Why Many of Our Political Opponents Are Not That Evil

Many of us hate too much the people of the other political "camp."

Posted Dec 08, 2018

T. Chick McClure/Unsplash
Source: T. Chick McClure/Unsplash

Often we take the world to be bad because we perceive so many people in it as bad, stupid, or both. Many of the people to whom we ascribe these qualities are those whose political views differ from ours. Occasionally, we even find ourselves hating all those other people with their other political views (although we sometimes try not to show this). We wonder how so many people can be so insensitive, stupid, hypocritical, corrupt, or evil. And we experience the world in which there are so many such people as appalling and depressing.

I do not deny, of course, that there are many stupid and evil people in the world. And there are also many stupid and evil people among those whose political views differ from ours. But I suggest that some politically engaged people conceive human reality more negatively than it really is when thinking about those who have other political views. They exaggerate the prevalence as well as the severity of the stupidity and evilness among their political "others."

IN-GROUP AND OUT-GROUP CATEGORIZATION

Psychological work done on in-group and out-group categorization suggests that we often perceive our political "others" wrongly, and as worse than many of them are. As in many other cases in which we have "others," we may be unintentionally using double standards. In other words, many of us tend to judge people of the other political group more harshly than we judge people of our own group. This can happen in a variety of ways. Here are some:

1. We tend to see our group as diverse. In other words, we conceive people in our group as holding many shades and versions of the opinions we believe in. For example, some are moderates, others radicals. Likewise, some people in our group are sane while others are, well, a little crazy. However, we take the other group to be homogeneous. For us, the people in the other group are all the same.

2. If we must present some generalization about the views people in our group hold, we tend to present them as holding some kind of a middle position. However, when we present the general views of the other group, we tend to represent their "homogeneous" position according to its most radical, even crazy version, which is often also the most implausible one.

3. When we consider our group and theirs, we think only of the differences between us and them, not of the similarities. Only what we and they disagree about is considered. Views that we and they share, or goals that are important to both us and them, are ignored.

4. We know that there are many different reasons and motivations for holding the views people in our group do. Some are better reasons and motivations, some worse. However, when representing to ourselves the reasons and motivations of the people in the other group, we sometimes consider only the worst ones.

5. Not everything in our group is always completely rational, consistent, and ethical. But we often see this as understandable; we are human, after all, not angels, and this is politics. However, this is not the way we think about what is not completely rational, consistent, and ethical in the other group.

Thus, we sometimes think of people of the other political group not very differently from the way bigots and racists think of other ethnic, racial, or gender groups. We sometimes generalize, prejudge, interpret uncharitably, take what is true of the worst in their group to be true of all of them, disrespect, refuse to listen, refuse to learn, refuse to enter into a dialogue, and sometimes even hate and demonize.

REFRAINING FROM IN-GROUP / OUT-GROUP CATEGORIZATION

All this does not mean, of course, that we should not work in an engaged and dedicated manner to realize what we see as politically better. It is important to be politically active and try to bring about what one thinks is right. But we can combine doing this with noting our own biases, such as the tendency to see our political "others" as non-diverse, moreover sometimes even to despise or hate all of them. We can combine active, dedicated political work with listening to, talking with, learning about, and even learning from people who have different views.

ADVANTAGES

There are several advantages to doing this. First, we will have a more accurate picture of reality, because in fact there typically is diversity also among our "others," and many of them are not evil or stupid.

Second, by hating less, and perhaps entering into dialogue with some of our "others," we may learn more about what pains, frightens, or worries them. We may then understand better what leads some of them to hold the views they do. We may see a thing or two also from their perspective. All this may lead to a better comprehension of the points of contention and of the best ways to solve them.

Richard Lee/Unsplash
Source: Richard Lee/Unsplash

Third, we may be thus able to convince some of those who have other political views. People who hate are more interested in defeating the "others" (and then in enjoying their downfall and frustration) than in convincing them.

Finally, and in the context of the present blog, very importantly, noticing our inclination to generalize negatively about our political "others" can help us see the world as a less bad and stupid place than we did earlier. It will now appear, correctly, as including a larger proportion of decent and good-intentioned, even if politically misguided, people.

References

Naomi Struch and Shalom H. Schwartz, "Intergroup Aggression: Its Predictors and Distinctness," Journal of Personally and Social Psychology 56(3) (1989): 364-373.

Bernadette Park and Myron Rothbart, "Perception of Out-Group Homogeneity and Levels of Social Categorization: Memory for the Subordinate Attributes of In-Group and Out-Group Members," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 42(6) (1982): 1051-1068.

Patricia W. Linville, Gregory W. Fischer, and Peter Salovey, "Perceived Distributions of the Characteristics of In-Group and Out-Group Members: Empirical Evidence and a Computer Simulation," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57(2) (1989): 165-188.