A friend said today that he doesn't have much faith in the reasonableness of people. This is a smart, well-traveled, well-read, sensitive man. He's pessimistic. About what? A lot, I'd say. But primarily our ability to think our way out or our problems. He thinks there are smart people who could do that, but that they are both outnumbered and hopelessly polarized.
"Have you ever convinced anyone to change his mind?" he asked me.
"Not so much convinced," I said, "as found common ground."
When I said that I was thinking of dinner-table discussions with my friends, who include not only members of my progressive choir, but also a couple of pretty good libertarian, small-government soloists. It's true that when someone is your dinner guest, or you theirs, and you'd like to see them again, you hold back on the verbal molotov cocktails, but we do occasionally contend ferociously. Every time, I come away thinking we are a little closer on what we agree on. Am I being convinced or convincing? Neither, really. We're like bumper cars: we keep at it long enough, bumping into one another, going nowhere, until eventually, sometimes almost by accident, as if the jostling knocked sense into us, we find a course forward.
Why is that? Am I so smart and patient? (Well, of course.) Are my friends so reasonable? (Now and then.) I don't think that, at bottom, either of those is the reason.
"Remember Eric Hoffer?" I asked my friend, knowing he would. For those who may not, he was the "longshoreman philosopher,” an itinerant and dock worker who read voraciously and published the things he learned about the human condition. "In times of change" he said, "learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."
"I believe in the wisdom of the common man," I said to my friend.
(Thinking about that statement as I write this, that sounds a bit aristocratic, if not patronizing. But I don't mean it that way.)
I told my friend: "I can't tell you how many times I have seen someone in the street interviewed about some hot issue like the shooting in Ferguson, MO or the Charlie Hebdo covers and killings and thought to myself: That's right; that's the way I see it too.
People understand people. We know what's going on. The woman in the street isn't running for office. She doesn't have a spin machine. She says what she feels. And no matter which side of the issue she’s on--pro cops or pro blacks, pro choice or pro life, pro restraint in political or religious commentary or pro blistering satire--I almost always understand where she's coming from. I may not got the distance with her, but I see her point of view. I can feel the root of it.
So if the people are so wise, why is there such disharmony? The answer, I think, is that the intellectual class is letting us down. Rather than seeking common ground, they seek to gain ground.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Intellectual hubris. Political aspirations. Vested interests. These create something like an intellectual conflict of interest. We start out trying to be philosophers, but eventually too many of us settle into being salesmen. And the very nature of selling is to tear down the other guy's product. After a time, you begin to believe your own sales pitch. At that point, new thinking gives way to hucksterism.
The common man may be wise, but he's busy. Most of us don't have time to sift through facts and arguments to decide what's best. And since there's a spin master out there for almost every point of view, when we hear some political or cultural slogan that resonates, we grab onto it and buy the product. Maybe it has been fairly advertised, maybe we get what we thought we were buying, but too often, we do not.
Ad men (and women) know how to pull our strings. Sex sells. Fear sells. Prejudice sells. A lot of political positions today look like 1950s car ads with beautiful women draped over gleaming chrome. Or rugged men on horseback talking about the free range and their favorite smoke.
We see how well that worked out.
I suppose I agree with my friend in a way. I too am concerned that our national decisions on things like climate change and rising inequality will not be made on the basis of reason. But whereas my friend fears that collectively we are not wise enough to make reasonable choices, I place the blame on the political salesmen who spend more time convincing us to follow them than thinking about where we should go.