Challenge Your Assumptions

Tonight begins the final phase of the campaign.  I am sure the vast majority of you already have your minds firmly set, and I’ll be honest, mine is too.

But I have a request for those of you that are leaning towards Trump.  I’m going to ask you to grant the same courtesy that I did towards Trump supporters a couple years ago.  I ask you to take a step back, assume good intentions, and ask yourself why people on the other side think the way they do.  I won’t bore you right now with my reasons for opposing Trump, but I will say it’s not because he’s mean, or politically incorrect, or an outsider, or has moral failings in his personal life.

In doing so, I ask you to let go of your assumptions about people you disagree with.  When I was looking into why people support Trump, I was able to understand many of their reasons.  The problem is that I have found many of those reasons are based on bad underlying assumptions.  These are based on general beliefs and principles, not so much specific policy ideas.

Some of them are in fact true and I’ll grant you these:

  • The coastal “elites” have looked down on and dismissed middle, rural, small-town America for years. (I spent over a decade dealing with this attitude in LA.)
  • Both sides have catered to special interests; and an outside independent force could shake things up
  • Globalism of the past 25 years has been focused on corporate interests rather than workers, similar to above.

However, there are other, more critical underlying beliefs that seem to be common among many Trump supporters that I cannot accept.  If any of these resonate with you, I only ask that you step away for couple of weeks and consider the possibility that these assumptions might not be true.

  • “The mainstream media constantly lies and makes things up.” (While they may have a liberal bias, which I’ll discuss in a later post, and they are fallible humans that will make mistakes, journalists have a code of ethics and try their best to be accurate.)
  • “Democrats and liberals are stupid and/or evil and will destroy America.” (I know too many good and intelligent liberals to even consider this possibility.  While I don’t think their ideas are the best path for the country, they won’t “destroy” America.)
  • “White, Christian, straight, males are now an oppressed group and under attack. “ (Trust me, I have never once in my life felt oppressed. On the flip side, I have never felt “guilty” about that identity either.  I simply want all other groups to have the same rights, privileges, and opportunities I’ve enjoyed. And on a side note, I do agree that Christianity is under attack… but not from outside atheist forces. Rather, from internal modern pharisees that are more focused on earthly power and judgement than on following the teachings of Jesus)
  • “Bureaucrats and scientists are biased and you can’t trust them. They might even be conspiring against Trump and his supporters” (I’m not sure where to even begin with this. But I’ll just make two points… (1) lifetime civil servants and scientists go into their professions out of a love for what they do, not because of power and money… politicians, pundits, and business people are more likely to have those motivations.  And (2) the larger the conspiracy, the more difficult it is to keep it secret. So if you are relying on conjecture rather than a large amount of hard evidence and numerous whistle-blowers, there is probably a reason.

This is already too long.  My main request is that you please take a step back for the next few weeks and consider the possibility that your underlying assumptions might be wrong.  And try to view Trump and his actions with fresh eyes.  It might surprise you.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Last week, I participated in a workshop held by Braver Angels, a group committed to working against the ever-increasing polarization in America.  They were originally called Better Angels, from the closing words of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

(NOTE: The group recently changed their name to Braver Angels, “officially” because of the courage it takes to challenge polarization, but more likely due to another organization having a very similar name.)

I have often written about the need for bipartisanship, and this was one more episode for me to try and learn more.  What I have learned is that even I can still have stereotypes of some people that disagree with me, as much as I try to hold myself accountable to pushing for respectful dialogue across divides.

It is amazing how polarization can so distort our reality and critical thinking.  There was a study of psychology about how partisans that would be able of correctly using math to evaluate a medication, would make mistakes in inference when it is related to a hot button issue, in the study it was gun control.

What was more surprising was that the effect becomes even more evident in people with strong math skills.

It is worth noting that the lead researcher is willing to admit that he himself suffers from these biases.

I have had conversations with people that are absolutely convinced they do not have bias and they only seek out the real truth.  And, therefore, whatever they come up with must be the absolute truth.  This is one of the many dangerous ways of thinking that has hurt our society so much.

(NOTE: the lead researcher of the first study, Dan Kahan, did a later study that showed a way to fight this “politically motivated reasoning” – curiosity!)

I personally believe, perhaps somewhat arrogantly, that I am one of the most rationale people I know when it comes to politics and seeing both sides of an issue.  However, I am also well-aware that I have extreme biases and even have bouts of cognitive dissonance and borderline hypocrisy that I need to address.

In this manner, I feel akin to the story of Socrates I mentioned in an earlier blog post.  The reason Socrates was so wise was his acceptance of his own ignorance.  I think my unbiased viewpoints are a result of my active criticism of my own biases.  As well as my own uncertainty about issues.

The surest way that I am going to lose respect for someone’s opinion in almost any discussion is when they have absolute certainty on something that such absolute certainty should be almost impossible (politics, philosophy, art, religion, etc.).  Or they arrogantly consider themselves to be free from bias and only listen to the truth.  They believe themselves above the bias that others feel.  This is a classic case of pride going before the fall.  They are unaware of their own biases which allows them to be blindly led astray.

