Anger, Belief, Moral Framework and Conflict: Part II – Marc MacYoung

Last time we looked at how anger, preserving one’s sense of self-worth and core beliefs can get us into conflict. Now we’re going to look at:

A – How beliefs shape our morality.
B – How different moral emphasis’s can keep us from coming to resolution.
C- How certain people have weaponized their so-called morality to justify their attacks on you.

This concept is is bigger and deeper than many people realize. It’s also the source of what I call “anger based morality.” A beast that is, unfortunately, on the rise in our modern society. In another installment we’ll deal with nuts and bolts on how to handle belief based anger and anger based morality. But in this this one, let’s introduce you to the growing trend of sanctimonious rage

We’re going to start with all moral systems are belief systems — even secular ones. (Veganism makes more sense when you look at it as a religion, focused on moral conduct and purity.) If you read the last installment you’ll remember how anger and preservation of core beliefs are connected. Thing is they need protecting. Beliefs, and by extension, moral systems are largely based on unprovable assumptions, assertions and conclusions that a group of people have made and maintained over a long period of time.

But just because they are beliefs, do not dismiss them.

First off, remember belief is how we organize our thoughts against being overwhelmed by the universe. The human ego is ill equipped to handle infinity without the safety net of beliefs to keep us sane.

Second, beliefs are crucial to our self-identity, self-worth, and worldview. They are the basis of our behavior, choices and how we treat others.

Oh, for the record, when I say that moral systems are based on unprovable assumptions that does not mean that the systems arising from them don’t have a proven track record. They do, usually a very impressive one. (Like keeping millions of people living together and functioning with minimal bloodshed.) So while the core assumptions may not be solid, the results can be. Or they can become a disaster. But the nature of our beliefs are going to affect self-identity, self-worth worldview, our morality and ethics.

Third: Our beliefs are a filter that we run almost every decision through.

It’s not an exaggeration to say: Beliefs gets us through the day. Think of how many decisions you make every day. Once we’ve made up our mind (picked a belief) it turbo charges our decision making process. When we encounter an event or idea we run it through a belief filter to find where we stand on the issue. If it fits, then ‘yes.’ If it doesn’t then ‘no.’ Putting this in computer terms, beliefs speed up processor speeds by automatically deleting many other options.

In a small sense it can be as simple as ruling out two local restaurants because you don’t like _____ (fill in the blank) food when it comes to ‘where to have lunch.’ But look at that same process in the bigger picture. Once we’ve decided a subject is good or bad we go from there. But how we go is we reject anything that doesn’t conform with our beliefs. For example: Violence is bad. Once we’ve accepted that belief. Any violence is automatically bad, as is anyone who does it. That saves us from having to think.

This filter idea is important, because it really isn’t thinking about the subject. It’s “here’s the template, does this new data conform, yes or no?” That’s not really thinking, it’s judging. And judging saves us the skull sweat of having to actually think about the complexities of the issue. (This by the way why a child asking ‘why’ is so annoying — especially about social issues adults just take for granted. We really can’t come up with solid reasons for belief filtered decisions.)

But here’s the fly in the ointment. Many of us believe ‘belief’ is weak, if not bad. We’re smarter and better than that. We identify ourselves as ‘rational’ because we tell ourselves we’re rational. (Yes, it’s a self-eating watermelon.) But it can go further, it can lead to a form of fanaticism about how rational we are. Many people have transferred their zealotry from religion to secular causes and ideologies. It can bleed over from just being convinced we’re rational into telling ourselves because we are so smart we are right and good — no matter how judgmental, prejudiced, hostile and violent we’re being.

Oh and in case you’re wondering about the science behind this idea. MRIs of brain activity show a decision is made in the non-logical parts of the brain, before the logic and speech parts are activated. That means, when faced with a situation requiring a choice or interpretation, the decision is usually made (filtered) immediately and then we ‘think’ about how to communicate it. In other cases, the stimuli is received, the decision is made and we immediately act on it without conscious thought. (Don’t condemn this process, it’s what allows us to drive a car.)

Putting it another way, most people’s thinking is actually done after the judging. That’s when they communicate their decision. Often they also supply ‘reasons’ to justify the decision. If resistance is met, it upgrades to defending their filtered decision. This does require ‘thinking.’ But, even then, this is not rational thought, it’s usually rationalizing thought. (With just enough cherry picked ‘facts’ to convince ourselves we made an informed conclusion.) Realize many people not only don’t distinguish between filtering and thinking, but they honestly believe filtering is thinking. Not even close. But recognize all the skullsweat we put into communicating and defending our decision is central to our belief that we’re being rational and base our opinions on facts, not operating from belief.

