No, YOU'RE a jerk


Another week, another case of people jumping to conclusions about what horrible people their fellow Americans are based on a perceived wrong. And, again, they are jumping to that conclusion without waiting for the facts, which should be embarrassing when the true facts come to light.

But, in fact, the conclusion jumpers simply pivot to “well, even if it’s not true in this case, it’s still true.” Which is both accurate and stupid at the same time.

THEN the aggrieved side… well, both sides are aggrieved… then the side who did NOT jump to the conclusion promptly jumps to the conclusion that, since the facts were wrong in this case, then every case like this one is clearly false. Which is stupid and not accurate.

I read a recent study – of course, I can’t find it now – that explored why people take such extreme stands in cases that seem questionable; for example, on some fantastical conspiracy being carried out by the opposing political party.

The answer is because people are human (duh), and humans spend a lot of their time signaling their virtue and like-mindedness to other humans in their tribe. And the more extreme the case about which they are signaling, the more virtuous they must be. Any slob – in fact, most slobs – can be outraged by a straightforward case of racist harassment. But it takes a real believer to take a very public, very aggressive stand on a very questionable case of racist harassment.

According to the study that I promise I read, that is why there are so many problematic issues that split people: when the facts are not certain, then it’s an opportunity for zealots on both sides to prove to their fellow zealots how committed they are.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes the point in Righteous Minds: Why Good People are Divided on Politics and Religion that “Moral reasoning is part of our lifelong struggle to win friends and influence people…You’ll misunderstand moral reasoning if you think about it as something people do by themselves in order to figure out the truth.”

In fact, you could make a good case that my entire post today is just me signaling what I think are virtuous characteristics to other people.

The problem is that every time we conduct one of these national chest-beating contests, it divides us even further because it drives what is perceived as “normal” further to the extremes, and that makes it more difficult to have reasonable conversations about the important issues that we need to address.

Victor Frankl said, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

We need to live more in that space where we are choosing our response, rather than being slave to our instinctive reactions.

It doesn’t come naturally, because humans are animals that evolved to put a premium on signaling to our tribe that we belong, and identifying and attacking “the other” is a central tool for doing that.

It’s only human.

But in this case, that human tendency is tearing our greater tribe apart.

Maybe we should consider being less human, and more humane.


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