When does argument become religion?

The fever pitch of the recent election season brought me back to another election season – 2004, the time of John Kerry’s unsuccessful bid to topple Bush 43 (it seems so long ago now, doesn’t it?). Because I live and work in Manhattan, you can well imagine that the conversations leading up to the election were extremely monotonous – everyone here backed Kerry so strongly that they could not imagine anyone voting for Bush. By the end of October, all political discussions had the flavor of religious or tribal ceremonies. We would all repeat the same shared opinions to each other ad nauseum, until the very words began to lose any meaning.

Clearly there were other parts of the country where political conversations were monotonous for precisely the opposite reason – right-leaning places where everyone so thoroughly agreed that Bush was the better candidate, that there was nothing much left for anyone to say.

This contrast was nicely illustrated by Troy’s recent comment on my “Broken Glass” post, when he said: “I do believe that the majority of people out there that are fighting non-traditional marriage are not raising a family of their own.” On the contrary, I know many people around here who are raising families, and every single one of those parents was appalled and horrified by the passage of Proposition 8, and made a point of saying so. I suspect that where Troy lives things are quite different. Here in Manhattan (as well as in all the University towns I visit) one uniformly finds sense of outrage on the part of parents that their friends and colleagues, people they like and respect, are denied the right and responsibility of raising children. I’m not arguing right or wrong here, I’m just pointing out the vast difference between our respective subcultures.

When people from two such opposing subcultures begin a conversation, things can get weird. Each side knows the other is wrong. The kindest thing we each tend to think about the other is that they are well-meaning but deluded, the victim of some cleverly pitched self-serving lies or spin that have clouded their better judgement.

In some sense, you can say that in such situations we have all – both left and right – gone over the edge from rational discourse to religious thinking and tribal warfare. We are all so used to the general lockstep agreement in our respective enclaves, that when we meet someone from “the other side” it feels like an encounter with an apostate. Our reaction is no longer intellectual, but rather is dominated by a irrational sense of emotional discomfort at encountering the otherness of an enemy tribe.

In October 2004, at height of the Kerry/Bush mania, my colleague Robert Dewar made what I think is the most perceptive observation I have ever heard on the subject. He proposed a simple test to determine whether your own views on a subject were in the realm of reasoned argument or in the realm of religious indoctrination. The test is simple: Attempt to seriously argue the other point of view. If you can do that effectively (even if you don’t ultimately agree with your own arguments) then you are still in the realm of the rational. If not, then your thinking has gone over into religious/tribal territory.

Go ahead, try it.

2 thoughts on “When does argument become religion?”

  1. I came to the same conclusion this year – I boil it down to one question: can you list three cogent pros/cons for each candidate? If the answer is “no”, then you’ve fed for too long at the trough of Hannity or Olbermann. If the answer is “yes”, then let’s talk.

    We can filter things through our own respective lenses and figure what makes 100% sense for us individually. But it seems like extending that and claiming to know what is absolute truth for everyone is what separates the reactionaries from the thinkers.

  2. I had an interesting observation this week… In my neighborhood, it’s mostly families and farmers. We grow grapes, our neighbors grow avocadoes, citrus, etc. It’s a pretty rural area.

    As is becoming increasingly more prominent, people tend to wear their politics on their sleeves with yard signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts, etc…

    Just as an ad hoc survey… My neighborhood was predominantly pro-McCain. But, not overwhelmingly so, probably 75%. It was probably 50/50 on Prop 8, and I didn’t pay much attention to the other yard grafitti.

    I work in San Diego, which is about 45 miles south. So, on my daily commute, I’d notice a swing in bumper stickers going the opposite way. Probably 75% proBama.

    In the office, it was very cut/dry… Management/ownership/VP level all very Right, Everyone else, very Left.

    I Digress…

    Here’s what I found interesting… I spent last week in New York. We stayed at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square and went to the Macy’s Parade, saw the Rockettes, the whole New York Holiday thing… Wandering around, I noticed Obama propoganda everywhere… In bodegas, in t-shirt shops, curio shops, diners, etc. etc. etc… In a week, it almost seemed like the entire city was one-sided. Not a single voice from the other side.

    I know, of course, that not everyone leans left in NY, but, what I found interesting was that the conspicuous aspects of political leanings were laid firmly on one side with no indication of the other.

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