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.

  1. #1 by classicliberal2 on March 17, 2011 - 03:19

    “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.”

    It’s the only way a democratic society can function, but it’s the very thing that has been progressively breaking down for a few decades, now, because so large a portion of those on one side of the political spectrum have adopted, as a matter of principle, the notion that they’re absolutely right about absolutely everything, and that nothing said or done by the other side is worthy of a moment’s consideration. The American right has created their own little bubble world, scrupulously protected from reality. Inside it, even basic facts–the necessary basis for any sort of meaningful discussion–are rigorously subjected to a political litmus test, and discarded if they fail.

    The rising tide of “birtherism” is a good illustration of this. The idea that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. has no factual basis whatsoever. We’ve had his birth certificate for years, we have announcements of his birth that ran in the local papers in Hawaii, we have the assurance of Hawaiian officials, but last month, when Public Policy Polling released a poll of likely Republican primary voters, a whopping 72% of them said they either didn’t believe Obama was born in the U.S. (51%) or may not have been (21%).

    Extend that same phenomenon to nearly every significant element of every significant policy discussion, then extend it backwards in time for many, many years, and you start to get the scope of the problem with the contemporary right.

    I’ve been writing about this since at least the late 1990s. In more recent years, I’ve often used, as a stock example, the 2004 presidential election. Consider these facts about that election, courtesy of the University of Maryland:

    “…72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47%) or a major program for developing them (25%). Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual WMD and 57% also assume, incorrectly, that [Bush weapons inspector Charles] Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program.”

    “…75% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63% believe that clear evidence of this support has been found. Sixty percent of Bush supporters assume that this is also the conclusion of most experts, and 55% assume, incorrectly, that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission.”

    And so on. And there’s more. This was, by far, the single most important issue of that campaign, and Bush’s supporters were wildly misinformed about every significant point of it.

    This doesn’t just demonstrate a willful disregard of inconvenient facts. It demonstrates the problem with that disregard. The implication of that data is that the presidency of the most powerful nation in the history of the world was decided by a segment of the electorate that based its decision on pure fantasy.

    The same thing works in reverse today. Obama isn’t opposed because of anything he actually says or does. He’s opposed because he’s a Kenyan socialist, a Muslim, a guy who is filled with rage, hates America, wants to set up death panels to kill old people, wants to destroy capitalism, and so on.

    This element of the right has no interest in the truth. It believes what it is told by its partisan masters–Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, WorldNutDaily, and the rest [1]–and they have integrated, into their ideology, an aggressive disregard for anything else. Reality itself is subjected to a political litmus test.

    It doesn’t just affect them, either, because those on the other side quickly tire of attempting to engage in serious discussions with creatures that are absolutely determined not to have any. They just stop trying. I’ve never stopped, but there aren’t many like me left.

    I realize the problems–and even dangers–inherent in linking character to political orientation, but I don’t think it’s unsound to conclude that, at some point, this MUST become a character issue. Politics involves the real lives of real people. Willfully treating it in this matter is monstrous.

    [1] We have, for example, multiple surveys stretching all the way back to at least 2003 showing that regular viewers of Fox News are the most misinformed news consumers. The best-informed are always the regular viewers/listeners of PBS (and, more recently, of MSNBC). And–what a surprise–House Republicans just voted to defund PBS.

  2. #2 by renaissanceguy on March 17, 2011 - 14:18

    By “best informed” you (and the people who did the survey mean “agreeing with my point of view.”

    The 9/11 truthers are just as wacko as the birthers.

    • #3 by classicliberal2 on March 17, 2011 - 19:25

      “By ‘best informed’ you (and the people who did the survey mean ‘agreeing with my point of view.'”

      No, they just ask people about basic factual information related to current news stories.

      “The 9/11 truthers are just as wacko as the birthers.”

      Absolutely, and a lot of them are one and the same.

  3. #4 by renaissanceguy on March 17, 2011 - 14:24

    Scott, wouldn’t you say that most of what you wrote is self-evidently true. There is not much to say except that what you wrote is obvious or should be to most people.

