Intellectual Honesty

Focus on ideas, not ideology

The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function — F. Scott Fizgerald

In the early years of my inquiry into all things philosophy and politics, I was deathly allergic to statements like these. This is what can happen when a young man, with an strong ego, gets ahold of Ayn Rand and thinks he has discovered all the truths about the world. There was only one way to look at the world. It’s all black and white. I’m right, you’re wrong. A complete rejection of fallibilism.

In my first piece on medium, I discussed human nature and our propensity for tribalism. This is truly what I was engaged in. If you asked me about my position on say, gun control, you could likely accurately predict all my other positions. That is a big problem. It shines a spotlight on the fact that I wasn’t thinking clearly at all, just following what my tribe was saying. What do your views on gun control have to do with abortion? Or immigration? Or economics? Nothing. Or very little, at best.

I used to be able to give a short, simple answer to just about any of my positions politically. Now I’m afraid of saying anything for fear of being caricatured the wrong way. My point is this; each of these issues is incredibly complex, requires many nuanced viewpoints, and cannot be summed up in an easy campaign slogan or one political label. This is why “identity politics” will always fail and lead to more division. Focusing on our identity over truth, does nothing but seperate people further and leave them afraid of stepping outside the views of those who share a similar “identity.”

Looking at today’s political climate in the U.S, not only do we see strong consesus in party on issues, but it is combined with a growing unfavorable view of the other party. Many going as far as seeing the other as a threat to the well-being of the nation. Take a look at these two charts from Pew Research.

We need to get outside the instinct to stay in group and demonize the other. We need to stop with the strawman attacks and actually hear what the other side is saying. We need to engage in what Sam Harris would label as, “intellectual honest.” Here is an excerpt from an episode of his podcast with Eric Weinstein, discussing the concept that Eric describes as “steel-manning.”

…you use this phrase “steel-manning” which I haven’t heard much, but I guess it is the opposite of “straw-manning” someones argument and I think it is a crucial feature of what I call “intellectual honesty.” If you’re going to argue against a positon at minimum you should be able to summarize your opponents view in a way that he woudn’t find fault with. And better still, if you summarize it in a way that’s even better then he or she would come up with on his own, then that is the thing you take down in your argument. That is the way any really civil and productive debate should operate. — Sam Harris

I highly recommend all of Sam’s episodes. That episode with Eric, in particular, I’ve listened to several times now, as many of the concepts discussed can help us improve our productivity, in what otherwise seem like very unproductive conversations. The only way to mend this divide is to think more clearly and tone down the rheteoric that further primes the negative aspects of tribalism.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
— Rumi