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Why We Understand So Little

Let’s admit it, we don’t know much. Nobody correctly predicted the outcome of the election (if we dismiss traditional political hype from Republicans predicting a win). So far, nobody has shown that they understand what happened after the fact. Of course both pre-election and post election there has been no dearth of opinions, often presented with an air of certainty about what is going on.

So why didn’t we understand what was happening before the election, and why don’t we understand it now? This morning I read two well-reasoned articles, one arguing that small-town and farm country Americans living in the heartland, who voted for Trump, are living in a bubble in which real-life issues such as gay marriage, real problems of African Americans, and the needs of immigrant and refugee groups simply being issues they’ve never faced and don’t understand. The other article argued that our colleges and universities are bastions of insulated liberal ideas, with more than 80% of professors being liberal or progressive, with the views of religious, conservative Americans both unrepresented and demeaned. As a result, college-educated people in this country have no idea what people from the middle heartland are thinking or why. No doubt both of these articles exaggerate points that may be part of the puzzle, but only a part, and who knows how big a part?

Despite the truths each of the articles may have represented, each was written from a point of view and then assembled information to support that point of view. That’s the way we make arguments; we state our conclusion and then provide supporting evidence. We don’t examine the evidence and then arrive at a conclusion. This latter, inductive method of reasoning is hard to do, because we always have to ask, before we gather evidence—evidence about what? That’s when we usually insert a hypothesis, claim it is true, and then because these things get argued in the public forum, not in a scientific laboratory, start assembling information that is slanted toward either affirming or refuting our hypothesis.

The inductive method ends with an hypothesis,  it doesn’t begin with one. Its first step is to collect evidence, specific, particular evidence. How do we do that about important sociopolitical issues? Can we? The virtue of gathering information without being guided by a hypothesis, is that we may turn up findings we hadn’t anticipated. We may make discoveries. So how do we do this?

Two ways to gather information occur to me. One is for each of us, as well as those who make pronouncements within the media and on the political scene, to sample information more widely and not from a single point of view. In one form this means talking to people we don’t know well, who represent different backgrounds and experiences than our own, and who are not just those we assume will agree with us. By sampling information, I don’t mean trying to enlighten them with our point of view or trying to change their minds. I mean listening and trying to empathize with their experiences from their point of view. It seems to me that as our country has become more divided, for most of us, our circle of experiences has become more circumscribed. We talk to and listen to mostly those who share our opinions.

The second way is to insure that a wide sampling of experiences and points of view is represented in our major discussion forums, or at least those you or I pay attention to. An easy way to do this is to read and tune into media sources that we expect we will disagree with and then to listen and read with as open a mind as possible—with the aim of learning, not refuting the messages we are hearing. Harder to do is to broaden the views represented within each of the forums themselves. We have liberal media and conservative media. It’s hard to find media outlets without a point of view. But each of these can make a greater effort to broaden its information base to include viewpoints that conflict with the outlet’s own biases. This includes our colleges and universities. There should be no biases and particularly no restrictions on hiring faculty or offering classes related to political or social viewpoints. Student should be encouraged to allow themselves to be confronted by as many viewpoints as possible and learning about things you know little about or expect to disagree with should be enshrined as an educational value. Intellectual viewpoints espoused on campuses perhaps should not be expected to represent a cross section of the general public’s viewpoints. But a value that ought to characterize all who educate our college and university students, even high school students, should be intellectual honesty: the need to familiarize students with as unbiased as possible, narratives, histories and opinions that represent the entire society and the world.

I don’t have answers. No one does. My above suggestions have the goal of widening each of our experiences so that we can better understand how are society works and why things happen within that society. It’s a mystery to Trump supporters how anyone could support Hillary Clinton. Similarly, it’s a mystery to Clinton supporters how anyone could support Donald Trump. And it's a mystery to a sizeable chunk of Americans how anyone could support either of these two candidates. But the  fact that it is mystery to so many, doesn’t mean that there is no explanation. And, looking at how closely the supporters of the two candidates resembled each other on nearly every variable except race, its not likely that the explanation is that one group of supporters are simply dumber, more bigoted, or less informed than the other.

People differ in their views of the world, and right now, in America, people who have one world view don’t understand people who have another. Even worse, people on all sides seem to believe that the reason for people having viewpoints other than their own is some kind of character or intellectual defect.

