It’s 3 AM on election night, and I am awake. Julie rustles in bed, which signals that she is also up. I flip on our bedroom TV to check the election results with feelings of both anticipation and dread. Soon we are talking about the election, potential political outcomes, the state of the country, and the state of the world. Such discussions are best left for more awake times, and in a predictable way, our conversation turns from global events to the state of our relationship.
In previous posts, I have inferred that I never had a male role model growing up. The concept of what it is to be a man is something that I had to observe from third-party sources and personal experimentation. I determined my role as the ultimate defender of my family. I feel that it is my responsibility to make sure that they are loved and provided for. I take this commitment very seriously. I’m not sure where (or from whom) I got that idea, but it is firmly entrenched in my psyche.
As a child, I was not given a strong sense of self-worth at home. Conversely, I was given an inflated sense of self-worth in other settings. This was confusing to me. I was the kid that the nun said that God had plans for. I was the curve breaker on school exams, the unique thinker, the problem solver. These experiences have made me a leader rather than a follower—a decision-maker, rather than one who implements others’ proclamations. However, my early home life also had an impact on me. I can be overly sensitive. I have a soft underbelly. I need to be loved. I am happy with my personality and secure in my role. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a few frayed edges.
Which brings me back to the election night and a complaint from Julie that I can be too self-assured, too confident, and (the zinger) arrogant. I have to admit that that last modifier shook me, as I don’t see myself as an arrogant person. I don’t see myself full of self-importance, and I don’t feel that I am superior to others. However, her critique suggested that others may see me in this way. That was disturbing to me.
Dear readers, I feel that there is a difference between decisiveness and arrogance. When I make a decision, I am confident in that decision. However, I am open to others’ opinions, and I am more than willing to change my position based on a compelling counterpoint. I consciously surround myself with smart people who also have strong opinions, and I believe that some of my best life decisions have been made by embracing their ideas. Unfortunately, this incorporation process happens internally in my head, and it is not necessarily telegraphed to the greater world.
In regards to Julie, I felt that I needed to make amends to her. I think she is an exceptionally bright person who has altered and guided my thinking in countless ways. I told her as much that night, but the episode made me think beyond our pillow talk. I wondered how many other people I valued saw me as arrogant and how that impression impacted how they interacted with me. I felt it was better for me to err on the side of asking for forgiveness rather than justifying my behavior.
It is now Sunday, at 6:30 AM, I get out of Violet the campervan and head up the long driveway to Ralph’s house. I have known Ralph for almost 30 years. I consider him a close and valued friend. I reach his front door, and it is already open. I hesitate, as I’m not sure what COVID protocol he is now following. I elect to open his storm door and shout, “Ralph, are you in there?” “Come on in,” was his reply.
Ralph and I have made deliberate efforts to get together since I retired. We go on long walks and eat breakfast together. I look forward to our meetings and leave them anticipating the next one.
We start our hike. We enter the Illinois Prairie Path, then walk through Lincoln Marsh, then through Wheaton’s stately homes. “Hey, Ralph, can I talk to you about something?” “Sure,” was his reply. I recite a truncated summary of my conversation with Julie. “Ralph, if in any way you have felt that I have acted arrogantly towards you, I want to make amends to you. I listen to you, and I value your sharp intellect and common sense. I am a confident person who believes in himself, but that doesn’t mean that I disregard your ideas.” I pause-pregnantly. “Mike, do you have terminal cancer or something?” Ralph asks seriously. “God, I hope not,” I reply.
Our conversation slides in a different direction, politics. We offer each other ideas on what has been driving this era of partisan sycophants. Ralph’s insights focus on the emotional side of partisanship. His approach is different than mine, and I enjoy thinking about this situation in a different way.
The first point that he makes concerns the concept of morals. A person’s beliefs form morals. Morals become established laws for an individual, and once baked in, they no longer require a high level of intellectual scrutiny. Instead, morals have a vital emotional component, and feelings determine right vs. wrong. To quote Ralph, “So some people have firm moral resolve that overrides all logic, and everything is based on moral judgment first, and that evidence is wrong. They believe that they are experts and therefore do not need other experts such as scientists because they are correct.”
This got me thinking of a couple of examples:
It is wrong to take another person’s life.
This is a moral belief that is almost universally accepted worldwide.
The only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ.
Sixty-five percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Therefore the maximum number of individuals in the US who would hold this belief is 65%. In Japan, the number of Christians is around 1%, so 99% of individuals would not believe this in that country.
I cite this example to illustrate how one belief can be firmly accepted in one region and almost wholly rejected in another.
Donald Trump is doing a great job.
According to Gallup Daily Tracking from October 27, 2020, 46% of Americans approved of Donald Trump.
Donald Trump is doing a terrible job.
According to the Rasmussen Report, November 4-8, 2020, 47% disapproved of Donald Trump.
Here we have an example where roughly half of the US population approves of, and half of the population disapproves of Donald Trump. Both opinions of the president are based on a firm belief either for or against him. By viewing these opposing beliefs as moral convictions, it becomes easier to see how polarization can occur. Each side defends their position while ignoring any evidence that is contrary to it.
Ralph also talked about the process of politicization. To quote Ralph again, “Others are highly politicalized, and they are very vocal and pushy about their beliefs. They expect others to see their side – they will only seek out their side because otherwise, they would have to compromise and be open to others – which means giving in – there is no compromise as compromise is defeat.” The significance here is once something is politicized, the option of compromise is eliminated. Politicalization turns political and non-political things into a contest that can only be resolved by destroying the opponent, who becomes the enemy.
I think of those individuals who get all of their news exclusively from conservative (Fox News) or progressive (CNN, MSNBC) outlets. They are comfortable with these skewed editorial opinions, as they are consistent with their politicized beliefs.
I started to talk about the election, then I did a little personal disclosure, and then I got political again. How is all of this connected? My intent in this post is to explore what makes us who we are and how what may seem like a positive trait (being confident) can be interpreted negatively (arrogant) by others. In my case, how do I stay true to myself while not offending others? I am not suddenly going to become passive, but I can make an effort to acknowledge others opinions clearly and directly. I also must make amends when my actions have hurt or disturbed someone, even if my actions were unintentional.
Things become more complicated when dealing with individuals who are driven by moral conviction and politicized ideation. These characteristics are based more on feelings, and therefore are less subject to a good counterpoint. When someone believes in something strongly, they will find individuals and situations that support their beliefs. Conversely, they will avoid or denigrate individuals who have opposing thoughts. This can make accepting new ideas difficult, as emotionally held beliefs are wired more deeply than those strictly intellectual.
As a country, we are roughly divided into polar opposite halves. How can we find any common ground? I believe that the best approach consists of an honest dialog between opposing sides. The goal of the dialogue is not to convert the other persons. Instead, it is to understand their point of view. I may like vanilla ice cream, but I can accept that your choice, chocolate, is good too- we can both be right.
Although we may have specific ideologies, many of our life goals are the same. As a society, we separate ourselves based on a few bullet points-such as our views on gay marriage or immigration policy, but we are more than bullet points. As a group, most of us want freedom, security, health, and the ability to pursue our dreams. We want a safe shelter and healthy food. We want our kids to have options. We want to determine our futures. We want an even playing field. We have much more in common than what we hold as differences.
A nation can’t move forward if rigid non-yielding ideologies fracture that country. However, with compromise and understanding, all things are possible. Remember that joining parts of a structure makes that structure stronger, not weaker.
*Ralph told me that he gleaned some of his thoughts from the podcast, “The Hidden Brain.” He recommends that podcast.