Amy at Texas Faith: “The Righteous Mind” of the Brothers Tsarnaev

FYI from AMY: Be sure to read all the panel replies, but especially look for Matthew Wilson, Associate Professor of Political Science at Southern Methodist University, and our Buddhist member Ric Dexter.

TEXAS FAITH: “The Righteous Mind” of the Brothers Tsarnaev



The last week obviously has been a difficult one, from Boston to West, Texas to Kaufman County. There are many ways to go with all the events of the last week, but the topic that I would like you all to discuss plays into what we have talked about in the past about holding strong views and yet respecting differences.

Here it is:

The part of the Boston story that mystifies me is how two brothers reportedly led fairly normal lives after they came to Boston, but then something flipped and their thinking grew rigid. So rigid that they decided to blow up innocents along the Boston Marathon route in order to make a statement.

How does something like that happen?

Jonathan Haidt argues in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion that the righteous mind can readily shift into combat mode in political and moral arguments. We launch rhetorical grenades, which impress members of our own group, writes Haidt. But that does little to change the minds of our opponents, especially if they are in combat mode, too.

Of course, the Tsarnaev brothers did more than launch rhetorical grenades. They chose murder over the hard work of persuasion.

“If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter,” Haidt counters, ” you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you truly do see it the other person’s way — deeply and intuitively — you might even find your own mind opening in response.”
In other words, it is risky business trying to persuade people. The exercise may prompt us to change our own minds, which can be unsettling.”

So, here’s the question for you:

Is it possible to keep the combat mode of the righteous mind from kicking in? If so, how?


AMY MARTIN, Executive Director, Earth Rhythms; Writer/Editor, Moonlady Media

The combat mode of the righteous mind arises from the limbic system of the brain, the first part of the brain to develop, the part that enabled humans to survive in the predatorial jungle. From the limbic system, sometimes called the reptilian brain, arises the flight or fight impulse driven by biochemicals such as adrenaline and dopamine. The emotions caused by these biochemicals feel real because they manifest so physically.

For humans to quiet the combat mode, we must admit that much of our thinking is not free-will thought, but instigated instead by biochemicals ordered up by the limbic. This will require learning about the brain, how it works and how easily it can be manipulated — something that should be taught in grammar school, revisited often in the hormonal high-school years, and delved deeply into during higher education.

But here’s the problem. Religious evangelism, political persuasion, television news and advertising of all types are dependent on a limbic brain run amok. The action-reaction cycle is the hamster wheel that drives all those enterprises. For too many, conflict is the only force that gives life meaning, its rush of biochemicals help them feel fully engaged in life. It’s certainly easier than thinking.

The limbic system is geared for on or off, do or not do, die or not die. It fosters polarity. Underlying all terrorism, bigotry and righteousness is a deep belief in duality and a mind mired in polarity, a brain that thinks “If I am good, then you must be bad. If I am right, then you must be wrong.” Fear of The Other, us versus them. This polarized worldview does not acknowledge that there may be more than one right answer or that solutions are invariably complex. It is mired in dualism and hierarchy, bogged down in separation, limitation and domination.

The only way to end the reign of righteous extremism, whether political or religious or both, is to consciously evolve into awareness. To make a choice that peace is a priority. To be mindful. We must pull out of our ego inwardness and acknowledge that continual war on whatever level, for whatever reason, is no longer sustainable. Technology and industry’s capacity to kill multitudes in mere minutes forbids it. We are the product of 100,000 years of human evolution. We need to start acting like it.