Why Do Americans Deeply Disagree?

People today struggle to understand lots of other people’s worlds.  Democrats do not understand Republicans, who in turn claim rather famously that Democrats are trying to take over the country–how evil. Political commentators all over the place are noting how this era of politics has been so divisive, so polarized.

The Pew Research Center released a new social values poll in early June that suggests lots of interesting  differences between Democrats and Republicans.  For instance, people in the two parties are hugely divergent in what the role of government should be:

If you are one of those clever people thinking “sure, we disagree more about the social safety net, but that is just one aspect of politics,” then okay, you got a point, but what about the environment?

These are not small changes.  In less than a span of a generation, nearly a quarter of Americans have changed their minds about the environment.  The data I’ve presented thus far all emphasize how Republicans have changed.  However areas where Democrats are the primary people who changed also exist, especially on social values issues, whether religion plays a significant role in their lives, or whether they believe people should have traditional marriages.

The point is this: Americans are now more than any point in the last 25 years, more socially divided, more philosophically divided, more politically divided than at any other point in the past 25 years.  Probably longer.  Why?

I don’t think anyone really knows all too well the answer to why we are so divided.  But I think one of the several contributing factors for why is an increased lack of understanding for the points of views of those who disagree.  Simply put: the fact is dead.

There are few reasons that I could come up with for arguing as the devil’s advocate for my argument above.  I would be flabbergasted by any such position, and I would have to spend a great deal of time to figure out just what reasoning a dissenter would have, or how she would attack question the facts I presented above.  Simply: I would not understand immediately how someone could look at the facts above and say “yeah, those aren’t big differences.”  I am willing to put in the effort to figure out what world a person could live in to disagree with me, but many are not willing to put in that effort.

What happens when people are worlds apart and unwilling to try to understand each others’ worlds?

One of the most valuable parts of that fact article I linked, and one of the most valuable lessons I read from a Canadian journal, Informal Logic, is a concept called “Deep Disagreements.”  The main thrust of the concept is that when people do not share enough assumptions about the world, whether we’re talking about what constitutes persuasive evidence, or what an acceptable protocol for argument might be, whatever, when people don’t share enough rules, no agreement can be made.

The danger of being worlds apart and being unwilling to consider how other people could validly see the world around them is that we might cease being able to be able to compromise.  This is a recognition that Republicans, according to the Pew Research Poll, are making first.  But it is also a recognition that we can’t peacefully agree on how to manage the resources that we need to share.   Talk about cynicism!

If we can’t figure out how to agree on these core ideological differences, what hope for peaceful agreement is there?  Why should we pretend to be one nation?  Major Garrett argues in The Atlantic that these divisions are real and should not be ignored with popular rhetoric about how united we are.  News flash: We’re not united about much of anything.

Another reason that polarization might have expanded might be how we associate with each other.  There are (at least) two prominent works that attempt to explain this trend: Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and Going to Extremes by Cass Sunstein. Putnam’s book presents data to argue that people are no longer associating with the people at their geographic locations.  Bowling membership trends have plummeted.   Church memberships are struggling.  We are no longer attending parent/teacher conferences.  Basically, we are no longer forced to interact with our neighbors.

Sunstein’s book goes one step further.  Not only are we choosing who we associate with and where we get our news, but we are picking out those pieces of evidence that further confirm our preconceived notions.  Instead of actively challenging ourselves, we ignore the evidence that would challenge us in favor of that which confirms what we think we already knew.  And then sitting down with people to talk about the issues only further cements and radicalizes our positions.

If Sunstein is correct, there is very little we can do to reduce the amount of disagreement we have with one another.  Yet, very little is not nothing.  There seems to be some light shining through these depressing data: if we make people feel better about themselves, they might be more willing to accept uncomfortable conclusions.

The thought seems silly, but if you make sure that the other person understands that you don’t think he is an awful person for disagreeing with you, you might find more common ground than you thought was there.

Understanding Other Worlds

I am fascinated by politics.  (Perhaps the understatement of the year.)

If we are ever presented with another area of human life where ethics, morals, philosophy, ideology, religious views, and economic theory all get together to have nice little demon children, then I would be just as fascinated with that aspect of human life as well.  All the conflict in politics is also inherent and fun to ponder.

But talking about politics for a lot of people is a non-starter.  When I say that I love politics, people give me a look as though I just said that I loved Saddam Hussein.

  Loving Saddam

Okay, so the dictator that everyone loves to hate right now is actually Bashar al-Assad, whatever.

Regardless of whether people think I love Saddam’s photo-spread or Assad’s lovely box of a head, that look they give is one of incredulousness.  How could any sane person bring himself to care about the variety of disagreements with government that people have?  Why would anyone bother to pay attention to all the corruption, back-handed deals, and dirty compromising?  Simply: people don’t understand the world in which I live.

