A Thanksgiving Thought Experiment

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A great skit on this weekend’s Saturday Night Live suggested an Adele song as a cure for obnoxious and endless Thanksgiving dinner arguments about politics.

Adele is great, but here’s a more substantial (though simple) thought experiment that can produce amazing results. It works great if you’re going to be talking politics with friends or relatives this holiday season, because it’s designed to bring a sense of mutual understanding where none previously could be found. It’s something you do inside your own imagination before trying to talk with others you disagree with. It involves three steps, and the third is the most difficult. Here goes:

Step One: select a current political figure you really despise and completely disagree with. Of course this should be a politician who is influential in your own region. Some popular choices for my fellow Americans might be Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama. (I’ll be playing along with you, and I’ll pick Marco Rubio for myself. I really hate that guy!)

Step Two: Leave the bubble of your own personal political mindset and opinions, and try to imagine yourself in the body and mind of one of this politician’s eager supporters. Most importantly, do this without putting on an imaginary cloak of “evil” or "stupid". Assume that you are an intelligent and rational person who considers yourself a decent and moral citizen. Try to imagine, even if only for a short moment, what the world looks like from inside the mind of a person who considers themselves a decent and rational person, but who is an enthusiastic supporter of the politician who you actually hate.

Ask yourself: what are the logical threads that lead you to what you believe in? What are the pieces of evidence that support it? What are the ideals that drive you? Try to picture the entire belief system: what you hope for, what you fear most, what type of future you wish to project onto the world. See if you can come up with a complete picture of this belief system from the inside, even just for a brief moment.

If you can get through Step Two without stumbling, you have an advanced mind. Most people will not be able to get through Step Two at all.

Our human brains seem to short-circuit when attempting to apprehend moral contexts that are alien to us and yet valid and rational in themselves. For instance, many friends of mine who hate Donald Trump will balk at the idea of imagining themselves as Donald Trump supporters, because they believe that Donald Trump’s supporters must be dumb racists. And, in fact, there do appear to be racist tropes behind Donald Trump’s popular presidential campaign, and there are undoubtedly some dumb people who support him.

But that has nothing to do with this thought experiment, because the instructions are important and very clear: imagine that you are a rational and intelligent person who considers yourself a decent and moral citizen. This is vital, and it also improves the relevance of your results, because in fact most of Donald Trump’s supporters do not consider themselves to be racists, even if some may unwittingly be, and we can be sure that some of his supporters are intelligent too.

Indeed, the value of this thought experiment becomes clear once we experience the leap of insight that takes place immediately once we complete Step Two. What jumps out at this point is the radical realization that people who disagree with us have belief systems that are complete and logically valid according to their own rules. Most importantly, we all believe ourselves to stand on moral high ground, even when we actually don’t.

In other words, once you complete Step Two and apprehend the mindset of a person you virulently disagree with, you will be closer to the reality of the world you actually live in. Because this person’s mindset does exist, and is out there. If you are unable to complete Step Two, you are revealing an incomprehension of the reality that exists in your own world. Either you understand it or you don't. You will have a broader general understanding of the world you live in if you can understand belief systems that are alien to you.

I hope you can complete Step Two, because now we’re moving on to the really scary and dangerous step in this thought experiment.

Step Three: We’re now going to move on from local or national politics, because it’s global history that gets really ugly. Pick a person in history or from a troubled part of the world who you consider truly and deeply evil.

I don’t think many people will find it hard to pick a person. Some obvious choices: Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong. If you want to stick to current politics, you can select any leader of Daesh.

Now, travel in time and space and put yourself inside the mind of a person who supports this horrible evildoer. Regardless of the fact that you consider this horrible figure to be evil, you must imagine that you are a rational person and that you consider yourself a decent and ethical citizen. It doesn’t matter if you imagine that you are a decent and ethical citizen; the entire power of this thought experiment is unleashed if you simple imagine that you believe yourself to be a decent and ethical citizen.

