[REVIEW] Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively? by Jonathan Haidt

[Buy the full book HERE.]

Okay, so first of all, no. No, we cannot. I have to admit I feel some type of way about these conciliatory centrist hot takes from white academics (and other public figures) who have relatively low existential stakes in the present US situation. This kind of jolly elitist water cooler conjecture from those with no skin in the game is exactly what leads to the continued large-scale disenfranchisement that is currently fueling extremism and conspiracism. When I realized that the title of this wasn’t actually tongue in cheek I got a little annoyed with the book and with myself for reading it. 

That said, there are some interesting bits of info in this book (actually an edited chapter of the much longer work A Righteous Mind, originally published in 2013, which excuses the seeming tone-deafness in the present situation). Haidt is a social psychologist and outlines some interesting thoughts on the possible genetic and environmental underpinnings of conservatism and liberalism. Other than that, the book’s main point is to outline that the cause of the increasing sociopolitical divide in America right now is that — wait for it — different groups of people have different values, which leads to different cultural narratives, which means the two sides don’t understand each other.

Well, duh.

He also gives us a quick rundown of those narratives and the major things he thinks each group gets right and wrong in the purest political terms  For someone like me, whose political foundations are people-centered and relational, this was informative but also irritating because of how clearly the commentary is tipped towards mainstream, experientially disconnected academic political thought–specifically the author’s own intellectual conservative views and desire for a return to an idealized centrism–something he openly admits but poorly interrogates, IMO. He waxes nostalgic about the good old days pre-90’s when red and blue politicians were friends and collaborators, ignoring how the demographic homogeneity of Congress in the Reagan era (every Congressional leadership position was held by a cronyistic white dude, with the very notable exceptions of Geraldine Ferraro and Daniel Inouye) enabled mass inequality and corruption, despite the existence of a political center. Basically, the existence of a political center didn’t serve or represent large swathes of America, who were still left out of the nuts and bolts of policymaking on a federal level, and like most old guard academics, Haidt misses that entirely and doesn’t address or even consider the massive blind spot over the idea that the system he describes and idealizes doesn’t work for everybody and actively works against many. All of these lofty analyses of left, right and center are absolutely meaningless in a system that increasingly has two entirely different positions for most–up or down. (I haven’t read all of A Righteous Mind yet, and he may unpack this eventually in that book, but I doubt it.) To be fair, the author would probably dismantle that point and most of my other criticisms of his work pretty neatly using the points made in the section about the blind spots of left-leaning folk, to which I can only close my eyes, put my hands over my ears, and hum in reply.

I’m being a bit snarky because so little of this book aligns with my own views, but it is well -researched, well-written and I did learn a lot, which was the point of reading it. There’s a lot of objective fact to chew on as well as all of the claims and cases the author lays out, which do provide interesting viewpoints and thought exercises with which to sharpen my own understanding of politics and polarization on. Haidt knows his stuff. I just think his angles are all wrong and his own views too cynical and irrelational. (Given that he apparently is now discussing the very real possibility of permanent division in US society in interviews, he hasn’t changed much on the cynicism.) When you add that to the annoyance I feel at realizing that really, none of his stances, pronouncements and theories mean anything to this author but the purest political thought exercise, with a little academic clout and some book royalties for seasoning, I don’t exactly recommend this outside of research–in which case you may as well just read all of The Righteous Mind and get a fuller picture of how different political minds self-justify (and could someday theoretically co-exist in a perfectly meritorious, perfectly equitable bubble. I swear I’m not rolling my eyes as I type this.)

3 stars and a polite, non-partisan request to disregard the fingermarks all over my tablet screen to this book. 

(Beautiful people–this was not my favorite book, but I learned something. Sometimes it’s like that. The book reviewed is only available as an Amazon Digital short, which I will not link to, but it’s also a chapter of a longer work called The Righteous Mind, which is available at the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. Remember, this blog has affiliate relationships and if you click/purchase anything a commission might be earned. Peace!)


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