What do you see? A calm President maintaining composure in response to the unhinged Speaker? A strong Speaker standing up to an out of control President?
Shortly after President Trump tweeted:
While Speaker Pelosi, almost simultaneously, made this picture the proud banner of her twitter account, and garnered responses such as:
These responses are emblematic of the disconnect in American politics: one picture, two different realities. In the post-fact world, everything has become a Rorschach test (think ink blots).
How do we deal with this? We retreat into own realities, often reaffirming our positions among our peers, making claims like, “deplorable!” or “snowflake!”. These actions and this language only reaffirm the barriers between “the others”. No attempt is made to even seek to understand how someone could come to another position.
We yearn for a past where, “Everyone is entitled to his [sic] own opinions, but not his [sic] own facts”. What we knew is what we saw, what the data showed us. But now we have entered a world where two people are staring at the same picture and two realities seem to exists in a vacuum side-by-side.
Part of this is just nostalgia: the fact based utopia we all used to live in. It is in our human nature to essentialize the time we are living, as if we never had disagreement about the facts before. We like to act as if our positions are supported by the facts, if they change, we are open minded, we will move too, but this is not how it plays out in reality. Let’s not delude ourselves.
We use “facts” to rationally reconstruct the world around us, legitimizing our belief systems. Belief systems that are built on a constellation of uncritically internalized ideas we all get through socialization. We like to think we critically came to our positions, but it is rare. The results of a political compass test of an 18 year old, wouldn’t differ that much from their parents. Now I do not make these statements with any intention of positive or negative connotations.
Many habits are socialized into us, from beliefs to things as simple as how to tie your shoes. This is functional, no one has the time to critically think about how to tie their shoes each morning, or what leg of their pants to put on first, or even ask themselves, “I wonder why I hold that belief?”
No. We are trying to get to work on time, get the kids to school, make sure the fridge is full: we got shit to do! Fair.
We live in a world that is full of arbitrariness. The most obvious example being who we are born to. None of us had the pre-natal cortex to critically decide the uterus we thought would suit us, however, this arbitrary outcome shapes the majority of our world. It goes beyond birth, think of all the random things that have effected your life, shaped the person you are today.
My point is our world is full of arbitrariness and we don’t like it. Its not even that we don’t like it, it is in our human nature to explain away this arbitrariness. We tell stories of our past, maintain belief systems which help to rationalize and order the world around us.
This rationalization process itself is not a critically thought out choice. It is built into our evolutionary process. It helps us move through the world with a level of psychological security, necessary for daily functioning. Could you imagine going through a day critically engaging with every observation and fleeting thought. Its not possible, and that’s fine.
Looking back historically, we see that this is an ever-present aspect of the human condition. Claude Levi-Strauss (famous anthropologist, not responsible for your jeans) discussed in his book, The Savage Mind the ways in which early cultures used myths and religion to explain away the arbitrariness of what they saw. Levi-Strauss goes on to say we have replaced much of this with science, but one is not better than the other. At a functional level, both help us order the arbitrariness of our world.
The point is, we all have constellations of beliefs that help us organize our world. I use the term constellation because these beliefs are intimately connected, to move one, would often mean to shift many. The connections between our beliefs are supported and maintained by the logic we have created, both at a conscious and sub-conscious levels. This logic is our own. It doesn’t answer to the rules of formal logic, or my logic, but only to your own.
From this perspective, it makes zero sense to apply democratic logic to a republican constellation, and show inconsistencies, that constellation is not supported by such logic and vice-versa. (Turn on any cable news show and you can watch instance after instance of this on repeat).
This is at the heart of the divide in America today. We use “facts” as bricks to rationally reconstruct walls around our own constellations of beliefs. They are not there to help us change our mind, but rather, selectively chosen (often unconsciously), to legitimize our own constellations, protecting us from change.
Its upsetting to critically question your own beliefs. Given that these constellations order our world, to do so is threatening to ourselves. Threatening to our ontological security (a fancy way of saying how we understand our world). But only we can do this. Only you understand the logic of this constellation.
However, to get at this logic, due to it often being constructed at an unconscious level, requires what is called reflexivity. A process where by the familiar is made strange. And once uncritically internalized ideas are re-evaluated, at a critical level.
I often do an exercise with my students, making provocative statements, such as, “if terrorism is achieving means through fear, then US is the greatest terrorist organization on the planet”, or “Trump is the greatest President of all time, look at the stock market!” (well…not anymore). I have no interest in their responses, and you bet your ass they are ready to respond. The goal, rather, is to analyze why each felt such a guttural reaction to what I said, to articulate to themselves, the belief or beliefs, that led to that response. What was their sources and why do you hold them. Bring them to the surface and engage.
Its is uncomfortable and unsettling. It is against our human nature, to interrogate and possibly undo a system of beliefs we constructed from base instinct, to order a terrifyingly arbitrary world. But only through such a process can our biases be checked. Only then can facts be seen in a more objective light, rather than through a seeking lens, placing the “facts” as bricks into our wall of protection from others.
The first step is deeply personal, and must be undertaken before turning your focus to facts or criticizing others’ logic.
Don’t throw stones, the walls are glass.
It is an ongoing process, there is no state of wokeness. Wokeness implies a terminus which is antithetical to the process of reflexivity. In the extreme, it is actually impossible at a functional level to unwind our constellation fully, to do so would force us to reckon with the tyranny of arbitrariness. Our ontological security would be undone, a complete psychological break would follow.
But we can try…
It is time to embrace discomfort. This is a necessary condition for progress in understanding one another. Demystifying. De-otherizing.
What is required is a level of empathy. A radical empathy, to understand the logic supporting another’s constellation. Only then can we seek to understand where our constellations overlap. Only then can a dialogue begin.
Cognitive dissonance has become the de facto starting point of political conversations these days. It cannot continue. Progress is incumbent upon us. Upon reflexivity. Upon a radical empathy.
Only then could we have the possibility of shared facts or any chance of objectivity. Only by pushing through our own biases will facts become something more than mortar to block the other. Only then we will be able to look at the picture at the beginning of this post and understand the logic of both views.
It is time to recognize our faux positivism, and move to introspection of ourselves, our constellation, and a radical empathy toward others. Dialogue begins there. Rational discourse begins there. Much work is required before we get there…