Partisanship is Killing us All

Our inability to engage in critical thought is threatening the nation, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash

When I was in school, I was taught that if I wanted to ride the merry-go-round, but someone else was already on it, I had to wait my turn. If the child proceeded to hog the merry-go-round, I could ask him/her to stop and share, and if that didn’t work, I could ask a teacher to intervene at the risk of being labeled a “tattle-tale” — which is a low thing to be called in playground speak, right? — or I could take things into my own hands by physically stopping the merry-go-round and forcing my way on, hoping that it wouldn’t lead to a tussle or some kind of academic punishment. No matter which option I took, my teacher and the school principal would continue to stress to myself and the merry-go-round-hogger: “Communication is important! You need to ask for what you want/need in a polite way. You both need to be open to compromise, and we all need to remember that it is good to share.”

The focus was always to push past our baser instincts and be a considerate, kind, and compassionate human being. To remember that our wants are not the only wants that matter. That good sportsmanship is better than tribalism and sour-grapes, and that there is always help to be found from an adult.

But now I am grown, and I am looking around at my peers, and I am wondering: Where are all the adults?

At the moment, our nation is operating more and more like a battleground than a playground. But the reason we’re here isn’t because we all want such different things (not at the core of it all). We’re here because we don’t know how to effectively discuss our plans to achieve those things. We’ve lost the ability to engage in critical conversation about policy and politics without partisanship and emotion getting in the way.

No one likes to be told they’re wrong.

The The New York Times recently published this article explaining that Republicans around the nation are so sick and tired of being asked the question “How can you still support Trump?” that they are primed to defend him even more fervently as a result.

Many of these voters say their lives and the country are improving under his presidency, and the endless stream of tough cable news coverage and bad headlines about Mr. Trump only galvanizes them further — even though some displayed discomfort on their faces when asked about the child separation policy, and expressed misgivings about the president’s character.
— Jeremy W. Peters for The New York Times

What fascinates me about this, and hopefully you too, is the very human truth that no one likes to be told they’re wrong. In fact, telling someone “You’re wrong/crazy/stupid/etc…” over and over and over again will almost always inflame that person’s indignity and result in them moving even closer to the thing they’re being derided for. We see this motif play out in time and again in the human narrative, be it a historical tale, religious allegory, folktale or a work of fiction. Wherever you look, this cautionary tale abounds: Forbid someone a certain fruit, and they will find a way to eat of it.

Or more clearly: Criticize a man, and he will endeavor onward just to prove you wrong.

In any battle to sway humankind, Spite is a dangerous but seductive foe — and its main enabler is emotion.

I can’t talk to you if you’re going to get all emotional about this.

Why do we cringe at other people’s emotions when we ourselves are often emotionally invested in a very tough conversation/difficult debate? Because too often a person’s response is coming from a “feeling” place, rather than a “thinking” place, which blocks us from being able to make progress within the conversation.

When we get mired in this emotional tit-for-tat, our emotions (if we don’t know how to correctly put them to work FOR us) pull us further and further away from sound logic and critical thinking. We don’t see this, of course, because our emotions are fueling the belief that we are “Right!” and the feeling of “Correctness” this cultivates is a very convincing emotion. It can completely take us over because one of the first things it does is turn off our ability to listen and think critically (not-emotionally) about what we are hearing.

The more emotional a debate becomes, the more likely we are to walk away with hurt feelings — a sensation which can’t help but frame the entire conversation in such a way as to make it nearly impossible for us to absorb anything other than emotion.

This, of course, brings us to practically every political conversation being had today.

Politics is personal. It is emotional. And while healthy political debate is a bedrock of democracy, we are living in a time of such heightened emotion and intense political panic, that we have let the false comfort of partisanship manipulate us into believing we are soldiers on a battlefield, rather than the passionate citizens of a democratic republic.

Our collective inability to engage in constructive dialogue fueled by critical thought is threatening the nation, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

Some of us are born to follow. Can that be changed?

I believe every human being has the capacity for critical thought, but I don’t think the trait is necessarily inherent.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. — The Foundation for Critical Thinking

It’s hard to push past our gut instinct (which is really just a combination of inherited and learned fears/biases) in order to look deeper into a topic — especially when that topic may go against your already-held opinions. Especially, especially, if you haven’t learned the critical thinking skills to accurately assess information.

And especially during a time (like now) where we are mired in a post-fact news/leadership scenario where the President himself lies on a regular basis and has a tendency to declare unfavorable reporting “Fake News”.

No matter what side of the political pond you drink from, I hope we can all agree that our current administration isn’t setting a strong example for critical thinking. Instead, Trump holds to an “off-the-cuff” and “trust-my-gut” brand of action. It’s disarming to those of us who know that this sort of behavior can lead to catastrophic results as everyone’s guts will inevitably let them down now and then.

