Thursday, September 4, 2008

Suspending beliefs

The phrase "to suspend disbelief" is used in relation to appreciating art and fiction. I often think it would be more useful for people to suspend their beliefs, those opinions they accept blindly and never question. I think it is best for people to embrace an attitude of healthy skepticism, to stay open-minded, to cultivate their curiosity, and to admit that all their knowledge may be purely provisional.

It is easiest to see the world in "black and white" terms. Finding the shades of grey requires more effort. Many people seem to adopt a certain attitude, and then blindly accept all the various positions associated with it. They seem to buy into a whole package of beliefs, without investigating each of them individually.

One obvious example is the public perception of the two-party system in the USA. It is very simplistically assumed that voters belong to one party or the other, and therefore have a fixed set of opinions. Thus, a Democratic Party voter would be assumed or expected to support the following policies: wider welfare provisions and the higher taxation levels required for this; use of diplomacy rather than military intervention, where possible, in international affairs; pro-choice; generally liberal; probably green. I can imagine that a Democratic Party voter deviating from this set of beliefs would encounter some incredulity, such as "But how can you believe that? You're a democrat!" (sic! - people often use the word "democrat" to refer to members and voters of the US Democratic Party, which is a mistake, as anyone supporting democracy as a system is a democrat).

It also bothers me that so many people around the world seem to have strong opinions about international affairs that are not based on any real knowledge. They seem to decide or accept that some states or groups are aggressors and others are underdogs or victims. This makes it easy for them to maintain real prejudices against certain states, while justifying and legitimizing the actions, propaganda and cultural differences of the perceived underdog groups. This thinking in groups of beliefs is also at the root of racism and other discriminatory prejudices. Racists treat individuals as representing their perceived groups, and thus as having all the attributes these groups are supposed to have, instead of getting to know the individual and being aware that all groups contain different individuals of many sorts.

I would like to see people making more of an effort to justify the beliefs they hold. If these beliefs were a portfolio of financial investments, sensible investors would keep examining reality and making the necessary changes. In the same way, sensible people should re-evaluate their opinions in light of new information, and should make the effort to locate this information, instead of blindly accepting "the line" of their supposed peer group, political party or current political correctness.

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