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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

Why are People So Mean? Challenge #2: The Other Team Matters

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Football season is here, and with it comes my annual moral tension. On one hand, I love the game. Some see it as brutal, but to me it is almost symphonic. I wasn't good enough to play college football, but playing in high school taught me valuable lessons about teamwork, discipline, diligence, and (gulp!) beauty. If everyone on a team does the job they are assigned, amazing things happen. Even beautiful things.

On the other hand, football may be brutal. As I see growing evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, I feel morally convicted about watching a game I love. Viewing inadvertently supports advertisers, and both viewing and advertisers unwittingly support children's aspirations to play football, which means watching my favored sport may make me complicit in harming others.

Oh, the dilemma. Some years I refuse to watch the game out of some semblance of moral conviction. Other years I watch and enjoy and revel in the athletic artistry.

This year I'm watching football, at least a little.

Loyalty is interesting when it comes to watching football. I tried watching a game this week when I didn't care which team won, and I only lasted halfway through the first quarter before finding a good book to read instead. But when I feel loyal to a team, I don't want to miss a single play!

Team loyalty twists up my head and heart. If my team makes a touchdown drive I say, "the offense is doing great." If the other team does the same, I say, "our defense is really struggling today." Why am I not congratulating the other team's offense? Or, more poignantly, do I feel more sadness about an injury on the team I follow than for a player on the other team? Human suffering is no respecter of uniform colors.

This blog post isn't about football. If you've read this far, you've stumbled into a series of posts about ways I want to challenge myself (and those who are reading along) to rise above the vitriol in today's world. This is the second of ten challenges for how not to be mean. It all started with a David Brooks article in The Atlantic called, "How America Got Mean." Brooks suggests we be more intentional about moral formation--an idea that is capturing my attention. And as a psychologist, I think my discipline has something to say about this, too.

What if the other team matters as much as the team I follow? And yes, this question is bigger than football.

While co-authoring a book with Paul McLaughlin a few years ago, I came across Jonathan Haidt's book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haight is a psychologist who studies moral development, and his book offers a poignant, far-reaching, sometimes controversial analysis of the ways we come to think about right and wrong. In college I learned about Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan, and they still show up in psychology textbooks, but it turns out a lot has happened since their pioneering work in moral development. Haidt's book is thick with scientific studies, but reads like a bestseller. Oh wait, it is a bestseller.

Here's the last paragraph of the last page of the last chapter of The Righteous Mind, engulfed by my sloppy use of a green highlighting pen.

Why are people so mean?

Because our conceptions of morality "binds and blinds" us. We form ourselves into alliances, believing ourselves to be more righteous than folks in the alliance across the street or across the world. Maybe it's the Presbyterians against the Methodists, the Christians against the Muslims, the theists against the atheists, the working class against the intelligentsia, red against blue, or the Seahawks against the Broncos.

And it's not just that we form ourselves into teams, but we end up seeing the values and beliefs of our particular team as morally superior, perhaps worth dying and killing for. Maybe some divisions really are that important. I'm in no position to determine that because I am filled with my own intractable cultural, religious, political, and personal perspectives. But many times our divisions may just be human brains doing what human brains do--thinking we're better than the other and that the wellbeing of the world depends on us being victorious, winning the day with our particular brand of righteousness.

One of my favorite On Being podcasts is when Krista Tippett interviews Frances Kissling and David Gushee. At one level, it's a conversation about being pro-life (as Gushee is) or pro-choice (as Kissling is), but on a deeper level it's about being pro-dialogue. At one point in the interview, Tippett asks both her guests to articulate the weakest part of their own argument and the strongest part of the other's. This is the sort of moral formation that Brooks is calling us toward--seeing and respecting the strengths in what "the other team" is saying rather than just retreating into our silos where we feast on the approval of our like-minded peers and admirers.

Here are some challenges I am pondering, and I invite you to consider them also:

  1. Will I look for value and goodness in those who oppose or disagree with me?

  2. Will I strain to see the best parts of their perspectives?

  3. Will I challenge myself to see the weakest parts of my own views?

  4. Am I willing to change my mind sometimes?

  5. Will I apologize when I get it wrong?

  6. Will I treat others with grace when they get it wrong?

  7. Will I have the humility to recognize that I can't know with certainty which of us is getting it wrong?


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