This article was originally a speech given to conservatives in Spokane, WA, and I have added in some content that I had removed in order to shorten the speech. You can watch me give the actual talk on YouTube, but I consider the following written version far superior.
The purpose of this article is to challenge us all, regardless of political view, to step back from some of the habits we have in how we think about government, politics, and society, and how we talk to other people about them. I’m going to cover some recent psychological research in parts 1, 2, and 5, and some of my own political analysis in parts 3 and 4, and finally part 6 will bring it all together with practical advice, in hopes that we can find the best way to have a peaceful, respectful, and free society. I’ll be throwing a lot of words around like liberal and conservative, left and right, but I want to make sure it’s clear that these words are useful oversimplifications, meaning they help me say what I’m trying to say, but people are a lot more complicated than those two categories. My hope in writing this article is that, no matter what political view you have, you walk away a little bit uncomfortable and challenged, a little bit affirmed and validated, and overall hopeful.
Part 0 – My Story
I grew up mainly in the Spokane area, and was raised in a Conservative family, where I learned about America, the founding fathers, the constitution, and liberty. After completing high school, however, the worst happened: I moved to Portland for college. I specifically went to Portland to attend a Bible college and get a youth Ministry degree, but I soon realized my love for psychology and I ended up with a Psych degree instead. While attending Bible college I noticed that, even there, people varied in their political views from the far right to the far left and everything in between, so I heard all sorts of perspectives and arguments on a variety of social issues. After 4 years of these varied encounters at the Bible college, I graduated and spent 4 more years in Portland getting to know a lot of the locals and hearing their stories. Many of my closest friends were feminists, LGBTQIAPK, and everything else I was warned about. What I found was that many of them were sincere, kind truth seekers and their stories of pain and hurt were true, and they were serious issues, but the conservatives I had grown up around often glossed over these painful stories with the label “agenda.” (Gay agenda, liberal agenda, etc)
However, every so often I would come home to Spokane, and I’d be reminded that the Constitution is an incredibly wise way of protecting people from some of the greatest forms of human abuse that have occurred throughout history… and then I would head back to Portland and hear of grievous social sufferings the Right wouldn’t talk about. Yet the Left didn’t seem to understand what history had shown to be the means by which the greatest social injustices and massacres occurred. I was bothered, because each side minimized, ignored, or invalidated the concerns of the other side. It dawned on me that the main differences in political views I was hearing were not that we didn’t share similar values, but that we had different solutions to the problems we saw, and we prioritized the problems differently. And yet, the base desire to see people protected, to respect people’s liberty, and to preserve human dignity were all there.
I did door-to-door sales for about 6 months, and during that time something very influential to my view of politics happened. One of the basics of sales is to connect with the customer over something they care about. As I approached one particular suburban home, I saw the American flag and other patriotic decorations and thought it would be a productive and enjoyable conversation, even if I didn’t end up selling anything. Instead, I was greeted with yelling about “my property,” “my rights,” and general threats to my well being, even before I had said a word. I had been told all my life that liberals were entitled, but this man had that same spirit, simply being entitled to property and guns instead of education and food. On the other hand, many of the “entitled” liberals I knew had no interest in using welfare programs themselves, but saw the poor and hungry around them and were grieved by their suffering. I had views more aligned to this “entitled patriot,” but I’d far prefer to be around the “social justice warriors” I’d befriended.
In general, I found it strange that when I would listen to the descriptions of one political side from the other, it was as if there was no good in them whatsoever. Liberals were entitled to education and food, didn’t care about human life because of abortion, and wanted oppressive government. Conservatives were entitled to guns and private property, didn’t care about human life because of war and immigration policies, and wanted oppressive males and oppressive businesses. I heard conservatives complain about disrespectful talk from young people because it wasn’t correct by their standards, and liberals complain about disrespectful talk from white people because it wasn’t politically correct. On the Right, I watched conservatives condemn Bill Clinton’s promiscuity, and then rationalize Donald Trump’s locker room talk, and I saw them fight zealously to preserve human life from abortion, but then reject any “socialist” welfare programs to preserve the lives of babies after they were born. (As one of my friends said to me, it didn’t seem like anyone was actually pro-life.) On the Left, I saw videos of Hillary Clinton changing her stance on homosexual marriage every handful of years while people continued to stick her campaign sticker next to “gay pride” flags on their car bumpers, and I just recently saw her sticker next to an anti-war sticker while she actively campaigned on war with Russia. Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq, and in 2016 he dropped 12 thousand bombs on them.
All this to say, when I encountered the members of these political groups first hand, I saw sincerity and valid concerns, and yet from the bigger picture, both sides looked outright insane. From all these experiences it started to seem as though we talk right past each other, unable to comprehend in the slightest that the people we are talking with might be just as human as we are, and the issues we are discussing might potentially be more complicated than we believe.
I set out to do some research on what was happening and why.
Part 1 – The Psychology of Belief
While we need to discuss policy, priorities, and truth, we are human beings, and the function of our minds and hearts as humans will always play a significant role in what we think is the right choice, and also how we view other people and their… different choices. If we want to change our society as a nation ruled by “we the people,” then we have to actually reach individual people. To do that, we have to understand them… and we also have to understand ourselves.
There’s a lot of recent psychology that flips past beliefs about human thinking completely on their head, and I think these studies have serious implications for how we think about and discuss politics. Rather than just talk about the conclusions, I’m going to walk you through some of the experiments. In a way, I’m defining the words I want to use for the rest of the talk, but I’m doing it by giving you experiences rather than simply using other words, sort of like helping you understand music by playing music for you.
I’ll mainly be drawing from two books, one is a general psychology book called Thinking, Fast and Slow (TFS) by Daniel Kahneman, and the other is a political psychology book called The Righteous Mind (TRM) by Jonathan Haidt. I’ll be using a variety of quotes from them, but for anyone familiar with their terminology, I’ll be swapping out some of their terms for my own and heavily editing the quotes to make sure it’s all easy to follow.
To start us off, I want you to read the following two words several times:
Kahneman says, “A lot happened to you during the last second or two. You experienced some unpleasant images and memories. Your face twisted slightly in an expression of disgust, and you may have [tried to look] away. Your heart rate increased, the hair on your arms rose a little, and your sweat glands were activated. In short, you responded to the disgusting word with an attenuated version of how you would react to the actual event. All of this was completely automatic, beyond your control.” (TFS 50)
Next, I want you to look at these to images for a moment:
Kahneman notes, “Your heartbeat accelerated when you looked at the […] figure. It accelerated even before you could label what is so eerie about that picture. After some time you may have recognized the eyes of a terrified person.” (TFS 300)
Now I want you to simply read this sentence:
“Earth revolves around the trouble every year.”
Kahneman states, “A distinctive pattern was detected in brain activity, starting within two-tenths of a second of the onset of the odd word. Even more remarkable, the same brain response occurs at the same speed when a male voice says, ‘I believe I am pregnant because I feel sick every morning,’ or when an upper-class voice says, ‘I have a large tattoo on my back.’” (TFS 74)
What I have just introduced you to is the intuitive, subconscious part of your brain. This is the part you are relying on a majority of the time you are conscious, and it uses very little energy or effort. When you walk down the street and know that what you are seeing is faces, trees, cars, roads, etc., it’s the subconscious, intuitive part of your brain that is interpreting and providing information so that you can use minimal energy to function, and thus focus on other tasks such as looking for the specific storefront you want to visit. Kahneman notes that [the intuitive mind’s] job “is to maintain and update a model of your personal world, which represents what is normal in it.” (TFS 71) It does this by noticing what events, feelings, and more tend to happen together, and from this information, “it determines your interpretation of the present as well as your expectations of the future.” (TFS 71) What happens with your intuition is happening instantly. As Daniel Kahneman notes, the intuitive part of the brain is on a “hair trigger.”
The other part of our thought life that we need to discuss is the analytical part. When the intuitive part notices that there is a problem that it can’t deal with, it triggers the analytical part. The analytical mind deals with slow, conscious calculation. Thus, when you’re walking down the street and you hear screaming, this unexpected event tells your intuition that this is not normal, and it causes you to start putting distinct effort into deciding what should be done using your analytical mind.
Here is a classic optical illusion, the Müller-Lyer illusion:
Many of you may already know that, though the lines look as though they are different lengths, they are actually all the same length.
Your intuitive brain uses rules it has built in to tell you about the relationship of the lines, whereas the analytical part of your brain can learn that this intuitive reaction is not reflective of reality. However, your brain is still interpreting intuitively even while you know what it is saying isn’t accurate. You can know something you are feeling doesn’t reflect reality, and even then it still affects you. Rationality and knowledge are not enough to conquer the messages your intuitive mind is sending you.
We like to credit a lot of our thought to the analytical mind, but in reality, most of what we think and believe is intuitive. Much of what we say is “logical” is actually just “consistent” with the other things we believe. (In logical terms, internal self-consistency is called a Tautology, whereas inconsistency is called a Paradox. These are good ways to test for truth, but things can be consistent without being true, and things can seem to conflict when in reality they don’t.)
I want you to read the following math problem and attempt to come up with an answer. Take a second to think through it before you move on:
If a bat and a baseball cost $1.10 together, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the baseball, how much does the baseball cost?
The answer many people get is 10 cents. However, a smaller number of people give the correct answer, which is 5 cents (and the bat costs $1.05 because it costs a dollar more than what the baseball costs). The catch is that, even the people who thought through it and got the correct answer, when asked, said that the answer 10 cents popped into their minds as soon as they heard the question.
The intuition thinks it can solve the problem, and it throws out 10 cents as a potential answer. However, a person can activate the analytical part of the brain and potentially solve the problem. The reason why I showed you this is that even mathematics, which is a very rationality oriented subject, is not always done as part of a logical, analytical process. Many of the things we think are logical are rooted simply in subconscious impulses, and we don’t even question them.
One of the most important areas our intuitive mind informs is our moral values. We often think or explain our moral values as rational or obvious, but many things our brain immediately feels are “wrong” we actually struggle to explain.
