Archive for category Walter Lippmann

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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Pictures in our Heads

I have just read Public Opinion, a 1922 book by Walter Lippmann, the philosopher-journalist extraordinaire of the 20th century.  It strikes me how so much of what he wrote then still applies today, and how he was consciously exploring what it meant to be in a new, modern era, when mass media would break down the barriers of distance and tradition.  Yet Lippmann may also be on to one of the dangers of democracy, reminiscent of Montesquieu’s idea of the “troglodytes.”

Lippmann notes that we make judgments about reality by creating “pictures in our heads,” simplifications of the complexity of the real world, often shaped by external forces who give us narratives and visions already pre-packaged and interpreted.   We then lose sight of the fact that these are just interpretations, and start believing that we are understanding reality “as it is,” certain we have the facts correct, and that our judgments are crystal clear.   This is never the case, and we delude ourselves into false certainty by putting such faith in our biased and stereotyped images.   Perhaps with education and the capacity to engage in understanding multiple perspectives we can at the very least recognize the problem and work against bias, but we are always limited.

A few quotes from Lippmann’s classic (the MacMillian 1957 printing):

“For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex and too fleeting for direct acquaintance.  We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations.  And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage it.” (page 16)

“The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes.   We are told about the world before we see it.  We imagine most things before we experience them.  And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.” (page 90)

“We do not see what our eyes are not accustomed to take into account.  Sometimes consciously, more often without knowing it, we are impressed by those facts which fit our philosophy.” (page 119)

“So where two factions see vividly each its own aspect, and contrive their own explanations of what they see, it is almost impossible for them to credit each other with honesty.  If the pattern fits their experience at a crucial point, they no longer look upon it as an interpretation.  They look upon it as ‘reality.’  It may not resemble the reality, except that it culminates in a conclusion which fits real experience.”  (page 126-27)

“Generally, it all culminates in the fabrication of a system of all evil, and of another which is the system of all good.  Then our love of absolutes shows itself.   For we do not like qualifying adverbs.  They clutter up sentences, and interfere with irresistible feeling…Real space, real time, real numbers, real connections, real weights are lost.  The perspective and the background and the dimensions of action are clipped and frozen in the stereotype.” (page 156)

“Most of this naïve view of self-interest leaves out of account.  It forgets that self and interest are both conceived somehow, and that for the most part they are conventionally conceived.  The ordinary doctrine of self-interest usually omits altogether the cognitive function.  So insistent is it on the fact that human beings finally refer all things to themselves that it does not stop to notice that men’s ideas of all things and of themselves are not instinctive.  They are acquired.” (Page 180)

“But for the political thinkers who have counted, from Plato and Aristotle through Machiavelli and Hobbes to the democratic theorists, speculation has revolved around the self-centered man who had to see the whole world by means of a few pictures in his head.” (Page 262)

“We misunderstand the limited nature of news, the illimitable complexity of society; we overestimate our own endurance, public spirit and all around competence.  We suppose an appetite for uninteresting truths which is not discovered by any honest analysis of our own tastes.” (Page 362)

“The press is no substitute for institutions.  It is like the beam of a search light that moves restlessly about it, bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision.  Men cannot do the work of the world by this light alone.  They cannot govern society by episodes, incidents and eruptions.  It is only when they work by a steady light of their own, that the press, when it is turned upon them, reveals a situation intelligible enough for a popular decision.   The trouble lies deeper than the press, and so does the remedy.  It lies in social organization based on a system of analysis and record, and in all the corollaries of that principle; in the abandonment of the theory of the omnicompetent citizen, in the decentralization of decision, in the coordination of decision by comparable record and analysis.” (page 364)

“It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves.  This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its tradition, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.” (Page 365)

These snippets, which represent part of the theory behind my current research, challenge democracy.    The public cannot be wise, because the public is so easily misled, and through emotion responds to “pictures in our heads” that give a warped and overly simplified vision of reality.   Especially with globalization, it’s hard for the “self-contained society” (as Lippmann puts it) to understand the diverse perspectives out there.  It’s easier to see ones’ own culture as common sensically best and superior.  People believe that their self-interest comes from inside them, rather than recognizing how it is often given to them by the culture and discourse in which they find themselves.

Perhaps the militarism of the past decades, the “something for nothing” mentality of both the rich and poor in our society, the wild consumerism, and the demand that the government spend more and tax less simply reflects public demands shaped by marketers and the media.   The politicians react to this and are caught up in it, believing their own “pictures in their heads.”   Few question their own narratives or, as Lippmann also noted, truly listen to the “indispensable opposition.”   Perhaps our current crisis is as much a crisis of modern democracy as it is a creation of either governments or markets (the left blames the latter, the right blames the former).

As this research project develops, I’ll reflect more on this.  For today, I thought I’d list a few quotes from Lippmann’s classic which people may or may not find insightful.

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