As human beings, we are creatures of bounded rationality. That means, that though we may think ourselves to be particularly rational and fact-based in our decisions and beliefs, in reality we are motivated far more often and far more deeply by fears and lusts, by pride and hurts, than we are by facts unadorned by emotional resonance. This is not entirely a bad thing, as that which may be objectively good overall and in the long run may be disastrously poor and extremely harmful for us in particular and in the short run. Additionally, people may voice a certain set of ideals insincerely, desiring to wrap themselves up with virtue and pretend that their “philosophical consistency” is a result of core beliefs rather than simply a cover for their own desires to exploit and take advantage of others.
There are many ways to sell ideals and products, and very few of them are rational. Whether we choose to make positive or negative sorts of appeals, our appeals are generally based on grounds other than rational ones, suggesting the knowledge that our beliefs are not based on rational foundations, but on emotional grounds, as a general rule. Our general inability to understand and grapple with worldview issues suggests that if we were more aware of those emotional grounds and more honest about them, we would be able to distinguish between those genuine enemies who hate us on worldview grounds (whatever they might claim to lie to our faces) and those whose disagreement is based on the perceived threat we possess to their well-being and personal dignity.
There are many examples that could be used to demonstrate this fact. If we want to attack a belief system indirectly through attacking its adherents, we can make all sorts of attacks on the people themselves without ever feeling the need to address their (often sound) arguments. For example, we can try to attack them as hypocrites on some small (if genuine) grounds, trying to disprove the intellectual edifice of their belief system by pointing out inconsistencies between their beliefs and their behavior and claiming that this means that their beliefs are insincere and that the people themselves are wicked. This need not be the case at all–very few of us are fully aware of the full implications of our beliefs, much less able to bring every thought and action into subjection to those beliefs, and making ad hominem assaults is not the best way to provoke people into consistency with those beliefs.
In addition, many of the attacks we may make on people will be based on irrational grounds that lie in the realm of emotional reasoning that requires justification rather than factual reasoning that requires a defense. Our agreement with the goals and ideals of a given person may blind us to their serious errors and deliberate deceptions that we may justify as necessary evil means to achieve desirable ends, whereas someone who does not share that partisan commitment is likely to see the dishonest means as proof of a lack of character within that person and their supporters. Likewise, we may dislike people because of such irrational grounds as their seeming aloofness and lack of friendliness or our envy of their wealth and socioeconomic status and then seek to justify that dislike on other grounds after the fact, pretending as if the justifications are the real reasons for our dislike, instead of the ways by which we try to convince ourselves that our emotional feelings are themselves rational.
When we face someone who disagrees with us, we have to seek to understand on what grounds their disagreement with us lies. Most of the times, that disagreement is not on the question of fact. We are generally guided in our weighing and balancing of the facts and evidence by various worldview concerns. This includes beliefs on what levels of consistency we require from evidence, what we consider as acceptable evidence, what rules of interpretation govern permissible conclusions from what we accept as evidence, and so on. These commitments are primarily ideological and political in nature, and are not strictly rational. In addition, we will generally consider the rules of interpretation that guide our reasoning as essentially beyond the rightful scrutiny of others and as unacceptable targets for the arguments of others. And yet it is primarily on such grounds that our disagreements with others lie. Simply quoting the evidence is almost never sufficient, because the difficulty and disagreement is in the interpretation or on what grounds and in what ways a given piece of evidence is accepted and rejected.
To make matters even more prickly, the particular ideological and political commitments we hold are not likely to exist solely on rational grounds, but are often based on the grounds of self-interest. By this is meant not only economic self-interest, but perhaps even more importantly self-esteem and personal dignity. Claims by others that attack our self-respect and honor and reputation are not likely to be accepted on any grounds, even if (especially if) they are true. Our innate and fierce tendencies for self-justification will ferociously resist any implications of poor character and wrongdoing on our part. Likewise, the actions of others that threaten our well-being, reputation, status, and self-esteem will be assumed to have the most wicked and evil basis. Small wonder that we fight and quarrel so much and so fiercely when we judge our own honor and reputation at stake so often.
But it is often too personal to admit to ourselves, much less publicly to others, that our disagreement with others lies on such political and selfish grounds. After all, many people have convinced themselves so thoroughly that their own positions and commitments are entirely rational and that any kind of political speech is illegitimate that any arguments that really attack at the personal and political level must be discussed obliquely as differences in beliefs and doctrines (which are subject to finding evidence to support your own belief system) rather than being differences in personality or worldview (which require much more delicate handling).
