The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

How To Think Clearly About Political and Social Issues

One of the most useful things you were probably made to do in school is argue for points of view you disagree with. Make the choice case if you are pro-life, make the pro-life case if you’re anti-abortion.

Write the Palestinian case or the Israeli case, whichever you oppose.

Make the best case you can that Russia was right to invade, or the best case you can that Russia was wrong. Make the case that NATO was responsible, then make the case it had nothing to do with it. Make the case Ukraine is Nazi-infested, make the case it isn’t.

Honestly making the best argument you can for the other side is a very useful exercise. I rarely write such articles any more, but I still do it informally quite often and I couldn’t write what I do if I hadn’t been trained this way.

To really make this work, though, you have to be able to empathize: to feel what people feel. David Ben-Gurion once said that if were Palestinian he would be in the violent resistance. That was a man who wasn’t so caught up in his own world that it blinded him.

And don’t rush to disagree with the case you’re making. Make it first. FEEL the case. Get self-righteous.

It’s not hard to feel self-righteous about being pro-life for example, to feel you’re a paladin for justice and anyone opposing you is evil.

But it’s also easy, as a Russian, to see the Russian invasion of Ukraine as justified and feel righteous about it. If you can’t do it, you don’t really get the argument.

The same can be done for the Ukrainian side (somewhat easier, if you’re a westerner.)

Because some arguments are illogical, you always have to be able to feel. There is no question Israelis took Palestinian land and are still taking it, so you have to feel what makes them think that’s good.

Same with understanding our genocide of natives in N. America.

Or, for that matter, truly understanding the emotions behind the Holocaust (which, remember was not just Jews.)

If you’re authoritarian (most Americans are, most Westerners even) you need to learn how to feel in egalitarian modes.

If you’re egalitarian, you need to learn to think in authoritarian mode (Authority is GOOD, it makes you feel safe and loved and taken care of.)

One problem with all this is that doing this engages the disgust emotion, or even contempt (contempt is the most dangerous emotion to other people, it gives license for violence.) I can’t count the number of times I’ve explained a position I don’t agree with and people have hated me.

This is especially so when you start dealing with questions of “evil”. Why are people cruel? Well, a lot of it is that pushing people around and hurting them engages the feeling of having power, and feeling powerful is enjoyable. To understand this you have to feel it.

But you’ve now felt the emotional drive-train of a certain type of evil, and others will hate or despise you for it (especially if they get a flicker), then deny it.

If you truly want to understand the world and other people, you have to be willing to engage your emotions.

It actually takes bravery, because you will feel things you really don’t want to.






Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – July 10, 2022


How Standard Media Skews Public Understanding


  1. bruce wilder

    A very dangerous line is crossed when your preferred argument does not allow as legitimate the feelings of your opponents in that dispute. Understandable in some contexts why you might consciously choose to cross that line in devising your argument, but still dangerous to justice and humanity.

    Another point: a key aspect of feelings that underlay any political argument is association: identifying the argument with groups of people (and also identifying a supposed opposing argument with groups of other people). Personal feeling in support of many political arguments turns on imagining that (many) other anonymous people do or naturally would agree with you. Of course, a great many people may never have engaged enough on any issue to have a thought-out opinion, or they may have an opinion they like for any number of reasons of consumer taste, much as someone might a brand of toothpaste.

  2. Willy

    I once tried taking the other side in the “Sharia Law is coming!” argument. I tried to imagine our economic, legal and cultural overlords suddenly all turning Moslem. Taqiyahs and keffiyehs in board rooms. Hollywood starlets walking red carpets in Burkas. NFL and MLB owners confining female fans to the cheap seats under threat of stoning. Manly straight men dancing with other manly straight men. I had to stop the imagining. It was all just too absurd.

