Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Arthur Answers, Part 6 – On the other side

This is the penultimate post in this “Ask Arthur” series, and this post is about questions relating to ideological differences, and dealing with them. It’s a vexed subject, since it gets to the very heart of why it’s so hard to find common ground.

First up, Roger Green asked on Facebook:

“What do some smart (IQ) people have such stupid ideas, such as creationism?”

Man, I wish I knew! There are many theories and explanations for how it can be true that, basically, people who are smart enough to know better say or believe things that simply aren’t true. Here’s why I think they do it.

In some cases, it has to do mainly with ideology, either political or religious. They can’t accept something as being true because their politics denies it or their religion preaches against it. This is, of course, cognitive dissonance, which is basically a coping mechanism, a way of reconciling contradictory beliefs. In such situations, some people will pick their belief structure over reality and spout all sorts of nonsense.

The people whose cognitive dissonance leads them to bizarre justifications based on falsehoods tend to be sincere: Generally speaking, they really believe that they’re the true and honest ones, and those on the side of the evidence are all deluded, lying, or corrupt (or a combination). Sincere people may, over time, be reasoned with, though actual change requires them to first open up their minds to the possibility that they may be wrong, and that can be a huge hurdle.

The other kind of person espousing “stupid ideas” is pretty despicable: They do it for personal gain. Such people are usually politicians or preachers, but there have been other people who clearly know better but still sell absolute nonsense (like doctors on TV chat shows). Politicians may say utterly asinine things (like against LGBT people, or Black people, or women) not because they believe it, but because they see it as a way to gain and hold onto power. Some preachers, especially on TV, will similarly promote utter nonsense as a way to gain donations. Personally, I have contempt for such people.

Which brings me to a related question from Roger:

“And from Jaquandor to me: In this age of increasing partisan division, I am finding it harder and harder to even empathize with the “other side” (in my case, the political right in this country). I used to at least understand how they arrived at their worldview, if not share it, but now I increasingly can’t fathom how or why they would look at the world that way at all. Does this make sense to you, and if so, what can be done about it?”

I used to be a Republican, so for many years I understood how Republicans came to their ideological positions, even though I didn’t share them. But that hasn’t been true for 20 years—the change started with the gaggle of far right extremists that Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landside bought to the US Congress.

I actually do understand why so many people come up with a worldview I don’t even remotely share. For example, I can understand (yet despise) why politicians, Republicans in particular, pander to their most ardent base; their worldview is based on what will get them votes/campaign contributions, and they’ll change as soon as their base changes.

Among ordinary people, there are a large number who are just completely uninformed, and a large number who are badly informed. They’re actually quite different.

The completely uninformed are the sorts who never watch the news, or hear it on radio, never pick up a newspaper, and they may not even vote. They’re disengaged, detached, and form their opinions primarily on what other people talk about. Sometimes they defer to someone else—an opinionated co-worker, a preacher, a partner, parent, or a friend. For such people, the quality of information depends entirely on how well informed the people they listen to are, since they don’t seek out other views or information. To be brutally honest, I don’t get very upset at the idea of such people not voting.

What we have nowadays, though, are people with access to ever more diverse sources of information and opinion, yet they end up badly or narrowly informed. I’m in the camp that believes that the great variety of news, views and information on the Internet has resulted in the narrowing of perspectives because people tend to focus in on what reinforces their existing belief structures. In a way, this is no different than the old days when people read one newspaper and watched one TV news and listened to one radio station: For such people, their information was similarly narrow.

What HAS changed is the hyper-partisanship that exists now—not always in the literal sense of reinforcing one particular political party, but more in the sense of general political orientation: Left v. Right. In such a dynamic, even people who are familiar with a wide range of topics can still be badly informed, and have a shallow worldview because their sources of information are so narrow.

I’m extremely pessimistic about this, because I can’t see a way forward. The mainstream news media is, more often than not, shallow and doesn’t challenge the folks in power or the assumptions they promote. The interests of the oligarchs, plutocrats, and corporations are promoted, while at the same time, dissenting views aren’t given a fair hearing. How can anyone see a different way of doing things when they don’t even know there IS a different way?!

Roger answered the question on his blog, and his answer is somewhat different from mine, even though we had some common themes. That’s not uncommon, actually.

The next post in this series will be the final, and it promises to be eclectic.

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