Pragmatism not idealism

Since the election, I noticed that quite a few conservatives asked for their liberal acquaintances or anyone to explain why they voted for Obama or what the appeal of liberalism is. In the broadest sense this is a good thing as it could represent a move away from epistemic closure and tribalism. It is great that some conservatives thought they would win and thought their platform resonated with a larger portion of the electorate and want to understand why things did not turn out their way.

I saw some people on Facebook and elsewhere try to talk about why they feel the way they do and engaged in some of these discussions myself. Only one of these discussions went well for me (Thanks Brad J! You restored my faith in humanity). I began to wonder why these sorts of conversations are so difficult.

I noticed that a few of the Facebook conversations were proceeding in the same manner. A fairly staunch conservative would ask why liberalism is better and go to great lengths to say that they truly wanted to understand and that it wasn’t a trap, but as soon as someone tried to advocate the liberal position they began to attack it. I see that as a gigantic exercise in confirmation for the conservative and a waste of time and words. To really understand another position, a person needs to exercise intellectual empathy. Anderson describes it thusly:

the decision to enter into a person’s way of the seeing the world and look along with them. It is, in a sense, an imaginative exercise that goes beyond the “willing suspension of disbelief” toward the granting of principles and premises that we may very well like to reject in order to see how the whole framework holds together—if the whole framework holds together. Intellectual empathy is a form of seeing how. As in, “Oh, I see how you could think that. It’s wrong, but I can see how it might make sense.” It is an act that is aimed, first and foremost, toward the good of understanding, a good that persuasion may flow from but can never precede.

As Anderson discusses, the trick to intellectual empathy is that you don’t have to abandon your first principles. He posits that someone who is confident in her principles should be better able to engage in this type of discussion. However, he notes that chipping away at one’s opponents beliefs through this sort of conversation should not be the goal, it should only be a byproduct. This is exactly the point that I saw the Facebook conversations fail. The conservatives wanted to enter a point by point battle/refutation of liberalism, not understand it. The ones that swore up and down that they just wanted to “hear the other side out” were the ones that pushed back the most. They made the byproduct the goal. I view that as bad faith as there is no intent to agree or understand.

The larger problem for me is the framing of the issue. It presents a classic false choice: conservative or liberal? Most people don’t fit into those ideological boxes. It also presumes that liberalism and conservatism operate in the same ideological manner. They don’t. Conservatism by definition and in practice requires a preference for idealism over pragmatism. Liberalism is rooted in the pragmatism of philosophers like John Dewey and others. The focus is on results, not process. Avoiding being ideologically rigid is baked into liberalism. That makes it difficult to have a purely ideological argument, for me.

There are some things we can’t control which serve to define us. The movement of a political party on the ideological scale changes where an individual sits on the scale in relation to the party. A nominal conservative can find herself outside of mainstream conservative ideology but not change her core beliefs in any way. For this reason and others, I don’t intend to be a “liberal” for the rest of my life. I don’t intend on outsourcing the totality of my vision or belief to any ism. I have my core beliefs that over time are challenged and sometimes changed. In a two party system I try to make the best choice I can. I think most people do the same.

So next time you really want to know someone’s opinion, just listen. Try to reap the benefits (as Anderson discusses in the above link). The goal should be solely to understand. Ask questions to further understanding, not to poke holes or refute the position. You may still change their mind by asking them to clarify or explain. When someone has to reduce abstractions into words, they may realize the holes in their beliefs themselves. Or maybe you’ll learn something or see things in a different way….

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