We’re All Wrong. Republicans. Democrats. Even You. So, What Now?
“They are idiots.” “It’s simple! What don’t they understand?” “Just a bunch of bleeding hearts looking for a hand-out.” “They’re all bigots, petrified of losing power.” “You can’t talk to these people.”
I’m sure you’ve heard variations of these sentiments. They are the take home message most garner from any attempted dialogue with “them.” While not new, America’s current brand of partisan politics is accelerating towards novel extremes.
“Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker…. Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long.” –Sebastian Junger
Our standard model of public discourse has devolved into petty name calling, moral posturing, naïve narratives, and their requisite simplistic conclusions. Opinions become even more entrenched with each ego-infused exchange. Conversations are doomed by an incessant pull to be right absent of any concern for mutual growth. We aren’t even open to the possibility that we might not have it all figured out. By the end, both sides, invariably, feel even more certain of the other’s idiocy and even more militant in their group identity. Rather than evolving, we become more stubbornly narrow-minded and certain as polarization pulls us towards evermore extreme rationalizations. We slide deeper into our echo-chambers, allowing Facebook algorithms to fuel confirmation bias.
As a consequence, we’ve made it standard protocol to never interact with other points of view, outside the safe confines of a keyboard. We assume that you can no longer conduct civil discourse. “Don’t talk about religion and politics,” we’re told. This taboo is a myth, however. Two of the top three highest rated cable networks talk exclusively about politics- Fox News and MSNBC- and the third, ESPN, has become increasingly political. Talking politics is big entertainment. We love hearing our religious and political views spouted back to us. What turns people off is when they have to hear political or religious opinions outside their own! As Colin Cowherd aptly observed, people now consume media for “affirmation, not information.”
Our inability to converse about real issues precludes solutions and nuanced understandings while leaving the masses mentally dull and incapable. Our republic is built upon the concept of a marketplace of ideas. It only works when many ideas engage each other. While no one ever comes out in absolute agreement, all ideas are refined and matured. Unfortunately, this practice is predicated upon a rare degree of humility and a time-consuming investigation into the facts that is rarer, still.
This is perhaps the largest failure of modern schools. The ability to dialogue intelligently should be our top priority. Writing, reading, speaking, and Socratic questioning should make up most the curriculum. We should teach civil discourse. Students should be required to develop well-researched, deep understanding by having overly-simplistic, “googled” answers exposed over and over. Each day should be an investigation into personal ignorance. Like the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, students need to write arguments from opposite perspectives, making each as convincing as the next. We should teach the ability to make concessions, remove ego, spot logical fallacies, allow others to save face, accept constructive criticism, and earnestly strive for truth, however uncomfortable.
Honest dialogue is difficult. It is human nature to want to be right. Rather than honoring this desire and the vulnerability dialogue requires, most of us start debates by communicating to others that they are wrong, thus initiating their emotional defense pattern. As Dale Carnegie famously said in his classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, “No one wins an argument.” This does not mean we don’t engage in discourse that forces us to grow. It means schools must prioritize teaching students to communicate better so all parties grow most, while also instilling the emotional discipline to withstand hurt pride.
“When you know how to think it empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.” -Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Instead, we stand for nothing, thus offending no one. The customer is always right. Curricula is neutered of the interesting, pertinent, and controversial. Only the vaguest, most superficial values are communicated. “Be nice to others.” The entire incentive structure is engineered to promote intellectual dullness. Test scores and graduation rates are the Holy Grail. Rather than critical thinkers we obsess upon how to make everyone feel comfortable as we tell them the answers in hopes they select correctly on tests. Students perceive teachers as a more human version of google- “just tell me what I need to know.” Classes only require seeking, finding, and telling people what they want to hear.
We script every assignment and offer a road map to a world that no longer exists. “You hate school? Haven’t found a subject you crave learning? It doesn’t matter. You have to go to college right after high-school. The loans are definitely worth it.” A generation of googlers embarks on the world certain they have all the answers. Even our most exceptional are not immune. Yale Professor William Deresiewicz mourns the loss of critical thinking skills among Yale Students in his recent book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful life. Popular society is losing its capacity for complex, balanced views more reflective of reality. Without curiosity and a developed aptitude for logic, we lack the tools to move towards any real solutions.
The future of our world depends upon an ability to constructively talk about religion, politics, and a great many complex conundrums. We have the capability of ending all life many times over. We’ll have to grapple with the complex pros and cons of gene editing and determining what limitations to program in self-aware technology. Automation will bring radically different jobs, while eliminating the bulk of today’s. We don’t have the luxury of remaining intellectually and emotionally infantile.
