August 12, 2017
It takes mighty and unceasing labor to not be a fool. One literally has to rip him or herself from belief systems as one has to wake oneself from sleep paralysis.
The human brain’s default is to be enchanted by stupid and easy ideologies – even when the stupid is wrapped in semi-logical, sophisticated jargon. These ideologies often cascade into upheaval and destruction – into the release of demons, indeed, to pandemonium.
I know many with high IQs who are in a sort of trance when it comes to talking politics.
The following are some rules of thumb to avoid foolish indoctrination by the Left or the Right; to think for yourself; to engage in conversation with the dedication to fixate on the question “What is the truth?” (Warning, you still might make mistakes, but you will know how to self-correct.)
Rule #1: Actually read a book about Hitler and Fascism
Ten minute YouTube videos do not count. Read a thick book by someone from a prestigious university, who has a reputation for honesty.
Rule #2: Separate your beliefs from your ego
Seek the truth even when it hurts your beloved positions, opinions, and ego. It is supremely uncomfortable, for instance, to read studies that undermine that which you cherish, or to even perform a Google search for the exact opposite of what you wish to find. It may be akin to the heartbreak of learning that one’s lover has been keeping dark secrets.
For example, if there is a story about an incident of racism which has acquired national attention, begin to inquire, what are the facts on each side. Are all the facts available yet? Do we know both sides of the story? How should one think about this to avoid making an over-statement or under-statement? What are the possible consequences of viewing the event from a variety of vantages? Was the thing actually based on racism or are you projecting? Was it real racism and you are in denial that it wasn’t? Is there no current way to know the motives of the people involved? What are the ancient and immediate antecedents to this event that played a role in its occurrence? What weight would you give to each contributing factor? (More on this last question below)
So many times in an argument, I forgot that my top priority was seeking the truth – not winning and not attempting to guard my position. That is what dogmatists do, not thinkers, and not good citizens. It is a very easy trap to fall into. And there will still be times that one does fall because of nearly unconscious belief systems, but when one catches him or herself – one may back out and recall that one merely desires truth and the truth alone.
Rule #3: Grant approximate weight to various causes, even if it doesn’t payoff emotionally
Learn to grant weight to all contributing factors, and don’t make the mistake of giving too much weight to that which most emotionally appeals to one’s previously held positions.
Knowing what is “causing” something, what are the real critical factors, is incredibly difficult work. For instance, what part does the residue of slavery and Jim Crow contribute to the crime in the modern day black community, and what part do liberal welfare policies play? These are not facile questions, both sides have compelling evidence, and this dilemma is not truly capable of good quantification.
One’s own intuition will often have to be the final decision maker on such controversies – and one should admit that.
Rule #4: Wait for as much evidence as possible before making up your mind
Wait for as much relevant evidence to appear regarding some matter that excites you before forming a solidified opinion and certainly before protesting. A good example is the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative which was a perfect example of why bearing false witness is one of the Thou Shall Nots. The same is true for the Trayvon Martin case. Realize that first reports are often nearly completely wrong, sometimes the exact opposite of initial coverage, on significant points of fact. Don’t assume a terror attack is Islamic terror without an official statement; don’t assume the cop who shot the suspect was white. Wait, be patient.
Rule #5: Do not use a lie to prove a point
Just because one thinks something could have happened in such a way that points to a larger problem, doesn’t make it right to allow the lie to replace the truth. In the Duke Lacrosse rape scandal, one person was quoted as saying, “The story was wrong but the narrative was right.” Or, may also look at the “hands up don’t shoot” case of Michael Brown – some proclaimed that just because he didn’t have his hands up doesn’t mean the message wasn’t symbolically true. Hysterias arise from this type of thinking.
Rule #6: Realize that a handful of incidents do not make an epidemic
If a problem is as widespread as a protest group claims, there should be a surfeit of evidence for it, too much to really keep track of. If one knows the name of each of the victims of one’s movement, it often means one is taking something that was widespread in the past, exploiting that generic uneasiness people have about that specific past, and then taking recent anecdotal evidence to link the slim present and a rife history.
Rule #7: Be skeptical of thin evidence
When one witnesses people grasping at thin evidence, it doesn’t mean that what they are claiming is happening isn’t (coverups can be true), but one should be highly skeptical of that which they are selling. Don’t let their sincerity convince one that they possess accuracy. Donald Trump seemed sincerely convinced President Obama was not born in America – he had no real evidence. The webs of conspiracy theories are spun from flimsiest of threads – but one may still be caught in them over time as they multiply.
