Why We Can’t All Just Get Along, June 2012 Vhcle Magazine Issue 9, Life
Issue 9: Why We Can't All Just Get Along
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Firstly, it raises expectations of our politicians to absurd levels. We expect every elected public official to have coherent, well-formed views on every question put to them, and we judge their responses in part based on the information in our pseudo-environment. Then when they (understandably) fail to meet them, it fuels apathy and cynicism.
Secondly, if you believe that what you think is obviously and definitely true, it's only too easy to attribute idiocy or malice to your opponents: they're either lying or stupid. This leads to increasingly bitter and fractious politics, and gives you little incentive to truly engage with those opponents – and even less to genuinely consider their views. They, of course, think the same of you, resulting in a downward spiral of mistrust and cynicism.
The third outcome is that the more certain succeed. In an environment where any change of mind is labelled a 'U-turn' and nuanced views are transformed into evasion, those who shout loudest will get ahead. This is bad news for politics, and just perpetuates that environment. If we – and by that I mean the voting public, the media, and politicians themselves – could accept that sometimes there are honest disagreements and that a change of heart doesn't have to be embarrassing, we'd do our politics a great service.
That will never happen, of course. It's been almost a century since Lippman pointed this out to us, and little has changed. Even if we somehow all could agree to be more reasonable, it only takes one ambitious person with ironclad beliefs to upset that delicate balance.
But next time someone asks you for your view on the latest political issue, try to cast aside your preconceptions and look at it afresh. Your conclusion might be the same as your original belief. But what matters isn't the opinion you reach; it's how you got there.
WHERE DO YOU stand on the economy? Are you for austerity? Or would you prefer a larger fiscal stimulus? Do cuts risk plunging the country back into recession, or is solving a crisis created through spending by spending sheer madness?
The chances are you immediately knew your view on those questions. As soon as you read them, your mind locked onto the answer. But take a moment to ask yourself why you gave the answers you did.
Whatever the reason, it's unlikely to have been the result of a clear-headed analysis of the relative economic merits of the respective positions. Maybe you can quote Krugman, or rely on a high-profile businessman to support you – but even that choice of expert is largely predetermined.
Ninety years ago, Walter Lippman published Public Opinion. In it, he took on the myth that we can – or should be able to – achieve a considered view on all aspects of public life. He wrote that “for the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see”.
In other words, on most issues our view isn't formed based on the facts as they exist in the world. We don't have the time or expertise to do that. Instead our opinions are based on what he called our pseudo-environment: the sum of our existing beliefs and knowledge, built up over our lives from childhood.
For some people on some questions these pseudo-environments relate closely to the real world. But even if they don't, their actions – based on their pseudo-environment – have an impact on that world, and so form part of other people's pseudo-environments.
You can see the influence of pseudo-environments in the current debate over Europe's economy. It's not a coincidence that right-wingers support austerity while the left argue for greater spending. Their prescriptions for the current state of the economy support their general outlook. It's not contradictory for a conservative to call for stimulus or a socialist to support austerity to get the economy out of its rut – but it's certainly unlikely.
These beliefs (and they're not at all confined to economics) are necessary shortcuts most of the time. It's not realistic to think we could come to a sound conclusion on all matters, so we use our pre-existing views. Yet these shortcuts are so ingrained that very few realise they use them. It takes immense effort to overcome them, even if you're aware that much of what you think is based on what you already think. But the danger of not recognising how your and others' opinions are generally formed can be severe.
This article can be found in Vhcle Issue 9

Jamie Thunder is a freelance journalist and PhD student at City University, London, studying investigative journalism. He blogs at
www.thethunderer.org.uk and is @jdthndr on Twitter

Read other articles by Jamie Thunder
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Why We Can’t All Just Get Along