Self-Understanding & a New Attitude

It isn't hard to understand that if we talk down to people, if we dismiss or mock their views and values, they aren't going to listen to a word we say. Understanding that is easy. How we ought to speak is equally easy to understand. We should follow the Golden Rule of Political Discussion: "Talk to others in the way you would want others to talk to you." Easy to say, but hard to do.

When we try to talk persuasively with somebody "on the other side," we may find ourselves very quickly angry, frustrated, incredulous, or just plain flabbergasted by the words we are hearing. Of course, people are much better at detecting our feelings than we are at hiding them, so the person with whom we are talking reads us very quickly and takes grievous offense.

Boom, just like that, in a matter of only a few seconds, the conversation has become hopeless, impossible to turn to constructive ends. Worse, we may not merely fail to convince, we may in fact drive the person with whom we are interacting even more firmly into the opposing camp.

But what is the solution? Pretending to be open minded and friendly doesn't work because people see right through the phony front. You can't just decide to flip a switch somewhere in your mind and suddenly drop all your deeply felt anger and frustration. You can't do it, and because you also can't hide your feelings, they seep out and poison the conversation.

There is a path that can work to solve this problem, but to open that path we have to be willing to admit some very uncomfortable truths about ourselves. The path to sincere attitudes that can make us effective when talking with people holding very different views follows a trajectory through self-understanding. If we are willing to look deeply within ourselves, what we will find will humble us, and that will put us on the path to success.

Seeking Understanding of Ourselves

The points below encompass both understanding ourselves as individuals and understanding ourselves as we function in and as groups.

Cognitive Biases Afflict Everyone - The more you know about cognitive biases, the less certain you will be about almost everything else. Confirmation bias, overconfidence, and a host of other biases reveal the brain not as a truth-seeking organ but rather as a self-serving organ. Given natural selection, how could it be otherwise? Nevertheless, the implications of this for your own confidence in the truth of your views is profound. If you aren't humbled by the knowledge that cognitive biases afflict you, you don't yet know enough about them.

We Are Captives Of Media Ecosystems - Nearly everything we think we know about the larger world out there beyond our day-to-day experience is mediated. That is, somebody else stands between us and reality, and they tell us what's going on. We have directly confirmable knowledge of very little about the larger world. At the same time, our media have become polarized and our communities have self-sorted into opposing camps. The key point to understand about ourselves is that many on both sides of the divide live inside enclosed, all enveloping, all encompassing information environments that serve up diametrically opposing worldviews. Since we have virtually no direct knowledge of anything, these worldviews are "reality" to the people living inside them. Within each environment, the evidence supporting that worldview seems absolutely overwhelming. Regardless of which side we are on, we are absolutely sure we are right.

 Our Defense Against Manipulation Is Weak - Whether it is Lucy fooling Charlie Brown or Donald Trump fooling millions, the troubling reality that con artists all understand is that they can fool the same people over and over again. We are just shockingly credulous. The purveyors of no-holds-barred political strategies know how to harness resentment, tribalism, and fear to manipulate voters. While demagogues may not be able to fool all of the people all of the time, they may be able to fool enough of the people enough of the time to seize and hold power and use it to do grave and even irreparable harm.

Language Misleads Us - As we talk with others, we are seduced by the (generally necessary and valid) assumption that what another person means by a word is the same thing that we mean. A table is a table. A chair is a chair. Sure we may visualize objects that are a little different, but these differences really don't matter. They don't create problems. But when we move into the realm of politics and values, this assumption of similar meaning betrays us. Arguments in which words like loyalty, good, bad, moral, immoral, conservative, liberal, progressive, populist (and many others) are used are often plagued by semantic confusion. As a result, it may not be clear whether the disputants actually disagree or are just using words differently. It gets even more complex when some real disagreement and some semantic confusion merge into a single back and forth argument. It can be very difficult to even understand what is really happening in the rapid-fire flow of words streaming back and forth. Understanding that language misleads us helps us resist jumping to conclusions when listening to others.

