TL;DR (Too loyal, didn’t read)
Yesterday I posted a brief excerpt from a New Yorker magazine article about politics. At age 42, I’m plenty old enough to have known better. Unless you were born in the handful of seconds since I began typing this sentence, you’ve most likely become aware that people tend to have strong opinions on such matters. To paraphrase one of my buddy Geoff's more enduring and brilliantly reductive tweets, it seems that some folks believe this, whereas other folks believe that.
As is normally the case when I ignore my better judgment, repercussions ensued. It’s been forever since I gave up monitoring my follower count (and to you last few holdouts, I highly recommend it), but the qualitative fallout still stings. When someone you respect or consider a friend judges you harshly — or, indeed, at all — you find yourself suddenly taking cover in intellectual foxholes, digging in for the coming onslaught, and preparing to defend … well, what, exactly?
Curiously, as I discovered in the exchanges that followed, not one of the feathers I’d ruffled had bothered to click on the link and actually, you know, read the article. Again, a person of my vintage probably shouldn’t be surprised by this fact. But even so, it perfectly illustrates the point I apparently failed to make.
It’s a point that the article’s writer, Ezra Klein, made eloquently in writing about the work of a number of scientists and scholars: The human mind is biologically predisposed to promote its group’s interests in competition with other groups. In other words, we have evolved into exceptional “team players.” Critical thinking, as it turns out, is mostly just rationalization, mostly just a search for evidence to support the interests and goals we have already settled on. Psychologists call it “motivated reasoning.”
This seems counter-intuitive to anyone who assumes that rational, reasoned debate is firmly rooted in the cold, hard facts of objective reality. It seems less so to anyone who participated in debate club or whose thoughts ever brushed up (formally or otherwise) against the concept of epistemology. We process our objective environment through the filter of our own cognitive appraisal — which includes our beliefs, attitudes and other predispositions — to create our psychological environment, and then we judge the latter to be every bit as “real” as the former. It’s sort of like the rose-colored glasses theory, only not all of us see rose. (The hue my correspondents perceived yesterday was far closer to red.)
Or, as Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at New York University’s business school, succinctly summarized: “Reasoning can take you wherever you want to go.”
It was unfortunate for at least two reasons:
1) The quote may have implied, to some, that Republicans are alone in their use of “motivated reasoning,” when, in fact, both sides of our national political divide engage in what I like to think of as “confirmation bias on steroids.” Both sides, after all, are human — something they would do well to remember from time to time.
2) I was misunderstood, which, of course, is hardly a tragedy.
Then again, when you consider why, maybe it is. Those who made an effort to contact me (because, hey, it’s easier to judge than to be curious) fell into two camps: Offended Republicans and Offended Apoliticals. Both groups made some basic assumptions about me, none of which are true.
Republicans assumed I am a Democrat. I am not. Apoliticals assumed I am a proselyte. In fact, of my 1,386 (now 1,387) posts on Tumblr, this may have been the first related to politics. But of course self-delusion feels better than cognitive dissonance, so facts be damned.
In both cases, people see what they want to see, and quite logically consider it real-world evidence in support of their established beliefs. We promote our group in competition with other groups, real or perceived. We are good team players. As unsavory as it may be to acknowledge this self-evident truth, we are just like our politicians. We are human.
It’s something we would do well to remember from time to time.
20 Notes/ Hide
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- notactuallyme said: Seriously? You need to write more and often. You seem to have a knack for it.
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- monkeyfrog said: FUCKING LOGIC MONGER
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