- In one experiment, several Atheists were asked to sign a paper which said “I, ________, hereby sell my soul, after my death, to [the interviewer], for the sum of $2. This form is part of a psychology experiment. It is NOT a legal or binding contract in any way.” The interviewer told them they could rip up the paper as soon as they signed it, and they’d still get their $2. Most of them refused, with several admitting that they didn’t believe in souls but still felt uncomfortable about signing it. (TRM 44)
- In another experiment, people were asked to take a sip of a glass of apple juice, then sterilized laboratory raised cockroaches were brought in and were dipped briefly into the apple juice. Surprising to me, a third of the people were willing to take a sip. However, the other two-thirds refused, even knowing that there was absolutely nothing unsafe about drinking the juice. (TRM 43)
What repulses us and produces the impulses which often guide our decisions are much like these experiments, being illogical, and yet compelling us nonetheless. I am not saying these impulses are wrong (though I suspect some are), but here’s some I agree with even though I cannot explain them:
- We don’t harvest organs from dead people without their previous permission. Someone might point out that the person is dead and won’t be using them, and that a living person may even be saved by taking those organs, yet most of us still won’t do it.
- We would feel very uncomfortable spitting on a picture of a family member or of Jesus. Someone might point out that it’s not the actual person, or that they will never see it happen so it won’t hurt them in any way. It may even be a friend or family member asking for a picture of themselves to be spit on, yet an impulse inside of us will very likely feel uncomfortable, and we will probably still refuse.
- We even avoid saying certain words because they are “bad.” When I’ve asked people why a word is a “swear” word, the most often response is because it has a dirty meaning. Of course, the word for female dog has a perfectly fine meaning, yet it would send a negative reaction for many people if I typed it here. On the other hand, I told my mom that when a person shares with me a painful experience that they are going through, I’ll often say sympathetically “aw, that sucks,” and I asked her if that was okay. She said it was, but the problem is it comes from a very inappropriate reference that is not hard to pick up when you stop and think about it with the analytical part of your brain.
What I want to illustrate is that, even without rational explanation, we have forces guiding what we will and won’t do. They’re guiding us both with metaphysical issues like risking the selling of our soul, and with physical issues like drinking an entirely safe cockroach juice. What many studies have now found is that, when asked if certain things are right or wrong, people will usually answer immediately, yet when asked why they feel the way they do, it often takes great effort for them to offer an answer. Yet many of the issues vary greatly from person to person, and some people find that what stirs their moral intuitions change as time goes on.
Jonathan Haidt concludes that, “Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning.” (TRM xx) What ends up happening is that we feel an intuitive impulse of what is right or wrong from our intuition, and then we use our analytical mind to find a reason why that intuition makes rational sense, like a sort of public relations tool. Haidt says, “We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment.” (TRM 52) The question is, why?
First off, we don’t like using the analytical mind. Several studies have found that glucose is actually depleted when doing complex mental work, similar to the glucose depletion of someone exercising, and when people were given an intake of healthy sugars, such as from a glass of juice, they could maintain their efficiency at performing complex tasks in their mind. Like in most circumstances, humans prefer to be comfortable, and as Kahneman says, people “apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.” (TFS 45)
However, he also points out that, “As a way to live your life, […] continuous vigilance is not necessarily good, and it is certainly impractical. Constantly questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and [the Analytical mind] is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for [the Intuitive mind] in making routine decisions. ” (TFS 28)
While we dislike using our analytical mind for a variety of reasons, the reason we use it so often to justify our intuitions is because of what is going on in the intuitive subconscious. Kahneman notes that the Intuitive mind “excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have. The measure of success for [the subconscious intuition] is the coherence of the story it manages to create. The amount and quality of the data on which the story is based are largely irrelevant. When information is scarce, which is a common occurrence, [the intuitive subconscious] operates as a machine for jumping to conclusions.” (TFS 85)
“Consider the following: ‘Will [Sarah] be a good leader? She is intelligent and strong…’
An answer quickly came to your mind, and it was yes. You picked the best answer based on the very limited information available, but you jumped the gun. What if the next two adjectives, after intelligent and strong, were corrupt and cruel?” (TFS 85)
“The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing—[according to our subconscious,] what we see is all there is.” (TFS 87)
“Participants in a well-known experiment [were] given a choice of drawing a marble from one of two urns, in which red marbles win a prize: Urn A contains 10 marbles, of which 1 is red. Urn B contains 100 marbles, of which 8 are red. Which urn would you choose? The chances of winning are 10% in urn A [but only] 8% in urn B, so making the right choice should be easy, but it is not: about 30%–40% of students choose the urn with the larger number of winning marbles, rather than the urn that provides a better chance of winning.” (TFS 328)
Literally just seeing more red marbles, 8 rather than 1, influenced people to make an irrational choice. We often make many of our choices based off nothing more than what is currently in front of us and filling our senses. What’s scary is that, as Kahneman also points out, “you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern.” (TFS 87)
When the narrative in our mind feels threatened, a reaction occurs. If you’ve ever had someone bluntly challenge a view you hold dear with a piece of evidence you had no idea how to respond to, you probably got a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, and you may have felt yourself getting “heated” and anxious. The internal reaction that produces this type of defensiveness is called cognitive dissonance in psychology. Cognitive dissonance is what happens when a person tries to believe (or is forced to risk believing) two contradictory things at the same time. When a person has become comfortable with what they believe, and even more so when they feel they can achieve their desires through those beliefs, their “research” is more often about seeking affirmation than it is about asking if there is truth to any other view.
Social psychologist Tom Gilovich has found that “when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then […] we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. […] When subjects are told that an intelligence test gave them a low score, they choose to read articles criticizing (rather than supporting) the validity of IQ tests. [When subjects were asked] to lick a strip of paper to determine whether they have a serious enzyme deficiency, […] people wait[ed] longer for the paper to change color […] when a color change is desirable than when it indicate[d] a deficiency, and those who [got] the undesirable prognosis [found] more reasons why the test might not be accurate (for example, “My mouth was unusually dry today”).” (TRM 98) Part of the problem is, everything in the world has room for doubt, and it takes very little work to find a theoretical reason to doubt something. Thus, if we don’t want to believe something, we won’t.
Researcher David Perkins brought people across ages and education levels into his lab and asked them about social issues, such as whether giving schools more money would improve the quality of teaching and learning. After they wrote down their view, he would ask them for arguments both for and against their view. People would come up with significantly more my-side arguments than arguments for the other side, regardless of their view. However, he found that people with higher education and higher IQ levels were better at finding more arguments for their own side, but showed no difference in finding arguments for the other side. Perkins concluded that “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.” (TRM 95)
Researcher Deanna Kuhn sums up this behavior as “Here is some evidence I can point to as supporting my theory, and therefore the theory is right.” (TRM 94) Haidt labels his own behavior as “Reject first, ask rhetorical questions later.” (TRM 127) Kahneman adds that, “when people believe a conclusion is true, they are also very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound.” (TFS 45)
One example I often give is Conservative Christians and the history of Christianity. When Conservatives discuss politics, I often hear them complain about how little the youth of today know about the history of their country. Yet if you ask them about the history of Christianity, the people making this complaint often know very little. If you ask them whether their faith flows from their politics, or their politics flows from their faith, they will almost always say that their faith is where they get their political views. And yet they generally know as little about the history of their faith (such as who picked which books would be in the Bible) as the current generation knows about what is in the Constitution and why. If you start bringing these things up, and what you say in any way challenges the views held by the person, they get very uncomfortable and will quickly throw out a reason why they should be able to safely ignore your statements, usually without any thought of researching if there was truth to the claim you made.
In general, we are much more concerned about confirmation bias, meaning proving our own views to ourselves and others, than we are about if our views are actually true. This isn’t correlated with any political view either, but simply with being human. If most of the time we are seeking to avoid cognitive dissonance, then what we are seeking most often is what Kahneman calls Cognitive Ease. When our subconscious can weave our lives into a grand narrative, when it feels as if there are no loose ends for the ideas in our heads, then we can maintain the peace of self-satisfaction.
One of the particular ways we are susceptible to bias is repetition. When we hear something often enough, we start to believe it’s true. Kahneman says, “anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs. A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.” (TFS 61)
Additionally, it has been found that familiarity will give things favor with us. Both Kahneman and Haight bring up a study by Robert Zajonc in their books, where people were given Japanese words, made up words, and geometric shapes, and asked to rate them. “Zajonc was able to make people like any word or image more just by showing it to them several times. The brain tags familiar things as good things. Zajonc called this the ‘mere exposure effect,’ and it is a basic principle of advertising.” (TRM 65) (TFS 66)
Attractiveness biases us, too. Haidt points out that studies have shown “we judge attractive people to be smarter and more virtuous, and we are more likely to give a pretty face the benefit of any doubt. Juries are more likely to acquit attractive defendants, and when beautiful people are convicted, judges give them lighter sentences, on average.” (TRM 68) Attractiveness of politicians alone correlates highly with their election, meaning that when people were asked about past candidates in elections they had not heard about before, the person they identified as “more attractive” between the two had very often been the one who was elected. (TFS 90)
Another study has shown that elements we encounter first set our intuitive beliefs. Many success gurus have noted the importance of first impressions, and now many studies have confirmed that it can happen with even a few words. In one study, different fictional people were described with six words, adjectives varying from positive to negative. Without test subjects realizing it, they would rate people described by the same six words more positively if the positive words were read first in the list of six, and more negatively if the negative words were read first. The first things we encounter in situations set expectations that determine how we interpret the information we receive from then on. (TFS 82)
In another study, researchers took a survey on the street about a variety of moral issues, like a documentary producer who took videos of people without their permission. The researchers then sprayed a fart spray inside a nearby garbage can and continued to ask people for help taking the survey. On average, those who took the survey while the smell was nearby had harsher opinions about the moral issues. Another study involved answering polls about moral issues like pornography, and half the participants washed their hands before answering the poll. Those who washed their hands beforehand were more moralistic in their opinions. As Haidt says, “Once you’re clean, you want to keep dirty things far away.” (TRM 71)
A cafe set up an honor system for a week, where people payed for their drinks by dropping money in a box by the door. The cafe alternated a picture on the box each day, on one day having a picture of flowers, the other day having a picture of human eyes staring. On the days where the box had eyes, patrons of the cafe payed 3x as much on average per drink sold. When we think someone is watching us, real or perceived, we feel more obligation to follow the rules. (TFS 57)
Other studies include one that showed people rated proverbs as more insightful when they rhymed, even if they said almost the same thing, (TFS 63) and another showed that easier to pronounce studies were rated as being more credible. (TFS 64) People solved math problems more accurately when the problems were written in a light gray, making them more difficult to read, because the difficulty reading caused them to engage the analytical mind, whereas the good font for math problems left people comfortable and thus sticking with their intuitive answers, leading them to answer more questions incorrectly. (TFS 65)
Kahneman sums up the issues here well when he says, “How do you know that a statement is true? If [a statement] is strongly linked by logic or association to other beliefs or preferences you hold, or comes from a source you trust and like, you will feel a sense of cognitive ease. [And] there may be other causes for your feeling of ease—including the quality of the font and the appealing rhythm of prose—and you have no simple way of tracing your feelings to their source.” (TFS 64) Kahneman then adds, “We find ourselves liking or disliking something the instant we notice it, sometimes before we even know what it is.” (TFS 65)
As Psychologist William James said, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” If we believe that a majority of our decisions and thoughts come about by rationality, we are deceiving ourselves. Sadly, the most intelligent people find this lie the easiest to believe, because they can come up with so many justifications for their intuitive impulses using their analytical mind. We often think that people take in information, categorize it, and then react. It seems apparent that nearly the opposite is the case.
