When both sides of a controversy revel in the defeat and humiliation of the other side, in fact they are on the same side: the side of war. Charles Eisenstein
Perhaps you have noticed the certitude people on both sides seem to have regarding the accusation by Professor Ford of an assault by Supreme Court Nominee Judge Kavanaugh back in the 1980s. It brings to mind Oprah’s oft-repeated, sobering question, “What do you know for sure?” As much of the country grapples with the fallout from this conflict and an upcoming election, let me suggest three well-researched lessons that provide some perspective and might keep us from losing our minds.
First, let’s look at three possibilities. One, what Professor Ford is saying is true. Despite being hazy on related facts, she was assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh as she described. Two, what Judge Kavanaugh is saying is true – that he did not assault Ford and has never done such a thing to anyone else. On the surface, possibilities one and two seem mutually exclusive – one of them has to be decidedly wrong.
However, in the real world there is a third possibility: Both of them are telling the truth as they see it. She remembers a traumatic experience of being aggressively attacked and was in fear for her life. He categorically denies that he assaulted her and doesn’t remember anything like that – after all it was 35 years ago and all the parties were likely under the influence of alcohol. If you have seen the Showtime series “The Affair” they use a device of telling the story from the standpoint of each of the two lead characters. Not surprisingly their views are generally similar but in very important and specific ways very different.
So, the third possibility is that something significant happened – he or someone did something that might range from an ill-conceived sexual overture to attempted rape. These are incredibly serious matters – with the possibility of an assault victim ignored or an innocent person falsely accused. Yet as of this writing it is unlikely we can “know for sure” what happened.
When We Cannot Be Sure – 3 Lessons
So, what are we to do when we are not sure?
One of the worst things we can do when we are not sure is to act like we are sure. Is there anyone more objectionable than someone who acts like they know the unknowable? Life is full of circumstances where we wish we knew more. But we don’t. If we are to hold together as a society, it is really important how we treat each other in the face of highly consequential decisions where there are big differences that have no provable answer. Here are three lessons, backed by research, that might help us hang together rather than coming apart.
1. Beyond a point, more information does not make us more competent, but only more confident. The CIA’s The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis provides an example of how, beyond a certain point, more information fails in helping us draw better conclusions. Bookmakers were asked to predict the outcome of horse races using 10 key statistical variables. Then they were provided substantial additional information and asked to predict again. The additional information did not improve their accuracy in predicting racing outcomes but did increase their confidence.
As humans, we have always had differences of opinions.What’s new is the flood of information available to us today from the internet, commentary from cable news, and endless debates on social media.Like the handicapper, beyond a certain point, we do not become more competent.We just become more confident and assured.Which means we are less open to hear from others, listen to divergent points of view or to change our mind.
It reminds me of a boss I had early in my career.Our saying about him was “often wrong but seldom in doubt.”It feels like we have a whole society that is often wrong but seldom in doubt these days. The result:false confidence and arrogance which endanger what competence we have.
2. Like-minded deliberation leads to more extreme views. As conflict ratchets up in warfare, so does the number of those wounded. The greater our losses or humiliations in the culture wars, the more likely we are to seek the solace of the like-minded who will share our views – and our blind spots. We move from seeking objective sources to indulging in biased, protective ones. Moderating influences are replaced by those that polarize.
Research supports the notion that the more like-minded a deliberating group is on cultural or political issues, the more extreme it is likely to become. J.A.F. Stoner at MIT studied the effects years ago. He expected to find that a group of likeminded people who deliberated on topics would move or moderate to the center, but the opposite occurred.In fact, James Surowiecki in validated these findings by coming at the topic from the opposite position, positing that diverse individuals operating independently very often made wiser choices.Diversity not only has a moderating effect, it makes us smarter.
Over and over we see organizations or administrations make stunningly poor judgments because leaders are engaged in groupthink. One of the saving graces of democracy is the way diverse and independent opinions are aggregated in the voting process. Unfortunately, in recent years people have mitigated some of this benefit by clustering together for like-minded support. (Gerrymandering of congressional districts has further exacerbated the problem.)
Bill Bishop, author of points out that in 1976 less than 25 percent of Americans lived in places where the Presidential election was a landslide.David Wasserman at Cook Political reports that in the 2016 Presidential election 70 percent of U.S. voters lived in landslide precincts (20%+ margin either way), up from 64% in 2012.Minority opinion holders in heavily majority counties not only vote less, but also tend to withdraw from all forms of public life, including volunteering.The result: As we cluster into like-minded groups we become more extreme, less “smart,” and minority groups become less engaged.
3. The forces for conflict escalation have accelerated and grown more destructive. If you are rightfully concerned about annihilation from the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the destructive consequences of trade wars or the risk of a highly combative President then you are keyed into the risk of rapid, destructive conflict escalation. In my essay last year, “The New Religion: Destructive Escalation” I described the well-researched five steps of the destructive escalation cycle. Retaliation, stereotyping, disassociation, polarization, violation. The first three steps – retaliating against enemies, stereotyping the enemy as all the same and disassociating from them – have changed little.
It is what happens in the last two steps – polarization and violation – that has sharply intensified.The vast array of media choices – networks, cables news, web sites, blogs, podcasts – and the incredible power of social media mean that the speed, volume and variety of information create a new dynamic.The media gets rewarded for non-stop drama and news-making delivered to consumers increasingly addicted to a dopamine-fed delivery mechanism.As YouTube star Matt Lee points out, “Divisive content is the king of online media today, and YouTube heavily boosts anything that riles people up.”
As people disassociate from the “other,” interact more with like-minded people, and seek out like-minded information that affirms them, three things happen:First, moderate voices are silenced, punished and often expelled.Second, media rewards the most extreme voices.Third, leaders compete for power and media coverage by making more extreme claims about the opposition.It is this combustible cocktail of media, technology and leadership competition that is new to this world.That is what hastens the process to the last step:violation.This final step means dehumanizing the “other” sufficiently to permit physical or emotional harm.It legitimizes eliminating the other.
The Kavanaugh vs. Ford story confronts us with a stark challenge:The challenge is how do we become like-minded or even passive around controversial issues.That is neither likely or even desirable.The challenge is that our overconfidence, extremism and escalation will collectively legitimize mutual destruction.The big risk is that we devolve from ideological extremists to “relational extremists” engaging in destructive verbal and emotional assault.
Today’s virtual world gives the illusion that waging this warfare is cheap – after all its just words on a screen.But the greater reality is that we are on a trajectory that will be extremely costly to endure.Cumulatively, if each side continues to escalate and then de-humanize the other, then both sides are on the same side – the side of war.More than ever before, we must look in the mirror and ask:Am I an or a in this cultural arms race?