As I get older, I am realizing that I will save myself a lot of time – and ultimately save a bit of my sanity – if I accept that fact that human beings are irrational by nature. I’ve spent a lot of mental energy trying to figure out why people do the things they do. Why do they sometimes act against their own interests? Why do they appear to cling to choices that have and continue to be “bad” for them and a lot of other people, too?
I’ve been asking myself these questions possibly from a place of judgment. I like to think of myself as rational and can tend to judge others as irrational if they do things I cannot always understand. I elevate myself in my own mind when I do this. That is my emotional payoff. I can’t understand other people, and then deem them not worth understanding.
I’m speaking abstractly here, as this is something I think about and have done most of my life. But I’m really writing this in response to something more specific: the election and the political realities that we will face with this new incoming President. Full disclosure: I am an Obamanista in my heart of hearts. I volunteered for his campaigns during his elections, and most recently, since July, I volunteered at my local Democratic Coordinated Committee Campaign office to help Virginia elect Hillary Clinton as President. Virginia came through, but other important states did not. There’s a lot to blame for this result, and I’ve spent a lot of time placing blame almost everywhere in private conversations with friends and family because I cannot understand how this all happened. Electing Donald Trump as the President of the United States seems completely irrational to me, as he disqualified himself more times than I can count. I’ve thought of reasons why this election happened the way it did: sexism, racism, nativisim, and an uninformed electorate. I’ve read why this happened: economic anxieties; the negative effects of globalization; a continual, institutionalized suspicion of the Clintons because of their political baggage/failings; and a populace fearful of the social, global, technological changes that we’ve experienced these last few years. All of these reasons are legitimate.
Here’s the difficult question I ask myself now: does it matter why people voted for Donald Trump, or Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson or Harambe or whoever wasn’t Hillary Clinton, if they even showed up to vote at all? What do we learn from this? There may be a lot to learn from the answers to these questions. However, as a results-oriented person, I also wonder what net benefits come from blaming and shaming others for their choices? It can be a great way of shining a light on questionable if not downright immoral behavior, and that can be instructive. But it is the best way to reach people?
I have no answers to these questions yet, but I also want to figure out if there are other ways of reaching people, too. For example, what if we just accept that people are irrational? That we all have biases and emotional reasons for doing things that other people can’t understand and cannot be explained rationally? This country itself is irrational in the ways it defines itself. The United States is as aspirational in its elevation of freedom and equality as it is forever characterized by its original sins of slavery, genocide, and racial and economic equality. We, as Americans, are irrational as well. Our desires for freedom and autonomy were and still are determined by oppressing others. We have internalized that. We see that as a sign of power, and as a result, at times, we celebrate and elevate those who oppress others because we have romanticized that as an ultimate sign of self-determination and heroism. I don’t want and never want to whitewash what has happened or what may come. However, I think we have to also realized that we are just as likely to listen to our better angels as we are to double down on our worst, most bigoted impulses, even if that hurts us in the long run. That’s a condition, that on some level, we all share. We are intertwined by these irrationalities.
In an attempt to tie this back into the original premise of this blog: what happens if we see those we disagree with not as caricatures or irrational creatures but as actual complex people with their own inner lives, biases and desires, their own complicated interiority? How do you reach them? How do we encourage empathy with others instead of indulge in dehumanization, and what could be the results of that? Can empathy become message powerful enough so that people can’t help but hear it? These questions weigh heavily in my mind, and I hope to come back to them as this year progresses.