Saturday, July 25, 2009

Keep Your Ideology (Mostly) To Yourself & Understand The Other Side

In America we are big fans of free speech - which is a very good thing - but a society of individuals who enjoy broadcasting their views also has downsides. People who seriously understand the problems with free speech can learn to manage and adapt, and will be rewarded for doing so.

Once people start freely saying things, they tend to disagree. When people disagree, it is obviously hard to work together. Look at the Michigan legislature - they are consistently gridlocked. Last year the government shut down because they couldn't agree on a budget. In a democracy, we have to learn to work together better to get things done and to make the right decisions. Personal virtue is the grease to the gears of democracy. After awhile, the friction gets things too hot and the whole thing breaks down. Benjamin Franklin said America will fail if it's people aren't virtuous, and I think he is 100% correct.

So why do we disagree so much? I think this is one of the most interesting questions of all time. Have you ever just stopped to think about how crazy it is that two similar people can see one issue so differently? It is really easy to just label those who disagree with you as crazy, like Ann Coulter and Keith Olberman are fond of. It is really easy to just throw your hands up and be baffled at their stupidity.

It is also lazy, and won't get us anywhere. If you are truly passionate about something and you want to make a difference in the world, here is the best piece of advice I have ever heard: keep your ideology (mostly) to yourself and understand the other side.

Let's be realistic. If some change hasn't happened yet, it is because people haven't made it happen. People need to agree that it should happen and be motivated in order for something to happen. It obviously hasn't happened yet, so you need more people to agree and be motivated. People who aren't motivated yet don't understand why they should care that much. People who don't agree that it should happen don't understand why you think it should happen. So, you need to make people understand why they should agree and why they should be motivated. How do you think you should go about doing that? Do you think you should simply be louder? That isn't so great at authentically motivating people, and it never convinces people of anything.

So many people get caught up in the mindset of "rally the troops" but it is devastatingly ineffective. It is comfortable, and it is easy, but it doesn't work. If you want to actually get anything done, you need to think differently.

First, stop being so loud about your beliefs. It is one thing to think something and another to say it. Obviously you haven't made the change you want to make, so it isn't really hurting you to try something different. Every time you communicate your ideology it becomes a bigger and bigger part of your identity. You define yourself as your cause. You feel bad about changing your mind because then other people (and you) won't know who you are anymore. This is a recipe for a lazy mind. I would rather define myself as who I really am - just me. Not any particular cause, thought, or anything else. Just being me is good enough. I believe in things but they don't define me. If what you believe is really true then it will continue to hold under rational analysis. You can't do rational analysis on something that defines you.

Second, read everything you can about the opposing point of view, and keep an open mind. This is not weakness. This is strength. Like Aristotle said, "it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." But you aren't doing it right if you just read everything and come up with answers to it. I think what Aristotle said is actually much more profound than that.

What Aristotle really means has to do with the way people hold thoughts. A thought isn't really a good enough word for it, because ideologies aren't just one single idea. They are multiple ideas woven together to form a coherent narrative and worldview. I think it the phrase "pattern of thought" is a lot more accurate.

So when you read an opposing viewpoint just to think of answers to the other side's argument, you aren't really ever entertaining the thought. To truly entertain the thought is to jump into it and allow yourself to temporarily believe it. You have to jump into the other ideology, the patterns of thought, in order to really see what other people believe. It requires a leap of faith. Try to recognize and immerse yourself in the true patterns of thought of the ideology. Then, go back and read things that you (normally) agree with, from the perspective of the other side.

This is like looking in the mirror, and I find it extremely useful. The better you are at authentically entertaining thoughts (i.e. temporarily accepting them), the wiser and smarter you will be. It takes practice just like anything else, and I am not very good at it, to be honest, but at least I think it is the right thing to do, and I'm working on it.

Ideologies are like circles - each individual thought ends up contributing to the whole worldview, and in order for it to make sense all the pieces have to be in place. One argument proves another, which proves another, which proves the first argument, and it goes around and around and never stops.

I think it is our moral duty to take of the lens of ideology and try to see things as they really are. The best way I have found to take of the lens of ideology is to put on a bunch of different lenses temporarily so you start to notice their effects on your thinking. Look at ideas from different angles, and you'll start to get a more complete picture. You'll also understand how other people thing and be able to emphasize with them, talk to them in their language, and maybe even get them on your side for some change you think should happen.


  1. I understand that George Washington, among others, was opposed to partisanship in American politics, but it is an inevitable by-product of honest disagreement among members of a society, so that point is somewhat moot.

    It would seem that you are advocating for what would effectively become a unitary/single-party system. Yes, this can be more efficient in some aspects, but it also means that there is tyranny in government; we've seen this in everyone government that has suffered this (i.e. Mexico pre-Vincente Fox). There are serious and honest disagreements among the US citizenry which is represented, in part, through party politics. Furthermore, it is important that this be allowed to get hashed out through serious and ongoing debate so that there is neither tyrrany of the majority or minority in America. Of course we must suffer a certain degree of inefficiency that can be frustrating at times, but I believe that is preferred to rash decision made by efficient and agreeable government.

  2. Thanks for the comment, and I think you have a good point about a one-party system being tyrannical. However, I really wasn't trying to imply that I thought people should have uniform opinions about political issues, and after re-reading it I see a couple of places where I could have phrased it more clearly to get my intentions across.

    I am actually trying to talk about a personal moral skill that we all have an obligation to develop. I think differences of opinion naturally come up because people have different experiences, and that is ok and inevitable. Our brains develop patterns of thought that we usually stick with our whole lives. I think it is possible to train yourself to think differently and to be able to see your argument from someone else's perspective. But that is a distant personal goal, not a system of government that can be advocated or implimented.
    In other forms of government, consensus is enforced. In a democracy, consensus comes about by virtue, and virtue is the rarest thing I know of.