Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Moderates, Negotiators, and Compromisors

It is almost axiomatic. As a nation becomes increasingly polarized, either it must stop, or there will be civil war.

Or, as Abraham Lincoln famously said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

What other option is there?

Some people living in opposite sides of the house see a different future. At some point, the other side is going to see the wrongness of its ways. Its sensible majority will see the light and come over to "our side" while a few die-hards will become politically impotent. Then, we can enjoy the promised utopia.

But that is not going to happen.

This polarization is not based on evidence. Evidence and rational thinking drive people to consensus, it does not push them into opposite corners. There is something else - something other than reason - at work here.

That is to say, if we are going to ask why people are adopting the views that they adopt, the answer is not going to be, "Because they have learned more about how the world adopts and they are driven to these conclusions by an improved understanding of the facts". It is "something else".

A likely candidate for this "something else" is tribal psychology. People divide the world into two groups - "us" and "them". "We" are right in all things and deserve to rule the world, while "they" are the source of all that is wrong. If only there were fewer of "them" in the world, we would all be able to live peaceful and happy lives. But "they" are ruining things for all of us, and "they" must be dealt with appropriately. We simply need the right leader who will put them in their place.

I would suggest that anybody who finds themselves in one of these polarizing groups look at this fact carefully. It "feels" right and good and proper to see the world in terms of "us" and "them". However, this does not imply that the attitudes that one is adopting are correct or harmless.

The next step in this "us" versus "them" way of thinking is to eliminate those who compromise, those who negotiate, those who seek a middle ground. Moderates are traitors. They are giving up what is right and good and proper and giving in to the sources of all that is wrong in the world. This cannot be permitted.

We reach a point where being a moderate . . . a negotiator . . . a compromisor . . . is even worse than being one of "Them". One is an enemy. The other is a traitor. Enemies can at least be respected for being true to their beliefs. Traitors cannot be granted even that measure of respect.

This is what drives the two groups further away from each other - towards their opposite corners.

History tells us how this story ends. Eventually, people build up enough of a hatred of "them" that there is violence. Fellow members of one tribe cheer and celebrate the violence and the people who commit it. The members of the other tribe feel that they have been treated unjustly and that some sort of "pay back" is deserved. Of course, the first group will view this "pay back" as unjust and undeserved, and they will then see their own "pay back".

Two groups create growing lists of grievances that justify their violence against the other side, whose growing list of grievances justify their violence in return.

The person who says that this doesn't happen - that people will never allow their differences to reach such a point - have simply never read history or ignore almost all of what they have read.

What is the way out?

I would suggest that we acquire a policy of shunning the extremists - the people who portray the world as a battle between "us" and "them", and who "them" only as people to be beaten and subjugated, never as people to talk with. In its place, I would suggest that we elevate the moderates, the negotiators, and the compromisors.

There is another argument for this position.

One of the driving forces of polarization is arrogance - the certainty of the conviction that "we" are right and "they" are wrong. Yet, this certainty of conviction, as I have already noted, is not data-driven thinking. It is driven, instead, by a psychological disposition to view "us" as better than "them". From here, confirmation bias and a number of other mental short circuits go to work to provide "evidence" for the preferred belief. This, too, works on both sides of the divide. Members of both teams are convinced beyond all doubt that they are incapable of error, and that the other side is incapable of truth.

In fact, this is not the case. There are truths and fictions on both sides of the divide. The truths on one's own side, and the fictions on the other side, are exactly what is used to bolster the belief in one's superiority. Ignoring, of course, the fictions on one's own side and the truths on the other side that the other team is using to prove their own superiority.

The moderates . . . the negotiators . . . the compromisors . . . these are the ones who have at least some hope of bringing together the truths on both sides and leaving behind the fictions. This works to the benefit of both sides. However, it does require that people abandon a bit of their arrogance and replace it with a healthy dose of humility.

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