Why are People So Mean? Challenge #4: Hermeneutic Humility
I almost aborted this project, but then changed my mind.
Inspired by David Brooks's article in The Atlantic, I'm writing ten challenges to myself and anyone who reads along, trying to find some antidotes to the meanness that seems to be taking over our socially mediated life. I just about gave up after Challenge #3.
With a major conflict in the Middle East involving hostages and airstrikes, surprise assaults and humanitarian crises, with almost 5,000 dead and 17,000 injured, who really cares what sort of words and emojis we post on Instagram or Facebook or X? Generating more words on my webpage seems unimportant right now.
Then one of my grandchildren received a difficult medical diagnosis this week, which makes everything fade into background. Writing another blog post seems trivial. Maybe even meaningless.
Still, I'm going to persist, for two reasons. First, while the epicenter of violence is in the Middle East, ideological combat is spreading around the globe. Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania have become Ivy League microcosms of the rift that separates concerned, caring, well-intentioned people on both sides. It's showing up on social media, too, as everything does--that great macrocosm of vitriol and acrimony.
Second, as introduced in my last post, I'm focusing on Naive Realism, which emerges from the work of a former Stanford professor, Lee Ross. Ross's ideas changed over his career, largely because of his conflict resolution work in the Middle East.
If Ross's ideas come from his work in the Middle East, then I shouldn't let this war keep me from pressing forward into his ideas.
Naive Realism goes like this:
Naive Realism: (1) I know the truth. (2) If you know what I know, you will agree with me. (3) If you still don't agree, then you're a fool (or worse).
My last post considered the first point, challenging us to admit we don't always know the truth. You may recall arguing about the details of some past event with a person you love, being entirely and utterly convinced you had it right, maybe even shaking inside with offense for not being believed, and then later finding evidence of your imperfect memory or perceptions. Yeah, that's no fun. I may know this from personal experience.
A Humbler Alternative
I know the truth
I know some of the truth, but there is much I don't know
If you know what I know, you will agree with me
If you still don't agree, then you're a fool
I'm no fan of alliteration, but to explain Challenge #4 I need to tease apart and then weave together some words that start with H.
Hermeneutics: How we interpret information, especially written information. However much we may try to avoid it, we bring our own perspectives and biases to the hermeneutic task. One of my favorite sayings pertains to the so-called hermeneutic circle, "The reader is in the text, and the text is in the reader."
Hubris: Being over-the-top with confidence and self-assurance.
Humility: Being aware of one's limitations, considering the other, and being teachable.
As I scroll social media feeds, I am surrounded by two of these H words: Hermeneutic Hubris.
"If you know what I know, you will agree with me."
When we only see one way to interpret a thing, it's easier to lob grenades at those who see it differently than to recognize we may not have a corner on every truth.
So here we go... Challenge #4 is to develop Hermeneutic Humility. Even if I am deeply informed about a topic, there will be others who see things differently. What's more, if I listen to them non-defensively I may learn a thing or two.
Professor Ross's last book, written with a colleague from Cornell University, is The Wisest One in the Room. One of my greatest life lessons, especially over the past few years, is how difficult it is to be wise. It's so natural to slip into places of hubris, to criticize and attack, to alienate and isolate and malign the other. Wisdom is difficult because it calls us to listen, to honor multiple perspectives, to consider, to reconsider, to change, to embrace rather than exclude.
I never said this would be easy.
Previous posts in this series: