We have a dream in America of rationality. What I mean by that is that we have imbued our country with an ideal of rational discourse being the primary form of interaction between human beings. That if we can make the right argument, it will persuade people to our (meaning my) beliefs. Connected with our vision of democracy lies the belief that we are rational creatures, and that if we could just “hear” one another, we would find “common ground”, because we are all human beings after all, capable of similar rational thought.
And yet, try as we might to believe it, the human being is not primarily a creature of reason. We are creatures of great emotion and passion, and our faculty for reason is turned most often in service to that emotional self. At its best, reason can act to temper our emotional core. At its worst, our faculty for reason has an innate ability to rationalize our basest instinctual behavior.
For decades I thought of myself theologically as a Deist, and in my understanding of the nature of God I still am one. It was Deism’s understanding of Reason (always capitalised in Deist writings) that I had to leave behind. Our country was founded in large part by Deists who imbued the primacy of human reason into the fabric of our national identity. In Deism, reason is seen as the key to unlocking the mysteries of each other and the universe. It is the key to human community, the key to understanding nature (known also as science), the key to understanding God through an empirical theology, and the key to a democratic form of governance.
And it rests on the myth that the human being is a rational creature, or its less fundamentalist cousin of a myth, the idea that reason is strong enough to restrain the human emotional self.
Neither of these is true… and as such a fundamental aspect of our national identity is inherently flawed. The belief in basic human rationality is the wall we keep running into in seeking to understand each other. It makes us believe that the rationalizations are our true motivations, rather than the human emotions that underlie them. And so we argue at the level of the rationalized “covers” for our emotional selves, because we have been taught that our emotional selves are somehow shameful, and that only our rational selves belong in public discourse.
This applies to myself as much as anyone… I am sitting here trying to make a rational argument about our emotional selves, because this is the language that we have. It is the language that is respected. Were I to cry the horror that is within my heart at what we have done to ourselves I would be dismissed as an irrational nutcase.
The emotional nature of humanity is far more powerful than our reason, and what reason we have is in service to it. Reason either provides a tempering, a levening of wisdom to the emotional self, or it provides rationalization for that emotional self to behave and believe as it wills. The two experiences of reason are hard to distinguish from each other in the moment, and so everyone thinks everyone else is using reason as a tool for rationalization while they are acting from reasoned wisdom. Rationalization happens for all of us as it is the far more common of the two experiences.
There are hundreds of articles about what is happening in our nation’s politics at this moment, and most are attempting to apply reason as the primary tool of understanding. Most such attempts to explain the current moment suffer from the same flaw… for we are not primarily rational creatures.
We are each a mix of emotions that swirl about and synchronize together in ways that can draw us together or push us apart. Our rationalizations are designed to prevent us from having to engage directly at the level of these emotions, because they are so often painful, and we have been acclimatized to avoid emotional pain. Our rationalizations have prevented us from understanding not only our own emotional selves, but made us afraid of the emotions within us. And this is a recipe for someone who is either emotionally smart or cunning to manipulate us by the powerful inner forces we have devalued and forgotten how to even see.