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Recently on my way to work I watched Jonathon Haidt’s TED talk on “the real difference between liberals and conservatives.” I’m sure it’s no mistake that this talk was published last week — whether you aim to participate or not, partisanship is almost impossible to avoid this close to an election.

In his talk, Haidt breaks down human moral values into five basic elements, then shows how an individual’s placement on the liberal-conservative spectrum is determined by how much emphasis that person puts on each of these values. Once an individual settles into a particular place on that spectrum, that person becomes stuck in what Haidt describes as a “Moral Matrix” (yes, he is alluding to the movie) — we cease to be able to see a moral reality other than our own. The major thrust of Haidt’s talk seems to be that, even though it’s human nature to settle into a moral viewpoint, we can all benefit from “taking the red pill” and stepping out of our “Moral Matrix.”

This interests me especially because, while for many it’s something to work toward personally — like recycling your plastics or eating enough leafy greens — for myself and the rest of the SOF staff it’s a job requirement. Being new to journalism, this is one of the things that caught me a little bit off-guard when I first started working here. For a good portion of my life I have seen political involvement as an inherently virtuous activity — something any upstanding citizen should do. So it was a little strange to realize that as a producer for a journalistic program I was now obligated to think about “conflict of interest” when considering my involvement in any kind of political activity. This issue has become more present than ever now that we are in the middle of producing a two-part series focusing on American politics (you may have already seen the preview of Krista’s conversation with Amy Sullivan), and as our staff discussion of the presidential election sometimes walks the line between editorial analysis and personal belief.

This brings me to one other thing that interested me about Haidt’s presentation: although his message was about moving away from partisanship, he also acknowledged that the audience he was speaking to was predominately made up of social liberals. However, rather than challenge this bias, he definitely played directly to the crowd with the sort of humor he used. It seems that there’s an unavoidable irony in this approach, but perhaps Haidt felt it was more constructive to say “hey, I’m one of you” so that his message would be more openly received. I couldn’t help drawing another parallel to Speaking of Faith: as a public radio program, we can often find ourselves in a similar predicament — both in the makeup of our listenership and of our colleagues. How much is it acceptable to “play to the crowd,” if at all? Do you feel that Speaking of Faith is operating inside a particular “Moral Matrix,” and if so, how?


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6 Comments

I feel that one of the joys of listening to Ms. Tippett's interviews is not only her well-informed and astute questions, but also her ability to say, "I'm just a beginner here, can you explain that again". This in itself is delightful, but it also let's the listener know she is just one of us.

Yes. My question is this: in the 7 or 8 years of SOF, where are your at-length interviews with the most articulate people who think that morals are not--as Mr. Haidt thinks--evolutionarily (i.e. relatively) existing, but absolute and intrinsic to every human person, even if we are in partial ignorance of them? Where are your interviews with the Peter Kreefts or Fr. Richard John Neuhaus's of the world? (If there are such interviews, I honestly would like to know. please email me the archive date)

Moreover, where are your interviews with people who can articulately defend--again I think of Peter Kreeft of Boston College or somone he, or Fr. Neuhaus, would recommend--the unique claims of Jesus Christ in all of history? (I don't start from the premise that Jesus's claims are true. I mean that his claims are, in context, unique in all of history. In that he said he was the transcendent God but did not act like a crazy person [as almost non-Christiansall admit he did not], was not a pantheist, and was not a constitutional liar [as almost all non-Christians admit]). Moreover there is the strong historical evidence for the Resurrection.

Yes, I think it's the moral matrix of postmodernism; the desire to find connection points with every belief system; the intention to find these points of connection and honor all worldviews. I wouldn't go so far as to say that SOF presents all views as being true so much as suggesting that if you dig deep enough, the roots of truth can indeed connect more than you might imagine. I find this stance at once compelling and disturbing. Compelling because I myself am a peacemaker and want to agree with everyone and find truth in everything. Disturbing because I fear that I will bargain away too much in my desire to agree, and come to find that I've lost my way and still not found peace.

Perhaps this is, like so many things, really an issue of balance --between accepting others' viewpoints and maintaining your own. As a production team we walk this line, between avoiding unnecessary provocation and offense, and presenting a perspective that is unique and challenging (but may provoke an allergic reaction from some.)

I don't know if comments on 2.5 year old blog posts get any attention, but just in case, here goes:   I would like to hear an interview with Jonathon Haidt on your program.  I like his work which seems to  be very  much aligned with On Being.  I arrived at this page when I searched the On Being web site for any references to him hoping to find a show in the past, but I found none.  I hope you are trying to schedule a time with him, which I will eagerly await. 

I have also recently discovered the work of Morris Fiorina, who is a political scientist who studies polling data and voting behavior.  A major theme of his work in the last decade is that the "Culture War" meme, which dominates our conversations about politics and government, represents only a small minority of extremists on the political spectrum and leaves out 80 to 90% of the population:  http://www.hoover.org/fellows/...

Greg, thanks for your suggestions and comments. I will definitely forward to Krista and our staff. ~Trent, senior editor