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Rationality and Recognizing Important Distinctions

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.

Comments

  1. says

    Hear, hear. That’s why I go to websites that disagree with me – to get actual arguments and information outside of my own assumptions. Once in a while, I actually learn something or change my mind.

    For example, a lot of religious sites are in a lather right now about the ‘contraceptive mandate’ in the new health care bill. As employers, they don’t want their insurance to have to pay for ‘the pill’ and so forth. Gotta say, that seems a reasonable exception to me.

  2. anandine says

    Because many personality traits (religiosity/atheism, liberal/conservative) seem to be biologically based, a liberal atheist such as I shouldn’t hold a religious conservative’s views against him personally. A Christianist can believe no differently, nor could I. My beliefs are as biologically based as any Tea Partier’s.

    Worse yet, because these personality traits evolved like every other part of us, it is likely that conservatism serves some evolutionary purpose. Maybe while we liberals are digging for grubs, someone needs to be on the lookout for lions. When we meet another tribe, while we liberals are getting our our trade goods, conservatives need to be watching the other tribe for hidden weapons. We are both probably needed for our tribe to prosper.

  3. eigenperson says

    I wasn’t aware that liberals had trouble dealing with libertarians.

    I mean, sure, I’ve attacked libertarians’ views on economics, but that’s not because I’ve somehow gotten confused between libertarians and conservatives. It’s because I think those views are appalling and destructive on their own merits.

    And I’m also aware that there are some libertarians, like Ed Brayton, who understand things like externalities. But there are others who don’t. I would like to build political alliances with the first group but not the second; unfortunately, the first group is in a very small minority among those calling themselves “libertarians.”

  4. says

    Damn right. And that, Ed, is why I appreciate your writings more than almost anyone else’s: you can see in shades of gray. I can’t say it any better than John Green (don’t know if he got the quote elsewhere):

    The truth resists simplicity.

    And there’s not much point pretending otherwise.

  5. The Lorax says

    Absolutely true, and very well put.

    It’s a natural instinct of humans to categorize and simplify, as it helps us cope with a very complex and convoluted universe. However, if it is the truth we wish to seek, then we must overcome those natural instincts and look at something for what it is, not what we describe it to be.

    I, personally, hate labels. I get a twinge in the back of my neck when my mom calls me a “liberal”, as if it’s a bad thing. I’m me, that’s all there is to it.

    Of course, there is something to be said about having to put the “fine print” at the end of all of our comments. “We descended from monkeys” is a lot easier to say than “we descended from animals which bore a superficial but passing resemblance to the contemporary animal that we commonly call a ‘monkey'”. I guess one must make judgements as they come, but err on the side of accuracy even at the cost of verbosity.

  6. says

    Yes, the problem isn’t labels and categories. Those things are necessary and inevitable. The problem is the use of labels and categories as a replacement for thinking.

  7. harold says

    Obviously this is correct.

    Having said that, when I generalize about the US right wing, I usually make it clear that I am referring to the constellation of policies favored, in aggregate consensus, by major right wing outlets like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, and strongly associated with the Republican Party, and the Tea Party in particular.

    There is a highly uniform ideology there, I can state what the official, so to speak, ideological conservative stance is, on any issue, and so can any intelligent person who observes US politics.

    I characterize this ideology as being post-modern, radical despite being referred to as “conservative”, negative in nature, and strongly characterized by selective denial of scientific, historical, and economic reality. I very strongly stand by this characterization as accurate, and even rather objective.

    To deny that this uniform ideology exists, and that it is selected for within the Republican party, to the extent, for example, that candidates for president claim to adhere to it and repudiate any past “deviations” from it, and/or are marginalized, would be silly.

    There are individuals who self-identify, or are identified, as “conservative”, who do not endorse the entire US right wing ideology. No-one denies that.

    However, failure to critique the right wing ideology as it stands, or to note that “purity” is strongly enforced on the US right, would be foolhardy.

  8. Doug Little says

    Thus we hear the constant arguments about Stalin being an atheist and committing genocide, which we find highly annoying and absurd.

    This is a false equivalence that’s why it is annoying and absurd, the lack of belief in the big sky didn’t drive Stalin to commit genocide, he didn’t pull out the ancient atheist text of infallible knowledge and use it to justify what he was doing.

  9. harold says

    I, personally, hate labels. I get a twinge in the back of my neck when my mom calls me a “liberal”, as if it’s a bad thing. I’m me, that’s all there is to it.

    I do, too, and the label “liberal” implies some things that describe me, and some that don’t.

