Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Posts Tagged demonization

If you don’t agree with me there is something wrong with you: An introduction to naive realism

Ever notice that anyone going slower than you is an idiot, and everyone going faster than you is a maniac? 

Is it possible that people driving slower than us are actually idiots and that people driving faster than us are maniacs? Absolutely. Is it possible that we are idiots for driving faster or slower than them? Absolutely… although our brains seem to steer us toward the assumption that we are right and other people acting or thinking differently from us are the deviants.

This phenomenon is called "naive realism." As naive realists, we tend to think that we see events, people, and the world as they really are, free from any distortion due to self-interest, dogma, or ideology. We also tend to assume that other fair-minded people will share our views, as long as they have the same information as I do (also known as the "truth") and that they process that information in the objective, open-minded fashion that we did. Lastly, we generate three possible explanations for why other people might not share our views:
  1. They haven't been told the truth.
  2. They are too lazy or stupid to reach correct interpretations and conclusions, or
  3. They are biased by their self-interest, dogma, or ideology.

An important and related phenomenon is the "false consensus effect." Here, we see that people tend to assume that the decisions that they make are the ones most people would make and that these are the morally-right decisions to make. Because these are the "normal" decisions to make, these decisions reveal less about our idiosyncrasies and individual values. When people make different decisions or take different positions, we assume that it is because of their character and their values (or lack thereof).
Naive realism and false consensus effects are barriers to civil political dialogue and they provide a lens through which we can better understand why liberals and conservatives seem incapable of communicating with one another without calling each other names or assuming that the other side is evil (Hitler-like, the Anti-Christ, or subhuman). 

It is difficult to surmount these seemingly basic human tendencies, and we may not even want to overcome all of them. Vigorous debate and intragroup disagreement is healthy for democracy. Thinking that our views are correct and assuming others would share our views likely serve to promote our defense of our ideals and our preferred policies. The problem, though, emerges when disagreement devolves to demonization. Understanding how to prevent this shift is the central goal of my colleagues and friends at, and the most reliable method to minimize demonization seems to reside in promoting relationships between individuals who disagree. In previous generations, where demonization was less rampant, our elected officials spent time with one another outside of work, interacted with each others' families, and knew each other as people, and not just partisan adversaries. Calling someone evil and a liar is much more difficult and unlikely if you know you must face that person's spouse and children later that night over the dinner table.

So, as you are having discussions with people who hold beliefs different from your own and you are trying to enlighten them with "truth," think about whether you could face that person's family over the dinner table after making your argument. If not, you may want to reconsider your argument and think about whether you're being a dogmatic naive realist.

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Federalist 1, Glenn Beck 0

I have a confession to make: I enjoy listening to Glenn Beck. He's funny, quirky, and always interesting. He presents a coherent moral worldview that is widely shared in America, and that I respect. It is based on personal responsibility, patriotism, tradition, and the Protestant Work Ethic. (See my essay on The Karma of the Tea Party.)
As a political centrist who is passionate about the need for civility in politics, I have one enormous grudge against Beck: he demonizes relentlessly. If he critiqued Obama's agenda ruthlessly, showing every day that it was out of touch with the vision of the founding fathers, his would be a valuable conservative voice raising a reasonable critique. But does he have to say that Obama's real goal is to destroy America? Does he have to bring in radical leftists such as Cloward and Piven and claim, bizarrely, that Obama's real goal is to "bring down the system" so that there can be a radical leftist revolution? Isn't it perfectly obvious that Obama is an intellectual technocrat who sincerely believes that government can be improved and made more effective by drawing on the latest and best social science research? Isn't Cass Sunstein (Obama's regulatory "czar") the ultimate champion of  "nudges" and other gentle ways to make things work better? So why does Beck continually demonize Sunstein as "the most dangerous man in America"?
I thought that's where things stood – a conflict of visions between conservatives who favor small government, as did the Founding Fathers, versus liberals who favor more activist government, the heirs of FDR. But then I started reading The Federalist papers, which Beck and the Tea Partiers urge us all to do. The essays, written in 1787 and 1788 by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, are as brilliant and timely as Beck says. I was stunned to find that in Federalist #1, Hamilton describes our current situation and the Tea Party critique precisely. But it is quite clear that if Hamilton were alive today, he'd be arguing AGAINST Beck and the Tea Partiers.
Remember that the Federalists were arguing FOR concentrating powers in the hands of the Federal government, after living through the national disgrace that was the decentralized Articles of Confederation. The Federalists wrote in response to critics of the new constitution who feared that it would infringe too strongly on individual liberty. Here's the key passage, which I have annotated [in brackets]:


To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties [the anti-Federalists], we shall be led to conclude thatthey will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives [i.e., the anti-Federalists are akin to today's Tea Partiers]. An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government [i.e., Obama and Sunstein] will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty [i.e., Obama will be compared to a collectivist dictator]….  It will be forgotten, on the one hand… that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust [i.e., paranoia]. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty [as liberals have argued since the Civil Rights movement]; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people [i.e., Beck and the Tea Partiers] than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government [i.e., Obama and Sunstein]. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people [i.e., Beck and Palin]; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.

A basic principle of moral psychology is that "thinking is for doing." People find evidence to confirm whatever moral judgment they have already made. I'm sure Beck can find passages elsewhere in the Federalist Papers that support his view. But the opening essay is awfully clear, and awfully hard to spin against Obama.
Glenn Beck loves his country and believes he is engaged in a battle of good versus evil. He has good intentions. But the road to hell, serfdom, and (according to Hamilton) tyranny is paved with good intentions acted out by demonizers.

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