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The On Being Project

Stepping Outside the Moral Matrix

Recently on my way to work I watched Jonathon Haidt’s TED talk on “the real difference between liberals and conservatives.” I’m sure it’s no mistake that this talk was published last week — whether you aim to participate or not, partisanship is almost impossible to avoid this close to an election.

In his talk, Haidt breaks down human moral values into five basic elements, then shows how an individual’s placement on the liberal-conservative spectrum is determined by how much emphasis that person puts on each of these values. Once an individual settles into a particular place on that spectrum, that person becomes stuck in what Haidt describes as a “Moral Matrix” (yes, he is alluding to the movie) — we cease to be able to see a moral reality other than our own. The major thrust of Haidt’s talk seems to be that, even though it’s human nature to settle into a moral viewpoint, we can all benefit from “taking the red pill” and stepping out of our “Moral Matrix.”

This interests me especially because, while for many it’s something to work toward personally — like recycling your plastics or eating enough leafy greens — for myself and the rest of the SOF staff it’s a job requirement. Being new to journalism, this is one of the things that caught me a little bit off-guard when I first started working here. For a good portion of my life I have seen political involvement as an inherently virtuous activity — something any upstanding citizen should do. So it was a little strange to realize that as a producer for a journalistic program I was now obligated to think about “conflict of interest” when considering my involvement in any kind of political activity. This issue has become more present than ever now that we are in the middle of producing a two-part series focusing on American politics (you may have already seen the preview of Krista’s conversation with Amy Sullivan), and as our staff discussion of the presidential election sometimes walks the line between editorial analysis and personal belief.

This brings me to one other thing that interested me about Haidt’s presentation: although his message was about moving away from partisanship, he also acknowledged that the audience he was speaking to was predominately made up of social liberals. However, rather than challenge this bias, he definitely played directly to the crowd with the sort of humor he used. It seems that there’s an unavoidable irony in this approach, but perhaps Haidt felt it was more constructive to say, “Hey, I’m one of you,” so that his message would be more openly received. I couldn’t help drawing another parallel to On Being: as a public radio program, we can often find ourselves in a similar predicament — both in the makeup of our listenership and of our colleagues. How much is it acceptable to “play to the crowd,” if at all? Do you feel that On Being is operating inside a particular “Moral Matrix,” and if so, how?

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