    Having said that, even within the most rigid ideological movements, there are internal disputes, and when a common word is co-opted by an ideological movement, it may cause confusion. For example, I’m often “conservative” in personal style, or in making predictions about likely future outcomes of specific things, but when I describe myself as such, I always (by necessity, I should add) clarify that I am not using the word “conservative” in a contemporary political sense.

    Incidentally, if someone wants to rush to the defense of the persecuted “libertarian conservatives”, “pro-science conservatives”, “moderate Republicans”, etc, they should note that it is the “conservative movement” itself which increasingly forms a purity-seeking ideology that marginalizes those who deviate. Even if the deviation is something like accepting scientific evidence for climate change.

  10. says

    anandine –

    Because many personality traits (religiosity/atheism, liberal/conservative) seem to be biologically based

    Er… no. At most, there may be some biological factors that could influence the tendency to develop such a perspective, under certain circumstances.

    I’d suggest checking out David Sloan Wilson’s “Evolution For Everyone” where he addresses that sort of biological ‘determinism’ in an unusually lucid manner.

  11. heddle says

    Doug Little,

    This is a false equivalence that’s why it is annoying and absurd, the lack of belief in the big sky didn’t drive Stalin to commit genocide

    At the risk of starting a nasty side-thread how do you know his to be true? In the same sense that a psychopath might coopt his religion for rationalizing murder, how do you know, for a fact, that it is impossible for an atheist-psycopath (e.g., Stalin) to use the non-existence of god to rationalize his crimes? I can certainly imagine such rationalizations–how do you exclude them short of being in Stalin’s deranged head?

    It seems to me you cannot rule out (or rule in) that Stalin’s atheism, distilled by his derangement, was a contributing factor to his mass murder.

  12. Michael Heath says

    Ed writes:

    We do [apply more critical standards to those outside our tribe than to our own], 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.

    If one is thinking and making arguments worth considering a fourth reason comes to mind: That in spite of the fact a continuum of attributes and positions exist, at the end of the day we’re predominately voting for one party or the other. We have only two parties rather than many, with no real sub-caucuses left within those parties with the exception of a conservative faction within the Democratic party.

    This condition exists within an environment where the parties are also evolving – from the Carter years to recently the Democrats have rapidly moved from old-school union-centric liberalism to a more business-friendly, worldly form of moderatism. The Republicans are now dominated by a populist form of conservatism wedded to an ever-narrowing form of corporatism which doesn’t even serve the needs of all businesses but only a handful of sectors like energy, the financial sector, and big food. (where the latter two have made in-roads into the Democratic party as well). From this perspective I would argue it’s safe to sometimes accuse more moderate factions for the sins of their more radical partisans when those radical elements are not checked within the faction but in fact growing in numbers and power. To not argue within this context is to make other logical fallacies than the ones you note.

  13. Michael Heath says

    Ray Ingles:

    As employers, they don’t want their insurance to have to pay for ‘the pill’ and so forth. Gotta say, that seems a reasonable exception to me.

    I would be very surprised if cost was their objection. It’s my understanding that covering birth control without co-pays lowers the amount of claims insurers pay-out.

  14. Attila says

    To Heddle,

    Daniel Dennet has an answer to that.

    “Staling beleived in god, he just thought his name was Joseph Stalin.”

    What do Hilter, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot have in common. They were all arationalists. Much as most Muslims and Christians are.

  15. Doug Little says

    In the same sense that a psychopath might coopt his religion for rationalizing murder

    He doesn’t have to try hard to do this, all he has to do is point to his bible, the infallible word of his god, as a rationalization, there is plenty of meat to sink his teeth into there.

    I can certainly imagine such rationalizations

    But any such rationalizations do not have absolute authority to back them. The Christian can point to the bible and say see god told me to do it. What rationalization could you come up with that doesn’t sound absolutely insane to the other people that you need to convince around you to do your dirty work. You would have to come up with a reason that sounded convincing based on nothing but a disbelief in absolute authority. How would that work?

    I can understand that Stalin feared religion and belief in god because he was in competition with it. I mean how do we know that Stalin was definitely an Atheist? Your argument that we can’t rule out absolutely that he didn’t use his non belief to rationalize genocide can be applied to his supposed Atheism as well. In the end all we have is history and his writings, have you got some information on Stalin that can point to him using his atheism to rationalize genocide?

  16. says

    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.

    Like eigenperson in #4, I have a problem with libertarianism because of the positions I see self-described libertarians defend, not because I can’t fit them into my world view.

    Also, I’d like to point out that some of your readers live in countries where there are more than 2 major parties. We’re not stuck in the “simple dichotomy” you speak of to begin with.

