“I Know I’m Right !”— the illusory virtue of moral conviction
It seems like the entire world is in a stoush over something or other right now. We’ve heard the word “polarised” a lot lately, and it got me pondering on whether we are, as a species, truly diverging. Or if we simply live in an age where our divisions are more visible to each other. To be human is to disagree, maybe?
I confess I’ve never been much good at verbal sparring. I know some people relish it, but I become a little paralysed when I encounter people who are openly and loudly opposed to my deepest moral beliefs and wish to enter into a debate. For some reason, avoiding them seems to make more sense to me than going head-to-head. I mean…it’s not like I’ll be able to change their point of view. What an exercise in futility.
This says, I suppose, that I’m more focused on the outcome than the process. Yet some people just love the process. And I can imagine the upside: there has to be a dopamine hit from the intellectual combat and maybe even an opportunity to discharge emotion and energy.
But tell me…these process people... do they really expect or want the other person to change? Do they care? Or is the process enough? Is the high of believing (knowing) you’re morally right, the payoff?
In my weekly podcast chow down, I recently listened to Hidden Brain’s Moral Combat. It explores the studies into how blinded we are by our moral convictions. Our deeply held beliefs and values are not simply an intellectual choice. They are moral imperatives that are not up for discussion. We know them in the way we know our name and who we love. And because they are what we “feel”, it literally makes it impossible for us to hear or accept another point of view on that particular subject. Doing so, threatens to shatter the foundations of who we are in the world. There is no value for us in listening.
Right back at the start of the pandemic, eminent psychologist Rob Kegan talked about the opportunity humanity had been handed by Covid, to transform in some way. How often does the whole world have their attention focused in one direction, he asked? That kind of energy is a rare phenomenon. He was curious about what might come from it.
And certainly, during this time, the discussion about racial discrimination has surged to a crest. Was this perhaps what he meant? Are we finally together in a space where we can effect great change?
I hope so.
With these thoughts sloshing about in my head, I sought out Simon Sinek’s discussion with Deeyah Khan in a podcast entitled Extreme Listening. She’s an extraordinary documentary maker (and a Muslim woman) who has spent time getting to know members of the Jihadi movement and white supremacists. Deeyah took her fears, frustrations, and anger and molded them into genuine desire to understand her mortal enemy. She didn’t set out to bend them to her will (outcome), or simply vent through arguing with them (process), she genuinely wanted to know why they held the beliefs they did.
Deeyah’s work has been a bit of a revelation for me. Rather than walking away from people who I am morally at odds with, I could seek them out and listen harder to them. If I’m to learn anything, I could climb down from my moral high ground and truly, deeply, radically, and extremely listen. Not just to the other person’s surface tensions, but for what lies underneath. We may still disagree, but if I hear them (and they feel heard), the quieter path might lead us to some common ground.
So, perhaps, the moment in time that Rob Kegan was talking about is actually here. But maybe its not an action moment — rather a listening moment. Maybe the arguments dividing the world right now are telling us something much more fundamental about our humanity.
We’re in danger of losing our hearing. Time to dial down the trumpeting, and dial up the attention.