Rule #8: Look in the political mirror
Before one becomes supremely indignant or irate about what a political foe has done, make sure one’s side hasn’t done something similar in the past. (Chances are they have). One may find his or her side has also been disreputable in a similar way as the current bête noire. It doesn’t mean one has to like what their current opponent did, but one must acknowledge in principle that the problem defies party lines. For example, if one were vehemently against the Iraq War, one shouldn’t forget the initial ideological architects behind the occupation were Democrats. (See Al Gore’s foreign policy speech circa 1992). One will also surely find the time the Republican spoke about needing a welfare state; or when a Democrat talked tough on foreign policy or immigration. Reagan granted Amnesty, Clinton pushed for the Three Strikes Law, etc. Naturally, there are major differences in any past and present events, but don’t call all actions one’s political foe takes “totally unprecedented” when they most likely are not. One loses credibility in a conversation with a decent debater. It is wise to avoid sweeping statements in general. Of course, if one makes this mistake, don’t be afraid to admit misspeaking or lacking knowledge of the one’s party’s past: giving ground doesn’t mean losing the argument.
Rule #9: Read beyond the Op-Ed page
Seek source material rather than op-eds. And when you read op-eds seek at least read four of them, two from the left and two from the right. Have your go-to trusted sources. This is serious business, democracy. Listen to all voices that are reasonable and have reputations for being fair. Source material can be tedious to research and to find, but again, democracy is a skill.
Rule #10: Keep a follow-up list
Each year there are about a dozen “big,” national stories related to serious and enduring issues: abortion, race, immigration, gender, economics, war, etc.. Keep a list of those stories and follow up on them after they have passed through the news cycle. Look them back up after six months have passed. See if new information has come out regrading them. One will very frequently discover that the initial spin is now actually spinning the opposite way, or that key plot lines or incidents were missing at the beginning of the reporting. The so-called innocent victim had a history of punching people before his altercation with the neighbors; the rape victim sent texts of loving tenderness to her supposed rapist after the assault. When these stories come back up in a debate (they tend to even years later), one will have a better view point on them than others. One will also see propaganda at work, how false narratives linger in the minds of the population because of bias on the Left and the Right. At least one will be dispelling some darkness, by standing for truth.
Rule #11: Find intellectually powerful friends
Have friends who are smart and who will challenge one’s positions; as well as smart friends who will help one bolster his or her beliefs. All too often when I was younger, I went into an argument armed with information stemming only from my side – one can lose those debates quickly doing that! When one hears only one side of an issue – surprise! – it sounds very, very convincing, impeccable even. One begins to think: how could the other party even try to argue against this?
They can if they have done their homework.
For example, if one watches clips of Ben Shapiro or whoever (he’s a rightwing favorite), realize that the people such right wingers are often destroying are either supremely young and brainwashed, or the professors who taught them. They are not serious thinkers of the counter position. The same is true for Leftwingers – they probably do not truly know what the Right’s arguments are. Indeed, this is why the Right is producing political rockstars daily – the Left’s arguments are so weak, and they have never heard the other side’s reasoning. Thus, they get embarrassed and destroyed relatively easily in any conversation – they certainly don’t heed these rules.
Talking to my smart friends who are more leftwing has opened my mind and made me a better arguer for my position. It has also made my positions more realistic, and theirs seem less monstrous. Again, don’t find the man or woman who is merely regurgitating the ideas they heard someone else say on talk radio or a comedy show. Don’t watch CNN or FoxNews for the most elegant versions of the liberal and conservative positions.
Rule #12: Save the ad hominem for truly awful people
Save one’s worst and most biting insults for only the very, very worst people. Make sure what one says has a real historical parallel. Don’t call just anything white supremacy or racist that provably isn’t just because it keeps your vision of America coherent. Hitler was a white supremacist, the person arguing for less welfare is not – he’s likely a small government capitalist. To wail someone with a hideous epithet, such things dilute our best and most meaningful insults. Don’t call Obama a socialist – when a real socialist comes around one will not have any meaningful ammunition left (cf. Bernie Sanders).
I had a coach once who never used to curse – ever. One day, he merely said “What the hell are you gentleman doing?” when we were lolligagging in some sprints – that single use of the word “hell” scared, well, the hell out of us. The first office I moved into, you could hear the train rumble under us, and not just hear it but the entire office would shake! The first few days everyone looked around to see if the building was going to fall on our heads. Two weeks later, I gazed around the office: now as the train careered beneath, no one even noticed it. Make sure one doesn’t call someone a Fascism who isn’t – that is how they sneak up on society.
Rule #13: Morality and legality are NOT the same thing:
This will save one many times in his or her life from being a fool. Realize morality and legality – while they may overlap – don’t always overlap. This will help one make sense of the justice system and its rulings. Maybe one’s common sense is screaming that George Zimmerman was a maniac, a racist sociopath, and that what he did was morally wrong and evil. Fine. I may agree with that. But legally, none of that really matters. In the end, what did the evidence say? Did he have a reasonable argument for self-defense given the laws of that state? It may make one sick to legally think about a situation such as this, but the alternative is worse – it is a vendetta society ruled by wild emotions. These are not easy positions to take, indeed, one must muster bravery in such cases. It will seem as if one is, in this example, standing up for a man who killed a teenager. Also remember, what is legally correct may not seem all too compassionate.
