Saturday, March 06, 2021

Amid the sound and fury of the current political climate, we frequently hear a cacophony of calls to lower the temperature on the rhetoric being used. It’s something that comes up frequently in the aftermath of events like major elections, riots and political assassinations, among other things. The thought process goes that the passion of one’s conviction is a great thing, vital to a functioning democracy, but simply has to be expressed with less rancor. The predicament here, of course, is that a portion of the very passion of conviction that we are seeing stems from the vilification of the opponent in the first place, thus making the pleas for softer rhetoric somewhat circular, and unsurprisingly, yet to be particularly successful.

But what if the softening of the rhetoric needs to come not from the softening of one’s tone, but from the softening of one’s conviction itself?

A prominent investment analyst wrote several months ago that COVID has been the world’s largest Rorschach test. Everyone saw whatever they were previously inclined to see. Small government conservative? COVID is just an excuse for an overbearing Big Brother to dictate your every move in life. Anti-Trump liberal? Every single COVID death is the fault of the office of the President. Skeptical of the medical establishment? COVID is being overdiagnosed in order to get higher reimbursements for hospitals. As one of my favorite idioms goes, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” While it is certainly not true of everyone, it is instructive that knowing one’s political leanings in many cases meant you would know what their stances on masks or distancing was likely to be.

Over the past ten months, I’ve personally seen articles sent by, or written by, members of our community proclaiming that opening schools is either wildly irresponsible to the public health, or a moral imperative to save our children from depression. I’ve seen analysis proclaiming that this virus is menacing in a way we don’t even quite understand yet, to statistical analysis saying that the world-at-large is reacting emotionally, and that a dispassionate, data-driven look at the facts shows that the extreme measures are both unnecessary and counterproductive. Ironically, among all of these views, the one thing everyone had in common was complete certainty that their position was the correct one. That the other side was either callous or not as intelligent as them.

I’ve also seen, as was the case following the calamitous events at the Capitol, articles written impugning the moral standing of one side vs the other, to even comment on such a sad and scary event. The arguments went that either you were a Trump supporter who is part of the problem, or you didn’t speak up (or even approved) during the Black Lives Matter riots. Either way, you somehow have no right to speak on the morality of individual events. Unfortunately, rather than just discuss the events themselves, for many, the knee jerk reaction is to show why the other side has no right to comment.

This is all, of course, both shocking and completely unsurprising. Daniel Kahneman, a noted author and psychologist, taught us the concept of priming. We are primed to think in the terms that the environment around us has made familiar. Neurological researchers1 tell us that our brains don’t simply absorb information from the outside world which we then process and evaluate. As the old saying goes, we don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are. Our brains process and evaluate information based on the preconceived notions we already have. Put differently, our goals don’t just influence our actions, our goals influence what we see in the first place and how we see it. Some will say they are objective analysts of data, but the evidence suggests that this is, in fact, an obstacle we all share.

As I have read numerous political and COVID-related articles and blog posts over the past year, I’ve been struck by one thing that’s been consistently missing. In the investment world, an investment memo that is sent to one’s boss that lacks a section on why they may be wrong is considered completely unacceptable. And yet, not a single article I read, political commentary amongst peers, or COVID-related thought process seems to contain a glimmer of self-doubt. The author frequently seems sure that the analysis that he/she brings is the correct one and rarely entertains the other perspective in a serious way, except to dismiss it. I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, but lord knows I’ve been wrong about many many things in my life (maybe I’m wrong about this too and people do in fact offer up the possibility that their opponent holds some truth and I’m perceiving otherwise, I accept this as possible but wrote this article anyway for others to judge). It can be difficult to examine our own blindspots and entertain the possibility that we can be wrong, but if we all know we’ve been wrong in the past, then perhaps we’re wrong in the present. Or, more likely, perhaps the shades of gray on right and wrong in politics, public health and life, allow for many perspectives to be right, or more importantly, valuable, simultaneously.

We all have exactly one set of circumstances that have shaped our lives; we’ve lived only our own lives. We can learn from others but we cannot develop the muscle memory of others. For the most part we don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a Christian, Muslim, Black or most others. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, plumbers, electricians; we all have different modes of seeing the world, we all have our strengths and blind spots. It is important to remember that financial success is not a proxy for correctness and victimhood is not license to marginalize others views. Our education system and our collective, communal approach to life has immense value and, no doubt, can offer a lot of good when expressed to the world, but it is imperative that humility be part of that expression. Our strongest convictions must be focused on our service of Hashem, our desire to better ourselves and help others, not in proving, by all means necessary, that our individual opinions reign supreme.

There is no question that there are very real issues and very real threats on which we must take an unwavering stand, despite uncertainties. I understand and appreciate the value in that as well. And while I don’t claim to have the perfect answer to when that is or isn’t the case, it is at least worth considering that not everything constitutes such an issue. The simple exercise of forcing oneself to think through whether or not an individual case represents such an issue can be very powerful in softening one’s stance.

Pirkei Avot teaches us that any argument that is for the sake of Hashem will endure, and any argument that isn’t will not. Applied to our broader political climate, perhaps we can learn that it’s crucial that we care more about adding the value of our perspective and analysis to the conversation rather than simply being right. There are “shivim panim l’Torah,” the source of the one objective truth has 70 faces to it, certainly our man-made politics can have at least as many legitimate faces. Maybe, just maybe, internalizing this can be a step toward the much coveted lowered rhetoric.

Daniel lives in Springfield with his amazing wife, Lani, and their four children. Please feel free to contact Daniel to tell him why he’s wrong at [email protected]

1 Gazzaley and Rosen, The Distracted Mind