A potent and inevitable aspect of human cognition is to see the world through one’s own eyes. This shouldn’t seem surprising since our own eyes are the only ones we have, but it contradicts the admonitions people receive from childhood to see things from another’s perceptive. Empathy is a lofty but elusive goal. I’ve always wondered whether the mothers who bite their children to show them how it feels when they bite others actually get results or only teeth marks.
The gulf between what things feel like to us and to others is impassible: No matter how hard we try, we cannot enter another person’s subjective, conscious experience. What this means is that a large part of my personal identity is completely private and unknowable to others. Other people can observe my actions and their consequences, but they can’t know what I’m thinking or feeling unless I tell them, and even then, my subjective experience of thinking and feeling is my own.
This privacy has some beneficial consequences. After all, people have all kinds of crazy thoughts and fantasies that they wouldn’t want others to know about. But the downside is that it makes it so easy to disapprove of others’ whose preferences, values, and behaviors differ from our own. Even those of us who try to have a healthy tolerance of different viewpoints occasionally catch ourselves thinking: “How in the world can you believe what you’re saying?” A persistent example in my own experience concerns religious beliefs. Apparently, I lack the gene required to believe in gods, afterlives, resurrections, and such because, despite a fairly normal religious upbringing, I can never recall a time in which I really believed in a deity. I think I did try to pray to god when I was 10 years old that my dog wouldn’t die, but my heart wasn’t really in it. (She did die, so perhaps god punished me for my insincerity). The point, though, is that when people, including people whose intelligence and rationality I highly respect, express their religious beliefs, I find myself scratching my head, and thinking “what the f…?” How, for example, can the editor of a scientific journal, who has extraordinarily high standards of proof, believe in virgin births and resurrections? And despite my best intentions of respecting other people’s views, and despite my best attempts to make people believe that I am doing so, if the truth be told, I have to struggle with my automatic inclination to wonder about their susceptibility to cult influence, or their desire to appease their friends and relatives, or whether, deep down, they really believe what they are saying, or any number of uncharitable inferences about their religious beliefs.
Here's the rub: it is natural enough to fail to understand where another person is coming from, because, we can never really know for sure, but it is another to assume that they are simply wrongheaded. But if there is any doubt that this is the way that many disagreements are interpreted, the present political climate should dispel them. The reason for this is that political differences often belie core values about social justice, racial and gender equality, environmental protection, and more generally, the pursuits that make life worth living. These differences, therefore, are far from trivial—they are not simply matters of which policy is likely to be the most effective, but more fundamentally, what an individual’s political orientation says about their core values.
This is the crux of the problem. When people disagree with us, their disagreement not only influences the validity of our beliefs, but it calls into question our personal identities—the kind of people we want to believe that we are. This is why even ostensibly meaningless differences, such as which sports team a person favors, can rankle. It isn’t just that you are a New England Patriots fan, it’s that I’m a New York Giants fan, and that makes us fundamentally different kinds of people. Or so it seems, although in reality, it is questionable whether basic personality characteristics are predictable from sports team preferences, although there’s a study here waiting to be conducted. The song, though, has already been written (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”—check out Ella Fitzgerald-Louie Armstrong version).
What this example highlights is that people care desperately about their identities, so desperately that it influences their judgments about mundane differences that hardly matter in any practical sense. That is, the world won’t be changed much if you continue to eat Fruit Loops while I prefer Cheerios. Nevertheless, this won’t stop me from questioning the character of you sugary cereal-eating people. There is, undoubtedly, a personality difference here: Some people are simply more tolerant of difference than others, which raises the specter of people arguing about who is more tolerant. I hate to admit it, but I fear that I may be below average on this trait.
So how do conservatives and liberals, or religious people and atheists remain friends? Or stay married? I contend that the importance of personal identity makes it virtually impossible to fully “respect” the other’s point of view. After all, I truly believe that praying to a deity is ludicrous, that Donald Trump is a vulgar racist, and that global warming is a fact. But I do sincerely like some people with the opposite beliefs, and I even love some of them. The secret, I think, is not to pretend that I don’t believe what I believe, or to acknowledge that others might be right, but to recognize that when the sum total of rightness and wrongness is added up, I am unlikely to come out on top, and would be lucky to get a tie. So while my identity remains protected, I am hopefully not so obtuse as to believe that I am a better person than those I disagree with.