Modern elections shine a light on our mass inability to reason. Politicians dupe and dodge, using simplified sound-bites, while counting on your inability to think. They are magicians in a class of third graders. Everything their opponent says is misrepresented, removed of context, and rebranded into the most inflammatory bit possible. Even the most innocent, honest, and necessary claims are mangled by enormous logical leaps and the dogged quest to find malice and bigotry where it doesn’t lie. Rather than insulted by the blatant, demeaning deception and spin, we prove our collective incompetence by rewarding the best tricksters. We obsess on the unrelated and unimportant, latching on to impossible promises that are completely divorced from reality.
For our republic to work, voting citizens must prove capable of thinking at a level far above our current election culture. Unlike all nations before it, America is not built on a shared ethnicity of homogenous people. As a creedal nation, Senator Ben Sasse notes, “we are even more dependent on the conscious transmission of precise beliefs about liberty and adult responsibility than other nations.” There is a lot of clamoring, nowadays, about rights, but rights must come with responsibilities. We have a responsibility to strive for truth and become capable of high-level discourse. As President Eisenhower said, “Politics should be the part time profession of every citizen.” When the bulk of our voters don’t live up to this responsibility, we get what we deserve- a bad reality TV show.
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” –Albert Einstein
We- all of us- need to start getting very comfortable with the idea that we don’t have much figured out. Our beliefs are certainly faulty, needing refinement. Progress is only possible when people overcome the immaturity and insecurity that drive delusional certainty. The consensus of history’s most brilliant minds is that learning more only served to expose them to a constant bouquet of their own miscalculations and misassumptions. Let’s be open to confronting our own obvious ignorance and finding ourselves better today than yesterday. To do so, let’s honor the inherent truths that underlie our “opponent’s” beliefs and work to explore the flaws in our personal world views. Whether Republicans, Democrats, or dogged independents, we have much to learn and always will.
“The most alarming rhetoric comes out of the dispute between liberals and conservatives, and it’s a dangerous waste of time because they’re both right…. If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different—you underscore your shared humanity.” –Sebastian Junger, Tribe
THE CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN’S CONTRIBUTION
Both the Republicans and Democrats are right in their foundations. Republicans believe hierarchy is necessary and natural. They believe competition and freedom bring the best out in people while most limiting the unintended consequences characteristic of government intervention.
The reality is that all merit-based systems create a hierarchy. You want this. You want a head of surgery who is the best surgeon. You want the Commander of SEAL Team 6 to be the best leader. Belittling or demonizing those who work towards the top of the hierarchy never ends well. We all benefit from the contributions of our best and brightest and it is unwise to discount the great efforts and sacrifice they make, or to remove the incentive for such efforts. As history shows, once you have over 150 people, the only way to incentivize groups is through merit-based hierarchy, or violence and fear.
While never giving up on our quest for progress, we must accept that Utopia is impossible. There is no way to control for every circumstance. The world will always have unequal advantage and yield unequal outcomes. Absent of a victim mindset, these trials and challenges will almost always be our greatest gifts, prompting us towards becoming greater.Contrary to the popular narrative, progress often comes from the ground up, rather than the top down. Those that are most successful determine to overcome nature and nurture.
Over 120,000 Japanese were taken from their lives and held in internment camps in the 1940’s. They emerged from World War II to find their homes and jobs were taken and many of their fellow citizens harbored misplaced blame for the brutal toll of war. With China falling to communism and war breaking out in Vietnam, all Asian-Americans were subject to an increased propensity for bigotry and inequality. Despite this, Asian-Americans, today, enjoy a higher median income than whites or any other racial category. While Asian is far too broad and simplified a category to draw complex conclusions, the fact remains that our flawed system and imperfect social fabric still offered an environment where personal effort yielded progress. This doesn’t justify any prejudice they faced, or remove the burden of society to progress. However, it points to an admirable tenacity characteristic in these cultures and the ability to improve your station through effort. Meritocracy allows one to rise above their circumstances.
The Republican ethos is rooted in a mistrust for the ability of government to improve social conditions more effectively than an environment of personal responsibility. We should fear the unintended consequences of government intervention, lest we invite even more mind-numbing, dehumanizing bureaucratic time-suck and further entrench the lawsuit culture where every normal human action is subject to a predatory payday.
