My Facebook experiment: Do we realize that we all have blind spots?

Last week when Marjorie Taylor Greene was removed from House committees for her hate speech, I read different types of posts on social media.  Some posts were supportive of her removal from these committees despite how unprecedented it was because her behavior as a congresswoman was so egregious.  Other posts found the stance of the Democrats hypocritical because they removed a Republican congresswoman for her anti-Semitic remarks and hate speech but they did not support the removal of Ilhan Omar from House committees for her anti-Semitic remarks and hate speech.  Others disagreed and argued that what Greene said was worse than what Omar did and/or that Omar adequately apologized but Greene did not.

I thought that I would conduct a social media experiment and posted the following on my Facebook page:

“I would love to hear from a Republican supporter who feels that Marjorie Taylor Greene was rightfully removed from House committees and that her behavior was much worse than Ilhan Omar’s behavior and therefore, Ilhan Omar should not be removed from House committees. I also would love to hear from a Democratic supporter who feels that if Marjorie Taylor Greene was removed from House committees because of her behavior than Ilhan Omar should also be removed from House committees for her behavior.”

This issue of whether Greene and Omar should be treated equally by Congress should not be a partisan issue.  It’s a question of how much hate speech and/or lack of remorse for one’s behavior justifies removing a Congressman from his or her House committees.  People love to discuss this stuff.  People are passionate about their politics so I would have thought that at least a few Democrats would respond that they believe that Greene and Omar should be treated equally and at least a few Republicans would respond they believe that what Greene did was far worse than Omar.

I did get comments on my Facebook page, like some suggesting that Greene was worse because she threatened the life of a government leader or that her hate speech came shortly after the Capitol shootings and therefore, her removal from the House committees was justified.  However, none of the authors of these posts were Republicans.  I also received comments in the other direction that congressmen shouldn’t be removed from House committees at all or Omar didn’t apologize either or Congress is practicing a double-standard.  However, none of the authors of these posts were Democrats.  The closest I got to a full-fledged Republican who agreed that Greene was worse than Omar was a person who voted for Trump in 2016 and Republican legislators, but not Trump, in 2020.  I concluded that the overwhelming majority of people analyzed this seemingly non-partisan question in a partisan fashion.  And some people even told me that their analysis was not based on the fact that they were a Republican or Democrat, as the case may be — it was a non-partisan analysis!  And yet the overwhelming majority of people came to conclusions that are consistent with partisan lines!

Clearly, most of us have blind spots in our thinking.  Most of us think that we are making unbiased rational decisions, but we suffer from cognitive bias.  In my view, all those who proffered opinions on this particular issue provided compelling reasons for their opinions, yet at the end of the day, it seems that in this polarized political world in which we live, most Republicans will tend to give their party members the benefit of the doubt and most Democrats will tend to give their party members the benefit of the doubt.

Why does this matter?  I think it matters because if we want to be able to live together and learn from each other, we must be aware at the outset that we probably don’t fully empathize with someone who is part of a different group and who has a different agenda than us.  Hillel taught us in Pirkei Avot (2:4) not to judge others until you have reached that person’s place.  For Hillel, it was critical to really try to understand someone else’s personal situation and empathize with that person before evaluating that person’s behavior.  This message is consistent with how his students behaved.  The Gemara in Eruvin (13b) states that Beit Hillel always considered the opinion of Beit Shammai, their opponents, before arriving at a conclusion.

In his book, “Twelve Rules for Life,” Jordan Peterson writes that conversations are an opportunity to learn and grow, not compete.  I feel that many of us struggle to have meaningful conversations.  We are not really that interested to learn from the other; rather, we treat the dialogue as a competition that we need to win in order to validate our preconceptions.

I firmly believe that most Americans truly want what’s best for this country.  However, we are not using the techniques needed to have meaningful conversations and empathize with those with opposing viewpoints.  This hinders our ability to learn from each other, creates blind spots and cognitive biases in our thinking, and results in us debating non-partisan issues on partisan lines and being unaware that we are doing so.

How do we fix this problem?  Here is one suggestion with which we can all start.  Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship expert, found that the difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict.  He believes that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five or more positive interactions.  It means that we go out of our way to seek out what unites us so much more than what divides us and by doing so, we feel more empathic and connected to the other person.

Why can’t we try that with those who subscribe to the other political view?  Many people send me articles rather frequently which support a particular political position.  My Republican friends who send me political articles almost exclusively send me pro-Republican or anti-Democratic political articles and my Democratic friends who send me political articles almost exclusively send me pro-Democratic or anti-Republican political articles.  How about for every anti-Republican article that a Democrat shares, he or she also shares five pro-Republican articles and for every anti-Democrat article that a Republican shares, he or she also shares five pro-Democrat articles.  Maybe five articles are too difficult as a starting point — what about two positive articles for every one negative article!  Let us make a conscious effort to look for the good in the other, for the values that we all share and what unites us.  We can still debate and disagree, but we can debate and disagree like how Beit Hillel did with Beit Shammai, by not being judgmental and by empathizing with Beit Shammai.  And maybe, just maybe, next time I post a non-partisan question on my Facebook page, we can analyze the question in a truly non-partisan fashion.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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