I still believe it is possible for people to understand each other and  I also believe that there are many important issues on which people who disagree right now could come to an agreement if they listened to each other. There are other areas in which the truth is murky enough that even if people come to an agreement they stand a 50/50 chance of being wrong, so disagreement and caution, or willingness to change course or reverse a decision, is a strength.  But all of theses things require an open mind. We don’t arrive at open minds by conversing only with those  who agree with us and having conversations that only serve to reinforce the narrow set of ideas and opinions to which our group subscribes.

So the first step in learning more than we know now is to begin having conversations with people who have different opinions than our own and learning why this is so.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Reader Comments (2)

I was surprised and bewildered by the results as well, but as the day progressed it made more and more sense why a majority of Americans voted for Trump. The negative traits he's displayed and bad behavior on his record weren't compelling enough to make voters a) vote for a different party's candidate, b) vote for Clinton despite whatever reasons they had against her, and/or c) ignore their own desire to see a radically new America, which another democratic President wasn't likely to bring. I'm guessing all three played a part, but especially the desire for change. Apparently most voters think Trump will change their lives and our country for the better, and many people probably didn't listen to the debates very closely, or think much about the issues America will be facing. I'm glad we live in a democracy and not a monarchy, but now that Donald Trump is President elect, I'm going to pray for him and show him the respect every President deserves.

November 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert L.

Casey, you know that 99.9% times I am totally in sync with your views. But I simply can't be as open-minded as you are yet. As someone said recently, if someone who voted for Trump wants to come up and hug me, I have to push them away and tell them, "I can't. It's too soon."
If you were able to find audio tapes of Joe Soucheray's radio talk show, "Garage Logic" going back to the 90s; or Jason Lewis' Conservative Drive-Time radio talk show; or even a segment on Rush Limbaugh, you would hear my voice calling in to discuss civilian deaths in the Persian Gulf War, global climate change, and disparity of wealth. I WOULD LISTEN to their views and then call up as often as I could hoping to rationally discuss these issues - for YEARS! The result? I DO KNOW their views.and why they have them.
I have been called a "the Liberal Lunatic from Minnesota" on Rush Limbaugh, "Katy from "Liberal Lakes" on Joe Soucheray's talk radio show (I always used some fictitious name to protect myself), and just plain "Katy" on Jason Lewis' show because I called in so often. Despite the name-calling, despite my shaking from shyness every time I called, I persisted. I WANTED to LISTEN and LEARN where these views were coming from. I even received a huge bouquet of flowers from the Jason Lewis show once, WHY? Because after I would call in, there would be a FLOOD of those who wanted to mock me and provide a slew of insulting names for me. (I was good for the ratings).
My own friends who held my viewpoints told me it was crazy to LISTEN to talk radio, crazy to try to understand. And guess what? It was! There was no way to counter Joe Soucheray's "Garage Logic" which would make a mockery of each day's weather by asking what the temperature was in 1800s,citing, "more proof of global warming". There was no way to have a meaningful dialogue. And I do think I know WHY Joe Soucheray who used to be sports columnist turned talk-show host felt this way. It's the same reason he didn't want the old county stadium to be closed and a new one to be built. He was a sentimental guy who wanted to live in the past. And all the guys and "gals" who called in to his show just wanted him to like them by proudly telling Joe what new gas burning item brought up their "cylinder index" - a riding lawn mower, a chain saw, a gas guzzling car. It was a race to have the most gas consuming vehicle because, of course, the past was "so much better than now". And if I'm right, after 25 years, they're STILL on the air with the same views today.
And then there is my family.- a beloved Aunt, now deceased, who had voted for years solely for anyone who would promise to cut her taxes to preserve their million dollar status gleaned from owning various four-plexes around the Milwaukee area. A sort of greed, if I might say so, that came from a desire to counter-balance her experience during the Depression.
And there's another cousin from whom you might hear the "n" word because she herself lived in an old converted cement floor bakery growing up and when she degenerates another class she unknowingly elevates herself - a deep psychological need.
So I HAVE listened through the years. These are people I KNOW and do love. Let others call me arrogant or elitist or even prejudiced for my present cynicism and anger. I don't care. Just don't expect me NOW to try to further understand or be sympathetic or empathetic. It's just too darn soon. Maybe later.

November 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

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