Believe It, or Not!

Watching the president’s State of the Union address with the self-selected inter-party seating arrangements lowering the usual partisan hype, I found myself wondering whether the civility on display was merely ceremonially contrived for the occasion, or a genuine indication that our politicos recognize the importance of collaborative political work to achieve the common good.

What are the possibilities that with divided government we might nonetheless be entering upon a more positive and productive period of governmental activity? Is there any chance that working relationships across the aisle will improve because minds have changed?

No, I don’t think so. At least, there isn’t any evidence of it at this point. I don’t count a united front of congressional leaders and the administration on the political crisis in Egypt as evidence. That crisis will be resolved, but the matters over which there has been political rancor at home continue.

As I watched the address and the restraint exercised by those assembled, I thought of an acquaintance named Sam who has an opinion on everything, and he is not at all reluctant to express it, wherever and whenever it suits him. In all fairness, however, I should say that he generally expresses it when someone or something else brings it up; Sam won’t volunteer his opinion on, say, cruise ship travel or the advances of technology in cinematography or the inequality in public education or the factors that contributed to our economic meltdown unless the topic is first broached by someone else. Then the full force of his bluster and bravado are unleashed.

What then follows is rather predictable: He declares what he believes with a demeanor that suggests to his interlocutors that he has knowledge of the subject, and he asserts his assessment of the opposing view(s). If it happens that he is challenged or questioned by one of his interlocutors, invariably he simply reiterates his beliefs with greater strength of affect and conviction, and then disparages those who hold an alternative viewpoint with a caricature of their cognitive abilities.

In a few instances, his knowledge of the subject at hand is quite thorough, but more often than not it is inchoate, impressionistic, and stereotypical. What is important to Sam is that it is knowledge that he has, it is his knowledge, and that is reason enough for it to be persuasive to others. What he believes, why he believes it, what it means, and why it should matter, are all offered as though they are self-evidently true and should be so regarded by others.

Looking back, I can’t recall a time when Sam changed his mind in response to either a well-reasoned argument, highly-documented evidence to the contrary, or an experience he had that was germane to the subject. He simply had his opinions and he was sticking to them; they were his beliefs and his judgments, and he could not care less about different points of view—except to note how wrong-headed they were!

In more ways than one, Sam is a picture of what’s wrong with our politics.

Pondering the challenges before us as a nation and the changes in our political landscape with the new Congress, and thinking about Sam, I find myself wondering about the variety of ways we think about ourselves and public matters, the things we reckon as true and suppose as real, and the assortment of behaviors we exhibit in relation to them. With a sense of dismay I am reminded that our politics and ideologies are so contested at present in large part because our basic beliefs, attitudes, and values are contested, and if Sam is any indication, they are contested throughout the private, public and political spaces of our lives, and are likely to be that way for some time.

Cognitive and social scientists who focus on opinion research have shed considerable light on the nature and function of beliefs, attitudes, and values, and their relation to human personal and social behavior. They regard beliefs as mental acts in which something or someone is held as true, real, or valid. Thus, beliefs are cognitions, functions of the mind. More importantly, beliefs are what is held cognitively with regard to an entity; they are the connection between an object and an attribute. For example, to believe that “Jesus is Lord” is to attribute the quality or condition of lordship to the person Jesus. “China is a communist state” is a belief. “Statin drugs reduce the risk of heart attack” is a belief. “President Obama is a Muslim” is a belief. Note that a belief is something one holds cognitively as true or real, but holding it does not necessarily make it so.

Not all beliefs are created equal, but they are all created. Some beliefs are central and normative, others are derived or inferred from other beliefs, and some are inconsequential. Simply put, some beliefs are more salient than others, some more interconnected with other beliefs, and some more free-floating than others. Some beliefs are part of a subsystem or web of beliefs, and some beliefs are held that are downright contradictory or conflictive with other beliefs.

Some beliefs function as essential to one’s identity and status; they are held so strongly that they have a determinative effect on the one who holds them. Religious, social, gender, and political identities fall in this category. Abandoning a belief that is centrally correlative with one’s sense of self and one’s status effectively alters that self in profound ways. This suggests not merely that some beliefs are held more strongly than others or function more normatively than others, but that some beliefs are more resistant to change than others.

