Last night, in a conversation over a couple of beers, an analogy just sort of spontaneously emerged from my brain and spilled out of my mouth.
We are all walking a path of life, each carving a path through a dense forest, and yelling at each other through trees.
Yes, many of us travel in packs, with a few trailblazers hacking away at the brush in front of them with machetes of varying quality and sharpness, defining the cultural path for those behind them. And some, behind them, will wander off into the forest around them, perhaps bumping into other cultural paths, but in general the world is a network of paths being blazed through a forest, leaving the separated groups in the position to yell at each other through trees in order to try and figure out what is going on, where we are, and if there is anywhere to go better than this.
We are a tribalistic species. I’ve written about this all too often over the years. We truly, and literally, don’t understand each other much of the time. A dominant narrative metaphor for the lack of understanding frames this problem in terms of us not sharing a common set of facts, anymore. The political Right, especially those supporting Donald Trump, have a different set of facts than, say, the progressives on the political Left, and neither understands each other.
Now, it’s quite likely that one of those political tribes is closer to “the truth” than others. You may guess which camp I think is closer to such a truth based upon my previous commentary, but the larger issue here is that none of the various political cultures who are contributing to the inter-cultural conversations are likely to be right, in any objective sense.
Wait….”right”? Do I mean in the sense of having facts that cohere to a skeptical methodology which sifts between those ideas supported by evidence from those that do not? Or do we mean right in terms of values?
I’ve written about the false dichotomy between facts and values in the past (see here and here, for example), but I’ll summarize that I don’t think that they are really all that different. We can have wrong values, in the same way we can have wrong facts. With facts, the question is evidence. With values, the question is whether our values support human well-being, fairness, and transparency.
Of course, the larger issue is meta-ethics and such, which is a thorny mess I don’t want to deal with right now. The bottom line, for me, is that if you aren’t concerned with well-being, truth, fairness, etc, then I’m not sure you are interested in being a good person. Why should you care about those things? I’m not interested in playing those sorts of games with people who aren’t. They aren’t acting in good faith, I believe. They are interested in power, control, and manipulation. Those values are not values worth respecting. If you disagree, I will fight you.
But, back to nobody being right….
The problem is that we conflate being more right than someone else with being right in general. I believe that I’m right that there isn’t a god, or more specifically that sets of ideologies such as Christianity or Islam are not real. If I’m talking with someone who believes that Jesus is real, Heaven is real, Hell is real (and I’m going to it), and I believe I am right in not thinking those things are real, I’m not (ideally) claiming that I’m right in the sense that what I actively hold to be true is correct, but rather that I’m right concerning the specific question of whether their religious beliefs are rational or real.
I want to paint this distinction, because I think it’s lost all-too-often in such conversations. In the atheist community, some debaters and thinkers have tried to make it clear that their atheism is merely a “no” to the question “do you believe in god?” In other words, it’s a lack of belief. But, based upon my many such conversations, it often seems that my interlocutor is hearing something else; not merely that “I don’t believe you” but also “my worldview is actually correct, not yours.” Those are quite different claims.
Now, I, of course, do believe my worldview is correct. This is true by definition. If I didn’t believe it, it wouldn’t be my worldview. But it’s a different claim to say “I don’t believe you” and “My worldview is right.”
Because while I do believe my worldview is right, the fact is that none of us has a completely defined, seamless, systematic worldview which covers all possible questions. We don’t carry around a systematically air-tight philosophical theory of the world which can answer all possible questions. We have loosely knitted ideas based off a set of methodologies, and they might not even be logically consistent with each other.
If you ask me about what I think about the Christian concept of sin or what the soul is supposed to be, I can come up with an answer. How I do so is based upon how I organize and coalesce information. I may have a few quick and easy answers (sin is a concept which essentializes us and causes guilt, for example) or even sound bites to pull out of memory (the impermanence of the soul is akin to a flame, waiting to be extinguished ), but worldviews are generated in real time, perpetuated by the way my brain has formed itself through experience, and always subject to change with new experience.
In an analogous way, a political movement, made up of people of related worldviews, is neither right nor systematically defined. The current progressive leftist movement is, in my view, superior to that of the alt-right in terms of both facts and values, but there are processes in the Left which are as flawed as anything in the right. In the absence of an alt-Right to compare it to, the left would be a set of ideas in need of both criticism and improvement. But so long as the alt-Right exists, they are the lesser of evils with a large margin of point-differential, so they have my support until a better movement comes along.
None of the teams are worthy of worship or unquestioned reverence. We need to stop being so attached to groups, parties, and especially our own in-groups (this is my major criticism of hard-core Democrats, right now; loyalty to party over social improvement). I’ve seen too many groups become subject to tribalism, cliquishness, and corruption to even trust any group, no matter how well-intentioned its people are. My recent interactions with the secret Facebook group, Polydelphia, is a prime example of how a group with good intentions can become corrupted and internally ruined by people who think they are doing the right thing.
What to do?
I don’t know. I’m not optimistic. Talking to people from vastly different worldviews was always hard, but it’s much harder right now because of the demonization, cultural bubbles, and enmity which has been created by well-intentioned (in many cases, anyway) social media outlets and meta-narratives which cannot parse fringe movements nor their criticisms (neither can those fringes understand each-other).
But we are trying to get a bird’s-eye view of the forest terrain by yelling through trees at each other. And so far the best ways we have found to do such things is to pull ourselves out of ourselves, to transcend and elevate ourselves above the hacking and slashing. Skepticism, science, and any other methods we can use to minimize bias (both individual and group biases) is the only means we have found, thus far. Seeking ecumenical similarities in religious traditions (for example) as a means to unite us is nothing more than people comparing their paths through the forest, and is unable to transcend the question.
Only by attempting to prove ourselves wrong, through skepticism, can we hope to transcend the forest, or at least draw an accurate map.
So long as we continue to abandon skepticism and the answers it supplies–and both the Left and the Right are doing so–the further way we get from the truth, collectively.
I’m not optimistic.