When social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was growing up in New York, his mother frequently told him that America was the promised land for the Jews.
Despite rising rates of anti-Semitic violence among extremists, he still believes that to be true.
“That has been my experience of it my whole life,” said Haidt, the author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Haidt will be the keynote speaker at a Nov. 5 conference at Rodef Shalom Congregation organized to help mental health professionals and others in understanding what led to the massacre here on Oct. 27, 2018, and what can be done to effect change.
“I would hate for Jews or members of any other group to lose sight of how wonderful this country is for immigrant groups, and Jews in particular,” said Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, speaking by phone prior to his visit to Pittsburgh. “We should not lose sight of that while also recognizing there has been an increase in attacks by some extremist groups that represent a very fringe element of American society.”
The day-long conference, “Stronger than Hate… Healing the Divide: A Social and Psychological Response to the Tree of Life Shooting,” is sponsored by UPMC along with several community partners, and aims to provide a research-based foundation for hope, according to Dr. Jon Spiegel, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and one of the organizers of the conference.
Following the massacre at the Tree of Life building last year, members of the community that Spiegel was seeing in a professional capacity, along with many of his friends, “were having trouble believing that things could ever get better,” explained Spiegel, a longtime member of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha and Congregation Dor Hadash. “To go into that place of darkness where there is no hope is really dangerous.”
Spiegel knows that “things feel dark to many of us,” he said. “We know there is violence targeting religious groups, ethnic groups and racial groups. And we know this because we are bombarded by these tragic stories daily. But at the same time it is essential to tell stories of hope because without hope there is no healing. Without hope there is no motivation for change. So my aim of this conference is to provide a well-researched basis for hope and for action.”
Research has shown that the United States is enmeshed in the “biggest partisan divide since the Civil War,” Spiegel said. “And as societal divides increase, violence against minorities increases.”
While these facts are “troubling,” he said, “it is important to know that we as a species are not destined to have endless conflict.”
Haidt, whose research examines the intuitive foundations of morality, will speak on two topics: Societal Divide and the Human Psyche; and Healing the Divide: The Power of Cooperation.
“The first part of my talk will be an attempt to explain what on earth is going on,” said Haidt. “It will explore basic moral psychology, why we are eternally divided, why there is morally motivated violence — by which I don’t mean violence that is moral, I mean violence that is perpetrated in the service of what the actor perceives to be a moral imperative.”
His talk will also focus on “understanding polarization, violence, and the power of moral matrices,” and the role of social media in the perpetuation of violence.
While there is an overall trend of the decline of violence in society, social media has “enabled the construction of some moral matrices, or networks of moral understanding,” that would not otherwise survive the light of day, according to Haidt. Various closed social media platforms such as 4chan and 8chan “allow people to co-construct a network of meanings in which it can seem to be not just a reasonable thing but a heroic thing to give one’s life while killing others.”
The phenomenon has been studied a lot in recent decades, “with particular interest in Islamic terrorism,” Haidt said. “But now many of those same theories and approaches can be effectively applied to white supremacist terrorism.”
The urge to launch a suicide attack “goes back a very long way,” he explained. The word “zealot” originally referred to a Jewish sect during the time of the Second Temple “that was so upset about the Roman occupation, the zealots would jump Roman soldiers and kill them. So, zealotry is very, very old.”
While zealotry “tends to decline as societies become wealthy and peaceful,” Haidt explained, “social media allows zealotry to regroup and intensify.”
But although zealous violence is on the rise among extremists, there also is a simultaneous long-term trend of Jewish acceptance in America.
“I’ll try to help the audience see that what happens to the average, and what happens to the extremes, can be very different and can even move in opposite directions,” he said.
Haidt also will discuss what can be done to counter the increase of violence among extremists, and suggest some “systemic changes,” including those related to social media.
“One of the most important things, for so many reasons, I believe, is that America and every country should mandate some form of identity verification before anyone can open a social media account that allows them to broadcast,” he said. “So people could still post anonymously but to create the account, they have to show somebody — perhaps a nonprofit, non-government organization — that they are a real person with a real address. That would instantly cut down on a lot of the most hateful talk. It would instantly make all democracies less hackable by Russia and other countries. At present, anyone can open a social media account and make grave threats, death threats, completely secure that nothing will happen to them. And I do think that has to change.”
The conference also will include speakers Kathleen Blee, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on white supremacism, and Deborah Brodine, president of UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. A session on tikkun olam will include Rev. Dr. Vincent Kolb; Daniel Leger; Wasi Mohamed; Rabbi Jeffery Myers; Mayor Bill Peduto; Rabbi Jonathan Perlman; and Tim Stevens.
The conference is co-sponsored by Tree of Life Or*L’Simcha, Congregation New Light, Congregation Dor Hadash, Carnegie Mellon University, Jewish Family and Community Services, the Black Empowerment Project and East End Cooperative Ministries.
“We all wanted to come together to say this is not just about the Jewish community, it’s not just about the psychiatric community, it’s about all of us,” Spiegel said.
The conference is open to the public, but pre-registration is requested. For more information, contact Nancy Mundy at email@example.com. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at