Lately a plethora of research in psychology and neuroscience has suggested that when we argue about politics, we are claiming to be more objective than the person or persons we are arguing with. The result is that, most of the time, political argument serves no purpose except to drive home and reinforce the beliefs we already hold. In a recent essay in The Atlantic titled “I Was Wrong, and So Were You,” libertarian Daniel B. Klein writes about how he came to the conclusion through a survey that liberals are less informed about economics than libertarians and conservatives, only to discover an error in his approach that led him to print a retraction and to the inescapable conclusion that all parties are biased. Indeed they are.
You may have noticed that the comment sections in news magazines and blogs become endless tit-for-tat exchanges where one party cites an egregious error that the other group committed, followed by a similar example from the other side. These emotional polemic rejoinders can seem to go on forever, changing no one’s minds, but instead driving the convictions already held deeper and deeper as they up the ante of contempt. Far from being objective, they distract, nitpick, and obsess endlessly about meaningless details that resolve nothing.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman identifies two modes of thinking that highlight human irrationality. His theory offers a persuasive explanation as to why we fall victim to endless unproductive arguments. System 1 is fast, automatic, intuitive, metaphoric, and relies on gut instinct driven by the unconscious, while System 2 is slow, concentrated, deliberate, reasoning, analytical, and effortful. My experience and observation suggest that most political discussion takes place at Level 1, which to me seems analogous to a metaphorical tar pit of simmering hot-button liquid.
Level 1 is instinctively bound up in our identity as individuals, encompassing the many groups we associate with, especially our political affiliation. And while this is true of all parties, I have asserted elsewhere that conservatism demonstrably has more to do with identity politics than liberalism does. Conservatism is ideologically less inclusive, as evidenced by the political positions taken in matters of social concern. Conservatives often are very clear about whom they consider to be the out-groups. Still, all political parties rely on identity politics to a degree, which makes objective political negotiation extremely difficult.
I, myself, am very much aware of the danger of stepping into the tar pit in response to criticism about something I’ve written. My hot buttons work very well. There are times when I react before I engage Level 2, and I’m prone to respond to a jab with an overhand right. This is where one needs an internal referee, a ten count, some pertinent knowledge, and thoughtful reflection to have any chance of achieving the objectivity of Level 2.
Now, having made the claim that most political dialog is disingenuous at best, it is still my conviction that political dialog is a necessary condition of democracy. Our founding documents are proof that Level 2 reasoning is politically possible. But, for political discussion to be productive, we have to set aside Level 1, or at least keep a lid on it, and we have to care more about resolution than who wins the argument. This is very slow going, as one assertion at a time has to be put forth and agreed on before continuing.
Kahneman offers numerous examples of how we are susceptible to illusions, and he cites studies that show how quick we are to jump to baseless conclusions, suggesting that if our Level 2 system is preoccupied, we can be convinced to believe almost anything. System 1, he says, was shaped by evolution to be hyperalert, to keep us safe from threat and free from harm. Indeed, I think that’s an inescapable conclusion, but it puts our primeval biology at odds with our contemporary environment. We are no longer hunter-gathers. We overreact with systems developed to keep us from annihilation when we are simply striving to negotiate political matters to our mutual benefit. Kahneman’s work suggests we are rigged for illusion, snap judgments, and irrational argument. But this shouldn’t surprise us if we have two independent operating systems for discerning reality that frequently conflict.
In The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, anthropologist Robert Trivers posits that the evolutionary purpose of self-deception is to allow us to better deceive others. In other words, we are not wired for democracy so much as for the Stone Age. Trivers says if we can deflect incoming information contrary to our views quickly enough, we can avoid retaining it in memory at all. Neuroscience supports this notion by showing that we counter contrary political information with a flood of emotion that acts as effectively as Star Trek deflector shields in keeping us from hearing the logic of opposition.
Is it any wonder that hot-button political dialog so often begets little more than expressions of contempt and anger? In my view, the only way to compensate for the ancient malware in our heads is to use the learning software that resides there, that is, if we can employ a perpetual anti-viral debugging strategy. We have to be as alert to our own deceptive tendencies as we are to our political opponents. And worse, we have to persuade our opposition to do the same thing. This is especially hard to accomplish with individuals who consider themselves privy to pure, unadulterated reality and endowed with a front-row view into the essence of virtue, which they can see clearly but which they believe remains hidden from outsiders.
At every opportunity, I make the case that what we need as individuals is an existential education, which simply amounts to deep enough knowledge in the humanities and of other cultures and traditions to enable us, through thoughtful reflection, to deal with the omnipresent angst that comes with the human condition. We must learn to accept our own mortality without misdirecting our anxiety by finding surrogates to blame for our fears, anger, and frustration. This degree of understanding would give us a chance to confer at Level 2 and meet other people in what Martin Buber referred to as an I-Thou relationship instead of the contemptuous I-It relation which is so common today.
I am an unabashed liberal, admittedly partisan, and I make no apologies for it. But if I didn’t believe myself capable of accepting the better argument on its grounds alone, and not on who is presenting it, I would bow out of political dialog altogether. When I hear conservatives declare what liberals want in life, I know without question that they are not speaking for me, and I grant conservatives the same benefit of knowing what they want politically without it being declared from a liberal perspective.
What seems clear to me is that there is much more common ground in America’s center than our media let on. Commercial media thrive on dissension, so their pursuit of perpetual conflict is easy to understand, even if it is not always forgivable. Moreover, media entertainment that is coarse and steeped in derision and disrespect is popular and cheap to produce. The realty television shows that depend upon public humiliation to draw an audience are, in my view, little more than modern day examples of barbarism.
I believe most liberals, conservatives, and libertarians want pretty much the same things in life; we just disagree on how to go about getting them, and our volatile emotions are triggered by different symbols of value that serve to blot out competing views.
The way forward is to persuade enough people to strive for objectivity, based on what we’ve learned about human behavior in recent years, instead of tuning out that which they don’t want to hear. If more people cared more about solutions to problems than who was offering them, the world could, would, and should be a better place.
The Dalai Lama said recently that it is time to think beyond religion when it comes to spirituality and ethics. Surely the same can be said for getting beyond partisan politics, which should make this goal worthy of aspiring toward, even if we find contemptuous outbursts harder to give up than smoking or chocolate.