An idea on straw men

It is a well-understood psychological principle that humans tend to attribute blame in a very lopsided manner. If you trip over a rock, you are clumsy. If I trip over that same rock, I merely made a mistake. I contend that we attribute an entire pattern of behaviors based on a single action to others, while we excuse our own actions as being entirely individual circumstances.

Why is this even important? I’ve noticed in reading, listening to, and watching various debates and cases made for and against various moral, religious, philosophical, and political ideas and intuitions that people tend to take singular behaviors and statements (x said y, therefore she thinks z) and therefore create a straw man that is not actually perceived to be a straw man. I have noticed that so much of our philosophical and political discourse in modern times is based entirely on knocking down these straw men instead of actually discussing pragmatically and generously the issue at hand.

One of the problems that causes me the most grievance when discussing important matters such as these is that we tend to cherrypick problems with our opponent’s arguments instead of being philosophically generous. To state this another way, in order to actually solve problems, we need to cease being so beholden to our own ideas, which often are not even ideas which originated from our own minds, that we are unable to see another person’s perspective. So often we will be more interested in winning the argument than winning the big picture. We see our opponents as being morally repugnant, when in reality they often merely diverted to a different direction in their logic at some point. Instead of attributing decent intentions to our opponents, we paint them in a light that prevents us from actually getting to the bottom of the problem and finding a solution.

Let me use abortion as an example. This debate is actually one of the few in America which I think there are genuine disagreements about. Some people prioritize the life of a fetus over other priorities, while others do the opposite. However, instead of even attempting to understand the point of view of those on the opposite side, most of us are content to throw insults at the other and develop our own echo chamber so that we feel vindicated. I think there genuinely is a way for us to come to an agreement on this issue. Perhaps it involves compromise. The point is, though, that we cannot come to an agreement if we generalize all anti-abortion advocates as wacky right-wing fundies and all pro-choice advocates as callous baby killers, we will never stop fighting. We will never come to a conclusion. There will never be satisfaction.

To wrap things up, we need to be aware of our tendencies. We need to be aware of our individual psychologies and personalities. We cannot operate in a modern technological society if we are unable to be aware of our shortcomings both as individuals and a species. This is one of the reasons I think psychology should be a mandatory class in high school. We have to learn about ourselves to better understand how to interpret evidence and come to pragmatic conclusions – and how to understand each others and compromise. There’s no other way.

An idea on straw men

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