A big way that we totally miss the point

A day or two ago, this article / video from MSNBC showed up in my feed:

Trump, his supporters, and the persistence of the ‘reality gap’

Without poring over the details, here is the basic synopsis. National data *clearly* shows that during the Obama years the unemployment has gone way down, and the stock market has gone way up. A new national poll SHOWS: voters for every candidate understand these basic facts except for Trump voters, who get the facts totally backward.

The intended takeaway is rendered pretty plain by Rachel Maddow’s incredulous smirk at about 4:50 — these Trump people are laughably uninformed about the world, and this must explain their unconscionable decision at the voting booth in November.

Because my reptile brain has been starving for reassurance in the last few weeks, my initial reaction to these findings was indulgent glee. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this was the expected result.

But then my recent reeducation started to push back on me.

Asking why instead of laughing about how

The other day I heard Sam Harris say offhand that the “principle of charity” is paramount in any democracy. In order to make any progress in a public conversation, you must first grant that your opponent has at least some semblance of insight, intelligence, and recognizable human motivations. This should lead you to interrogate their reasoning — why do you think this? — instead of just “eviscerating” them as straw men or imbeciles.

This is really important right now — it always has been, but especially right now.

MSNBC had at least two options here, when deciding on how to present findings from the poll:

  1. They could start with the assumption that Trump voters are stupid because they voted for Trump. The poll is then understood easily as an objective confirmation to existing theories: Trump voters are indeed stupid, because look at how little they know about the state of their country! Lols.
  2. They could instead have started with the assumption that Trump voters are human, and the poll results are a reflection of their present lived experience. This could have led Rachel Maddow to ask why Trump voters would think the country is doing so poorly, when the national data would imply so clearly otherwise.

This here is how we (humans) too often miss the point. When our opponents think things that we don’t, we mis-categorize those wrong beliefs as corollaries of their inferiority. Doing so allows us to be reassured. In the process, we forfeit the chance to believe other people when they tell us what their worlds look like.

I wish MSNBC would try the latter approach, but hey that’s big media for you. Luckily, many other left-leaning and moderate writers have been shifting toward option 2 in recent months — perhaps because eventually the election results gave us no other recourse.

If we would ask why more often, more useful insights would become known.

Here’s one way to look at this problem: as humans with brains, one of our responsibilities in life is to build a mental model of the world. And most of the time, because we are not population scientists or wide-roaming journalists, our own models are just small. They usually reflect our own local pockets of reality, and not much more.

This perceptual problem makes it easy for someone like me to agree with the national data that Maddow cites in the video — the recovery is real, things are looking up, and Obama has done a fine job. I can agree with those things because I am college-educated, work in technology, and happen to live in one of the very strongest areas in the country for new firms and job growth.

So if you ask me or someone like me, the recovery is real and we’re doing great.

But outside of those precious few areas of strong economic recovery, one might be forgiven for believing that the recovery never came and the recession never ended.

Here is some of what I mean:

  1. America’s Divided Recovery, Georgetown University
  2. Number of new businesses in US is falling off a cliff, Quartz
  3. New Map of Economic Growth and Recovery, Economic Innovation Group
  4. Why Coastal Elites and Middle America see the economy differently, Vox
  5. Geographic inequality is swallowing the recovery, Citylab
  6. Explaining Trump’s massive upset in the deep-blue “Rust Belt”, Business Insider

Spend a few minutes with any of these, and you’ll get the point that Rachel Maddow may have missed: regardless of what the aggregate data might show, in many pockets of the country business is contracting and unemployment is rising. These indicators are correlated with other problems, like rising mortality rates (a demographic rarity, as I understand it) and the newly established epidemic of opiate abuse.

And by now, you won’t be surprised to learn that many of these pockets swung hard for Trump on election day. It may not be a story of outright cause and effect, of course, but the correlations are striking just the same.

So here is my contention: we who spend our lives on the internet ought to be humble enough and curious enough to discover these things on our own, rather than waiting for a stunning election result to pull the rug out from under our comfortable models.

We should ask why with an attitude of investigation instead of ridicule. And, it would help if the big media outlets would occasionally participate in the work of truth-seeking with the same charitable spirit. But they’re beholden to the profit motive, and “evisceration” is great for ratings.

To finish, I will offer some disclaimers, which will appease some readers:

The arguments and data here do not tell us what to do. They do not provide moral guidance. They do not offer excuse for Trump voters. They do not offer guilt or scorn to non-Trump voters. They do not address the many other factors that weighed in the election, and now either relieve or terrify us and our countrymen.

If you came here with a bone to pick about white privilege or homophobia, or the expansion of the military, or Hillary’s scandals or her agenda to destroy Christianity, or how we all should have voted for Bernie … you are reading the wrong blog post.

What I’m trying to offer here is a decent set of reasons to listen to what the other side is saying, instead of laughing about how they are wrong. That’s it.

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