When we discover that someone disagrees with us on a matter we consider settled, we often go through three steps to “understand” why they are wrong, and those three reasons go from most charitable to least:
- They are ignorant. If they knew what I know, if they had the facts I do, they would see things as I do.
- They are too stupid to understand the facts. This is the next line of thinking once we realize that they know the facts we know and simply interpret them differently or feel differently about them.
- They are acting in bad faith. They don’t want to know the truth because their intentions are bad. They don’t care about others or the truth, just whatever immoral or unjust thing they want.
The problem is that both sides of a disagreement think these things about the other party, but they don’t question themselves in this same way. They don’t question their own facts, understanding or motives. Nobody experiences being wrong, and only occasionally do they experience having been wrong (but from the vantage point of now being right again).
Consider a classic argument between those who no longer believe in the Church and those who do.
- Believer: That person hasn’t had the spiritual experiences I have. They don’t possess that spiritual evidence I have. They never had a testimony.
- Non-believer: That person doesn’t know about the things I know. [insert a litany of faith-damaging facts such as Joseph Smith and all his wives or the multiple accounts of the first vision or that top Church leaders are paid or lack of DNA support for the Book of Mormon].
- Believer: That person doesn’t understand the nature of spiritual things, that facts aren’t the most important thing, that God lives, etc. They just don’t get the point of it.
- Non-believer: That person doesn’t understand the implications of the lack of steel and horses. That person doesn’t grasp the problems with polygamy or truth claims. They are sheeple.
- Believer: That person believes, deep down, but they just don’t want to follow it. They got an answer but they were too selfish or wrapped up in wanting to sin.
- Non-believer: That person is judgmental, sexist or homophobic and happy to stay in a Church that makes them feel better about their morally bad positions.
The difficulty isn’t in getting the other person to see things your way, but rather in questioning whether your own views are really right. They may be right, but questioning is the root of eliminating confirmation bias.
And obviously, sometimes (not infrequently) people ARE ignorant of facts (or operating from different facts), or they are not able to understand complex information. They also are sometimes acting in bad faith as a screen to cover their own desires, even if they aren’t aware they are doing this.
Consider these common US political tropes, statements you hear from either side in our increasingly polarized parties:
- Right: They have been duped by the deep-state! They don’t see that the Ukrainians were really trying to frame Trump by making it look like he had sandbagged Hillary’s campaign using Russian bots! They are duped by the liberal biased media!
- Left: They are only watching one, really bad news source that is in the President’s pocket! They are operating from alternative facts! They believe lies told by their leader that are obviously false and easily disproven.
- Right: The other side doesn’t understand how economics or business works! They want things they can’t pay for! They are impractical! Actual quote from a political fight on a friend’s FB wall: “If ignorance was a sport you would be a champion!”
- Left: The other side doesn’t understand what the Mueller report really means. They don’t understand the framers’ intent. They don’t see that they are just doing the bidding of corporations and big oil. Actual quote from same political fight on same friend’s FB wall: “Your low rate insults usually come from low education.”
Immoral / Bad Actors:
- Right: The left is corrupt. The Clintons have murdered dozens of people! The PC police are just trying to make themselves look good, but they don’t really care about those causes. They are just trying to manipulate stupid people. They are so condescending! They are trying to overturn the will of the people! That same FB argument continues with: “Why do ALMOST ALL DEMOCRATS have pics of their poor pets as PROFILE PICS yet none of themselves 🤔🤔🤔……NUFF SAID……Let that sink in people……” (I mean, what?)
- Left: The right is corrupt! They are sexists, misogynists and homophobes! They apply double standards to everything because they are hiding their own wrong-doing. They hate the poor! They are selfish and greedy!
The other thing that adds to the complexity is that our sense of being right is bolstered by the social groups we choose to join. When you are surrounded by like-minded thinkers, your assumptions are shared, not questioned. Your views, including the more outlandish ones, aren’t challenged from outside sources. You can go further and further down your own rabbit hole. This is why the Russian interference in the 2016 election was so successful, and why Facebook’s willingness to post inaccurate political ads enables people believing whatever they want to believe.
We only have so much time in life, so fact-finding, consuming alternate views, staying friends with people whose views we find repugnant, being critical of our own beliefs–all these things are going to get deprioritized. I know I have defriended or blocked people I’ve known my whole life whose views I find unpleasant. It’s hard for me to continue to respect them when I see how ignorant and stupid (I think) they are. I’m sure they would feel the same way about me, and I wouldn’t even be offended by that given how stupid I think they are. We are on two completely different sides. We accept different facts. We interpret some of the same facts differently. We have different political or religious priorities.
Here are some tactics that can help us overcome this bias that we are right:
- Be Aware of Your Biases. We are all biased in favor of some things or groups and against other things or groups. If you know what your biases are, that can give you a reason to listen more closely when those issues (or groups) come up.
- The IAT test can show you if you are biased against people of color–even if you don’t consider yourself “racist” (or in my case, biased toward people of color).
- Recent political polling is trying to determine if voters are biased against women running for POTUS using a “likable” question. People are more willing to question a woman’s likability (which sounds like her character flaw) and less likely to admit they are sexist (which sounds like their character flaw). Around 40% of voters express this soft sexism in admitting that essentially they don’t like any women candidates.
- Diverse Perspectives. Recently I started listening to a podcast called Left, Right, and Center that at least tries to present arguments from each perspective. Podcasts like that are rare, though.
- Be aware of the slant of the person you are reading or listening to.
- Biased people are better at presenting their own arguments than they are at presenting the other side’s arguments. And everyone is biased, no matter how impartial they try to be.
- Direct Sources. Try to avoid the spin you get when someone interprets facts or adds their own subjective impressions.
- Let people speak for themselves.
- Listen to experts more closely than pundits.
- Read things for yourself. As a Church example, sometimes if I listen to a talk I feel fairly neutral about it until I realize it was controversial and why. We shouldn’t just feed on outrage. There needs to be some personal experience, too.
- Multiple Sources. If you are trying to gather facts, not just opinions, sometimes the more evidence that supports a conclusion can help you determine what is accurate.
- Conspiracy theories usually have fewer sources and those sources are often missing or indirect.
- Even among disagreements, there’s usually a set of facts around which everyone coalesces and agrees.
- Apply Occam’s Razor to gauge the likelihood of an outlandish theory or interpretation.
What do you do to avoid the pitfalls of your own smug sense of superiority?
- Do you catch yourself going through these mental processes to explain why others are wrong?
- How do you talk to someone who is convinced they are right and you are ignorant, stupid or immoral?
- Can you set aside your belief in your superior beliefs long enough to understand the opposing view?
- Will our country continue to become more partisan or less partisan in the future?