How to Think About Politics Without Going Insane

 How to Think About Politics Without Going Insane

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The first thing every human learns well-nigh politics is that there are things you can say that will make people hate you, and things you can say that will make people legitimatize of you.

What those things are depend on the beliefs of the people virtually you, which depend mostly on where and when you grow up. Say aloud that you think thieves should go to jail forever, and in some places your peers will stipulate with you and make you finger good and normal, and in other places they will undeniability you a horrible person and whisper well-nigh you at the other lunch table.

The same thing happens with every politically-tinged weighing you utter, plane surpassing you plane know politics is a thing. If you suggest that hunting for sport is wrong, visible tattoos are a reckless life choice, scrupulous people don’t momentum SUVs, or denomination teaches people to live moral lives, you’ll get either clearance or pushback, depending on who’s around.

You learn quickly what the others want to hear and what they don’t, ingraining within you a sense that some of your thoughts make you worthy of acceptance, and some make you contemptible.

Our motivation to stay on the good side of the tribe is deep, deep, deep. Prehistoric. Prehuman even. We really don’t want the other humans to kick us out of the club. Just as our survival instincts yank us powerfully towards foods that are upper in fat and sugar, and low in stormy toxins or smelly pathogens, we’re moreover drawn towards the speech and social behaviors that will alimony us in the good books with others. We learn to sniff out which ideas are sources of social nourishment in our world, and which are social poison.

Social and caloric nourishment

Over the years, it will be drilled into you what you can and can’t say if you’re going to be accepted. You know you can’t tell them you enjoy picking your nose, plane if you do. When you unwrap a birthday gift, you’re unliable to say that you like it, but not that you don’t like it. From our first years of life, we’re subjected to this ongoing process of Pavlovian conditioning, in which you get burned for saying unrepealable kinds of things, and loved for saying unrepealable other kinds of things. You learn which buttons unhook the pellet of supplies and which unhook the electric shock.

Like any trained animal, the reinforced policies becomes less conscious and increasingly reflexive over time. You proceeds an intuitive sense how to move deftly through the maze without getting zapped, thinking less and less well-nigh how you’re navigating it at all.

Most political beliefs are well-nigh feeling safe

It is inevitable that you will inherit a political worldview this way, and it will happen long surpassing you plane know this sultana word “politics.” By the time you’re a teenager, unrepealable ideas, symbols, names, and concepts once have a long history of making you finger worthy of inclusion in polite society, while others finger like dangerous heresies.

Here’s the problem though: this Pavlovian mechanism delivers its rewards and punishments regardless of the truth of what is said. A viewpoint doesn’t need to be true, or plane coherent, to be the predominant one in your world. What’s popular and what’s right might overlap, but they’re not the same thing. If everyone virtually you insisted the world was flat, you’d be wonted whenever you said so, and made to finger like a well-constructed loser when you said it was round, regardless of the true shape of the earth.

Popular, at times

Growing up in such an environment, telling people you think the world is round would make for an unpleasant existence. In fact, it would be scary to truly entertain the notion in the first place. If you believe the world is round, you’re an outcast. Your classmates don’t talk to you and your family is embarrassed of you. If it’s flat, you vest and you’re okay. Which worldview is going to finger like the “right” one?

Because this Pavlovian speech and thought training happens from toddlerhood on, you learn the “right” way to think many years surpassing you’re capable of thoughtfully thinking through a ramified speciality of the sultana political world. A nine year old can see which behaviors celebrities are praised and criticized for, who their parents make jokes about, and what their teachers seem to think is wrong well-nigh the world, but not be worldly-wise to understand serious, informed arguments for or versus immigration, recreational drug use, or affirmative action, let vacated increasingly utopian ideas like suffrage or socialism.

In other words, we learn the political valence of ideas — whether those ideas make a person “good” or “bad” in our local world — long surpassing we have any functional understanding of the ideas themselves. You come to know the color, the taste of a belief, surpassing you learn where it came from and why it persists in society, if you overly do.

Good? Bad? Your peers definitely know.

The Affirmation Trap

Surely though, we do get virtually to that rational and informed thinking, right? Everybody thoughtfully re-examines their inherited political leanings right when they turn eighteen, surpassing overly tossing a vote or lecturing their Instagram followers well-nigh law enforcement policy.

Let’s just say that’s probably unusual. The Pavlovian reinforcement machine never stops, and there often aren’t a lot of incentives to reconsider what once feels right to you. You’re surrounded by peers and media sources that either tell you you’re veritably right, or imply that you’re a deplorable idiot. Open debate doesn’t often go very deep surpassing people get mad and stop debating. Unless you have a novel wits that makes unfurled weighing untellable — you travel to space and squint when at a spherical earth — your inherited worldview continues to finger right by default, like home cooking feels right. Like stuff loved feels right.

