If you’re anything like me, you lost a few friends between the election and today.
For the role I’ve played in the dissolution of long-term relationships, I am sorry. To every person I have made to feel threatened or uncomfortable because of my stance and my self-righteous and indignant attitude, I apologize. To every person who has punched (or wanted to punch) me because of the way I condescended or belittled in word and deed, mea culpa. To those who I've loudly propped up my positions with alternative facts and half-truths, I ask for your forgiveness.
I know better than this. I just wanted to be right and to win the argument regardless of the cost. Turns out, the cost of this kind of misguided communication is high. While we're arguing this way, we are not solving the problems we care so much about. In fact, we tend to move further and further away from making intelligent decisions together when we behave the way I sometimes do.
I don’t always walk my talk. That is to say, what I know to be right and good has not always guided my actions. Humans, while capable of reason and logic, more often than not act according to habit, instinct, intuition, and emotion.
Homo sapien means “man the wise” but if that were true, we would all be wise because we are Homo sapien sapien, doubly wise even. Most of us are not wise. To be wise means to be able to exercise consistent good judgment over time, to engage in the kind of decision making that leads to health and wellbeing for ourselves and the communities we participate in.
Again, if you’re anything like me, you fumble through the world doing the best you can, from one moment to the next. Most of us try to live out our highest values and beliefs but sometimes fall short.
When you swim in Catholic waters as we do here, this all makes perfect sense; human beings were born imperfect. We are fallible, that is, we often make mistakes. We don’t always get it right.
We do not, because we cannot possibly, know everything about everything. Our perspectives are limited by our experience, our circumstance, the capacity of our mind-bodies. Our language and culture are the tools we use to understand and describe the world. We see it all only from our individual perspective--from the place in earthly space and time that we’ve lived and learned within.
Sad, but true. Often, we aren’t making decisions based on facts, and truth, and logic or reason. We generally tend to make most decisions unconsciously with little or no critical thinking at all.
If we can't know it all alone, doesn't it make sense to seek the perspectives of trusted others? “Please friend, help shed light on this event? I see it this way, tell me how do you see it?”
What would happen if:
- we did not reduce the person presenting an alternative perspective to a caricature who speaks in bumper sticker slogans?
- we genuinely asked each other to shed light on an issue, instead of assuming the other sees only from the shadows?
- we admitted that we all operate with limited information and uncertainty, and that there are probably many positions we hold that are misguided or mistaken?
- we changed the goal from winning an argument and being right toward coming to some better understanding for everybody that might lead to long-term and sustainable wellness?
- we clearly communicated why the issue is important to us from the start?
- we identified the nature of the harm we see in the issue, as well as those who are affected?
- we started by identifying those values, interests, and beliefs that we hold in common?
- we held each other and ourselves to a high standard of credibility for the evidence we present to prop up our beliefs?
In this brave new world, the Post-Truth era as some have called it, a world where we make emotional decisions based on fake-news and alternative facts, it becomes more important than ever to take a breath before we share that post on facebook that stirred us, check the sources and the facts, and also, check our self-righteousness too.
The greatest conversations I’ve had are with people who are thoughtful and see the world in a different way than I do. If we try to inform each other instead of persuade or dissuade or win or shame, we are more likely to make wise choices together.
The thing about facts is that facts are true regardless of what we believe. According to the American Pragmatist philosophers, truth happens to ideas. Truth can be thought of as the conclusion that thoughtful people would come to if they had access to all the facts and could communicate with each other openly about them.
Conversely, if we can’t discern fact from fiction, and we can’t communicate thoughtfully and humanely with others, what is the likelihood that we will ever make wise decisions together?
Let’s try and find truth together and stop flaming and shaming each other. Let’s seek facts, share facts, debunk compassionately, and help each other see strengths and weaknesses in our understanding. Let’s acknowledge that we don’t know everything and might have something to learn from others.
If we can’t, we will live in a world that cannot sustain our republic and democracy. If the common people cannot make wise judgments together, then dictators and oligarchs will fill the void. Misinformation is a deliberate strategy for usurping power, dividing, and conquering. The true shame of it all is that we are capable of doing this better, we just haven’t made it a priority yet.
Chad Okrusch earned a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. His academic research and writing focuses on democracy, public participation, and environmental justice.