Sunday, May 17, 2009

A World of Gray

Contrary to the views of many, one of the biggest signs of political maturity, for me, is not moderation of your views over time but understanding that issues are much more complex than how they are presented. We often hear about issues at their lowest common denominator; with only buzzwords and soundbites to think about. People often discuss that the truth is somewhere "in the middle" between two perceived extreme positions. Often reality lies somewhere else completely. For nearly all issues of importance, there is no simple dichotomy of options. While most people lack the time or the incentive to come to fully understand the complexities of a particular issue, it is easy to understand how people increasingly talk at each other instead of to each other. When people are coming from completely different world views with large informational asymmetries, it is difficult to have a serious discussion.

Part of this problem lies with the current media, but also schools at all levels, and our political leaders also don't make things any better. The American people are often treated as less capable and intelligent as they really are. I have often agreed of the sentiment that Americans are too dumb and lazy to engage politically. Though I believe this premise is off target. It isn't that Americans are either dumb or lazy; or if they are, it isn't because of their individual actions alone. Just as there are large structural factors that lead to poverty and poor health, there are equally important factors that lead to a lack of intellectual sophistication or a deep engagement with civic, social, political, and economic issues. Often the causes interconnect and compound each others. Some examples include poor quality schools, acute and chronic childhood stress, penalization of the working class and the working poor, and virulent economic and social inequality. These are just some of the many forces that stunt development and hinder progress throughout the life-course.

Until we come to understand the social causes and the social reasons, we will continue to "blame the victim", as it were. Your average American has little real training in critical thinking or even basic empiricism, and this hinders their ability to sift through the noise and then incorporate information into a coherent worldview. Often, they don't have the time either. Probably most importantly, having a complex understanding of a particular issue or set of issues does your average citizen little in the long run. Unless it is something they do for work, the knee-jerk reactionary position they read in a flyer or hear on the radio is sufficient to engage with the debate, even if superficially. Adding layers of complexity can even lead to a fatigue as you realize that the change you desire will require much more than a petition or a protest.  Part of this is also the way our political system is set up. A couple big reasons (which I have discussed in previous posts) include the lack of risks of non-voting and the much heavier time investment required for Americans than for Europeans in countries with parliamentary systems that have coherent party systems.

Next time you think "stupid Americans", take a step back and look at it socially. It is much better to think "why would someone believe/do/say this?” Once we come to see that peoples’ actions and views are the result of a multiplicity of forces and experiences, we can begin to empathize and identify that the ignorance is the problem, not that the person is fundamentally flawed. We all have the capacity to learn and grow. When I hear someone deride another as a hypocrite or a “flip-flopper”, I become uncomfortable. Has there not been a time when each of us has realized our previous view was flawed or inaccurate or that in practice some of our ideas are not practical or desirable. As one of my best teachers said “everyone has the right to be a hypocrite.” By this she meant everyone has the right to grow and change and even contradict themselves in life. When we begin to internalize that lesson we see that maybe things aren’t so black and white, for others as well as for ourselves. 

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