When understanding isn’t enough

How did we come to this?

Is this real life?

How did we elect this billionaire reality star who can only utter coherent sentences if he stumbles into them, completely by chance?

How could decent human beings vote for such a fascist, racist, misogynist, narcissist punk?

I haven’t written about the recent historic political events yet because I have been trying to understand. I have been busy reading, listening, and absorbing what people have to say who are more knowledgeable than me, either because of their profession or their lived experience, in much the same way that I would hope people would listen to me instead of spouting off their own ideas when the cosmic web of large scale structure in the Universe becomes a subject of national debate. (I am regretfully aware that this may never happen.)

Before the election, I drafted a blog post directed at my liberal friends who “can’t imagine how anyone could vote for Trump.” Basically my point was that this statement is an expression of ignorance, about where others are coming from, but also of arrogance — that you are so right and they are so wrong that you can’t even imagine their point of view. And then I had some point about how it’s time to start understanding Trump supporters, because even if he doesn’t win they are not magically going to disappear. I deleted the draft, though, because I completely empathize with those liberal friends. (Also it just wasn’t very good.) But I still believe strongly that we need to understand each other better, and that this takes real effort.

I have always been fascinated by why people believe things. The epistemology. The logic. The cognitive biases. I want to understand, on a fundamental level, people who disagree with me, at the same time as I question my own assumptions and biases. I remain convinced that this is the only way forward for humans as a species. I am not very hopeful, however, the more I learn about how irrational we are and how prone to Othering: segmenting each other into in-groups and out-groups, maintaining emotional distance from the Other, and having two sets of standards for what is morally allowed.

I want to understand all of this, and I want to be able to imagine how someone else could have beliefs so different from my own. But understanding goes both ways.

Though there is always more to learn, I’m done. I’ve read enough about how we process information and make decisions. Why does an otherwise reasonable person support fascist, racist, misogynist, narcissist Donald Trump? I could tell you why, if knew their underlying assumptions about what has value and what doesn’t. If I knew what information they are receiving in the form of news articles, experiences, conversations; if I could evaluate the quality of that information. I could explain why they do not believe that Donald Trump is fascist, racist, misogynist, and why they do not think of themselves as such (because remember, these are “otherwise reasonable” people). I might get some details wrong because my own understanding is not perfect, but broadly, I get how values + information + the lazy error-prone brain add up to belief.

I’m done trying to understand people, because I do understand people — a lot more than most. Let’s say I have a Bachelor’s in Why People Believe Things and I’m not pursuing a PhD because I already have one. (But if Trump ever makes a statement about the cosmic web of the large scale structure of the Universe, I AM SO READY.)

Understanding on its own is not enough. It is a necessary but not sufficient step on the ladder of human progress. The next step must be to use that understanding, to inform the widest number of people, to take action based on that understanding. And if people believe things that are blatant lies, conspiracies, or opinions that harm others, then understanding how they came to those opinions must then lead to showing them how their opinions harm others in order to attempt to prevent that harm.

Practically, I don’t know how I will get over my anxiety to do any of that, but I’ve got to try. I owe it to everyone this fascist, racist, misogynist government threatens. It’s still an open question in my mind how best to have these conversations, but “I understand why you believe that” isn’t cutting it; it’s time for “your beliefs are wrong and harmful” to step in.

This isn’t some big new revelation. I’m aware that I am late to this particular party. Sorry. I am not very good with confrontation, and I have the privilege of being able to avoid it most of the time. This is my pledge to stop quietly understanding people I disagree with; to stop worrying about putting things in such a way that they will get it. The research has failed to identify this magic way of changing entrenched, unexamined beliefs. Calm and rational debate is a pipe dream. So, I need to stop seeing it as my fault when they don’t get it — that is on them.

For example, I’ve decided that well-meaning, “otherwise reasonable” people, who don’t think that they are racist, need to understand that they are racist (if in fact they happen to be racist); or, they need to understand how something they did or said is racist, and that the label ‘racist’ need not apply, if that happens to be the case. If they are truly well-meaning and reasonable, they will make the effort to understand, even if it makes them uncomfortable. If not, well, fuck ’em. (And if I ever say something racist, for the love of the gods, TELL ME.)

Here is a simple test: Can you say, out loud, the phrase “black lives matter”? And believe it? Without adding any subjective clauses before or after? When someone asks you, “Do black lives matter?” is your answer unequivocally “Yes!” If not, you are a racist.

Don’t understand why this is racist? Let’s talk. I can help you understand.

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