My cousin, Terri, is visiting me for the Thanksgiving holiday, and Wednesday we spent some time in Black Dog Books, a wonderful independent bookstore just north of my house. There was a box on the counter at the bookstore containing several pieces of rough paper, on which were typed interesting quotes. Terri grabbed a fistful and bought them, and we went home to read through them. My favorite was “Listen to all, plucking a feather from every goose, but follow no one absolutely.”
This is alleged to be a Chinese proverb, and it very well could be, but I’m cautious about that; these days, everyone is making something up and claiming it was either said by Abraham Lincoln or is a “Chinese proverb.” But I don’t care, because it’s a solid piece of advice.
One of the things I’ve noticed in the last week is that discussions about the election often fail because the participants live on completely different factual planets. No one is starting from the same premises. Fake news is everywhere. I see people refuse to entertain a fact because it doesn’t come from someone of their ideological bent, but as soon as you provide that fact from someone who is of a similar worldview, they declare the source “not really a [whatever they are]” simply by virtue of having promoted a fact that doesn’t fit with their worldview.
It’s no secret that most people don’t form their beliefs from the available facts, but rather choose what they will call a fact according to whether it suits their beliefs. This is a problem, because it’s circular and therefore impossible to break. The only thing to help is an individual’s commitment to plucking feathers from every goose. My training and work as a lawyer has helped me enormously in this area. I know that facts exist, and I know the risks and the costs of being wrong factually, of accepting something too quickly because it validates how I want to view an issue. Thankfully, because I’ve suffered for doing so, I’ve developed a healthy skepticism for articles that fit a little too comfortably into my preferred beliefs.
In light of where we are in this country now, I would suggest that the single most important civic duty is to read — or at least listen — widely, including people who disagree with you. This can be really mentally unpleasant, and knowing who to read can be complicated by the sheer number of bullshit purveyors out there. I’ve developed a list of writers on “the other side” who are reliably principled and dedicated to facts. As I read a piece from that “other side,” what I want to experience is a low-level and fairly consistent feeling of irritation. There should be at least one eye roll. But reading and wrestling with counterpoints is the only way to know that your worldview is not hopeless bullshit.
And beyond that, read widely. If you like something too much, if an argument or a fact seems too nicely self-justifying, seek to have it refuted. Test it. Ask a friend you trust who disagrees with you, or read more than one source across the spectrum. But the greater your unwillingness to expose your beliefs to thoughtful challenge, the more likely they are to be complete crap.
What scares me, of course, is the people who don’t care, and who are openly dedicated to slurping the nutrient-free and toxic brew of self-validation. Don’t be one of them. They are corrosive to democracy. And who wants that?