There is a lot of talk these days about ending the division in the United States. People on both sides of the political aisle are leading the discussion, and educators and media people are joining in. Unfortunately, few of these people have any clue what the real cause of the division is. To Democrats: No, it is not Donald Trump. To Republicans: No, it is not Nancy Pelosi! In fact, looking for any person to blame is not only a waste of time; it is also a guarantee that the problem will remain unsolved and its mischief will continue.
So what is the root cause of our division? A marriage of two views of human nature that obstruct meaningful communication. One view is Relativism; the other is Selfism.
Relativism holds that truth and goodness are not objective but subjective: in other words, not searched for and discovered but created by the individual. The idea grew out of J. J. Rousseau’s 18thcentury views that humans are naturally wise and good, evil resides outside rather than within the individual, and other people are responsible for what goes wrong in our lives. He also regarded emotion as more trustworthy than reason.
In the 20thcentury, Carl Rogers and others gave new emphasis to Rousseau’s views. He wrote, “When an activity feels as though it is valuable or worth doing, it is worth doing. . . . I have learned that my total . . . sensing of a situation is more trustworthy than my intellect.” He also claimed that “doing what ‘feels right’ [is a] trustworthy guide to behavior which is truly satisfying,” and that a person’s “own deep impulses are not destructive or catastrophic.” Like Rousseau, Rogers rejected the Judeo-Christian belief in Original Sin and the ancient idea of a struggle within each of us between evil and good.
Selfism is a set of attitudes and behaviors that expand on Rousseau’s and Rogers’ ideas about human nature and are most clearly expressed in the Self-esteem movement. The message of that movement may be expressed as follows: Because wisdom and goodness lie within me and error and evil/sin do not, I deserve to have high self-esteem. I should therefore refrain from self-criticism and reject other people’s criticism of me because both diminish my self-esteem and cause me harm. Here is an example of self-esteem teaching still found in many schools.
How have Relativism and Selfism—I will refer to them as R & S—have caused division? In these ways:
R & S inflate the ego, even to the point of narcissism, and that hinders respect for others. To be sure, some people have weak egos and are plagued by self-doubt and distrust of their ability to achieve, so they need to become more confident. But such people are not nearly as numerous as we have been led to believe. In fact, most of us need to deflate our egos rather than enlarge them.
R & S block the search for truth. This effect is unavoidable. People who are taught to believe “I am good. I am wise. I am wonderful” come to believe they already possess truth within them, so they feel no need to seek it outside themselves. They may still read books, watch videos, listen to lectures, but their purpose in doing so changes—instead of comparing ideas for validity, they seek to confirm what they already believe.
R & S cause people to be ruled by emotion. Beliefs play a major role in the formation of habits. Thus, those who believe that emotion is more reliable than reason tend to respond emotionally rather than rationally to the small and large challenges in life. For example, if they feel that someone has offended them, they will not consider the possibility that they have misunderstood what happened or that they are over-reacting. They will instead harden the feeling into a conviction. Furthermore, if one person shares their viewpoint and another does not, they will form positive feelings toward the first and negative feelings toward the second and never wonder whether either feeling is justified.
R & S stifle the process of reasoning. Reasoning is less spontaneous than emotion, so it must be mastered before it can be used effectively. The ancients, in fact, described emotion as a strong horse that pulls us wherever it will, and reason as the reins that enable us to control it. People who have come to believe that emotion is superior to reason lack the inclination to master or employ reason.
R & S make learning more difficult than it would otherwise be. Before students can learn from teachers, or for that matter from the experience of living, they must be motivated to learn. But R & S diminish that motivation by assuring them that they already know everything worth knowing.
R & S prevent discussion from being meaningful. They encourage people to approach conversation with the unreasonable expectation that the other individual will agree with their opinions and assertions. That expectation almost always entails not listening to the other person, or listening but making little effort to understand, let alone fairly consider what is said. The moment they realize that the other person is not meeting their expectation, they become angry and resort to interrupting and raising their voice.
These are the ways in which Relativism and Selfism have created the division that exists in our country today. Because they have existed for over half a century and have influenced several generations of Americans, they have become deeply embedded in our culture, a national habit if you will. Changing them will not only be difficult; it will require efforts in families, community organizations, schools and colleges, media and entertainment, and the workplace. The specific efforts will necessarily be numerous and varied, but one feature must be central to all of them—a more realistic and meaningful approach to conversation based on these understandings:
The primary purpose of discussing issues is not to persuade others but to learn which opinions represent the truth.
Participants will have different perspectives and different degrees of knowledge, so their opinions on issues may differ.
We all believe our opinions are reasonable and insightful, but that belief can be mistaken because all of us, regardless of our station or accomplishments, are capable of error. Keeping this in mind gives us humility and makes our discussions more meaningful.
Assertions by themselves prove nothing. Their value depends on the quality of the evidence and reasoning that supports them. The burden of demonstrating that quality rests with the one making the assertion, and that person should be prepared to have his/her supporting explanation closely examined and appraised.
When these understandings are present in our conversations—then and only then—can we expect the division in America to end and mutual respect and civility to be restored.
Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved