With a UK election coming up this March, I’ve been dreading the next few months of media (and social media too).
I decided to write a post on the question of why, despite being very interested in political issues, I find politics so painful. I find listening to most (but not all) people arguing about political opinions a struggle, and have no desire whatsoever to get involved in any party.
I read Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” last year, and got a lot out of his discussion of tribalism and group loyalty, on their very real evolutionary advantages, and why they are so prevalent. I can see how society has benefited from those who are loyal to our tribe, and I can see how comforting it is to belong to a group.
In contrast, I feel I have a particularly weak instinct for tribal loyalty. I struggle to support any sports team (though I can enjoy watching good playing, whichever side of the field it comes from). I have a pretty limited sense of national identity, let alone national pride. I work for my employer because I enjoy it and they pay me, not because I think they are the only company in the world worthy of my time. And I would even support the disbanding of my religious denomination if I thought it was for the best.
That’s not to say I see the full picture on any issue – I know I suffer from biases. I don’t notice the things I don’t see. I have a tendency not to look for evidence of things that would make me uncomfortable. But I do think I have a greater than normal tendency to see the flaws in the arguments of ‘my side’.
When it comes to politics, there is a lot of complexity, so oversimplification is inevitable. As I discussed in a previous post, I’ve done my best to embrace the complexity, and I accept that people are going to form simplified views of reality.
What I don’t like is that so many people form groups based on whichever simplification they’ve adopted, and show limited willingness to recognise that their views are simplifications. Perhaps if I was more tribally oriented, I’d also behave like this, but I can’t. I feel like each of the political parties is a simplification, and not one that I can subscribe to and refuse to see the wisdom in the the other simplifications. I have quite a few politically active friends, so I know it would be wrong to say they don’t want to listen or learn – but that is often how it often comes across when they talk politics.
I’d like to think that politics doesn’t have to be this way. Certainly, political discussions don’t have to be. I enjoy the occasions, when discussing politics, when I get to spend our time listening and learning – exploring the gap between the different oversimplified views, and trying to grapple with what a better view might be, or at least when one view deals with the current situation better. I’m lucky enough to have good friends that are happy to discussing politics in this way – without getting argumentative or antagonistic – I certainly learn more from them than I do from people who just repeat the same soundbites.
I am not optimistic that we’ll ever get to a world where this kind of richer political discourse makes up most of the media coverage. Until it does, I’ll do my best to keep informed and will definitely vote as I feel best, but don’t have to enjoy what I read and hear.