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By James Kyne Ph.D. and Sonya Thomas LCSW

John Stuart Mill, in his classic essay On Liberty, wrote this:  “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.”1 Inspired by Mills and embracing a spirit of humility, intellectual curiosity, and a healthy dose of humor, we hope to lead NPI in an exploration and cultivation of Viewpoint Diversity.

Viewpoint Diversity is defined as having a diversity of viewpoints, perspectives, ideologies, moralities, and values systems coexisting in a single cultural space such that all viewpoints are enriched. The concept has been developed by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU, and colleagues at Heterodox Academy and is grounded in Haidt et al.’s Moral Foundations Theory. In this age of extreme political polarization and tribalism threatening relational ties as well as liberal democracy, it behooves us to evaluate the degree to which a lack of viewpoint diversity in our membership might impoverish us intellectually and limit our ability to engage with and positively influence the culture around us. During this project, we hope to “cultivate reasoned conversations, deepen empathy, improve the ability to see beyond one’s own perspective, and increase our capacity for meaningful engagement with diverse others.”2

What was true in 1958 remains true today — as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. so wisely said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they do not communicate with each other.”  And as longtime NPI member Cynthia Ezell wisely says, “It seems to me that some of us on the progressive side can make the same mistake that we accuse conservatives of making: not being curious about those who don’t hold our perspective. It is easy to dismiss those on “the right” as being merely ignorant or ill-intentioned when the reasons for their positions are likely more complex than we imagine. Only if we approach our ideological counterparts with a sense of curiosity can there ever be constructive dialogue.”

Beyond the benefits of cultivating Viewpoint Diversity to our professional community and to the community at large, there are also compelling clinical implications for deepening our understanding of it:

  • We’re all familiar with the concept of splitting (also called black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking): the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defense mechanism used by many that limits individuals’ capacity for vital engagement with others and with themselves and generates excess fear and anxiety. Many of our clients live in marriages and families and relational communities characterized by ideological differences. Clients often need help in knowing how to handle themselves in settings that provoke splitting and generate a lot of anxiety. Understanding Moral Foundations Theory allows our clients and ourselves to form a more coherent, cohesive, and realistic view of ourselves and those who differ from ourselves such that anxiety about engaging with them can be reduced.
  • Peter Fonagy and Anthony Bateman write, “Mentalization, or better mentalizing, is the process by which we make sense of each other and ourselves, implicitly and explicitly, in terms of subjective states and mental processes. It is a profoundly social construct in the sense that we are attentive to the mental states of those we are with, physically or psychologically. Given the generality of this definition, most mental disorders will inevitably involve some difficulties with mentalization.”3 Our patients (and ourselves) are often frightened by those others of whom they cannot make sense. Alternately, we are often frightened by ourselves when we cannot make sense of ourselves. Moral Foundations Theory provides a framework in which we can help our patients make more sense of their own and others’ moral judgments and, thus, better mentalize.
  • We are all always struggling to manage transference and countertransference dynamics in our work. Often, our clients’ moral commitments provoke and evoke strong feelings in us that we’d like to be able to contain and reflect on so as to possibly use in the therapy. This, of course, is not always easy. We think that improved mentalization (see bullet point above) in ourselves will increase our chances of managing transference and countertransference dynamics in sessions. Moral Foundations Theory provides an interpretive lens through which we can better mentalize or make sense out of those dynamics when they involve issues related to moral judgments.
  • We embrace the slogan “Thinking clearly while feeling fully” as aspirational in our own lives and sometimes offer it to our clients for their consideration. It’s hard to do consistently. Our clients often struggle to think clearly while feeling fully and this is especially true where morality is concerned. They can be emotionally overwhelmed and unable to think clearly or they can engage in intellectualization and think logically without access to their feelings. Often, couples and families get caught in the familiar dynamic of one person feeling fully but being unable to think clearly and the other thinking clearly but without any sensitivity to anyone’s feelings. Again, this is especially true in regard to moral matters. Moral Foundations Theory can be used as an interpretive lens through which people can make sense of and validate the viewpoints of others without having to agree with them. Differences in moral reasoning can be identified and appreciated rather than attacked.
  • Freud considered a certain state of emotional and/or intellectual ambivalence as a sign of psychological health. To be able to hold opposing views or feelings, consciously and reflectively, in mind vis-a-vis persons, places, or things is healthy ambivalence. To be angry with those we love, to criticize those we admire, to wish to hold on while letting go are all examples. Repression, isolation, displacement, and splitting are all defenses marking the transient collapse of this kind of ambivalence or its unattainability. In our own exploration of Moral Foundations Theory we’ve found ourselves experiencing a lot of this particular type of ambivalence and it can paradoxically be calming and clarifying. We’re curious to explore ways in which these benefits might have clinical applications.

The Viewpoint Diversity Project steering committee is chaired by Sonya Thomas and Jamie Kyne, and includes Rhonda Scarlata, Patrick Nitch, Rebecca Selove, April Broussard, Robert DeSalvo, Rebecca Selove, Angela Hart, Eve VanZant, and Christina Oliver.  We will be hosting a series of monthly Meetups organized around deepening our understanding of Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory.  Grounded in his theory, we hope to move into exploring provocative topics such as impingements on free speech, the 2ndAmendment, #MeToo, Immigration, and the cultural divide between the classes. Participation is strictly voluntary, and there is no expectation or pressure to join in the conversation.  Valuing informed consent, we encourage all who choose to participate to expect to be challenged, provoked and to possibly experience a sense of aporia.

The framework for the project includes monthly Meetups, which will be announced via the NPI listserv.  There will be limited rsvp capacity and it will be first come, first serve.  Meetups will vary in format, and will center on preselected reading material, a lecture/TED talk, etc., with a discussion and/or experiential component included.  For those who are unable to attend the Meetups, we will keep an updated, chronological list of all materials used on the Viewpoint Diversity page of the NPI website.  Before attending any Meetups, as a prerequisite, we are requiring that all who participate complete the 5 module Open Mind app, as well as take the Moral Foundations questionnaire and keep their results.  This will ground all participants in the concepts and will preclude spending valuable Meetup time teaching the basics of the material.  Here are the steps to take now to prepare for participation in this exciting project:

  • Make sure you are a member of theNPI Meetup Group.
  • Complete the Morals Foundations Assessment. Be sure to take the 2nd questionnaire on this list called “Moral Foundations Questionnaire.” Allow 15 minutes.  It is very important to keep your results by taking a screenshot of them or making a pdf.
  • Complete all 5 modules of the Open Mind app (allow 90 minutes total, and you can break it up into parts as small as you’d like):
    • Go to https://openmindplatform.org/app-use
    •  Create a username and password. This will enable you to         save your progress and to login from different devices.
    • After creating your username and password, you will be prompted to enter an access code. Enter: NPI2018(case sensitive).

1   https://www.utilitarianism.com/ol/one.html

2   https://heterodoxacademy.org

3   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2816926/