Let’s Talk About Common Principles and the Bigger Picture


The protests rail against Trump’s policy proposals, his weaponization of race, gender, and class stereotypes, and his allergy to evidence-based reasoning. Although not wrongheaded, the protests missed a critical component that may very well be the glue that binds disparate identity groups together and returns cohesion to the Democratic Party, and liberals more broadly.

Namely, that the American system of democracy—warts and all—is under attack, and so too is the American way of life. If protestors are to pick up the mantle of opposition in unanimity, they must reconcile the fight for their own causes with the fight for our principles. To be sure, a thing need not be perfect to be defensible.

Watching the infighting among liberals about representation and inclusivity, I understand the pushback from historically marginalized groups. It is admirable. It is necessary. And yet, to say that the entire movement is flawed, or that the system of American democracy should be buried because of a given shortcoming is precipitated. I’m not saying that the status quo is an ideal aspiration, but right now, as division deepens and passion erupts, we must strive for some common ground that need not supersede our individual aims. The trade-off is not zero-sum.

There is a substantial body of research in cognitive psychology that demonstrates how difficult it is for human beings to avoid polarized thinking. All or nothing. This or that. X or Y.

But life is not easily reduced to fit comfortably into a disjunctive or. We are beautifully multifaceted and chaotically complex. And as technology segments our communication, creating a niche within a niche and a community within a community, we must expand our mind’s ability to account for nuance. We must deftly weigh and counterweigh opposing viewpoints, new information, and existing paradigms. In intellectual circles, this virtue has predominated since the 19th-century or so, but I believe it’s never before been so urgent since we are inundated in data like never before.

There is also a piece to be said for prudence. Yesterday I published an article about the asymmetry of our ascriptions of intentionality when it comes to morally praiseworthy/blameworthy side-effects. The experimental philosophical literature demonstrates that we are reluctant to ascribe intentionality to positive side-effects and quick to ascribe intentionality to negative side-effects. This is one among a number of cognitive pitfalls we must attend to, lest we fall prey to not only polarization but also impulsive decisionmaking not unlike that characteristic of our President, Donald Trump.

There is also a moral element to our cognitive distortions. History is riddled with instances of moral superiority impairing a person’s ability to think rationally and take hold of the bigger picture, pigeon-holed by certainty or divine absolutism. Moralism can launch us into wars and impel us to rashness.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh, told The Intercept yesterday, “[Donald Trump’s] attack on the press is straight out of national socialism. But do I think that he knows that? Do I think he knows the history? No. I don’t… He’s not dumb. He’s not a dumb man… But, let’s let it happen [taking down the LGBTQ page, the women’s page, the climate page]. You can’t stop it. Let’s just see.”

His comment was directed more so toward narrow-sighted journalists who hyper-focus on symbolic actions in a vacuum. He essentially calls it bad journalism. Hersh’s concern is that by getting caught up in every tweet, every decision, every inaccuracy that Donald Trump makes, we miss crucial opportunities to reflect objectively on the motivations behind and implications of his decisions. And he is reshaping our system along the way, however imperfect.

I think there’s a takeaway here for non-journalists too. It’s not to say that activists and protestors should lie down and wait idly hoping for the best. I take Hersh as saying pick your battles and don’t be distracted by symbolism when far more dire actions are to come, not only for individuals, for the system, too.

All this is to say that we can think about individual differences and collective commonalities without doing a disservice to one or the other. Part of that journey—and it is a journey—entails reevaluating when to resist and when to standby. It’ll require some cognitive strain, creative thinking, and at times, uncomfortable self-criticism.



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