General thoughts, ideas, and background.

Why Do We Have Low Expectations of Others?

Over the weekend, it struck me that a good deal of the current political discourse (in the United States, at least) is driven by the belief that if “other” people are left to their own devices, they will do “bad” things. Certainly there is precedent for this; history is full of examples of small groups that have used power to oppress, suppress, or otherwise subjugate others. The interesting element for me, is that inherently I think most of us believe that we are better than that… no matter which side of issues we fall on.

So, it brings us to a point where we have multiple people on multiple sides of an issue each believing that they are the ones that would be benevolent, while everyone else would be malevolent. This seems intellectually dishonest to me. It’s not even an argument about being better equipped to solve a particular problem… It’s about intentions. I think the argument reduces to many of us truly believing that WE have good intentions, while other people do not. Why is this the case? Certainly if we were able to see inside the hearts of others, it might make things easier… but we can’t.

In my experience, one of the only things that has consistently shown that it can overcome this type of mistrust is familiarity. The more familiar we are with a person, the easier it is for us to believe that although their actions may be disagreeable to us, their intentions are good… and I think THAT is what we are gradually losing in society today. We are losing familiarity with those who think about things in a different way.

I think that a way out of our current situation is to simply spend (a lot of) time with people we don’t agree with… not to convince them that we are right and they are wrong, but to create the space and time to convince ourselves that their intentions are good… and frankly to give them the time to see that our intentions are good too.

It may be true that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” but it’s also true that even before it’s paved, the roadbed is built on a foundation of misunderstanding. That is what I think we should address.

A Trial of Fact?

 A court in the United States operates and discerns two things: matters of fact and matters of law.  Typically courts establish matters of fact so that they can make decisions about matters of law.  However, as our information ecosystem becomes more compartmentalized, there might be an advantage to consider a new type of trial: A trial of fact.

In this type of trial, a court would be asked to make no judgement of the law, but instead merely consider opinions and make a statement of fact… which then the rest of the government would be obligated to follow.  For example, the courts could be asked to render a judgement on “there was not evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.” If this statement was found to be “factual,” it would be improper for any agent of any branch of government to assert otherwise in the conduct of their official business.  This would not impact free individual speech, but only the speech that is used to debate / develop legislation or administer the programs of the executive branch.

This may seem like “overkill,” but just as increased litigation has helped us to maintain a common set of behaviors in the face of divergent moral beliefs, the concept of a trial of fact might help us maintain a common set of of facts in the face of divergent views of reality.  Certainly, it would be better if this was not necessary, but without a concept to anchor ourselves to, it seems increasingly difficult to maintain a shared, accepted view of reality upon which we can build discourse.

The courts of the United States are empowered by the Constitution to deal with “cases” and “controversies.”  We have reached a time when facts themselves are controversial and not agreed upon.  This would be an expansion of the typical responsibilities of our judicial system, but could be instrumental in helping to break the bottleneck caused by the failure of opposing parties to acknowledge the factual basis for many specific topics of debate.

The “cults” of America

I was listening to Sam Harris’ podcast this morning, and was struck by one of his main themes: that America is currently dealing with two dangerous “cults” of thinking. Namely, Trumpism and “wokeness.”  As I think about this, I realize that this is yet another way that binary or dualistic thinking is dividing us.  We’re reaching a point of “either/or” realities — for people trapped in these bubbles of thought, they are forced to choose between fully accepting a reality based on falsehoods, or not supported by evidence or risk excommunication and social stigmatism from their “clan.”

You think the election wasn’t stolen, or that storming the Capitol is wrong?  You are shunned by your peers.  Similarly, you think that while systemic racism may exist in places, that there is not a vast conspiracy to disenfranchise minorities, and that people are entitled to disagree with other people on matters of race relations without being labeled a racist?  You are also shunned by YOUR peers.

This is dangerous.  It forces us into a discouraging area where we must be “all-in” to be accepted, otherwise we are cast out… seen as those “wishy washy” people in the middle who are unwilling to “take a stand.”  In fact, I believe it’s much more difficult to acknowledge the complexity of our beliefs and see each others as true individuals.

Binary thinking leads us into a world of black and white… right or wrong.  Imagine a world without color… and even without grey — only black or white.  To me, that’s not inspiring.

Closing our eyes to the complexity of ourselves and others as individuals leads to a place where we forsake all of the wonderful beauty and nuance that exists in order to seek refuge in an increasingly shrinking bubble of generalization and simplification. We live in one universe, inhabited by many people.  We should treat discourse in the same way.

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