There but for fortune, go I
Many people believe that if they lived in Germany in the 1940s, they wouldn’t have been Nazis. They would have bravely stood against Hitler, and protected Europe’s Jews. Out of 80 million Germans (Germany and Austria), a few thousand were resistance fighters. A few hundred have been recognized for saving the lives of Jews. To be one of them, you’d need to be better than more than 99.999% of your peers.
In how many other respects do you think you’re that much better?
You’d have a better chance of having been against slavery in the South in the 1800s, but your odds would still be slim. There were some Southern abolitionists, but they were few. There were thousands of soldiers from the South who joined the Union Army, but most of them served to preserve the Union, for which their ancestors had fought, and not an endorsement of abolition.
Average is average
The average person is average. Of course, we vary from the people around us. We’re not clones. But only exceptional people differ in extraordinary ways.
I’m above average by some measures, below average by others. But on average, I’m average.
I believe that my IQ and the span of my knowledge—in certain domains—are well above average. In a typical field, I’m average.
To the degree that I’m exceptional, I’m exceptional, just like everyone else. For example, everything that is real for me appears in my consciousness. Only mine. Extraordinary. Just like for you.
Your community might be different
If you accept the premise that we’re mostly average and that you’re more likely (in general) to go along with your community, then consider this:
If you had born into a conservative community, rather than the liberal community that you’d been born into, you’d be the same human being that you are today but with roughly opposite opinions.
If you had born into a liberal community, rather than the conservative community that you’d been born into, you’d be the same human being that you are today, but with roughly opposite opinions.
You’d see the arguments of the people in the community you’d been born into as mostly correct. You’d have differences of opinion, of course, but on the whole, you’d agree. When you saw some of their arguments as wrong, you’d likely see them as understandably wrong.
You’d see the arguments of the people in the community that you had not been born into as mostly incorrect. You might agree with them from time to time, of course, but on the whole, you’d disagree. When you saw some of their arguments as wrong, you’d see them as indefensibly wrong.
You might get angry at the people in the group you were not born into for the harm that you saw them doing. But if you had been born among those people, you’d see what they were doing as good, and you’d see your current group as the one doing harm.
We’re all born biased, and we’re all born with brains that work hard to confirm our biases. Our brains do that even after we’ve learned about confirmation bias.
With careful attention, some of us manage to reconsider some of our opinions and change our minds. Then we congratulate ourselves on a job well done.
But our congratulations are probably premature.
I was born into a liberal family in a liberal community. I grew up with liberals. I could not understand how conservatives could hold the opinions that they held and still be rational and decent people. I met people who seemed rational and trustworthy, who loved their kids, did their jobs, and didn’t torture dumb animals. Then I’d hear some of the ideas that they espoused, and I’d have second thoughts about their rationality and decency.
How could anyone believe that?
It took a while for me to learn to appreciate—not simply reject—ideas that were different from mine. I learned to appreciate ideas—not just from political conservatives—but others whose coordinate systems were dramatically different than my own.
It took longer to realize that if I had been born among those people, those alien ideas would have been mine.
Now I see things this way:
Any idea that that’s consistent with my upbringing is suspect. If it’s survived scrutiny, so far, I still think it’s got validity. But I know it might be wrong.
How can I tell if the reason that I find that an idea that’s compatible with my upbringing is likely to be correct? It could be that I was taught that wrong idea, and have not yet seen the error. Or it could be that the idea is correct.
I don’t know, and I can’t know.
That thought is humbling.
Any idea that I have that I’ve adopted, even though it’s inconsistent with my upbringing, is also suspect, but less so. To embrace such an idea, I have already paid the price: I broke my conditioning and went against the group that taught me what was right. Still, it could be wrong.
Shapiro and me
I disagree with Ben Shapiro on many things, but I learned this from him: he said that he determines the facts of a matter by reading conservative viewpoints and liberal viewpoints on the subject. What they agree on is fact. What they disagree on is opinion.
That’s a pretty good rule, and I credit Shapiro for passing it on to me. I’m not convinced that Shapiro is careful to follow that rule. He seems to assert many “facts” with which I, as a liberal, disagree. Or perhaps he is not stating them as facts, just not labeling them as opinions.
I think that it’s a fundamental error to blame other people for having wrong beliefs. There might be exceptions, but the rule seems a good one.
I think it’s an error to blame yourself for not seeing earlier that a belief that you had been taught was incorrect. There might be exceptions here, but I find them hard to imagine.
People do the best that they can to have correct beliefs because that’s what their communities teach them. What communities teach people to hold onto incorrect beliefs?
Some communities do teach people not to question the beliefs held by the people in those communities. But that’s because those communities hold that it’s correct not to question their beliefs. Why would they teach something that they did not believe was true?
There but for fortune
When I see people behaving in ways that seem to me to be outright wrong, I used to condemn them for their obvious error.
Now I’m more likely to respond with compassion.
There, but for fortune, go I.
There, but for the grace of God, if there is a God, go I.
There, but for an accident of birth, go I.