It is antithetical to any sort of intellectual or constructive conversation to begin with the premise that you are completely correct and your reasoning is infallible. The other side of this coin is that it is also antithetical to start off with the premise that anyone who disagrees with you is somehow less intelligent or moral than you. This may seem like a fairly intuitive point, but it seems to be a constant, and very detrimental, mistake made in a plethora of different domains.
I began this post expecting to talk about interfaith relations as I promised in last week’s post (see here), however, after the events of this past week I decided that this post would be about general disagreements between different communities. I have no desire to talk about the specific political details which have made up the bulk of conversation in the past week. I do however, think that the general divide in this country’s political camps is very similar to much of the strife and hostility that exists between various religions. If we can better understand the psychological nature of group divisions, then we can finally understand both the value of interfaith conversation and the value of civil political discourse.
It is a basic rule of social psychological that humans are predisposed to be afraid of “the other”. When humans come across other groups with their different dress, language or ideas they immediately see this group as a threat to themselves and their communities. The way that we often see the world is that we have our “in-group” which at times can be our religion, political party, friend group, and even sports team – while everything else is a part of an all encompassing other – known as an “out-group”. Every time a division is made between people, no matter how insignificant, we immediately form these notions of in-groups and out-groups.
Once these groups are set in place, we are immediately vulnerable to a plethora of different psychological “blind spots”, where we are able to rationalize that “We” are always correct or morally justified while “They” are always wrong, immoral, or stupid.
A few examples should suffice:
You just get a horrible grade on an important test or have a disastrous job interview and upon driving home you cut someone off. You can easily rationalize that you are acting “out of character” and that you are still generally a good person. However, let us imagine that you are having a good day and suddenly, someone cuts you off on the freeway causing you to brake hard to avoid a crash. All of the sudden, the person in front of you is an idiot, bad driver, or horrible person. You are able to maintain your “perfect” conception of yourself by blaming your negative traits on external factors, while you do not allow that same cushion for others. This is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.
Another more important example is that you are a religious Jew who witnesses another Jew commit a horrible act in the name of Judaism (any religion would suffice here). Being the very learned Jew that you are, you quickly begin a lengthy sermon demonstrating why what that person did was antithetical to Judaism. A few weeks go by, and you witness a Muslim commit a similar act and immediately denounce this act as another example of the horrors of Islam, not thinking for a moment that this act could be just as antithetical to Islam as it is to Judaism.
In another case a Palestinian child may witness a simple act of kindness by an Israeli. Maybe an Israeli soldier gives him a bottle of water on a hot day, or an Israeli paramedic helps in a time of distress. If this child was raised in a small village where he was taught that the Israelis are all evil, he assumes that what he has just witnessed was an extraordinary event, or even a wild fluke of some sort (the same case can be true if the roles were flipped). The Palestinian child would probably continue to believe that all Israelis are evils and be able to brush off this event as a stroke of luck. These last two cases are known as the Ultimate Attribution Error and it states that we are more likely to attribute both negative actions done by our own in-group, along with positive actions committed by out-groups as abnormal or flukes. The vice versa, that we attribute normalcy to positive actions by our own group and negative actions done by the “other” group, is just as true.
In our final case, a hardcore conservative meets a young liberal student and realizes that they are not the stupid and immature person that right-wing news sources makes them out to be. They see that this young liberal has deeply considered all of the issues relevant to the security threat, economics, or foreign policy behind their projected changes. On the other side, this young liberal meets a middle aged Republican and can see that this man is ultimately just concerned with supporting his family and gives off no hint of racism or sexism in any of his opinions. Both of these cases can easily be written off as unrepresentative of the “other” political camp since it does not correlate with the prior information that you have heard regarding this “other” group. This is called Confirmation Bias and it allows one to hold onto a faulty belief even when it flies in the face of evidence, since it causes you to weigh conflicting evidence less heavily.
So how do we fix this?
The first important point that must be made is that at a certain level, the end goal of discourse and conversation is not to convince the other side that you are right. The aforementioned effects of social psychology hit the hardest when we know the least about the “other”. If we do not know anything about their culture, beliefs, or rational than they can and will remain an “other” forever. However, by engaging in conversation – not for the sake of proving yourself right, but rather to truly understand your opponent – the other side becomes less of an “other” and they re-enter the realm of humanity. The people that make up opposing groups, are no longer all clumped together under deceptively simple epithets – rather they become individuals, each with their own needs, desires, and personalities.
No one is denying the existence of horrible people in this world. However when people start considering 1/3 of this world to be a part of a violent and abhorrent religion or half of this country to be a part of a sexism and racist agenda – there is no way to progress as a society. I’m not saying that people need to, or even should want to, fully agree with one another – but when we do not understand simple things about “other” groups we fill our reasoning with massive intellectual “blind spots” that harms progress. The way to help inter-religious relations is to learn as much as we can about other faiths. Maybe read the New Testament or the Qur’an – or attend one of their prayer services. The way to alleviate the polarization in our country is to have a coffee date with someone with different political opinions than yourself and truly try to understand their fears and hopes for the country.
It is only through a better understand that we can truly progress as a nation and as a world. In the words of President Obama: At the end of the day “we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage.” It is only when we recognize that most people on this Earth are not evil and stupid for thinking differently – but, like you, trying to make this world a better place – can we realize that we really are all on the same team.
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