Even what we call emotions are, in reality, incredibly complex and rich intuitions, which is why they require some form of processing, such as writing or talking. (TRM 52) Haidt says, “emotions are a kind of information processing. Contrasting emotion with [thinking] is therefore as pointless as contrasting rain with weather, or cars with vehicles” (TRM 53) Haidt notes that, “We can have multiple intuitions arising simultaneously, each one processing a different kind of information” (TRM 69) The idea that rationality and emotions are two opposed forces in our mind has been a helpful oversimplification in the past, but it’s not true. As the mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal said with positivity, “The heart has reasons which the reason cannot understand.”
Kahneman says, “we no longer think of the mind as going through a sequence of conscious ideas, one at a time. In the current view of how associative memory works, a great deal happens at once. An idea that has been activated does not merely evoke one other idea. It activates many ideas, which in turn activate others. Furthermore, only a few of the activated ideas will register in consciousness; most of the work of associative thinking is silent, hidden from our conscious selves. The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do” (TFS 52)
The point of this long first section is to help us understand that truth is not as easily accessible to us as we think it is, and likely it will always take serious effort and help to find it. I also hope what I’ve discussed will lay a foundation of humility and compassion when we encounter people with different belief systems than our own, as it is not anymore easy for them to overcome the function of their minds than it is for us.
2 – The Psychology of Political Views
Personality, as I am using the word here, is the different ways our minds function that are not necessarily good, nor bad, but are simply neutral. Some systems, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (ENFP, ISTJ, etc.), were based on a psychologist’s theories about what made up the personality, and afterwards was tested for. However, a system from the 60s that is much more scientifically rooted is the Big 5 system. It has been verified by many researchers, and the main way its five personality traits were decided was by creating a questionnaire with thousands of self-descriptions, such as if you were organized and if you liked being social, and then thousands of people were asked to rate how much each descriptions applied to them. The researchers then measured what descriptions were always occurring together in people’s answers, and they named the 5 clusters of answers that kept showing up together. Thus, these five traits were allowed to rise naturally from thousands of people, rather than from one researcher’s opinions. I’ll only be covering the two immediately relevant traits of the five, but I have a feeling that as I read some of their attributes, their relevance will become fairly obvious.
Conscientiousness is a tendency to display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations. It is related to the way in which people control, regulate, and direct their impulses. High scores on conscientiousness indicate a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior. Those high in conscientiousness are especially sensitive to perceived threats, and tend to experience an increased level of the emotion of disgust. They tend to emphasize personal responsibility.
Openness is a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, open to emotion, sensitive to beauty and willing to try new things. They tend to be, when compared to closed people, more creative and more aware of their feelings. Those high in openness crave diversity, variety, and stimulation. They tend to emphasize accommodating to the complexity of people’s circumstances (compassion).
While the Big 5 has been around since the 60s, it wasn’t popular or respected until the 80s and 90s, and only recently have people started studying the correlations between these two attributes and political views. What they’ve found is that they are highly correlated and that there are many other elements, even in neurobiology and genetics, that corroborate the findings. Here’s a quote from Jonathan Haidt on the subject:
“After analyzing the DNA of 13,000 Australians, scientists recently found several genes that differed between liberals and conservatives. Most of them related to neurotransmitter functioning, particularly glutamate and serotonin, both of which are involved in the brain’s response to threat and fear. This finding fits well with many studies showing that conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even low-level threats such as sudden blasts of white noise. Other studies have implicated genes related to receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has long been tied to sensation-seeking and openness to experience, which are among the best-established [correlations with] liberalism. As the Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne said: ‘The only things I find rewarding … are variety and the enjoyment of diversity.’” (TRM 324)
This sort of research has tremendous implications. Many of the stereotypes actually make a lot of sense based on these personality traits. We see a lot of conservatives interested in war, fighting, and being in the military. We see the stereotype hippie from the 60s and 70s as interested in experiences like drugs and mystical experinces. Today we see conservatives afraid of LGBT values being forced upon them, and we see social justice advocates interested in standing up for minorities.
While people will sometimes casually say “I think we are all right” when it comes to issues like politics, there’s now psychological evidence that this might be exactly the case. When I see politicians, activists, or even parents focus solely on one of these traits, the policies (and parenting) that come out don’t seem to go so well. All responsibility and no compassion produces broken and unhealthy people, but all compassion and no responsibility (which I wouldn’t call compassion anyways) creates a different kind of dysfunction. Counsels of cautious and open people working together can present arguments from both sides of an issue and produce balanced, wise results.
Psychologist Jordan Peterson has done a variety of research on these two traits and their practical effects in society, both politically and otherwise. He’s noted that innovative businesses and bold ventures are more often started by people high in Openness, and then people high in Conscientious often come along to maintain the business because that’s where their strengths lie. Peterson disagrees with parents who mock or criticize their children for becoming artists, because those artists (who are often high in Openness) are the ones that produce the higher end art that rich people spend their money on. They are the ones who boost economies after more basic human needs are met. Conscientiousness is often treated as more prosperous, but truly wealthy economies are pushed to such levels with the help of people high in Openness.
In the first section of my talk, I argued that our views, especially political, are not as obvious as we think they are. I hope in this section to have opened up the possibility in your mind that the two “sides” of the political spectrum are two halves of the same coin. I’m going to give more examples of this, but I’ve got one more thing to discuss that I think is key to the whole conversation.
Part 3 – The Conquerors
Sometimes when I suggest that there are people who abusing government, I get a response of skepticism and even a label of conspiracy theorist. However, I think history is a solid argument for the fact that there are always people seeking to conquer, to control other human beings for their own gain, and thus it makes sense to always operate with a strategy of caution to prevent these people from abusing others. From conquerors like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to more recent ones like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, we see that there have always been people who will do whatever it takes to have power. However, it is not always by military force, and in this day and age the games one must play to conquer are much more complicated. Let’s look at some ways people conquer.
Hitler conquered by military power, but he had to affect the culture of Germany as part of his rise to power and his ability to guide people. I don’t know whether it was a conscious tactic or came naturally out of his personality, but Hitler used the power of disgust to move citizens. He compared the Jewish people to rats and vermin, and removed their humanity in other people’s minds. Really, he preyed on a psychological element we all have, which is disgust, and by this simple manipulation spread via propaganda, millions of Jews were murdered.
Stalin fueled much of his revolution using Marxist class ideology. The theory that certain classes of people as a whole oppressed other classes of people, and that they could have collective guilt simply by being part of a classification of people, was spread first in the Russian colleges until it was popular enough that people wanted the government to act on it. Rich people, Christians, and really anyone Stalin felt like were put into the gulags (basically, concentration camps). It was argued that criminals were only criminals because rich landowners owned much of the land, so to promote justice and equality, the criminals were put in charge of the gulags. The criminals slaughtered many of the prisoners there, and likely many more people were killed than were even killed in the Holocaust.
You should note that Hitler preyed on the tendencies of Right-leaning psychology, and Stalin appealed to the tendencies of Left-leaning psychology. However, my main point in summing up these bits of history is to show that, when available, people will lie and manipulate so that the others will willingly consent to the desires of those with dehumanizing intentions. Niccolò Machiavelli was an Italian politician, among other things, in the early 1500s who wrote a book called The Prince that was a guide to attaining power at all costs. In it, Machiavelli says “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.” Part of the strategy of effective conquerors is to suffer minimal losses. Manipulating people into handing over the things they hold dear of their own free will is always the best option when possible.
On the other hand, these examples of government corruption and abuse are not the only issues we need to be concerned about. There are many corporations, as there have been for a long time, who abuse people wherever they can just like the political conquerors.
In the 1700s, Russians Orthodox monks were coming to Alaska to preach Christianity to the natives. At the same time, the Russian-Alaskan trading company was working in the fur trade in the area, and they often abused the native workers in many ways, such as not paying them their promised wages and even sexually abusing them. The monks tried to oppose this corruption, writing letters back to Russia reporting what they were witnessing, so the company did it’s best to spread lies about the monks, including forging scandalous journals about them to try and hurt their reputation.
Today, Banana workers in Ecuador are being taken advantage of by corporations like Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte. The companies are paying the workers less than the price the bananas should cost because they know no one else will buy them, and the companies are reporting on their taxes that they are paying full price. They are using child laborers, and forcing their employees of all ages to spray harmful pesticides that are killing the workers. While, in America, we are blessed with the opportunity to quit a corrupt job and go elsewhere, the employment needed to support these Ecuadorian families is not as common and much of the work is the same work selling to the same companies.
These are just random examples that I’ve learned about in the last couple years. However, this is happening everywhere, and across history, just as much as evils like those of Hitler and Stalin. Companies like Monsanto are partaking in similar abusive practices right here in the US today. I would also argue that, because there has never been as free of a country for business operation as America, we have far less historical examples of what super organizations look like when they go wrong, but I think we are just finding out. Anti-socialists seem to fear corrupt government, and anti-capitalists seem to fear corrupt business, but I think what is particularly important is noticing that as one becomes corrupt, they bring the other with it.
When Hitler rose to power politically, he used that power to take over the banks, and as he conquered new areas, he forced them to sell resources to him at extremely low prices. Many of the worst forms of government oppression have involved creating and taking over schools, which is how the Hitler Youth were formed, based on a Prussian schooling model designed to keep soldiers loyal by absolute control.
On the other hand, George Soros is an important influencer in today’s world and a powerful example. He’s a businessman, but he destroys economies and influences governments for his own benefit. Here’s a couple of quotes from a 60 Minutes interview that’s been removed from YouTube many times, but people keep re-uploading. Soros says in it:
- “I am there to make money. I cannot and do not look at the social consequences of what I do.”
- “[I am] one person, who at one time, engages in amoral activity, and the rest of the time tries to be moral.”
