“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”
“To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.”
I wish to take Sun Tzu’s wisdom and apply it to a particular conundrum: how do you talk to, and perhaps even convince, someone who holds very different political opinions? And how do you properly empathize with their position?
Empathy is critical to being able to genuinely change someone’s mind. To understand this, let us use a framework that I will call the Values-Ideology framework.
My North Star(s)
At the core of our experience of the world, is a question that we must necessarily grapple with: what makes life worth living? In his work Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor describes this experience:
“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”
As Taylor goes on to note, without this horizon/frame, we lose our identity. This is an identity crisis. A “radical uncertainty of where [I] stand” implies an uncertainty of who I am.
Our values, the Goods (like honesty, fairness, equality, freedom, etc.) that we consider are valuable/good/worth pursuing, sit at the core of our very being, of how we identify ourselves and of how we engage with the outside world. They are connected in a whole web of evaluations which define me as a person.
Values are difficult to change. In fact, a shift in values usually implies some kind of identity crisis. Of course, there are distinctions between the kinds of goods people value. I will make these distinctions on two axes:
Ir-/Pre-/Non-Rational vs Rational
Higher Goods vs Ordinary Goods
First, on the one hand, some of the goods we value, we did not come to value from rational thought. Perhaps it is instinct or sentiment that draws us to one value over another, but we are not neutral beings with a disengaged will capable of defining, and redefining, itself ex nihilo.
An important caveat is that a good that we may value Ir-/Pre-/Non-rationally at one point, we may later value rationally (in part, or in full). The idea of movement between these methods of viewing goods was one of the components of Enlightenment philosophy.
Second, not all goods are equal. A person almost always values many goods, and it is possible for that person to rank their higher goods. I will not go so far as to argue that individuals must have a single highest good, but we all encounter moral dilemmas: situations where we must pick between which goods to fulfill, as no option fulfills all of them. These dilemmas are critical to our development as people.
So how do our values change? How do we shift what goods matter to us?
Sometimes the shifts occur rationally. An example of this might be that if I hold some set of values A, B, C, D, and E, and someone points out to me that genuinely believing A, B, and C would imply I do not value E, I may have some level of an identity crisis and decide to stick with A, B, and C as values and drop E. We might call this process, articulation. In this case, I did not fully understand the implications of some of the values I held until they had been articulated to me.
Other times, a “traumatic” event (bad or good) can dislodge some (unlikely all) of our values, and lead us to adopting new ones. A shift in the world we live in can change how we see things dramatically. Having a child is a well-known cause of this. The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 had profound impacts on philosophers at the time, notably Voltaire, who satirized optimistic “Panglossian” beliefs in the wake of the destruction.
Our values define who we are. So how does this apply to ideology?
The Superstructure of Ideology
Putting it simply, an ideology is some set of beliefs about how the world should be run. You can see the connection with values pretty easily:
My values express what is good to pursue/what makes life worth living -> my ideology expresses what I believe is the best way to live in order to fulfill those goods.
Putting it more formally:
Given a set of goods that we believe are valuable, an ideology is a set of beliefs about how to live (on an individual or greater level) in order to best fulfill those goods, based on our experiences/knowledge/information.
This leads us to two immediate conclusions:
To convince someone to change their ideology (without changing their values), you need to present an alternative ideology and demonstrate why the alternative does a better job of fulfilling the person’s values than the ideology they currently have.
Changing someone’s values are hard. You can explain to someone how System A leads to greater freedom of association than System B, but if you want someone to “stop being selfish”, it is borderline impossible to shift that value from mere argumentation (you are resigned to arguing how System A is better for their self-interest than System B).
Think of this as a kind of immanent critique (“the dialectics are in motion!”). You must affirm the individual’s values, make it clear that you value them as well, and then demonstrate how taking those values seriously means that the alternative ideology/system is superior.
People’s ideologies are shaped by the information they are given.
And as we have discussed multiple times previously, our Elites will manipulate the information we are given in order to manipulate our ideologies. I have gone over that phenomenon multiple times previously and don’t particularly wish to do it again, but I also want to consider another related concept that I will call “Ideological Mystification”.
Earlier, I explained the process of articulation, a process in which I come to better understand my values and may encounter new crises where I realize my values are in conflict and I must pick which to hold on to, and which to discard. That process can also be used in a profoundly negative way in the values -> ideology connection.
This is all well and good. But now, imagine someone else with their own interests in the matter, begins giving me ideas about what Freedom really means. Imagine something along the lines of “corporations can’t be coercive! It’s the FREE MARKET!" I might respond that that sounds great! Now, I have an ideological commitment to laissez-faire economics.
But does laissez-faire economics actually improve my freedom? Or is it simply handing over control of my life to a different set of sociopathic eggs-in-suits, just in corporate board rooms as opposed to government chambers?
A proper analysis of power dynamics might demonstrate that an otherwise active/intrusive government harshly regulating Big Business may actually increase the freedom of individuals. Perhaps restrictions on surveillance capitalism, monopolization, and impoverishment would mean greater abilities to do what we want and live our lives as we wish.
Alongside traditional disinformation/lying/narrative production, this ideological mystification, mis-articulating values so as to get someone to agree with your ideology, is a major problem. In both cases, our Elites manipulate us.
A Final Call to Empathy
So we have looked at how to change someone’s ideological opinion, and at how Elites manipulate the information we receive in order to get us to agree with Elite interests.
I wish to end this unexpectedly lengthy piece by making a final call to empathy. Most people, in my experience, have relatively wholesome and understandable values. Underneath their ideology, their experiences, etc, people still have diverse values, but those values are rarely evil or even selfish/destructive. Some people are, certainly. But most I have met are not. And I am willing to wager most people, other than the Terminally Online, are just chugging along holding relatively mundane values and just wanting to be comfortable with friends and family.
Ultimately, we may not be able to change people’s values, but we need to be able to understand why people believe certain things. “Putting yourself into someone else’s shoes” means considering what it would mean to wholeheartedly accept and endorse that person’s values, and do your best to understand how that would guide the person’s feelings and their actions.
I remain deeply concerned at what I perceive to be a significant decline in empathy across society (in the United States at least). I am not saying that we must all gather in a big circle and sign Kumbayas and be merry. That would be silly. Instead, what I am saying is that I want people to work harder at understanding their fellow man.
Understanding is not the same as endorsing. I may understand where you are coming from, empathize with it deeply, and yet still believe you are wrong. And you may do the same with me. Without empathy, we lose connection to our fellow man. It is the most profound alienation possible, where we become a world of one, and everyone else is reduced to mere shadows, with no inner depths to be found. Let us rekindle the spirit of empathy and understanding for our fellow men in the coming months and years. I hope you all have a great day.