People are not their politics. It’s easy to forget that.
In psychology, it is a well known fact that, because we need to form opinions whether or not we have enough information, people have a strong tendency to make their opinions of others based on first impressions, or single attributes. And they tend to assume that what they know about a person stems from a concrete and permanent aspect of that person and not some transitory quality like circumstance.
This fundamental attribution error lies at the heart of most forms of intolerance. If all you know about a person or group of persons is a single variable, like they are from the American South, or homosexual, or Jewish, or drive a big pickup truck, or shop at Whole Foods and you have in your mind a large set of stereotypes about that sort of person, the human mind will automatically create a picture of that person based on those stereotypes, and make a whole series of assumptions about that individual with very little evidence to base them upon.
That effect is well known. Lesser known, though, is how it applies to politics.
If all you know about someone is their political affiliation, and you (like must of us) have a picture in your head of what a person of that political affiliation looks like, talks like, drives, and so forth and so on. Thus, it is easy and natural for you to judge that person based on the picture of them you have created.
Take that and apply it to politics write large. These stereotypes make it very easy to demonize those who do not share your political opinions. It’s not that they merely disagree with you – they are horrible people who are evil through and through and are dedicated wholesale to destroying all that is good and right in the world.
This doubles when all you know about someone is their politics and something they said expressing the politics you do not like. Armed with not one but two pieces of information, we feel doubly warranted to declare that said person must be rotten to the core to say such a thing.
But the thing is, deep down, we know that we don’t have enough information to make that kind of judgment about a person. Imagine if that person thought they know everything they need to know about you based on one thing you said. You’d be outraged and demand to be treated as a complex human being with their own individual attributes and complexities.
You know…. unlike those other guys, who are all mindless sheep and genuinely evil down to every last one of them, and in every cell of their misbegotten bodies.
People are not their politics. Their actual moral nature and the politics they prefer have a weak connection at best. You quite honestly don’t know a thing about the other person except that they are, from your point of view, on the wrong team. If we all could remember this, we would have the perfect antidote to overheated political discourse.
Just remember : you can oppose someone without hating them . It is the hate that drives the politics of the day insane. True ideological discourse disappears and the desire to hurt the opposition takes over. Like in a messy divorce, people say all kinds of things they don’t truly mean just to hurt the other side and make them angry. And to get the cheers and applause that will inevitably come their way from their own side.
After all, they deserve to suffer for the things they have said to you for the exact same reason, right?
IF the tit for tat tete-a-tete continues, people end up publicly committed to increasingly extreme positions, and said positions are met with, of course, increasingly extreme opposition, and the hate (and heat) rises and rises, and eventually will spill out into violence.
After all, the other people are both totally evil and not really human, so why not kill them and eliminate their poisonous influence?
The only solution is to refuse to hate. Whenever exposed to the sorts of opinions which you find odious, take a deep breath, and say “I disagree with this person, but I do not hate them. ” Repeat this exercise as many times as it takes for it to change your perspective. Remind yourself that this person is just as human and valid and inherently good as you are. Remember that all you know about them is their politics and one thing they said. And remember that they might not even truly believe what they said. They might just be saying it to make the other side mad, or to hurt them in some way.
People’s politics develop for all manner of complex and often deeply personal reasons. Often, their politics serve their emotional needs first and their actual character last. For all you know, the person you are viewing as evil is actually exactly the kind of person of which you would wholeheartedly approve if you did not know their politics.
You might even share a lot more values than you disagree upon.
This transformation will not come easily to you, or me for that matter. I have been as guilty of demonizing those with different politics as much as most people and a lot more than some. I am a passionately ideological person by nature and it is very, very easy to slip into hating the person and not just their ideas.
And as human beings, our social instincts tell us to pick a team and then defend it from all who challenge it. This works great for team sports but it is inimical to real political discourse. The primary concern should be determining whether a given statement is true, not whether it sounds like the sort of thing we agree with or whether it is being said by someone of the same political stripe as us.
I am not claiming any form of moral superiority by making these statements. In fact, I am not even sure that the change of attitude I have proposed is even possible.
But I think it’s worth a try.
I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.
Oh, and if you think you know to which political group this message is “addresses”…. better check that envelope again, because this letter is for you.