Help me understand?

Last week I wrote about a meta-theme in our world today that I labeled a “spirit of offendedness.”  In trying to understand this phenomenon, I also observed a perceived relationship between it and the divisiveness in our country today (although I’m still not prepared to try to categorize the relationship).  I concluded the post with a commitment to try to help bring about change, at least in my little corner of the world, by focusing on not being offended, and by trying to unite people, seek common ground, and understand their perspective.  I titled that post “Radical Change”, but in reality, in some aspects of my life, it’s not so radical; I’ve got a lot of experience and training in doing exactly that in the professional world.

Divisiveness is a fact of life.  Life is a web of interactions with people who have perceived or real differences in objectives for those interactions.  Basic economic theory teaches that most of our decisions in the world around us involve taking our own selfish interests into the world in order to get maximum satisfaction (fulfillment of our needs) at minimum cost (fulfillment of someone else’s needs)–while the other person is trying to maximize his/her own satisfaction.  This concept has much broader application than the basic supply/demand curves that you were forced to try to understand in your Econ 101 class (yes, I’m an Econ major, and I think it’s important and valuable to all of life–that does NOT make me a nerd, no matter what my kids say).

I’ve had the privilege to take several graduate level courses on negotiations, with a focus on both traditional business negotiations and on less obvious negotiations such as dealing with personnel performance issues.  From that training, and lots of opportunities to apply it, I’ve come to the conclusion that pretty much any personal interaction is a negotiation.  Based on how I observe people interacting in our society today, I think that most people have come to that conclusion as well, either consciously or subconsciously.  However, most folks seem to be defaulting to the most rudimentary negotiation strategy:  I win by you losing.  If you never got much past the fourth week of Econ 101, the basic supply/demand curve was just the beginning.  Most transactions/human interactions are much more complex, and demand more intricate approaches.

In order to avoid totally derailing this post and turning it into a negotiation class, let me just say that there are volumes of studies that indicate that in almost all situations, “win-win” scenarios exist where both parties can get a satisfactory level of satisfaction that is generally greater than the outcome they achieve by approaching the scenario from a win/lose mindset.  I had a hard time believing it too; I was presented with lots of statistics and with detailed case studies to back them up.  Why, then, do we not see more of these win-win scenarios play out?  The simple answer points back to the failure to apply one of my blog themes:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Most of us either instinctively, or through conditioning, approach an interaction with an understanding of our own desired outcome, and an assumption about the other party’s desired outcome.

We fail to achieve win-win, however, by acting on that assumption without validating it.  We just behave as if it were fact.  And in that case, we often act on really bad assumptions, particularly in our current social environment, where it seems to be the norm to assume that all those who are not in our own tribe are evil, ignorant, and have malicious intent toward us.  The reality is almost always quite different!  Whether one is exploring the opposing political party’s position (they really aren’t godless Marxists set upon destroying our nation, or heartless robber-barons intent upon getting rich on the peasant labor of the expendable poor), or frustrated at the person who cut you off in traffic (it’s entirely possible that they didn’t see you through a legitimate mistake, not that they have some superiority conflict which makes them think it’s OK to seize the right of way), our assumptions tend to be inaccurate, and more often than not, tend to deviate toward the most negative or pessimistic possibility.

Pretty big assertion there, but I can back it up with decades of personal observation that affirm it.  Just in the past week I’ve seen it play out several times, where someone takes offense at another, and builds that offense to a fever pitch, because they assume the worst about the offender.  But they never took the time to validate their assumptions!  In two of the specific situations I have in mind, I know that the offended party was totally inaccurate in their assumption.  In one case, they found out the real truth, and the situation was defused.  In the second, the party is too busy being offended (I’m talking serious anger and hatred here) to even give consideration that they totally misunderstood the interaction, and what they thought they saw was not at all the case.  In a third situation, one that’s going to have major ramifications for millions of people who should all be agreeing and working together for good, one highly influential leader has declared millions of others wrong in the most divisive, hateful language possible, without so much as a single thought to trying to understand the other side of the story.

