We’re Talking About Politics Wrong
Another day, another reason to be outraged.
No matter your position on the political spectrum, you’re more than likely mad at somebody.
Being angry, frustrated, or stressed out are our country’s new favorite pastimes. Nothing brings people closer together quite like a shared enemy.
But what if we’re wrong?
What if the problem isn’t top-down, but bottom-up?
What if the ways we talk and think about politics is the reason we’re in this mess to begin with?
And, if that’s case, how would we change?
Is change even possible?
We Are Not That Smart
You probably believe you’re a rational and logical person who sees the world clearly and as it really is.
But you’re dead wrong.
Your brain is an amazing biological computer,
but it’s easily programmable and primed by outside influence and your emotions.
If your brain is an operating system, it comes preloaded with cognitive biases.
In You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney writes,
Cognitive biases are predictable patterns of thought and behavior that lead you to draw incorrect conclusions. Many of them serve to keep you confident in your own perceptions or to inhibit you from seeing yourself as a buffoon. Cognitive biases lead to poor choices, bad judgments, and wacky insights that are often totally incorrect.”
Your brain has two primary functions:
- Make order out of chaos.
- Protect itself.
It’s the first function that showcases our brain at its most beautiful and damning.
Every day, you’re assaulted by all different types of information — sights, smells, noises, stories, ideas; the list is endless. In order to make sense of it all, your brain has to decide what is important and what is not. To do this, it creates a worldview.
A worldview is a philosophical understanding of how the world works that guides your thoughts, decisions, and actions. We all have one, and they’re all a little bit different — which leads us to confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is your brain’s annoying habit of only paying attention to information that confirms your worldview. It protects you from cognitive dissonance, or that stressful feeling you get when you’re processing contradictory information.
In short, you’re not as independent or impervious to manipulation as you believe. For better or worse, most of your beliefs and convictions are a direct result of your upbringing, environment, and brain’s natural tendencies to seek out affirmation and avoid cognitive dissonance.
And this is bad news in a world of partisan news and social media.
In his book Fantasyland, author Kurt Anderson writes,
Today, each of us is freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever and pretend to be whoever we wish. Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth in general becomes flexible, personal, subjective. And we like this new ultra-freedom, insist on it, even as we fear and loathe the ways so many of our wrongheaded fellow Americans use it.”
We find ourselves trapped inside “filter bubbles” of our own design that prevent us from being exposed to ideas or information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.
To see the bubble in action, check out The Wall Street Journal’s ongoing “Red Feed, Blue Feed” social experiment.
The greatest tragedy of the 21st Century is that we no longer watch the news or read books to learn new information about the world. Instead, we read and watch whatever we know will reinforce our pre-existing belief structures and worldviews.
We are so easily manipulated that Russian created and purchased Facebook and Instragram ads to exploit divisions during the 2016 elections.
Part of our problem is a 24/7 media committed to covering even the most mundane event with the subtlety of a nuclear strike.
I’m no fan of Donald Trump and I did not vote for him, but the level of outrage and contempt directed at each and every one of his missteps is ridiculously overexaggerated and counterproductive.
Yes, Trump’s behavior is abnormal, immoral and unpresidential. He’s also recklessly dishonest. It’s been that way since the campaign trail.
Are some Trump supporters racists and Neo-Nazis?
But most of them aren’t and have zero connection with any of those groups.
Trump won the election because his tone and rhetoric resonated with a subsection of American society who felt forgotten, neglected and excluded from the direction they perceived the country to be headed toward.
If it’s a year after the election, and you still don’t understand why or how Trump won, then you’re part of the reason someone like Trump is president:
You’re not listening.
But normalizing outrage has become the norm for each side of the political spectrum. And the problem with being in a perpetual state of outrage is that we become increasingly numb to the issues that really matter or actually deserve our outrage.
As we become both more outraged and polarized, we begin to sort ourselves into groups based on geography, religion, media preference, race, income and political affiliation.
