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Rationality and Recognizing Important Distinctions

Rationality and Recognizing Important Distinctions January 31, 2012

A discussion in the comment thread of an earlier post got me thinking about the influence of tribalism and simplistic thinking in political and religious discussions. In the midst of political and religious disagreements of the kind discussed here every day, it is very easy to fall into the trap of turning one’s opponents into a single monolithic group, of using a label as a handy stand in for thinking. It’s something we all do at times, but it’s something that a skeptic or rationalist should attempt to avoid whenever possible.

We tend to divide the world up into large groups or categories and put them in opposition to each other: Democrats vs Republican, liberal vs conservative, Christian vs atheist, and so forth. And when we find ourselves involved in one of those battles, it’s all too easy to erase meaningful distinctions among our opponents. We all object when the “other side” does it to us, but then we tend to do the same thing to them and often fail to recognize it.

We are annoyed when conservatives erase important distinctions among liberals. To hear Glenn Beck tell it, a liberal is a socialist is a communist. It ignores very important differences among the people gathered under that broad label of “the left.” Communists, socialists and liberals have significant disagreements. The same is true of the often-heard canard that to be a liberal is to be a post-modernist. But there is a very large split on the left between rationalists and post-modernists, with each group highly critical of the other.

And yet many of us do the same thing to “the right.” Pat Buchanan and Bill Kristol are both labeled conservatives, yet they have absolutely opposite views on foreign policy and the use of the military. That’s not a small difference, it’s a very big difference. Neo-conservatives and paleo-conservatives are very different in a lot of important ways. They may both be part of the conservative Republican coalition and support many of the same policies, but the same is true of rationalist leftists and post-modernist leftists.

And we get so stuck in that simple dichotomy that we have a hard time handling those who don’t fit easily within it. That’s why so many liberals have such a problem dealing with libertarians, I think. They don’t fit the simple right vs left view of the world that they depend upon as a cognitive shortcut. When it comes to economics and government regulation, they tend to align with the right. But when it comes to a large number of other issues — defense spending, foreign policy, executive power, criminal justice issues, the death penalty, warrantless wiretaps and the fourth amendment in general, torture — they would more closely align with the left (at least the intellectual left; the political left tends to be absent on many of those issues). That’s why I and many others, including Markos Moulitsas, have been pushing for people to build more alliances politically between liberals and libertarians.

We do the same thing with religion, of course. We say “Christianity believes X” or “Islam believes Y,” but we should recognize, as I have argued for years, that there is not one Christianity or one Islam but many versions of both religions. The Christianity of RJ Rushdoony could hardly be more different than the Christianity of Bishop Tutu or Barry Lynn. The Islam of Anwar al-Awlaki could hardly be more different than the Islam of Haris Tarin. And we tend to too easily tar all Christians with the views of the most extreme among them. And too often, they do the same to us. Thus we hear the constant arguments about Stalin being an atheist and committing genocide, which we find highly annoying and absurd.

We do this, I think, for three reasons. First, out of sheer laziness; it’s just easier to lump people together, slap a label on them and dismiss them. Second, it is strategically useful to tar all of our opponents with the views of the most extreme people who carry the same label, whether that label is left or right, Christian or atheist. Lastly, I think it flows from our tendency for tribalism, for turning every battle into Us vs Them, and if we can make Them into a cartoon supervillian, all the easier for Us to win the rhetorical battles.

But these tendencies undermine our rationality, diminish our ability to see the world as it really is and make us behave far too often like those we condemn for the same behavior when it is aimed at us. None of us is immune to it; I’ve caught myself doing it many times, but usually after the fact, after an argument is over and I’ve backed away from it emotionally and am able to be more objective in evaluating my own behavior. So it’s a constant battle that we must fight against our own irrational tendencies. The more successful we are at doing so, the more rational we will be.


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