Sacredness and motivated ignorance

I recently had the chance to hear Jonathan Haidt, author of the new best-selling book (#6 on the NYTimes Bestseller list) The Righteous Mind, speak about his work.  Jonathan is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, he gave a great TED talk in 2008 on moral psychology and a few weeks ago he gave another great TED talk on transcendence.

It’s hard to imagine better timing for the publication of The Righteous Mind.  As chronicled in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, a significant part of the book focuses on why the political left and the political right in the United States don’t understand each other.  Given the unprecedented divides in U.S. politics today and the run-up to the presidential elections, The Righteous Mind is a sort of Rosetta Stone for deciphering everything from the Tea Party to the environmental movement to Occupy Wall Street.

Two of the underpinnings of Jonathan’s work – also explored by other authors – have already changed the way I understand the world.  The first is that reason follows intuition.   This means that we make decisions and form opinions with our intuitive minds, and then use our power to reason to support our intuitive decisions.  In Jonathan’s words, the intuitive (or emotional) dog wags the rational tail.   This is why we find it so incomprehensible that people with different moral outlooks don’t “just respond to the facts.”  We think that people look at facts to make decisions, when in fact they make decisions and then look for facts that support those decisions.

(and “people” isn’t everyone else, it’s you too.  That’s the really important part.)

The second big insight for me is around the notion of sacredness.  Jonathan argues that to begin to really understand people, you have to understand what is sacred to them.  The left and the right in the U.S. (on social issues) hold very different things sacred, and if you, in Jonathan’s words, “follow the sacredness” you’ll have a whole new window into how people process information and form their opinions.  So, as Jonathan described it, the right in the U.S. holds moral order, marriage and faith sacred; the left currently consider the environment and issues around race and social justice sacred.   In both cases, Jonathan argued that sacredness creates “motivated ignorance.”  In Jonathan’s words, “when sacredness conflicts with truth, truth gets thrown under the bus.”

This helps explain to an exasperated liberal why conservatives “just don’t get it” about global warming just as it explains to an exasperated conservative why liberals “just don’t get” having religiously-affiliated hospitals institutions pay for contraceptives for their members is morally abhorrent.

Needless to say, I’m better at seeing one side of this exasperation than the other.  And that’s exactly the point.  A lot of my blogging and my work begins with a deep belief in and respect for others and the power of empathy.  I’d also like to think of myself as an open-minded person.  But Jonathan’s work forces me to ask myself whether I create the space to really understand and appreciate what is sacred to other people whose morality differs fundamentally from my own.

It helps me understand why people won’t look at the same convincing, powerful facts that I will and just change their opinions.

It helps us all understand why we all have so much trouble understanding one another, why this country is so divided and why it seems to be getting worse, not better.

Jonathan’s request of us all in this 2008 TED talk is that we embrace moral humility, that we step out of the “moral matrix” that limits us to seeing and respecting people who share our morality and our values.  It is a challenging notion, and an important one, one that turns my world upside-down…in a good way.

Fundraising math and electoral politics

When I first joined Acumen Fund in January 2007, our goal was to raise $100 million in philanthropy in 24 months.  Like lots of things in life, a little ignorance goes a long way – I didn’t have direct fundraising experience and basically had no idea what it meant to raise $100 million in philanthropy.

We split things down the middle and set a $50 million target for 2007, and it was my job to lead the team to hit this goal.  Most of my energy in the early days was on building the fundraising pitch, figuring out the systems we would use, putting in place the building blocks that would set us up for success.

But, as I said, I didn’t have direct fundraising experience and a big part of what I needed to do was to get out there and fundraise.

What I remember like it was yesterday was when, in the spring of 2007, I personally closed my first $100,000 donation.  This is a lot of money, and I felt pretty chuffed that I had pulled this off.  I got the confirmation of the donation in an email while I was heading home, and I recall thinking, kind of vaguely and absentmindedly: how many of these would I have to pull off for us to hit our $50 million goal?

It sort of seemed like the answer to that question should have been 50, but of course it wasn’t, it was 500.  I would need, in the coming 8 months, to get 500 people to commit to give $100,000 each to reach a $50 million goal.

This is elementary math, but as anyone with fundraising experience will tell you, with a small team and a small organization, getting 500 people to commit to giving $100,000 is nearly impossible – the only way you’re going to hit a $50 million goal is either by creating a machine that can raise, say, five-hundred thousand $100 donations OR you focus your greatest effort on getting a very small number of $1 million, $5 million, even $10 million donations.  (We did the latter).

While I’m positive that I could have successfully divided $50 million by $100,000 long before I had my job at Acumen (in second grade, say) until you’ve sat in a fundraising seat (CEO, head of development, Board member, political candidate, etc.) you won’t feel the reality of this math in your gut.

This brings me over to the Presidential election and Super PACs.   Until recently the most you could give was $2,300 to a candidate, $30,800 to the national party, $46,200 to all candidates and $70,800 to all PACs and parties.  Under the new rules, Harold Simmons, who was described yesterday by the NY Times as “a wealthy Texas businessman,” has personally given $14 million to a revolving door of Super PACs supporting various Republican presidential contenders (Perry, Gingrich and Romney).  Simmons and another two dozen individuals have given more than $1 million to Republican Super PACs – their collective contributions total more than $50 million so far making them “easily the most influential and powerful political donors in politics today.”

So let’s be totally clear: what the fundraising math tells us is that these 7- and 8-figure donors are the entire center of gravity, they are dominating the US political system, they will end up having undue influence over both over the outcome of the electoral process AND the future decisions of our elected officials.  The gravitational force of this group, on both the Republican and Democratic side, is a black hole in the democratic process, sucking up whatever light was left in a system that was already mostly broken.

My real hope is that what is going on today with Super PACs is so beyond the pale that it could actually create a whiplash effect and give momentum to campaign finance reform…but I color myself skeptical on that count.  Less outlandishly improbable, 2012 will be an aberration and we will soon revert back to the old, still-broken system we used to have that, at least, was better than this one.