Preconceptions and Enemies

April 29, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

I recently dug out three interesting quotes of George Washington, our first president:

  • A historical revision on a unique scale has been imposed on us by the Creator. 
  • Only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea on the memory of the crowd.
  • I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker.

It is striking that Washington was such an especially religious man and that he expressed psychological insight regarding group memory . . .

Actually, I’m conducting a little demonstration here.  Only now can I reveal that the speaker of the above quotes was not George Washington.  The author was actually Adolf Hitler (I pulled each of these quotes out of the Encarta Book of Quotations). I’m not conducting this experiment to show any admiration for Hitler.  I don’t admire Hitler. 

What I’m trying to show is that people we hold in low esteem often speak in ways that we would entirely excuse had the same words been spoken by someone we admired.  By not fighting this tendency to prejudge everything spoken by our enemies (we all have this tendency), we risk missing out on chances to connect with those we generally oppose.  Why would we want to make connections with those we generally oppose?  Because we might otherwise waste enormous energy by devoting our entire lives to destroying each other.

Allowing ourselves to characterize individuals as being in the in-group or out-group grossly distorts the manner in which we interpret the things they say.  We tend to write off what the “opposing” side has to say as “insane” and “ridiculous” regardless of whether it is reasonable.  We also overlook many ridiculous things spoken by people we generally admire, a tendency that can inflame the opposition. 

Our country and our world are highly polarized.   Perhaps the starting point for establishing some sort of benign collaboration is this:  We need to expend focused mental effort to downplay the past conduct, words and affiliations of speakers we generally oppose and we need to take extra care to consciously and carefully listen to their present words.  Without these difficult first steps, we will never be able to bridge the gap between our own beliefs and those of the opposition.  Failing to put the opposition’s best foot forward precludes the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, traditionally religious concepts that this skeptic has long found useful.  When we automatically bristle at whatever the opposition says, the opposition must forever remain the opposition.  

“But why should we judge the opposition’s words fairly when the opposition keeps mangling the meaning of our words and, in fact, trying to kill us,” someone might ask.  Perhaps the answer flows from my version of faith.  Based on the work of numerous cognitive scientists, I believe that human cognition is ultimately embodied in our own physical animal existences. We each have human bodies that generate urges, emotions, expressions and gestures that are
immediately understandable to cultures around the world. 

This common grounding of all of our emotions and concepts gives us much in common with each other–a huge head start.  My faith is that shared meaning can become apparent if we work hard to avoid prejudging each other.  We can’t do this hard work unless someone courageously takes the first step. If someone does step up and take the chance, a cascade of additional connections might become apparent. If no one steps up and if no one makes that first move, both sides will be forever locked in defeat.

Isn’t that reason enough to try?

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Category: Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Sujay says:

    Excellent Post!

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