ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Idiots, Morons, Lunatics, and Fools: When Worldviews Collide
My dictionary defines an idiot as someone who is “utterly foolish or senseless” or is of the “lowest level of mental retardation.” A moron turns out to be pretty much the same thing, so I’m not sure what kind of choice he thought he was offering me. Perhaps he just wanted to drive the point home.
There is a lot of such name-calling in public life these days. It has become routine when people want to attack those who disagree with them whether the issue is guns, abortion, affirmative action, immigration, or the proper role of government. It’s as if the only way to understand what someone is about when they stake out an opposing point of view is to assume they are stupid or mentally deranged or—and I’ve been accused of this as well—doing the devil’s work.
What I hear in the words he used to attack me was not simple disagreement with my analysis or a disputation of fact. No—and this is important—his reaction was far more global, as if he didn’t care about the particular facts or logic of what I was saying. It was the whole thing that got him so upset, making it impossible to imagine how any sane, intelligent, decent person could see reality as I appeared to him to do. And, I must confess, when I read his words, I found it difficult to imagine how he could fail to get what I was trying to say. Unless, of course, there was something wrong with him.
So, here we are, both suffering from a failure of imagination, which makes me wonder, what do I use to imagine him and he to imagine me?
What I can imagine depends on what I already know or think I know, a huge collection of beliefs, values, and assumptions that make up a worldview. Like everyone else, my worldview shapes how I see everything, from the cosmos and what happens when we die to why people do what they do. It is the stuff out of which I construct a taken-for-granted reality that I don’t have to question. It shapes not only what I perceive as real, but how I make sense of it, how I explain what happens and what is and is not, and how I justify what I do in any given situation.
My worldview, for example, includes the belief that gravity is real. It has been established by science (also in my worldview) and I therefore do not question its existence. I think I know how it works and how to live in relation to it, so much so that I don’t think about it most of the time, and when I hear about someone falling off a roof, I have no trouble understanding why they fall and why they get hurt or don’t survive, which is why I avoid high places.
When worldviews get disrupted, all hell can break loose because it isn’t just some idea or matter of fact that’s being called into question, but our sense of reality itself. If this isn’t true, then how can I be sure of anything? Imagine that all of a sudden people and everything not tied down start floating up into the air, or baseballs hit out of the park just keep on going. Or that the route you drive every day suddenly is no longer the same—streets not where they were, two-way streets now one-way, the signs and names all changed around. Or one friend after another reveals they never really liked you after all. You go along day after day thinking you know what’s what, how things work, what to expect, and then something comes along and turns it all upside-down.
Worldviews shape not only how we experience what’s right in front of us, but also what we cannot see and what hasn’t happened yet. If I see the world as a dangerous place, for example, I will feel the need to protect myself from things that haven’t happened and possibly never will, while if I see the world as relatively safe, I will not. When women are asked to name the precautions they take every day to ensure their physical safety from assault, for example, they typically produce lists whose length surprises many men, whose own lists are much shorter if not altogether empty, reflecting a striking difference in worldviews.
Because worldviews enable us to feel like we know what’s real from one moment to the next, it’s not hard to see why we’d feel we cannot live without them, which is why opposing worldviews can provoke extreme reactions like calling people idiots or morons or evil. To nullify the threat, we draw upon those same worldviews to understand our opponents in ways that leave our worldviews intact while discrediting theirs.
Which brings me to what is, I’ve long believed, a general pattern among human beings that applies to both sides of any argument. It goes like this—when we lack information that is important to us, we tend to make it up. Our worldview is our primary source of such material. We can’t really know what’s going to happen next, for example, and we can’t really know why people believe and do what they do. We cannot see into their hearts and minds. But that doesn’t keep us from acting as though we can. I don’t actually know what the driver of that other car is going to do in the next ten seconds, for example, but watch me act as if I do.
We make up reality as a way to avoid the anxiety and fear that come from uncertainty and from the need to feel solid ground beneath our feet. Where this can go wrong is when we pretend that what we’ve made up is the actual person or group or thing we’re dealing with. Look at the daily waves of anger, fear, outrage, and disbelief around one issue or another and we can see the result—I’m right, you’re wrong; I’m good, you’re bad; I’m sane, you’re crazy; I’m smart and you’re an idiot or a moron.
And so it will continue unless we step back far enough to see what’s happening and imagine something different. This isn’t an easy thing to do, and there are several things about worldviews that I try to keep in mind when I feel my own being challenged. In what follows, I’m going to focus on the current struggle over guns in America. I could have used any number of issues, but the conflict over this one is intense right now and the massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut, which is where I live, is still fresh in my mind.
Until now, my worldview made what happened in Newtown literally unthinkable. It never occurred to me that someone might break into an elementary school and slaughter children and their teachers. Like most of the nation, I struggle for answers, and my worldview is what I have to work with.
My assumption that children in school would be safe from mass murder isn’t something I thought up on my own or adopted by conscious choice. Like most of what constitutes a worldview, I came by it through living in a social environment in which that belief has been part of the worldview reflected everywhere I turn. Nor did I ever experience it as a mere opinion or belief, but as the way things are, something to be taken for granted, something that I could assume that everybody knew.
That the authority behind worldviews is based in something larger than and beyond ourselves only increases our tendency not only to experience them as true, but to be unaware that we even have a worldview in the first place. We take the reality it portrays to be not a particular version of reality or point of view on reality, but reality itself. Which then sets us up to see those who hold a different worldview as not living in reality—idiots, morons, lunatics, and fools.