Essentially, beliefs are appropriated or acknowledged on the basis of either direct encounter with the object of belief (or, we might say, “experience”), or the testimony of another person, institution or source whose authority is favorably acknowledged and trusted, or as a reasoned inference from a belief based in one or the other of the first two bases (for example, listening to my seatmate talk on her cell phone, I infer the existence of a person on the other end). An examination of one’s beliefs will consistently reveal that they originate in one or another of these three ways.

Attitudes, on the other hand, are learned mental predispositions to respond favorably or unfavorably with a high degree of consistency to something or someone. Attitudes encompass a person’s feelings toward and evaluation of some object, person, issue, idea, place, action or situation. The most important aspects of this definition are first, that attitudes are learned—we are not born with them; second, they are affective at their root—they spring forth laden with emotions of one kind or another; third, they represent our tendency or inclination—they are our default position; and fourth, the particular character of the state of mind or feeling is consistently evoked in response to the object, either in encounter or in thought. And, we should add, attitudes are a function of beliefs.

Then we have values, understood as desired goals or conditions; they are the ends rather than means to an end. Generally stated in abstract form, they are conditions or qualities to which worth, merit, and importance are attributed, or principles or standards that are deemed laudable or desirable. Freedom and honor, hearth and home, law and order, character and conformity, and yes, even being “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent” (Boy Scout Law) are all values. An interesting thing about values is that they have been shown to be notably central to a person’s system of beliefs and attitudes, and therefore, they tend to be rather resistant to change. On the other hand, it is not unusual for a person to find oneself in a situation where one’s values collide and conflict, rather than cohere together seamlessly like swatches of fabric on a quilt. Internal conflicts of beliefs, attitudes or values produce a state of cognitive or affective dissonance which some people find intolerable.

And finally, there are behaviors. Quite simply, behaviors are overt and observable acts or conduct. They are the “doing” that reflect a “being,” an “activity” that expresses an “identity.” But let’s not kid ourselves here. Social scientists and psychologists have shown that there is a correlation between beliefs, attitudes, and values on the one hand, and intentions and behaviors on the other, but this correlation is not cause-and-effect. Knowing one’s beliefs, attitudes and values cannot lead to predicting how one will behave in any situation. Likewise, observing one’s behavior cannot lead unequivocally to an identification of one’s beliefs, attitudes, and values. Nonetheless, the correlation remains. In terms of observation, measure, and assessment, the correlation admits of varying degrees of congruence and consistency, or agreement and reliability. To contend that beliefs, attitudes and values always give rise to particular behaviors, or that they never do, is in both cases to argue a fallacy.

Nonetheless, it is also worth reiterating that there is a correlation between beliefs, attitudes, and values on the one hand, and behaviors on the other. An alteration on one side of this correlation will typically bring about an alteration on the other. Thus, it is worth noting that change in belief, attitude, or value can contribute to changed behavior, but a change in behavior can also lead to a change in belief, attitude, or value. “Conversion” is not confined to religious domains, and we do “learn from experience.”

Our politics at the moment are contested because among our politicians of all political stripes there are some strongly held beliefs, attitudes, and values that are not simply impervious to change but impermeable to reason and logic. The bonds of once-shared principles and common vision have dissolved under the pressure of partisan ideologies and the manipulation of political systems for the self-indulgence and benefit of a few.

If we are ever to get beyond the current impasse and commit ourselves as a diverse people to realizing “liberty and justice for all,” one good place to begin would be the candid inventory and critical examination of our beliefs, attitudes, and values—across the domains of politics, society, economy, and yes, religion—and a willingness to behave differently toward others. As it is, these largely unexamined and conflicted belief systems are getting us nowhere, and they are causing us lots of trouble. What some call “principles” amount, in some cases, to nothing more than expedient beliefs or values rooted in the intent to achieve and retain political, social, and economic power. Given the ambiguity and dissembling that accompanies our political discourse, it behooves us to make every effort to engage and clarify both our beliefs and those so-called principles of our democracy.

Perhaps another place to begin would be believing and doing the so-called Golden Rule, behaving toward others in ways we want others to behave toward us (Mt 7:12). There is a version of this adage in all religions of the world, so we impose no burden on the separation of church and state or freedom of/from religion by enacting it in our personal, social and political lives. On the contrary, perhaps its enactment would lead to alteration of our cognition, affect, and morality. Believe it, or not; the choice is ours.

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