Can you get through Step Three? Many people will not, because it's a painful stretch to imagine yourself as a Nazi, or a Maoist true believer, or a violent Jihadist, and to also imagine that you believe yourself to be a moral person.

But, if you can manage to get through Step Three, you will be living in reality, because it is a disturbing fact of human nature that even the most horrible political movements in history were supported by some rational and intelligent people who believed themselves to be decent and moral citizens. Even Nazis and Maoists and Jihadists believe themselves to be decent and ethical people. (We have discussed this point before, and have referred to it as the Ashley Wilkes Principle, a name borrowed from the Confederate hero of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind).

How is it possible that good people will support evil politicians? Well, that's the question we have to strive to answer, and that's what makes this a valuable thought experiment.

Most people will not even try to get through Step Three because it feels offensive or frightening to do so. Indeed, the thought experiment I am proposing here is only for the brave. And if you do have the courage to try to imagine the world from inside the head of a member of an hate-filled belief system, you will probably not be able to endure it for long, because you will be unable to understand the context of this belief system at all. You may put yourself inside the head of a Nazi or a Maoist or a Jihadist and draw a complete blank. You are not familiar with the contours of the hatred that this belief system emanates.

You will probably feel overwhelmed by incomprehension, and this incomprehension should be seen as a clue to greater wisdom.

This thought experiment seems to be a crucial activity for any person or group of people attempting to understand the meaning of the word “pacifism”. This is for two separate reasons.

First, in the practical pursuit of a more peaceful world, we can have better debates and even better arguments with our beloved friends and relatives if we make the effort to fortify our knowledge of the political ideas and ideals we disagree with by trying to seriously understand the belief systems and mindsets that support these ideas and ideals in their own complete contexts.

This experiment is worth trying for this reason alone. And it can produce some surprisingly positive results. Maybe your next political argument doesn’t have to end in mutual anger and frustration. Maybe you and your drunk uncle can figure out some answers and hug it out.

The second reason this thought experiment is vital for a greater understanding of the word “pacifism” is in a surprising pattern that comes clear when you reach Step Three. When you try to understand what the world looks like inside the head of a Nazi or a Maoist or a Jihadist, you will quickly realize that the trauma of a recent war helps to explain the mindset that is so difficult to understand.

A superficial and cliche-heavy descent into the mind of a Nazi would find something called “anti-semitism” there. But a more realistic descent into this person’s mind would probably find major traces of the trauma of World War One, the murderous and devastating four-year disaster that led Germans directly to the grudge match known as World War Two.

A superficial and cliche-heavy descent into the mind of a Maoist might find nothing but hatred and sterile inhumane ideology. A more realistic descent into this person’s mind would probably find major traces of the incredibly harrowing series of wars that shaped the soul of modern China from the Japanese invasion to World War Two to the civil war against the Nationalists to the Korean War.

A superficial and cliche-heavy descent into the mind of a Daesh Jihadist would find hatred for America and England and France and Israel. A more realistic descent into this person’s mind would probably find major traces of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which turned a troubled but stable society into hell on earth for both Sunnis and Shiites, and has left the region in a hopeless state of civil war.

Perhaps the mysterious “evil” that we sometimes imagine to be a supernatural force that infects people other than ourselves is more natural than supernatural, and more circumstantial than ideological. Maybe this "evil" is born from the trauma of war itself.

Please try the thought experiment for yourself, and see what you find.

2 Responses to "A Thanksgiving Thought Experiment"

by Jim H on

Yes. Empathy 101. And certainly of a piece with a putative literary blog, no? Meaning: isn't precisely this the muscle our best literature aims to exercise?

Best of the holidays to you & yours! See you in the twitterverse!

by wjwwiippa@gmail.com on

I do not think there were any white Red Guards but I would have a v. difficult time imagining my self as any of the GOP "vanguard"

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