A sweary—and expertly punctuated—weblog.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Dumb enough to think it's important

Whatever my shortcomings, I'm an honest person. Honest to a fault, perhaps. I'm usually undiplomatically blunt, flattery makes me uncomfortable, and I'm awkward when social circumstances prevent me from speaking my mind directly. But, for all its drawbacks, I'm passionate about honesty, particularly intellectual honesty. By that I mean that a person should admit his biases, honestly strive to understand and appreciate opposing arguments, and readily acknowledge that he is often wrong. Intellectual honesty is an honesty with oneself, an aim that should supersede ideological loyalties and personal allegiances. Anything less diminishes our epistemological autonomy, which is (I submit) the fundamental ingredient of being human.

As a result, I hate the assumption--which is nearly ubiquitous in political debate--that your opponent disagrees with you because he is uninformed, deceived, or somehow morally deficient. It's the nasty stuff of partisanship. It drives the meta-partisan venom of Ann Coulter and the shrill pedantry of Keith Olbermann. It leads a person to believe that his party is the party of facts and logic and the lone defender of goodness and decency. It makes us believe that if only our opponents were a little smarter or had our possession of the facts, they would obviously agree with us. It reinforces the idea that political opponents are the enemy, encouraging a person to describe his opponents in cheap caricature: Republicans are portrayed as selfish rednecks while Democrats become lazy entitlement-seekers.

I find such a mindset more harmful than just about any political position. It encourages divisiveness and prevents us from understanding one another. But it also obscures one of the few reliable truths in politics: everything, no matter how well thought out, has its downside. Nearly all political positions involve a compromise of principles.

At its best, socialism (I use the term loosely, both for simplicity and to dilute the stigma unfairly attached to it) encourages compassion, protects the disadvantaged, and discourages materialism. At its worst, it promotes laziness and mediocrity. I think that's precisely why artists, writers, and academics typically lean left. It's not because they're naive or don't live in the 'real world' (whatever the hell that means). It's because--as evidenced by their career choices--they're motivated by something other than material gain.

At its best, capitalism (again, used loosely for similar reasons) promotes self-reliance, industry, and the value of excellence. At its worst, it promotes greed, selfishness, and the exploitation of the weak. That's why businessmen and entrepreneurs tend to lean right. It's not fair to assume that they're too selfish to care about the disadvantaged. Instead, they think financial reward is the best possible incentive to help people realize noble ambitions.

(Of course I'm being a little too nice. I'm aware that there do exist troglodytic conservatives and dole-bludging liberals. But the point is that it's better to assume good faith than to uniformly paint your opponents with a caricatured brush.)

Personally, I tend to lean right, especially on fiscal matters. But I'm not trying advocate a particular ideology, even mine. Instead, the point I want to bring home is that a person can be just as smart, decent, and well-informed as you and still espouse an entirely different political ideology. I do believe in absolute truth. I just don't think we encounter it very often. And almost surely we do not encounter it in the political arena.


Warren said...

Great post!

I would like to add a small section of the first Federalist Paper, by Alexander Hamilton (complete paper found here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed01.asp).

"So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution."

Josh said...

Brilliant. I totally sympathize, and am likewise tired of the pointless antagonism and mutual vilification that is most of American politics today, especially as I become more aware of how hard it is to determine "absolute truth" (in spite of believing that there is such a thing.)

Matt said...

Warren: Thanks for your contribution. Ol' Alexander sure earned his spot on the ten-dollar bill. But I want to go even further than Hamilton. I'm not just trying to say that good, smart people might end up on the "wrong" side of the issue. I'm trying to take the idea of being in the "right" away from both parties (to be fair, my personal focus is to take that idea away from Republicans; probably that's because I know more conservatives than liberals, so naturally I've seen more conservative dogmatism).

Josh: Nice to hear from you. It is hard to abandon the search for absolute truth throughout our lives when we believe it exists in the religious realm. But I won't lie: confining Truth to the religious domain has been wonderfully liberating.

Warren said...

As a point of clarification, do you mean that there is no correct answer in politics, or do you mean that you don't like people claiming it.

Warren said...

You already answered that question in your post.

"I do believe in absolute truth. I just don't think we encounter it very often. And almost surely we do not encounter it in the political arena."

I agree with the incredible damage caused by egotistical, prideful party bickering. But it is also incorrect to claim, "I am right that no one is right."

I recognize that I converted your "almost surely" to "surely", but you understand that there is only an infintesimal difference between the two.

Matt said...

Let me answer your first question in a little more detail. I do believe that occasionally there are issues with a solvable Right Answer, but that those issues are few and far between. The rest of the issues fall into one of two categories (maybe more than two, but this is all I can think of right now):

(1) A question of priorities. Using a game-theoretic analogy, the argument is over where on the Pareto frontier we should shoot for. Is the potential increase in national security worth the loss of privacy associated with NSA wiretaps? Is the potential increase in economic security worth the loss of economic freedom associated with expanded entitlement programs? We can argue, based on our priorities, where the compromise should fall, but it's typically impossible to point to a spot on the Pareto frontier and say "This is the right place".

(2) A question of uncertainty. Sometimes there is a Right Answer, but no one can say what it is because our observations are too noisy. Economic questions--where the mechanics are too complicated to make precise predictions--often fall under this heading, too.

In either case, it's wrong to proclaim you have the Right Answer.

I agree that "I am right that no one is right" is technically a self-contradictory statement, and perhaps I'm in danger myself of trying to dole out absolute truth where there is none. But I'm convinced that the essence of that statement (I do think the "almost surely" is significant) is one of the few reliable political truths. If most every issue comes with a heavy dose of compromise and/or uncertainty, then anyone who claims to have the Right Answer is probably being dishonest with himself and others.

You might argue that my mindset can lead people to apathy and prevent anyone from having or expressing a strong opinion. But I think it'd be wonderful if people came to strongly-held conclusions based on their own convictions and analysis, and then said something like "This is my position, based on these convictions and analysis. I strongly think that this is what we should do, but I acknowledge that someone with different priorities might feel differently." That mindset doesn't have to diminish our convictions at all. It just helps us give legitimacy to the convictions of others and helps us to be honest with ourselves.

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