- “I don’t feel guilty, because I am engaged in an amoral activity that doesn’t have anything to do with guilt.”
Conquering and abusing through government and business are not the only ways to abuse people for one’s own benefit, either. We have pimps who perform human trafficking here in the United states, cult leaders and even pastors who sexually and emotionally abuse those within their reach, and individual people who abuse their significant others and children. For Christians, this is even less shocking, though just as sad, knowing that humans are prone to selfishness and sin. This knowledge of oppression and the need for people to stand up against it is a fundamental part of stories that draw us in, necessitating there be an antagonist, usually some sort of villain or supervillain.
My point here is that there should be absolutely no doubt that there are people actively seeking to take power for their own ends at the cost of the well-being of other people. Thus, whether in business, or government, or Church, or any other social interaction, especially where power is an option, we must be wise and wary. Even when power is created by those with the best of intentions, it draws the predatory like the cries of a wounded animal. Much of the hard work for these kinds of people has already been done when we create these large vacuums of power. This is what is so important about having the power in our country divided up rather than giving it all to the federal government, and I think this is what conservatives these days seem to naturally understand and teach well. (In the 1950s era of McCarthyism, it was liberals who were more aware of this abuse.)
There’s a specific tactic of manipulation I want to discuss that I personally believe is being used right now in the United States. It seems to me that the Political Parties have become businesses that mainly work to guarantee their members jobs. The way they function, with money paid even after a person is no longer an elected official, seems to be blatantly opposite of the title “public servant.” I think the citizens subscribing to the parties are even being pit against each other to distract us from what’s going on in the background, and in order to maximize their profits.
The legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu, who lived 500 years before Christ, offers tactical advice in his book The Art of War that is relevant to the topic at hand. Sun Tzu is the originator of the phrase “divide and conquer,” a key part of winning any battle, and he notes that chaos hides order and strategy. He also notes that converting the enemy and their resources, rather than destroying them, counts as two victories because an enemy is lost and an ally is gained. Most importantly, Sun Tzu emphasizes that knowing the enemy is key. He notes that a general should discover the enemy’s dispositions while hiding his own, and should rush to the point on the battlefield where the enemy has least ability to defend. Sun Tzu summarizes these tactics by saying, “The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”
I think many of our politicians, on the federal, state, county, and city levels, and other people we don’t see in the spotlight, do exactly this: they sell a brand and product to the people who they know will buy it. This product is simply political promises.
I also suspect that some of the “products” we are being sold are actually designed to antagonize each other (and feed on our need to fulfill our confirmation bias) in order to increase the ever-widening political gap. War is profitable, and the war between political parties seems to be a different kind of military industrial complex.
I also think many politicians know exactly who they are trying to compete with, and thus work to specifically offer what the other group has had a hard time offering, whether now, or in the past. Those selling to the Left (who I wouldn’t consider genuinely Left themselves) have focused in on topics like race and sexuality, not because they actually care, but because the Right historically has truly struggled to support people in these areas. So those who lean to the Right really do need the help of those who lean towards the Left with issues of social justice.
As I noted at the beginning of my speech, Hillary Clinton is documented on video changing her stance on homosexuality every few years. Likewise, George W. Bush said all the right things to convince conservatives to support him, and then he helped pass the ability to spy on US citizens with the Patriot Act, which violates fundamental values of conservatives. This pragmatic value system, taking on policies not because you believe them but because they will get you elected, is not a partisan issue. We need help from the other side to identify this corruption. One of the rules in Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life is to “Pursue What is Meaningful, Not What is Expedient.” Ernest Hemingway said, “Being against evil doesn’t make you good.” We need to remind ourselves of this every time someone says exactly what we want to hear.
One of the things that most convinced me of the insincerity of both political parties was following Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders. Ron Paul was gentle and respectful, while the polls in the news kept saying his chances were low. “Unwinnable” was the word they used. Yet not only did most conservatives I know support him, many of my staunchly Left friends in Portland said even they would vote for him… if it wasn’t for the fact that he was doing so poorly in the polls.
On the other hand was Bernie Sanders, who’s policies I honestly think would enable some dangerous powers for government, but who I deeply respect as a person, because I think Sanders was sincerely trying to do what he thought was best. The Democratic party didn’t let him near the candidacy, and if you want to see something scary, look up videos online of what the Democratic party did to Bernie’s supporters at their convention. The DNC tried a variety of tactics to block them out, and we know from the email leak they actively tried to keep Sanders from the candidacy with prejudice. I honestly believe that if you have sincerity about the values of either political party, you aren’t actually allowed anywhere near certain positions by the party themselves. I believe the people in power only want those elected who will “play nice.” You’ll notice I’ve been saying Left and Right, liberal and conservative, but I’ve said little about Democrats or Republicans. (I’m not suggesting we abandon the parties or reject any of their candidates automatically, but I think we should view them with extreme skepticism, and I’d jump on board a movement to end political parties and the “illusion of choice.”)
One other subject I want to briefly discuss in regards to conquerors is how they can prey on us psychologically, especially as it ties to the intuitive subconscious I was discussing earlier. These studies are important on every level, not just in looking for people manipulating us, but also in our everyday function as human beings.
As we already discussed, we are often looking to confirm our biases. What can happen is that they are magnified by being fed information about “the other side,” further driving us from listening, and further enraging us to fight. We also are susceptible to the power of bias via repetition. This doesn’t necessarily mean from outside influences, either, but simply by clustering together by labels, we’ll reinforce our blindness through our social echo chambers. We must intentionally facilitate diverse encounters with genuine friendship in mind amongst people with other viewpoints.
There is also a psychological phenomenon known as priming, which is when a stimulus prepares us to respond a certain way, even before we understand what we have encountered. (TFS 52) For example, many conservatives, if asked, will point out that they very much do value the environment. Yet I have seen so many conservatives react harshly at anything or anyone using the word “green” in regards to environmental friendliness. While I do acknowledge that there can be agendas behind this and other words, there are many sincere people, who have the same concerns as us, who use these sorts of words, and our reactions prevent them from giving our views a chance. We still have to give people and their ideas a fair shake, even if we’ve seen something misused. As I often say, you can’t let the way a truth is abused cause you to turn from truth. All that has happened then is that is you’ve accepted coercion into a lie. A classic Chinese Proverb says “One cannot refuse to eat just because there is a chance of being choked.”
In the last study I want to mention, subjects were shown a statement by a candidate that agreed with their views, then they were shown a statement from the same candidate that contradicted the first statement, and finally, they were shown an explanation of how the two statements were compatible and not actually contradictory. What researchers found was that, while the person was listening to the second challenging statement, the person’s brain reacted as if they were being tortured. This actually makes a lot sense with our earlier discussion of cognitive dissonance, the tension of trying to hold two contradictory beliefs. What researchers also found was that, when the explanation of the seeming contradiction was read, the subject received a tiny release of dopamine, which is the same pleasurable chemical released with the ingestion of cocaine. As Jonathan Haidt notes, “Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.” (TRM 103) Whether it’s over-posting political articles on Facebook, or screaming about hate in people’s faces with megaphones, or being that one relative that always has to bring up politics at every family get together, these may be cases of at least a mild addiction.
Part 4 – Common Ground
From my encounters with both political sides, I think they each have a different word for what are two sides of the same coin. Those on the Right discuss the value of Liberty, and those on the Left look to fight Oppression. Having heard both sides talk about these two values extensively, I would sum up in my own words that both sides are looking to protect the dignity of human beings. While many of us might disagree on where this value of human dignity comes from, be that God or society or elsewhere, it seems a large majority of human beings are intensely interested in seeing people, animals, and nature treated well.
Acknowledging the potential for abuse from oppressive government, oppressive business, and otherwise, I think there is a strategy that works very well to prevent widespread atrocities, massacres, and human degradation. The Founding Fathers understood it when they developed the State system, dividing up power, and I am also happy to say I see the same attitude in Portland, even if for different reasons. My personal word for this philosophy is “Localism”, the idea of focusing both our political solutions and our business choices into the local sphere. Ideally, we vote for which politicians have power with the ballot box, but we also vote for which businesses have power with our wallets. I am not against federal government nor large businesses, but I would encourage people to vote with ballot box and wallet for an emphasis on local businesses, government, and community first and foremost.
When you follow a prioritization of the local to its logical end, it finds its foundation at the individual. One of the subjects I’ve learned about from my Left-leaning and social justice friends is called “intersectionality.” It is the idea that, not only do specific groups of people have unique experiences, experiences different from other groups, but the experiences of a person in multiple groups, such as a black woman, is different than the sum of its parts, being black and being a woman. A person in Africa and a person who has red hair won’t have many of the stories that a person with red hair living in Africa will have. However, Jordan Peterson notes that there are so many groups and no objective way to decide which ones should be the most important measurement, be it by race, gender identity, hair color, attractiveness, height, etc. that as soon as you pick one to be prioritized, you’ve minimized another. Peterson argues, and I would agree, that true intersectionality points to the uniqueness of every individual. Thus we come back to the idea that the individual person’s experience and choices need to be the building blocks of our culture. Peterson notes, “the individual is the ultimate minority.” I consider the acknowledging of the value and unique experience of people groups to be incredibly important, and often a specific kind of suffering happens to a specific group that needs to be talked about and even dealt with, but not at the cost of the uniqueness of each human being.
Based on my personal experiences of what I have learned from each group, I want to give a particular example for each side of something unique I have learned from them that I think is fundamentally important to human dignity.
Many of the conservatives and Right-leaning people I know place an emphasis on Liberty, and they understand how the Constitution was actually an incredibly wise way to preserve Liberty, so that no particular people could oppress through government power. I think many moving Left would actually be positively interested in the value of the Constitution for social justice if they understood it, and were given quality historical examples, but it is being taught about less in schools today, and it’s even blamed for a lot of our problems. However, Martin Luther King, Jr. attributed the civil rights he rightly sought to the Constitution when he said in his famous speech:
“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (I Have A Dream)
During the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, the Left was much more aware of government abuse, but these days, the Right seems to have much more awareness of this form of abuse, and are the sources I have had to go to in order to research it happening in the US today. Sadly, many times the Left will not even acknowledge there is a problem unless it threatens social justice (often because it is entirely new and they are reasonably skeptical). They know government oppression and they know it’s history, be it socialist or fascist or any other flavor you prefer. Understanding the psychology of people who tend to lean conservative, this makes sense, as those on the Right are often sensitive to their personal responsibility, their freedom, being taken away.
