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.