Monday, January 10, 2011

Do You Know Your Own Mind?

The vast majority of people don't know their own minds, so you will have a lot of company if you just admit that you don't, either.  The good news is that once you admit your ignorance, you can start working to eliminate it.

The Tuscon massacre was a single, horrific event.  It was not, and could not be, a crisis.  The people who were killed will remain dead.  The people who survived will continue living unless, of course, they don't.   And we spectators will remain sickened by what transpired until, of course, we find something else to hold our limited attention span.

The problem is that folks seem bent on turning what is now an historical event into an existing social and political crisis.  We can't really blame them for doing this, though, because most people don't know their minds.  They just compare what they see to what they expect and conform their understanding to their expectations whenever possible.  This is called confirmation bias, and it is one of the many cognitive biases that allow human beings to function in a world filled with uncertainty, something which the vast majority of us cannot abide.  Uncertainty creates a fight or flight reaction that must be avoided.

The immediate, fact-free reactions of the dominant left-right paradigm were: (1) "a right wing nut tried to assassinate a liberal" from the Left, and (2) "the liberals are going to use this as an excuse to take our guns" from the Right.  While these two reactions have morphed and become more sophisticated as more facts have become available, they remain essentially unchanged.  People don't need factds to be certain.  Indeed, people tend to avoid understanding the facts in order to be certain.

The fact is that there are elements of truth in both competing narratives, but the truth that each narrative contains tells us nothing at all about the Tuscon massacre and everything about the people pushing the narratives.   They don't know their own minds, and they refuse to make any attempt to understand the genesis of the opposing narrative. 

This polarization is creating a crisis of its own, and someone will take advantage of that crisis.  Who?  The same people who took advantage of 9/11 to curtail civil liberties: BOTH political parties.  Not the Left.  Not the Right. BOTH the leaders of the "Left" and the "Right." 

The game is rigged by the human propensity to confirm what they believe they actually know.  Regardless of whether you grew up identifying with the left or the right, you have biases and prejudices that are pandered to and manipulated to foment false crises and distract you from seeing the real crisis unfolding in front of you. 

The key to avoiding the manipulation is identifying when you are reacting from bias and prejudice instead of from fact and reason.  Once you've done that, determine whether or not somebody encouraged that reaction.  In many cases, it was a spontaneous reaction, which is all the more reason to chase down the source of the bias and try to reduce its hold on your thinking.  In other cases, your reaction was in response to somebody pushing your buttons, in which case you need to consider whether they were captured by their own passions or merely trying to enrage yours.  The cynical manipulators are the people you need to identify, but most of the people carrying the message are just passing on what they heard because it confirms what they already know to be the truth.

In the meantime, search for truth in the things that your traditional ideological enemy has to say.  You will find it, and by finding it you will discover that your enemy really isn't your enemy, that you really are not all that different except in your biases and prejudices and how you react to them.