Assumptions are Everything

America is becoming increasingly polarized between liberal and conservative, blue states and red states.  Each side accuses the other of evil intentions.  Liberals call conservatives mean-spirited people who hate the poor.  Conservatives  accuse liberals of being unpatriotic, of hating America.

While there are clearly people at the fringe of both sides who do hate, I believe that most people on sides are basically good people.  We all want the same things.  We want peace and prosperity.  We want to reduce poverty, educate our kids, have a clean environment, and have a multitude of jobs and opportunities.  We differ, however, in what methods will achieve these goals.

The big problem with demonizing your adversary is that if your adversary is evil, you don’t have to listen to their arguments, to their logic, to their facts.  If their goal is evil, then their arguments are meaningless.  You have nothing to learn from them.  Even if you do try to listen to their arguments, they often make no sense or may even seem repellent, reinforcing your concept that the other person is either a villain or a moron.

The core problem is that people have different assumptions.  If you start a discussion with differing assumptions, there can be no progress.  If my assumption is that 2+2=5, I can prove with brilliant logic that 4+4=10.  Two Catholic priests can have a discussion on morality building their arguments on the common assumption that the teachings of Jesus as expressed in the New Testament is a definitive authority.  No matter how brilliant their arguments, however, they will have no effect on a Jew, a Muslim, or an Atheist.

What kind of assumptions do we have?  A liberal might have the assumption that the best path to peace is by being kind to everyone so they will like you and not want to hurt you.  A conservative might have the assumption that the best path to peace is by being strong enough that nobody will want to mess with you.  A liberal might assume that their is a fixed amount of wealth in the world and if a person is wealthy, they are taking the fair share from someone who is poor.  A conservative might assume that people create wealth and a person becomes wealthy by creating more wealth.

So if we read an editorial and the editor relies on assumptions we don’t share, we don’t give any weight to the arguments in the editorial.  They make no sense.  They might as well be speaking a different language.

My belief is that communication can only begin when we strip issues down to the core level where both sides agree on any underlying assumptions.  At that point we can have a meaningful debate.  We can’t really debate the size of the defense budget until we first debate whether strengthening our military leads to peace or leads to war.

And the biggest, most important assumption for any good debate is that we are both basically good but not perfect human beings who share the same overall goals and just differ in how to get there.

When I discuss politics or philosophy, my goal is to strip the arguments down to their core assumptions.  When we get there, we can talk.

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