Doubt

19 questions the answers to which people should be less sure.

Today, we’re quite polarized. Of course, the U.S. presidential election brought that into full relief, but apart from that, “I’m Proud and I’m Loud” rhetoric has accelerated, especially around race, class, and gender. Donald Trump has said offensive things around race and gender, not to mention his groping. And to be fair, Hillary Clinton also has been divisive, having said, ‘The future is female” and she called, blue-collar white men, “The Deplorables.”

Excessive zeal leads to excessive closed-mindedness, intolerance, and enmity. In a small (if lengthy) attempt to engender moderation, here are some of today’s more contentious positions and reasons why respect for moderate positions are justified.

Is capitalism the best economic system?

Capitalism encourages competition and innovation, which has led to better quality of life for rich and poor, worldwide — from immunization to the cell phone.

On the other hand, capitalism has caused ever greater disparity between rich and poor and a shrinking middle class.

On the other hand, socialism and communism suffer because the more that is redistributed to low-income people, the more we punish successful people and demotivate recipients of the largesse. As Bill Clinton argued in his welfare reform proposals, welfare discourages effort, work increases it. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had another objection: “The trouble with Socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

Is a middle-ground the answer? That’s what the U.S. is doing: Allowing capitalism but with higher tax rates for the upper middle-class and wealthy: The top 20% pay 84% of the income tax and the bottom 20% not only don’t pay tax but get paid by the taxpayer.

Is progressive capitalism a grand compromise or the worst of both worlds? Can anyone be confident which is right? Probably not. There are too many current and future vectors affecting what will yield, per Marx’s goal, the greatest good for the greatest number. And that assumes the goal should be the greatest good for the greatest number. Is it possible that cosmic justice is better served by bestowing more to society’s above-average contributors?

Is there not at least room for doubt?

Should we denigrate materialism?

Materialism is widely decried as shallow. For example, it’s seen as foolish to reject a more enjoyable career in favor of a more remunerative one merely to live in fancier digs and to drive a new Beemer rather than an old Toyota.

Yet, can we be sure that a less lucrative career will yield that much more enjoyment? For example, consider the many “professional” actors willing to live with three roommates in a dangerous neighborhood for the privilege of spending most of their career auditioning, between gigs, and waiting around at rehearsal.

And does being paid more mean you’re less contributory? Being paid more means that the payer believes you’re contributing more. Of course, we can think of sleazy real estate tycoons and the like but consider that even the oft-assaulted corporate lawyer attempts to obtain justice for shareholders, including teachers, psychologists, you and me. If to boot, a person earns a substantial salary, is it fair to turn-up our noses at them compared with, say, the non-profit worker earning a bare subsistence income, often for tackling a long-recalcitrant challenge, such as reducing the achievement gap?

Should we denigrate materialism? Or is there not at least room for doubt?

Who should inform our opinions?

Most of us form our opinions mainly from teachers, professors, journalists, filmmakers, novelists, and clergy. And that’s understandable. Not only are we so heavily exposed to them, those groups are unusually reflective and are trained in the arts of observation and affecting change.

On the other hand, those groups are over-represented by people who don’t like being in the real world and so opted out. So it’s reasonable for a person to derive most of their opinions from their own real-world experiences rather than from those who opted out. But that too has a downside: The views of people living in the “real world” may be co-opted by commitment bias to, for example, unbridled capitalism, shallow materialism, or willingness to cut corners to get more money.

Should we use the opinions of academics, the media, and clergy as the prime basis of our opinions? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Should we be bold or go along to get along?

Some people believe that the life well-led requires fighting injustice. From the Left, that means being a “Social Justice Warrior,” arguing for more redistribution to women, minorities, and the poor, worldwide. At the micro level — on your job — it means speaking truth to power. From the Right, being bold might mean to fight for a meritocracy: The most productive people should be rewarded, not have their spoils wrested from them to redistribute to others.

But an argument can be made for “going along to get along.” Is not a worthy existence simply to do honorable work that helps others — whether fixing someone’s plumbing, processing applicants’ welfare checks, or being an executive for Crest toothpaste? Indeed, it could be argued that the person who does such work will almost assuredly make some difference while the fighter for societal change, battling refractory challenges, is less likely to do so. And that assumes the change the Social Justice Warrior is fighting for is just. Consider the Crusaders who believed they were on God’s mission and that justified killing tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims. Think about the millions in the U.S. South who believed America would be better with slavery. And today, can we be so sure that Social Justice Warriors do more good by burning down cities after a police shooting, finding intolerable racism in small real and perceived iniquities, or shouting down Israel’s Prime Minister or Ann Coulter at Berkeley, that former epicenter of the Free Speech Movement, than someone whose career is selling Toyotas, Apple products, or even Northern toilet paper?

Plus, there is an argument against often speaking truth to power. Too often, that’s more likely to hurt your career than to effect significant change.

Should we be bold? Is there not at least room for doubt?

How should we feel about the religious?

Today, especially among intellectuals, it is standard to quietly or not so quietly think less of the religious. Led by intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and Christopher Hitchens (not to mention Woody Allen,) religion, at least Christianity, is widely ridiculed. (Buddhism somehow gets a pass.) CNN founder Ted Turner famously called Christianity “for losers.” Yet, most religious people live heavily governed by their religion’s unarguable principles: hard work, love, peace, and integrity. Are such religious people not worthy of respect?

Conversely, should not the religious be more tolerant of the atheist? After all, there is good reason to not believe in an all-knowing, all-seeing, benevolent God. If there were one, why, for example, are countless babies born with horrible diseases, living truncated lives in agony and then dying, leaving bereft parents?

How do we feel about religion? Is there not at least room for doubt?

How social should we be?

It’s oft claimed that homo sapien is a social animal and that it takes a village. People who generally prefer to be alone are often disparaged. Indeed, loners can legitimately be criticized as selfish: Don’t we have an obligation to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper?

On the other hand, many people have, at some point, felt happier and more productive by minimizing interaction with others. Should we disparage the person who, having been often burned by people or rendered impotent by the work world’s bureaucracy, to prefer self-employment and to derive pleasure primarily from solo activities?

Is there not at least room for doubt?

Get high?

The nation is hurtling to legalizing marijuana. And that’s understandable. While the government-reported unemployment rate is low, it is ever harder to find and keep good-paying, ethical, benefited work. That’s merely one example of life being hard for many people, and marijuana (and other “in” activities such as meditation) are anesthetizing of life’s slings and arrows. On the other hand, since pot legalization has become a likely reality, there’s been a mountain of research making clear that marijuana is far more dangerous to mental and physical health than its Big-Tobacco-embraced advocates would have us believe.

Legalize marijuana? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Traditional gender roles?

The mainstream now asserts that traditional gender roles are atavistic and repressive of options. It’s widely accepted that the goal should be equal gender representation in all fields: from plumber to librarian, interior decorator to theoretical physicist. It’s also widely asserted that under-representation is a function of a sexist glass ceiling and insufficiently empowered women. It’s also argued that the ideal is for domestic chores to be divided 50/50.

But is it possible that — not withstanding Harvard President and Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers getting fired for saying so — that part of the reason for the disparity is women’s choices, perhaps mediated in part by genetics, not by a cabal of white men hell-bent on hurting women?

One of my clients, a former engineer, said something like, “We women are being force-fitted, guilt-tripped into roles that, deep down, we don’t really want. I became an engineer in part because of social pressure but, if I’m to be completely honest, I’m happier now as a housewife.”

Should we decry gender “under-representation” and that a man might earn his existence despite not doing 50 percent of the dishes? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Aim for balance or to be the best?

Today, most people at least espouse work-life balance. After all, that is Socrates’ extolled golden mean.

On the other hand, great accomplishment has rarely occurred by a person with only one foot at work. And even among more typical workers, can we legitimately assert that the carpenter’s life is more well-led spending hours 40 to 50 watching TV than in building another house? But what about the idea that overwork kills? That may be simplistic. Of course, working at a too-difficult job, with an unreasonable boss is draining. But I would guess that if a stress meter were attached to a person with the average job, the stress score would not be higher during those hours 40 to 50 than hours with, for example, the family.

Strive for balance? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Food not bombs?

Most of the intelligentsia feel that the U.S. should reallocate a significant percentage of the military budget to education, social services, etc.

