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COLUMN: MLK’s life should inspire us to disagree peacefully
RELEASE|January 19, 2021
Contact: Mark Tisdel

A column by State Rep. Mark Tisdel, of Rochester Hills

Monday, all government buildings in Lansing were closed to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day. The remainder of the business week, all state government buildings are closed due to “credible threats” of violence. Call it irony.

On Jan. 6, Americans watched with disbelief and disgust as lawless rioters, allegedly following perceived approval from President Trump, proceeded to break into the U.S. Capitol building, destroy property, deface valued symbols of American tradition, and threaten elected officials. These alleged “Trump followers” were carrying political banners, American flags and the Confederate battle flag. As I read reports of their actions, and saw photographs and videos of the destruction, I could not help but wonder, “who are these people?”

Social scientists and psychologists have been studying the beliefs, moral foundations and personality types that motivate political action for years. Professor Jonathan Haidt of the NYU Stern School of Business is one of today’s most prolific researchers on these topics.

It is widely recognized that we all have some combination of the “Big Five” personality types: Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness. Further, social science has identified five “Moral Foundations” found throughout the world and throughout time: Harm, Fairness, Ingroup, Authority and Purity. Professor Haidt, along with many others, have determined that an individual’s political orientation “appears to reflect the moral foundations that are considered most relevant…sorting American voters into parties according to personality types.” Let’s apply this research to those “Trump supporters” who broke into the U.S. Capitol building, destroyed honored property and threatened lives.

According to Haidt et al, and recent research from Harvard Department of Psychology, “conservatives tend to rely more on ingroup (loyalty), authority (respect for traditions) and purity (live virtuously).” Haidt goes on to say that, “conscientiousness is positively associated with conservatism.”

Conscientiousness, one of the “Big Five” personality types, is associated with orderliness, politeness and adherence to norms and rules. These personality traits certainly were not reflected in the behaviors of the “Trump supporters” who created such mayhem and pointless physical and emotional damage on Jan. 6. It is also difficult to see where anything resembling a “moral foundation” could justify and motivate such senseless criminal behavior. Ingroup loyalty? Loyalty to what? A president determined to create the perception that his re-election was stolen rather than leave the White House as a loser?

Liberals are identified with the openness personality trait and adhere to the moral foundations of an aversion to harm and a strong desire for fairness. There was nothing in the behaviors of the “Trump supporter” mob that could be remotely associated with the openness, harm and fairness values.

Finally, in “Disagree Better Not Less,” author Arthur Brooks gives us three simple rules: 1) Never try to insult someone into agreement; 2) Never assume the motives of other people; and 3) Use your values as a gift not as a weapon.

So, who are these “Trump supporters” that stormed our federal Capitol building and humiliated themselves by publishing incriminating selfies and videos on social media outlets? This mob of aberrant renegades may have seen themselves as warriors for truth, justice and the American way. They were more than free with their insults, they grossly misrepresented the motives of tens of thousands of honorable election officials, and they certainly used their values as weapons, e.g., beating Capitol police with handheld flagpoles flying the red, white and blue.

The thugs who overran the Capitol police and made a mockery of American values cannot be associated with openness and an aversion harm. Neither can these lawless renegades be said to be conscientious and respectful of authority. Rather, their internal value judgements led them to believe their “revolution” was an honorable pursuit of truth. Delusion is not one of the Big Five personality traits or moral foundations (neuroticism is). Delusion is an act of selfish indulgence and an irrational belief that one’s opinion is the only “right” answer for America’s shortcomings.

January 6, 2021 is a lesson for all of us. We must understand that our political insights are, very likely, a part of our inherited traits that form our personalities and moral foundations. We must recognize that no one holds the single “right” answer for everyone else. Lastly, we must learn to disagree better: Put away the insults, argue ideas rather than perceived motives, and use our values as gifts.

As we honor MLK this week and wait eagerly for our state Capitol and government buildings in Lansing to reopen, I pray we can all learn to disagree better – for the sake of our nation.

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