My Beliefs (and Yours) May Not be True

All of us take the position that what we believe about a given issue (in politics and every other area of public discourse) is true, and we are prepared to give our reasons for taking that position.

But what many of us are slow to acknowledge is that our believing that our position on a given issue is true is deeply informed by what scholars call “the particularities of our social location.” In plain English, this means that what we believe is true about a given issue is deeply informed by “who we are.”

For example, our beliefs are deeply informed by our gender, our socio-economic status, our sexual orientation, and a lifetime of experiences that comprise our personal biography; all elements of our “personal stories.” It is because our personal stories differ that we may hold to differing beliefs about the issue at hand. My personal story may help me to see and understand things that you miss because of your differing personal story, and, similarly, your personal story may help you to see and understand things that I miss because I am not you.

So, what to do in light of our differing beliefs about what is true regarding the issue at hand? Readers of this website know that my response to this question is that those holding to such differing beliefs about what is true need to give each other a safe and welcoming space to express their particular beliefs and the reasons they have for holding those beliefs, to be followed by respectful conversation about areas of agreement and disagreement, toward the goal of collectively gaining greater understanding as to what is “actually true” about the given issue.

The greatest obstacle to this utopian dream of mine as to how people who disagree should  respectfully engage one another is the ever increasing tendency for one element of each of our particular stories, the “tribe(s)” to which we belong, to degenerate into “tribalism” That assertion begs for some explanation.

Each person belongs to one or more tribes; groups of people with whom we most closely identify; people with whom we feel most comfortable; such as members of a particular church or a local Republican or Democrat political organization. That is good because we all need a sense of belonging.

But where belonging to a tribe degenerates into “tribalism” is when the members of my tribe distain members of other tribes; adopting an “us-versus-them” position that “they” have captured nothing of the truth about the issue at hand. And it often gets worse; not only are they “all wrong”; they are downright “evil” and should be demonized

Social media feeds such rampant tribalism. Whatever your beliefs about a given issue, however untrue they may be, you can find support for your beliefs somewhere on social media. And as long as you limit your reading to sources that only mimic what you already believe, you will have no good reason to examine your beliefs

In the realm of politics, such tribalism is the cause of the current dysfunction in the halls of Congress and the growing inability of Republican and Democrat politicians and their followers to respectfully talk to one another about their disagreements regarding public policy issues.

To take these reflections beyond the realm of abstraction, I will now imagine two small group conversations about current hot-button issues, the question of whether the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”; and the debate about the efficacy of wearing masks. For each of these issues, I will share a brief portion of what I would say in such a small group conversation to those who disagree with me, hoping that this will prompt them to re-examine their beliefs (hoping also that they will say things that will cause me to re-examine my beliefs).

But, first, I will share my hard-earned recommendations about how to get this small group conversation started, as elaborated in my forthcoming book Let’s Talk.

The members of this small group should be chosen to ensure that there is a balanced cohort of participants who hold to differing beliefs about the issue at hand.

Secondly, before laying bare disagreements, participants need to “get to know one another”; building relationships of mutual understanding and trust by talking about non-threatening questions like “Why is this topic important to you?”

Thirdly, all participants must agree, up-front, to abide by certain stipulated “Guidelines for Respectful Conversation” that focus on exemplifying that rare combination of “commitment” and “openness” that is a necessary pre-condition for having a respectful conversation about differing beliefs: Strong commitment to one’s own beliefs sufficient to state those beliefs with clarity and deep conviction (even passion) combined with “openness” to re-examining one’s present beliefs on the basis of carefully listening to the contrary beliefs of others  and the reasons  given for holding to those differing beliefs.

So, assuming my imagined small group conversations are initiated in this way, here is a portion of what I would say in conversations about the two contentious issues identified above.

Don’t Generalize from Partial Truths

Relative to the question of whether the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” I agree with those conversation partners who believe that there were some irregularities in the 2020 presidential election. No large election is perfect. That is a portion of the truth. But it is a mistake to generalize from that partial truth.

There is overwhelming evidence, as conceded by former Attorney General William Barr, that the magnitude of these irregularities was far from being sufficient to conclude that the election was “stolen.” by Joe Biden. The preponderance of evidence indicates that this election was “fair,” thanks to the splendid work of election officials, both Republicans and Democrats, in abiding by the election laws in the various states.

Follow the Science Not Political Posturing

Relative to the question of whether wearing masks reduces the transmission of Covid-19, I agree with those conversation partners who point to the fact that Dr. Anthony Fauci changed his beliefs about the efficacy of wearing masks between March and April of 2020; stating in March that masks should largely be reserved for healthcare workers, and stating in April that his March recommendation needs to be broadened to include the general public. That is a portion of the truth. But to criticize Dr. Fauci’s for this change in his beliefs reflects a huge misunderstanding of the scientific enterprise on the basis of which he made this change.

In brief the scientific enterprise is not static. It is a dynamic self-correcting practice. A scientist forms a hypothesis in an attempt to explain a given phenomenon. But he or she is then open to refining that hypothesis on the basis of evidence provided by further testing. Therefore, Dr. Fauci’s change in his beliefs about the efficacy of wearing masks reflected the emergence of new scientific evidence. Dr Fauci is to be applauded, not criticized, for “following the science” rather than political posturing. And the present scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the belief that the wearing of masks reduces the transmission of Covid-19.

Is there a Viable Future for Political Discourse?

These two imaginary snippets of small-group conversation are meant to make the point that conversation partners need to be open to the possibility that their beliefs about a given contentious issue may not be true, and the best way to gain a better approximation to the “actual truth” is to collectively talk respectfully with those who hold to differing beliefs.

But is this hope for respectful conversations about political disagreements an example of unrealistic wishful thinking in a time when tribalism is running rampant? It will be possible only if persons who have strong political disagreements will be willing to combine their deep conviction that what they now believe is true with openness to the possibility that what they now believe may not be true. Exemplifying that rare combination of commitment and openness will require a measure of humility that is in rare supply these days, including, sadly, among Christians whose rhetoric claims that humility is a Cardinal virtue. I can only envision this happening through the eyes of faith.