And our requirements for entry into our “groups” become increasingly more narrow and specific.
In Strangers in their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild writes,
The more people confine themselves to like-minded company, the more extreme their views become. According to a 2014 Pew study of over 10,000 Americans, the most politically engaged on each side see those in the “other party” not just as wrong, but as so “misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.””
And that’s a serious problem.
In describing the current state of American society, war journalist Sebastian Junger writes in Tribe,
People speak with incredible contempt about — depending on their views — the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that now it’s applied to our fellow citizens. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits.”
And when contempt infects our political or religious ideologies, it leads to the dehumanization of those who think or act differently than us.
Dehumanization is the process through which we reduce someone’s humanity using shame, fear, revulsion, humiliation, oppression, and, finally, violence.
At the root of every genocide, holocaust, hate crime, racist comment, human rights violation, sexual assault, and sexist slight, you’ll find the engine of dehumanization humming along.
If you view someone as less than human, it’s easier to treat them inhumanely.
In Braving the Wilderness, research professor Brene Brown writes,
Successful dehumanizing, however, creates moral exclusion. Groups targeted based on their identity — gender, ideology, skin color, ethnicity, religion, age — are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The target group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.”
Who do you dehumanize?
Who do you morally exclude from your tribe?
Is it illegal immigrants? Refugees? The LGBTQ+ community? Black Lives Matter activists? Kneeling NFL players? Muslims? Democrats?
Or how about NRA members? Fox News viewers? Trump voters? Evangelical Christians? Creationists? Republicans?
In a world of Us Versus Them, who is your Them?
Dehumanization inhibits our ability to experience empathy with those whom we disagree.
Empathy is our ability to relate to or experience someone else’s point of view. Empathy isn’t agreeing with someone; it’s seeing them as real people through the lens of our shared humanity.
You may hate Muslims and believe they’re preparing to enact Sharia Law in the U.S. But have you ever visited a mosque or spoken to a Muslim about your fears? Have you read about the Muslims in Egypt who are harboring and protecting Christians from violence?
The thought of evangelical Christians may fill you with disgust. But visit one of the several Protestant churches offering sanctuary to immigrants fleeing violence in South America. Read about an organization like The Simple Way, that is doing so much more for the inner-city of Philadelphia than any Republican or Democrat politician ever will.
You may think Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization and all this “racial stuff” is nonsense, but have you ever asked a black person — or any member of a minority — what it’s like to grow up in white-dominant culture? For that matter, when was the last time you had someone who wasn’t white in your home?
We need to reach a point where we’re able to form opinions based on our actual lived-in experiences and encounters, and not from broad generalizations and fear-driven media conglomerates.
No Man’s Land
In what is perhaps the greatest opening line in the history of academia, philosopher Harry Frankfurt writes,
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”
Frankfurt doesn’t use the term “bullshit” flippantly or for the shock value.
He’s drawing a distinction between bullshit and a lie.
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”
Bullshit doesn’t concern itself with the existence of a truth.
It is only concerned with what sounds, looks, and feels good within the narrative constructed by the bullshitter.
It’s the weaponization of confirmation bias.
Bullshit is dangerous because it preys upon (and magnifies) our fears, insecurities, ignorance, and tribal identity.
If you’re watching or reading media that primarily uses the terms like “liberal,” “conservative,” “Christian,” “Muslim,” “BLM,” or “SJW” in a derogatory or negative light, then you’re probably consuming bullshit.
In World War I, No Man’s Land referred to the area between two entrenched armies. It was a desolate and dangerous place.
Today, we live in a culture of ideological trench warfare. We dig in with our political and religious views and only pop our heads up long enough to take aim and fire a shot at the other side.
But if we want to make any sort of progress, you’re going to have to step out of a trench and venture into No Man’s Land — while leaving your weapons behind.
