It’s human nature to attempt to defend our beliefs to the bitter end, even if that means we struggle to recognize when we or the ones we love have made a mistake. It’s equally natural to get a good feeling from pointing out the mistakes of others. These two factors working in tandem can inspire us to take heroic stances in the face of adversity and can generate the kind of competition that helps us develop new ideas, but they can also bring public discourse to a screeching halt. Even the most cursory observations of our government, mainstream news and social media make it clear that the inability or refusal to acknowledge when these reactions produce logical shortcomings has put up barriers to productive American political discussion everywhere from the White House to Main Street.
When faced with uncertainty as to which decision to make, we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt every chance we get—and, since we dislike being wrong so intensely—even when given information that shows we are incorrect or mistaken, we will still try to find ways to justify our previous beliefs. This pattern of behavior has benefits when we need to take a firm stance against tough odds, but it can present serious problems when we put disagreeing humans in the same room—problems that have been magnified by the advent of social media, which puts billions of humans with differing and often contrasting beliefs and opinions together in the same virtual room. With that many ideas being exchanged—and given that no one person has all the right information all the time—it’s a simple matter of probability that we will each be wrong at some point, in some way. So, when it happens, why can’t we admit it?
Our Guy Is Always Right
Our early human ancestors faced incredible risks if they were wrong or mendacious about even a single aspect of the difficult lives they led, when human brains first began to develop hereditary patterns of behavior. Mistaken beliefs or decisions about basic necessities could have disastrous results. Anyone who lost the group’s confidence could have faced ostracism—a probable death sentence. So, over time, we increasingly stressed the importance of defensible confidence in our own ideas. As humans have evolved, this need to be right evolved with us and led us to support and surround ourselves with those who agree with our beliefs, grouping ourselves into factions, tribes and organized religions.
We developed to be confident and stalwart in defense of our ideas and opinions and to question challengers. This isn’t a problem in itself. The problem is when we fail to question our own beliefs. When we fail to examine our own opinions as closely as we do the arguments of our opponents, we give ourselves much more leeway than those who think differently. When confronted with a truth claim inconsistent with our current ideology, we approach it with the utmost skepticism—but if asked to acknowledge that our current ideology might itself constitute an erroneous truth claim, we put an end to the conversation.
We can trace this recurring problem in the American Experiment. We Americans founded a country on the values of freedom, liberty and justice for all, and then built much of it on the backs of slaves, Native Americans and other marginalized groups. Every time we have been brought face to face with this glaring hypocrisy, the results have been division, violence and even war. Half the country was so unwilling to admit that slavery was immoral and unnecessary that they separated from the union and fought a civil war to maintain the institution. Many Americans continue to react badly to anyone who questions our supposedly divine institutions. To draw attention to even empirical, verifiable facts, such as the number of people of all races killed by police officers in 2015–16, or the fact that our most recent presidential election was influenced by a foreign government, is enough to earn you the epithets of traitorous and unpatriotic.
This political hubris has disrupted civil discussion so effectively that we are now quite squarely divided along party lines, with both sides holding tightly to the view that anyone who questions their beliefs is not just a personal enemy, but a threat to the foundations of the country. You can see a new instance of this almost every day, emanating from the highest elected office in the United States. While President Trump has made numerous demonstrably false claims—ranging from his misrepresentation of the death toll of Hurricane Maria to his misunderstanding of the effects of power-generating wind turbines, anyone who points this out is subjected to a torrent of disdain from Trump’s most ardent supporters, who seem to receive his every tweet as though it had emanated from a divine being. Even some of those who are willing to admit that he must be either wrong or lying still choose to write the whole thing off as part of some media strategy, preferring to simply ignore the fact that the leader of our country lies or is extraordinarily mistaken on a regular basis. But the problem runs deeper than mere idolization of a political figure. The problem is: we hate to admit when we’re wrong.
To Err Is Human
Functioning in the real world requires keeping all our ideological ducks in a row. Our brains evolved to provide us with a sense of consistency between what we claim and what we know to be true—but they didn’t evolve with an inbuilt knowledge of what is or isn’t true. That we have to discover for ourselves. Whether we are ultimately right or wrong, we get an uncomfortable feeling when we try to hold two inconsistent ideas. Psychologists refer to this as cognitive dissonance. The problem is that we are inherently prejudiced in favor of whichever view we held first or whichever is most popularly held among our social groups. This causes us to display confirmation bias: actively circumventing newly discovered facts and ideas that contradict what we already believe.
Leon Festinger proposed his cognitive dissonance theory in 1957, after studying the rumors that followed a massive earthquake in India in 1934. Festinger found that the people least affected by the disaster were the most prone to believing that much more horrific events had to be just around the corner. Festinger argued that these rumors were not started to invoke fear, but to justify people’s current fears, even though their original worries had been shown to be exaggerated.
In the 1960s, Peter Cathcart Wason coined the term confirmation bias, after conducting a number of experiments designed to examine the illogical thinking to which we all seem to be prone. One of his experiments involved telling subjects that there was an unspecified rule governing a sequence of three numbers (2, 4, 6.) Wason asked them to define the rule they derived from the given example, and provide three numbers of their own that complied with the rule. Wason’s original rule was any ascending numbers, but subjects gave much more intricate descriptions, such as the middle number is the average of the first and last. And, in confirmation of Wason’s theory, they always offered numbers that fit their own (invented) rules. For example, if they believed the rule to be ascending factors of 24, they would offer up something like 3, 6, 12 or 1, 2, 8. While both sequences were technically correct, they brought subjects no closer to discovering the true rule. They didn’t think of offering Wason examples that contradicted their own preconceived notions of what the rule was—such as 5, 7, 14—in order to disconfirm their hypotheses. Wason believed that this flaw in human thought processes shows how illogical we are. However, what’s perhaps more significant is that we can adapt and correct our thought processes—but only if we realize which corrections are necessary, only if we are willing to try to disprove our own theories. In the United States at least, we’ve built a political culture that doesn’t allow much room for that.
The Stench Emanating From US Politics
Turning on the news or logging in to social media, we can see instances of people actively seeking out information that they know will confirm their beliefs. Our politicians are prime examples. The news of the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as Trump’s lifetime appointee to the Supreme Court had both sides instantly up in arms. Normal discussion of Judge Kavanaugh’s qualifications was derailed by angry protesters, withheld documents and at least two separate sexual assault allegations from a high school and a college associate stemming from thirty years ago.
While each of these issues deserved to be assessed individually, the conversation hit a partisan brick wall before the nominee had even been named. Long before the news that Justice Anthony Kennedy was stepping down, many in the anti-Trump crowd believed that, given all the controversy surrounding Trump’s election, no presidential Supreme Court nominee should have been confirmed until the investigation into the election had been concluded. This commitment gave Trump supporters a plausible reason to claim that Democrats would do anything to stop Kavanaugh’s nomination, maybe even fabricate sexual assault charges. Those Democrats who took—or continue to take—this absolutist stance that none of Trump’s nominees should be confirmed are fighting a doomed rearguard battle, spurred on by those who are still resentful at the fact that the Republicans blocked Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland on the grounds that 2016 was an election year. Those same Republican senators still hold majority control, so it is a pipe dream to imagine they would ever allow Democrats to get their revenge. This unwavering partisanship, by both sides, is part of a bigger problem, however.
The controversy surrounding several discrepancies in Kavanaugh’s record—evidenced by information in some released emails and his past commentary on abortion legislation—paled into insignificance when at least two credible sexual assault allegations came to light. This led to a divide along not just party lines but gender lines as well.
When a controversial figure is granted power in a country like ours, in which everyone gets an equal say, some people will have the courage to stand against those they disagree with. There is now a man on the Supreme Court, with whom a lot of people disagree—and that is damaging to the fundamental trust required for our justice system to function. The FBI report attempted to find tangible evidence of a crime that happened thirty-six years ago; when they came up empty-handed, it gave Republicans the excuse they wanted to not have to examine their nominee’s character closely. And it gave Democrats yet another reason to question the stability of our government. Both parties continue to see each other as corrupt. It was fascinating to see the reactions of senators, who split by party. Both sides viewed the FBI report as confirmation of a truth they knew from the start. It brought us no closer to solving the issue. These controversies will follow Kavanaugh all the way to the bench and the accusations will taint every court decision he is involved in, in the minds of a large number of Americans, undermining the trust our system needs to elicit, in order to survive.
