We’ve all been there: You look up at the TV in your local bar and are appalled to see your least favorite politicians talking about something or another. Shaking your head in disgust at everything being said, you quickly find a way to distract yourself from the drivel being uttered by the faces on the screen. Of course, the volume of the TV is too low – and the volume of the people sitting next to you too high – to actually hear what the politicians are saying, but you know that they are horrible, and so must be every word that is being said by them.
It’s a common scene, and a fairly innocuous one at first glance. However, it reflects an increasingly prevalent problem in our sociopolitical climate: the belief that the opposition can never be right.
Perhaps the best example of the illogic of this belief can be found in an old, cliché adage: If a broken clock is stuck reading “2:00,” a logical person might look at it and say, “This clock is useless, but even a broken clock is right twice a day.” A foolish person, however, might look at the same clock and say, “2:00 can never be the correct time again, as the broken clock would then be right.”
In a talk with Sam Harris, political scientist Ian Bremmer said that, while he disagrees with 90% of Trump’s foreign policy decisions, he was “absolutely savaged” after agreeing with the president that Germany’s Russia-controlled gas pipeline leaves the country in a somewhat vulnerable position, because “God forbid I say anything positive about what Trump has to say.” You may dislike someone for what he or she tends to say, but to then assume that everything this person says must automatically be wrong is foolish.
There are many people who are so firmly embedded in this tribalistic, all or nothing belief system that they are perfectly willing to change their beliefs in order to ensure that they never agree with the opposing tribe.
Continuing with the allegory of the broken clock, the person who refutes the existence of 2:00 might also claim that anyone who doesn’t do so must always be wrong themselves, thinking that this reflects a belief that the clock is not broken at all. To them, this is akin to advocating that the clock is always right.
Unfortunately, anyone who frequents Twitter or the comment sections of online news sources will know that this is an all too common assumption – so common, in fact, that you’ll often find disclaimers on Twitter profiles such as: “RTs don’t imply endorsement, nor exhaustive research of tweeter’s CV,” or, “RTs/follows are not to be read unfailingly as endorsements.” While character judgments might affect the most likely interpretation of a person’s words, the words themselves can and should be judged on their own merit. A single retweet or quote does not equate an endorsement of everything that person has ever said and done, and neither does the occasional agreement with a single policy or opinion.
However, there are many people who are so firmly embedded in this tribalistic, all or nothing belief system that they are perfectly willing to change their beliefs in order to ensure that they never agree with the opposing tribe. On an episode of her short-lived Netflix series, 71% of Michelle Wolf’s audience responded to a poll stating that they would rather the U.S. didn’t achieve peace with North Korea, as they would then have to give Trump credit for the achievement. Only 29% hoped that the war would come to an end.
An equally common – and equally dangerous – belief is that those on your side of the aisle can never be wrong. Shortly after Quinn Norton was hired to the New York Times, several racist and discriminatory tweets that she had sent out five years prior resurfaced, and the NYT fired her within seven hours of her hiring. However, when the newly-hired Sarah Jeong was caught having done the same thing, the NYT quickly jumped to her defense, standing firm in their choice to hire her. A classic example of doublethink, these seemingly contradictory decisions were both acknowledged and accepted, and those who celebrated the firings of people like Quinn Norton and Benny Johnson were the same who advocated most strongly for Jeong to stay.
These two fallacies – the infallibility of one’s own group and the perfect ineptitude of the other – are beliefs which constitute two sides of the same coin, and so they tend to be held simultaneously. If the number of people who hold these beliefs becomes great enough, the result is a culture which is as incapable of acknowledging the flaws and missteps of its own tribe as it is of acknowledging the successes of its opposition. The implications of this are, among other things, a people and a government which are increasingly incapable of compromise.
If the number of people who hold these beliefs becomes great enough, the result is a culture which is as incapable of acknowledging the flaws and missteps of its own tribe as it is of acknowledging the successes of its opposition.
This absence of compromise has been evident in the U.S.’s past two administrations. For example, less than one year after Obama signed the Paris Agreement guaranteeing America’s participation, Trump announced America’s intent to withdraw from the deal, just as he announced his intent to dismantle the former president’s Affordable Care Act. These results should be surprising to no one, as any policy that reflects the desires of only one political party – whichever happens to hold more power at the time – is doomed to be undone as soon as the balance of power shifts in favor of the opposing party. This may create the illusion of forward motion as new policies are constantly enacted, but the end result is a system more akin to a hamster wheel spinning in place, with each new incumbent only serving to undo the work of his or her predecessor.
This “progress illusion” is not limited to the government. While more difficult to measure, any person who has chosen to disregard the opinions of all but those who agree with them has surely limited their own ability for growth. Unwavering trust in the beliefs of a tribe is an admittance that you have no beliefs of your own, as these will ebb and flow with the political tides. Unwavering distrust of those outside the tribe will limit your sources of knowledge to only a very small percentage of the population, as you ignore anything that the opposition has to say. Communication with those who differ from you will become impossible, as the unflinching devotion to your group prevents compromise or discourse of any kind.
So, the next time you go to that bar, look up at the TV, and see those people arguing against everything that you currently believe, take a look at the captions sliding across the bottom of the screen. Even if you don’t agree with what’s being said, take the time to consider why that is. And if, from time to time, you do happen agree, remember that this doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a logical one. Because even your enemy can be right…sometimes.