A week or so ago, as the US Federal Government was on the brink of a shutdown, William Howell, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago, discussed how the factions in the US government had become so polarized in an editorial for CNN. He noted the following:
The polarization of the two major parties has consequences for a great deal more than just the contents of legislation. It fosters a broader political environment in which compromise invites ridicule, in which pragmatists are presumed to lack conviction, and in which each political faction is convinced not merely that it is right, but that those who disagree with it are stupid, evil or both.
In my line of work, I am often in the position of having to disagree with what someone is saying. The fact is, I’m paid to disagree with people (who are also being paid to disagree with me). There are at least three kinds of disagreements that I am frequently involved in.
The first type of disagreement is what I would call a Factual Disagreement–a disagreement that is a result, most frequently, from differences in the set of facts that were made available to each side of the debate. Although blatant dishonesty does exist, most people in my industry are trying to maintain a reputation of credible work, and thus will not intentionally says things that are patently false–especially when they are verifiable. Thus, most frequently when these sort of statements appear, they are made because of incorrect or incomplete information, or simple misunderstandings that can later be corrected. For example, the dispute may arise because one side has been using outdated market data; once both sides of the dispute use the same data, the problem disappears. Thus, when the rubber hits the road, the facts will surface and everyone can get on the same page.
A second type of disagreement is what I would call an Idiot Disagreement–a disagreement that results primarily from idiocy, sloppy work, laziness, or being a puppet for your client. These are disputes where a claim isn’t so much factually wrong as it is stupid. For example, we economists have a fairly strong belief that, other things equal, if prices fall, quantity demanded will increase. So, if you make the claim that the result of a price increase was a rise in quantity sold, it’s difficult to take you seriously. These kind of disagreements are difficult to handle at times, because spending time and energy rebutting the statement risks lending it credibility that it doesn’t have in the first place, and can also distract you from more substantial issues.
The last type of disagreement, and the type that is the most interesting to me for the purposes of this post, is what I will call an Interpretative Disagreement–a disagreement which arises simply because the facts in evidence do not illuminate a clear path to enlightenment, and two reasonable people can legitimately come to different conclusions based on the same evidence. In my work, most of what I do involves trying to model or estimate the impact of events which did not actually take place–creating a world that doesn’t exist. As such, the models and estimates are always subject to the assumptions, interpretations, and experience of the person building the model. Because each individual brings different experiences and opinions to bear, the natural result is that conclusions will differ–sometimes only by a few degrees, but sometimes by orders of magnitude.
The catch here, of course, is that these are the sort of disagreements that are hardest to recognize during the actual debate. In the heat of the moment, and with our strong vested interests, it’s very easy to categorize everything as a Factual or Idiocy Disagreement, without really giving the opposing viewpoint a fair shake. Only later, after the arguing and pouting is over and everyone has gone their separate ways, do we often realize that there just might have been a little more to the other viewpoint than we thought, or that perhaps our case wasn’t quite as ironclad as it seemed.
During the Sunday afternoon session of General Conference a couple of weeks ago, I thought about some of the disagreements I’ve had with different people over matters of faith and religion. Within the LDS Church, and especially within the bloggernacle, we have different factions who apply different labels to each other (and to themselves), and whose opinions of other groups exhibit varying degrees of charity on a day to day basis: Liberals, Conservatives, Feminists, Orthodox, Orthoprax, Intellectual, True Blue, and so on. My experience has been that the way we write and think of each other and our coreligionists–even our leaders–in the bloggernacle is unfortunate much of the time, because it has the end result of decreasing conversation and dialogue as we flee to communities where our opinions and ideas are most valued and appreciated, and avoid those where we get treated like crazies. Sadly, the more we flee to our places of comfort, the more differing opinions protrude like a sore thumb when they enter our domains, and the easier and more natural it seems to drive them away or ignore them.
As Mormons, we have baggage and hurts and warts which we try to downplay or celebrate, depending on the venue, the time, the participants, and the angle of approach. History, theology, policy, culture–these combine in endless ways to make understanding or determining exactly what it means to be a Latter-day Saint a complicated task at times. As can only be expected, I don’t always reach the same conclusions as my cobloggers, my ward members, or anyone other random LDS person on the street.
I’m having a terrible time trying to tie this all up into some grand lesson–probably because there isn’t one in the first place (I’ve never been the deep thinker at BCC)–but perhaps the point I’m trying to make is clear anyway: How many of our debates and arguments and fights and flamewars over different points of our shared religion are a result of misclassification? Are we guilty of fostering “a broader [religious] environment in which compromise invites ridicule, in which pragmatists are presumed to lack conviction, and in which each [religious] faction is convinced not merely that it is right, but that those who disagree with it are stupid, evil or both?”