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Is Zealotry An Expected Piece of Human Nature?
Hello everyone! This week some thoughts on my recent move across state lines and how it makes me feel about the pending election. Let’s get to it.
ONE Wisdom FROM THE AGES
If you want truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.
- Jianzhi Sengcan
One Unwisdom FROM TODAY
“You guys won’t like Idaho. It’s way too conservative for you.”
- Countless well-meaning liberal friends in California
“Welcome to Idaho. You were fleeing the liberal crap too, weren’t you.”
- Countless ex-Coastal new friends in Boise
ONE FROM US
For the past several years we’ve seen an increasing political polarization in this country. It is so immediately apparent to anyone paying attention to social media or mainstream news that it hardly registers as “news” anymore.
I’ve heard stories of people dropping friends or ostracizing family members over conflicting beliefs. I’ve seen ideas that were formally considered radical slide into the moderate conversations from both sides (or perhaps its former moderates sliding out toward the extremes in their views). I’ve also seen an increase in the demonization of the other side, both online and in-person. People have shifted to more extreme positions and, worse, grown more comfortable judging and insulting their political opponents.
In personal conversations, articles, and our recent live course, I’ve examined this growing trend, but now in hindsight, those examinations feel only philosophical. I had only felt this problem in the abstract, like a storm looming off the coast yet to strike the mainland. I know it’s a big problem, but it’s not all around me. Until now.
I just moved out of state. I left my family and lifelong friends in southern California for Boise, ID. Until this move, I hadn’t felt this issue personally. Or perhaps it’s better to say that the contrast of my new and old homes brings this trend of division and derision into sharper focus. My last home city in southern California—chosen for my access to both the ocean and lifelong friends—is a place of extremely homogenous political views that lean heavily left (I wish I could still use the word “liberal” in good faith). Boise is a beautiful balance, at least upon my first impression. We have a significant young progressive population, just as you would expect in a booming metropolis with a major university and growing start-up culture. We also have many people on the spectrum from center-right to uber-conservative, as the stereotype that you imagine of rural Idaho. If I were to tally lawn signs for the upcoming Presidential election, I imagine the results would match my casual observations: an extremely close race predictable only by specific neighborhood.
This balance and harmony seem impossible compared to my last home in California. It is a classic political echo chamber—there only seems to be one acceptable viewpoint (and I don’t need to tell you which one it is.) The worse effect of this mono-conversation though is not the self-congratulations that characterize most political conversations. Our online communities are far better at reaffirming our beliefs than any in-person conversations will ever be. People inside political echo chambers develop a sickness—an aversion to opposing political beliefs that feels like a combination of a severe allergy, fear of the boogeyman, and a tribal war hawk attitude to take down the other side. This is simply a much harder tendency to develop here in Boise.
In my California town, as in many places that have a homogenous political value system from either side, people assume your views before they get to know you. It’s simply an educated guess that rarely fails. With no exposure to the “other,” it becomes easy to demonize the other side. You don’t actually know anyone who holds opposing views and assume that all “reasonable” people must agree with you. The next rational leap is to assume that all of those “others” must either be dumb, ill-intentioned or both. Openly criticizing and mocking the other side becomes a very low risk. You have a very small chance of unintentionally mocking your new acquaintance’s views. More likely, the two of you will bond over demonizing those “lib-tards on the coast” or “those bumpkins in flyover country.”
This type of common enemy bonding feels good because it satisfies a deep evolutionary need. This tendency is not all bad—we love to boo our rival sports teams—but homogenous populations allow us to develop the very unhealthy habits of assumption and open mockery. A mixed and balanced population offers more opportunities to bump into your opponents across the aisle. You can never assume a person’s political or religious views, and would thus never launch immediately into mockery or demonizing certain viewpoints. You might even develop an early bond with someone based on common interests or friends only to find out later that they think very differently than you. Confronted with the reality that there are intelligent, reasonable people on the other side—even some people who you might love— you are faced with a choice: be an asshole or accept that opposing views are not evil. Like many aspects of human nature, our instincts are dictated by our environment. In this case, a varied population promotes what we can only call basic human decency. A political and philosophical mono-conversation does not.
This is not a demonization of California, any left-leaning large city, any right-leaning rural area, or the people who live in them. This is also not a glorification of Boise as some freethinking Utopia. I’ve met plenty of close-minded people from both political silos, who ironically each take my recent move as evidence that my views match theirs. They assume that I’m from California and must be as liberal as they are. Or they assume that because I left I must be as disgusted with California politics as they are. Neither are true and neither creates fertile ground for a new friendship.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum and where that places you relative to the majority view in your area, remember that people from each side need one another and if you try hard enough you can think of other views as simply different rather than dead wrong. Quite often, political ideologues are acting out of deeply natural instincts given the deeply unnatural societies that they find themselves in. But, the greatest achievement of our modern era is our understanding of human nature (with its evolutionary and tribal tendencies) and our ability to overcome it in the name of peace and progress. With a looming election and growing political divide, we need to strive even harder to overcome our fear of the other. Challenge yourself to find some good in that idiot candidate that the other side seems to blindly support. Challenge yourself to find some value in some opposing values. And challenge yourself to never mock a viewpoint, no matter how good it might feel.
If you want to stay with this line of thinking check out: