You may have noticed that this column took a hiatus; it wasn’t just because of the hectic holidays. I was overwhelmed by the bulk of fan mail piling on my desk and filling up my email inbox, and my schedule was booked answering phone calls from enthusiastic readers. I even considered retiring — why proclaim my views anymore? I had changed the minds of every newspaper reader within twenty miles. Everyone agrees with me. Mission accomplished.
Truth is, I’m tired of the opinion war. It’s as if the nation and the world is frozen in a icy block of eternal, unresolved discussion. Teetering on the edge of an all-out catastrophe.
I suspect that the increasing polarization of politics coincides — if it is not caused — by the near-omnipresence of social media. News can be tweeted or blogged faster than newspapers can publish it. Conclusions are slanted and warped toward our agendas before we can assess all of the facts. Smartphones wait in our pockets like revolvers in holsters, prepared to be drawn the moment an angry rant or a vociferous meme rears its ugly head.
But when was the last time you actually changed someone’s mind in a debate at the dinner table or with a concisely written blog post? Probably never, I’ll bet. There seems to be an unspoken rule to every debate: never admit you are wrong.
When and why did the world get like this?
Recently I read a fascinating book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion” by Jonathan Haidt. The author evokes a host of disciplines — anthropology, psychology, biology — in an effort to establish a theory of morality that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum.
You might imagine the human mind is composed of two parts, the head and the heart, or our “reasoning” and our “gut feelings.” Plato believed that reason dictates our emotions. The mind collects information and then arrives at conclusions which our passion defends. In fact, followers of Plato were hyper-rationalists — they aspired to be a perfect superman who was all-reason and unhindered by emotion.
But it’s the other way around. Our preconceived intuitions dictate how we will make judgments.
In an experiment, subjects were given a story about a brother and sister who engage in mutually consensual and protected sex in privacy. When asked to make a moral judgment, most participants immediately condemned the couple. But when asked for further justification, participants could only manage stubborn, post-hoc reasons — sexual diseases, deformed children, an offended community, “Oh, it’s just plain wrong!” — even though the story’s circumstances ruled them all out. When participants couldn’t defend their moral judgment, something remarkable happened — instead of changing their minds, participants actually became more passionate about their original judgment.
It doesn’t mean incest isn’t immoral. It means that the human mind works more closely in line with the philosophy of David Hume, who said that “It is vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.” Social taboos trigger widespread disgust not because they harm anyone, but because they violate something longstanding and sacred within our intuition.
When forced to choose between pure logic and our innate intuition, intuition always wins. And that might not be a bad thing.
Human capacity to reason evolved not to aid us in finding THE TRUTH, but to help engage in discussions and arguments and to persuade and manipulate, all in order to fit in and survive within the group. Reason is not a computer which coolly and neutrally calculates facts before coming to conclusions, but a rider guiding a very stubborn horse. People rarely seek truth, but justification.
One might claim that reason is the slave of the passions — but it’s more like a defense attorney, or a press secretary. The job of our reasoning side is not to assess all sides of an argument and consider all the facts, but to relentlessly build arguments that defend the client.
You might compose an argument that is perfectly logical and buttressed by dozens of sources. You might even be right about it. But your argument will probably never evoke the pall of stunned silence, the round of applause, or the repenting enemies that you dream of. In fact, a well-reasoned thesis alone will never make someone understand. You’ll probably still end up yelling on the internet or losing your friends, because you aren’t reaching them at their intuitive level.
Intuition, the “gut feeling,” is grounded in experiences. I doubt that a person is religious because a pastor or imam convinced them of God’s existence, but because they wept when a hymn touched their heart. One might not be a feminist because they attended a women’s studies seminar, but because men generally mistreated them or because they desire female approval. One might not be a socialist because the equal distribution of wealth makes sense, but because they heard a few heart-warming anecdotes about food stamps and unemployment checks bringing families out from the gutter.
From a psycho-evolutionary standpoint, one may believe what he believes because that’s what his community believes, and that retains his social bonds. He was simply raised in his ways. Good old classical conditioning.
So if your aim is to change minds, then debating is useless. The people coming at you are already set to combat mode. Their minds are as resolved as yours. Stop screaming at the rider. Whisper to the horse.