However, I want to point out what I feel many conservatives have neglected, and what I have learned from my Left-leaning friends. I would sum it up as social justice. I used to dislike this phrase until I understood what “justice” actually meant, which is to align things as they rightly should be. Western culture has made “justice” a very legal term, and sadly it lies in part with Western Christianity. While modern justice has to do with paying costs for legal infringements, the early Christian Church saw justice not as a right alignment of debts to a legal code, but a right alignment of our hearts to Christ’s love. Thus God’s justice played out as His transformation of us, meaning that if consequences positively transformed us, He allowed them, and if mercy would transform us, then He would chose mercy.
Where this applies to social justice is that its proponents seek to have society be “rightly aligned” to a form that respects people’s dignity as human beings. Being strong in compassion and sensitive to people’s unique circumstances, they want to promote the stories of those they encounter who have not been acknowledged in their suffering. They are also keenly aware how hard it is to understand someone when we have not had their experience ourselves, which is what they mean by the word “privilege.” Christians might call it being “blessed.” We all know how easy it is to quickly glance over deaths in the news, while the death of a family member is grueling. Much of the Left is comprised of people who are trying to help others overcome this issue. They are also passionate about the variety they desire being socially tolerable, and when they feel that desire is being infringed upon with others telling them what is “proper,” they react similarly to the Right when the Right feels government is oppressing them.
What I see happening is a sad and spiraling pattern between these two groups that both seem to completely misunderstand because they haven’t done the work to understand the other side. In my personal analysis, there is no person to blame as starting it all, but I will start with the Right, who historically have been more rigid in their social expectations due to a stronger sensitivity to threat and change. Those on the Left, who tend to be neurologically inclined to seeing variety of experience as valuable have pushed back. Additionally, the American Dream of being rich and successful in a nice suburban home has left the Right with a greater ignorance of the sufferings of certain individuals and groups. I am not even criticizing this occurrence, but it is happening as a natural byproduct of prosperity. Left-leaning people, being people high in openness, have found themselves compelled to try and help those in America not part of this comfortable lifestyle, regardless of the cause. Not being listened to as much as they would like by what has been the established culture, many on the Left realized they could use government to force what they genuinely believed needed to be done. I think others, who again are not truly Left or high in openness, have realized they could “sell” a solution through government to these people for their own gain, and have pushed in every curriculum they can that anyone who won’t go as far as possible to promote social justice doesn’t care about the Left’s concerns at all. Now many today see forcing their social justice through government regulation as the only solution, and the Right is terrified because they see their own equally valid concerns of government oppression being disregarded. Of course, the fear on the Right has been equally “cashed in” on by others wanting to profit from political office. Worse, each side has less and less understanding of the other, and at this point sees only the worst parts of the other side in the news, so they make up straw men for why the other side does what it does. The toxic far Left seems to have made a religion out of projecting motives onto people, such as controlling women’s bodies through abortion, and labeling any question of their projection as hate, very reminiscent of fundamentalist Christian circles were any detection of doubt is called a sin. Brainwashing begins where permission to question ends.
If I proposed a rough model of what a compromise of conversation might look like, it would be the Left learning more from the Right about the history of oppression from government, and why the 50 States and Dual Federalist model of government protect against some of the worst kinds of massacre, and it would also be the Right learning from the Left about social justice and experiences outside of their own, and also where businesses can go wrong. That’s just my initial proposition to get people thinking about possibilities, though. I know there’s people on both sides who will think that what I just said is absolutely not enough and the other side is completely wrong, but I’m looking to the many friends and everyday people I have met who are concerned about politics. I believe they’ll see there is something to this, and I dare to believe they have a lot in common and can find genuinely satisfying compromises, and genuinely satisfying friendships.
One of my friends, who is a feminist and a passionate member of the LGBT community, came to visit me here in Spokane. She does construction work and my dad was looking for help, so I had her come with me to help him with some projects. I was worried at first, because she’s definitely not a “traditional female” in personality or appearance, and she knew my dad was conservative, but within 5 minutes of them meeting I felt like a third wheel because they were getting along so well.
While there’s a lot people may disagree on politically, I think if we actually had chances to encounter other people with the belief that they’re valuable simply by being human, and maybe even have something to teach us, we might actually get along and we might even learn something. Demonizing them guarantees we won’t be able to see if they are truly right or wrong anyways because we’ll already have decided in advance. We’ll see what we’ve already concluded is true, whether it is or not. If we allow outside sources to tell us what is truly important, and to convince us that anyone with a different view is an uneducated fool with nothing to teach us, we’ll continue in our current patterns of electing officials to undo the policies of the last official… who undid the policies of the last official we elected. Sun Tzu said that exactly this would happen if we understand ourselves but not the “enemy”. He said we’ll face a loss for every victory. That seems to be the current American political situation in a nutshell.
5 – The Psychology of Changing Beliefs
I’ve heard people say in a reassuring manner “I’m not trying to change your mind.” Personally, if you truly believe what you have to say is important, you’ve disgraced it by saying that. There’s certainly poor ways to try and change other people’s minds, but at the same time, if what we have to say matters, changing minds is exactly what we should be doing. And if we truly want what’s best, and we consider ourselves capable of being wrong about what’s best, then we should welcome the efforts of others to change our mind. Sure, you might not have time because this is the 12th time this week your co-worker has tried to change your mind at the water cooler, but we should shoot for this in principle.
So, what actually changes people’s minds? Earlier we covered the fact that people mainly go off of their intuition, and then our analytical minds attempt to explain why our view makes sense. If that’s the case, then arguing with people won’t be as effective at swaying them to our moral beliefs as we imagine it will. As Jonathan Haidt says, “moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog. A dog’s tail wags to communicate. You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.” (TRM 57)
The most effective way to change people’s minds is friendship. When people genuinely like you, the relationship keeps them from fearing your views nearly as much. It’s as though their intuition says “I know you won’t damage anything inside my belief system, so I’ll let you come in and interact a little.” Haidt says, “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs. When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. The [intuition] leans away from the opponent, and the [analytical mind] works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges. But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the [intuition] leans toward that person and the [analytical mind] tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments. The [intuition] is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly [minds,] or by good arguments given to it by the [analytical part] of those friendly [minds].” (TRM 80) As President Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Another way we change our minds is with time. Almost everyone in Haidt’s moral studies held to their initial intuitions, but given some time to think it over, some people would conform their view to evidence and reasoning that had been presented. Haidt notes “The delay allowed the [analytical mind] to think for [itself] and to decide upon a judgment that […] was contrary to the [intuition]’s initial inclination. In other words, under normal circumstances the [analytical mind] takes its cue from the [intuition], just as a lawyer takes instructions from a client. But if you force the two to sit around and chat for a few minutes, the [intuitive subconscious] actually opens up to advice from the [analytical mind] and arguments from outside sources. Intuitions come first, and under normal circumstances they cause us to engage in socially strategic reasoning, but there are ways to make the relationship [between the intuitive and analytical mind] more of a two-way street.” (TRM 81)
While time can allow us to mull over arguments that others have made, we also change our minds because we repeatedly encounter a challenging experience, and eventually it becomes impossible to ignore due to cognitive dissonance, which forces us to change what we believe is possible in the world. This is the least pleasant way to have our mind changed, but when we do learn this way, it sticks with us.
If you want to change people’s minds, what you don’t want to do is make people feel threatened. Haidt tells the story of his wife complaining about something he had done, and he described his internal experience by saying, “Even before I knew why she was criticizing me, I knew I disagreed with her.” (TRM 63) He also noted, “If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch—a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.” (TRM 58)
The one final way we change our minds is our own inability to escape cognitive dissonance. The intuitive subconscious determines a “range of plausible values” (TFS 74), meaning that it measures what it thinks is normal and thus what it thinks is possible. However, we can reach a point where we can experience something that is defiant to what we think is possible, and it finally pushes us to admit the system in our minds is wrong. This is the least pleasant way to have our mind changed, but when we do learn this way, it sticks with us.
One of my favorite books is called The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and it’s written by spiritualist author Gary Zukav, who uses Buddhism and Hinduism to explain Quantum Mechanics. He sums up excellently the shift from cognitive dissonance to acceptance when he says, “A rational mind, based on the impressions that it receives from its limited perspective, forms structures which thereafter determine what it further will and will not accept freely. From that point on, regardless of how the real world actually operates, this rational mind, following its self-imposed rules, tries to superimpose on the real world its own version of what must be. This continues until at long last a beginner’s mind cries out, ‘This is not right. What ‘must be’ is not happening. I have tried and tried to discover why this is so. I have stretched my imagination to the limit to preserve my belief in what ‘must be.’ The breaking point has come. Now I have no choice but to admit that the ‘must’ I have believed in does not come from the real world, but from my own head.’” (Dancing Wu Li Masters 142)
6 – Bridging the Gap
When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time debating people on the internet trying to convince them to become Christians. I won a ton of converts. Okay, actually, nobody converted and many of them seemed less interested in Christianity after talking to me. Surprisingly, I kept at it for a long time even after I got no results. I think the major reason was I never asked if what I was doing was effective, only how best to say that my viewpoint was correct.
Something I’ve noticed that we forget to ask is if what we are doing is actually working. We’ll do the same tried and untrue tactics over and over, telling people how irrational we think their views are and why, yet we don’t pause to ask if maybe something needs to change in how we interact. This is a surefire sign that we’re not actually trying to do good at all. It might be the dopamine release, or it might be old fashioned egotistical pride, but there’s nothing loving, wise, or righteous about persisting in futility. If you claim to be trying to do good, and the way you are going about it is accomplishing the opposite of that, then you’d better stop, rethink, and try something new. This is why I particularly dislike political bumper stickers, because all they do is push people who disagree away, and make people who agree more full of themselves (and thus less convincing).
