What has been most intriguing to me lately is how different people make totally different meaning out of the same event/information. I suspect human beings have always done this. But perhaps in this "age of information" when data that requires processing comes at us at electrifying speed, we've had to get better at short cuts.
One of the ways we do that is by creating a narrative about the world through which all data is processed. Information that conflicts with that narrative is either excluded or shaped to reinforce it. Coping with the meaning of every new piece of information that might disrupt that narrative would likely be overwhelming and could cripple us from being able to function in any meaningful way in the world.
I say all that because we've recently witnessed a fascinating example of how that happens. By now you've probably noticed that almost every internet pundit has weighed in on the NYT article by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman about Hillary Clinton's strategy for the 2016 campaign (including me). As I noted the other day, the pundits who adhere to the conventional wisdom of Washington D.C. "both sides do it" saw that article as a suggestion that Clinton will run on "liberal policy positions" that feed polarization and make governing harder.
To give you an idea of how most liberals responded, here's a sampling:
Basically these folks saw it the same way I did and pointed out things like: Clinton is running on an agenda that appeals to a majority of Americans and the country has changed since Bill Clinton ran in 1992.
And then along comes Matt Taibbi, whose response is so different you almost wonder if he was reading the same article.
They've [Clintons] turned the act of choosing winning over principle into an art form.I'm already on record with my opinion and so I don't point this out simply to argue with Taibbi. Based on my observations over the years, that probably doesn't change anyone's mind anyway.
The latest trick? Insulting their own voters at the start of a race. It would be unbelievable, if they hadn't spent decades preparing us to believe it.
The background for the latest chutzpah-rich gambit has been an alarming slide in Hillary Clinton's recent polling numbers...
In response, the Clinton campaign is launching a campaign to fire up the liberal base. They're going to accomplish this, they say, by having Hillary adopt "polarizing" positions she doesn't actually believe in. This comes via a trial balloon the campaign itself floated in The New York Times over the weekend...
They make it clear that turning away from Bill Clinton's cherished demographic of southern white moderates, and toward the Obama base of "young, nonwhite and female voters," is something they're only doing with extreme reluctance...
As political messaging goes, it's a remarkably perverse way to kick off a campaign. It's like going on a date and announcing before the appetizers arrive that the only reason you're here is that the person you really wanted to go out with turned you down.
As in: "Please don't think I really like you. It's just that going out with you is the only way I'm going to get laid."
Instead, I'm interested in how the narratives we've already crafted in our minds - in this case about the Clintons - affect how we react to the same article. Todd, Fournier and Brooks see a leftist polarizing Clinton message. Bennen, Kilgore and Chait see Clinton making the right moves, while the NYT authors are out of touch with the electorate and the changes that have taken place in the country since 1992. Taibbi sees the Clintons insulting liberal voters. In other words, no matter what Martin and Haberman wrote, the commentators saw confirmation of their own narrative.
That is not to criticize any of the commentators. I include myself in the group who applauded the strategy outlined in the article. This is something we all do all the time. As a matter of fact, we are required to do it in order to make sense of the world.
The point is that we need to acknowledge that we do it. The only hope we have of ever moving beyond the extreme polarization in which our politics operate today is to understand this about ourselves and temper our surety with a bit of empathy and doubt.
I believe that this is something President Obama has been encouraging us to do for a long time. He articulated it very clearly in his 2009 commencement speech at Notre Dame, where he specifically addressed it in the context of moral debates and faith.
And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.That's exactly what he means when he talks about "a better politics."
But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen...
And this doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame.