alabama a couple of months ago on a civil rights pilgrimage with the Faith and Politics Institute and to learn from Bryan Stevenson how racism in this country, how slavery didn’t exactly end in 1865, how it changed form and how it keeps changing form. So I think in the long run, even though what happened was horrible in Charlottesville, I think there is a sense in which we were fixing a historical error that had been made in memory and we were cleaning some things up. So maybe there is some hope here, maybe there is some progress.

HEFFNER: Do you find that the amnesia, the lack of historical knowledge influences the babble in the way we might view a subject like Russia’s interference in our election because I want to get to this subject of polarization and the contributing factors to polarization and dysfunction on which you’re an expert.

HAIDT: Yes. This is something I’m very, very concerned about: The lack of historical knowledge. And if you think about, you know, when you and I were growing up, if you think about how much of the of the information that came into our minds, how much of the things we watched on TV were created more than 20 years ago, to what extent where we connected to the world of our parents and grandparents. We had some sense of what World War II was about. I have a sense of a connection to almost the whole 20th century through my parents and grandparents.

And if you look at young people now, because of the change in the media environment, they’re much more cut off from anything that happened before because there’s so much more connected to each other. And so even to have forgotten much of the history of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain, I think it makes it very difficult to think about economic questions, to think about historical questions, to see signs of authoritarianism and fascism and even communism rearing their heads in the 21st century, we thought these vampires were all dead. And so, yes, I’m very alarmed that young people are not, don’t have a connection, as much of a connection to history as I believe he used to be the case.

HEFFNER: And to think of the Cold War, what we’re experiencing today as an analog to that for digital cyber espionage.

HAIDT: There’s an interesting difference between the sort of the new cold war that’s happening now and the old one, the old one was really run by engineers and scientists and physicists who were trying to think of better ways to physically kill the other side. And what’s going on now is that the change in technology and information structure has turned each of us into the potential weapons. And this is what we found out in the Russian hacking scandal. The reason why the Russians were so effective, it turns out was not the bots. There was a big study done by Deb Roy’s lab at MIT in which they traced out all the false information stories on Twitter over many years. And what they found is that while bots contributed, it turns out we were the bots. The Russians didn’t need any bots. All they had to do was put out some article and some of them were even true. Some article that would trigger outrage on one side…

HEFFNER: Well they modeled the outrage and then they said, you go do this. I mean, then they say to the American people, you know, it’s like America, are you listening? Right? Hack the other political opponent’s psyche.

HAIDT: Maybe that they were in some sense modeling process. But I think what’s been going on since the rise of Twitter and other forms, is that because the incentive structure of social media is that I’m not actually communicating with you, I’m just using you as an excuse for me to show off how much I model certain virtues are what a good member I am of my team. And so the more savage and cruel I can be to you in a clever way, the more credit I get. So this was all happening before the Russians. And I think it’s almost as though, you know, as cross-partisan hatred has been rising and rising since the 80s, but especially after the year 2000, I’ve got many graphs of it from different data sources, it sort of rises gently and then after 2000 it accelerates most of our cross-partisan hatred, the increase was since around 2002, 2004. And as that was rising, what that does to us is we will now believe almost anything, no matter how outrageous, anything that makes the other side look bad, we will believe. And so I see the role of the Russians mostly just as just feeding more stuff in is, as though we like pulled open our head and said, yeah, if you want to manipulate me, just stick the screwdriver here and turn and I’ll, I’ll go.

HEFFNER: You have studied and identified the moral frame through which a conservative may view an issue, versus a liberal. How is that informing the way we view what is righteous and what we view as, whatever the opposite of coddled is, because we want to be aspiring for righteousness and aspiring for …

HAIDT: Strength.

HEFFNER: Strength.

HAIDT: Yeah. So first I guess I should say what it is that I do. You and I have talked about some pretty controversial things and I’m afraid I violated my major dictum here, which is there to speak to the elephant first. Let me just explain that. Sure. So my own research is on moral psychology and on moral intuition. And I was just really struck in graduate school in psychology at the way that moral discussion; moral argument is not really based on reasons. People sort of throw reasons at each other and we’re not open to the other person’s reasons. We, we start with a gut feeling and then we just justify that. And the analogy I used in my first book “The Happiness Hypothesis” is that the mind is divided into parts like a rider on an elephant. The elephant is this gigantic thing, which is all of our ancient intuitions and emotions and social influences.

And the rider is this little guy on top that doesn’t have much influence, that’s conscious reasoning. And in our moral lives, like right now we’re engaging in conscious reasoning and we’re kind of working hard at it. But typically our moral reasoning is driven by our passions and emotions. It’s as though that the elephant sort of knows where he wants to go, says okay, we’re going there. And then the rider just comes up with justifications or reasons.


HAIDT: And so I speak to a lot of groups that are interested in how to reduce polarization. Pretty much every group I speak to it seems you’ve had them on this show. And one of the things I was telling them is you have to speak to the elephant first. You have to put people at ease, don’t alienate them, acknowledge their core concerns.

So I fear that by talking about Nazis with you first. I may have lost a lot of your viewers right away, but let’s see if we can win them back.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s win them back by thinking of Mike Pence and Pete Buttigieg, right? That’s …

HAIDT: Okay.

HEFFNER: That’s I think a way to understand your original hypothesis and its development. There are two definitions of righteousness and Mayor Pete is doing something phenomenal, that Democrats have failed to do, which is unearth the origin of that moral feeling, the elephant…

HAIDT: That’s right,

HEFFNER: and be the embodiment of the rider.

HAIDT: So our minds can play lots of different games. And war is one of them. We’re very good at war. We evolved to be tribal creatures. We’re very good at doing “us versus them.” And our politics has devolved more and more into that. But one of my main points in “The Righteous Mind” was that our politics at the national level is also kind of like religion that is in America in particular our country is not based on blood or soil. It’s not based on ancestry or race. It’s based on a creed, on accepting the American creed. And then it’s open to anyone who more or less accepts those. And…

HEFFNER: By that creed, the fundamental assertions in the Declaration and Constitution,

HAIDT: That’s right: The Declaration and the preamble of the Constitution.

HEFFNER: As understood through our modern constitutional law…

HAIDT: Yes. The way we think about it now is much more about diversity and openness than it was in the,

HEFFNER: Yes, just want to get those definitions out.

HAIDT: So it changes over time.


HAIDT: But my point is that in the United States in particular, it’s been said, Robert Bellah, the sociologist I think coined the term that we have what he called the American civil religion. And in the United States we have these holy books, the founding documents. We have these wise men, we have these rituals and we think of democracy in kind of sacred terms, you know, we fought wars to defend democracy.

And so there is an element in which we want our politics to be uplifting. We want the president to be the high priest, especially in times of crisis. And this is something where both George W. Bush and Obama rose to occasions, and where obviously Donald Trump has not, with each crisis each time we need that high priest it seems to all be about him. So back to Pete Buttigieg, and my God, the man is beautiful. I mean the way he speaks, he touches this part of us that is hungry, that has not been touched in a long time.

HEFFNER: It’s been said that he is the antithesis of, of Pence and Trump, but Trump in the lack of virtue, Pence and his culpability in degrading virtue. But they’re Hoosier’s, both from Indiana. They actually have a kind of similar presentation. Pete, will delve more into the nuances of an given articulation and intellectual honesty, but that’s what he’s getting at, which is the belief that he, as a gay, 37 year old mayor of South Bend has every right to a conviction in faith, in the Bible, in a American heritage. And so he’s expanding the view of what might be that gut moral concentration.

HAIDT: That’s right. That’s right. And is a beautiful thing to see. For a long time, American politics has been polarizing on some very familiar dimensions. In the 1970s, I think it was the case that if you knew how often someone went to church, you didn’t know which party they voted for. But beginning, I forget when it really kicked in, but certainly by the, by 2000, it was very much the case that if you went to church regularly or synagogue, you were on the right. And if you didn’t, you were on the left. And so we were having this split, which was turning into a personality split as well. And that’s part of why our politics now is so much more savage than before. If you have political parties that are coalitions of interests, well you can actually kind of compromise. But when their coalitions of personality types with shared moral values, then the people on the other side are so different and their values are so alien that they’re the enemy. So it’s moving that way for a long time. And then you get someone like Mayor Pete who is a Christian and speaks in ways that are, that, that sound religious. And I have, and on the right you have Donald Trump acting in ways that I cannot connect to conservatism.

HEFFNER: So how do you understand the tolerance of the evangelical? Is it all, as the conventional wisdom says Roe v. Wade, how do you explain Franklin Graham and his associates who are going to every last measure to defend this man, is it all Roe v Wade that allows them to discount every other instinct that they might have looking at his words and the way that he behaves.

HAIDT: So we, we have a two-party system and people are endlessly able to justify what it is they want. And so as I’ve watched, I’ve, I’m so disappointed in principled conservatives and evangelicals who have swung behind Trump and been willing to forgive or overlook many things that you would think that conservatives and Christians would be horribly offended by. I don’t know that it is entirely strategic in their minds. I think that we can come to believe almost whatever we want. And you have to remember that our politics now is best described not as who we favor, but as what we’re against. Political scientists call this negative partisanship. We’re mostly voting against the other side, not for our side.

And so people on the right and conservatives of all types can certainly find a lot of things they hate about the left. And that can be enough for them to find reasons to just hold their nose or overlook actions that are clearly not conservative.

HEFFNER: I don’t want to give you the $800 trillion question to close, but I fear that I have to, which is how you reverse course.

HAIDT: I think it’s going to be extremely difficult. There are about 10 major causes, 10 historical or sociological causes that are driving us towards greater polarization because the late 20th century was an anomaly of really, really low polarization up through the, the postwar years up until about the 1980s. And so with the media environment pushing us into a more fractionated space with the loss of the greatest generation, with the loss of a common enemy, there are a lot of trends working in the wrong direction.

I think what we need to do because I love this country. I love liberal democracy and I’m really frightened. I’m really frightened that the trends may be insurmountable. And so we all need to really take this seriously and give it a try. And things like your show are part of the solution. When you think of it this way. First, there are structural and systemic factors that we have to change. As long as people don’t trust the system, they’ll believe conspiracy theories. They won’t see the other side is legitimate. So we’ve got to change a lot about the way we run our elections. Find alternatives to closed party primaries; get more money out of politics. People have to have a lot of faith. We have to increase voter turnout. We’re never going to go to mandatory voting the way they do in Australia.

That would bring a lot of people in from the center, but we have to get voter turnout up and make it very easy and quick to vote. So there’s all kinds of systemic things. Same thing with Congress, there’s a lot of reforms we can make in Congress so that it isn’t us versus them all the time, that there would be the ability to compromise or work together. Those are the big things that are really going to do a lot of the heavy lifting. A lot of those are never going to happen. So that means that it’s up to the rest of us as individuals and in our groups.

HEFFNER: Two areas I want you to cover: social media and higher Ed. How are they instructive in helping us correct?

HAIDT: So social media I think is the biggest single problem that we face. Of course there are all these other built in structural problems, but for anything, socially media makes things worse.

People are tribal. We can turn us versus them or we can bury the hatchet and trade and exchange. And social media is almost like being force fed a constant stream of outrage stories including video, which is incredibly compelling to the elephant as it were to our internal, to our deep intuitions. As long as many people are on social media, I think it’s going to be very difficult to reverse the polarization. I saw a tweet the other day, “if you could go back in time and kill baby Twitter, would you do it?” And I think the answer is yes. I sure would. Each of us as individuals I think should try to spend less time on these platforms, be more positive and try to have more praise and positivity on them. But it’s going to be very difficult.

HEFFNER: Or, kill the IPO. I mean, kill the monetization of fraud and misinformation and disinformation.

HAIDT: With social media, it, had there been a different business model, it, it could have looked very different. So I do think that the business model is fundamentally flawed. We’re not the customers where the product and the more outrage there is on the platform, the more of the product comes to feed. So I think I’m hoping that there will be some severe regulation on social media. The problem isn’t the Internet. The Internet is wonderful, but social media has very, very different properties both on our democracy and on the mental health of young people.

HEFFNER: Must we establish like you just did that there has to be a consensus about the severity of the social media problem. I mean, there are certain things where we do need consensus and higher Ed can be helpful in producing a generation that’s going to act on that consensus.

HAIDT: Yes. We have to look at what is the purpose of any institution. And in some, if it’s the military, you need cohesion, but if it’s the university, you must have dissent. The enemy of our mission in the university is orthodoxy. That’s the biggest threat we face to doing our job. We can’t find truth. We can’t teach effectively if we’re afraid to question.

HEFFNER: But it also shouldn’t be frowned upon to have an organizing truth function to

HAIDT: It is helpful for any institution to have certain sacred values that are relative or relevant to the mission of the university. For us in universities, it has to be truth. That has to be what we hold safe.

HEFFNER: Right, and I think that that’s why you have a really important demographic that can take the leadership in acting on that truth.

HAIDT: Who is this, who you’re talking about?

HEFFNER: Millennials, post-Millennials now, who are enrolled in higher Ed and grade school and elementary school.

HAIDT: That’s Gen Z you’re talking about…

HEFFNER: Gen-Z, The post-Millennial demographic is going to have to be critical to establishing a consensus on the problems associated with social media and the necessity of taking action.

And that’s, and I’m in agreement with you about confirmation bias and the importance of diversity of viewpoint, a pluralistic attitude towards different solutions. But you got to identify the problems too, right?

HAIDT: Gen Z is very aware of the problems. I speak about my recent book, “The Coddling of the American Mind” written with Greg Lukianoff. I speak about it all over the country. I give a portrait of what social media is doing to Gen Z. I ask them, do you agree? And they must all say yes. They know it’s a problem. As for whether they’ll be able to do something about it that’s less clear. They do say that they are, it makes, the social media makes them much more reluctant to step out of line.

HEFFNER: Thank you so much Jonathan for your time today.

HAIDT: My pleasure, Alexander.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind but not so open that your brains fall out. Please visit The Open Mind website at mind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMind/TV for updates on future programming.