The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Getting in Touch with Your Inner Hypocrite

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775
24 September 2014

Getting in Touch with Your Inner Hypocrite

Two boys were playing hockey on a pond in Boston Common when one was attacked by a rabid pit bull. Thinking quickly, the other boy took his hockey stick, wedged it down the dog’s collar and twisted, breaking the dog’s neck. A reporter strolling by saw the incident and ran over to interview the boys. As he started writing in his notebook, he said, “Young Bruins Fan Saves Friend from Vicious Animal Attack.”

The boy replied, “But I’m not a Bruins fan.”

“Oh, sorry,” said the reporter. “Since we’re in Boston and you’re playing hockey, I assumed you were. Let me start over. ‘Red Sox Fan Rescues Friend from Rabid Dog.’”

The boy replied, “I’m not a Red Sox fan either.”

The reporter said, “I assumed everyone in Boston was for either the Bruins or the Red Sox. What team do you root for? The Celtics?”

The child answered, “Nope. I’m a Yankees fan.”

The reporter began writing in his notebook, “Little Bastard from New York Kills Beloved Family Pet…”

Bias is everywhere. It’s starting to feel like there’s no news anymore – it’s all opinion peddling, agenda pushing, slanted editorializing. Pundits pump up their side of the story at the expense of their opponents, without much regard for the truth. Jews are particularly sensitive to bias in the media. We fund many organizations whose sole purpose is to be watchdogs against anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias in reporting. 

This time of year, though, we are called to look inward — to aim our critical eye at ourselves. It’s a good thing, too, because bias is alive and well in each of us.

Consider this example. Earlier this month, President Obama gave a speech announcing the use of force to confront the terrorist threat of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in the Middle East. Now, just my mention of that person and event already triggered a non-rational response in you, based on where you sit on the political spectrum. Your rational brain lags behind and rationalizes how you already feel. “His speech was weak and he waffled on confronting our enemies”; or, “He showed measured restraint in the face of a conflict he didn’t choose.”

We like to tell ourselves that our opinions “are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.” But in truth, they are “the result of years of paying attention to information that confirmed what you believed, while ignoring information that challenged your preconceived notions” (McRaney, Smart, 27).

Let’s get more specific. President Obama said in his speech: “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”

I’m not interested in debating that point right now. Instead, I want to ask you to monitor your own reaction to it. Most likely, your emotional brain kicked in, generating a feeling of agreement or disagreement based on whether your underlying attitude is “boo Obama” or “yay Obama.” That’s key: before you even analyze the arguments, your brain has already flipped the switch to direct the locomotive of your rational mind down a particular track. That’s because you care more about maintaining your worldview and your group identity than you do about reaching a reasoned, objective conclusion. 

Truth is, there’s something legitimate to say on each side of this discussion. Conservatives were quick to criticize the President for saying that ISIL is not Islamic. Not only does it identify itself as such, they argued, but it takes its core teachings from the Quran.

Liberals came to the President’s defense, explaining that ISIL is not Islamic merely because it claims to be, just as it’s not a “State” despite calling itself that. Mainstream Muslims, they say, reject ISIL’s interpretation of the Quran as an extremist distortion of true Islam.

Again, I’m not trying to convince you of either position. I want you to notice how you reacted to each one, which was probably some version of, “THIS view is right, and THAT one is biased and wrong.”

Let’s go one step further with this example. In 2011, a man named Anders Breivik went on a murderous rampage in Norway, killing 77 people. In his extensive writings, he called himself a Christian on a crusade against the infidel, and the media began referring to him as a Christian extremist.

Bill O’Reilly and other conservative commentators came out strong against this claim. O’Reilly said, “Breivik is not a Christian. That’s impossible. No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder. The man might have called himself Christian on the net, but he is certainly not of that faith.”

For some of you, just the mention of “Bill O’Reilly” set your emotional brain into action. You just thought to yourself, without really thinking, either “Boo O’Reilly, so boo to his opinion!” or “Yay O’Reilly, he’s right!”

So is Breivik a Christian? Is ISIL Islamic? Is your gut fighting your intellect to reach a consistent answer to both questions? Are you having trouble agreeing with both Bill O’Reilly and President Obama? Are you uncomfortable and starting to sweat? (Are we having fun yet?) Don’t worry, your discomfort is just a symptom of cognitive dissonance. Close your eyes, visualize your warm and cozy echo chamber, and the feeling should pass.

These are complicated issues on which reasonable people can disagree. You tell yourself that you’ve sifted through the available evidence and made a reasoned judgment, but you probably haven’t. Your decision was made already because of which group you’re a part of: liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. 

Our ancestors evolved to identify with a tribe. Tribal loyalty increases safety and survival, but it also leads to demonization of other groups as a way to strengthen one’s own identity and group cohesion. And so instead of analyzing new ideas with intellectual honesty, we determine whether they confirm or challenge our existing narrative, and we affirm or reject them accordingly.

The lengths we go to in protecting our identity and worldview can be quite striking. In the late 1950s, a psychologist named Milton Rokeach brought together three delusional men to try and cure them of their insanity (as recounted in McRaney, Dumb, Chapter 1: “Narrative Bias”). He did not intend to set up an experiment; he wanted a cure. These three men — Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel, and Leon Gabor — with three very different backgrounds suffered from a surprisingly similar delusion: each man held the firm conviction that he was “the living reincarnation of Jesus Christ” (McRaney, Dumb, 18).

