Can our minds get past partisanship?

The rigorous scholar must strive for the strict detachment of scientific objectivity.

But this can be difficult to achieve where, for example, an American is studying American civilization; he may be too close to the object of his inquiry and study to rigorously scrutinize it, unable even to perceive his biases and emotional attachments.

In a short article in a 1956 issue of American Anthropologist, Horace Miner set out, through a clever pasquinade of his profession’s treatment of other cultures, to call attention to this kind of bias.

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Miner sought to shake the disdainful complacency with which Westerners, Americans in particular, look (down) upon other cultures, to highlight the ways in which Americans themselves engage in practices that are strange and superstitious.

 

As Miner’s short article shows, abstracting important anthropological questions away from the real-world particulars in which he finds them embedded allows the scholar a more focused picture of those questions.

Philosophers use thought experiments—which may themselves be highly abstract and frequently involve impossible scenarios—in a similar way, to tease out and refine their thoughts on and solutions to tricky philosophical problems.

If pure thought, loosed, as it were, from empirical data and evidentiary considerations, has its limitations, then so too does our ability to think clearly about social and cultural systems that have so completely shaped our lives and opinions.

Miner, turning the mirror on America, taught us something essential about the discomfort, even dysphoria, of assessing one’s own culture dispassionately, objectively. It may be that a certain subconscious, chauvinistic preference for the culture in which you grew up is impossible to completely avoid, but it is nonetheless blinding.

From grandmother’s cooking to our cultural and religious practices, we prefer that which we know, complacently satisfied that certainly it must be best.

In politics, too, we this, the inability to accurately judge the merits the one’s own side. A sense of team loyalty, misguided though it may be, prevents both sides from effectively grappling with objective reality.

The human brain, once infected with partisanship, is fundamentally broken, unable to accurately process new information or meaningfully scrutinize its own party. Presented with the same fact pattern, detailing the lies and misdeeds of a politician, Republicans and Democrats will invert their opinions depending on whether they are told that politician is a member of their party.

We find the same tendency when Americans are asked to evaluate a foreign policy fact pattern: they will, given the same facts, react differently if they know that the government activities under discussion are those of the United States, as opposed to another country.

And such tribal affiliations are evidently far more powerful even than the partisan’s philosophical or ideological commitments, which readily give way to partisan team loyalty.

We find that the stronger one’s interest in politics (in the conventional partisan sense), the more likely he is to be “illogical and biased when analyzing political information.” The emotional satisfaction of being a dedicated, card-carrying member of a political team overrides the partisan’s sensitivity to facts that would otherwise tend to contradict his position.

Thus do we also find that partisans tend to be unfamiliar with viewpoints and thought processes of the opposing side. That is, they are rejecting out of hand opinions and ideas that they don’t understand and haven’t made any effort to consider — indeed that they are actively avoiding in a process of “motivated ignorance.”

And, again, it is important to note here that those most interested in politics are not necessarily the most ideological, or even ideological at all; indeed, they seldom let “abstract ideological thinking” get in the way of their emotionally gratifying team-rooting (and, when it comes to the other side, team-hating) experiences.

It would therefore be a mistake to conflate party affiliation with devotion to any ideological system. Careful ratiocination about moral and political theory just isn’t part of what being political means to most people.

It would seem, then, that we’re attaching too much importance to the labels we hang on individuals and institutions, too little to the factual record and underlying philosophical questions. Instead of evaluating a given opinion or deed, we ask first who holds it or did it, working backwards from the group or identity to which we’re supposed to be faithful.

If the U.S. government (that is, “we”) did it, everything’s fine. The Russians? That’s different. And it is just so in domestic politics: Oh, the Republicans support that?

I must oppose it.

To escape this kind of unthinking tribalism requires a shift in perspective, a step back akin to Horace Miner’s reimagining of Americans as the Nacirema. Refined judgments on political and public policy questions are impossible to one who has insulated his various tribes from scrutiny and criticism. Intellectual rigor therefore requires practiced intellectual charity—requires training ourselves to believe our opponents’ accounts of their values and motivations.

David S. D'Amato is an attorney, an expert policy advisor at both the Future of Freedom Foundation and the Heartland Institute, and a columnist at the Cato Institute's Libertarianism.org.


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