Joe II: The Healing
A recent AT article introduced Joe, a successful and intelligent black man obsessed with white racism. Our friendship suffered a breach when I finally challenged what I believed to be his irrational obsession and aspersions. Soon afterward, I quit the organization we both belonged to, largely to escape his race grievance dispatches. Regrettably, however, somebody surprised me with a "gift." She "unquit" me, paid my dues, and got me elected as chairman of something. I didn't want to hurt her feelings, so I accepted the offering, but resolved to refute Joe whenever necessary.
At the next meeting -- the topic was selfless service -- Joe commenced another oration about white racism. I objected, a heated exchange erupted, and somebody suggested that Joe and I take steps to heal our relationship. Later, my husband observed, "I suppose the most selfless thing you can do for those people is make them happy and get healed." As a psychologist, I couldn't resist.
The healing took place in Joe's office. He sat behind a mahogany desk. Like boxers, we had seconds: he, his new wife and I, a therapist friend who assumed the role of facilitator. Joe opened by stating that he believed that God wanted him to share his special experience as a black man and that I misunderstood him. He had never meant to be, nor had he ever been, political. His only purpose was to help us understand his experience as a black man in the South. It was unfortunate that we misconstrued his communications as being political or racial.
Not political or racial? I reminded Joe of his long history of inundating our faith-based group with pro-Obama speeches and e-mails; support for Obama's Organization for Action and other progressive organizations; allegations that our congressional representatives are racist, that blacks are still not given a fair shake, that our group itself (which directs much of its outreach to a local back neighborhood) should confront its racism...ad infinitum. He bitterly recalled that once his question at a town hall meeting on health care reform was ignored because he is black. I replied, "Joe, the only evidence of racism there is that you think your skin color gave you a special right to be called."
The healing devolved into Joe repeating, "I never speak of white racism," and my frustrated, fact-based refutations. I spoke of why focusing on the past is a problem and not a solution, and Joe shook with anger. My second intervened, explaining that our problem might result from differing conversational styles. Joe is an "interpersonal communicator" who tells personal stories in order to be understood, while I am a "scholarly communicator" who wants to debate the facts. Her construction may well be true, but it does not explain why facts themselves are so often ignored, denied, or tortuously spun, rendering conversation between intelligent, well-meaning people contentious and useless.
A recent study entitled "Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government" provides a theory for why empirical information is both used and disused to serve political belief, for why Joe cannot objectively understand his own behavior, for why black Americans do not see how liberal policies are harming black Americans.
"Confirmatory bias" -- looking for information that supports an a priori belief -- has long been understood in psychology. This study expands that understanding. It is based in part on the concept of numeracy, which is the ability to apply quantitative, or factual, information in the support of reasoned decision-making.
From the study's abstract (italics added):
Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence? . . . As expected, subjects highest in Numeracy - a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information - did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects' responses became politically polarized - and even less accurate - when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. ... but such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in Numeracy; instead, it increased.
This complex experiment featured competing theories about reasoning styles, offered several hypotheses, and referenced other undercurrents (such as co-variant analysis, which even very smart people don't necessarily do well). But all that aside, the researchers came to a few conclusions regarding styles of interpreting information. The salient conclusion here is, put simply, that as a person's numeracy increases, the ability to reach valid scientific inferences by using actual data is greatly influenced by pre-held opinion rather than reason. Opinion and emotion trump reason.
In the experiment, subjects interpreted tables of numbers about whether a skin cream reduced rashes, and whether a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns reduced crime. When the numbers in the table conflicted with a subject's position on gun control (a politically charged issue), the subject was less likely to do the math correctly, though he could when the topic was skin cream. Surprisingly, as numeracy increased, it became even more likely that the data would be interpreted to reinforce the subject's opinion about gun control. In short, the smarter one is, the more likely that facts will be selectively used to support an opinion, even if the facts contradict the opinion. These subjects did not display less, but more "ideological polarization." This held true for both liberals and conservatives.
This is one explanation for why it is frustrating, if not impossible, to sway opinion simply by presenting factual data, even when the facts seem to be incontrovertible and potent. It also helps explain why, in trying to "heal" my relationship with Joe, my reliance on facts may be a doomed approach. Not because Joe is intellectually deficient, but because he is highly intelligent. Similarly, Mitt Romney's strategy in the debates and on the stump was in great part composed of rather dispassionately disputing Obama's persistent and inaccurate statements. And similarly, that approach failed.
I am not advocating that we ignore and forget facts. They are stubborn things and in the long run tend to assume dominance in people's minds. But in the short term, conservatives must harness better emotional and rhetorical strategies if we are to prevail and save this country. Nothing should be off the table: rallies, impromptu conversations in supermarket lines, get-out-the-vote drives, involvement in our public schools, lawsuits, civil disobedience.
A final note. Yesterday I received an e-mail from Joe in praise of the president. I responded, "Joe, that's political!" He immediately emailed back, "I disagree."