In the business world, negotiating like this might make you money in the short run (if you’ve got a lot of market power–if you don’t, you’ll find yourself bankrupt quickly), but it will soon get you branded as a heartless monster who no one wants to do business with.  In leading people, you’ll be effective only to the extent that you have significant power to wield–but you’ll also be hated as a ruthless, uncaring boss who gets ahead by stepping on the backs of others.  Competent negotiators will go to great lengths to gather as much understanding as possible of the opposite party’s position, their needs, desires, constraints, etc.  Only a foolish negotiator would enter into a negotiation by refusing to even try to gather information on the other party’s position.  Unfortunately, most of us are not trained negotiators, and we do exactly that every day.  Most of the time, it doesn’t really hurt us too much, because most of our interactions are too casual and insignificant to have lasting impact.  But when our interactions have significance, we fall right squarely in the “foolish” category if we choose not to even attempt to validate our assumptions that are the basis for our offendedness and divisiveness.

So, pitfall number one on the road to win-win is acting on assumptions without even attempting to validate them.  Pitfall number two is attempting to validate our assumptions from lousy sources.  Let’s say you’re trying to understand why proponents of Obamacare think it’s a good idea.  You assume it’s because they’re all graduates of liberal arts colleges who have been mindlessly indoctrinated in Marxist philosophy, and are programmed to destroy our nation and way of life by turning every aspect of life over to the government, that they wan to destroy the rich, and use the money of the wealthy to make it so that no one has to work who doesn’t want to.  Consulting with Rush Limbaugh, The Heritage Foundation, and Glenn Beck will certainly give you confidence in the accuracy of your assumption, but you won’t in fact have validated it.  Either of these pitfalls will knock you off the road to win-win, and leave you fuming instead in a wreck of offendedness.

OK, so I’m back to turning this into a negotiating class, and wearing out my road metaphor–let me cut to the chase:  In most cases, a well-placed question to the other party can reveal a lot of information (maybe not all the details, but enough to validate, or at least make your assumptions significantly more accurate).  “What is this magic question?” you ask!  It’s actually amazingly simple, if asked with sincerity.

“Help me understand…?” 

Now, how you finish the sentence is important.  “Help me understand how come you’re so stupid you can’t see that your idea will ruin the world?” isn’t going to get you too far.  “Help me understand the benefit you see in this approach?” is much better.  It even works when someone screws you over!  Instead of going into attack mode of “why did you provide such negative feedback about me on the recommendation?!”  try “I was surprised by your feedback on the recommendation.  Help me understand what led you to make those remarks about my performance on the last project?” creates an opportunity for the other party to explain their position.  You might just discover that there was a misunderstanding–it’s a lot easier for someone to admit they made a mistake if you give them a graceful opportunity to explain, rather than to tear into them with teeth bared.  And go to the source, not your friends, co-workers, other family members, etc.  As a leader who has made lots of mistakes, I can tell you that I ALWAYS appreciated the opportunity to own up to it to the offended party, rather than to have them ask other members of the team, and in the process multiply the derogatory assumptions.

I really need to wrap this up, and I appreciate it if you’ve hung in this long.  Bottom line:  lots of folks are offended by others today; it either leads to, or is caused by divisiveness.  Lots of science indicates that we all tend to make assumptions about others that we interact with, and that we often fail to validate those assumptions.  The farther outside our own social circle the other party is, the more we tend to assume the worst about the other party’s actions, motives, etc; which exacerbates our offendedness and further divides us.  A critical life principle and foundation of my thinking (and blog) is the idea that we should “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  A great little tool for seeking understanding in human interaction is to ask a simple question:  “Help me understand?”

Try it.

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Where Does Religion Belong?

Many of the leading issues in our country today have a significant moral or ethical element to them that invariably introduces a religious perspective into the conversation:  Gay marriage, abortion, and the death penalty all are heavily influenced by religious perspective in their public debate.  Even issues that are not so directly linked to basic freedoms can have religious elements to their debate–welfare, health care, and fiscal policy issues have all seen either overt religious reasoning applied to them, or more subtle attempts to sway the argument by appealing to moral and ethical factors formed by religious beliefs.

Several responses to “The Post That May Just Offend Everybody | My Thoughts on the Gay Marriage Issue” included a common theme that the respondent was perfectly willing to tolerate another person’s religious beliefs, so long as that person kept their beliefs private, and did not bring them into the public square.  I submit to you that this is an impossible, and I will go so far to even claim intolerant request.