Yet there is another side. For example, despite $22 trillion to attempt to close the achievement gap, it remains as wide as ever. And with regard to the military budget being over-funded, Ernest Mattoon’s Ph.D. dissertation at U.C. Berkeley, analyzed 2,000 years of history and found the periods with the least war and attendant destruction, mayhem, and death were during periods in which the world was most heavily armed. He concluded this is logical because, while we wish countries would respond peaceably to a nation that replaced swords with ploughshares, too many of the people with the temperament to rise to a country’s presidency, view weakness as an opportunity for conquest.

Food not bombs? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Democracy?

We genuflect before democracy, and with good reason. For example, we’ve seen the ill-effects of autocracy — Think Hitler, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin. At a more granular level, we find that crowd-sourcing often results in a better decision. Few people today prefer an Encyclopedia Brittanica entry (each usually written by one person) to the crowd-sourced Wikipedia entry.

On the other hand, should democracy be a sacred cow when the majority in the U.S. read below 8th grade level, don’t know the names of government’s three branches, and believe they’ve been protected by an angel?

Before we reflexively dismiss a proposal as undemocratic, we might consider that democracy may not be the holy grail many people think it is. Especially given who our democracy has just elected as president, is it so clear that a nation mightn’t be more wisely led by a team of diverse, passively-selected (like the stocks in an index fund) eminents in a variety of fields? Or might it be wise to sacrifice the stability of a convoluted government in favor of the nimbleness possible with an enlightened monarch selected not by primogeniture nor the easily media- and advertiser- manipulated voting public, but by the aforementioned team of eminents?

Is the democratic ideal so ideal? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Do we focus too much on our appearance?

Conventional wisdom among the intelligentsia is that people devote too much attention to appearance. Particularly in the cross-hairs is cosmetic surgery: With a shortage of health care providers, it’s seen as outrageous that people are having surgery merely to eliminate wrinkles, even if they are paying for it.

On the other hand, even the most veneer-resistant among us indulge in non-necessities that make us feel good, even if it’s to our and society’s detriment. For example, many of the same people who decry people’s focus on appearance favor legalizing marijuana, even though, as cited above, the data is clear it’s dangerous not only to themselves but use those precious health care resources: additional hospitalizations from mental and physical illness, plus the victims of the increase in vehicle accidents. Is it so clear we should denigrate people who spend liberally on appearance? For example, most people who have had a face lift feel better about themselves for years and may enjoy greater success in career and personal relationships. Should that be denigrated?

Do we focus too much on appearance? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Do more school?

Going back to school instead of working is socially acceptable, even praised. After all, who could oppose a person wanting to pay often large sums in exchange for learning what will improve them as professionals and human beings?

There is another side. Sometimes, people go to college or grad school, taking precious slots at prestigious colleges’ career-preparatory programs, and afterwards, choose not to work. For them, consciously or not, school is merely a socially acceptable excuse to not work. At work, they would be contributing to their family, to their workplace, and in turn to customers. Being a student is, except for the tuition, being a taker: taking in learning and not expected to produce anything of value to others.

Mightn’t it be more respectable and cost-and time-effective to do learning on a just-in-time basis? When the need and desire arises, read a relevant article or book, watch a YouTube video, hire a tutor, take a webinar. attend a conference. Those can yield more on-target learning of what you’re motivated to learn, at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Is going back to school for a degree a good idea? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Continue to process your past?

Many people believe it’s important to, until it’s resolved, process your life’s bad experiences, especially those that occurred during your formative years. It’s believed that unless you do so, self-damaging behaviors and attitudes will continue to plague you. And at minimum, fully understanding the impact of past trauma enables you to better understand yourself and perhaps others. That’s why most psychotherapist training programs require its students to themselves be in psychotherapy.

On the other hand, too often, beyond brief exploration, revisiting your life’s past iniquities results in more wallowing, victimhood, self-absorption, and living in the past, which mitigates against moving forward, not to mention making a person a bad conversation partner. Haven’t you known someone who has had a lot of therapy and still spends lots of time navel-gazing, bending your ear about what happened to them a long time ago?

How do you feel about you or others continuing to process the past? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Freedom versus duty?