Whether the accusations against Kavanaugh are true or not, irrational political hubris has derailed the discussion and corrupted the most powerful people in the country. Instead of upholding due process, providing clarity or suggesting an alternative nominee, our senators—like so many Americans—failed to acknowledge the flagrant failings in their ability to reason.
All our elected and appointed officials have to make decisions that affect the lives of millions, but, because of the partisan state of our politics, our leaders have much less incentive to choose what’s right than they do to opt for whatever aligns with the views of their base. Some appealed to Roman mythology in a quest to look appealing to the left—meanwhile, the personal lives and reputations of Kavanaugh and his family, and those of his accusers, were at stake. Others called the entire proceedings a disgraceful sham and claimed that to call the only witness to the event wasn’t worth the effort. Some even said that that witness’s history of alcoholism and depression would compromise his credibility and that testifying might traumatize him. Ironic, since Dr. Ford had to recount a graphic and traumatic rape story on live television, in front of millions of Americans. Some thought it was absurd to withhold knowledge of a sexual assault for more than thirty years and others thought it equally absurd that Trump should be allowed to make lifetime appointments at all. Meanwhile, the country is left wondering if one of our lifetime Supreme Court justices has committed a felony. There is an objective truth here that we must get to the bottom of—but our current leaders seem more interested in giving their supporters what they want to hear.
Pride and Progress
When faced with abject tyranny from an oppressive foreign monarchy, eighteenth-century American patriots defied the most powerful man in their world. Less than a hundred years later, we recognized that the liberty we had sought to establish had to apply to people of all races and that slavery was inconsistent with the values of a nation built on freedom. This caused a civil war, which almost destroyed us, but resulted in a victory over our own nefarious prejudices.
Another century later, after many Americans had given their lives to bring an end to fascism in Germany, we realized that we shared some of the Nazis’ vile beliefs about the innate inferiority of certain races. This led to the Civil Rights movements of the 60s, during which some brave Americans fought to bring us closer to the values our founding fathers wanted to establish.
If we want to get past the useless squabbles and popularity contests that are derailing reasonable thinking from Twitter to Capitol Hill, and which only push us further into our respective echo chambers, we have to face the possibility that we aren’t always as right about things as we think we are.
If we approach all ideas—especially the ones we agree with—with earnest skepticism and sound reasoning, as we do the thoughts and opinions of those across the political aisle, we will find that many of our old ways are inconsistent with our alleged values.
Many who support Kavanaugh have stated in his defense that kids will be kids, as if sexual assault can be somehow disregarded because it’s a venerable American tradition for high school kids to get drunk and have sex at parties. But if we respect our country’s highest court as an institution, we should be clear that a justice of that court should have to meet standards beyond the minimum required of human beings. We need someone who can not only accurately acknowledge when his colleagues are wrong, but is also willing to examine his own susceptibility to the very human flaw of being sometimes in error.
We can all improve ourselves and our communities by being more skeptical and critical of those who claim to have all the answers. No matter what political ideology we align with, we Americans are in this together. By keeping each other accountable, through civil political discourse, we can all come closer to the truth. When we have stress-tested our old ideas for internal contradictions and inconsistencies, we’ll be free to embrace new ideas, as needed.
Our founding fathers laid out a system of government that can adapt with us as we evolve and grow. and we can steadfastly defend that system by holding ourselves and others to ever higher standards, but that progression requires acknowledging that what we’ve accepted as okay for years might be inadequate.
Through skepticism and reason, I believe we have the means of sorting through these problems, which could make or break us as a country and as a species. And, if there’s a problem with my rationale here, I have no doubt that someone with more extensive or different experiences will point it out, since, when it comes to self-assessment, I’m just as nose-blind as the rest of us.