Rokeach hoped that throwing these men into daily social interaction with each other would cause their delusions to “cancel one another out.” And here’s where it got really interesting. Rokeach regularly brought their conversation around to the impossibility of there being three Christs. He tried to encourage each man to acknowledge that impossibility and, as a result, give up his delusion. But here’s what happened instead:
When forced to explain, they didn’t come to a sudden realization that they were being delusional; they didn’t reel in awe after being struck by the insight that their identities were showing cracks. No, they just dismissed the other two men’s claims. Benson said the other two were some form of cyborg and not actually alive… Gabor believed the other two men were lesser gods who came after him… Cassel’s explanation was the most accurate and prosaic. He said the other two men were insane patients in a mental hospital. (McRaney, Dumb, 19-20)
Although Rokeach was writing about profoundly delusional men, his conclusion applies to us, too: “These three Christs were, if not rational men, at least men of a type we had all encountered before; they were rationalizing men” (McRaney, Dumb, 20; emphasis added). That’s what we all are – rationalizing men and women. When confronted with beliefs that challenge the story we tell about ourselves, we rationalize them out of our way. “It’s part of life — watching other people lie to themselves to get by. Yet, when you do it, it gets swept under the mental carpet” (McRaney, Dumb, 21).

Our tendency toward bias should concern us, because bias is the handmaiden of hypocrisy, “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Politics makes otherwise decent people into unwitting hypocrites. We trash our opponents for ignoring the facts, we call them delusional — and then we turn around and play fast and loose with the facts ourselves to support our side. We look the other way rather than admit our own delusions and rationalizations. 

You won’t be surprised to learn that our tradition does not take hypocrisy lightly. In the rabbinic academy, hypocrisy was grounds for expulsion. Rabban Gamliel used to say: “No disciple whose inside is not as his outside may enter the house of study” (Talmud Berachot 28a; Book of Legends 695:59). According to another source, we have a responsibility not only to avoid hypocrisy ourselves but also to speak out against it in others: “One should expose hypocrites to prevent the profanation of the Name…” (Talmud Yoma 86b; Book of Legends 523:152). 

Most damning in rabbinic tradition about hypocrites is a parable about Rome and pigs: 
“Why is the kingdom of Rome said to be like a boar?” the sages ask.
Because like the boar, which extends its cloven hooves when lying down, as if to say, “See how kosher I am,” so the wicked kingdom of [Rome] robs and despoils, yet makes it appear that the legal tricks it resorts to are fair practice. 
It happened that a Roman ruler who kept executing men guilty of theft, adultery, and sorcery confided to his counselors: “In a single night I committed all three of these acts.” (Bereishit Rabbah 65:1, Vayikra Rabbah 13:5; Book of Legends 356:171)
In the rabbinic mind, Romans and pigs are the lowest of the low. Hence, so are hypocrites. They show their split hooves as if to say, “Look at me, I’m kosher!” — when in reality, “Surprise! I’m bacon.” 

We all do it. Maybe that’s reassuring? We’re all in this hypocrisy boat together. 
Once upon a time, a lapsed synagogue member ran into the rabbi in town and said, “I never go to temple. Perhaps you noticed that, rabbi?”
“Yes, I noticed that,” said the rabbi.
“Well, the reason I don’t go is because there are so many hypocrites there,” said the man.
“Oh, you shouldn’t let that keep you away,” said the rabbi, with a smile. “There’s always room for one more.”
It’s hard to rise above our psychological tendencies, but it’s not impossible. The first step is noticing we have a problem. It requires humility and inner strength to admit when we apply a different standard to ourselves than to others. Our sages said, “Reproach not your neighbor for a blemish that is yours” (Bava Metzia 59b; Book of Legends 695:48). In other words, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. My friends, we all live in glass houses, so let’s put down the stones, pick up a mirror, and do some honest self-reflection.

If our arguments are always zero-sum, with a winner and a loser; if political debates are less about truth and progress than about waving our group’s banner and circling the wagons; if ideas only resonate with us based on a gut judgment of the messenger rather than the merit of the message — then the future is bleak indeed. 

So when you find yourself thrust into a knee-jerk reaction to an idea someone lobs your way, try to step back and ask yourself, I’m reacting viscerally to this argument, but what do I really believe? Do I like or dislike this idea because I think it’s true or false, or because it confirms or denies my narrative about myself and the world? Can I fully explain my opponent’s position – or even my own?

And if you’re ready for advanced placement, try this: next time you get into a heated argument with someone, switch sides with them. Each of you argue the other’s position. You’ll quickly see how well you really understand your opponent’s case, and if he/she gets yours. And you’ll get to hear what your argument sounds like coming back at you.

Learn to love critique and correction. In the words of one psychologist: “In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the same method should inform your opinions as well” (McRaney, Smart, 31). 

Maybe the best way to combat your hardwired bias and hypocrisy is by changing the story you tell yourself about your identity. Start to see yourself as not simply a good liberal or good conservative, but as an independent thinker – or as a liberal or conservative who wants to understand the other side. Cultivate that identity. Tell your friends so they can hold you accountable. Then, when your knee-jerk reaction kicks into gear, the identity it bolsters will not be partisan faithful, but rather intellectually honest, critical thinker. That may allow your rational brain to do its job better – namely, to sift through available evidence and make a reasoned judgment.

It won’t be perfect. We are only human, after all. But it’s worth the effort. In fact, our ability to grow as a species and confront the challenges in our future depends on our capacity to think more honestly about how we think. You may even learn something new along the way, find wisdom in an unlikely source, connect with someone you’d previously dismissed as having nothing in common with you. That makes a for a better story to tell about who you are, doesn’t it? 

Think about it.

Sources and Recommended Reading

Special thanks to Maurice Emmer, raconteur extraordinaire, for supplying comic material.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your message has been sent to the moderator and should be posted soon. Thank you for reading!