September 28, 2018

Dear Drama Observers,

Years ago, the speaker at a conference I was attending talked to us about the levels of certitude we ascribe to our beliefs. I should’ve taken better notes, but this was my take-away from that presentation.

Picture, if you will, three concentric circles.

The innermost circle contains those beliefs about which I am most certain, which is why I might refer to them as my “core beliefs.” Those center-circle ideas animate my passions and I wouldn’t give them up at the point of a gun—at least, I hope I wouldn’t. I’m convinced I’m right about those things and others who don’t share my beliefs are just wrong in my view. Consequently, I feel obligated to persuade others to believe what I believe.

The second concentric circle contains ideas that I believe, but I’m not dogmatic about them. My stance towards second-circle ideas is, “I think I’m right about those things, but I might very well be wrong.” I wouldn’t die for those ideas. In fact, I’d be willing to alter them if a persuasive enough case to the contrary could be made. I have friends who hold different opinions about second-circle ideas, and I’m fine with that. You won’t find me out on the streets proselytizing for ideas in the second circle.

The third concentric circle contains ideas that almost everyone agrees are speculative. I have no firm opinions about those things one way or another because, after all, who knows? How many angels fit on the head of a pin? Is there life on planets in other solar systems? What causes Cher to never age? What explains the public fascination with the Kardashians? Such things are not within the grasp of human comprehension, and we mostly agree that nobody knows.

Now, visualize those concentric circles once again. Notice that the inner circle contains the least amount of space, with each circle containing more space as you move outward. We attribute the highest amount of certitude to just a few ideas but are willing to admit our uncertainties about a whole host of things. We can be comfortable with the words of Paul Feynman who said, “I would rather ask questions that can’t be answered than provide answers that can’t be questioned.” At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work… more on that in a minute.

Here’s another observation. We tend to think that the more education we receive, the more dogmatic we become about a greater number of things. But something closer to the opposite is true. The center circle becomes less populated with advanced education, not more. The seminar presenter put it this way:

I started my graduate training with the expectation that the more I knew, the more dogmatic I’d become about more things. I thought my second circle would shrink and my center circle would grow. But the exact opposite happened. My center circle shrank, containing fewer ideas about which I’m willing to be dogmatic. But I can now defend those ideas much better than I once could. My second circle now contains more ideas about which I’m not so certain. I think I’m right, but I could be wrong. And if friends of mine hold differing opinions about second-circle ideas, we get along just fine.

I bring all this up as a contrast to what’s currently happening in our increasingly tribalized culture. Inside a tribe, all ideas are dogmatically embraced, and all ambiguities are vanquished. Everything is certain; nothing can be questioned. All ideas are squeezed into the center circle and “non-believers” must be persuaded or conquered. “Intellectual simplification,” noted G.K. Chesterton, “is never far from fanaticism.”

Writing this week in The Washington Post, columnist Michael Gerson observes,

There is a strong current of dehumanization running in our politics. The rival crew, it turns out, is not only wrong but evil. And how can mortal enemies embrace the give and take of a shared political project? Only the raw exercise of power can decide between them. The goal is no longer to win arguments but to crush opposition… This is not politics as usual; it is political pyromania. Our democracy is designed for disagreement. It is broken by mutual contempt.

And this from Damon Linker writing in The Week:

Fair-minded observers of the circus should be staking out their positions with far more humility and tentativeness than they are. That is, of course, if they care more about reaching the truth than contributing to the advancement of a scorched-earth partisan crusade… Suspending final judgment is hard, because it means keeping one’s mind open, and showing a willingness to change it far longer than most people in our highly polarized times are willing to countenance.  

George Gobel, the 1960’s comic who always portrayed insecurity with comedic genius, once asked Johnny Carson, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

If you’re up for a challenge and can withstand the pressure of being brown shoes in a tuxedo world, try being a second-circle person in a first-circle culture. That’s becoming an increasingly difficult position to stake out. Here’s what often comes with that territory:

  • You’ll be pressured to place tribal fealty above the pursuit of truth.
  • Your motives will be misunderstood and mischaracterized (i.e. You must be one of “them”).
  • You’ll be called names like squish, idiot, naïve, stupid, or weak.
  • You’ll condescendingly be told, “You just don’t get it.”
  • You’ll lose relationships or be unfriended on social media by people you once thought were friends.
  • Your peer group may become increasingly smaller.

Indeed, you’ll lose some things, but there are at least two things you’ll get to keep.

First, you’ll keep your integrity and self-respect. Those qualities atrophy when allegiance to tribe supersedes allegiance to truth. But maintaining your principles beefs them up.

Second, you’ll gain a potential to persuade your ideological opponents that tribal members forfeit when they join the tribe. Tribal members preach to their choirs, but no outsiders are persuaded. Second-circle people sometimes gain converts because they stay in the zone where ideas can be debated and opposing views can be respectfully considered.

Being brown shoes in a tuxedo world may not be fashionable, but then… clothes don’t make the man.

Till next week.

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