Example: Trusting your gut on whether or not to eat a hunk of week-old salmon in the fridge is one thing. Trusting your gut on whether or not to feed week-old salmon to the nation, is something else entirely. In this scenario, wouldn’t we, the consumers, be asking, “Can we test this salmon first? Like, with experts? And then listen to the experts when they tell us it’s teeming with diarrhea-inducing bacteria? So that we maybe don’t, like, sh*t our pants?”

Socrates knew what he was talking about…

Why does it always come back to the Ancient Greeks?

Greece is often credited with inventing democracy. And basically, yeah — they did hand the whole concept down to us. But there are also some big differences between Ancient Greek’s democratic ideals and ours, that are FASCINATING in their own right (Seriously, check out what the National Geographic wrote about this in 2016). But it’s democracy isn’t a foolproof concept, and the USA isn’t called “The Great Experiment” for nothing. Our forefathers knew that the groundwork for a democratic constitutional republic they were laying down was ambitious (to the point of maybe being crazy), so they designed a system capable of growing with its people.

Doing so was brutally hard work, inspired by passionate optimism and monumental determination. It was also rife with many a heated exchange as our forefather’s engaged in rigorous debate. They obsessed over details they knew would effect every single American citizen to come and asked vital questions of one another, holding one another to impeccably high standards of critical thought.

Which brings us to another Ancient Greek contribution: The Socratic Method.

The Socratic method asks: Does the common sense of our day offer us the greatest potential for self-understanding and human excellence? Or is the prevailing common sense in fact a roadblock to realizing this potential? — Excerpt from Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

Basically (I’m summarizing — but there is more info HERE) Socrates realized that by asking questions, you could determine if a person’s claims to knowledge were based in evidence or feelings, and that doing so was important if you were going to trust that person to make decisions for you/your people.

He demonstrated that persons may have power and high position and yet be deeply confused and irrational. He established the importance of asking deep questions that probe profoundly into thinking before we accept ideas as worthy of belief. — The Foundation for Critical Thinking

The resulting “Method” of applying this principal then results in a cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, rooted in asking and answering questions in order to stimulate critical thinking. This results in evoking ideas and revealing our underlying presumptions.

Applying the Socratic Method then, which focuses on asking and answering questions in dialogue, encourages an inquiring mind and emphasizes applying elements of reasoning and logical relationships through disciplined thought and conversation.

The Foundation for Critical Thought has outlined the following five steps for individuals wishing to apply a Socratic approach:
a) keep the discussion focused
b) keep the discussion intellectually responsible
c) stimulate the discussion with probing questions
d) periodically summarize what has and what has not been dealt with and/or resolved
e) draw as many “students” as possible into the discussion.

In essence, by employing this method, we become students of every subject we ask questions of, in turn opening ourselves to learning unimpeded by emotional over-reaction. This is a much more productive (and healthier) place from which to engage in critical thought than the ring of emotional turbulence many of us are (unfortunately) more familiar with.

But who are we supposed to model this behavior on when many of today’s leaders have given over to hyperbole and emotional baiting, rather than the reasoned and rational debate of yore?

An example: When the President holds rallies that involve him leading chants about locking up past political opponents, he is intentionally stirring anger designed to blind the audience from engaging in thinking critically. Attendees aren’t asking “Hey! The election is over. Why are we still talking about the candidate who lost?” when the whole crowd is engaged in an angry or spite-fueled call-and-response. And that’s because Trump is in fact pulling a Wizard of Oz on his whole base through steady appeal to mostly negative emotions…

“Pay no attention to the man behind this rhetoric! I mean, do pay attention. I like the attention. I like it A LOT. But, like, just pay attention to the things I want you to pay attention to, okay? Like, I just signed an executive order making it okay for coal mines to pollute waterways, so maybe all you who live near those waterways are going to develop heinous health problems and get cancer and die, but HILLARY’S EMAILS, amiright? (I’m totally right) Boom!”

A Sidenote

In my own capacity to engage in critical thinking, here is where I ask the question “How can I talk about this without alienating Trump supporters when Trump is the most visible force using fear-based politics at the moment?” I don’t know that I have an answer that will satisfy a Republican reader. But I will say that I am not proposing the Democratic party is “better”, nor am I suggesting Republicans abandon their party as a result of Trump’s rhetorical style. I am, rather, asking the question “How can ALL of us hold our parties, and our politicians, to a higher standard of critical thought? Is there a way for the citizens of this nation to form a united front that demands a more productive national discourse even though we disagree on the style of political approach we should take to resolve our nation’s problems?”