  17. says

    I do make some mental effort to avoid the trap, though I’ve made rhetorical comparisons of opposing “wingnut” groups when they share important negative features. I’ve also done the same thing for comparing “left” and “right” groups, such as comparing “right” Creationists to “left” New Age postmodernists.

    One thing that’s probably going to help prevent my risk of lumping is my current lack of party allegiance. Of course, one alternative danger I’ll need to watch out for is the risk of becoming some political hipster who whines about the two mainstream parties being exactly the same.

    As for my view on Libertarians: It varies, depending on the Libertarian. On the internet, I’ve seen plenty of insane fundamentalist Randroid Libertarians who want to uproot the whole system and haven’t put any thought into the replacement when asked in-depth questions. I’ve seen some people advocating some very “right” and/or authoritarian policies who call themselves “Libertarian.” Of course, I’ve had some discussions that involve people agreeing with me on many positions for what I consider sensible reasons (or sometimes disagree for understandable reasons). It’s often later that I discover they consider themselves Libertarians, since they don’t compulsively scream their label.

  18. says

    But there IS the other side of this in politics, especially on the Left, to feel a need to find common ground even where none exists, to embrace “compromise” as a principle in and of itself rather than a tactic to advance one’s goals, to seek “bipartisanship” even if it means selling out your own supposed values…

    It is a rational and good thing to take the best ideas and try to put them into play, no matter the source. The danger is in fooling yourself into seeing ideas as better than they are, because they are superficially similar to your ideas and it reinforces your positive self-image to look for and find common ground even where none exists. Ron Paul wants to end the “War on Drugs”, which on the surface seems to be a position shared by liberals and libertarians. Ron Paul doesn’t ACTUALLY want to legalize drugs or reduce sentences for drug possession or deal with the racism involved in the justice system, which is what liberals want to see happen. Ron Paul just wants to disband the DEA along with nearly every other federal agency, many of which are supported by liberals. In exchange for selling out liberal principles to Ron Paul’s anti-federal government insanity, he plans on repaying the stoners by allowing states the power to make whatever laws they want in relation to drugs. And if you happen to be incarcerated for life in a privatized prison after a joke of a trial tinged by racism throughout, Paul will say “tough titty” and there will be no federal agencies to oversee the process or correct miscarriages of justice.

    But, you know… common ground, right?

  19. anandine says

    The truth resists simplicity.

    My version is that the two facts of life I’m sure about are:

    1) People vary

    2) Everything is more complicated than you think it is.

  20. alost says

    I agree largely with what Ed is saying here, but I also don’t think it’s wrong to very specifically describe, as Harold said in a comment above, uniform ideologies widely favored by and associated with Republicans/Democrats. That still leaves room for variation within the party or even among people who just describe themselves as a non-affiliated conservative.

  21. KG says

    Because many personality traits (religiosity/atheism, liberal/conservative) seem to be biologically based – anandine

    I’ve come across these claims, but am inclined to be sceptical. What, in your view, is the best evidence for this? Specific studies preferred.

    That’s why I and many others, including Markos Moulitsas, have been pushing for people to build more alliances politically between liberals and libertarians.

    I have no difficulty in distinguishing libertarians from other right-wingers. But since all those I’ve encountered are either selfish liars or naive idiots, and furthermore outside the USA their numbers are tiny, I’ve no interest whatever in building alliances with them. But then, I’m not a liberal, but a democratic socialist, so likely they will have no interest in allying with me.

  22. KG says

    That in spite of the fact a continuum of attributes and positions exist, at the end of the day we’re predominately voting for one party or the other. We have only two parties rather than many – Michael Heath

    “We” are all Americans, are we? I don’t see Ed limiting the scope of what he is saying to his and your country.

    Stalin helpfully provided us with his justification for his mass murders in a speech on “The Tasks of Economic Executives” in 1931 – during forced collectivisation, but before the resulting Ukraine famine, and the great purges:

    We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us.

    In those ten years, at an immense cost in human lives and suffering, he presided over the construction of an industrial base capable of withstanding Operation Barbarossa. He was, then, quite right in his prediction of what would happen if that base were not built. One would like to think there were less horrifyingly brutal ways of achieving it; I don’t know if this question has been seriously studied.
    More broadly, there is no reason to doubt that he was a sincere Marxist-Leninist, who believed that anything was justified in the cause of preserving the Soviet Union (with which he came to identify himself) and thus the future communist utopia. Atheism was a component in this belief system, but the whole Marxist eschatology, which bears remarkable structural similarities to that of Christianity (as Bertrand Russell pointed out) was the key. Psychologically, like most exceptionally brutal dictators, he was doubtless formed by his appalling childhood: he had a brutal, drunken father who beat and bullied him unmercifully.

