I think you may have noticed that throughout the past year I’ve become more and more convinced (and more and more open about the fact that I’m convinced) that the alt-right is full of ignorant and bigoted extremists. I’ve long suspected that the “moderate” conservative belief system of “smaller government, less funding for public institutions like schools, and lower taxes for the rich,” could lead to the situation we currently find ourselves in, and I’ve said as much, and now that it’s happened I can’t exactly hold my tongue: a disturbing number of conservatives are absolutely bonkers and a much larger number of conservatives are okay with it so long as it gets more conservatives into power.
In other words, the people who disagree with me are immoral and unintelligent.
Anyway, in the news today is a new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality building upon previous studies that suggest political polarization in the United States occurs because members of each of the two major parties tend to perceive their counterparts as being immoral and unintelligent.
Uh oh. Am…am I the baddy?
Okay, so the idea that people make moral judgments about the opposite political party isn’t new. For awhile now researchers have suspected that we become polarize through two major ways: ideologically, meaning that I disagree with the policies that you champion and vice versa, and affective polarization, which means I think you’re stupid and evil, and vice versa. We can’t really help the ideological polarization because that’s just a straight-up difference of opinion. For example, let’s say that you are in favor of the government providing vouchers for students to attend private schools using tax dollars and I am not. Morality has yet to enter into the equation concerning our differences — we just want different things.
Affective polarization is malleable, though. You might think I’m stupid to not realize that allowing parents to choose between public and private schools would force public schools to get better in order to be competitive. You might think I’m evil, because by opposing a voucher program I might be denying a lower-income black family the chance to send their child to a better-funded school in a different district instead of to their failing local public school.
And I may think you’re stupid to want to implement a system that research shows will lead to worse outcomes for students. And I may think you’re evil to take public money away from secular schools and funnel it to religious schools that indoctrinate children in belief systems that should remain separated from our government.
But for all of those points you could easily replace “stupid” and “evil” with “mistaken” and “values different things.” And someone who did see it that way would be less politically polarized.
So this paper looked at how affective polarization might be moderated by something known as intellectual humility — the understanding that I am a flawed human being who might be wrong about something, so I will critically examine my beliefs in the light of any evidence that they may be wrong. In other words, a True Skeptic. Obviously, a lot of people call themselves skeptics who wouldn’t know how to evaluate a closely held belief if it walked into their office for its annual performance review with its own self-assessment already filled out. That metaphor kind of got away from me but you know what I mean.
Skepticism, though, truly is intellectual humility: I fervently believe something, but should I? If someone presents me with evidence against my belief, will I dismiss it out of hand or will I consider it?
So researchers asked more than 800 people to fill out surveys to find out how they score on intellectual humility, what their political preferences are, and how they feel when they imagine a person from the opposite political party — disgust? Contempt? Fear? They also asked them things like “how much money would I have to give you to vote for someone from the other party,” which is honestly one of the dumbest survey questions I’ve ever heard. My answer is zero, not because I’m not willing to vote Republican but because my VOTE ISN’T FOR SALE, THAT’S ILLEGAL, Jesus. Anyway.
They found that people who were high in intellectual humility scored lower on affective polarization. So that’s it: I’m not intellectually humble so that’s why I think the thousands of people who stormed the Capitol last week are stupid and immoral.
But wait! There’s more. This paper also found that people who were high in intellectual humility scored lower on the other kind of polarization: ideological. The one that isn’t really up for debate. So, this might mean that people who scored higher in intellectual humility were also just more likely to be politically apathetic. Maybe it’s a case of someone saying “Well I don’t have all the answers, so who am I to take a position on this?”
And that’s what I really want to highlight, here: Reddit seemed to assume this was some kind of “both sides” paper: Republicans AND Democrats see each other as evil and stupid. They can’t all be right, therefore they’re all wrong and only the intellectually humble are in the right. Right? Well, no. Let’s take something that has been “politicized” but is really just a straight-up fact: anthropogenic global warming. Scientists have formed a consensus that says it’s really happening and we should do everything in our power to stop it. Democrats tend to agree and think that Republicans are either stupid or immoral for not taking action; Republicans tend to disagree and think that Democrats are either stupid or immoral for trying to take action. There are plenty of people on both sides, though, who don’t really care. They don’t know enough about the issue to argue about it. So, they will score well on intellectual humility (e.g., “I don’t know, I could be wrong”) and score low on affective polarization (e.g., “that person just has a different opinion.”)
All of that fits with what this study is showing, but at the end of the day there is a right and a wrong answer. Anthropogenic global warming is really happening, and the people who deny it’s happening are doing so for reasons. Those reasons tend to fall into just a few camps: they’re ignorant of the data and/or they refuse to accept the expertise of scientists (they’re dumb) or else they know it’s happening but have financial interests in continuing to behave the way we always have (they’re immoral). No matter how you look at it, there’s no intellectually honest way to say “it’s just a difference of opinion.” It’s not whether or not you think grapefruits taste good (they don’t) — it’s whether or not you understand reality.
So yeah, don’t worry, you can be a skeptic — an intellectually humble person — and still know that the people who committed armed insurrection on the United States Capitol are credulous idiots and immoral assholes. But it’s worth remembering that that doesn’t make all your political opponents stupid and evil, or that you should treat them all as subhuman. I guess what I’m saying is it’s healthy to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.