Why we can't talk about religion and politics at the dinner table


First aired on Q (17/04/12)

As the U.S. presidential election continues to move into high gear, it's hard not to notice political pundits, advocates, and civil protesters increasing their volume as well.  Turn on any TV news channel and you'll see "liberals" engaged in vigorous debates (often shouting matches) with "conservatives." We all hear plenty of arguing, but there rarely seems to be any path towards agreement, which many would agree is the way to move forward on an issue.

Ranting obviously leads to ratings, but this failure to adjust one's beliefs extends beyond blustery news media. We also see this happen in our own lives, with our own friends and family. What's the old expression about appropriate holiday dinner talk -- never discuss religion or politics?  Why is it that reasonable and rational people find it so difficult to alter their opinion or position on something when met with an intelligent counterargument?

Well, it all has to do with how our brains are wired, according to Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Humans are intrinsically judgmental and critical creatures.

"If I just say a word to you -- asparagus -- or show you a picture of a person, your brain will evaluate it in a half-second," Haidt told Q host Jian Ghomeshi during a recent interview. "Your brain will tilt either positively or negatively, and so first impressions are incredibly powerful. Our brains are always judging, that's what that they do. They're pattern-matchers. Animals do this."

Humans also have the ability to reason, but it's a slower process than judgment.

"That doesn't even kick into gear until a second or two, and by then you've already leaned one way. And so most of our reasoning turns out to be for the purpose of finding justifications for what we've already judged."

Jonathan-haidt.jpgThis helps explain why our morals are so powerful and why it's difficult for us to embrace contrary viewpoints. It's also a big reason why we tend to associate with people who share similar beliefs. Haidt recognizes the benefits of this kind of social organization (i.e., sense of community and belonging) but also sees drawbacks.

"Morality binds and blinds ... It binds because we have this ability to circle around sacred objects. Literally, you can circle around the Kaaba in Mecca, you can circle around a tree, or a rock, or an ancestor. Or figuratively, we circle around shared principles. And we form basically gangs. Just as gangs have gang signs and gang colours, political and moral groups have their key words and key political issues, and once we treat something as sacred, we circle around it with others. We trust them. But then we go blind. We cannot think about anything we hold sacred, we can't think straight about it."

Do you agree with Haidt's judgment? Let us know in the comments section below.