Ditch everything you’ve heard or believed about being a “rational” person
Happy memories of my years at the University of Virginia were recently accosted by the combustion of violence at alt-right protests and counter-protests just off campus in Charlottesville, VA. What ever happened to the idea of two sides actually talking about things like rational beings?
This question becomes all the more pressing for me given that, at the University, we were weaned on that famous quote of its founder Thomas Jefferson: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” We were taught that undergirding Jefferson’s “marketplace of ideas” was a belief that we humans have an immense potentiality within us that, if properly unleashed, would work through the mess of ideas to distill them into an elegant Truth by which to order the self and world. Reason: whose only sword is cool, rational logic. Oh the exhilaration of learning about this as a late teenager—that I had within me this almost godlike power of intellect that, if only carefully honed, could perfect the world!
But I don’t know, Jefferson. After the spectacle of last month’s mayhem right at the doorstep of your University—your great temple to Reason—I just don’t know anymore….
If we do have some rational power to bring order to the world, somehow something much deeper within us keeps bubbling up, bubbling up and out in fury to actually wreak havoc upon the world.
“You’re irrational, it’s okay, get over it”
The current science (that is, if you buy its “reasoning”) seems to be suggesting as much. A spate of recent books on the subject suggests that argumentative reason evolved not to help us solve abstract intellectual problems concerning the betterment of the world for all, but, rather, as a defense mechanism to protect from the imposing power of others. As Elizabeth Kolbert summarizes in a review of these books, “The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight.” Recent MRI brain studies show that when one’s viewpoint is challenged, with counter-arguments however well reasoned, one’s brain enters into a defensive mode triggering chemicals influencing “deep emotional thoughts” rooted in “personal identity,” not sound logic.
And it doesn’t help that social media enables us to enclose ourselves within ideological bubbles of the like-minded, “gorg[ing] on information that confirms our ideas and shun[ning] what does not.” We’ve lost the ability to hear sound counter-arguments, and when we do come across them, they seem to have only the eerie effect of inflaming our most primitive fight-or-flight instincts, entrenching us anew in pre-established beliefs. No wonder we’ve entered into what Farhad Manjoo calls a “post-fact society,” where anything, even the most logical science or reporting, can be written off as fake.
This underlying irrationality about ourselves is both terrifying and liberating. Terrifying in that it means that our world-construct may not be entirely based in reality—whatever that is—but liberating in that it means that there’s a whole wide world out there waiting to be discovered in wondrous new ways!
Release ideas, embrace people
I was admittedly angry at the demographic that voted for Donald Trump, and felt an overwhelming urge to demonize them as the worst people in the world. But I forced myself to research where they were coming from and why, and as I “got to know” some of them better, was able to empathize with them. I read how “Middle-Aged White Americans Are Dying of Despair,” as well as “The lonely poverty of America’s white working class.” These are folks who’ve been left behind in the global order of the past decades, whose small towns have fallen into disrepair and depression—a demographic gripped with fears of demise and extinction. Not exactly the stereotype of “the evil Trump voter” I’d conjured for myself.
Whatever instincts I had to yell and throw chairs at this demographic melted in light of these revelations. I may not be white, I may not be from small-town America, I may not have voted for Donald Trump, but maybe all of us are not that different from one another after all.
Beyond my ideas of these groups of people, who were they, actually?
NPR did a fascinating interview on Daryl Davis, an African-American blues musician. After one performance decades ago, a white member of the audience came up to him and said that “this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” Davis, surprised by the comment, prodded a little bit further, gently steering the conversation toward the roots of blues and rock. The two got caught up in a conversation over a common passion, and, if only for a moment, felt a stir of commonality. As it happens, this gentleman had never had a conversation with a black man before, and was a member of the KKK. But here, for the first time in his life he’d looked a black man in the eye and felt a glimmer of respect.
Mr. Davis realized that he may have actually altered this man’s views, and that it hadn’t happened by using rational arguments or sound evidence “proving” the equality of blacks—the KKK has long summarily rejected these forms of reasoning. Much less did Davis try to use force. Across the following 30 years, he’d go on to seek out relationships with countless other KKK members for the purpose of simply bringing them, and himself, face to face, eye to eye. This is who I am. Hi. Who are you? As it turns out, many of these KKK members have, through Davis, found a way to penetrate through the veil of demonizing “ideas” enough to see the actual face of the man sitting before them.