Partisan Mindlessness

For me, although it isn’t completely decisive, there are few things which more strongly seem to indicate a lack of intellectual courage and capability than when someone simply accepts a contemporary political narrative.

It’s astonishing to me how often this happens, among apparently intelligent people, on both sides of the political spectrum.

It’s astonishing how a person can accept a whole, one-sided list of political doctrines of the day without ever beginning to question any one of them. It’s amazing how the same arguments for each point are repeated almost verbatim, as if we’re talking to a single person wearing multiple faces.

And let’s be clear — there are people who will try to dress it up, speak vaguely and mysteriously, bring in a variety of quasi-theoretical considerations, when discussing what they believe or why they believe it, as if trying to redirect attention away from how obediently they have accepted their ephemeral political orthodoxy. But give them time. If they care more about feeling good as a member of a tribe than they do about pursuing wisdom, it will become clear what they believe and why, if we observe intelligently.

So then, how can we avoid falling prey to this tendency ourselves?

I have two suggestions. One is to take it as axiomatic that both left and right are equally stupid. I know the left will say that the right is full of uneducated hillbillies, and the right will say the left is full of brainwashed conformists. Maybe both are correct, I don’t know. But to avoid being a political drone, the trick is to avoid taking a side and applying a double standard. Instead, look for the wisdom in both sides, because there is much, and also keep an eye out for the stupidity of both, because it’s also not hard to find.

My second suggestion is less reliable. What I recommend is learning about economics and politics from nonpartisan, non-biased sources. The reason this is dicey is that someone on the right who wants to learn about economics might, for instance, take a book about libertarian economics and call it the dispassionate truth of things, and the left can do similarly on their side.

Still, while this second suggestion can be misunderstood or misused, I think it is worth saying. If we are lacking basic conceptual tools for making sense of what’s happening in the world of politics, it might be hard to see when one side of the fight is misrepresenting things.

And a hard lesson I’m learning is that this is something you just have to be okay to do only for yourself. Even intelligent people who have dug in on the partisan thing cannot be argued out of it, no matter how obviously deficient their arguments might be (and sometimes the arguments really are shockingly deficient). It’s hard to watch their intellectual self-disfigurement happening, when the remedy for their ills appears so simple, but in my experience this is an area where even otherwise-intelligent people just cannot learn and grow until they themselves are ready to.

So instead try to effect and to celebrate your own liberation from the basest conformity, and if possible, look on the willing suffering of the mindlessly partisan with some humour, and not with pity.

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