  23. Azkyroth says

    It’s importance to recognize differences.

    Not every distinction represents a meaningful difference.

  24. says

    I see a lot of arguments where someone makes the “why do you hate God” fallacy. Meaning, she believes that the other person agrees with her on facts and buys into the same premises yet still disagrees on the conclusion. Meaning, there isn’t a good faith disagreement on facts, but rather a heartless jerk who hates poor people.

  25. laurentweppe says

    This is a false equivalence that’s why it is annoying and absurd, the lack of belief in the big sky didn’t drive Stalin to commit genocide

    There is no false equivalence here, in both cases (atheist tyrant killed people because he was an atheist; religious tyrant killed people because he was religious), the argument is built upon the Correlation=causation fallacy.
    *
    Case in point: Former-Yugoslavia: the killers did not give a shit about God: they just saw religion as a convenient proxy for ethnicity.
    Also, it’s not belief in Buddha’s teaching which motivated the slaughter of over ten million muslim Dungans by buddhist Qing loyalists, it’s not christian belief which motivated the plunder of South America by the Spanish Crown, nor the destructions of the thirty years war, etc, etc, etc
    *
    In many cases, religion has been used as a justification, but was not the cause: ethnic hostility, rivalry between aristocratic houses, imperial expansionism, and other prosaic motives are the real causes, but us hairless ape love to hide them behind highly principled justifications. In fact, some recent slaughters have been defended by explicitly anti-religious arguments: during the 19th century, France’s campains of “pacification” in Algeria were justified as a necessary act of benevolant, enlightened France to rescue the poor backward algerian Muslims from their retrograde religion (said “rescue” involving slaughtering a third of their population, banishing their peasantry in the Atlas Mountains, burning down their schools, raping their children and plundering their country for over a century), during the 20th century, Stalin’s apologists claimed that his ruthlesness was necessary to “free” the enthralled by religion proletariat from their religious bonds (and they did so while brandishing “ancient atheist texts of infallible knowledge” such as the communist manifesto, What Is to Be Done?, and Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right), and in the 21th century, far-right douchebags have argued that the Muslim World would not become “truly civilized” unless Western leaders treated it like Caesar treated Gaul (where he killed a fourth of the lcoals and enslaved a third of the survivors btw). When it comes to weaving pretexts, religion is far from being peerless.
    ***
    ***

    furthermore outside the USA their numbers are tiny

    Nope: outside the USA, sane libertarians have already migrated and integrated themselves in left-wing parties on their own accord, that’s why you don’t see them: you’re already in bed with them.

  26. says

    Bronze Dog said in #19:

    Of course, I’ve had some discussions that involve people agreeing with me on many positions for what I consider sensible reasons (or sometimes disagree for understandable reasons). It’s often later that I discover they consider themselves Libertarians, since they don’t compulsively scream their label.

    I’ve also discussed with some “sane libertarians” online. You know, the ones who not only agree with liberals on the civil rights issues, but also agree that the free market needs regulation, that Big Business can be just as bad as Big Government, and that we need taxes to pay for essential government functions. But at that point, I have to wonder why they insist on calling themselves “libertarians” and don’t just call themselves “liberal” instead. (My guess is that while these people may have rejected most of the right-wing ideology, they have still internalized the right-wing message that “liberal” is a dirty word)

  27. KG says

    Nope: outside the USA, sane libertarians have already migrated and integrated themselves in left-wing parties on their own accord, that’s why you don’t see them: you’re already in bed with them. – laurentweppe

    I’m not a member of any party, but setting that aside, in the sense “libertarian” is now used in the USA, and hence, here:
    1) “Sane libertarian” is almost an oxymoron. “Sane, honest libertarian” is one.
    2) No libertarian – i.e. worshipper of the great god Market, could join a left-wing party unless with the intention of concealing their beliefs and sabotaging it.

    I’m well aware that “libertarian” used to have a different meaning, but the faction of the American raving right that likes to smoke dope and use porn have sullied it past any possibility of cleansing, unless it’s qualified as e.g. “civil libertarian”.

  28. Doug Little says

    laurentweppe,

    atheist tyrant killed people because he was an atheist; religious tyrant killed people because he was religious

    Yes exactly, it’s a false equivalence because I don’t blame the individual’s actions on what beliefs he holds. I don’t argue that Religion caused this or that, rather that it can be easily co opted and used as justification for heinous acts.

  29. Doug Little says

    No the false equivalence is that the people who bring up Stalin as a counter example are misrepresenting the position put forth by atheists in the first place. I have seen no argument from the atheist side that states that because of individual A’s religious beliefs therefore genocide.

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