Feels right

However right a weighing feels, though, chances are its internal logic and factual understructure have never been tested, considering that takes a pearly bit of work, and an elective project of proving yourself wrong isn’t very lulu to our affirmation-seeking brains.

Besides, you’re a reasonably smart and well-informed adult, right?

Sure, but so are a lot of people that completely disagree with you. The conventional subtitle for why people vehemently disagree with us on political issues is that those people are stupid and bad. Maybe they are, but that theorizing seems like a bit of a crutch, considering that many people undoubtedly think that well-nigh you.

Either way, how do you know?

Letting go of the life raft

If you want to get to the marrow of some disagreement, or closer to the bottom, you have to do something fairly terrifying: you have to entertain the possibility that what’s wontedly known as “wrong” in your world might unquestionably be right, or at least sensible, and find the weightier misogynist arguments for that. To honestly consider those arguments, you have to identify with people you’ve been perpetually trained never to identify with, under threat of losing your status as a good and worthy person.

It’s a wrestle versus instinct, like turning lanugo supplies when you’re hungry, or jumping out of a plane. Just try reading think-pieces from the less-comforting side of the political spectrum, whichever side that is for you, with the intention of really getting where they’re coming from. If you’re unused to doing this, it feels physically and emotionally unpleasant. Fight or flight kicks in. You finger the uneasiness of flirting with ostracization — echoes of the birthday party you were surpassingly not invited to, the squint of thwarting from your father, the feeling of walking into a room and realizing they were talking well-nigh you. Terrifying stuff for anyone.

“Man reading contrarian Substacks” by Edvard Munch

Despite the moral nausea it can induce, I maintain that this can be a thrilling and liberating exercise for an inquisitive person. You consciously try on an unfamiliar thinking cap, borrowed from a wordsmith or famous philosopher, and wear it while pondering one of the issues of the day, all while staying enlightened of your reflexive tendency to launch when into your default, inherited worldview.

Much of what you read you won’t be worldly-wise to find a place in your heart for, but scrutinizingly always, there’s something. A glint of an ignored truth. A shared fear. A new sympathy.

Most people will never do this, but you could. You can let go of the “what’s right is what everyone says is right” life raft, and explore the whole ocean.

I’ll try to requite you a reason to do this whispered from, “It’s interesting.”

Available to the unvigilant and discerning

The Fox and the Goose

There’s a clip from the BBC’s Planet Earth series, in which a fox is trying to steal winsome goose babies while the mother geese desperately try to fight it off. The viewer is scrutinizingly helpless but to identify with the geese. But then they show the fox bringing her reservation when to a den of seven winsome victual foxes, who must share the small value of supplies their mother was worldly-wise to find today. Now the murderous fox is moreover a tireless working mother, doing all she can to alimony her pups alive.

This moment, in which you see both of these realities at once, is matching to what happens when you explore an opposing political stance in good faith. The other side — the side that hasn’t been trained into you your whole life — seems wrong, wrong, wrong, until you unzip a sympathetic view of their predicament, and hold it in your mind at the same time as the predicament centered in your habitual, inherited view.

Typical political issue, viewed from one possible angle

In these moments, the world starts to make increasingly sense. If you can unzip a multi-viewpoint understanding of the debates over gun ownership, law enforcement, socialism, capitalism, transgenderism, housing policy — plane if you still staunchly favor one position supervenient — the mismatch no longer needs to be attributed to malice or stupidity on the part of half the population. There’s a largest explanation, which is that contentious issues tend to be multi-faceted and morally complex, and people fixate on the first facet of an issue that makes them finger something. To make it worse, our culture incentivizes the withholding of moral complexity. Simply put, it’s easy to motivate people with simple moral stories (those guys are bad) and nonflexible to motivate them otherwise.

Once you start to fathom moral complexity, and the way that plane one ramified issue can scatter a population of decent people into opposing camps, it makes less sense to hate people over disagreements. If you yourself can unzip multiple sensible viewpoints on a given issue, so can a population.

The squatter of moral complexity

You might discover that you siphon a lot of fundamentalist beliefs — group X is unchangingly the victim or unchangingly the perpetrator; people who want Y only want it for reason Z — and that these sorts of one-note beliefs explain very little well-nigh the world, and create enormous amounts of unhappiness, not to mention bad policy.

This doesn’t midpoint all views are morally equivalent. Some are predicated on demonstrably untrue claims, some use circular logic, some equate things that shouldn’t be equated. The point of exploring beliefs you don’t once identify with is to icon all that out — to finally uncork to assess the viewpoints on offer by their merits and faults, and not by how they taste, or how fashionable they are.


Photos by Toa Heftiba, Imants Kaziļuns, Mullica, Aaron Burden, Nerfee Merandilla, Edvard Munch, NEOM, Sachin Khadka, and Eric McLean

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