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The Silent Harmonize and the Blind See

I love harmony, so I rarely sing along with the congregation in church. My singing is best left for the shower. The problem is my timing and pitch control. My lack of rhythm was made painfully clear to me in 5th grade when my band director exclaimed in frustration, “You tap in one time and play in another. And neither one is right.” And my singing is even worse than my playing because I can’t hit the right notes.

There are three basic components of music – melody, rhythm, and harmony. Melody is a succession of notes, and rhythm is their pattern and emphasis. Harmony is a different series of notes that binds the rhythm and melody together, creating a pleasing sound and an emotional connection with the listener.

Harmony in groups is similar. When it is achieved it is not only pleasing, but neuroscience has discovered it improves judgment and the discovery of truth. The research shows that on our own we often sing the melody of truth off pitch and out of rhythm. As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind, “We should take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is… [it has] evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… [We] are not after truth but after arguments supporting our views.”

Teaming up with someone else doesn’t necessarily improve the situation since, as Three Dog Night reminds us, “Two can be as bad as one.” According to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, groups can be worse than individuals if everyone is singing the same melody. In Noise, his book on judgment errors, he cautions that “…when individuals hold certain beliefs, they become more extreme in their beliefs when they interact with others who hold similar views… When group members drift in a certain direction, individual members will double-down on that perspective. This drives the group towards extremism.” According to Kahneman, such polarization is insidious because, in addition to making groups “…more extreme… [it makes them] …more unified, more confident and more …error [prone]…” So, instead of making it easier to find truth, Haidt says that group “…binding usually involves some blinding…”

This blinding can lead to a sense of moral superiority and arrogance toward those outside our group, which is why, as Haidt points out, the Bible calls us hypocrites and admonishes us to “…first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." Haidt tells us that can be done by bringing people together that are intellectually and ideological different but “…feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly…” Such groups allow “…individuals to use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others… [and thus] produce good reasoning… [instead of extreme views].” And the way to bring people together is to reach out with empathy – the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Author Brené Brown tell us, seeing empathetically is “…simply listening… withholding Judgment [and] emotionally connecting…”

When I get to heaven, I will sing with the angels. Until then I will keep silent because my singing sounds like hell. Silence is also the key to harmonious relationships that give us new insights in our quest for truth. It’s a choice. We can march to the beat of our own drum and justify our beliefs. We can become even more extreme and wrong by congregating in groups, singing the same melody. Or we can silently listen to and learn to harmonize with people that are different. It’s not easy, because we are divided into ideological teams of us versus them, unable to see that they are good people with important things to say. Instead of following the Biblical imperative to be “…quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger,” Haidt says “We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense…” In reality, we are all blinded by the melodious misconceptions we believe, and our team reinforces. However, there is hope in the message of Christmas – Truth came down from heaven, so the blind may see.