Our public discourse could benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

One of the most frustrating facts about the current level and character of our political discourse—as typified by the Kavanaugh nomination and hearings for appointment to the Supreme Court—is the degree to which it amounts to so many gangs of monkeys hurling feces at each other.

And yet, in characterizing the matter this way, I’m indulging in the very thing that I’m decrying (and I didn’t do it just to make a point—that really was my honest reaction, and I only caught myself after the fact).  It seems to me that, more and more over the past few decades, we approach disagreements about policies, economics, and other social concerns with an attitude appropriate to children calling each other names on a playground, or to rabid sports fans supporting their team against bitter rivals, as though that enmity were etched into the very bedrock of existence.

Yet, even among sports fans, and certainly among players, there is traditionally an underlying ethos of good sportsmanship.  Pettiness, vindictiveness, name-calling…these things are not admired among serious athletes, those who love their sport for its own sake.

But the level of “discussion” between those who disagree about political matters simply reeks of the same cognitive biases and distortions that play a role in mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and which such techniques as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have been designed to counteract.  I long for the application of CBT to our public discourse, especially about matters of deep import that have a serious impact on the lives of many people.  We fall prey to fallacies of absolutist, Us/Them, good/evil, all-or-nothing thinking, of mind-reading, of catastrophizing, and to blind and rabid tribalism in areas where we would do better to engage the highest regions of our brains to make sound judgements.

One of the most refreshing posts I’ve seen regarding the Kavanaugh hearings was by a local, central-Florida-based, “libertarian” politician, who said that while he had mixed feelings about the accusations being made about Kavanaugh regarding past sexual assault, this didn’t really matter—at least with respect to the confirmation hearing—because Kavanaugh’s stance on the Fourth Amendment and other Constitutional issues regarding Presidential power and accountability were already bad enough to make him a poor choice for the Supreme Court.  In other words, he wanted to focus on matters of substance relating to the specific qualifications for the job for which Kavanaugh was being considered.

This is not to say that allegations of sexual assault aren’t serious matters—they certainly are.  The fact of these allegations and the varying character of the reactions to them are reminders and examples of important issues that trouble our society, and which require addressing.  It’s not unreasonable to decide that the character of a man who would sexually assault a woman—if he did—makes him unsuitable for one of the most crucial positions in our national government.  But it’s also not entirely unreasonable to be at least a little curious about the timing of the allegations, and to wonder whether that timing ought to have any bearing on whether we judge them to be true or not.  These matters can be soberly considered in evaluating the candidate.

But “sober” is not a word one would be inclined to use to describe the level of discussion on this very serious set of concerns.  Rather, we see a plethora of memes that focus on silly facial expressions of Kavanaugh, or of Lindsey Graham, or of Christine Blasey Ford, as though the transient set of one’s features as captured in single frames of video feeds has any bearing on whether a person is truthful or not, or whether they are of good character.  This is less convincing than phrenology, frankly, and should be beneath the dignity of those who judge these issues to be pivotal.

Important concerns have been and are being raised by this event, and they are worthy of discussion, consideration, and action.  It’s a serious issue to consider the various cultural forces that lead countless women—and men, as well—who have been victims of sexual assault to keep silent, rather than bring out accusations only to have them dismissed or taken lightly.  It’s likewise a real issue whether the timing of these particular accusations, by raising shades of political machination, weakens the gravitas of the “MeToo” movement and harms its broad acceptance.

It’s also of real worry that so many people don’t seem to understand the difference between a confirmation hearing and a criminal trial, and that there are different standards of evidence involved because the purpose of the occasions is very different.

And it is a very real concern just to what degree we wish to allow the potential undermining of checks on Executive power such as might be engendered by giving the lifetime Supreme Court appointment to someone who is soft on that issue.

To deal with any and all of these concerns is worthwhile, perhaps even absolutely necessary.  But we are not actually dealing with them.  Much of the discourse, even at the “highest” levels, about these matters, amounts to sheer rhetoric and attempted manipulation, of others and of ourselves.  Outrage is fun, or at least it’s exciting, and we seem to be growing addicted to it, at the expense of our ability to deal with important matters in a reasonable fashion.  In this, our discourse is reminiscent of our civil and criminal trials, which amount to jousting matches between hired champions, where the one most skilled at emotional chicanery, at engaging and making use of our many inherent cognitive biases, tends to win.

It shouldn’t be about “winning”.  It should be about the seeking of truth, the attempt to achieve the best possible outcome we can manage as a society.  One of the things I like most about the US Constitution is that it is, in character, a very scientific document.  It arranges a system of government as a starting point, but it ensures peer review in the form of the various checks and balances, and always leaves itself open, in principle and in practice, to the updating of its model, in the form of the amendment process.  I wish we could approach matters of national concern, that bear on the interpretation of that document—and frankly, all important matters—with calm heads worthy of the Constitution’s character.

The fact that someone disagrees with you on some particular point does not mean that they are evil, and the fact that they agree with you on some other emotionally salient issue does not automatically make them good.

The world is complex.  And while it’s true that humans are primates—so it’s not all that surprising that we fall into primate dominance display patterns rather easily, especially when our emotions become aroused—we should recognize that this is almost always a weakness when dealing with issues that couldn’t have been faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors over evolutionary time.  Complicated problems benefit most from careful, rational thought, and calm, reasonable discussion in which everyone recognizes their own fallibility and all are open—at least in principle—to having their minds changed.

We seem to have a societal mood disorder, some population-based depression/anxiety syndrome, that makes us prone to counter-productive thoughts and behaviors.  Given this, we should remind ourselves of some of the cognitive distortions typical of such disorders, such as:  all-or-nothing thinking; overgeneralization; mental filtering; discounting the positives; jumping to conclusions; magnification and minimization; emotional reasoning; overusing “should” statements; labeling; and blame.

It would be nice if we could all be a bit more Stoic in our approach to public issues, especially ones of great import.  It’s precisely because serious concerns are so prone to make us emotional that we should defend ourselves against the distortions of our emotional reactions, and against descending to playground-level invective rather than engaging in serious conversation.  It’s when matters are most consequential that our passions are most likely to be aroused—but this is precisely the time when we should be most on our guard against succumbing to their every dictate.  Serious problems are rarely solved by name-calling and reactionary vilification.

We really need to do better.  We can do better, I have no doubt about that.  And the answer to the question of whether or not we will do better will have serious consequences.

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