After days of negotiations and fifteen rounds of voting, Kevin McCarthy, a congressman from California, is now speaker of the house.
Lest anyone becomes stressed that I’m about to get political, fear not dear reader. Uncle Mike is after something much more important than Red v Blue. So, with the promise in hand that I won’t attack your favorite pol, let us go forward, together, into the light.
Bread & Circuses
The days leading up to McCarthy’s win were a circus and the media, our national ringmasters, wasted no time in turning the event into an international spectacle.
CNN hosted guest after guest decrying the travesty. How dare these terrible, right-wing extremists in congress keep the “business of the people” from getting done!
FOX News made a party out of the whole thing, dunking on Kevin McCarthy and laughing over Matt Gaetz’s nomination of Trump for speaker.
If you checked into CSPAN, you witnessed the parade of elected officials giving their impassioned speeches, which for many was the first time America had heard their name, let alone listened to their ideas.
I can only imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth over at MSNBC. I say “imagine” because I can’t bring myself to watch that network.
Everyone—media, pundits, and regular folks—had an alternate take. It reminded me of Kurosawa’s Rashomon because everyone had witnessed the same thing, but they each described a different incident.
Somehow the hold-out congresspeople were villains or heroes, the process was either democracy in action or democracy thwarted, and Kevin McCarthy is the best man for the job or the worst man for the job.
Which begs the question, with all these conflicting arguments (presented as facts, of course) how can you know what’s true?
When it comes to politics, you could just pick a side, kinda like sports. Choose a team, wear the colors, cheer them on. It’s what most of us do.
I used to follow La Liga football, which is Spain’s professional soccer league. I was a big fan of FC Barcelona and would spend hours a week watching matches. Sadly, I haven’t watched a game in years. Somehow COVID ruined it for me. Not sure about that one.
Anyway, I noticed something interesting every time I watched a match.
Whenever Barcelona committed a foul I would think to myself, “Oh, he went in a little too committed and didn’t mean to hurt anyone.” Or, “They didn’t realize how close they were to the goalie but they aren’t trying to cheat.” In my mind, these were great guys who loved the game and wanted to win. Whenever there was a problem I would instinctively impute good intentions. However, when the opposing team did the same thing I’d get outraged. “He’s trying to hurt our player and knock him out of the match. This guys is horrible!” Or, “Look at those cheaters! They’re harassing our goalie on purpose. They deserve red cards!”
My team always had good intentions and the other team never did. And I didn’t just think this, I would feel it.
We all do this. Sports, politics, work, relationships—we impute goodness to our side and impugn the other side with the worst of intentions. In fact, there’s a name for this state of mind. It’s called cognitive bias.
According to Wikipedia:
A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. Individuals create their own “subjective reality” from their perception of the input. An individual’s construction of reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behavior in the world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.
That last piece is key: “Thus, cognitive bias may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgement, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.”
That aptly describes my experience. There’s no way my team never cheated, never played dirty, never crossed the line. And yet, when I watched those games I could not help but think we were good and they were bad. I was a deluded. And, for sports, big deal. So I was all in on my team, that’s how you’re supposed to be when you’re a fan. But, how does cognitive bias affect the other areas of our lives, the areas that really matter?
Just looking at the McCarthy election, there’s no way that every account of that event is true. I suspect if we were able to be honest, the same can be said for a number of areas in our lives. Our cognitive biases get in the way, creating distortions and inaccuracies—subjective realities, if you will. They affect our relationships, our careers, our health, and even our ability to find fulfillment.
You might think, based on the above, that if you want to thrive you have to get rid of your biases. The fact is, it’s impossible to be bias free.
There is, however, a way to overcome them by minimizing their effect.
This is the way
It’s quite simple, really. To minimize your cognitive biases you have to gain a better understanding of the human experience.
This means, generally speaking, that people who go deeper into things like literature, art, music, theology, history are better able to escape the effects of their cognitive biases.
I realize this may sound like I’m suggesting you need to become a wine snob in order to see the world more clearly. And, maybe there’s a bit of truth to that. (Although too much wine may make it harder to see …) But, what I mean is the more you are able to take in the broader human experience, the easier it is for you to make sense of the world and the easier it is for you to see the truth.
Rather than turning on the news, pick up a book. Instead of skimming your social stream, attend a talk. Go to church as opposed to reading Reddit. The more you can broaden and deepen your understanding of the human experience the easier it becomes to overcome your biases, and to know what is true.
For example, read some history and you realize that the recent 15-vote circus was nothing compared to the time in 1855 when they took two months and 133 rounds to elect the speaker. Get involved in civics and you begin to understand that the U.S. Congress is meant to be a little more rough and tumble compared to the more respectable Senate.
Once you start to understand these things you begin to see the media handwringing, name calling, and outrage for what they really are: nonsense. And, your own cognitive biases lose their grip.
This matters for more than politics. You will become better at problem solving. You will find that you’re more creative. You’ll become better at leading. You will do more in your career. You will become immune to manipulation. You will find it easier to navigate your social groups, your company, and your life. You will find life more fulfilling.
Those that went before us
There is not a formula for broadening your understanding of the human experience. It is a lifelong process of learning and growing, and one that can’t be found in a college syllabus. The good news is the pathway has been travelled by many before us and they have left clues. These clues are found in great literature, classical music, high art, and religious liturgies. They are found in the things that made Western Civilization great.
You could visit a local gallery, read the Gospel of John, listen to The Planets by Gustav Holst, read Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle, watch Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, or visit your local church this Sunday. These are just a few examples.
To be clear, no one thing will turn you into a meaning-making, nonsense-breaking truth machine. It’s about building a life that seeks to understand the human experience—that seeks to know the truth. That life can’t happen without the first step. So, how will you start?