On Thanksgiving Eve, I drove south on Highway 27 towards Newnan just as the moon was rising and the sun was setting. The open rolling landscape gave me a constant view of the nearly full moon to my left, and the color show of the sunset to my right. It was all I could do to keep my eyes on the road ahead, and if I hadn’t been in a hurry to help with Thanksgiving preparations, I would have stopped to enjoy the show and take some pictures.
As I drove, I was listening to an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History”. If you’ve not listened, you should check it out. The premise of the series, per the website, is to “go back and reinterpret something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood.” I’ve only listened to a few episodes so far, but it is really a great series.
You should especially look up the episode I was listening to on my drive. It paints a fascinating picture of Larry Adler, a harmonica virtuoso who was quite the man-about-town back in the day. He rubbed elbows with all the great stars, including having an affair with Ingrid Bergman. He was good friends with Frank Loesser (pronounced “lesser”), a famous composer known for many great works, but most pertinent to the current season: he won an Academy Award for best song for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Adler was fond of Loesser, but he hated Loesser’s wife, referring to her as “the evil of two Loessers.” Clever, huh?
If you have been reading this column, you know that I am a big fan of a good play on words. I can’t resist a clever twist on a phrase, so Adler’s adage was stuck in my head for days. “The lesser of two evils”, of course, refers to choosing between two poor options, which we’ve all experienced. While I didn’t remember having heard this twist of the phrase before, it turns out “the evil of two lessers” was bantered about during the 2016 election when a good number of folks felt that neither presidential candidate was the right person for the job. No matter where you fall in the spectrum of outlook on that situation, there were a lot of people who considered the future bleak no matter to which side the votes fell. While both phrases basically mean the same thing, the latter refers to the particular peril of finding yourself in the predicament of the first. Make sense?
A few weeks ago, my friend Marc Bynum shared a TedTalk about the moral roots of liberals and conservatives by Jonathan Haidt, an American moral psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business. The premise of his talk is based on his researched conclusion that liberals tend to be more open to experience, while conservatives are more inclined to embrace that which is familiar and traditional. This is a really dense discussion and I hope you will consider seeking it out to get the full understanding of what he is proposing. I have watched it several times because there is so much to unpack and understand about the psychology of morality. His basic idea is that we are born with a first draft of a basic set of moral assumptions that is later shaped by our experiences to develop our own personal morals. His extensive research of how varying sources talk about morality establishes a basic list of five categories that are considered to be moral issues including Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity. Again, you really need to watch his talk to fully understand his point on these, but hopefully we can all agree that these five categories cover most questions of morality. If you consider the way that experiences will shape our perspective on the importance of each of these areas, you start to see that there could be trends on the two sides of the aisle, so to speak. To test this Haidt and his colleagues set up an online quiz that you can take at YourMorals.org and at the time of his talk, around 30,000 people had taken the quiz. He shows charts that process answers from about 23,000 people. The results are very interesting and do show that there is an absolute predictive formula to the way that people who associate with one team or the other view the moral dilemma.
I don’t have room to get into all of the details here (again, look it up!) but his conclusion is that we need the beliefs of both sides in order to maintain true moral balance in our society. As much as we would like to imagine eliminating the opposing perspective, as much as we want to feel that we are “right” and the other side is “wrong”, we are fooling ourselves to believe that we have the only answer. Haidt uses various examples of how this balance works, but probably the most easy to relate is the idea of the Eastern philosophy of yin and yang. The strength of the symbol of yin and yang is that each side relies on the resistance of the other to maintain balance. Without each other either side would collapse. You could say that we are facing the dilemma of “the evil of two lessers” when we try to rely only on our own outlook at the complete denial of other perspective. Neither choice can stand on its own, and it is only by consideration of another solution that we find the best results. On my drive, I got to enjoy the equal but opposite displays that were happening on either side of me, I didn’t have to choose. If it weren’t for the sun, the moon would not have shown so brightly, and so it is that sometimes it takes two lessers to make a whole right.
Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.