Rule #14: Respect science
For the Rightwing it might mean treating seriously the consensus of experts while at the same time being more skeptical of minority views – without snarkily denying them as many on the Left do. For the Left it might mean taking forensic evidence seriously. If ballistics show someone was not shot in the back while running away – they weren’t. It’s not a conspiracy.
Rule #15: Most people do not follow politics, and try to find context of comments
Assume the good in people. Remember many don’t follow politics and are exceedingly reasonable about most issues even if they are ignorant about them. Not everyone is as political as oneself. In the midwest where much of my family resides, a lot of people work very long hours, and the three political articles one reads a day is more than they read all year. That’s not bashing them, it’s just the truth when such folks work long days – they don’t want the negativity of politics in their life.
More over, if it looks like someone said something outrageous, try to find a context, first assume they might have meant it in a different way then reported. Try to consider the person’s intention even if one thinks that person might be horrendous.
The good news is, most people one is told to hate are not the chimeras partisans make them out to be: they just disagree on policy, and say stupid things occasionally.
Rule #16: Don’t assume every single event in this world can be boiled down to race and class.
If I’m in an argument now, I preface it with: “If we are going to debate, you can’t insinuate that the rightwing is racist, sexist, bigoted, or stupid as a way to win the argument, unless you have clear proof they are doing so – innuendo, filling in the lacunas, and mind reading don’t count.” I literally take away those arguments from them, and we often have good arguments. (Though several friends of mine were completely stripped of their power to debate me, as this was their only tactic.)
It was astonishing to watch the Stanford rape case and after the sentencing how many people quickly assumed that a rich, white kid was given a lesser sentence by a rich, white judge because of just that: they were both rich and white. These people have zero idea what the judge’s history of sentencing was, how other similar cases had been sentenced, how he had charged black men, or stopped to consider his reasoning. Instead, there was an all-out attack on the man – if this were a different age they’d have his head on a pike. Most people are more complex than your ideology would like to admit.
Rule #17: Question oft repeated statistics
Always question often repeated statistics. Do some research. A good Google search is the exact opposite of what one has been sold. Simply tagging myth on the end of something helps. For example, “Wage gap myth.” “Blacks go to prison for longer terms than whites myth.” “Guns stop crime myth.” Again, Google the opposite of what one believes. At least see if there is a rational other side (make sure you find reputable sources, and investigate the references in any article you read).
By exploring these statistical issues, dissecting them, one at least has done some real work instead of being propagandized. Many times one will discover there is no real there there, or if there is a there there, it is weak. It will make one more confident, and more righteous in one’s position – whatever side that may be. I remember going to the Washington Post’s stats on the use of lethal force by police on unarmed black men, and was shocked how insanely low that number was. (I believe it was 16 unarmed black men shot and killed in 2016.)
When people lie or exaggerate about statistics a lot of bad things happen: 1) resources are sent to phantom problems instead of real problems, 2) real problems are overlooked because the media highway is congested with trash, and 3) people who are decent people are often demonized for no reason, often receiving a “digital” Scarlet letter in error.
Rule #18: Learn to recognize Mental Illness.
This is incredibly important as it seems society cannot recognize mental illness – even blatant forms of it. Recently in an attack in Portland, a man in all the headlines was accused of being a white supremacist, linked to the Rightwing, and Donald Trump. But when one read about him, he voted for Jill Stein, was a Bernie Sanders supporter, supposedly supported Black Lives Matter, and called Trump a “f****** Nazi.” This is not dissimilar from other mass shootings in which there are psychotic, incoherent ramblings. The Right should also wait and see, after an attack, if the Islamic terrorist was psychotic. And no, just because someone kills people en masse, doesn’t make them insane as some of my liberal friends like to claim. People who are perfectly sane kill all the time. That is not what we are speaking about. Still wait for a report on the mental health of the terrorist or mass killer. This trumps any political affiliation.
A final piece of advice: Pretend one is wise, and calm. Even while moving forward with one’s beliefs, always consider others. Pretend one is a sagacious, old, trusted philosopher. One doesn’t have to be perfect, just honest. One will make mistakes (these eighteen rules are the opposite of how the mind typically works). But remember: one’s overall dedication is to truth.
Pursuing such makes our society stronger and, actually, more friendly. True conversation can take place.
Note: *I’m a bit dyslexic (seriously) so forgive any typos. I proof the best I can.