I’m sure everyone has noticed that the divisions between Americans are wider now than they have been in decades.
As far as our attitudes towards each other go, we are all now either “good” or “evil.”
To liberals, those are “evil” who appear to oppose equal protection for all – be that through opposing expansions to Medicare and Medicaid, opposing the recognition of same-sex unions as marriage, opposing a woman’s freedom to choose whether she gives birth, opposing legislation designed to protect minorities, or through blatant racism and sexism.
To conservatives, those are “evil” who appear to oppose traditional values – be it through supporting government redistribution of wealth, supporting government restrictions on free enterprise, supporting the recognition of same-sex unions as marriage, supporting the killing of fetuses, or blatant slamming of those who hold traditional values.
You don’t find any middle ground these days. Everywhere you turn on the Internet, you find increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories about how one side or the other is conspiring to destroy America.
How did it get this way?
I would suggest that the culprit is a lack of understanding.
We seem to suffer both from lack of understanding of the other, and understanding of the self.
Do you understand why you believe the things you do?
Do you understand why you feel the way you feel?
Do you understand why you react negatively to some ideas?
Is your reaction rational? Is it the right reaction for the situation?
As human beings, we are very, very good at lying to ourselves.
Drawing from the unique understandings yielded by neuroscience, we know that the brain is literally designed to tell stories to explain our actions; even when it cannot possibly know the true reason for them.
In studies of “split brain” patients (those whose connection between the brain hemisphere has been severed, resulting in each hemisphere only receiving sensory data from half of the body), the left brain, which contains the speech center, will blatantly lie without even being aware that it is doing so.
“Why did you laugh?” the scientist will ask the left hemisphere of the split brain patient, after showing the right brain hemisphere a funny video which prompted the laughter?
“I was thinking about the bird outside the window,” the left brain will say, “and it reminded me of something funny.”
Clearly, the probability that the left brain independently laughed about a bird outside the window at the exact same moment when the right brain was shown a funny joke is low. The left brain shows no awareness of the video that the right brain saw; it does not reference it at all.
But it insists that it knows why its body laughed. It makes up stories about the reasons for actions whose true reasons it cannot possibly know.
I think this surfaces quite frequently in politics. More than once in my life, I’ve been speaking with someone who claimed to know why they held a given political feeling; only to have the feeling completely unaffected by the disappearance of their supposed reason for it.
Whether it’s someone who thinks they dislike a Supreme Court ruling “because it’s undemocratic” – and then opposes the same law when it’s passed at the state level by the people, or someone who thinks they oppose something because they care about children, and then ignores mountains of hard evidence about what is good for children – let’s face it.
We all do it.
But why do liberals and conservatives do it differently?
Here again, neuroscience can give us insight into what is normally beyond the realm of our knowledge.
Many scientific studies have been done to see how liberals and conservatives respond differently to stimuli. The overall results are this: that liberals want to believe that the world is safe, and conservatives want to believe that it is dangerous.
Conservatives have stronger biological responses to stimuli which induce fear and disgust; they react with more empathy to members of their “in group” as far as race, religion, and nationality goes, than to members of other groups. They cleave strongly to sure allies.
Conservatives are slower to recognize change and ambiguity; when shown a shape that slowly morphs from a circle into a triangle, conservatives will be slower to change their designation of the shape from “circle” to “triangle” than liberals.
It is easy to see how these traits would be advantageous under certain circumstances. Indeed, the World Values Survey has found that societies which live at high levels of physical insecurity almost universally cleave to traditional values like those espoused by conservatives.
There is good reason for this. If you live in an area of decidedly scarce resources, who your “in group” is could become very important. If you live in an area where you need to fear predation or disease, strong fear and disgust responses will keep you safe.
If you live in an area where the world is dangerous and uncertain, it makes sense to learn from authority figures and traditions which have worked in the past; if you live in a safe world with little to fear, it makes sense to discard tradition to try new ways which might be better.
This is probably why societies that live at high levels of physical safety and prosperity almost universally move towards liberal values. Characterized by the World Values Survey as “secular-rational” and “self-expression” values, these are values which create new things in safe environments.
It is easy to see why these, too, are good in certain circumstances. It is the mind that has little fear which gives freely to others; which widens one’s “in group” to include all living creatures; which discards tradition in pursuit of better ways, because it can afford to do so.
Both sets of values are essential in the right time and place. Let our wisdom, then, lie in recognizing the correct places to apply each.
Let us recognize what really poses a threat to our society.
Let us question our perceptions when we think that something threatens us.
Let us recognize what a fearless, giving heart would do.
Let us recognize when it may not be such a good idea to simply give someone what they want.
Today’s challenge: name three areas in which you are uncertain of your own motives.