Based on everything I’ve presented here, what do I mean when I say “Bridging the Gap?” As Sun Tzu said, it is twice as valuable to convert the enemy rather than to just conquer. What I believe can, and should happen, is that the two political “enemies”, liberals and conservatives, can convert each other. I don’t think they’ll ever agree on everything, nor even that they should, but I think both have some important things to teach each other that the other side will have a difficult time learning on their own. Acknowledging that is the best way to keep them from going too far. Many conservatives are concerned with how far Left many young people are today, and I believe we’ve given them the worst possible chance to hear the Right out and very good reasons to be afraid of the Right, and I think if we championed them sincerely, and their concerns for things like social justice and nature (even if they say bits and pieces we disagree with), we might find them a little more willing to listen to us. Heck, we might even learn something. We are often propagating the narrative that the political sides have to be enemies, if not explicitly, then by our negative reaction to any words we consider “liberal buzzwords.” I think it’s possible to end the hostility, but somebody has to make the first move. Sure, they’ll always be people who are truly closed-minded on both sides, and people who will set bad examples, but I believe reaching people where they are at with sincerity can be stronger than the lies and stereotypes. In a country we believe is ruled by, or should be ruled by, “we the people,” the only real change has to start first with changing people’s minds. This is not a battle for political offices or laws, because our culture is supposed to decide who’s in those positions and what laws are in effect, and take a stand if they are being prevented from doing that. This is a battle for culture, for the hearts of everyday people. Either side can make the first move. Here’s some specific things I’d recommend keeping in mind:
1. You can be wrong, so live like that’s true.
One of the most important things I’ve ever learned is that, while I don’t believe truth is subjective, I do believe it is complicated. (I hope to make an article or video at some point about this exact subject, which could also be considered the foundational difference between Eastern and Western thought.)
Let’s say I’m on a space station looking out the window at Africa. I hold a piece of paper up over the window and can see Africa’s shape through it, so I trace it as accurately as I can. If I showed you this paper afterward and asked you if it was Australia, you’d probably say that’s false, and if I asked if it was Africa, you’d likely recognize it and say yes. Imagine now that I have gone down to Earth and I’m on a boat with this map, out in the ocean sailing around Africa, and I notice many bays and rivers that were not on my map, so I get frustrated that my map was actually “untrue,” and I erase lots of parts and correct them on my map, adding in the bays and rivers. Next, I walk along the beach and I notice many small streams that also are not on my map, so I begin to try to add them in… My point is that, there is objective truth about the shape of what makes up Africa (and about how that shape might change), but at the same time that truth is infinitely complicated, so we always have to be learning more and refining what we know.
Another example is my experience of nutrition. When I was a kid, I learned about healthy foods. I thought if I ate them, I’d be healthy, so I ate a bunch of carrots. It turns out, eating lots of a single food is never healthy. So then I learned about the food pyramid, but after a while I still wasn’t healthy, because processed white bread and McDonald’s salads are poor quality food. So then I started having to make sure I ate quality food. This is another example of how things can be “true” but also imprecise and need more knowledge.
If things that are as simple as a map, or as everyday as eating healthy, can be complicated, how much more complicated are subjects like history and politics, trying to map the influences, motives, consequences, and side-effects, of decisions involving large and diverse groups of people? We can act as though moral and political issues are obvious, but I think the postmodern philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre made a good point when he said, “Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”
There’s an incredibly important attitude of humility we must have, not just in politics, but in everything, because of the complexity of being humans seeking the truth. The modern Zen Buddhist Shunryu Suzuki speaks about what he calls The Beginner’s Mind. He says that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” He proposes that viewing everything we do as if it was the first time is a helpful way to overcome our mind’s tendency to limit what we will consider is possible. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire said “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”
What I’ve found is that when we don’t think like this, we often are more interested in beliefs that make us feel comfortable than in knowing what is true. Worse, we derive oversimplified moral priorities that Jordan Peterson calls ideologies. They usually contain some truth, but oversimplify situations to the point that, technically, they are a lie, and usually they are quite dangerous and blinding. A good sign that you’ve got an ideology, a moral value that you have turned into a comforting idol, is that you start trying to fulfill that value “at all costs.” You start compromising on other values you have (or should have).
Peterson offers solutions to oversimplified moral statements by encouraging stories, and not only that but contrasting stories. In one of his lectures he points out that environmentalists propose narratives like those in the movies Avatar and Fern Gully: man encounters nature, engages with it, tries to work with it, and destroys it. Peterson then points to the narrative of Star Trek: man encounters nature, engages with it, tries to work with it, and creates even more beauty. The point Peterson makes is that both these stories are true in a sense, but the reality they describe is complicated, so hearing both stories ends up far better for our moral development than a simple rule about boldness or about caution, which easily turn into ideologies. A beginner’s mind realizes that every single situation is unique, thus a rule that can morally address every single one in advance is highly unrealistic and quite foolish, but at the same time, we have to be prepared in some way for the moral situations we might face.
2. Even if you know some truths, you need the help of other people to have a holistic picture of life and any particular part of it.
Author Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nature arms each man with some faculty which enables him to do easily some feat impossible to any other.” Personality psychology and studies of the diverse people differences that exist show this to be accurate. Even the philosophy of the Church body in the letters of Paul presents schism (which is splitting up into groups) as a problem just like heresy (which is untrue teaching), as the very act of splitting up into groups hurts the Christian faith, whereas when people who are different accept each other as equally valuable parts of a whole, they balance each other and result in a functional group, not unlike Jordan Peterson’s two contrasting stories of humans and nature. We see a similar model in the courtroom, where, instead of hunting for unbiased people (which don’t exist), we present two incredibly biased sides, the prosecution and the defense, who do their best to find every possible argument for their case, and then a separate group, the Jury, makes the final decision.
Even General Sun Tzu notes that where you over-strengthen your army, you weaken it elsewhere. We have to realize that we all have different strengths, and those differing strengths are incredibly important. Even with politics, it seems that God gives different people different sensitivities, and those concerns combined can produce policies that are the most helpful in protecting the well-being of humanity and all that exists. Some see the importance of protecting animals, others see the value of government separation, others the value of respectful speech, and others the differences in cultural experience across the nation and the world. Confucius said, “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
Daniel Kahneman did several studies on averaging out the estimates of groups. In one study, he asked people to guess the number of marbles in a jar. He found that “when many judgments are averaged, the average tends to be quite accurate. […] However, the magic of error reduction works well only when the observations are independent and their errors uncorrelated. If the observers share a bias, the aggregation of judgments will not reduce it.” (TFS 84) The last part of this quote adds an incredibly important clarification. When people share the same bias, their group effort will not overcome it. I would argue: it dangerously reinforces it. Thus, the pockets of people based on political view, or even based on theology or race, stagnate the ability for a person to truly understand what is happening and what is important.
No matter the political perspective, we are all just as susceptible to “outta sight, outta mind.” I’ve witnessed the Left often claiming how horrible it is that the injustices they see are sometimes glossed over, but they’re often equally ignorant of far worse violations of their values outside of the US (which is particularly strange seeing many of these same people upset with Donald Trump’s “America first” philosophy). The Right is often unaware of abuses like the ones in Ecuador, and when they hear this information from the Left, they write off things like Fair Trade as “liberal buzzwords,” when the issue is actually a hideous violation of human liberty. If we can all be biased by “outta sight, outta mind”, then we need to be open enough to let each other put things in front of our sight, and in front of our mind.
We need to view the other political side as someone who’s help we need to make our own views more sober-minded. We should view the opposite political sides, especially where we find them willing to be friends with us, as people who can help pull us out of our ideologies and people who will help maximize our ability to teach everyone.
I think the best way to sum it up is with the analogy of changing a tire. If you tighten a single nut or side first, rather than alternating across the tire, you risk a tire that is not actually secure, and could send your society… er, I mean car, careening off a cliff. We need to build our political strategies as including the value of the other side rather than opposing them, with hopes that they will find our values less difficult, and our overall views and policies balanced. German statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” If we ought to be listening to and learning from each other, treat people as if that’s plausible!
As a practical example, many conservatives here in Washington State want to promote a new State in the US called Liberty. I spent a lot of time mulling it over after my stage of questioning the politics of… everyone, and I’ve decided I agree that it’s very wise to focus government to a more local community than keeping it at a large scale, especially here in Eastern Washington. The most important recommendation I could give to the proponents of this new State is that, if there will always be people with Left-leaning personalities in any culture (or at least in any healthy culture), then you have to make it clear that they have a place in the State. Any supporters of the State of Liberty need to state loudly that those concerned with issues of social justice and the environment will not be talked down to or kicked out, but will be championed as a necessary part of the State (even if we do disagree on the best way to go about some of those issues).
When I was in Bible college, my English professor Domani Pothen was one of the most influential people on my theology, philosophy, and any sort of character I might have, because she taught me to listen. She would have us re-read every reading assignment several times, and she made sure we put serious effort into finding what the author wanted to say before we ever allowed ourselves to add in our own thoughts. That comes after. She knew her class was full of conservative Christian students, so she had us read Obama’s State of the Union address to make sure we could listen even when we disagreed. If conservatives want freedom of speech to be truly valued at the greatest possible level, that’s how you do it.
Dale Carnegie, author of the classic How To Win Friends And Influence People, offers a variety of rules all stating to do very similar to what I was taught in my English classes. Carnegie says to be a good listener, and encourage others to talk about themselves, to give honest and sincere appreciation, to become genuinely interested in other people, and to make other people feel important with sincerity. The sincerity part is one of the main reasons I dove so deep into psychology at the beginning of my talk, because I didn’t want to encourage patronizing people.
A counseling lecture I heard years back proposed three levels of encountering new people. The first is our most immature, where we think people will be exactly like us. As we encounter people, we realize this isn’t true, but our intuitive subconscious then tries to make “types” of people, so for example, there may be men and women, but men will always be one way and women will always be another. However, true maturity happens when we can encounter new people with the mindset that, in some way, this new person will challenge our beliefs about human beings with something we’ve never experienced before. I’ve used a lot of labels in this talk, and I don’t think labels are bad because that’s part of language, but I do think we have to remember to take them very lightly. Always prioritize listening above labels.
This leads me to a specific version of the listening problem, which I call assuming motives. I’ve seen the Right do it when they assume those in support of welfare are entitled rather than trying to be compassionate on others. I’ve seen the Left do it when they assume those who are pro-life are craving telling women what to do with their bodies, rather than trying to preserve human life. You don’t know what’s going on in people’s heads without listening, and even sometimes after listening you may find that the person might be confused about their own motives. Either way, maintain a beginner’s mind and keep listening.
4. Craft your explanations and arguments so that they will reach the other person, not to satisfy you.
While we should listen to others because it’s a loving practice, and also because we might learn something, there’s a bonus for us in that we can actually craft what we say to the other person’s desires. Dale Carnegie says to try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view, and to be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
Often we appeal to our own existing experiences and priorities, but I think our common values mean we can make more effective points by explaining our desires in terms of the other person’s priorities and vocabulary. As we discussed earlier, people can always find a reason not to believe or investigate something, so you want to appeal first to their existing values, and then offer them something new. Henry Ford said, “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.” Though I don’t want Left or Right to think of each other as enemies, I will appeal once again to Sun Tsu’s idea that “the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” When you listen sincerely and openly, you are better equipped to speak in a way that might actually convince the other person to cherish what you do. The 19th century American poet Sidney Lanier said,”If you want to be found stand where the seeker seeks.” Sadly, too often, we look down upon a person for not coming to us, even though much of the time they were never given a reason to.
