Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Let's Try to Keep an Open Mind

Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.
-- Sir James M. Barrie

To what extent can we know another's motives?

Are people opposed to same-sex marriage homophobic bigots? Or do they value tradition or religious beliefs more than allowing gay people to get married? Are they torn about the issue, pulled one way by their hearts and another by their religious convictions?

Are supporters of abortion irresponsible, immoral sluts who want to escape the consequences of their actions? Or do they believe that a woman has sovereignty over her body or that the costs of criminalizing abortion are too steep? Are they torn?

Are politicians whores who will say anything for a vote or idealists who are working within the system as well as they can? (Okay, probably whores.)

Lately, I've been reading some conservative-leaning blogs which routinely assume bad -- or bizarre -- motives for liberals' actions. They seem to assume liberals do everything out of misplaced guilt or a shallow desire to pat themselves on the back for being politically correct.

I've been making the same mistake about conservatives' motives. I've assumed that many vociferous opponents of illegal immigration are barely-disguised racists and that opponents of welfare and affirmative action don't care about the poor and minorities.

I think it's time we stop assuming. If someone does one thing and says another, we may point it out. If one admits to a motive we find reprehensible we should argue forcefully with them. But if someone takes a position without stating a motive, or claims a motive about which we are skeptical but have no counter-evidence, let's stick to the arguments presented rather than arguing about what's going on inside other people's brains.


Nephtuli said...

You got a deal. :-)

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Agreed. Other things always seem to divert us from the hard slogging of debating the pros and cons of a contentious issue.

Only God knows what's in people's hearts, and deflecting attention to people's motives tends to generate all heat, no light.

Similarly, I am deeply concerned about the polarization of American society, where people seem to follow party lines rather than look at the merits of an argument. That isn't so much about motives as about power. Everybody wants their group to gain the upper hand, so they can shape society according to their predilections. I think it's a natural consequence of being such a powerful country — everybody wants to be the one who wields that power.

Half Sigma said...

It's well established that people make political arguments based on emotions not logic.

So writing a blog post about what the people making a political argument are feeling makes sense to me.

Jewish Atheist said...

Half Sigma:

Only if you have some reason to believe you know what they are feeling. Since you were the person who most inspired this post, I'd venture to say you don't. :-)

There are generally at least two dinstinct feelings which can lead to the same conclusion.

Or, if you really want to argue about the feeling, argue the feeling, not the issue.

CyberKitten said...

Broadly speaking you can never know what someone is *really* thinking. You can only make informed guesses from what they say & what they do. Divining motives, beliefs or predictions of future behaviour is an art.... but not altogether a futile activity...

R10B said...

JA echoes Luke 6:37 (Judge not...) and other verses where we are warned against indulging in our fallen human tendency to think we know what we cannot know.

I see this tendency everywhere I turn including the mirror, especially when criticizing another's personal religious or political beliefs. I am acutely aware of how complex I am yet I, instinctively it seems, see others as two-dimensional twits...square pegs that I can pound into those available round holes.

Such judgementalism is usually fades away in the face of a personal relationship, even if the actions still seem disagreeable.

Thanks for the reminder, JA.

asher said...

J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan? The guy who invented the name, "Wendy". The Lost Boys, Never never land, and Capt Hook....

jewish philosopher said...

If someone disagrees with me, I would like to understand - where did this unbelievable error come from?

And by the way, I personally have incredibly pure motives ;-).

Laura said...

It is difficult to step away from your own beliefs long enough to see an argument from another's point of view - especially when such heated topics are the focus.

You've stumbled onto what social psychologists have called the Fundamental Attribution Error. It's a common human shortcoming.

I try to be more conscious of this type of bias - but sometimes emotions win out...

Chana said...

Yay Jewish Atheist!

Can you take it further?

Orthodox Jews are not necessarily evil, backward people who refuse to look at the truth and atheists are not evil, brainwashed people who enjoy taunting those unlike them.

Hurrah! This is fun.

Jewish Atheist said...

Can you take it further?

Orthodox Jews are not necessarily evil, backward people who refuse to look at the truth and atheists are not evil, brainwashed people who enjoy taunting those unlike them.

Of course! I never thought that about Orthodox Jews. I know them too well.

ADDeRabbi said...

it's not just a political phenomenon. see:

musical revelation said...

You've hit on one of the principal cures for the ills of humanity. Nice piece.