October 12th, 2012

Core Beliefs

It's October before an election, and politics is in the air. I've been contemplating things from a couple of different angles trying to reconcile how I feel about them, since I feel a bit conflicted. The first factor is one of social nicety. As our politics have become more polarized, the ability to have political conversation with opposing views is lessened. Facts give way to feelings, to derision and anger. It seems as though our ability to debate rationally is blinded when it comes to certain topics, and the decision becomes whether to engage them at all.

I read recently someone describe their experiences as a black with a redneck friend. His friend was racist and his friend's friends more so, but he stayed around them because he was willing to put up with some insult in order to help broaden their experiences. He hoped in time to show their biases were untrue and their "aside from you" exceptions would give way to accepting that people are people. This concept went against the prevailing view (this was on a web forum) that people should shut out people from their lives that are racist or anti-homosexual, or condemn you on religious grounds.

I see these two things similarly. If we only discuss politics and religion and race and "sensitive" topics among those that agree with us, we'll never broaden our views. If we are smug in our sense of having the "right" view on all the issues (aren't we all) then we fail to broaden the views of others. If we shut them out we just let them continue with their beliefs in a more insular echo chamber. At the same time, most of the time yelling over web forums and Facebook and even real life fails to accomplish anything. As long as we can retreat to the safe reassurances of other that share our own beliefs, we'll continue to believe everyone else is just not listening.

I read a long time ago that the reason people tend to argue about these things is because they are coming from different sets of core, underlying beliefs. When we construct extremely rational arguments based on these beliefs and the other side refuses to agree, we conclude they must be either stupid or evil. If these core beliefs are the things that separate us, what hope is there for random interactions to sway opinion? Isn't it better to be polite and simply discuss the safe things we do agree on?

It's lead me to wonder if there is an argument that can be made that will get to the underlying root of core beliefs. If you can listen and distill their argument to the underlying assumption it's built on, is there something you can say that would reach that protected place? A recent study that I read an article about said that when their core beliefs are confronted, even with compelling facts, most people will become even more insistent upon them. If a head-on tactic is going to be met with strongest resistance, is there a flanking maneuver or can it be chiseled upon slowly? All of this is predicated on the notion that it's even worth it. Would we be better off smiling and being pleasant? Would that be a more civil society, or is a society of rich discourse the better one?

If you look at how most people reach new beliefs, it's not through dialogue, it's through experiences. Like the racist having a black friend, it takes time and experience to break down the misconceptions. If that's what's required, then becoming a more tolerant society will take an awfully long time. Is it even possible for a large society to not be multi-cultural? Would it even be a good thing?

One of my core beliefs is that people should let other people live their lives as they see fit, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else. When I see people preaching hatred and damnation, or witness the much more insidious ways that people disguise their mistrust and bigotry, sometimes even to themselves, I see both sides of my core belief. My desire to let them live their lives, and the desire for them to not hurt others. Regardless of what they want to think, these beliefs manifest in many ways that do hurt others, though often indirectly.

In the end, like so many things, it's situational. If there is an opportunity for you to rationally discuss sensitive topics with someone, and there is a chance either one of you may gain new perspective, then continue. If it becomes emotional or the defenses come up, let it go and retreat to safe topics. You don't need to hunt for consensus or beat a dead horse, just let it go and move on. These conversations can be more productive than just talking to someone who agrees with you.