I have a cousin who stands firmly on the other side of the political divide from the one I occupy. Recently she sent me a quiz she had designed to demonstrate the facts about climate, facts that were drawn from reputable sources but that were clearly chosen to demonstrate that our concern about human-caused climate change is misplaced.
What interested me weren’t the facts she offered, but the power of my emotional response to her quiz.
The conversation that followed prompted me to search out an interview I remembered Krista Tippett doing with Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist/economist who won a Nobel Prize for his work demonstrating that we are not always logical and rational in our economic lives.
Here is one of the things he said in the interview:
When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs much too seriously.
And that’s the topic that I find compelling, not what do I or my cousin believe, about politics, about religion, about the state of our world, about anything at all, but why each of us chooses to believe what we do. What is the emotional foundation for my gut-clench in response to my cousin’s quiz?
When I saw what she had sent, I wanted to turn away. I know my cousin, I knew where the facts she intended to reveal meant to take me, and I knew I wasn’t going to go there. I also know how easily facts—I have a hard time not putting quotes around the word—can be shaped to prove opposing points.
It’s an interesting dilemma because I love my cousin, and the different ground we stand on doesn’t diminish that love in the smallest way. But I definitely did not want to engage in measuring her reality against mine.
She has explained to me how she came to be a conservative, that as a young social worker in Chicago she saw the government tear down tenements that had been vital communities and build concrete sewers to house people instead. Communities of color were destroyed because of the “superior” knowledge of white bureaucrats.
And while I didn’t witness that destruction as closely as she did, I was aware of it, too, and saw it as a serious mistake, however well intentioned. Knowing it was a mistake, though, did not prompt me to rethink my view of government as it did her.
Why am I willing to witness such governmental blunders and still continue to vote for people I hope will provide government-driven solutions for complex societal needs?
Partly, of course, on a rational level, because I can also point to the great successes of government programs from GI loans to Medicare to Social Security. But there is another reason that is even more powerful. And more basic.
My father emerged from the Great Depression of the 1930’s seriously wounded, as so many did, and surviving that terrible time only convinced him of the responsibility of government toward its citizens. It was a topic he brought up often at the kitchen table.
I resisted my dad in many ways, but still I listened. His political views came to be part of my very bones.
On the other hand, my brother, who grew up listening to the same lectures at the same table, is a conservative. I can only assume his views grew from his need to stand apart from that complex and often infuriating man, something that, as a daughter, I could do more easily in other ways.
If emotions do rule—and I’m convinced they do—do we have any hope of reaching across the chasm that divides our country and our world?
I wonder if the answer doesn’t lie less in trading facts than in listening deeply to the feelings of those who see the world differently, asking why they believe what they do, asking what lies beneath that choice. Asking the question of ourselves, too.
And at the beginning of any conversation, setting aside the assumption that we, alone, are in possession of the truth.
I so wish we could embrace both sides, not so much that we could compromise as that we could recognize that our different views may each hold a fundamental truth. At the very least, a truth of the heart.