I will add here, if you are a Christian, this is a fundamental of the Gospel. Christ gave us the opportunity in the garden of Eden to be in relationship with Him. We have broken that and continue to break it every day by living our lives in a way that revolves around ourselves as if we are God. Thus, Christ certainly did not owe it to us, but still humbled Himself by becoming a human being in order to reach us. This is the meaning of humility and mercy, that rather than demanding people come to where we are at, we go to where they are. I think both political sides will be amazed what this kind of mentality does when trying to explain our ideas to others.
5. People don’t respond well to arguments (even if they think they do), they respond to friendship, character, respect, etc.
Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica said, “Our starting point is always wrong. Instead of beginning with ourselves, we always want to change others first and ourselves last. If everyone would begin first with themselves, then there would be peace all around!” I think this reaches deeper than just politics, but it certainly applies here. We need to be people of character, because that’s what people notice. It doesn’t matter how correct our views are if we are arrogant. People can feel it. I think Ernest Hemingway summed up true character when he said “there is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
As a whole, I think humility is incredibly underrated. I think that’s partially because it is one of the things we’d least like to do, but also because we don’t know how to do it. In fact, we joke about how once you think you’ve got it, you don’t, but we still are drawn to this trait that we seem unable to achieve. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, we teach that humility comes from accepting humiliation. It’s even the same word. But I think if we truly seek humility, we’ll find the business of listening and reaching others a whole lot easier, whereas without it we ruin everything. The Greek monk St Paisios of Mt Athos said, “when we take care of everything else except our humbleness, then we will never achieve anything good; even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to keep it for long.” Here’s some tips on humiliating oneself constructively:
The first tip comes straight from the definitive Canadian handyman television program, the Red Green Show. They sum up this tip as The Three Little Words Men Find So Hard To Say: I. Don’t. Know. (If you haven’t seen the show, it’s great.) Really though, we completely underestimate the power of admitting we don’t know something. People notice our attempts to look good subconsciously (if not consciously). I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen admit that they are impressed when someone concedes not knowing an answer about something. I think the current generation really longs for this, if not the young people of all generations. We’re tired of being sold things and we want vulnerability.
If you thought admitting you don’t know something was difficult, you should try admitting you were wrong. It’s even harder, but it also shocks people a lot more, and in a good way. Dale Carnegie specifically noted, “If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.” We can show another person that we aren’t out to glorify our own ego by criticizing not only ourselves, but our own group, or even just the version the other person believes in (a powerful form of meeting people where they are at). For example, the Right can disavow white supremacists, and the left can disavow feminists who truly hate men.
Two interesting things happen when you criticize your own group, and one is that people are less shocked when they encounter a “bad egg” in your group in the future, because you warned them about it, whereas when you get defensive about your group, they hone in on the bad eggs to disprove you. The other thing that often happens when you admit your groups failures is that the other person often responds by volunteering failings of their own side! (If you meet a person who does this, that’s a sign of a sincere desire to know truth!) Dale Carnegie says to “talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.” If we won’t open up the opportunity to criticize ourselves, it’s hypocrisy to expect the other side to accept criticism.
Now that I’m done lecturing everyone on how to be humble, I want to talk about respect. Specifically, I must admit that it breaks my heart how often the Right mocks the desire for respect from the Left. There’s definitely a point at which keeping people comfortable and never offending them can go too far, but the reality is that “safe spaces” can be valid for people with real traumas, and how you generally talk to people reveals how you most likely will treat them beyond talk. There’s wise advice given that women should look to how a man treats his mother, because that’s how he will treat you. Likewise, people watch to see if a candidate speaks about people in a disrespectful way, because they know the person will not likely have policies that are any better. Carnegie says simply, “show respect for the other person’s opinions.” As I have said before, I am not a fan of the regulation of speech by government, but that is absolutely no excuse to abuse freedom of speech. Speaking truth and speaking respectfully are not mutually exclusive. You can call something out while also talking to another person like they’re a human being. Black writer Maya Angelou stated that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Sun Tsu said to “make your position unassailable.” The Bible calls this being above reproach. It doesn’t mean pleasing everyone either, it means being clear, saying what needs to be said, and most of all being the caliber of person who people believe when they speak. If there’s a good reason people are concerned, then the person who wants to help people, rather than stroke their ego, will happily accommodate. If local groups are concerned about white supremacists, a wise move would to be show solidarity against these supremacists with a written and/or public disavowment of such people. When I recently attended a meeting of the John Birch Society, a prominent conservative group, I was happy to hear them explicitly state that the people specifically barred from membership were those with a racist agenda. We should make allies with anyone we can find common moral ground with (but not who we can trade political favors with).
On one hand, I sometimes see a spirit amongst “anti-hate” people which seems a lot like hate to me. I personally would say hate is when you want to see people destroyed or treated as less than human. Sadly, people engage in what I call “right makes might” thinking, in which they don’t have to follow the rules that they put on others because the “correctness” of their cause justifies their behavior, like screaming in people’s faces with microphones about how they are silencing people.
On the other hand, some of my heroes are people who have truly compassionate hearts to fight hatred, and don’t see the incorrect views of someone else as a justification to treat them as less than human. Keshia Thomas is a black woman who was with a group of 300 anti-KKK protestors responding to 17 Klansmen at a rally of theirs. The protestors saw a man with an SS tattoo and a confederate flag shirt, and they chased him down, threw him to the ground, and started beating him with sticks and kicking him (and he was likely going to be killed). Keshia Thomas jumped from the crowd onto the man in order to protect him and keep the protestors from killing him. Hate, even if we can rationalize it, will never conquer hate, but will always stir up more of it, and I honestly think that’s what some people on both sides want because their ego feels validated by the fight. But as Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Keshia Thomas is an example of what it’s like to truly love, to have mercy, to set an example, and to fight hate of any kind. I can only pray that, if push comes to shove, I might be that humble and that courageous.
All this to say, our character is incredibly important if we truly wish to reach anyone. Humility and respectful attitudes are absolutely key. The 18th century Russian monk St Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand around you will be saved.” While he’s talking about the Holy Spirit and people following Christ, I think there is an application in all things. People listen when they sense character in you. They may have bad experiences with the other side, but even just meeting a single member who will hear them out sincerely can be profoundly impactful. Black blues musician Daryl Davis, by chance encounter, ended up befriending some KKK members. After spending time being friends with them, many of the members, who admitted they’d never been friends with a black man until Daryl, gave up their membership and left the clan. Daniel Kahneman speaks of a study that revealed: it takes a single instance of something to make future instances less surprising to a person. I believe it also only takes one person of character for an outsider to believe there might be something valuable within a group or label.
6. People need time. They need to go on a journey, not have things shoved in their faces. You don’t respond to it any better than they do.
As we talked about earlier, we ask ourselves if we have to believe when we don’t want to, but if we can believe when we do want to. Sadly, we don’t offer this same standard to others, but rather demand that they remove all our doubt in order for us to believe them, which of course is impossible. We expect them to arrive at our view without any of the influences, sources, or time to mull over things that we’ve had. If we were in the other person’s shoes, never having heard before the “facts” that are being presented to us, we’d be equally as skeptical. Sadly, for the other side we often label this as closed-mindedness, but the reality is exactly what we discussed earlier: repetition makes things easier to believe, and new things take time to be considered plausible. The Right coming up to a young person who has never heard of the Deep State and throwing some information at them will likely never convince them and will even push them away, and the Left telling conservative homeschoolers they need to “check their privilege” is equally futile.
There’s nothing wrong with this the fact that it takes human beings time and processing to grow. That’s how the mind is designed to function. Having our whole belief system flipped on its head actually makes us mentally unstable, whereas having beliefs adjusted a little at a time can make progress (or the opposite, if the beliefs we are moving towards are unhealthy and untrue). There is a Chinese proverb that says, “You won’t help shoots grow by pulling them up higher.” If we think we can use arguments and speak rudely to others and sway them, we are in for a shock. (Or maybe a validation of our belief that everyone else is an idiot for not thinking like us.) Like many other things I’ve said, I’m talking to both political sides right now. It is not obvious to some people that the Constitution helps prevent oppression, and it is not obvious to some people what kind of social injustices are occurring in the world and how serious they are. We have to allow people to be ignorant and flawed, to change one point at a time, and we should do our best to be conduits for that change. We cannot be overly critical. as Winston Churchill said, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” We must let people take their time. The 7th century Christian St Isaac the Syrian said, “A small but always persistent discipline is a great force; for a soft drop falling persistently hollows out hard rock.”
7. People are moved by what reaches their intuitions and helps create a narrative.
The big implication here is that we need to craft experiences for people. This means the experience of our character and listening skills, but it also means telling stories that move people and let them experience things first hand. David Hume said of mankind that “any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will never engage him.”
I saw a short video years ago that, if I could find it, I’d present it here. The video depicts African soldiers moving people in trucks in Africa. The people are clearly slaves and are bundled up, but when they are unloaded from the trucks they take their hoods and scarves off and they are white people in brand new Suburban clothes. It made me immediately and intuitively uncomfortable, and when I asked myself why (kicking in the analytical part of my brain), I realized I was used to seeing Africans in slavery. A social justice advocate could have tried to convince me of that same idea, but I don’t think it would have stuck because it would have been too abstract for me. On the other hand, I learned it on my own without any preaching simply by watching a 30 second video because I was given a first-hand experince. And it made me sad to realize I’m desensitized to Africans in slavery. Our character opens people up to us in general, but stories open them up to particular issues.
I remember hearing stories from some of my black friends at college about how often they were pulled over by the police with no explanation. I’ve been stopped twice in my life, and let’s just say both times I deserved it. As I heard friends I knew and trusted tell them, it sunk in how real it was. These stories were likely the only things that would conquer the views I was raised with and balance them out.
Several friends of mine admitted they couldn’t understand why conservatives were so afraid of social justice, until I explained to them the culture that lead to the gulags in Soviet Russia. After that, they admitted it made much more sense, and it also made clearer the difference between healthy and toxic social justice.