I am too far removed from my undergrad days to recall the precise linear relationship of values, morals, ethics, beliefs, etc, but I do know that all of those have some root in each individual’s religious beliefs (even if those beliefs are to discount or even deny religion).  To ask a person to participate in the public square without applying their religious beliefs to their involvement seems to me to be akin to asking an accountant to do his job without applying arithmetic.  He can’t fathom doing it, and in reality all of the higher level governing elements of accounting are all foundational to the basic precept that 1+1=2, every time  (I’m sure this analogy has a hole in it somewhere in the fundamental differences between arithmetic and religion, but suffer me the comparison for the sake of discussion).

Where does this idea that people should leave their religious beliefs at home when participating in society (or at least in public debate of societal or governmental issues) come from?  I’ve done a little reading, and there’s no simple answer, but I submit that most in the US today will point back to the First Amendment religion clause and the “wall of separation between church and state” concept first described by Thomas Jefferson.  I think the important distinction that may be getting lost over time is that the intent of our founding fathers, and even Jefferson in his letter first describing the “wall of separation” was to avoid the government establishment of, or preferential treatment to, any particular religion.

Os Guinness has written a phenomenal book that addresses this topic and the context which raised it, called The Case for Civility, And Why Our Future Depends on It.  I won’t attempt to cover all the key points in this book that pertain to this topic, as I’d almost be recreating the book.  Guinness gives name to two concepts that are relevant to this conversation:  the “Sacred Public Square” and the “Naked Public Square.”  The “Sacred Public Square” refers to the idea that government should establish a particular religion as preferred–that very concept that our founding fathers sought to, and succeeded in prohibiting.*  The “Naked Public Square” refers to the idea that public interaction should exclude any consideration of religious thinking or beliefs.

I do not advocate in any way for the concept of the “Sacred Public Square.”  Without spending a lot of time here, I cannot submit to a government that forces me to ascribe to a faith system different from my own, so by that precept, I could only accept living in a Christian theocracy.  The problem with that is that so long as we remain a democratic nation (which I am strongly in favor, of, and dedicated much of my adult life to ensuring), I run the risk of some other religious system assuming control and running the government according to their religious principles.  Therefore, it is best for me (and I submit, for people of all faiths) to oppose the government establishment of any religion.

I also  can’t advocate for the “Naked Public Square.”  In the US today, this desire for a “Naked Public Square” has manifested itself primarily in the desire to exclude Christian beliefs, as, let’s face it, that is the primary religious belief system in play in our nation today, although the attempt to exclude Muslim beliefs is rising, primarily in more conservative circles.  No one talks too much about systematically excluding Hindu or naturalist thought, because given their relative representation in the US, they aren’t a real threat to attempt to influence our lives today.   In its most extreme, calls for the “Naked Public Square” include voices such as Sam Harris, who in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason states “We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene.”  I don’t believe for a minute that most Americans ascribe to the extremes advocated by Harris, but extreme voices like his dominate his side of the argument, much as extreme voices from the right tend to dominate the argument of the opposite side.

Part of the reason that the extreme voice dominates the religious side of the argument in America today is that many Christians have believed the “Naked Square’s” basic assertion that we should keep our religious beliefs in our churches and homes, but we shouldn’t take them out in public.  For much of the twentieth century Christians dutifully (or timidly) avoided displaying our religious beliefs in the public square, in what I believe was a well-intentioned attempt to allow for pluralism and diversity.  However, in the process we removed a reasonable Christian voice from the stage of public life.  I am borrowing Guinness’s distinction here to try to demonstrate that there is a difference between the “public square” where we collectively go about the business of establishing the rules of how society lives together, and “public life,” where individuals go about their lives interacting with others under those rules.  In other words, I interpret the distinction this way:  The public square is the structures where we as a society interact (government, the marketplace, etc); public life is how the individual interacts in the public square.   Guinness states that “There is a broad overlap, with no exact boundaries, between the public square and public life.”  Nonetheless, there is an important distinction that has been lost, and in an effort to avoid a “Sacred Public Square,” Christians (often at the encouragement of non-Christians) have withdrawn our voice not only from the public square, but from public life.

