The Spiritual Landscape
"First Debunk Your Own Brain..." Updating an Aphorism
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye. ~ Matthew 7:5, NRSV
Let me be clear: I am not trying to offer a substitute for the Gospel here. We will continue to need the existing version.
But in this election season in which the spiritual maturity of both candidates and voters are being tested, perhaps it is time to bring a slightly different version to bear on our political behavior and on the task of leadership in general, born of the same spirit:
You hypocrite, first debunk your own brain, and then you will see clearly to debunk your brother's brain.
Why do we believe, repeat, and fight on behalf of so many half-truths, over-simplifications, and myths (to use the last word in its pejorative sense)?
According to recent research highlighted by Josh Fischman in The Chronicle of Higher Education, it is because—quite simply—it just involves too much hard work. Once we have bought into any one of the three, inertia takes over and we intuitively resist the effort needed to retrace our steps or reconsider our position.
In supercharged political environments—or in any situation in which people are attempting to provide leadership there are other factors at work as well:
- Panic and fear can crowd out the patience needed to identify and weigh the relevant data. ("We have to do something—anything—and do it now.")
- The effort to marshal and preserve power can make leaders unwilling to concede that the initiatives that they have promoted are inadequate or defective. ("If we admit we are wrong, they will exploit the weaknesses in our solution.")
- The challenge of communicating a vision, never mind the details of a strategy can prompt leaders to oversimplify. ("You can't stand the truth.")
In response to the difficulties inherent in debunking the thinking of others, Fischman refers his readers to the work of Colleen Seifert and others who suggest a variety of tactics: Offer an alternative explanation of events or facts—and avoid repeating the misleading information.
In reading the article, however, it occurred to me that there is a prior and deeper problem that Fischman doesn't bother to address: the task of identifying and debunking the myths that we ourselves believe.
Without doing that, Fischman's good work runs the risk of simply offering his readers one more strategy for defending half-baked truths, specious assumptions, and flimsy evidence. Heaven knows in the current political and social climate, that is the last thing that we need.
Real leaders and constructive participants in any modern enterprise or dialogue need to be more deeply grounded than that. So how do we go about debunking our own brains first?
Some observations that might also work as strategies are these:
- One, let's surround ourselves with bright, competent thinkers, including people who disagree with us. The only way that we can debunk our own thinking is to observe and absorb what others are thinking, even if—and, often especially if—they disagree with us.
- Two, let's take note of our resistance to the way other people think about the challenges we face and learn from it. There is information in our resistance if we are prepared to listen to it. There will be issues we haven't considered, defects in our line of thinking, unintended consequences in our planning, problems we haven't addressed. At its worst, taking note of our resistance to the way that other people think will leave us with better arguments for our stand on an issue. But we will also debunk our thinking.
- Three, let's remain open to criticism. People who effectively debunk their thinking entertain the possibility that they and their tribe could be wrong. Circumstances and challenges change and when they do, the best of solutions to a problem also begin to lose their effectiveness. Tribes made of people who argue, "we are always right," are almost always wrong.
- Four, let's debunk our thinking by spending more time exploring the relevant data, the key considerations, and the potential outcome of any decision—including the unintended consequences of those decisions. Far too often bunk hides in the shadows of a challenge or problem that has yet to be fully analyzed.
- Fifth, finally, and most importantly, let's practice humility. People who debunk their own brains before they debunk the thinking of others are alert to their fallibility. The failure to grasp that fact first lies at the heart of what it means to be a "hypocrite."
The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, and writer. He is the author of several books, including Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and What God Wants for Your Life (Harper One, 2005).