The limits of “the other guy is crazy”

william_james_-_john_la_farge

Portrait of William James, by John LaFarge, circa 1859

I mentioned recently that I know very little about architecture. Another thing that I know very little about is philosophy, but I do know that most thinkers have moved past the idea that we perceive things just as they exist, without interpretation.

In light of that idea, this quote from Williams James* gave me a lot to think about:

“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”

So what do we notice, and what do we ignore? Since we’re generally interested in bolstering the ideas we currently hold, and are on the lookout for confirming evidence, you can see how James’ assertion would play out–we focus on what fits already, which is going to continue to shape our minds. Without conscious effort, we’re not going to be seeing a lot of contradictory evidence, so we’ll keep on keepin’ on as we’ve been going.

If we do happen upon ideas that run counter to our beliefs, they may not do us a lot of good. I’ve read of research about our tendency not to credit evidence or ideas that contradict our established views.

When I’m listening to the news and I hear something that reflects negatively on the candidate I disapprove of, sending a transcript of the story to my friend that misguidedly favors that candidate is unlikely to be very fruitful. If she sent me a transcript of an unfavorable story about my candidate, how likely would it be to change my mind?

We hold the ideas we do because they make sense to us, and we think they’re right. And those other ideas can make us so furious! Why would we want to give them a try? They’re ludicrous!

So what is to be done?

I’m not sure exactly what, but it’s got to be something. There’s medication one can take for the high blood pressure associated with intense frustration, but there’s no pill that will help us with improving civil discourse, so we’re going to have to work on that one ourselves.

pills

In a recent discussion about arguing over religious freedom I found a concise and valuable statement:

“Whenever we can only see the other argument as ignorant, dishonest or evil, there’s a good chance we are mischaracterizing and underestimating our rhetorical opponent.”†

It’s easy to make a statement like, “I can’t understand how anybody could be crazy enough to think that way.” It’s much harder to invest the energy to explore, so that we eventually begin to understand how they do it. I admire the effort that my daughter Ginger puts into engaging with thoughtful people who hold opposing political views.

This is the sort of effort that an election year requires. The other options, to be dismissive about everyone who doesn’t think like we do, or to stick our fingers in our ears and hope it will be over soon, don’t seem likely to do us any good.

There are alternatives. For those of us in the US, we’ve probably heard people say that if the other candidate wins, they’re moving to Canada. A savvy real estate firm in Utah has a billboard along the interstate highway featuring pictures of Trump and Clinton, and the caption, “Moving to Canada? We’ll sell your house!”

flag_of_canada-svg

 

*Harvard’s psychology department is housed in a building named William James Hall, but I managed to get my degree without reading much of anything by him. I see I should try to remedy that situation.

†quoted from this post

[Images: Wikipedia, publicdomainpictures.net]

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3 thoughts on “The limits of “the other guy is crazy”

  1. Christmas Break is great for catching up on things — and I find I have plenty to catch up on in the Notes department 🙂 I really liked the piece by Morten Lauren…or whatever his name was. (The one you originally tabbed under ‘Listen to this Again’ and ‘University of Utah Singers’)

    Frederik is a great fan of William James — reading Varieties of Religious Experience (one of 3 or so books listed as banned but treasured in Brave New World –in the safe along with the Bible and something else, if you remember that part) was definitely a game-changing book for Frederik. He read it while we were in Provo and has read it again recently, getting more and different things out of it this time.

    Love you + good luck with packing! -Sara T

    2016-09-07 20:21 GMT+02:00 Lori Notes :

    > Lori posted: ” I mentioned recently that I know very little about > architecture. Another thing that I know very little about is philosophy, > but I do know that most thinkers have moved past the idea that we perceive > things just as they exist, without interpretation. ” >

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