An unfortunate byproduct of the absence of a broad, moderate Christian voice in public life was that we allowed beliefs contrary to Christian beliefs to roam the public square unchallenged.  The absence of checks and balances permitted the growth and normalization of beliefs that contrasted with Christianity, and while moderate Christians became increasingly uncomfortable, the more extreme voices spoke up, and started trying to “reclaim” the public square.  The problem is, in my eyes, that the voices that are dominating the counterpoint are often too strident, and more importantly, they are approaching the problem not by participating in the public square in a way in which their beliefs influence the square, but instead they are trying to control the public square by legislating Christian beliefs.

I don’t think I must leave my Christian beliefs at home when I come to the public square in order to influence the governing of our society, and the functioning of our economy, any more than I believe I can tell a Muslim to leave his beliefs at home.  Where either of us go wrong is when we attempt to control the public square and enforce our religious beliefs.**

To avoid the risk of trying to re-write Guinness’s book in my own words, I’m going to let him close this post, in his words, in what I assert is an excellent answer for all of us to the question “Where does Religion Belong?”:

“…we should be clear that it is playing with fire to begin to argue in the public square about whether different faiths are true–because of the very seriousness of truth.  Nothing is more precious and potent than truth, but nothing is more dangerous than to debate such argument in the public square…. I am not arguing that faith should be ‘privileged,’ as if it requires kid-gloves discussion for fear of causing offense…. Truth and tough-minded debates about truth are the oxygen of a free society…. The politics of ‘no offense’ is a recipe for cowardice and appeasement.  Atheists [and those of other faiths] have every right to speak out, to argue for, and to attack whatever they choose.  The question for them is whether their arguments are good arguments….

“That said, in wise societies where the link between freedom and civility is respected, the public square is not the wisest place to examine the truth claims of different faiths.  Certainly it can and should be done in the private sphere with no holds barred, and certainly, too, in public life, if done with greater care.  But the public square is the place where the roots of faith are generally best left unspoken, and what is discussed are the results of faith–their implications for public policy and the common life of all citizens. 

“In short, my opening answer… is to call for civility first–to establish a civil public square, within which we may all learn to respect our deepest differences and discuss them robustly but civilly and peacefully–and then in the appropriate setting, human being to human being, to explore the reasons for why we believe and all that it means [with respect to public policy and the common life of all citizens that he refers to previously].”  –(Bold and underlined emphases are mine, italics are the original author’s; bracketed comments are mine)

My religious beliefs are my source of truth–they’re part of who I am.  Your source of truth, whatever it might be, is essential to who you are.  You can’t leave it out of living your life, even if you wanted to.  To say that you do is intellectually dishonest.   Bring your truth; let the implications of our varying understandings of truth influence our discussion as human beings over “public policy and the common life of all citizens.”  Beyond that, in the boundaries of civil society, let’s debate our differing sources of truth (not in the public square, but here and in other places of public life) to test our beliefs of truth, and to understand the beliefs of others.  Understanding those beliefs, whether or not we choose to ascribe accuracy to them, is crucial to our effectiveness in maintaining civil society.

 

*I acknowledge that our founding fathers were essentially writing to preclude establishment of a particular Christian denomination, and that they themselves were predominantly Christians, or at least aligned with Christian theology, rather than Islam, Hinduism, or some other naturalist theology.  That said, I do not want to debate whether or not the US was established as a “Christian nation.”  Most considerate people should be able to acknowledge that the religious practices of our nation’s original citizens were predominantly Christian, and that the national government was built on a foundation of “Christian” ethics (not that they are exclusively Christian, but their origins are from the Christian faith–because that’s where our founders derived their ethics). 

To my Christian brethren who want to insist on a foundation as a Christian nation that we must somehow return to, complete with government-sanctioned public prayer and religious observances, I strongly encourage you to  consider the fact that we are a very pluralistic society, and that it’s not unreasonable to think that although those prayers and observances might be focused on the Christian God today, they may one day soon be oriented toward a god that Christians would NOT want to pray to or publicly recognize.  More on that thought in my post “Hawaii Senate ends daily prayer in chamber.”