And I don’t understand a lot of other worlds either.  Fatalism (in its colloquial sense) is a concept that I have a really hard time with understanding.  The line of argument usually goes along the lines of this: “We don’t have control over X event, therefore why should we even bother to do anything about X?”  I am not going to be able to change the broken nature of politics in this country, so why should I even bother doing anything?  Why should I bother voting; it isn’t like I’m going to change the outcome anyway.

This mentality admits a far too limited few of human agency than I’m willing to accept.  It is definitely true that I am not going to be able to make politics magically unbroken, in the sense of just how many filibusters get used, how much influence lobbyists have over making policy, whatever.  I can’t change the world to look exactly as I like.

But just because I can’t get what I want, that doesn’t mean I can’t try to help move things to being closer to what I want.  Even though there are a lot of filibusters, and a lot of lax rulings about corporate abuse of their customers, and lots of shitty things about the world, I can still do something. To focus on all the things that I can’t do ignores all the things that I can do.

Here is the short for why I think politics matter: those issues impact everyone.  I don’t think anyone can say that the break up of TomKat seriously alters how we manage the resources that we have decided to share for common purpose in this country.  The gun shooting in Colorado does NOT, in fact, mean that gun shootings in theatres are going to become hugely popular, or that we are on the verge of experiencing a wave of gun violence across the nation.  It does not mean that we are on the verge of Civil War, or that we will experience nation debilitating protests about gun usage, or anything of the sort.

There are things that will bring our nation to a stop.  And to ignore those things, I think, is to be entirely unaware of what problems we most need to address.  We can’t focus on what we can do about problems that we don’t know exist.  We think that the national debt is the problem–it isn’t.  The problem is about half of our country’s willingness to pay for the debt.  We think that TomKat getting divorced is a travesty–it isn’t. Tom Cruise might be gay anyway, and who gives a shit about what two couch-jumpingly crazy celebrities think anyway?

The reason I don’t understand a lot of other worlds is tied very closely to my drive to better understand our shared world.  It is a moral statement: if I don’t care about the issues that impact huge numbers of people, about issues that impact the world that we all share, then how can I call myself a living, breathing participant of this world?

So look at me like I’m crazy all you like, but I’m going to keep on paying attention to Assad’s brutal campaign of violence in Syria.  I’m not perfect about knowing about everything, but I do try to do what I can.  How much control do I have over keeping myself aware?  Well, I don’t know.  In my most honest moment, I’d say the answer largely depends on luck: what’s in the news, what is reasonably accessible, what have you.  But there are things that I can do to better my odds.  And I’d like to think that I try to keep my odds of learning about my most valued issues pretty high.

The Power of One (Re: The Curse of Awareness)

Possibly the most optimistic starving girl in existence. T_T

Over the past couple years, I’ve gone to a number of film festivals.  In this time, I’ve seen a good number of documentaries about important topics.  Some of those topics range from food insecurity in the United States (see the above hungry girl in Finding North), to a critique of the fee-for-services system of health care delivery that we have in this country (Escape Fire), to attempts to portray the urgency presented by climate change in the form of photographic change of glaciers (Chasing Ice).

Many of these documentaries about huge problems in our world have an advocacy section to them.  “What can the viewer do now that they have this awareness of a huge problem that impacts our daily lives?”  (Last Call at the Oasis was a notable offender in this regard.)  They can donate to the causes that are currently attempting to spread awareness, sure.  But how can the viewer actually do something to change the huge problems that we have in this world?  The truth can be rather depressing: almost nothing.

I think that there is a real tension between being aware and being able to change some of the larger problems that surround us.  None of us, no matter how little water we use, are going to stop water availability from being THE crucial issue in the western united states in less than two decades.

And yet, despite how much I talk about how little an individual can do to change the big problems before us, it is also a truish that the answer is NOT “nothing.”  The little things that we do, the changes in our consumption behavior, talking about the issues with our friends, blogging about the issues, or even just alluding to them, these little things we do matter.  It might not be very much, but hey.

A related problem with all of this discussion is necessarily a question of agency.  How much control do we have over our environment, our lives, who are friends are, etc.? I would say that answer can also be depressing: much less than we like to think.  As Michael Lewis said in a recent commencement speech to Princeton graduates:

My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.

So our successes and misfortunes are overwhelmingly determined by luck. Our environment, the wealth of our parents, the intellectual prowess and training that we received, all of these factors and more are entirely outside of individual control. It would seem as though we have nearly nothing that we can control for ourselves.

