My Turn: Intuition and feelings in the hardest of times

For the Monitor
Published: 6/30/2020 6:00:27 AM

People have been asking me why I haven’t written a piece for the Monitor lately. Part of my struggle has been trying to understand the serious divide between people in our society and between politicians.

I’m reminded of the folk song “Which side are you on?” It seems I’m on the side with people who feel betrayed by militarized police, diminished by deadly racism, deprived by self-serving capitalism, discouraged about environmental abuse, stressed by COVID-19, deceived by the Israeli annexation movement, and insulted by the president flashing a Bible for a photo in front of St. John’s church.

My spirit is overwhelmed by feelings of anger, grief, despair, guilt, cynicism, and sarcasm. How can I cross the divide to understand those who feel differently about these existential situations?

I’ve been helped by recalling Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt argues that people rely primarily on spontaneous intuition and feelings to discern what is right. Intuition and feelings guide responses to situations and influence loyalty to compatible groups and institutions.

Haidt establishes that feelings are trusted more than any reasoned opinions or viewpoints. Intuiting what is right almost always wins over rationality.

Yet we, including myself, continue to use well explained facts and reason as the logical way to change intuition and feelings. There must be another way to cross the chasm of what feels right in America.

Consider the chasm dividing a white man holding a military-style rifle standing among nonviolent protesters at the Black Lives Matter rally in Manchester. The man feels right to openly carry a deadly weapon and wear the colors of the far-right Boogaloo movement at this event. He feels he is contributing to the safety of the people gathered. The nonviolent protesters feel empathy for powerless people, feel it’s wrong to protest with deadly force, and feel the police are abusing their power.

Also, they know that a person of color openly carrying a rifle would be at risk to being killed for being Black. The feelings and beliefs between the man with the gun and the nonviolent protesters are diametrically opposed, very difficult to overcome.

I’ve been watching early episodes of M*A*S*H during isolate-at-home time. Each episode centers around differing feelings and intuitions. In one episode, Captains McIntyre and Pierce invite Corporal Riley to eat lunch with them. They feel that honoring dignity and equality are of primary importance. However, Majors Houlihan and Burns demanded the corporal leave the table. They feel primary affinity with military authority, the hierarchy of rank, and separation of officers from enlisted personnel. They appeal to Lt. Col. Henry Blake. He refuses to choose a side. Trying to maintain cohesion in the unit, Henry reasons, pleads, and gives orders. But nothing helps. Feelings are obstinate. Therefore, to work around them, the characters resort to deception, trickery, manipulation, and cajoling others to their side (also, humor offers dramatic relief).

M*A*S*H reflects our divided nation, stymied by the rigidity of intuition and feelings. Politics, commentaries, reporting, and social media have resorted to misinformation, deception, threats, and character assassination to lure people to their side. Labels and judgment are popular. Positions are hardening, widening the divide between political parties, cultures, skin color, organizations, and institutions.

The political realm is drafting a number of new laws and new structures in an attempt to end racism and police power abuses. These initiatives may be a reasonable and necessary responses to the urgency to save lives and affirm the dignity of Black people. However, over the lifetime of our country, reason, logic, and laws have failed to reach how people feel. People continue to seek ways around laws conflicting with their feelings.

A real-life alternative is revealed in the report of the conflict between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper (not related) in Central Park. Christian asks Amy to leash her dog. Amy responds by calling 911: “There is an African American man threatening my life.” Viewers interpret Amy’s action as a racist expression of her white privilege, consciously putting a black man into a very dangerous situation.

However, there is more to the story. Amy wrote in a letter of apology: “He had every right to request that I leash my dog in an area where it was required. I am well aware of the pain that misassumptions and insensitive statements about race cause and would never have imagined that I would be involved in the type of incident that occurred with Chris.”

Christian Cooper acknowledged that Amy was acting “in a moment of stress… consciously or unconsciously, trying to deploy… (her) fear of African American males.” These two statements opened up the possibility for Amy and Christian to talk together about their feelings: Amy’s white privilege and why she fears Black men, Christian’s second-class citizenship and why he fears police.

The good news is some of these conversations have begun in interviews following the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The bad news is many commentators and social media are still focused on labels and judgment.

In spite of Amy’s confession, apology, and being ready to seek understanding for her feelings and Christian’s danger, she has lost her job and her personal history has been used to discredit her.

And so here we are, a nation divided, stymied by the rigidity of intuition and feelings. Our feelings and intuitions are precious to us and define our identities. People are in the streets around the world declaring Black Lives Matter and demanding change, particularly methods of policing. This time they may be heard. Change is in the wind. However, to maintain the momentum it will be important to support new laws and the reform of institutional cultures and structures by looking at the roots of feelings and intuition.

Looking for the source of feelings risks change. Doing it with others makes us vulnerable. But it may be worth it to facilitate real systemic change and end racism.

It is important to ask ourselves and each other why we feel the way we do. How have family traditions, stories, and cultural norms, personal experiences of early childhood, and understandings of American history formed our feelings about what is right? Notice how the answers have been an integrated into personal identity. Notice how each other is affected by intuition and feelings about what is right. Listen to each other. And then be prepared for change.

(John Buttrick lives in Concord and can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com.)




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