March 1, 2017

Ever since Donald Trump first became a major candidate for president, people on both sides of the Trump aisle have been more interested in yelling at each other than in honest, reasoned debate.  To be honest, for most of human history people have been more interested in killing people who disagree with them than trying to understand or reason with them.  However, over the past couple hundred years, debate has been all the rage as a method for resolving political differences.  The idea is that intellectualism- the use of honest, reasoned debate to consider an issue and come to the best decision- can help us make better decisions for our nation than we can by simply attacking those with dissenting views.  The problem is that the two factors necessary to make intellectualism useful, honest debate and open consideration of ideas, are rarely actually present, and the end result is that our present method of discussing and debating issues ends up being no more useful a way to resolve our differences than simply getting together every four years and having a brawl on the Mall.

The fundamental problem lies in how people form opinions and process new arguments and information.  The way we like to think we form opinions, and the way it has to work for intellectualism to have any utility, is that we listen to the evidence and facts, consider the arguments, and use these to form an opinion.  In reality, we generally form an opinion right off the bat, an emotional opinion if you will, and then we seek out information and evidence to support this preconceived notion.  Arguments, rather than being considered and weighed, are clung to or dismissed based not on their merits, but on whether they support our emotional opinion.  Because of this, the most well-informed, well thought out opinion is no more valid than a knee-jerk one.  It has been more reinforced and more strongly supported, but it hasn’t been more carefully considered, since when we think about or debate an issue, all we are doing is looking for more reasons to support what we want to think.

This is evident in the way people approach debates.  They don’t go in thinking about expanding their views or learning about the other side.  They go in to win.  Unfortunately, evolution didn’t give us our incredible intellectual capacity so that we could rationally consider other viewpoints and incorporate them to make the best possible decision.  We are evolutionarily programmed to win.  Our intellect is so that we can bend others to our will, either through manipulation, reason, or force, to serve our interests, rather than hearing them out and deciding on what’s fair or what’s best for the common good.

In order for intellectualism to have its intended purpose of leading to better, more rational opinions, we must be able to put aside not only existing opinions, but also our egos and self-interest and view the relevant issue as if we are considering it for the first time, knowing nothing about it, having no opinion on the issue and not knowing how or whether it will impact us personally.  Even then, intellectualism is useless unless we can find a way to set aside our personalities as well, since my suspicion is that many, if not most, views are largely hardwired.  It’s no accident that people who are conservative on some issues also tend to be conservative on others, and vice versa, even where logic would dictate the opposite.  If this is the case, the only purpose reexamining one’s views has is that our views could change throughout our lives, as we ourselves change.  Other than that, you will think what you are biologically and culturally programmed to think, and no amount of debate will change that.

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