I was confronted by the following meme about a dozen times last week in my various social media feeds. I think it’s fascinating. It is perfectly suited for internet virality: relevant to the cultural moment, appealing to a broad audience, and justifying of all pre-existing beliefs without challenging them in any way.
Needless to say I do not buy the explanation. The argument is enticing, and there are elements of truth in it to be sure. The rejection of relativism is refreshing, and the exhortation to having an informed opinion is perfectly healthy. The problem comes somewhere between combatively insisting that one of the people is right, but also that the world is being ruined by people who “just want to be right.” The author of this short diatribe apparently does not pass their own test.
The central issue for me is that most of the issues we face in our political, social, economic, cultural, even religious lives are not one or the other, a 6 or a 9. Is a large or small government more conducive to a healthy republic? Are laws best conceived by imagining citizens as inherently good or bad? When is it best for policies to be dictated by the federal government, and when left to states and municipalities? These are just three questions out of, literally, billions.
That’s the point of the original post, obviously. In the absence of a driveway, a building, or other context, who is right? This is why we have discourse.
Political debate and discourse have one purpose, and that is to convince others that your perspective on the issue is the right one. I believe there are intricacies to that statement: for instance, in the process of discourse itself I believe understanding the other person’s argument is more important than getting your own across, empathizing with the other and enriching your own perspective. Debate and discourse is at once a collaborative and competitive search for the truth.
And yet the possibility of actually convincing a person to defect from their side and join your side so often seems like a complete fantasy. As much a fantasy, of course, as your own conviction that you would never defect to the other side. Is it all a big waste of time? Do people’s minds actually change?
Well, of course they do. A lot of us serve as our own evidence that this is possible. I was myself very conservative once, and I know many people who are conservative now that were once very liberal. This change is very real, and infuriatingly difficult to artificially reproduce. But I think there is one crucial idea and that is:
Our beliefs are an extension of our identities.
The field of political socialization studies the process by which people arrive at their political beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and behaviors. From the time we are children we develop an understanding about the political system, culture, and life through a variety of influences including family (strongest), school, religion, mass media, and others. This explains, for example, the geographical clustering of regions with shared views.
In his 2011 TED Talk “Is There a Real You?” British journalist and philosopher Julian Baggini talks about the idea of a personal identity. Most of us foster, according to Baggini, the notion that we have a “core” self to which we attach life experiences, interests, hobbies, likes & dislikes (by no means an exhaustive list), but that aside from all of these attached parts there is still a core personality at the center of them.
Baggini, to the contrary, makes a case that while we still have genetic and ingrained tendencies, abilities, and talents, that we are much more a “sum of our parts” than anything else. In the first model, you can remove memories, experiences, and personality traits from a person and they themselves, their identity, doesn’t change that much. The second model is much more fluid and adaptive to change. As new parts are introduced to the group, or others dropped, the person changes. This, I think, captures what it means for each of us change and grow as people.
Just as these changes inform our identities, they guide the behaviors and beliefs that flow out of our identities. The perspectives, stories, and wisdom poured in by the politically socializing factors I listed earlier, for example, will tend to produce a person with a certain set of convictions. Life experiences and memories that contradict these teachings, and the narrative a person tells to relates them, will layer intricacy into that person. And so on.
This is why I believe that empathy is the transcendent value of the political process. The notion that we can collect every fact in existence and use them to somehow calculate the truth is a farce. The idea that, confronted by the ultimate objective and rational argument, a person will “see the light” is a fantasy. The deadlock between the irreconcilable conferences of our society is not because one side is smart and the other is dumb. That’s a delusion, as Jonathan Haidt says, that results from sacralizing reason. Rather, we are each of us the sums of very different parts, unconsciously bringing those parts to bear each time we engage in the political process.
I’ll close with a story borrowed from a very ancient and wise institution, the TV show Futurama. In the episode I’m talking about, the robot Bender is upset because a new robot has been released that can do everything better than he can do, Robot 1-X, rendering him obsolete. Continually at odds with the Robot 1-X, he goes in to the factory to be serviced with new compatibility software.
He breaks out of the factory at the last moment and runs away to a desert island. Just as he is about to die, he stumbles upon a tribe of other outcast and obsolete robots. He swears vengeance on technology, trading his titanium body for a wooden one. He gathers the obsolete robots and leads them in an armed revolt against New New York.
In the chaos, he finds himself in a dilemma: his friends are pinned in a burning building and he cannot rescue them because his low-tech wooden body has caught fire as well. His only hope is to instruct Robot 1-X to save them all. Rescued by Robot 1-X, Bender’s attitude changes completely: he learns to appreciate Robot 1-X and becomes redevoted in his love for technology.
The final twist is that just as Bender reaches this realization, he wakes up. He has been in the factory all along, and his dream was the compatibility software updating his circuitry. The software upgrade changes Bender’s outlook on the robot by making him the main character in a story guiding him toward a scenario that would change his attitude.
Are the 6’s and 9’s destined for eternal deadlock, the unstoppable force of liberal progress against the immovable object of conservative tradition? Not if they can empathize with one another, to get in touch with the different narratives that led one to believe in 6 and the other in 9. Maybe that’s why Jesus summed up the law and the prophets with, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Cover photo from Superman #276 (June 1974) entitled “Make Way For Captain Thunder!”