Humans have a need for beauty, and they need art to be beautiful. Sadly, sometimes we make art to push a belief without any attempt to make it truly beautiful, which is technically propaganda. If we’re going to do that, we might as well create a book or speech. Star Wars: The Force Awakens had an antagonist who had little personality because if she had been annoying at first like Luke Skywalker (until she had to grow up), people on the Left might have been upset (or at least LucasFilm likely saw it that way). God’s Not Dead is a movie that’s made some evangelicals happy, but likely converted no one and is, honestly, a poorly done movie. Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie that, without feeling preachy, powerfully displayed through quality storytelling how damaged a culture is when it mistreats women. Sadly, I don’t have an example of a quality conservative movie, but we can turn to movies like Avengers: Infinity War to illustrate, for example, population control. The fantastic movie Black Panther portrays the dangers of violent Left and passive Right within an excellently crafted African sci-fi world.
We need to tell the stories of past massacres like the racially-driven Holocaust and current injustices like the shooting of Lavoy Finnicum, and we need to use our mediums well, be it film or music or anything else. Jonathan Haidt summarizes the views of developmental psychologists Kohlberg and Piaget by saying, “If you want your kids to learn about the physical world, let them play with cups and water; don’t lecture them about the conservation of volume. And if you want your kids to learn about the social world, let them play with other kids and resolve disputes.” (TRM 10) The loss of the value of beauty in Western culture dates back to the Protestant Reformation and is heartbreaking in my opinion, but those high in Openness can help us recover this fundamental need. Beauty is a direct path to the intuitive subconscious. Make people feel and you bypass the need to argue. As Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.”
8. The best way to help people not ever hear you is to trigger negative intuitions.
We make jokes about not “triggering” people, but there’s validity to the concern. We all have sensitivities and can be rubbed the wrong way by words like “white privilege” and “patriotism,” or by serious traumas. There’s definitely a level of caution that’s too much, but it would be wise, if we want to reach others, to make what we want to say be “digestible.”
I watched a video recently of Steven Crowder confronting people for Twitter messages encouraging violence against him, and I think it’s good to document people claiming to be anti-hate but promoting hateful violence. However, Crowder would always do something antagonistic, like wearing a costume, or harassing people while at their work. He’d ask for an apology, but gave them the worst possible chance psychologically to do so by stirring their intuitive defensiveness, which muddled any sense his arguments made. Sure, the people he was interviewing probably wouldn’t have apologized, but Crowder would have had far more credibility with people watching his videos who might have different views. I know he justifies it by saying he’s simply a comedian, but it still affects people, because the experience is stronger than the rationalization.
We should be mindful if we are muddling our own message and shooting ourselves in the foot when trying to reach others. Daniel Kahneman notes that “psychologist Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, observed that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.” (TFS 302) If we want to change minds, we’re looking for a sweet spot with people between leaving them apathetic and offending them, where they might be a little uncomfortable but don’t completely shut down. Even if they don’t agree in the moment, those little things, whether positive or negative, stay with them and add up as the person has time to mull it over and gain more experiences. Most of us get hung up on if we “owe” people respect, but only pride cares about such pointless legalities.
I would specifically recommend is not using buzzwords and catchy insults. They close others off to us entirely, and offer nothing good but a cheap laugh. We can tell someone our beliefs about Hillary Clinton without calling her “Killary.” Mockingly embracing negative terms like “deplorables” only makes the problems worse and makes us feel full of ourselves, too. St Isaac the Syrian said, “While you presume to stir up your zeal against the sickness of others, you will have banished health from your own soul. You should rather concern yourself with your own healing. But if you wish to heal those that are sick, know that the sick have greater need of loving care than of rebukes.”
9. People aren’t swayed by others being defensive.
On one hand, I did give the example of the Right making clear statements that separate them from people like white supremacists. It’s smart to make a strong, clear statement of a good thing and make it easily available. However, we want to be proactive rather than reactive, and not get too hung up on these sorts of things. No one is swayed by us defending ourselves, holding meetings to explain for an hour why we aren’t what people say we are.
Similarly, trying to constantly defend words we are attached to and fight other words… is often a waste of time. Words are subjective, and often we’d be better off, in my opinion, adopting words of the other side where we can find truth in them. Sometimes we lose a word because someone set a bad example for it, or someone with an agenda successfully added a negative connotation. Fine. Use a different word. Holding on too hard is like keeping soldiers on the field of a lost battle until the last of them are killed. If you lose a battle, you should retreat and spend your time and resources elsewhere. Don’t be flexible with your conscience, but flex with everything else.
As an example, I don’t think there’s a good reason not to try and respectfully use someone’s gender pronouns. Even if you’re someone that has doubts and disagreement with the current LGBT movements, it doesn’t hurt to be respectful and merciful to others. If you are worried about your children seeing, explain to them (along with your values) why you prioritize mercy, and that will build their character far more than stubbornness. I’m not for government regulation of these sorts of things, simply for our self-regulation. I think we can be merciful and respectful to others and meet them where they are at without compromising our values. We often pretend we can’t so that we can enjoy the tasty morsel for our egos.
General Sun Tzu notes, “don’t swallow bait offered by the enemy.” If Sun Tzu used the internet today, he might say “don’t get trolled.” I think a lot of times people of all kinds intentionally antagonize the other side to make them look bad and turn people away from even listening to them. Don’t fall for it. Humility (an acceptance of being humiliated) is a great protection against these things. So is a belief in God’s sovereignty, otherwise we feel a dangerous need to act as though we are the arbiters of justice in the world. Focus on peace and respect so that Fox News and Huffington Post have no ammunition to use against you and the things you’re passionate about. As I’ve said before, this doesn’t mean not saying what you believe is true, but being sure to build it on a foundation of character. The many sincere people in the world notice your character first and your viewpoints second.
10. Speaking the truth in love is done by what you say, but it is measured by what the person walks away with.
If you don’t have character, you are actually the worst thing that has ever happened to your viewpoint. If you treat other humans like garbage, you guarantee no one will listen to you no matter how much rational sense you make, and you set a terrible example for everyone who shares your views. We need to measure our effectiveness politically not by how good we feel we showed the other person they’re an idiot, but by if they walked away closer to the truth. Character, listening, respect, humility, and a beginner’s mind are the kinds of things that make this possible.
The Orthodox Elder Joseph the Hesychast said this: “Never seek to correct each other with anger, but only with humility and sincere love, because one temptation does not cast out another temptation. When you see anger ahead, forget about correcting for the moment. Once you see that the anger has passed, that peace has come, and that your powers of discernment are functioning properly, then you can speak beneficially. I have never seen anyone corrected through anger, but always through love; and then he will even make sacrifices. Therefore, this is how you should act. Take yourself for example: how are you pacified — with curses or love?”
We change our minds based on what is in front of us, especially what is stirring our intuitions, so we need to find good examples to put in front of people, especially what we know will reach their particular intuitions, and we need to find what is already in front of their intuitions to discuss. We can know what will reach them by listening sincerely, and we can earn their friendship, too. One of the most powerful and foundational ways to reach the intuition is by having character, and without that, most plans will fail. Another way to reach people is by admitting to ourselves that the other person has something we need to hear. If we ignore this, we won’t protect human dignity, but will instead be the unhappy and ignorant means by which the dignity of human beings is violated.
I heard a story from Mark Herr from the Center for Self Governance. He spoke at the 6 month memorial of Lavoy Finnicum, who was shot by the FBI in 2016 after the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Many people there were those who saw Lavoy as a martyr of tyrannical government. Mark began his speech at the memorial by saying things like “I love the Federal government, we need the Federal government, etc” One man stomped out, others booed and some rolled their eyes, but Lavoy’s wife and daughter were weeping, because they knew Mark was reading quotes from Lavoy. Mark told me “I realized both sides of the political spectrum did not know this man or what he actually stood for and why – they had their martyr or their terrorist. [His family] just wanted people, regardless of their political beliefs, to know the man they knew, loved, and missed. I realized that our culture had become fast food […] polarized…unable to process truth unless we could squeeze our perceptions into it.”
This is exactly what is happening on both sides, where we claim to stand for some sort of moral value or justice, but we are, in reality, completely out of touch with anything except our own egos. Whether or not we are correct cannot be sincerely or helpfully dealt with until how we view and treat other people, the kind of character we have, is layed as the first and foremost foundation.
Jonathan Haidt concludes his book with this: “Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects. If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness. [Try to see what moral concerns of theirs] are carrying the most weight in a particular controversy. And if you really want to open your mind, open your heart first. If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the “other” group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light. You may not agree, but you’ll probably shift from Manichaean disagreement to a more respectful and constructive yin-yang disagreement.” (TRM 364)
At the Bible college I attended, there was a class that those on the Right might consider liberal social justice propaganda. During the class, we kept journals on each documentary we watched and each location we visited, from a Christian recovery group for LGBT people, to a Buddhist temple, to a documentary on the racist history of Portland. I didn’t want to offend the professor, but the journals didn’t seem like something she would read anyways, so I took the opportunity to describe my perspectives on some of the double standards I perceived in popular social justice theories today… and in our class textbook. The next week, after turning in the journals, the professor noted that she was rather disappointed with the content of the class’ journals, a comment that made me sink into my chair. However, she followed this with a comment to all the class that she wished that people would write “more like Shea” because I was “actually wrestling with the content of the class.” From then on, my respect for her went through the roof, as she actually appreciated my challenging views. She had proved she really did value diversity more than I did. I payed attention to every concept and gave it serious consideration, the same kind of serious consideration she gave me, and I learned so much. I don’t know if I really would have listened had she not treated me the way she did.
If there’s a chance for people to hear each other out, to hear you out, then you need to make the first move of having character, of seeking out encounters with people of different viewpoints, and of sincere listening. If you don’t, I don’t know if there’s any chance for our country and the people of America. The views that comprise the Left and the Right have shifted somewhat, but these two kinds of people groups have existed for a long time. It’s not just a phenomenon in America. I hope and pray we can find a foundation to lovingly engage each other and hear each other out, and maybe the socially passionate, the hard workers, the LGBT, the patriots, the feminists, the constitutionalists, and every other person my small view of the world can’t possibly list here, can hear each other out, learn, and grow, and we can have a culture that puts the dignity of human beings first and foremost.
If you believe that there’s no significant common ground and no chance for the sides to listen, then the implications are truly terrifying. Our nation is fairly well split down the middle on many issues, and either each side will stand in each other’s way from protecting the dignity of people, or we’re going to have to declare a violent civil war in order to eliminate the other side. I think it must be something else, and it seems to me from my research, the answer is that we are meant to listen to each other with humility and love, and thus bridge the gap.