As I mentioned in my last post, this is my paradox of perspective.  I cannot understand such certainty and close-mindedness.

As I said, I am well aware of my own biases, and in the course of the workshop I participated in, I came to realize that while I am a conservative, I am generally reasonable and don’t stereotype liberals.  However, I also realized that I have become close-minded and stereotypical towards Trumpism.  Now part of that is that paradox of perspective, that I find support for Trump to be mostly coming from a rather narrow mindset.  I am not going to go into that here, but I do want to point out that I have spent much of the past four years trying to better understand and empathize with support for Trump.  I have read articles and books and watched videos that are favorable to him because I do recognize my own anti-Trump bias.

The reason I bring this up is that many of my posts over the coming weeks are going to be much more pointed in their criticism, especially of Trump and the current Republican party.  I hope that you would read or watch them with an open mind and knowledge that I am coming from a place where I’ve tried my best to give the benefit of the doubt to opposing viewpoints, since that is how I usually try to conduct myself in political discussions.

There are many different opinions in our country, but I am willing to grant that most people want things to improve.  Our disagreements should be focused on the how to best improve.

To improve, we need to come together across those different opinions.  We may or may not reach agreement, but we need to at least reach a level of mutual respect, so we can at least find agreement in other areas.  And in order to do that, we need to reject the voices that selfishly seek to divide us.

I began with Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, and will close with his second:

With malice toward none, with charity for all; … let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

A Paradox of Perspective

This past weekend was the first time in a few weeks I was able to walk to the local park.  As usual, I went with a book and a journal.  However, I ended up not doing much reading or writing and spent more time just looking around as I sat on a bench near the fountain.  There were a group of Middle Eastern women and their children sitting on some blankets and drinking tea nearby.  Throughout the 30-45 minutes I sat there, a steady mix of whites, blacks, Latinos, old and young people, gay and straight couples, all walked by.  While noticing this mix of people, I also thought of the nearby surrounding area where I grew up: rural, conservative, and mostly white.  As I dwelt on this it reminded me of one of my favorite aspects of living in the Champaign-Urbana area.  Thanks to its size and status as the home of Illinois’ flagship university, it has a diverse population.  Yet it is too small to have the level of segregation that is seen in larger cities.  Meanwhile, just a few miles outside of the city limits are conservative rural communities.  There is so much diversity of race, culture, and political thought all within a 25-mile radius.

To me, this is a wonderful situation.  Almost every interaction here is an opportunity to learn and grow, assuming we are willing to consider different perspectives in good faith.  It does not mean we have to change our mind, or assume superiority or inferiority, or come together and sing kumbaya.  It simply means that after having an interaction with someone with a different perspective, you give them the benefit of the doubt that they are a well-meaning human with their own experiences that has shaped their point of view.  Then you can say, “I can see why you think that.”

This concept of “walking a mile in another man’s shoes” and looking at things from a different perspective is one of the most fundamental skills I’ve tried to develop in myself, and tried to instill when I was teaching government class.

As such, I fell like I have developed this skill of being able to see and give credence to both sides of almost every issue.  While I have my own strongly held beliefs and opinions, I can understand why well-meaning people might think differently.  That is simply part of being unique humans.

But, as much as I pride myself on seeing things from different perspectives, somewhat paradoxically there is one perspective I can never understand… close-mindedness.  By consistently trying to see things from different points of view, I cannot take on the mindset of someone who rejects other viewpoints out of hand.  The paradox could also be considered in this manner: I am close-minded to close-mindedness.  I’m not sure how to work around that.

I don’t understand someone that automatically assumes their way of life and culture is superior to all others, without bothering to fully learn about other cultures.

I don’t understand how someone can stay in their echo chamber and not have any degree of humility that they might be wrong or any curiosity as to why someone else might think differently.

When I hear people dismiss liberals as hating America and wanting free handouts, instead of trying to understand their perspective of wanting government to make amends for social injustices and providing for the most vulnerable; I don’t get that dismissive mindset.

When I hear people dismiss conservatives as backwards and selfish, instead of understanding the background of likely coming from a culture that values tradition and self-reliance; I don’t get that dismissive mindset.

Pretty much every issue you can think of, social spending, abortion, racial justice, law enforcement, taxation, health care, whatever is extremely complicated and has a lot of nuance.  As such, there are multiple perspectives that need to be considered and approached with respect and common purpose of improvement.

We need to get away from the arrogance that our viewpoint is indisputable and anyone that disagrees is either evil or stupid.

If your positions on most issues are beyond reproach and you are absolutely certain of their infallibility, why are you even concerning yourself with our minor political squabbles?  After all, since you are obviously God, shouldn’t you be busy with the whole universe?  At least that would explain my paradox, because I cannot begin to understand the perspective of God.  But that’s just me.