We Hold Some Truths NOT To Be Self Evident

Hope you had a very happy Fourth of July. If there is a good day for me to be reminded that there are always at least two sides to a story, that’s the one. I should know. I am an Englishman living in America. My 8-year-old son underscores this fact when he greets me on Independence Day — as if it were a game of checkers he won representing America, and I, representing England, lost.

I remember when I was his age, and I was taught in a history lesson that a war called the Rebellion by the side in power was called the First War of Independence by the other side. And that struck me as a clear and obvious truth — of course they did, they had radically different perspectives. To me, that truth was self evident.

But wars are just one clear example of just how different the same thing can appear, depending on which side you are on.

The Brexit vote, and the stunned reaction of the losing side are a clear reminder that we are capable of not seeing things even when they are right in front of us. Despite the opinion polls in the ten days leading up to the vote that showed the Leave campaign edging ahead, I still heard shocked and astounded reactions from the losing side. This blindness is a powerful reminder of the lengths we will sometimes go to, not to change our minds. Especially when it threatens a core belief that defines us.

The psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote, “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore, and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

Does this remind you of anyone you know? Does it remind you of you?

As Americans (and as an Englishmen with American kids), we are brought up to defend our fellow Americans’ right to their beliefs, no matter how distasteful and plain wrong they might be. But we rarely give ourselves the space to really think about them, or really understand from where they might be coming. We are capable of discounting them without even considering them.

In fact, research shows that we self select to have our opinions and bias echoed back to us, in the friends we choose, the media channels we consume, and the filter bubbles and algorithms that anticipate our desires before delivering news and information to our feeds.

But occasionally, when we have had the good luck to find ourselves in a position where we are forced to change our mind or revise our opinion, there is no greater feeling. Changing your mind with the benefit of new evidence is a thrilling and exhilarating experience. It is comparable to the wonder of learning we see in the eyes of our children. It is the happy ending of countless movies and stories about closed-minded individuals forced to see people more clearly and appreciate them for who they really are.

But those experiences of learning are hard won. The child learns the stove is hot by touching it once. The hero of the movie learns only by going through the trials of the story.

The truths that were held to be self evident in the Declaration of Independence were hard won.

So when we celebrate Independence Day, when we celebrate the self-evident truths that define us and the country we call home, let’s also give a thought to the many other truths that lie out there that are not self evident. The truths that are hard won and must be learned with new information. The truths that might be revealed by new evidence and understood only with the pain that comes with discarding a core belief.

Counterpointing