Ideological lenses obscure rationality | Rich Elfers' Politics in Focus

“In politics, perceptions are crucial. Devoted ideologues on each side will cherry- pick examples and draw from them broad generalizations. Many individuals will perceive or remember only the evidence that is consistent with their initial beliefs” -Joseph Stiglitz, "The Price of Inequality"

Today the nation is divided politically into major camps based upon classes: Republicans and Democrats. The field of battle is the November presidential election. Each side frames its perceptions to convince voters their viewpoint is correct and the other is wrong.

It’s my belief that framing issues through our perceptions blinds us to the views of the other and robs us of objectivity and the truth. Usually the truth lies between the extremes.

The late Stephen Covey, in his best-selling book, "Seven Habits of Highly Successful People" states: “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.” Rather than rejecting the other side’s point of view, we need to listen first to understand what they believe based upon their frame of reference and environment. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. It just means we need to really listen to them to understand why they believe the way they do.

I have some very bright conservative business friends who argue the Republican view very cogently. They can cite examples why they believe as they do. Their arguments based upon their examples ring true. I’ve also got progressive (liberal) friends who can do the same thing with their positions. Their examples also ring true based upon their life experiences. Let’s look at the two presidential candidates as examples of these differing life experiences.

Mitt Romney grew up with a father who was the CEO of American Motors. Through hard work and intelligence George Romney became very successful and wealthy. Mitt observed his parents and they shaped his views and perceptions.

In a similar way, each of us as we grew up observed our role models to become the people we are today. Mitt Romney used his life experiences and intelligence to become governor of Massachusetts, organizer of the Salt Lake City Olympics and successful CEO of Bain Capital.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, had very different life experiences, growing up as a biracial child without a father. He lived in Hawaii and Indonesia. He attended Columbia and Harvard and got a law degree. He also learned a great deal by becoming a community organizer in Chicago. He was able to emerge from this background to be elected to the Illinois state legislature and then to become one of Illinois’ senators and then be elected to the presidency of the United States—a remarkable and rapid rise to prominence.

If you examine each of their backgrounds you should be able to see these two men have become successful through intelligence and drive. It should be obvious to see that because of their experiences they see the world differently. Both have different perceptions of what the world is like and how the federal government should be run.

For each man, the truth is obvious, and at the same time different because of their backgrounds. That means we as voters need to objectively examine each candidate’s perspectives, asking ourselves which view is closest to our own life experiences and understanding of the truth. At the same time it’s important to give the benefit of the doubt to assume that the other candidate is acting sincerely according to his values.

We then need to be able to objectively weigh each man’s strengths and weaknesses, based upon their past records. If we can’t objectively list our favorite candidate’s weaknesses and his opponent’s strengths, then we are doing what Joseph Stiglitz noted in the introductory paragraph of this column. We “will perceive or remember only the evidence that is consistent with (our) initial beliefs.”

We will need to be aware that if we don’t see our own biases, we are guilty of what Stiglitz warns us against. We humans tend to “cherry-pick examples and draw from them broad generalizations.” To be able to make good choices we must become aware of our own biases and life experiences; we must let our reason, combined with our emotions, help us decide. That’s what Stephen Covey meant when he said, “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.”

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