**This distinction is vital, and yet I’m not sure if I made it clearly.  My values will always effect my interaction in the public square, and in public life, by definition of the word values.  If I believe something is wrong I have every right to advocate vociferously against it, within the bounds of the rules of the public square, just as my Muslim brother does.  But my argument should not prevail solely because it is Christian, and it shouldn’t impose Christian practices upon others.  It’s when influence becomes control that we have crossed the line into the “Sacred Public Square.”

E pluribus…ME

A friend of mine posted a link to this article on his FB page yesterday.

Let’s Give Up on the Constitution

I find it interesting that the author asserts that we should “decide” to give up on certain aspects of the Constitution.  But then he goes on to cite other elements that we should continue to obey, such as Presidential term limits.  Who made him the “decider”?  If we just “decide” to not worry about checks and balances written into our Constitution, such as requiring revenue measures to originate in the lower house (such a silly, outdated rule), who’s to say that a sitting president can’t just “decide” to ignore the rule that says his term ends in 4 years?

See, here’s the cool thing about that “poetic piece of parchment”.  Those ignorant old land-owning white guys made a means to update the document.  If the “revenue measures originating in the lower house” rule is so antiquated and difficult to manage that it truly disrupts the good order and discipline of the US Government, then by all means, let’s get rid of the rule!  But we do it by Constitutional amendment–the editing process built into the document.  NOT by deciding to pick and choose what we think is good.  Because although it seems like a good idea now, one day you might not be the “decider”, and the “decider” might decide to ignore things you think are important, like… oh, let’s just start with the whole First Amendment. 

I’m concerned that a professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown University with over 40 years experience does not see the elementary fallacy of his logic:  Just because there may be instances of someone (President, SC Justice, Congress, or other) choosing not to comply with the law, and nothing really bad happened, does not mean that the law did not prevent one hundred other instances of really bad things from happening in the first place.  The good professor just jumped with both feet onto the slippery slope that leads to the conclusion that we don’t need any laws, we’ll just let people decide what they think is right at the time.  If that’s where we want to go, I think the last Constitutional right I’ll choose to give up is the 2nd Amendment.

Is my concern that Dr. Seidman’s idea will gain real traction?  Not really.  I’m more concerned with what I see as a broader problem that our nation is staring at, and which I see as a root cause of many of the problems we are facing today.  I think I’m going to call it E pluribus…me.

The Falseness of Dichotomies

I took a break from this blog for a while.  Seemed like everyone needed a cooling off period after the election.  I had a lot to say, but am trying to practice a very unnatural behavior for me–listening more, and telling less.  So I’ve been working a lot in the past month or so on listening (or more accurately, observing–engaging all of my perceptions to try to better understand).  One of the most significant observations I’ve made involves dichotomies.  I’ve been considering writing about this topic for weeks, but hadn’t fully formed the idea, so I kept observing, with the intent of developing a complete understanding of the idea, and the key learnings from the idea, which I would then inscribe in the electrons so that all could share in this well-packaged lesson.  Unfortunately, the writing style and underlying thought patterns of my 9th grade English teacher (thesis statement, three main points, each with three to four neatly packaged sub-points, all proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the thesis is true and fully described) just can’t seem to encapsulate the many branches, inconsistencies, dependencies, and variation of the idea rolling around in my head.  So, I’m giving up on neat packaging, and instead I’m going to embark on a thought-journey.  This will transpire across multiple posts–don’t know how many, how frequently, or, unfortunately the exact course it’s going to take.

Lest you think you’ve stumbled onto the digital footprints of a meandering fool, wandering aimlessly with no purpose or destination, I do have an objective for this journey.  I intend, when I’m done, to be better at  loving mankind (and thereby loving God).  I am going to continue to follow the compass that God gave me when I started this blog–the two quotes at the top of the page:  “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness” and “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Before I digress even further off course, let’s get to the topic at hand:  Dichotomy.  Dictionary.com defines the word as:

  1. division into two parts, kinds, etc.; subdivision into halves or pairs, or
  2. division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups: a dichotomy between thought and action.

