Do you ever wonder whether everything you believe is wrong?
I mean, not ‘everything’, obviously – I’m sure we all believe many, many true things. But do you ever wonder whether your deeply held beliefs, the pillars of your world-view, the informational basis around which you organize yourself as a moral or ethical member of society, as a citizen, might be wrong?
I worry about this all the time. I’m someone who, a generation ago, would have identified as a moderate conservative with liberal social values, which position today makes me pretty solidly liberal. I live in the Northeast, surrounded by other liberals, and the constant lament these days, the endless question, is:
How can conservatives believe the things that they believe? Don’t they see that their views are incoherent? That their new President lies? How can they so casually disregard science, fact, data, consistency?
I am sure that conservatives wonder the same things about liberals; I read conservative news, so I know for a fact that they do. When two opposing sides disagree about the nature of reality, when each is sure that they are correct, when they will state opposite “facts” with equal confidence and each side rejects the “facts” of the other, my question is this:
How can you be sure you’re on the right side? How do you know that it’s the other side that is deafened by their echo chamber, and not yours?
As far as I can tell, I am the only person in the country right now worrying about this. Everyone else seems very sure that they are on the right side, and they become more sure every day. Thus, the two sides grow further apart.
I’m not sure I’m right. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m wrong. I’m sure I hold some number of beliefs which are completely ass-backwards – I just don’t know which ones.
How can you tell if your mind is open? How would you measure such a thing? I read people who disagree with me, and sometimes they persuade me: does this happen enough? Too much? If it doesn’t happen often, is that because I’m closed-minded, or because I’m already mostly right?
Whenever I find myself very sure that my side is right, I think back (bear with me) to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. I was just a kid when O.J. went to trial, but I remember quite clearly that all the adults in my affluent and mostly-white world were sure that O.J. was guilty.
More than that, these adults were dismayed by what they saw as the shameless race-baiting of O.J.’s lawyers, which they considered manipulative and transparently false. O.J. was one of the most famous men in the country: of course the police weren’t being racist with him. Of course they hadn’t planted that glove, that accusation was elaborate, absurd. The police might have been racist in Montgomery in the 1950’s, but this was the 1990’s, L.A.: they didn’t frame black men anymore.
And I remember that they all seemed disturbed that black Americans had fallen for the cynical ploy of lawyers. It seemed credulous and paranoid to the adults around me, for whom the police were an accommodating if obstructionist presence. It seemed as if race mattered more to them (black people) than truth, as if they were willing to overlook facts in order to stay loyal to their side.
None of these white adults would have identified themselves as racist; they would have been hurt and offended by the accusation. But it never seemed to occur to them that, perhaps, every black person in America wasn’t paranoid, that when they said that it was plausible to them that the L.A.P.D. would try to frame the most famous black man in America, it was because they were having very different experiences with police than white people. That the world, that even their own country, was much bigger than their experience.
But no one around me seemed to figure that out then – it wasn’t until decades later, when dash cam footage showed police shooting and killing many unarmed black men, that we understood how the police looked to other Americans.
I think about this whenever I hear liberals lament the blindness of conservatives, because I hear them say the same things about those conservatives that we said about black Americans: that they care more about their team than about ‘reality’. The implication is that we are superior or smarter, that we see more clearly, that ‘we’ know what reality is. I’m not sure that’s true. That wasn’t the case back then – maybe it’s not the case now. Because, sometimes, the problem isn’t whether you see clearly or not; it’s that you only believe what you see yourself, but the world is much, much bigger than what any one side can see.
So I wonder: what am I missing now? What don’t I know? What can’t I see? What are my prejudices? How can I tell the difference between when you are wrong and when I am wrong? I am sure we are both wrong much of the time, but how can I tell which is which? I’m frantic to know this, to see into the darkness of my own ignorance and error. I just need a light I can trust.
Reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict, taken from atlantablackstar.com