Our Voice Lies To Us - We generally think in words, or think we do anyway. If we aren't schizophrenic, we identify this voice as our self. That's me that is speaking in my head, we think. Of course, hominids thought, planned, and kept track of things before they invented words. So we should understand language as an added capability rather than confusing it with the capacity to think as such. The problem is, that voice that speaks to us in words lies to us all the time, systematically and routinely, in fact. All of our mental capacities, including the voice that speaks in words inside our heads, evolved in service to natural selection. Our words are deployed to advance what natural selection inclines us to want (things like power, respect, success in mating, etc.). The narratives that pop unbidden into our minds are often directly self-serving. That criticism of me is wrong, we think. I'm better than so-and-so, we say to ourselves. I'm being treated unfairly, we feel. Pride, ambition, defensiveness, insecurity and more are often on display if we listen closely to those unbidden narratives. It is difficult to really listen to ourselves without realizing that we often lie to ourselves. But of course, in each particular case, we aren't aware we are lying at the time. We believe that voice in our head far more than we should.

Intelligence Is Overrated - Most of the time, people who display arrogance believe they are smart, smarter in fact than most other people. Surveys have shown that 65 percent of people believe they are smarter than average. Under the first layer of obvious error in such views lies a deeper layer of misunderstanding, and that is thinking of intelligence as just one or only a few abilities. There are in fact a great many capabilities relative to which some people are more capable than others. Probably hundreds. So lots of people are exceptionally good at something, and conversely, people who are extraordinarily able at many things are often strikingly unable in some particular way. Adding to the complexity of all this is the reality that intelligence must be used. A person of modest ability who is highly motivated can greatly outperform by most practical measures the unmotivated genius. Who is the more intelligent? Finally, if we think about it, we realize that intelligence, whatever it actually is in its many forms and incarnations, is for sure an unearned gift. The "intelligent" are, no thanks to themselves, winners in the genetic lottery. Far from arrogance, this realization should prompt the thought "to whom much is given, much is expected." This idea that gifts create obligations has been around for a long time. "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." (Luke 12:48). So, if you think you're so damned smart, saddle up and do your duty.

World Too Complex For Our Limited Abilities - Part of understanding ourselves is grasping how we function in the environment we occupy. People who are paying attention are pretty much regularly running into new areas of reality. These are aspects of the world about which our previous knowledge had been very limited at best. After repeatedly encountering previously unknown realities, it will occur to some that the modern world is far too complex for any individual mind, no matter how brilliant, to understand in any comprehensive way. Understanding pieces, perhaps. Understanding the whole, no way. A corollary of this is that predicting the future is quite beyond us.

Our Feelings Will Show - We humans are truly remarkable in our ability to detect even minor changes in the facial expressions and body language of others and correctly read the underlying emotions that drive those changes. Political passions don't produce minor changes. Strong anger on a person's face screams loudly without a word being spoken. Chances are pretty good that if you are feeling anger, frustration, disdain, contempt - even if only at half-strength - your feelings will be detected and will turn the emotional tone of the interaction south fast. If you don't want your feelings to screw things up, you'll need to actually find it within yourself to be "a bigger person." But really. No pretending.

The Preening Self Undermines Group Success - It is often said that money is the root of all evil, but among groups of volunteers working in politics, the most significant sin is likely to be a greedy ego, a pridefulness being asserted by someone seeking confirmation of their superiority. Pridefulness, however, is a zero-sum game that works to undermine cooperation. A special talent is required to tame a needy ego, and it requires leadership ability to refocus a group's attention on shared positive goals. To overcome the distraction and irritation of a preening strutting personality, such positive goals must be important enough to satisfy the ego needs of group members and reward them for seeking success through cooperation. The ability to accomplish such miracles requires keen observation and nimble footwork, but it can be essential to prevent the preening egos of people involved in the process from undermining the process.

