Colloquy Downeast Blue Hill Maine

Colloquy Downeast

Spirited Conversations in Great Company

FacilitatorScott Miller and Sarah Everdell
Date & TimeWednesdays, October 6, 13, 20, 27
LocationHoward Room, Blue Hill Public Library and via Zoom

The nation’s political discourse has become increasingly polarized—that is one thing upon which voters leaning both left and right (and those in the middle) can agree. This colloquy will seek to help us understand better what’s driving the “other side:” Is it ignorance? Malice? Or something else?

The colloquy will be focused on the book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In this book, Haidt relates a series of psychological experiments whose results may challenge our assumptions about how people think and feel, provides a hypothesis about the differences between right-leaning and left-leaning people and relates it to the current political and cultural environment.

The reading will be supplemented with reviews of Haidt’s work, TED-type videos of Haidt and others on the subject.

The colloquy will be facilitated by Sarah Everdell and Scott Miller—who disagree on a wide variety of policy prescriptions, but agree that Haidt’s book is an extremely worthwhile read.


  ▼ Syllabus/Reading


Reading Materials

The Righteous Mind—Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt

This is the principal resource for our colloquy. It covers the emerging (over the last few decades) development of “moral psychology,” a subset of Social Psychology with a bit of Anthropology and Behavioral Economics mixed in.

New York Times Book Review, William Saletan [PDF]

It’s always useful to seek out at least one critique of anything like Haidt’s book—it can help put the subject matter in context.

Letters to The New York Times [PDF]

Some NY Times readers weren’t entirely satisfied with Mr. Saletan’s review of the book. Here are their letters to The Times.

Extra Credit

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Think Haidt is a “fringy kook?” Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel laureate (Economics) Daniel Kahneman touches on many of the same physical and psychological themes. In this book, and the field of Behavioral Economics generally, you can find ample examples of actual behavior that violates economist’s traditional simplifying assumption that all market participants are “rational.”

Even More Stuff (Articles, Columns, Op-Eds)

Social Scientist Sees Bias Within (New York Times) [PDF]

Democrats and Republicans are very bad at guessing each other’s beliefs (Washington Post) [PDF]

The Many Polarizations of America (New York Times) [PDF]

Online Videos

Don’t have enough time to get through the book? (It’s not that long, unless you’re going to study the footnotes!) Here are two TED talks that provide a whirlwind primer on Haidt’s thesis:

The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives (TED Talk, 18:24)

Can a Divided America Heal? (TED Talk, 20:17)

Internet Sites

Haidt and his academic collaborators have established several web sites for a range of purposes:

    • This site contains a series of surveys (from a variety of academics) to allow you to express your views and see how they compare to certain other groups. In order to track your survey results (for your own benefit), the system requires a simple registration process.
    • This site, which is only moderately active, appears focused on applying the principles of Haidt’s (and others’) research toward a more civil, constructive political dialogue.
    • Another online test of your implicit biases.See the scantily clad models…

Weekly Syllabus

We’ve mapped out the first three weeks of discussion to roughly track the three Parts of Haidt’s book. There’s plenty of material for a lively discussion. The last week will come around to “so what now?”

Week 1: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second

We all like to think of ourselves as being fundamentally rational, relatively dispassionate decision makers. But is this really the case?

We’ll begin with a review of the research and theory around the intuitions/reasoning hypothesis, then discuss some questions:

  • Do you recognize Haidt’s premise (intuitions first, reasoning second) in yourself, or are you an exception?
  • Did you take the “implict project” test? Were you surprised at the results? What did you learn?
  • What do you think of Haidt’s “How to Win an Argument” thesis? What examples of these techniques in current-day politics can you identify? Who do you consider the most effective persuaders for the “other side?”

Week 2: There’s more to morality than harm and fairness

Haidt outines six “moral foundations” or dimensions and claims that differences in interpretation and perceived importance amongst the six explains many of the differences in our (and others’) society.

We’ll review these moral foundations and discuss:

  • What do you think of Haidt’s description of his time in India. Can his views be reconciled with the concept of “universal rights” for, say, women?
  • How confident are you that your perspective is the “correct” one? How do you guard against ethnocentrism?
  • Are the six dimensions Haidt has selected sensible and useful? Or do you believe some of them are just wrongheaded and unimportant (or worse, as some NYTimes letter-writers suggest, “evils” that should be minimized or eradicated)?

Week 3: Morality binds and blinds

Haidt also explores how humans are both “selfish” and “groupish.” And how (he hypothesizes) the “groupish” traits came into being and what, even in today’s society, are triggers for groupish behavior.

  • Do you recognize/agree with the triggers he has identified?
  • Is groupishness (in general) good, bad or good (but only for your own team)? Over time, should it be encouraged, discouraged, or just left to develop (or atrophy) on its own?

Week 4: So what now?

So what does all of this mean for us—on the Blue Hill Peninsula, in Maine, in the U.S. and in the world?

  • How have our perspectives on the political divide changed (if at all) from Haidt’s explication?
  • What does it suggest about how to interact with the “other side?”
  • Has it changed our own political views in any way? Or perspective on those with different views?

We may also have some exercises (i.e., homework) to explore the “so what” in more detail and to try to apply some of Haidt’s theories.

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