Which is what has happened in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre as worldviews diverged from a shared sense of shock, horror, and grief to a polarizing national debate about whether to control access to the kind of guns used to carry out the murders. Both sides accuse the other of caring not about the safety of children or anyone else but only for a narrow political agenda—to promote the unrestricted right to own weapons on the one hand or to destroy the Second Amendment altogether on the other. How did we go so quickly from the one to the other?
Part of the answer is that the points of conflict have always been there. Worldviews overlap—we’re all horrified by the murder of children—and they don’t—we disagree about what’s to be done about it. From its beginning, this country has been host to a variety of worldviews that get along some of the time but also erupt in conflict when we’re confronted with their differences. We’re like sheepdogs keeping the herd of all our beliefs and assumptions together, making sure they all fit and chasing off any interlopers who show up at the periphery.
Another part of the answer is that worldviews are not only largely unconscious, but they are also complicated and consist of countless interconnecting parts. The disturbance of one part touches many others. The issue of gun control is not simply about guns or control, but is connected to all kinds of other things—what it means to be an American, the cultural definition of manhood, how safe we feel in the world and what we feel entitled to do when we feel threatened; the role of government and authority in the lives of citizens, the belief in the use of violence as the cause of a problem or the solution, the fear of strangers and groups identified as ‘not like us’, and the view of government power as a means to ensure the common good or as a threat to individual liberty, including the use of violence against its citizens; the cultural ideal of the rugged individual, the degree to which we feel accountable to other people, the meaning of civil rights, of freedom, and the Constitution—to name just a few. And our worldviews shape not only what we perceive to be the reality of the world outside ourselves, but also our own identity, who we think we are in relation to all of that.
Which means there is a lot more at stake here than guns.
All of the above makes worldviews highly resistant, if not impervious, to doubt, which is why they’re so hard to change and we dig in our heels when we encounter one that contradicts some part of our own. We defend our worldview not simply because we like a particular set of what we consider to be facts, but because our sense of reality itself—of who we are and the difference between what is real and what is not—depends on it. This makes it impossible to completely separate ourselves from whatever worldview we’ve come to have. In writing this essay, for example, I am acting from a worldview that includes the belief that words and ideas can make a difference, that it is possible to understand our experience and behavior as human beings, that people I do not know can read what I write and draw from it some idea of how I see reality. I cannot tell you how I acquired that belief. I also cannot say just how I know that it’s true. I can make an argument. I can cite evidence. But, in the final analysis, it really comes down to what I believe.
When I go out into the world—to the movies, for example, or shopping for groceries—the worldview I carry does not include the belief that there exists a reasonable chance that a stranger is going to attack me and that I might need a gun to protect myself. I also don’t believe that I have the right to kill someone who is trying to steal my property. Nor do I see our government as a malevolent force out to destroy liberty and oppress its citizens, against which adequate firepower is the only defense. I do not believe in society as a collection of rugged individuals who stand on their own against any attempt to limit their ability to be left alone to live their lives the way they want without anyone telling them what to do. I don’t believe the social world of human beings actually works that way, or that it should. I believe we really are all in this together whether we like it or not, that we’re in the same boat and what happens to some of us happens to us all in one way or another.
Do I actually know for a fact that my perceptions and beliefs about all of this are true? Do I know for certain that a civil war against a tyrannical government is not in our future? Am I absolutely sure there will never come a moment when a pistol might be the only thing to save my life or someone I love? Of course not. And yet I act as though I do because my worldview tells me so, providing me with the only reality I have. And supporters of gun rights do their own version of the same.
Perhaps the greatest power of worldviews lies in their invisibility to us most of the time while at the same time being crucial to our existence. So, when debates turn ugly and both sides accuse the other of being some combination of evil, crazy, and stupid and wanting to destroy something precious to the other side for no other reason than, well, they just do because that’s who they are—we can be sure the conflict is about something much larger and deeper than the issue at hand. Even more important—given the way these things usually go—it’s unlikely that what’s really at stake will ever be named, much less discussed, which is why such debates are rarely resolved and keep coming back again and again.
The only way out of this is to change the conversation, to take it beneath the surface and talk about larger and more fundamental differences that need to be heard and reconciled. Can we be accountable to one another, for example, and still be free? Free to do and be what? What are we afraid of and what do we need in order to feel safe? What assumptions are we making about the reality of social life and one another and what it means to be a human being?
Examining our own worldview is not an easy thing to do. It is hard work that can be confusing and uncomfortable and threatening and, at times, frightening. But it is also the only alternative we have to angry refusals to compromise or even listen to one another. Yesterday a caller to an NPR radio show expressed support for gun control and then blurted out in exasperation, “Why should we have to compromise?” while at a recent gun rights rally in Hartford, a man was heard to say that the two sides are on opposite sides of the moon, with people like him on the light side and their opponents in the dark. It would be easier if this were true, because we’d have no reason to reconcile our differences. But we inhabit the same society. We live down the street from one another. Our children and grandchildren attend the same schools, go to the same movie theaters.
Finding a way out of this doesn’t mean making our worldviews all the same, which is impossible. It does mean opening our own worldviews to the reality that they are just that, that they are not the only ones, and that those who see things differently are not crazy or stupid or malevolent. Then we can talk about evidence and consequences and how to construct a society in which worldviews can coexist without our being at one another’s throats.
This country fought the Civil War—the bloodiest conflict in our history—from a failure to recognize the worldviews that underlay regional hostility, fear, and violence, to step back and critically evaluate what shapes how we perceive and understand the world, or to listen and strive to understand the worldview of others. We can do better than this—we have to—and given how polarized our country has become over so many issues, now is the time to begin.
If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Fatal Distraction: Manhood, Guns, and Violence.”