That same website goes further to cite the entry from Britannica.com (who knew Britannica still existed?):

(from Greek dicha, “apart,” and tomos, “cutting”), a form of logical division consisting of the separation of a class into two subclasses, one of which has and the other has not a certain quality or attribute…. On the principle of contradiction this division is both exhaustive and exclusive; there can be no overlapping, and no members of the original genus or the lower groups are omitted. This method of classification, though formally accurate, has slight value in the exact sciences, partly because at every step one of the two groups is merely negatively characterized and is usually an artificial, motley class.

So where am I going with all this?  There is a strong tendency in human thought, particularly Western human thought (as opposed to Eastern thought–a dichotomy in and of itself, pointed out here as an example) to classify and characterize everything in an attempt to better understand it. (If you want to dig deeper, do some research into the closely related concept of binary opposition.  If you want to go really deep, I highly recommend the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman).  If you don’t want to do a lot of research, I’ll summarize (and somewhat overgeneralize) to say that we tend to be very efficient in processing the infinite amount of information we are constantly exposed to.  Our nature is to quickly analyze a thought, event, or person, and quickly classify them into a category, or series of categories.  Generally, these categories are mutually exclusive, which further enables us to place value judgments on the thought, event, or person.  In many situations, this is a useful process–back to the very basic friend/foe survival instincts.

What’s the problem?  While useful at the basic level of information processing, it can become dangerous when it precludes higher levels of thinking.  All of us witnessed examples of this (most likely externally and internally) during the recent US election cycle.  Red/blue, liberal/conservative, right/wrong…  the extreme occurred when red/blue became viewed as black/white; as polar opposites, rather than variations in a spectrum.

To avoid turning this into a political thread, let’s look at another potentially divisive issue in current events.  The news has been filled in recent weeks with brutal, unexplainable death.  Whether it’s the Samantha Koenig abduction/killing here in Alaska, the Jessica Ridgeway abduction and murder in Colorado, the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide in Kansas City, or this week’s brutal killing of innocent children in Connecticut, our universal reaction is to classify the perpetrator as evil, and to look for an easy explanation which will allow us to place the event and the perpetrator in a neat category so we can process the situation and move on.  Guns? Violent video games?  Poor parenting?  See, if we can place the cause in a nice, neat category, we can then either eliminate it, avoid it, or at least judge it.

I’m probably the most judgmental person I know.  I classify people all day long, starting with the commute to work each morning.  When I am not vigilant about my overwhelming tendency to make binary decisions, I can quickly categorize everyone I encounter throughout the day as incompetent, self-serving idiots, who are terrible drivers.  But, when I get to know those people, I find out that they’re not so easily characterized.

I’m going to close today’s post with an example from the headlines.  Jovan Belcher was a football player for my favorite sports team in the entire world, the Kansas City Chiefs.  Most of you had never heard of him until two weeks ago, when he made national news by shooting and killing his girlfriend and mother of his 3 month old daughter, then driving to the Chiefs practice facility, and in front of team leadership, pointing his gun at his own head and taking his life.  Many were quick to categorize Belcher:  murderer.  Evil.  Monster.  Some went so far as to pronounce that his suicide was a good thing.

I didn’t know Jovan, but I knew of him.  He had a great story.  Undrafted, worked his way up to starter.  Set the example on the field and at practice for his dedication and work ethic, his passion.  None of that excuses what he did.  But if you read much more than the headlines following that tragic event two weeks ago, you found that his teammates, many of whom were close not only to Jovan, but also to his girlfriend, were torn.  They couldn’t classify him as an evil monster.  They knew him.  They went so far as to say that they had no indication that he was capable of such brutality.  When it became personal, it wasn’t easy to categorize the man.

I’m going to stop here for today, with a request:  be aware this coming week to the dichotomies you use to make judgments and decisions.  How many of them are legitimate?  How many are oversimplifications?

Another Christian voice. Well said.

BOBERT HILL

I am involved in politics, because I hate politics.

I hate politics because most people see it as their way of making a difference in their nation. If they get the person they want in political power then maybe things will look up. And in a democratic republic if everyone thinks this, then the losers will feel discouraged or offended – as though someone wanted their opinion but then ignored the advice they had to give.

