Over the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to disproportionate police violence against disproportionately black Americans. For many black Americans, this was a breakthrough into the mainstream for a challenge they have lived with their entire lives. For many white Americans, this is a new and surprising piece of information about the world.
If you are a white American, it’s understandable that you would find it novel to think black Americans have more to fear from police officers. After all, you may have lived your entire life without worrying much about the police, and certainly without feeling like you have no control over whether you live or die at a traffic stop. You might wonder what we, a free and just society, should do about this new problem.
But of course it isn’t a new problem—just novel to you. It’s an old problem, and what’s new is that white people, by and large, now know about it.
Politics has always mobilized the most intuitive kind of lies—the kind that we don’t bother to look at very deeply because they confirm our existing prejudices. Politicians are masters of the lie that feels true, even when all the facts run counter. And we buy those lies, and repeat them, and believe them, not because they have any isolated value, but because they bolster our view of the world.
Yet even knowing that, this election seems to me to be built on uniquely straightforward misinformation.
So I have been paying more attention to this election than some in the past, but not because I am disillusioned or disgusted with the choices, or frustrated by my vote not counting the way I’d like. Instead, it is because I think this election is historic, I very much want to see how we deal with it as a society.
There are a bunch of people out there right now who want to tell you “support the police” and “blue lives matter.” Many of these people also say slightly more nuanced things like “there is more crime in black neighborhoods so police are needed there” or “there are a few bad apples, but the police need the freedom to act” or “black people would be safe in encounters with the police if they just do what the police tell them.”
But all of those phrases have a missing word, right there at the end where it matters the most.
That word is “unconditionally.”
Conformity is one of those tricky things: we like to give it the side-eye, but we also like to practice it, often without even knowing we’re doing it. We enjoy the feeling of being “right” with everyone else. The trouble is, it’s really hard to think differently than the rest of a group—so the feeling of being “right” isn’t really a feeling of being right at all. It’s just a feeling of being the same.
There is a series of psychological experiments that speak to the question of conformity. Collectively, these are known as the Asch Paradigm, and the most oft-repeated result of these studies is that, given enough peer pressure, a large number of people will give obviously wrong answers to questions. For example, when asked a simple question like “which of these three lines is the same length as this fourth line?” people were much more likely to pick one that was obviously longer or shorter if a group of other people confidently chose the wrong line first. In other words, seeing other people give the wrong answer with confidence made them change their own answer—and even doubt their own judgment.
You can tell this as a story about how we succumb to the pressure of the group and espouse ideas that are wrong. But I think it is more interesting as a story about how we impose conformity on others—about how confident we are in our views, especially in groups, and how viciously we ostracize people who propose something different.
When Don Quixote tilted madly at his windmills, imagining them to be giants, he did so in defiance of reason and evidence. He did so without any sane expectation that he could be correct, yet also with deep nobility and desire to see the world beyond the trappings of society. He rejected one frame of reference, and replaced it wholly with another that transformed his vision. He wasn’t correct in any sense of the word—but he was audacious, and, in Cervantes’ imagining, something more than mad.
There are people out there who believe monumentally foolish things. They believe them in defiance of reason, decorum, and evidence. They tie their identities to those beliefs and go out of their way to both evangelize and condemn all who believe otherwise. Yet, too, their freedom to believe foolishly is a fundamental part of our societal freedom. Without it, we would never be free to examine or embrace the absurd; to critique and recompose our perspectives; or to imagine new things that fly far and freely beyond our current knowledge. Continue reading
There is a point in believing an idea where, regardless of where we began, we lose the habit of refining that idea. Instead of seeking to improve our positions, we begin to defend then. Instead of searching for the nuance, we begin to strip it away.
It isn’t every idea—but certain ideas seem to burrow into our politics, our religion, and our activism, and once they are firmly in place, we refuse to let them go. And we begin to vilify anyone who suggests otherwise. I cannot tell whether it is due to external elements, like deep social division, or internal elements, like an uncritical approach to one’s own beliefs. Perhaps it is both, or perhaps it is something else entirely. But I think it not coincidental that these are tribal ideas: they are ideas that mark our membership as much as they define our position.
Certainty is a funny thing. You might think the idea of certainty naturally admits that things are subjective, that absolute proof is difficult, and that beliefs must be updated to reflect changing evidence. But that isn’t how we practice certainty—instead of signaling a spectrum of probable truth, it seems to have become an arbiter of validity.
When someone is certain, that should be a commentary on the evidence they have for a position. Somehow, though, certainty has been divorced from that spectrum of evidence. Instead of certainty being the extreme end, it has become the correct end; the rest of the spectrum is collapsed and we are left with the binary of certainty and uncertainty. It that strange dichotomous world, anything uncertain isn’t worth considering—as though lack of absolutism frees us from any tether to the real world.
Some years ago, I got feedback from some of my colleagues that, on occasion, they needed me to “grab hold of the wheel instead of constantly reinventing it on the fly.” It was brilliant, pithy, and I’ve never forgotten it. I also judiciously ignore it. But the spirit of that piece of feedback, and thing that sticks with me, is the tension between two ways of approaching the world.
No matter what I do, I find myself compelled to find ways to do it better. Seeking and finding those things is one of the most fulfilling things I do in life, professionally and personally both.
I also happen to think that an ideal of recursive improvement is a fundamental necessity. If we don’t make seeking improvement a habit, we get pulled in the opposite direction and reject it even when it is sorely needed.
Richard Feynman famously described science, and curiosity broadly, as “the pleasure of finding things out.” There are certainly few things I enjoy more than to turn over ideas and work them through to some new place, even moreso in quick and intelligent company. I consider it a life philosophy to avoid stopping at the obvious conclusions, and instead to see what more may be learned with a few judicious questions. It isn’t science per se, but it has in common a reliance on method. In learning, as in science, one must start with the assumption that one is wrong.
My smart conservative friends care a great deal about the 2nd amendment, and my smart liberal friends care a great deal about the 4th. Yet both seem intent on limiting the other, and I was recently struck by the idea that the arguments about both amendments are the same. Both, I think, are about the cost of freedom.
Even for my smart conservative friends, the idea of some basic regulations of the 2nd amendment is tolerable. Overall, though, they would prefer a government that treats ownership of weapons as a necessary liberty to be protected even at cost. The fact that we have mass shootings is the price of that freedom, but they hold the freedom essential even at the cost of lives.