Today, we tend to respect or at least think of as cool the people who march to a different drummer: the person who’s creative, unconventional, who doesn’t hew to the status quo. It began in the ’60s but emblematic is a more recent Apple commercial that showed a stream of grey-clad look-alike people marching to soulless jobs to the exhortation of The Man, and then a beautiful strong, red-clad woman shot-putting a bomb into The Man’s face. That is a semaphore of the era’s zeitgeist — extolling creativity and rebellion over conformity and duty.

Yet there is another side, held both by Left and Right. The Left intones, “Serve the community,” We need collective action.” That’s all about duty. The Right invokes duty as a traditional value: that our core responsibility is to our country and, while the Right rarely says so overtly, to our employer, because only through teamwork, can companies provide the world with the goods and services they need at an affordable price.

Is rebellion wiser than duty? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Marriage?

Today, especially among the intelligentsia, marriage is seen as an obsolete institution, a vestige of the times when gender roles were proscribed, with only men being the wage earner. Today, with women having ever more options in the workplace, such observers view marriage as an unnecessary legal ball-and-chain, even when a couple decides to have children. Today, unmarried couples with children and unmarried single parents are common, so children are less often seen as a reason to enter into a lifelong difficult and expensive to remove strait-jacket. As evidence of marriage’s no longer being The Way, half of married couples divorce.

There is another side. Even if half divorce, there is something to be said for publicly proclaiming to friends, family, and society, that you want to try living together for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part. Also, marriage increases the couple’s and their children’s practical and emotional security.

Is marriage obsolete? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Monogamy?

At least in the movies, it seems that every straying husband regrets it, it devastates the relationship, and he crawls back begging for forgiveness. And in real life, conventional wisdom is that affairs, while common, are nothing to be proud of.

And yet, a recent study found that monogamy is not key to a good marriage. Indeed, the study found monogamous and open marriages equally happy. And logically it makes sense that one size doesn’t fit all. Some couples find all their romantic and sexual needs met through their spouse while others don’t, at least at some point in their marriage.

Is it so clear that monogamy should be preferred to polyamory? That a “cheater” deserves opprobrium? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Have kids?

Whether because of biological imperative and/or social pressure, most married couples consider having children the right next step. After all, many people, especially those without rewarding careers, believe their kids are the most important part of their lives. Besides, many prospective parents like the idea that their children will take care of them in their old age.

On the other hand, few things restrict an adult’s freedom like children. Free time evaporates. Romantic time vitiates. Many stay-at-home parents say that parenthood “made my brain go to mush.” And although it’s unseemly to discuss, having children is wildly expensive — — $233,610 per child through age 17, not counting college nor that, after age 17 or after college, the child may still be living on your dime. Alas, that’s common today, when many college grads are unable to find work remunerative enough to afford their own apartment.

Having children is wise? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Reconcile?

How-to articles and sermons preach the value of reconciling, especially with estranged family members. It’s argued that few grievances are worth permanently sacrificing the relationship. Indeed, we often look askance at a person who holds a lifetime grudge, especially against a family member.

Yet there is another side. Sometimes, the estrangement comes not from an isolated incident or two, but from a lifetime of incompatibility or foundational disrespect for the other person’s lack of integrity and/or kindness. We all have only so many heartbeats.Are all relationships worth heartbeats? Or might it be wiser to spend our limited time and perhaps money on better relationships?

Should we so admire reconciliation? Is there not at least room for doubt?

Leave your money to your kids?

In most wills, people leave their assets to their children and perhaps grandchildren or other relatives. That’s understandable. Most people have the closest emotional connection to their family.

And yet mightn’t there be a wiser option? For example, if your adult children are likely to use the money for non-essentials — fancier house, jewelry, vacations, etc. — can’t an argument be made that the money — the reward for your life’s remunerative work — should go to your favorite charity, where it might do greater good?

Leave your money to your children? Is there not at least room for doubt?

The takeaway

For psychological comfort in our ever more complex world, it’s tempting to firmly believe one side of most issues and to dismiss or even overtly denigrate opposing views. Yet, undue dismissiveness is a source of the divisiveness rife today in society and even within friendships and romantic relationships. In many cases, it’s worth pulling on ropes of restraint and, instead of just mouthing that we celebrate ideological diversity, actually walking the talk.

The 2nd edition of The Best of Marty Nemko is now available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.