I hate politics because people think that ALL of the principles they hold dear have some foundation in objective truth. Some policies and principles do. However, if you want to biblically talk about an economic structure and what would be ideal for our country, it seems that the bible is pretty silent. Christ told his disciples to pay high taxes to Caesar, the disciples and followers of Christ shared all their possessions within their…

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Today won’t fix anything

The final assault on my Facebook page began Monday, with political pictures, video links, and vitriolic diatribes against all things represented by each candidate, posted by determined acquaintances who are convinced the fate of the free world will be established Tuesday night.  Claims that will brand me as un-American, regressive, or non-Christian have sprouted everywhere.

Regardless of whom is announced as the next President of the United States, we won’t be any better (or worse) off tomorrow night.  What will make (or break) this country is what happens Wednesday, and beyond.

I really don’t care who gets elected President; I’m not particularly impressed with either candidate (FWIW, I’m not a fan of Ron Paul either).  Both Obama and Romney are career politicians, who ideologically aren’t really that far apart, if you objectively examine what they do.  They’re nothing more than blank canvasses painted up by their respective political handlers to resemble the picture which best represents their party’s opinion.  Neither candidate displays much leadership, much ability to work collaboratively to build a workable solution to the very real and complex problems that confront our nation.

If your hope for the future is hanging on the outcome of this election, you’re most likely going to find the next few years very disappointing.  No matter who prevails tomorrow, we’re very likely going to see four more years of the same stuff we witnessed for the last 12:  The prevailing party claiming a mandate for their divisive platform, and the losing party will immediately set out to attack, hinder, and smear any accomplishment of the new President, with a stated principal objective of defeating the President in four years.

Mr. President-elect (whomever you may be):  This country needs an Oval Office leader who can restore some unity and common purpose to our nation.  If you take Tuesday night’s results as a “mandate,” as some sort of ringing endorsement by the electorate for the full implementation of the divisive party platform you’ve been touting for the past months, you’re a fool.  Right now you’re in a statistical dead-heat, with less than 24 hours to the finish.  Particularly given the dissidence of this campaign, you can effectively expect that half of our nation is vigorously opposed to whatever you have in mind.

I pray that Wednesday morning, you, Mr. President-elect, will begin the process of healing our nation.  That has to start with an apology:  requesting forgiveness for labeling your opponent and half of the populace of this country as anti-American ignoramuses.  If your presidency starts with gloating, or pontificating about how you’re going to bring about a bright and glorious future under your brilliant leadership, we, as a nation, are royally, and quite possibly irreversibly, screwed.  If, on the other hand, you begin working with your counterparts, recognizing that we need to develop comprehensive solutions to complex problems in order to bolster our economy, provide jobs for our workers, and health care for all our people, you might just actually make a difference in the next four years, unlike your predecessors during the previous 12.

Both parties have done a great job in the last three presidential terms stonewalling progress in the name of political and ideological purity.  Until being an “American” is more important than being a Democrat/Republican, we will not see progress.  Bush wasn’t able to build his vision of the perfect nation because he had to spend much of his time fending off attacks from the opposition party.  Obama hasn’t been able to bring about “Change” for the same reason.  Guess what:  Romney won’t be able to make a difference either, until the climate in our homes, our churches, our Facebook pages, and our halls of government are cleared of the poisonous crap that we’ve been breathing and spewing for the past 12 years.  We need to stop demonizing those faceless forces of evil that occupy the opposite 49% of the political spectrum from you, and instead recognize that we’re all Americans, citizens of this nation who all have a right and privilege to be heard, considered, and respected, even if we don’t always disagree with them.  Romney can’t save our future.  Neither can Obama.  Only when we, THE PEOPLE, start respecting one another, stop fighting and bickering, finding fault, and castigating our neighbor, will we start seeing improvement.

I’ve spent this political season sitting on the fence, for reasons that are vitally important to me, and won’t completely make sense to any of you.  And I have to tell you that the view from here stinks.  No matter which direction I look, I don’t see brotherly love; I see xenophobic hate.  Wednesday, it’s time for a national attitude change.

Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.  -Jesus Christ, Matthew 12:25

Stop being so Irrational!