Walking into No Man’s Land without a weapon will put in a very vulnerable and exposed position — you’re just as likely to be hit by friendly fire as you are by the weapons of the “enemy.”
But it doesn’t mean you’re stepping away from the conflict or opting for neutrality.
To the contrary, those who traverse No Man’s Land are fully engaged and informed.
Neutrality and willful ignorance are a luxury afforded only to the privileged and irresponsible.
Elie Wiesel, a Jewish author who lived through the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp, said,
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
We should stand firm against racism, nationalism, intolerance, bigotry, sexism, and any other form of injustice and oppression.
But we should also stand against bullshit, in all its forms — even if discounting or discrediting it harms your side or weakens your argument.
I am suggesting — for both sides — is that maybe it’s time to turn down the volume on our ideological media of choice.
Turn off the Sean Hannity,
close out of the Huffington Post,
step away (far away) from the InfoWars,
press pause on the clips of The Daily Show and Full Frontal,
and start talking to the actual people obscured by the strawman arguments you bombard yourself with day in and day out.
Because until you can do that,
you’re not influencing your environment,
you’re not changing any one’s mind,
you’re not part of “The Resistance,”
you’re not “Making America Great Again,”
and you’re not contributing anything helpful to society.
We need to be as critical of our own viewpoints as we are of the viewpoints of other people.
In Kurt Anderson’s The Atlantic article “How America Lost Its Mind,” he writes,
It will require a struggle to make America reality-based again. Fight the good fight in your private life. You needn’t get into an argument with the stranger at Chipotle who claims George Soros and Uber are plotting to make his muscle car illegal — but do not give acquaintances and friends and family members free passes. If you have children or grandchildren, teach them to distinguish between true and untrue as fiercely as you do between right and wrong and between wise and foolish.”
Or, in the words of Brene Brown,
Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.”
The Paradoxical Path
Even if you’re not a Christian, you can glean inspiration and practical wisdom from the paradoxical path Jesus walked.
He is never on the side of the rich, powerful, religious, or privileged.
He’s with the excluded because He was excluded.
He’s with the poor because He was poor.
He’s with the broken and bloodied because he was broken and bloodied.
In Jesus Outside the Lines, Scott Saul writes,
Jesus doesn’t call us to simple. He calls us into complexity. The human soul, psyche, mind, and emotions are complicated. And if he calls us to anything, it’s to enter into the mess that is day-to-day life alongside broken people in the midst of chaotic circumstances.”
Jesus walked a paradoxical path, and so should we.
You can fight for the equal treatment of women in society and not be pro-abortion.
You can kneel for the National Anthem and love your country.
You can own guns and still lobby for common sense gun control.
You can believe Black Lives Matter and grieve when a police officer dies in the line of duty.
You can welcome, love and respect Muslims in your community and believe that radical Islamic terrorism is a problem the world must contend with.
What’s your paradox?
Do you have any?
Your paradoxes will look much different from mine.
And they may put you at odds with members of your tribe.
But that’s okay. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
We need to be able to freely admit that we’re not that smart, we’ve been seduced by the outrage machine, we’re too comfortable dehumanizing each other, we’re preoccupied with bullshit, and we have no idea how to walk the Paradoxical Path.
Our loyalty to a particular political party, religious ideology, media outlet, or public figure should never supersede our integrity. Because the moment that happens, we’ve crossed the line into extremism.
Walking the Paradoxical Path through No Man’s Land is scary and vulnerable, and it’s going to take a lot of work.
But it simply means you are aware of the complexities, nuances, and biases present within your own heart and the fabric of our shared humanity.
And that may not be enough to change the world,
but it’s a start.
For Further Exploration
I’ve probably never had an original thought. If all I’m known for is repurposing and spreading the thoughts and ideas of these brilliant thinkers and writers, then that will be enough.
The Big Sort by Bill Bishop
Tribe by Sebastian Junger
Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen
On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
Behave by Robert Sapolsky
The Death of Expertise by Thomas Nichols