    I would like to add one small thing. It is important to distinguish between those things that are a matter of perspective and those things that are either right or wrong. For example, it is either right or wrong that same-sex marriage is a right. It cannot be both right and wrong at the same time in the same way.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on March 17, 2011 - 14:32

      But to me that’s a matter of empirical study. In the state of Vermont, same sex marriage is a right granted by the state. In Maine it is not. So whether or not it is a right varies by location, and over time. If you want to claim there is an abstract true “right” to same sex marriage, I’d reject that as an ought statement that depends on opinion. All claims that things are “rights” are really ought statements based on the beliefs of the person claiming rights. There may be a God whose will is that all humans have particular rights as fundamental, but we cannot know that for sure (or if we can, it’s subjective knowledge of the heart, not something that can be demonstrated or proven). Absent that right claims are always opinion — sometimes strongly held opinions shared by many — but not empirically true unless actualized in practice.

  4. #6 by renaissanceguy on March 17, 2011 - 15:00

    Yes, of course, because you and I define the term “right” differently. Still, you do recognize that some things are either-or logical propositions, don’t you?

    It’s off the topic, but your view of rights doesn’t cut it for me. You are saying that people do not really have the right to marry a person of the same sex; it’s just that certain states decided that they could have that right. In that case, those states are in error for saying that people do have a right that they do not really have. In that case, when Texas says that they do not have such a right, Vermont and Maine are wrong for saying that they do. If rights are arbitrarly granted, then somebody could decide that Scott Erb doesn’t have the right to live, and I suppose you wouldn’t, and I suppose that it would be all right to kill you then.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on March 17, 2011 - 15:18

      In many parts of the world people can decide others don’t have a right to live and kill them. Many Hutus didn’t think Tutsis had the right to live, and in Rwanda in 1994 they killed 800,000.

      To me you are taking an opinion of how things should be (an ‘ought’ statement), and then positing that ought statement as a right (claiming it should be universally recognized). That doesn’t make it a right, only a statement of your belief about how the world ought to be. Such beliefs can be explained, defended and persuasive, but they cannot be proven true or false. I suspect there are deep moral truths (ought statements that are true), but so far I have found no way to prove or test them. In other words, they are perspectives. Rights — things that exist or do not — are empirical and thus can be measured. So I prefer to see rights as those things humans have constructed in the world based on shared norms or beliefs (ought statements).

  5. #8 by renaissanceguy on March 17, 2011 - 15:03

    In fact, you would then have to agree with me that same-sex marriage is a privilege granted by certain jurisdictions to people. If something is a right, then shouldn’t everyone in every locality have it?

    • #9 by Scott Erb on March 17, 2011 - 15:23

      Americans have rights that Chinese people do not. We don’t have the privilege of free speech, the Constitution made it a right. We share the belief that this is good, and that the Chinese ought to have free speech. Claiming “everyone has the right to free speech” means “I believe everyone ought to be allowed free speech.” That does not demean the importance of holding and acting on ought statements, but I find it linguistically confusing to conflate the term right (known as something legally recognized – defined as such in the court of law, etc.) with the idea of an opinion of what ought to be.

    • #10 by classicliberal2 on March 17, 2011 - 19:34

      As a practical matter, there’s no difference between the two.

  6. #11 by renaissanceguy on March 17, 2011 - 15:27

    But Scott, I can think of no moral reason to pass such a law unless it is what ought to be. Can you?

    Otherwise we are talking about people imposing merely their opinions on others. Ouch!

    • #12 by Scott Erb on March 17, 2011 - 15:31

      Exactly, people have opinions, and ultimately laws impose the opinions of either the majority (in a democracy) or a small minority (tyranny or oligarchy) on a group of people. It’s always an opinion on what ought to be. That’s the point of the post — everyone thinks they know what ought to be, but people disagree. In a democracy I trust that the collective wisdom developed over time through debate will yield a result closer to what truly ought to be (assuming there is such thing, which I do) rather than allowing a minority to decide, usually based on their own interest. But you can’t just leap from having an opinion of what ought to be to assuming your opinion is undeniably right.

  7. #13 by classicliberal2 on March 17, 2011 - 19:22

    Scott, I noticed you had a problem over at my blog. I can’t really explain it–I hope it was just a temporary Blogger glitch. Sorry for the trouble. Try it again.

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