Do You Want to Be Intellectually Honest?

Michael Giberson

Some techniques for checking the tendency toward extreme partisanship, which can be a ready source of intellectual errors (source):

•Take opposing points of view at face value.

It is more comfortable to treat opposing points of view reductively. That is, rather than deal with a different viewpoint, we prefer to explain it away. “They just want power.” “They just serve special interests.” “They don’t believe in science.” “They are socialists.”

Taking opposing points of view at face value means that we try to pass the ideological Turing test. Could my characterization of another ideology allow me to pass as a proponent of that ideology? Could an opponent’s characterization of my ideology allow that person to pass as someone like me?

•Police your own side.

In political debates, we put a lot of energy into pointing out the errors of our opponents. When somebody writes an op-ed exposing the “myths” that surround an issue, the purpose is to debunk the other side, almost never to question one’s own allies….

Imagine instead an environment in which we primarily tried to expose intellectual error on our own side. In street basketball terms, you “call your own fouls.” The onus of calling liberals’ intellectual fouls would fall on liberals. The onus of calling conservatives’ intellectual fouls would fall on conservatives.

Policing your own side would require a conscious effort to reverse the tendency toward confirmation bias. We would have to search as hard for holes in our allies’ arguments as if they were opponents’ arguments. If the goal is to improve public discourse by removing improper arguments, we are much more likely to succeed by having each side call its own fouls than by having people call fouls on the other side.

Street basketball with teams calling fouls on one another would probably degenerate into unsettled arguments. That is, it would start to resemble politics.

•Scramble the teams.

Many years ago, some men in our neighborhood started a pickup softball game on Sundays. We quickly realized that if we formed regular teams, antagonisms would fester. Instead, each week we formed new teams on a different basis, such as odd-numbered birthdays vs. even-numbered birthdays. Scrambling the teams kept the games friendly.

Much of our partisanship reflects emotional loyalty to the ideological group with which we identify. To scramble the teams, we would need to foster situations in which liberals develop emotional bonds with conservatives.

Emotional bonds develop when people work towards a common goal. Thus, in the past, military service and foreign threats have served to break down ideological differences. Historians view World War II as a period in which American unity was strong….Overall, the end of the Cold War, which reduced the sense of common threat, may account for some of the rise in partisanship within the United States in recent decades.

We need to find a substitute for external threats as a social bonding agent. Maybe some ideological peace could be bought by having liberals and conservatives who both root for the same sports team get together during important games. Perhaps liberals and conservatives could actively participate in charitable endeavors that both can endorse.

The work of [Jonathan] Haidt and other psychologists is persuasive and disturbing. It exposes a tendency to form ideological tribes that use moral arguments as rationalizations. Tribes will go out of their way to misunderstand one another. If we want to get along better and resolve differences more easily, it will take conscious effort to overcome tribal behavioral instincts.

From: Arnold Kling, “The Tribal Mind: Moral Reasoning and Public Discourse,” The American, Thursday, April 26, 2012.

One thought on “Do You Want to Be Intellectually Honest?

  1. Very interesting and at the same time depressing. I for one, do not believe (much) in any solution based on “reason”. The only real solution to this issue is, unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, also a partisan argument, namely many countries, with very small governmental sectors and intense competition between different view points.

    Adam Ferguson wrote:

    Athens was necessary to Sparta in the exercise of her virtue, as steel is to flint in the production of fire; and if the cities of Greece had been united under one head, we should never have heard of Epaminondas or Thrasybulus, of Lycurgus or Solon.

    As you may or may not know, I am trying to get a book published on some of these matters. Lynne has it but I can send it to you if you like. I just got some very positive feedback from Mark Pennington.

Comments are closed.