We often believe those we disagree with are either ignorant, immoral, or stupid. We enjoy seeing ourselves as above average and completely rational. If our ideas weren't right, we wouldn't hold on to them (or so we to tell ourselves). If their views are so obviously wrong, confusion sets in as to why they don't see reality "as it is" (according to us). It’s so painfully obvious, right?
Unfortunately, no. Though jumping to conclusions is easy, I’m going to argue we should consider other options. The conflict in our brains wants to be resolved. How we resolve it matters.
They’re Just Stupid.
This is the quickest and easiest conclusion. If something is so obvious to me, and they don’t see it my way, then they must be stupid. Though it’s tempting to believe this, in many cases it’s simply not true. Stupidity requires mental deficiency. Their brains have to be operating at such a slow pace they couldn’t possibly understand what we know, no matter what new information they get or experience they gain. The problem with this judgment is, if it’s true, we end up being the asshole. Assuming for a moment they actually are stupid, is that their fault? If our physical brains are superior due to nature, nurture, luck, or some other magic dust we haven’t figured out yet, how is it their fault to have less? A bit of empathy and compassion on our part would be required.
With a little bit of effort, we can usually move past this one pretty quickly. We can find other things they’ve done or said which require intelligence. So if they aren’t stupid...
Maybe They’re Just Ignorant.
This is the most common explanation for why people see things so differently than we do. They didn’t read that book, watch that documentary, or read that scientific paper’s abstract (while pretending to have read the whole thing). They just need to be enlightened! Surely if they had the wealth of knowledge we have, they’d completely agree with us!
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve thought this way, only to find out later I was the ignorant one. There's always more to the story. Always another side I wasn't aware of. It's humbling to think you understand something and the other person is ignorant only to get a new bit of information which changes everything.
Ignorance is a tricky claim to justify because we all have completely unique experiences in life. We all have different cultural backgrounds, childhoods, genetics, temperaments, learning styles, religious frameworks, and educational experiences. Once a “fact” hits our unique brains, it gets stored and interpreted by different frames and neuron groups connected to different memories, metaphors, and understanding. Maybe people aren’t ignorant, they are just different. So different, in fact, that maybe they are...
If they are smart enough to understand, and they have the facts at their disposal to rationally come to the “correct” conclusion (ours, of course), then maybe they are purposefully and willingly denying the obvious truth. They have no moral framework and are simply evil.
This conclusion comes up often between intelligent people because it solves a lot of cognitive dissonance issues in a neat little package. For a smart, informed person to disagree with my conclusion, I have to have a justified reason to reject them outright and what better way to do that than from the moral high ground? If I’m on the “good” side and they are on the “bad” side, I don’t need to dig too deep into their rebuttals or counter arguments because they are evil and would lie or trick me to get what they want. Not only that, the negative emotion which has been rising due to the conflict in my mind can now be turned into primal anger and even violent action. This person I disagree with can now be vanquished for everything that’s good and right in the world with the added benefit of me no longer being confused!
Hopefully you picked up all my sarcasm here.
Clearly, there are many more options as to why people disagree. The biggest often being different epistemologies. Our epistemology makes up the mechanisms we use to distinguish justified belief from opinion. So many aspects of our lives go into our epistemology, and it’s something few people deeply engage with and work to improve. Sometimes the answer isn’t figuring out why the other person is wrong (or we are wrong), but instead embracing both ideas and letting our mind chew on them.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
This willingness to embrace contradictions and conflicting perspectives is what the world needs more of. Few ideas are black or white, left or right, good or evil, progressive or conservative. The real world we live in is far more nuanced. If we want to live in this world peacefully with those around us, building meaningful relationships, we’re going to have to level up our thinking. We’re going to have to purposefully engage with smart, informed, moral people who completely disagree with us. Engaging there is where we can grow the most and, if we’re persistent and lucky, become wise.
The next time you immediately dismiss someone's view you don't agree with, ask yourself if you put them in the ignorant, immoral, or stupid category. Challenge yourself to justify your conclusions and consider alternatives. They deserve the same benefit of the doubt you expect from them.
The more we can do this, the more we can build a world we all want to live in.
P.S. This post goes along with a rant I wrote recently.