The 17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once remarked, "The truth is so obscured these days that only those who love it will find it." Living at the advent of modernity, characterized by great ideological contests among and within philosophy, religion, science and politics, Pascal was perhaps more aware than any of his contemporaries of two facts about human beings. First, the need for truth is woven into the deepest impulses of our being. Second, we are prone, consciously and unconsciously, to exercise great energy to avoid truths we don't want to face.
A new study, entitled "The Perception Gap" from the research team More in Common, provides ample support for Pascal's second claim. More in Common says the study "explores how Americans have a distorted understanding of people on the other side of the aisle." It is not surprising, with the growth of partisan tribalism, that erroneous opinions about political opponents are quite high. What is surprising are the following results: the disconnection with reality was highest among "the best educated and most politically interested," who "are more likely to vilify their political adversaries than their less educated, less tuned-in peers." In other words, the least engaged and least politically active came the closest to having an accurate view of their opponents.
In a result that provides fodder for the conservative complaint that universities have become programs of progressive catechesis, the survey finds that, "while Republicans' misperceptions of Democrats do not improve with higher levels of education, Democrats' understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn." If the influence of education on perception differs from one party to another, the level of animosity toward opponents is widely shared. Toward the end of the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt posted a graph tracing the sharp rise in affirmative responses to the question whether one hates members of the opposite party – from 15% in the early 1980s to a peak in recent years of just under 50%.
Exacerbating our situation is the fact that quintessentially Enlightenment institutions such as universities and the free press, designed to liberate the populace from false opinion, now seem to foster quasi-mythological thinking about political opponents, whom we increasingly see as both fatuous and malicious.
In his book The Righteous Mind, Haidt argues that, contrary to our perception of ourselves as fair-minded rational agents, we are in fact largely dominated by passions and unexamined assumptions, in defense of which we expend a great deal of effort. "We are selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves," Haidt writes. We rarely start with a dispassionate examination of evidence and then move to conclusions. We "make judgments rapidly and are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgments." Underscoring the social influence on our thinking, Haidt concludes, "Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive."
This returns us to Pascal, who observed that "we hide and disguise ourselves from ourselves." Acutely aware of the influence of passion and social custom on our thinking, Pascal nonetheless thought that to be human is to engage in a quest to discover the truth about the human condition through the examination of conflicting views. "All our dignity consists in thought. ... We must strive then to think well; that is the basic principle of morality."
On both the right and the left sides, books are being written about our need to restore civil discourse across partisan divides. These are salutary, but they overlook a crucial motivation for engaging with those with whom we disagree, what Pascal called the basic principle of morality.
That this is not just a personal matter but can have political implications is evident from the life of the anti-Soviet dissident and Czech statesman, Vaclav Havel. In the face of intense ideological pressure, Havel and his dissident friends sought to avoid the lies of their culture and instead to construct an alternative community in which truth could be spoken freely. Differing in kind and degree from the ideological pressure experienced by Havel, our own partisan distortions are not innocuous. They are obstacles to what Havel called "living in the truth," indispensable sources of personal and communal flourishing.
Thomas S. Hibbs is president of the University of Dallas.