Humility in politics? You could be wrong

Watching the political rhetoric play out daily in Washington and in Frankfort can be disheartening at times. But watching it play out among friends and acquaintances is even more discouraging to me.

We’ve come to expect a certain level of calculated disingenuousness from politicians. We measure everything they say against their objectives, which we assume include remaining in power above all else. Hence, being cynical of everything they say and do seems a reasonable stance.

But it’s different for “real people” — that is, everyone else.

One would expect the average Joe or Jane on the street to always want to know what’s true and what actually works. To be in favor of things that are in the best interest of themselves and their neighbors. To be opposed to anything that makes life harder for them and their friends and neighbors.

In other words, to expect everyone to act rationally concerning political views and actions. But that doesn’t seem to be the norm — not by a long shot.

Part of the reason is politics has gotten away from being a solemn act of participating in our own governance. Instead, it has become more like a game. And the point of any game is to win. When the objective moves from governing to winning, everything gets distorted.

I’m not speaking primarily about winning elections — although that is part of it. It’s evident that nothing can be achieved in politics without getting elected, or otherwise participating in the electoral process.

What I’m referring to is winning the argument — at any cost. Many people these days appear more concerned with rhetoric than with being right. It’s no longer about ideas, proposals, and solutions. It’s about making the other side look foolish or evil.

This is all bad enough. What’s worse is that most of these people — including you and me — are wrong about the facts. Not all the time, of course. But at least some of the time (and some more than others.)

We have various people proclaiming — some quite vociferously — that they have the correct take on the issues of the day. If that were true of all of them, there would be no disagreements!

Opinions, of course, can vary among reasonable people. But even opinions should be based on facts.

If you begin your argument from incorrect information, your opinion is likely to be faulty.

And this is where humility comes in. No amount of confidence, no amount of bluster, no amount of sheer audacity can turn a lousy argument into a good one. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to much of what passes for public discourse.

Many people apparently think they will be more convincing by being ever louder, cruder, or more outrageous.

Do you want to see someone look foolish? Watch a person try to argue forcefully about a topic of which they know nothing. We’ve all seen it, haven’t we? I’m reasonably certain no one really wants to appear foolish. So why would anyone knowingly try to defend the indefensible?

Is it because they’ve convinced themselves that they are right when all evidence points to the contrary? Do they think they can persuade others by sheer force of will? Or is there some deeper rationale?

I don’t know the answer — if indeed there is one answer. But I do see a way to avoid looking foolish — or worse, acting on bad information.

Learn some humility. Approach any conversation with an open mind. Realize that you could be wrong. Understand that we all carry cognitive biases and prejudices that distort our picture of reality. Be prepared to say, “Maybe I’m wrong.”

Recognize that, no matter how certain you are that you are correct, there is at least one person who just as sure you are not. You can’t both be right.

At the very least, tone it down a bit. Most of us are weary of all the noise.

This article was published in the Winchester Sun on Thursday, February 13, 2020. 

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