Archive for March 16th, 2011

Personality and Experience

In reading a couple other blogs I was struck by how in one, a conservative blog, there were some really disparaging remarks about “liberals.”  One person was glad she was not in particular professions because she couldn’t take all the liberals and their ‘political correctness.’   In a left leaning blog there were comments ripping conservatives as “being driven by ignorance and fear.”    Frankly I’ve never seen a correlation between individual character and whether someone is liberal or conservative, but clearly a lot of people see their side as ‘good and reasonable’ and the other side as somehow faulty.  Some of it on blogs is just for fun (like Packer fans saying Viking fans are scum — deep down they all know they’re just football fans, they’re trash talking), but I think many people take it seriously.

That got me thinking about why people have the perspectives they hold.   It may be less about rational analysis of the world and more about personality and experience.   For instance, my personality is such is that I am not judgmental and do not hold grudges.   On the scale between perceiving and judging on the Myers Briggs personality test I’m way off on the ‘perceiving’ side.    Beyond that I think I am constitutionally incapable of holding a grudge or staying mad for more than a few minutes.  I find it pretty easy to forgive and move on.

I think those traits are part of who I am; my ‘wiring’ if you will.   I suspect those personality traits predispose me to being a social and civil libertarian.  They also make me less likely to be a political activist.   Many colleagues and friends I know are very involved in causes from environmentalism to the peace movement.  Often I agree with them about the issues but don’t have a desire to protest or spend time on some campaign to pass or stop some legislative initiative.    Being a ‘perceiver’ I’m more likely to watch and try to figure out what’s going on than to participate (which is why I’m a political scientist not a politician!)   That’s not necessarily good, it’s just who I am.   All of us have personality traits which probably predispose us to particular views about life, as well as how we’ll act.

Second is experience.   I’ve studied social science, traveled a lot in Europe, learned German and developed a set of experiences that lead me to a particular way of looking at the world.   If I had gone to law school and stayed in South Dakota, I might look at politics very differently.    Part of this is personality as well.   When I decided to go to graduate school rather than law school, my mom was dubious.   She told me that as a lawyer I’d be guaranteed a real good income, while graduate school was uncertain.

I shocked her when I said, “if I really wanted money I’m sure I could spend time learning how business and investments work, and then become a millionaire.  But I don’t want to do that, it would be boring.”    OK, forgive my 22 year old arrogance there, but I meant it at the time — I thought that business and high finance was probably not that hard if one really put their heart in it, studied it, and made it the focus of their life.   But yuck.   No material payoff is worth living what to me would have been a boring, even meaningless life.

To someone else, of course, that kind of life is the essence of our society, producing investments, expanding the market and creating jobs.   My desire to study European politics and teach at a university might seem lazy or unambitious (though at age 22 I had no clue where I was going — I just wanted to go to Johns Hopkins for an MA because I’d  live in Bologna, Italy my first year!).    If I had stayed in DC working in the Senate at age 25 instead of deciding to leave I also would have had a very different set of experiences.

Each person has their own life world, a set of experiences that shapes how they look at things.   Each person’s life world is inherently limited by those experiences.  Just as someone might dismiss academia as “ivory towered out of touch with reality,” another might dismiss military life as structured around hierarchies and orders.   Another might dismiss high finance as a narrow focus on money and investments without regard to culture and how society works.   Nobody can truly claim that their experience is privileged.  Each person’s experience brings a unique perspective to life.   The academic, athlete, journalist, preacher, mechanic, lawyer, doctor, janitor…each has a life perspective shaped by personality and experience.

Here’s where it gets tricky.   When we debate our beliefs (shaped by experience and personality) we tend to make the mistake of thinking that our own belief is self-evidently the right one because to each of us it seems so obvious.   Anyone with that personality and set of experiences would come to the same conclusion, after all!  When others have very different world views, the knee jerk response is “I’m right, they’re wrong!”   And since we fool ourselves into thinking we hold our perspective out of a kind of impartial, unbiased analysis, it’s soon easy to think there must be something wrong with those people who think differently.  Why don’t they see clearly what seems so clearly to me?

But if we recognize that personality and experience trump ‘unbiased reason’ in shaping our world views, then it’s possible to look at it differently.  Rather than one of us being right and the others wrong, we’re really just experiencing reality from different perspectives.   We are like the blind men and the elephant, where one felt the elephant’s trunk, another the leg, another the ear, etc., and each had a very different idea of what the creature was like.   The construction worker, teacher, cop, florist, writer, and waitress all are experiencing life and politics from a different angle.   I study social science, the priest studies philosophy and Christian theology; those experiences lead to different conclusions.   And if that’s the case, it’s not a leap to say that the truth probably can’t be captured by any one person’s perspective, no matter how certain they are that the world clearly is how they interpret it to be.   Only by learning from each other and recognizing other perspectives as legitimate and valuable can we get a more realistic sense of how the world is and address political issues.

This reminds me of Walter Lippmann’s argument that for democracy to function, we must not only tolerate each other’s right to speak, but actually listen to and learn from each other.   While we try to convince and persuade others, we shouldn’t close our minds to their efforts to convince and persuade us.  And maybe we’ll realize that the liberal, the conservative, the libertarian and the socialist all have something important to contribute to the public debate.   If our perspective is shaped mostly by personality and experience, then the best way to approach politics is not to try to eliminate political differences and “win,” but to embrace diverse views as a source of strength.

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