Despite how nearly overwhelming this lack of real agency is, there is another truth: we are not entirely without agency. Though we don’t have much control over our lives, we individuals definitely have control over SOMETHING. I can choose, for instance, whether I want to exercise tonight, or whether I write this post, or whether I open myself to certain opportunities that might benefit me in future career decisions. In short, if we are successful and if we manage to create something so wonderful as a photographic representation of climate change we owe almost all of that success to luck. But in order to get lucky in the first place, we have to play the game of chance. And that LAST part, we have control over.

There is a curse to being aware of all the myriad of problems in the world around us. That is definitely true. But there is also wonderful opportunity. Because, even if as one person we can’t influence all that much, you won’t do anything if you don’t try.


This post was created in response to eladnarra’s post, The Curse of Awareness.

Opinions, Good god; what are they good for?

Now the question in the title is a little sneaky.  I don’t mean whether opinions actually do anything.  Taken quite literally, opinions do absolutely nothing on their own.  The question that I’ve been struggling with for the past half a week or so is as follows: Do we, responsible people of the world, have an ethical obligation to have an opinion?

It’s a nasty question, I think.   Opinions, in my opinion, are much of what form the very identity of an individual in our current era.  Without opinions, we are but pounds of flesh associating with whomever we will and saying whatever we will to keep associating until the day we suddenly become motionless, rotting pounds of flesh.

Bear with me: In this society especially, we value the individual identity.  I don’t think anybody really knows why, but in the modern western Era we value individual rights, individual liberty, freedom for the individual’s right to choose how to live her own life, you name it.  Okay, so in the US we still struggle a bit with that last concept.  But for the most part, we think that the gub’ment should stay out of our way as we bring success, justice, and beauty into the world.

There are a limited number of places that we can get a good sense of self-identity: we can identify ourselves by what we do, what we think, who we associate with, and where we want to be in the future, but not much else.  Opinions, values, and all that jazz a huge part of nearly all of these methods of developing a sense of self.  The only place where opinions don’t matter so much for the sense of self is who we associate with.  Don’t need to have opinions to hang out with people.

If you want an example of what I’m talking about, there are people in this world with a genetic disorder that prevents them from having many opinions.  The affliction is called Williams Syndrome.  People who have this rare genetic disorder tend to be extremely outgoing, love to talk to people, but they have breathing problems and shorter life expectancies because part of their genetic code has been deleted.  They have absolutely no fear of strangers and will approach nearly any human with a cheerful demeanor.  Effectively, people with this genetic disorder are the nicest people in the planet.

But there is a darker side, naturally.  In their drive to talk to people, they tend to talk about what we might see as more insubstantial things: sports, the weather, who’s on first, that sort of thing.  They have little sense of social dynamics.  For our purposes, they don’t really have opinions on many issues that we might think important.  They are, effectively, the Beatles’ Nowhere Men (and women).

Obviously, unless you have that genetic disorder, you don’t find things nearly as tough to come up with opinions.  In all likelihood you have a great deal of opinions that you’ve never bothered to articulate.  I know I have hundreds of opinions that I’ve never bothered to put into words.  But this is a real shame.  Our memories are so fickle, so bad at keeping information, that I don’t think trusting our brains to keep our opinions is a smart idea.  I think it is much better to write down our opinions somewhere for later reading.  I take sometimes exhaustive notes on the ideas that are more provoking that cross my mind, first on a little notepad that I carry with me, then transcribed when possible to Evernote, which is a beautiful little free note-organizing program.

And yet, even after I’ve written all that I have, the initial question still eludes me.  I’ve not answered whether there an ethical responsibility to hold an opinion.  I’ve detailed lots of benefits that opinions give us, but I haven’t said one way or another whether it is our responsibility to choose a side.  Part of the reason is that it is uncomfortable to make a decision on the topic.  It is uncomfortable to put my tentative stake in the proverbial sand and say: this is who I am.

Part of my struggle is that I don’t want to suggest that people should KEEP their opinions.  Opinions, like every other part of our lives, should change.  They should alter as we engage the world and learn new things.  They should be outright reversed if we find a new idea particularly compelling.  Opinions, while important to our identities, should not be set in stone.

I think that if I were really going to throw down the gauntlet, people should hold opinions.  Life is too short, and too important for us to fail to hold opinions about the primary issues of our day.  Because we Americans do value individual responsibility, and there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to hold opinions (and there are a huge number of distractions that would keep us from even thinking about having opinions), I think the most responsible thing to do is to say “I am Andrew, and I believe that humanity can be better.”

If I really want people to be better, I’d try to encourage them to think about who they are more often.  How do we have any hope of bettering ourselves if we don’t know where we are coming from? Or think of the issue like this: how can a blind man drive safely?