Good writing alert

Have I ever mentioned how much I admire Peggy Noonan’s writing? When she addresses difficult social issues she is clear, straightforward, concise, level-headed—and so warm! This column about the current border crisis is a good example of how she can help the average person understand the human fallout of a disastrous policy.

This is how I think normal people are experiencing what is happening:

It’s like you live in a house that’s falling apart. The roof needs to be patched and there are squirrels in the attic, a hornet’s nest in the eaves. The basement’s wet. The walkway to the front door is cracked with grass growing through it. The old boiler is making funny sounds. On top of that it’s always on your mind that you could lose your job tomorrow and must live within strict confines so you can meet the mortgage and pay the electric bill. You can’t keep the place up and you’re equal parts anxious, ashamed and angry. And then one morning you look outside and see . . . all these people standing on your property, looking at you, making some mute demand. Little children looking lost—no one’s taking care of them. Older ones settling in the garage, or working a window to the cellar. You call the cops. At first they don’t come. Then they come and shout through a bull horn and take some of the kids and put them in a shelter a few blocks away. But more kids keep coming! You call your alderman and he says there’s nothing he can do. Then he says wait, we’re going to pass a bill and get more money to handle the crisis. You ask, "Does that mean the kids will go home?" He says no, but it may make things feel more orderly. You call the local TV station and they come do a report on your stoop and then they’re gone, because really, what can they do, and after a few days it’s getting to be an old story.

No one’s in charge! No one is taking responsibility. No one who wants to help has authority, and no one with authority is helping.

What I like about this passage is that it is capable of reaching people who think differently, of conveying to them what the opposition is thinking and why it is reasonable, to enable empathy in the absence of agreement. Empathy is a vital social lubricant,, but we’re awfully short on it these days, taught instead to see it as a sign of weakness.

I just read a helpful book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I hesitate to recommend it because it let me down in certain ways—way too much emphasis for my taste on experimental results, backed up with just-so stories from evolutionary psychology, and the last third of the book promised a payoff that never really came. And since Haidt is an excellent writer, I found it all the more frustrating.

But Haidt did note that there has been a profound shift in psychological theory recently (at which he is at the forefront, so take it with a grain of salt) which dethrones reason and gives it an important but subsidiary role in thinking. Which explains why the truth has no persuasive power on its own. And why it’s hard to persuade someone of something when their salary depends on them not believing it. And why you can’t change someone’s mind by pointing out what is objectively a flaw in their reasoning.

If this is a real shift in psychological theory, better books are probably on their way. Anyway, if you’re interested in exploring this and can handle a frustrating reading experience (I managed it with the help of frequent skimming), take a look at Haidt’s book.


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