It’s often said that the quality of a democracy depends upon the knowledge of its citizens. If this is true, perhaps the reverse is also true that wisdom demands democracy. But many years of intensive self-education have shown me that wisdom is hard won. No matter how much a person studies, or where or how they are educated, or how many degrees they acquire, each of us has at best only an inkling view of objective reality—a view compounded by a bias of expectation and political predisposition. In other words, we see what we expect to see, and our respective cultures fill us with partiality so effectively that, more often than not, we live unaware of our biases. Only when we can recognize our lack of objectivity and attempt to transcend it can we begin to approach becoming wise.
We perceive what’s going on around us through lenses of culturally induced metaphor, color-coded for group connection. Further, it’s an irrefutable part of our nature as human beings that we often attempt to compensate for our lack of knowledge with arrogance and overt expressions of ethnicity or nationalism. Science offers clear evidence that, in matters sophisticated enough to require serious study, most of us are wrong in our snap-judgment perceptions of what is and isn’t true. It’s doubtful that we could even agree on how real objectivity might be determined. Lenses of reality may be an understatement. Think about it. We are limited by our individual perception, our personal experience, our age, occupation, geographical location, and too many other narrow, restrictive circumstances to list, in a world so complex as to defy all efforts to fully comprehend it.
A careful reading of sociology and anthropology reveals that in societies throughout the world, a broad range of differences in political orientation can be found among groups of people. In short, liberals and conservatives are well represented everywhere large groups of people exist. Moreover, human history demonstrates beyond doubt that both liberals and conservatives are necessary for the common good and that veering too far in either direction is a recipe for ruin. From the beginning of civilization, the arguments between liberals and conservatives have been remarkably similar. The same issues arise repeatedly, with new names and a change in context: Left/Right, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, blue state/red state, public/private, nurturing parent/strict father. The divide goes on and on. In academic terms, the divide is often characterized as an absolutist-versus-contextualist orientation.
Now, if this were not enough to make matters difficult for democracy, psychologists are increasingly finding evidence that there is a strong genetic component for our political outlook. While there is little agreement on the amount of influence of genetic or environmental factors, there seems to be a growing consensus that genetics do indeed play a role in our politics, just as they influence our personality. The left/right range of political differences among individuals varies from mild to extreme. At the extreme end, individuals on the far left and the far right view the world through such a sharply different prism that simple communication with them can be difficult at best. Negotiating differences at this level to be effective is painstaking slow; very small items of contention have to be settled, to the point of defining the words used, in order to proceed with any confidence that both parties are even talking about the same thing. Our sense of identity is so important and so central to our concept of self that the far left could never accept the legitimacy of George W. Bush as president of the United States and the far right feels the same way about Barack Obama. This is why supporters of either president can seem oblivious to the man’s faults or mistakes and why arguing with them armed with facts is useless.
I’ve said many times that things are rarely ever as they appear. As a case in point, the prevailing view since the Enlightenment has been that we humans are primarily rational creatures, but this assumption missed the mark by a wide margin. Our emotions often dominate and override our ability to reason. We are social and tribal beings. We are relational creatures. That’s what we do. We relate. And this makes it more accurate to say that politically we live and breathe the politics of identity in a much more literal way than this expression is commonly used. Simply put: We intuitively choose sides based upon our conscious and unconscious perceptions of identity, and we relate positively to people who we assume are a lot like us. We relate positively to our own kind to such degree that whenever we are with our respective groups, we are likely to up the ante of our political rhetoric in order to further coalesce as a group.
For these reasons, democracy is one of the most difficult of all forms of government to establish and maintain; it runs contrary to the instinctual tribal ways in which we relate to one another. With this in mind, you can see why most of the informal political dialog we engage in with those whose views contradict ours is not only a waste of time, it’s also harmful. Indeed, the power that relating imposes on our opinions was proved to me in the course of writing this essay. Listening to the radio, I heard someone I greatly admire say that he had changed his mind about an issue that previously both he and I agreed on. Suddenly the counterargument seemed more plausible.
To be clear, I’m making two weighty claims: First, that truly objective knowledge independent of our identity is very hard to come by. Second, that when it comes to politics, most of the time we don’t let data or facts get in the way of what we are willing to accept as truth. We accept what we do as truth because of our identity, and when we discuss issues with those with whom we differ politically, we rarely do anything but reaffirm our convictions with an even stronger resolve. In other words, we consider ourselves to be in the right based upon who we are and not on circumstances or the validity of the argument at hand. This is why a political candidate can say things that her opposition thinks is outrageous and bizarre and her supporters will think she is right-on.
Enter GOP political pollster Frank Luntz, whom I find irritating, delusional, and disingenuous, but often correct in his political prognostications. In his book Words That Matter , Luntz claims to favor straightforward communication with straightforward language. He says comprehension is his aim, and yet what he does, in effect, is to obliterate any chance for comprehension by pushing emotional hot buttons with such force that reason and logic will not be a factor in a person’s decision-making process. Luntz often fails to see that the things he claims to value are the very things his work helps to denigrate. That he does what he does with deceitful techniques doesn’t seem to bother him at all. Reading between the lines, it appears that Luntz would abhor a society that proactively produced a generation of Paris Hiltons living extravagantly off of old money, even while he blurs the political realties of estate taxes by reframing the issue as a death tax. This is not the path to comprehension, but it does enable a lifestyle of leisure for more generations made wealthy by their parents’ and grandparents’ money.
Luntz also reports some sad truths about the state of education in America. He tells us that only 27 percent of adults past age 25 are college educated and that only a very few of those who are college educated have what could be called a liberal education. If a democracy is dependent upon the aggregate knowledge of its citizens, this is a seriously disappointing number. Democracy depends upon—no demands—cannot and will not exist without advanced literacy. Liberally educated citizens are the only means of sustaining a democracy, because rational autonomy and independence of mind are vital prerequisites. What I see as necessary for sustaining a democracy is an existential education. Such an education might well compare to a liberal education that works as intended, enabling individuals to cope with the uncertainty of living in a hostile universe without the need to trade one’s integrity for what appears to be a fleeting semblance of security.
Charles Hayes is the author of September University, a call to action to Americans past middle age. Hayes believes that wisdom evolves from real life experience. Those who acquire it “have an obligation to do their best to pass it on,” he says. “Our children’s future still depends on the experiential wisdom of aging citizens.”September University contains a remarkable suite of reasons to discover new meaning and purpose in the last chapters of life.