Monday, March 13, 2017

When people close to you attack you

Here's how Thomas Friedman began his column a little more than a year ago:
I find this election bizarre for many reasons but none more than this: If I were given a blank sheet of paper and told to write down America’s three greatest sources of strength, they would be “a culture of entrepreneurship,” “an ethic of pluralism” and the “quality of our governing institutions.” And yet I look at the campaign so far and I hear leading candidates trashing all of them.  
Donald Trump is running against pluralism. Bernie Sanders shows zero interest in entrepreneurship and says the Wall Street banks that provide capital to risk-takers are involved in “fraud,” and Ted Cruz speaks of our government in the same way as the anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, who says we should shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” (Am I a bad person if I hope that when Norquist slips in that bathtub and has to call 911, no one answers?)
Now, there is a tremendous problem with sloppy logic here. Donald Trump is running against pluralism? Not exactly. We wouldn't say that someone who opposes a certain kind of exercise is opposed to physical fitness. But there is a deeper problem than that and it's in the last line. Grover Norquist wants government to have much less influence over our lives and he used a colourful metaphor to describe that. Friedman wants Norquist to suffer.

And note that wanting smaller government is taken as being identical to wanting to shut down emergency services. Is Friedman actually so stupid as to believe that? Think carefully about your answer because if he isn't stupid then he is dishonest and manipulative.

I suspect that a big part of what motivates Friedman is fear. He can't imagine life without big government and so he engages in vicious and unfair attacks on people who think otherwise. A consequence of this way of thinking and behaving, however, is to shrink our sense of community. In Friedman's world there are good people who believe in big government (and Friedman can't imagine quality government being anything other than big government) and there are people he wishes would suffer because they have the wrong beliefs. That doesn't leave a lot of common ground.

Social psychologists have long known that we present different faces to different people. We do this based on the level of commitment. Friedman may well wish Norquist, whom he doesn't know or care about, dead for simply having the wrong opinions but he is unlikely (I hope) to think the same thing if his wife or one of his children became a libertarian. He might wish that they didn't think this way and may even have heated arguments with them about it. But he'd still love them. If, on the other hand, he meets someone on the bus and they express such a view, he might decide to change seats. The degree of commitment to the person matters.

For that reason, we can usually be more open with the people closest to us. We can say what we really think and not worry that they are suddenly going to start yelling and screaming at us or that they will stop speaking with us. But what if they do just that?

Facebook is a particularly interesting test case for this. You present more or less the same face to everyone on Facebook. What does it mean if people who are supposed to be in your core group of close friends and family respond to your opinions with anger and threats to cut you off while others calmly accept your right to have these opinions? It means they aren't really your close friends or family anymore. They may even be your enemies now. It's nothing you did. They chose this. You don't have to do anything about that. I'd argue that you shouldn't do anything about it. I mean, you shouldn't retaliate or try to convince them to change their minds.

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