A few months ago I read a most intriguing, intellectually challenging book that provides incredible insight on how people think.  Written by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, Thinking, Fast and Slow is an amazingly informative read if you’re remotely interested in how people think and make decisions, and why.  Based on Kahneman’s several decades of professional research, the book is also an incredibly difficult read that will make you painfully aware of just how lazy your System 2 can be.  So what does this all have to do with my insulting imperative in the title?  Did you catch the part about him being a psychologist who won the Nobel in Economics?  In part it’s because Kahneman’s research stood all of modern accepted economic theory on its ear.  See, economics is based on an assumption that humans are rational decision-makers.  Kahneman proves that assumption is glaringly false.  You are irrational (and so am I).  Worse than that–we like it that way.

So what, you say?  Well, for starters, your irrationality causes you to make some really poor decisions.  I won’t attempt to try to summarize all of a 498 page book on how people think, but one concept Kahneman and other students of decision-making have explored is extremely relevant today.  I’ve been struggling for quite some time to understand why large numbers of extremely intelligent people who I know (and many more that I don’t) can be so easily deceived by information, statistics, and sound bites that are sensational and powerfully emotive, that with minimal basic research will prove to be manipulatively misleading, if not totally inaccurate.  Kahneman, and those who have built upon his research, have given description and supportive research to a behavioral bias that I have observed on my own: our human tendency is to look for evidence to support what we already believe, and to avoid or discount any evidence which contradicts our beliefs.  Referred to in decision-making as the supporting evidence bias, variants also appear in scientific research (the systematic positive bias).

Two (potentially) big problems here:

1)  WYSIATI:  Kahneman identifies a phenomenon in thinking that he refers to as “What You See Is All There Is.”  When operating in our “fast-thinking” mode (System 1), we tend to make snap, intuitive decisions based on the information readily at hand, as if that’s all the information that exists.  Unfortunately, it’s those things that we don’t know about which can often cause us the most harm (as former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld so famously and accurately opined).

  Example:  A school teacher living in the Midwest earns $30,000 per year.  In an effort to improve her standard of living, she seeks teaching jobs in other parts of the country, and takes a job teaching in Bush Alaska paying $60,000 per year.  While expecting to double her income and her standard of living, she fails to take into account that the cost of basic necessities in Bush Alaska can be double to quadruple the cost of the same items in the Midwest.  By failing to consider the unknowns, and failing to seek evidence to disprove her assumptions, she inadvertently lowered her standard of living.

2)  Failing to seek contrary information can lead to inaccurate results:  A more clinical example here.

“Students were given the sequence of numbers 2, 4, 6 and told to determine the rule that generated the numbers. To check hypotheses, they could choose a possible next number and ask whether that number was consistent with the rule. Most students asked whether a next number “8” would be consistent with the rule. When told it was, they expressed confidence that the rule was, “The numbers increase by 2.” Actually, the rule was, “Any increasing sequence.” A better test would have been to check whether a next number incompatible with the hypothesis (e.g., “7”) was consistent with the unknown rule.”

In other words, you’re irrational.  But so am I, and Dr. Kahneman even acknowledges that he is too.  Now you’re aware that you have a problem-what are you going to do about it?  Here’s what I have done:

1)  Make it a habit when facing difficult, important, or costly decisions, to deliberately seek to disprove my preferred position.  This is incredibly difficult to do, but it’s powerful.  First, though, I have to acknowledge I have a bias, and make a concerted effort to set the bias aside while I attempt to prove the opposite.

2)  Deliberately seek experiences that are outside my comfort and familiarity (within reason here…).  Read things I disagree with.  Listen to both Fox News and MSNBC.  Better yet, seek primary sources to understand the full details of what was said or written, not just the selectively re-broadcast sound bites.  Cultivate friendships with people who believe differently than me.  Notice I said “friendships.”  They’re my friends.  I love and respect them.  I get to know them for who they are, and I appreciate them.  Then when I find myself in disagreement with them over an idea, I can more readily seek first to understand and appreciate their position, even if I still disagree.  Sometimes, I even find out that I’m less than fully informed!

3)  Assume that I don’t have all the information, and when I find that I am dumbfounded by the stupidity of others who can’t see the solution that is so right and obvious to me, recognize that I am almost assuredly operating under WYSIATI.

I’ll leave you with what is arguably my favorite quote from almost 500 pages of deep, intriguing thoughts:  “We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers” (Kahneman, 217).

Supporting evidence bias is inherently irrational, and it’s hurting our culture today.  I want to think better.