The “Good Old Days”

Remember when John McCain chastised a protestor for shouting that Obama was an Arab? He was calling for basic decorum in a room that had already begun to degrade into schoolyard politics — the John McCains and Obamas of the world just didn’t know it.

It’s easier (and — in the moment — can feel more cathartic) to give in to your baser emotions when you are angry than it is to put those feelings aside and think critically about the facts. And “critical” is a tricky word here, because we tend to confuse it with “criticism” which means to criticize something, which isn’t the same thing as thinking critically.

Criticism is about finding fault with something. Critical thinking is about judgement, which can include finding faults and flaws, but has more emphasis on questioning and analysis. — Suzanne Manning

The Foundation for Critical Thinking further explains that a well-cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. — Foundation for Critical Thinking

But it isn’t just one thing or the other.

When we turn off — or under-develop — our critical thinking skills, and instead cling to highly charged centers of emotional reasoning, we are in essence “digging in” rather than committing to forward momentum. However, it would be impractical (and probably catastrophic) to try to dismiss our empathy/compassion centers completely in order to engage in “less emotional” political debate. The trick, rather, is to become aware of your emotions as they arise, consider them along with the facts, but not to let them derail or cloud the logic.

This brings us to Emotional Intelligence, which is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Just like our critical thinking skills, emotional intelligence can be learned and strengthened. (Ladders recently posted a great article on this very subject. You can read it HERE.)

Thou shalt not commit logical fallacies

The fact is, as more and more people succumb to emotional and reactionary debate, moving us further away from constructive national discourse, the probability of false logic and flawed reasoning dominating (and impeding) communication increases. This is not a warning about “Tough times to come” — logical fallacies are the current national trend, and we should all be greatly alarmed.

We see logical fallacies employed in person, online, in print, and on TV. Over and over again, rather than accept the sting of hearing that “our side” has erred, we lob back an emotional parry or manipulative shift, in an effort to lessen the weight of criticism. Of course, all this does is inflame the argument and prevent any sort of progress.

And we’re all exhausted from it!

The fact that the every day’s hot-button debate becomes “old news” in just a few short days is testament to the fact that we, as a nation, are completely overwhelmed and beaten down by the constant onslaught of things to fight about — not to mention the fact that we don’t collectively know how to debate these matters in a less-exhausting way.

When humans are unable to reach resolution through discussion and debate, there is massive historical evidence that we will begin picking up bigger and bigger sticks.

People who are used to applying critical thought do not know how to engage with those who are not, while those who are working from an emotional or “gut-instinct” position are probably just as stymied by the arguments being made by their opposition. This happens on both sides of the aisle and everywhere in between; no one party can declare itself the bastion of critical thinking.

Who does the chaos serve?

Perhaps the catalyst for change will come when we collectively realize the chaos of a disordered body politic only benefits those who wish to abuse power, and that — no matter our political differences — we need a political body and political figure-head that not only engages in critical thought, but who also embodies our most shared democratic principals.

Many of us still believe in Lincoln’s notion that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is a pretty good thing. Most of us, I would wager, believe that a President who has respect for the people, who leads with this nation’s best interest at heart, is also a very good thing. I’ll take you one step further and say that most of us genuinely want this nation to be a healthy and happy place that takes care of not just ourselves and our families, but our neighbors — even those we don’t agree with! — as well.

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

A foundation of shared truth and communal desire to thrive as a nation can be a touchstone for dedicated constructive dialogue between parties, and a deterrent against allowing partisanship to get in the way of healthy and productive debate. And I would ask every reader to consider this in light of the fact that no matter how much we disagree, and no matter who we blame — unless you’re a million/billionaire — we’re all in this boat together.

Shouldn’t we be working together to keep it afloat?

You are me is we are them… is America

The first step towards productive and constructive conversation between parties, then, is to start thinking critically again, even if our administration isn’t demonstrating this for us.

“If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost.” — Aristotle

As a people, we can’t engage with our government if we give all the power to our politicians and then spend the rest of our precious energy screaming at each other across party lines. When we lose the ability to engage in constructive discourse, when we shore ourselves against compassion towards our opponents in the name of tribalism, when we cling to unproven and emotional statements lest we let evidence make us uncomfortable, we surrender our humanity and our civic responsibility.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

We should never forget these American truths: Politicians work for us. Not the other way around. Our political parties work for us. Not the other way around.

It’s time we start demonstrating the kind of leadership we aspire to see.

It’s time to adopt a healthy habit of inquiry and analysis, turn up our critical thinking skills, and band together as a nation to eliminate destructive partisanship divisiveness before it’s too late.

Thinking thoughts, writing them down… trying not to scream in the interim. Also: Playwright. Professor. Mom. Wife. Cat-Servant. Follow @LadyPlaywright

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