I’ve expressed this general sentiment before, but it’s a problem that continues to muddle and befuddle the progress of humanity, and it seems to have done so for as long as civilization has existed—probably longer. It also seems ever more salient, or at least more prominent in modern American political life, so I think it bears addressing again, and repeating ad nauseum if necessary.
A primatologist reading this might well point out that I’m using the wrong metaphor, that when monkeys throw feces at one another, they’re doing something very different than what we do when we call each other names and demonize those with whom we disagree. If so, I sincerely apologize, and would welcome a better insight. But the feces metaphor at least captures—to the human sensibility—how foolish and wasteful (har) these kinds of interactions can be. If we can make people see that their approach to political discourse, about matters of real import, with life and death consequences on large scales, is about as intellectually rigorous as shitting in your hands and throwing it at someone, maybe we could all take a step back and calm down a bit.
As we approach each new election in the United States, it seems that more and more—more than I’ve noticed before in my lifetime, anyway—our political discourse comes down to people saying, “All Republicans are evil, and Democrats are good,” versus “All Democrats are evil, and Republicans are good.” The few, rare outsiders often end up going to the even more extreme point of saying, effectively, “All Democrats and Republicans are evil, and if you side with either of them, you’re at best a dupe and at worst a willing tool of evil.”
In my understanding, though, there are very few consciously evil people in the world. Most estimates of the number of legitimate “psychopaths” put their number at around one percent. Worldwide, this implies a staggering seventy million psychopaths, and maybe there really are that many. If there are, they are something we ought to be at least a bit concerned about. But psychopaths, typically, do not work well in groups together. “Chaotic evil” characters cause many problems, but they also tend to get in each other’s way, since each is only looking out for his or her own gain, and they tend to see reality as a zero-sum game.
But to characterize entire groups of otherwise well-meaning people as evil because of their political affiliation, or because of the cherry-picked words, sentiments, or actions of a single example from within that group, is simply fallacious. It’s also counterproductive. Calling someone else names, saying that they’re stupid, or evil, or blind, or misguided, that they’re Nazis or Commies, that they’re thugs or crybabies, may be emotionally satisfying in the short tun, but it’s not conducive to a productive meeting of minds, or to progress.
It’s not necessarily fallacious to think that other people—even large numbers of smart other people—are all incorrect about some important matter. This is the nature of progress. Einstein, for instance, recognized that all previous physicists—including Newton himself—were wrong about the nature of space and time, and of gravity. But he didn’t characterize his colleagues as idiots, he just showed them where he’d seen the mistakes and perceived a new point of view that gave greater insight. They resisted, often mightily, but eventually they were convinced.
It’s entirely possible for large groups of people to be wrong—even with the best of intentions—and it’s okay to think that you are right. But here’s the thing: if whole groups of reasonably intelligent, moderately informed people can be wrong, then that means that you can also be wrong, even about something toward which you have very strong, proprietary feelings. If you can’t recognize that you are capable of error, then you will tend to fall into and persist in every error you happen to embrace. Probability and history suggest that those errors will be numerous.
To indulge in the Us/Them fallacy of dichotomous thinking about human groups is to embrace the habit of thought that is characteristic of bigotry and tribalism. If you see those with whom you disagree as The Enemy, then you have chosen a form of interaction that can only be characterized by war, whether at the level of individuals, or of political parties, or of nations.
The people with whom you disagree, even about emotionally powerful, highly charged issues, are far more like you than they are unlike you. They may well be mistaken, but so may you. Almost certainly, you are both wrong about many things, though which specific things may vary between persons and between groups. Unfortunately, when we’re in monkey-mode, for us to admit to the possibility of being wrong is to “lose face,” whatever the fuck that means. In modern political discourse, for one to have decided that one was mistaken in the past about some issue—about climate science, about gay marriage, about jobs, about immigration, whatever—is to be reviled by the shit-hurling monkeys as a flip-flopper, someone lacking in blind loyalty and unassailable commitment (which are apparently perceived as virtues).
But a person who is committed to the truth—to trying ever to improve his or her map to better match the territory of reality—is one who must constantly be open to the possibility of correction. One of the common hallmarks of the most intelligent people I’ve known, and of the most intelligent of historical figures, is an openness, in principle, to the possibility of error.
What are the odds that you—here and now, at this point in history—have come upon the final, indisputable answer to the way things are and ought to be, and that those who disagree with you, and all those who went before you, are and were at best benighted ignoramuses? If you think those odds are good…well, I’m inclined to disagree with you, to say the least, but I assume you’d be able to provide evidence and argument that would convince a dispassionate and disinterested third party.
If not—if all you have to bolster your side are virtue-signaling, name-calling, the dehumanization of those who disagree with you, cheap emotional rhetoric in place of substantive discussion, political caricature, straw-men, and demonization instead of reason—then I’m afraid that you’re going to come across very much like a monkey in the zoo hurling its feces at its fellows and at those who come to see it. In which case, my own emotional reaction may vary between amusement and disgust or may even be a curious mixture of the two. But I’m not likely to take you very seriously, and I’m certainly going to keep my distance.