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The Real Enemy in the “War On Partisanship”

Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote about Black Privilege in the Los Angeles Times, saying (emphasis added):

While prejudice and inequality have proven tenacious, if we take the expression “black lives matter” seriously, we must also accept when black autonomy, equality and even privilege exist. To do otherwise is like overprescribing antibiotics: a valuable defensive tool grows impotent through overuse. Our reflexive indignation fosters a laziness of thought that, paradoxically, can reinforce some of the very anti-black biases it hopes to wipe out.

Which gets me thinking….

“Laziness of thought” might be the real enemy in the war on partisanship.

Jonathan Haidt and Liz Joyner, both of whom lean left, are NOT lazy thinkers.  They’re critical thinkers. I like to think I’m a critical thinker too.  I lean right.

It’s much easier for me to have a civil, productive conversation with either of them than with lazy thinkers of ANY political leaning, including those on my side of the political aisle. 

Everybody is predisposed to lean left or right.  Moral foundations help to determine the way we lean.  Critical thinking doesn’t change that, nor, I think, can it, nor should it.  It’s from partisanship that we receive the gift of being able to see the speck in the eye of those with whom we disagree while being blind to the log in our own.  It is through that gift, and the exchange of ideas that follows from it, that new knowledge emerges. 

But based on my own personal first hand experience I can honestly say that conversations among critical thinkers tend to be much more respectful and civil, and tend to reveal much more common ground between the two sides, than conversations among people who are lazy thinkers set in their ways.    It seems that among critical thinkers the grand narrative does not trump knowledge and evidence anywhere near as much as it does among lazy thinkers, if at all. 

In this respect I think the objective of Haidt’s Heterodox Academy – increasing political/intellectual diversity and academia – is a means to an end; it’s not the actual end.

The actual end, the real objective, as I see it, is to replace, as much as is possible, lazy thinking with critical thinking.

The real objective is not, nor can it ever be, the elimination of partisanship.  The phrase “the war on partisanship” is a misnomer.

Partisanship is, after all, just another word for what Haidt calls “groupishness.” Humans evolved to form into groups of people similar to ourselves which then compete with other groups for political power. Shared intent of this kind is what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom and makes cooperative society possible. Partisanship groupishness is a natural and inevitable consequence of fundamental human nature. We have about as much chance of stopping it through social engineering as we have of making a law that stops the tide from coming in. And as the old margarine commercials used to say, “It’s not nice to fool mother nature,” because bad things usually happen when we try to engineer societies in ways that deny/defy human nature. A “war on partisanship” would be futile, if not dangerous.  If, on the other hand, the education system did its job properly and we were all better at critical thinking and less prone to lazy thinking, it would be much easier for us to have productive civil conversations.

The phrase “war on partisanship” is only a misnomer.  Worse, its also a false goal that if achieved would arguable do more harm than good because it would mean the end of seeing the specks in each others eyes and through that the end of the development of new knowledge. 

The “war,” rightly understood, is not against partisanship,  it is against lazy thinking. 

In this regard the objective my education program, and of Liz Joyner’s The Village Square are the same as that of Haidt’s Heterodox Academy; to reduce lazy thinking and replace it with critical thinking. 

For that matter, isn’t that the aim of education in general?  Isn’t the right and proper role of academia to replace lazy thinking with critical thinking?  And if the answer to that question is “yes,” then isn’t an ideologically pure academe virtually guaranteed to fail at its primary purpose? 

History is fluid, always moving. The situation at any moment in time is a culmination of every moment that came before it, and at the same time it’s the precursor to all the moments to follow.  The state of partisanship is today is merely the current footstep in a never ending journey. The steps we’ve already taken are what got us here. But we can decide which steps to take next. That decision will determine what follows. If efforts like my education program, Heterodox Academy, and The Village Square can re-focus the education system back to its true task then we will have indeed “changed the path” to a direction that’s better for all of us.  


One thought on “The Real Enemy in the “War On Partisanship”

  1. Thanks for the thoughts. It’s good to see a decent treatment of polarization from a conservative perspective. The current effort to reduce partisanship typically has a liberal impetus, and liberal biases are seen to often be built-in. We liberals are trying to reduce resistance against our proposals, and are convinced that eliminating conservative distance and unhealthy money effects would fix that. This isn’t naive, per se, or even necessarily innaccurate; it’s just incomplete. Polarization exists, as Bishop says toward the end of the article you link to, to accomplish certain goals, and it continues because it’s succeeding. This perspective is simply ignored in a lot of these bipartisan efforts. Much of the business of politics is about standing athwartship of something, for instance, which polarization is designed to facilitate. Moreover, increased competition and foment is both natural and appropriate as policy stakes increase, and it’s arguable that policy stakes are increasing greatly in these times.

    Liberalism’s attitude about polarization is the attitude of the winners in the culture wars. ‘Let us talk, and we’ll have a give-and-take that will solve our problems’ is the kind of thing management might say in a labor dispute. Lets be reasonable; we’re all reasonable here. Polarization is a technique of an embattled minority- ‘we’re not playing your game’ is like being labor, threatening to strike. Different situations, same reasons for it.

    Another aspect of liberalism’s approach to polarization is the neglect of good-faith efforts in the name of doing the right thing, such as President Obama’s ‘we tried with you, and couldn’t get compromise, so we’re going it on our own’. It’s as if we want our cake and eat it, too: we want conservatives to listen and compromise, and we want to take advantage of any potential to get what we want done, no matter how the policy may be decried on the right. This tendency is another indication that we’re engaging in game theory, or using whatever approach has the best chance to get us what we want.

    There are many historical and procedural reasons for polarization. In a recent talk, I went over 7; Jon Haidt talked about 10, I believe. But the one that matters the most, which Jon didn’t mention, is the relatively recent stout effort to stand athwart the undeniable progress of liberalism since the ’60’s. As a liberal, I see most of those U.S. lurches to the left as addressing an unprecedented, uncontrolled set of social changes, with mixed results, and I don’t see most of them as particularly voluntary. But that perspective isn’t shared by people who view what I see as necessary adjustments as ghastly, or engaging in fantasy, or unhealthy. Modern polarization is part of the way we address that widening difference. The underlying rapid changes in the world drive polarization, as the appropriate responses to those changes becomes more important, and less agreed upon.


    Posted by jswagner | January 4, 2016, 10:46 pm

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