THE LIBERAL DEMOCRAT’S CONTRIBUTION
Democrats believe that hierarchies tend towards cronyism and inequality. They are concerned with how deeply influential environment is in people’s lives. More often than not, our most prosperous and successful would not be that way if not for their advantages. Thus, Democrats consider that the best government is the one people would choose to live in if they had no idea what advantages they’d be given through the lottery of birth. Behind the veil of ignorance (the thought experiment of philosopher John Rawls), unsure about what natural ability and environment we’d inherit at birth, you would want support for disabilities and a lifeline out of potentially abusive and impoverished environments. Thus, Democrats believe the best society requires leveling of resources and regulating the power of those at the top of a hierarchy.
Make no mistake, we didn’t earn the loving families and strong support systems most of us were immersed in at birth. As an exercise in humanity we should concede our immense fortune and empathize with the masses who are far less advantaged. It is a tremendous challenge to grow up with a single parent, within an abusive family, or absent of intentionally instilled values. Research indicates that by age 3, children in poverty hear roughly 30 million fewer words than peers of a higher socio-economic status. In today’s environment, it is a great disadvantage to grow up saturated in sweets, pacified by video games, and given the lobotomizing smartphone without boundaries. As part of this melting pot, we have a responsibility to honestly reflect on the complexities of inequality.
The reality is the lottery of nature and nurture is extremely unequal and when hierarchies are left unchecked many unethical forces will reach the top, corrupting the playing field. In fact, it often becomes standard practice. Ever heard of Gerrymandering? It is not by accident that the poor tend to stay poor and go to prison more often, while the rich tend to stay rich and are far more successful finagling their way out of tricky legal situations.
Similar to the Republican’s warranted fear of unchecked government power, the Democrats fear unchecked free-market power. History has shown that most social elites go to great lengths in order to gain more advantage, while rarely inclined towards change on behalf of social progress. The extreme laissez-faire approach of the early 20th century witnessed disturbing working conditions, disgusting food production norms, incomprehensible wealth gaps, rapid environmental degradation, and rigid hostility to the belief that women had the capacity to vote. Ironically, many of the solutions to these issues were realized under the leadership of an independent-minded president who wasn’t afraid to make both the Republican and Democratic establishments upset in pursuit of what he thought was right. Theodore Roosevelt was not without many flaws, such as buying into the myths of social Darwinism commonly accepted in his time. However, his desire to fight for what he saw as truth gave teeth to the muckraker journalists and kick-started the progressive era.
Hopefully, you recognized the kernels of truth foundational to both of our dominant political parties. While you may lean in one direction, be wary of subscribing to one platform with mind, body, and soul. Dogma prevents authenticity, limits growth, and precludes understanding.
Most people only believe what those around them believe. Your political and religious views are almost certainly within a few degrees of your inner circle. In the least intellectually diverse areas- leftist universities and the right-wing, rural bible belt- only a very small number of ideas are ever explored. If beliefs are inherited and never exposed to rigid evaluation, how could they possibly be anything but simplistic and naïve? If you accept the dogmas of your environment without ever growing or changing, how could you possibly move closer to truth?
We all have a duty to rigorously question our views. If you don’t know why you believe what you do, how are you any different than racists growing up in the civil war south, or the social Darwinists of Roosevelt’s time? How are you any different than today’s sexists or policers of political correctness who have inherited their dogma from the immediate environment? It is easy to mindlessly follow the masses and assume you have it all figured out. Unfortunately, we’ve seen time and time again how deeply destructive popular dogmas can be. Everything from the slave trade to the atrocities committed under Hitler can be attributed to populations that were not inclined to question popular beliefs.
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” –John Stuart Mill
When people don’t insist on shining a light and looking where it is uncomfortable- then we promote the manipulation and injustice only possible in that culture of dullness. What if we lived in a world where social pressure prompted us to become capable of logical analysis? What if obvious misdirection and intentionally simplified messages aimed at manipulation warranted public malice prompting lost approval. As I’ll demonstrate in a follow-up piece two weeks from now, the inability to question and commit to clear core values has allowed for deep hypocrisy, compromised principles, and contradictory platforms proliferating in both parties. Healing requires that we honestly excavate our own flaws so we can work to improve. This next week I challenge you to go into debate intent to lose. Humbly reach out to opposing views in an effort to discover a flaw in your current worldview. Which brings me to your question of the week: What is the greatest contradiction or hypocrisy commonly exhibited by your own tribe? What inconsistent over-simplifications are common amongst those you tend to gravitate?
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