The truth is our ‘reasons’ for filtered decisions are usually pretty weak. When we self-isolate ourselves among like minded people we never find this out. If pressed we’re likely to resort to “soundbites” that work in the echo chamber. If those don’t carry the day, we usually just respond by becoming angry and doing personal attacks about the other person. (Spend a week on social media and you’ll see all kinds of name calling and insults). This is anger preserving our core beliefs. But recognize how it protects us too. This anger keeps us from seeing exactly how weak our arguments in support of our beliefs really are. Also if we’re lucky, it distracts the other person from presenting information dangerous to what we believe.

Remember how tied into anger self-worth and core beliefs tie are? How anger is used in the preservation of those? Well we’ve now laid the groundwork for bumping it up a notch and it become chronic, self-righteous rage. Rage that is fueled by offended morality out looking for targets. In case you haven’t been outside lately, there are a lot of people for whom outrage has become not just a philosophy, but a way of life. Despite your best efforts to avoid them, you might have even run into one or two of them.

Stop and think about the last time you saw (or were involved in) a discussion over a hot button topic. How dare someone not agree with our filtered decision! In many cases if someone disagrees, that person isn’t just stupid and wrong, they are evil.

Wait… you’re evil for just disagreeing with someone?

That isn’t just illogical, it is so left-field and emotional it’s unnerving. This especially when we see that the person saying it is convinced he or she has made a rational and informed judgment about that other person. (Which is a contradiction in terms; it should be a rational and informed decision. But remember we’re talking belief based judgments here.) From as little as one sentence, the accuser has the ability to judge and condemn the whole person because he/she is a ____ist, ____ive, ____ican, ___ian, or some other label? This venomous rhetoric, anger, blind conviction, and condemnation don’t make sense until you look at this behavior from the perspective of moral outrage and zealotry. It may not religious, but it is zealotry.

Focus especially on the authority behind this behavior. This is no longer “God is the authority for our actions,” for many anger has become the unquestionable source and justification for behavior. It’s not just that their moral beliefs cause them anger (which it often does), it’s more their ethics and morality are anger based. First, they are morally justified in what they are doing because they are angry. Second, their anger becomes sanctified because it arises from their beliefs and morals.

Anger based morality, that’s an ugly concept. If we consider anger as an act of ego, we’re floating into some dangerous waters. Because now we’re dealing with an individual’s self-righteous anger being sanctified as righteous anger because of a bigger cause than just ego.

What could have been selfish or misguided (how many times have you gotten angry and discovered you were wrong) now becomes an absolute and unquestionable TRUTH!™ This truth becomes the authority upon which they act. In case you missed it, that just became an excuse for abuse. But it goes further than that. The greater the perceived wrong, the more uncompromising and dogmatic the anger. Fury becomes their ultimate moral authority. Stop and think about some of the many ways that could go bad.

So know they’re out there, but also know it takes time and mental gymnastics before you run across that extreme. As such it’s worth looking at how — in less extreme cases –morality influences conflict. We’re going to look at that and a few other things.

One of those others we’re going to look at is how different systems of morality can create an abyss between us and someone we’re in conflict with. An abyss that makes it nearly impossible to come to resolution if you don’t recognize it. When you recognize it you can come up with work arounds. The trick is to recognize it.

This chasm goes deeper than “I’m an A and you’re a B.” That’s a crack in the ground. Often these are variations within a system (e.g., the difference between a Southern Baptist and a Freewill Baptist). These differences often manifest as doctrinal points and/or interpretation. Although these doctrinal differences can grow into schisms, there’s more in common than not.

A ravine is “I’m an A and you’re a 3,527” That is trying to communicate across totally different systems (e.g., Muslim and Buddhist). While difficult, the fact that there are complete systems on either side makes it possible for communication. Here the commonalities are fewer and more general (e.g., both have a long standing moral codes that address the same issues). Still the chance of communication and finding a working solution exists.

But things can expand to an irreconcilable abyss when positions become entrenched. It is this entrenchment I want to take a quick look at. This is because it’s important for understanding the unrecognized problem I mentioned earlier. Just so you know, the ‘unrecognized problem’ is when two sides have a different number of moral foundations.

With both anger based morality and different numbers of moral foundations you can find yourself in an unpleasant situation. That is when someone isn’t interested in compromise — up to and including to the point of doing you harm. In some situations not only isn’t negotiation not going to work, there’s a good chance trying will make things worse. When compromise is truly impossible, that’s not only when you need to shift to other viable strategies, but recognize trying to negotiate is a waste of valuable time and resources.

So if you have to shift, do so knowing why it was necessary; that way you can explain yourself when called upon to do so.

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