Loyalty Produces Tribalism - Sometimes our innate tendencies cut in both directions, producing helpful and harmful results from the same underlying inclination. Such is the case with loyalty. We are deeply evolved to be loyal to our tribe. This glue has enabled profound cooperation over thousands of years, and this cooperation has in turn enabled the rise of civilization. At the same time, this prehistorically-evolved mechanism has been hijacked by "civilized" leaders to raise armies to fight wars. The stars have now aligned (not in our favor), and this mechanism is powering America's growing tribal hostility. The moral claim of loyalty, powerful inside most of us, impels us to rally to "our" side. We underestimate this force at our peril.

Attitudes Based on Self-Understanding

We can't flip a switch and stop feeling superior, but if we understand ourselves, some degree of humility in holding and expressing our opinions will come naturally. As self-understanding grows, with it grows an appreciation of the enormity of our capacity for error. Our humility expands in proportion, and this humility is critical to our success in bridging divides. Both sides of our political divide feel that they are vastly superior in their understanding of what is happening around them and what it means, but neither side is entitled to this feeling.

Even more dangerous than feelings of superiority, both sides of our divide are enraged, with hostility and vilification growing by leaps and bounds. Just as with superiority, we can't flip a switch and stop being angry. But if we can put ourselves in the shoes of the other side, we can see their anger for what it truly is - a witch's brew of indignation, moral offense, frustration, resentment, jealousy, hurt, humiliation, and fear.

The problem is that it is awfully hard to put yourself in another's shoes if you don't understand yourself to begin with. We must understand the underlying sources of our own rage, we must become self-aware in our own shoes, to gain the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of those on the other side of our political divide.

The challenge of bridging the divide is so enormous because both sides' feelings have deep experiential roots and emerge from realities that cannot and should not be denied. Both sides are partly right and partly wrong, and self-understanding opens a window to see this critical truth because it compels us to lower our defenses against the idea that we might sometimes be wrong. Imagine how different it would be if both sides displayed just this simple understanding. Imagine.

Self-understanding also produces a very different way of seeing and participating in politics. If we think that people are mostly good, then we tend to think down a more liberal track. How can we help the disadvantaged, we ask? If we think that people are often inclined to be selfish and do bad things, then we're more likely to move down a conservative track. How can we defend ourselves from the takers, we ask?

Speaking very broadly, modern science supports a mixed view, with most humans being virtuous under some conditions but selfish under a different set of circumstances. With this conception, left-right politics becomes mostly about trying to understand which aspects of human nature will come forward in which circumstances, and then designing policies to match.

This perspective, grounded in species self-understanding, yields a notion of left-right politics as a more yin/yang sort of thing. A liberal approach is more effective under some circumstances, and a conservative approach is more practical in others. The task of politics is not to defeat an enemy who is always wrong, but rather to work interactively with an opponent to sort out the cases where each side's approach is the most functional, most beneficial, and most aligned with reality.

Left-right vilification and hostility simply make no sense in this conception of politics. (To be clear, however, we can join together left and right to condemn that participation in politics that has nothing to do with any concept of the public good - right or left - but is manifestly and solely the self-serving action of opportunists feeding off the conflicts they help intensify. They have a moral status similar to con men, war profiteers, or cigarette company ad writers, so we should all feel free to hold them to appropriate moral account.)

Good Attitudes Overcome Barriers

The basic concept being advanced here is that self-understanding will have a natural tendency to produce emotional postures that work better when you are interacting with people who express views that clash strongly with your own. The more deeply we grasp that we too have a limited ability to discern what is true, the more likely it is that our response to clashing views will produce conversations in which real communication actually occurs.

Most of us vastly overestimate our own personal ability to determine what is true. Understanding this, at depth, helps open the door to restoring honor to compromise and otherwise growing the attitudes supportive of the give and take of democratic governance.

All this is difficult, but not as difficult as one might imagine. Many can cultivate within themselves the more positive attitudes and emotions that make building broad community agreement possible.

The more anger we feel, the more it looks like hate. Hate is profoundly ugly, and repulses the very people we need most to attract. Anger doesn't sell to the undecided. If you want to be effective, you'll need to find a way to dump it overboard.

Published: August 2020
Revised: July 2023

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