    So I tried to imagine the more plausible, such as the Great Replacement Theory. This yielded more insight fruit. I’d known well that many whites are frightened of stuff like gangster rap and latinos taking their jobs. And then I’d observed the rapid browning of America (and Canada) with my own eyes. The careful metering of immigrants, I get that, that’s what America’s all about. But becoming a minority (in color and native tongue) at my local Costco in the space of a couple decades? No wonder they like Trump.

    Speaking of power, I had a college friend recommend some books about power. I was insulted, but now I think he meant well. I was all ‘peace and love turn the other cheek’ back then. He saw the abuse I was heading towards receiving in our competitive, rapidly browning corporate world. I remember commuting to work one day, late and stressed, and this biker was hogging the fast lane slowing everybody down. I used my car’s size and power and let him know what I thought about that. After a minute he moved aside and I aimed to glare at him angrily, but a guy looking like Leonard Smalls glared back. He slowly lifted his arm and pointed at me. For a long time. Then he followed me closely for a few miles before turning off. I gained the insight that power can be like a drug which overwhelms rational and empathic thought. I think that’s what’s happened to our conservative supreme court justices. White evangelicals too. And Musk with twitter I suppose. Maybe what they need right about now is a dose of Leonard Smalls.

  3. anon

    Most people are unwilling to step into the shoes of those they disagree with and it feels less likely in this day in age when everyone is so partisan. That’s why so many people have ended relationships with family and friends who voted for the other side even though their own side is usually just as bad if not worse.

  4. Long gone

    When I was a child I often heard the adults say, “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.”
    At the same time there was a television commercial that said “I’d walk a mile for a camel” referring to the cigarette, and I correlated the two.
    As a young adult I smoked those Camel cigarettes.
    Gave them up long ago and I hope that now I possess sufficient wisdom, caring and compassion to walk a mile in the shoes of others.
    Difficult to do when looking at our so called “leaders “ however.

  5. Eric Anderson

    Ima gonna plug my ecotheism argument here. As I’m generally contemptuous of organized religion — yeah, I said it — it took me a long time to argue myself into the right headspace. But you have to admit, outside of the enlightenment it’s the only thing that has had the power to sway masses of minds.

  6. RootProblem

    That is one reason the students at Parkland seemed so capable and mature. Their school still does this thinking and debate training- most no longer do in USA.

  7. different clue


    Is Parkland School still a public school? Or at least was it at the time of the shooting?
    If it was and/or still is, that goes to show that “Public” is not the inherent cause of the problems in school-level education.

  8. Scott Stiefel

    Easiest bravery there is – all you have to do is read, listen, and then think by yourself

  9. Ian Welsh

    You’d think it was the easiest bravery, but most people can’t do it and there’s no correlation with physical bravery.

  10. Lex

    In my youth I loved playing devil’s advocate and in a lot of ways the more extreme the position the more interesting and “rewarding” (as an exercise in argumentation). I took “the Bible as literature” in university originally to improve my ability to argue from an anti-Christian point of view. Ended up getting a degree in comparative religion.

    I don’t really do it for shit’s and giggles anymore, even when the Mormons or witnesses show up. But it has served me well. Trained the mind to do what you’re saying, Ian. I try to remember to continue the practice even on issues which my overall opinion will not change. I also think it’s absolutely vital for any serious analysis.

  11. Trinity

    “If you truly want to understand the world and other people, you have to be willing to engage your emotions.”

    This is so true, and it’s why they are there. All of our senses can fool us from time to time, along with our past and the habits it brings. Emotions and understanding their meaning (or lack of meaning) help us respond properly to whatever is in front of us.

    Some of us grew up in households where the only emotion allowed was anger, and the only person allowed to be angry was the narcissist. These people may never learn how to parse out their emotions, let alone identify them.

    Americans and probably many in other western nations are collectively traumatized, simply that. Every day this group grows in size as the trauma pile grows. And trauma disconnects you from your emotions (usually to save your sanity or your life).

    Disconnecting us from reality is one of their main objectives, which means manipulating our emotions as well. And they do that, all the time. Thinking clearly becomes more and more difficult as the trauma piles up.

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