When to this sorry state of affairs is added the tendency of people to fiercely project onto others their own maladaptive strategies of dealing with cognitive dissonance, that tension between our ideals and the state of our world or behavior, it is a wonder that we are able to engage in any kind of rational discussion of any subject of disagreement at all with anyone, ever. Even someone like myself who aspires to rationality in discourse finds it impossible to discuss matters rationally with those who continually make personal assaults on my honor and dignity. A certain amount of civility is required to preserve rational discourse, because it is futile and pointless to discuss matters rationally among those who have no honor or respect. Mutual respect is a precondition for an honest intellectual debate, because it means that however serious the areas of disagreement are, that the debate will not attack the honor and integrity of the people in the debate themselves. Where mutual respect is lacking, every attack on a position is colored by abusive attacks on the people holding those positions, which makes polite discourse impossible. And where polite discourse is impossible, there will only be impolite discourse found.
And we are all at least partially to blame for this state of affairs. We all have sensitive spots, weak areas of our defenses, inconsistencies between beliefs and practices, wounds from the abuses and hurts of the past that are still raw, unfulfilled and frustrated longings and ambitions. Any statement that is perceived as an attack on any of those sore spots is likely to be taken as a personal assault, and the person making such an attack is likely to be viewed in the most negative light. Since most of us are not sensitive at all to what drives and motivates other people, or to the suffering that they have faced, or their fears and longings, we simply do not act in a very loving fashion, because our actions and words often regularly (and even deliberately) provoke those sensitivities, increasing the level of hatred and loathing between different camps of people. We demand that others be sensitive to our own concerns to be on friendly terms with them, but all too often we fail to reciprocate that same respect and charity in kind. We all share some responsibility for the lack of civility in our public discourse, among friends, in our families and communities and churches because we are both sinned against and sinners.
As a result of these conflicts, we tend to seek echo chambers where those whom we allow close to us will agree with us on all matters essential to our own self-esteem and well-being. As a result, we cut ourselves off from anything that would threaten or challenge our worldview, and the lack of practice we have in defending our worldview or even addressing facts which may challenge our belief systems means that we often ignore large amounts of evidence, that if we addressed may even bolster our worldview by making it more robust and making our conduct more consistent with our belief systems, but protected and sheltered only serves to make us permanently edgy and prickly toward other people whose very existence and whose conversation and conduct are a constant provocation against our half-formed and half-understood worldviews, upon which our honor and reputation and dignity is founded. We spend our intellectual effort justifying what we already believe to be true (and attacking those who disagree with us) rather than setting ourselves on a firm foundation of truth that is both rigorously based on evidence and fact as well as charitable and compassionate toward others, recognizing that in all of us are many entirely proper longings that are simply corrupted to the wrong ends by the many charlatans and frauds and marketers among us.
So, why is the fish the last to notice water? To recognize the fragile foundations of our happiness and self-esteem and dignity is to recognize just how vulnerable we all are. It is hard to project the confidence and competence and strength we need to be successful in finding love and respect from others, and selling ourselves and our belief systems to others, if we are fully honest about ourselves. Worse, the fact that we prefer the illusion of competence and competence from others rather than for them to be honest about themselves means that our personal and business relationships are often based on mutually self-serving lies and deceptions. In such an environment genuine love and support and encouragement is simply not to be found. We cannot expect others to be honest with us unless we are honest with ourselves first, and if we have no confidence that others will love us as we are, we will not take the dangerous and risky step of being forthright and open with our struggles, our longings, and our hopes and fears that deeply motivate us, whatever we might claim.
When we know we lack the wisdom and strength to overcome and vanquish all of the threats that face us, few of us choose to have genuine faith in God and other people, and so we deny those threats exist as long and hard as we can. We live in a fishbowl of our own making, so it is no wonder that we live such lonely lives, seeing so clearly in others what we cannot admit to see in ourselves. We could be set free by the truth, if we so chose, but to see and believe the truth about ourselves and others would require us to build on better foundations, and to show our efforts in putting faith in people and institutions to have been wasted, like building with straw or wood and finding out to our shame that the fire has left nothing but dust and ashes of a lifetime of work. And so long as we blind ourselves to that truth, the lives of self-deception we live prevent us from showing or feeling the love we genuinely seek from others. For we cannot give what we do not have, nor can we recognize what we do not and will not admit.