About a year ago I wrote an article seeking a non-subjective definition for butthead, an alternative to the subjective definition as anyone with whom I butt heads. This is a central research question for me, which translates to lofty yet practical conundrums about the alternative to buttheadedness: What is wisdom? What is rationality? And the great existential question: Now that we are forced to admit that there are inescapable differences of opinion about what God or the universe expect of us, how do we figure out who’s right in any argument?
If you’ve followed my articles, you’ll know that I have particular people with whom I butt heads–Sarah Palin or the latest reincarnation of the right wing (I’ve called them the “Always Right” wing) for example. Readers who don’t have my reaction to these targets challenge me to be more specific about what makes them buttheads. It’s a great question, consistent with my quest for an objective definition of butthead, and I’ll attempt to answer their question here broadly and in my next article to give some examples.
I have a new definition of wisdom and rationality I’m trying out:
The ability to actively embody alternative perspectives on a controversial or ambiguous situation, to conscientiously select the perspective to operate from, and to maintain the capacity to actively embody the alternative perspectives even after having selected.
Let me unpack this:
Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup
Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup
Actively embody: In practice this translates as the capacity to mirror alternative perspectives. Mirroring is the act of giving full, convincing voice to a perspective independent of whether you subscribe to it. It’s like the lawyer’s skill for making a case for any argument. A skillful lawyer could, on a dime switch to her opponent’s argument, making a strong and compelling case against herself. Mirroring is the best test of empathy I know, the capacity to put yourself in another person’s shoes, or to take on another person’s perspective, not just giving it lip service, but actively embodying it.
Perspective: A “take” on a situation. It could be some particular person’s take (for example your opponent’s in an argument) but it could also just be any alternative interpretation, story, explanation, or description of what’s going on, and as a consequence, what to do about it.
Select the perspective to operate from: This is the focus of most definitions of rationality and wisdom: The ability to choose the best alternative perspective. It’s skillful “shopping” among perspectives, skillful “bet placing” on how to read a situation. My new definition of wisdom and rationality includes this central issue but shifts to include a focus on how to keep the alternatives in mind, as implied in the oft-quoted (at least by me) from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Still retaining the ability to function means that you chose a perspective from which to operate even as you keep alternatives in mind.
Alternative perspectives on a controversial or ambiguous situation: One can’t see all possible alternative perspectives, and one can’t always tell what’s a controversial or ambiguous situation. Therefore, there will always be errors about which perspectives to keep in mind and which situations call for wise attention. Still, research into groupthink shows that decisions improve when even just one alternative perspective is given voice.
Alternative perspectives generate doubt, so what I’m suggesting here all boils down to a question about doubt-management. To act with focus and productivity, we need to get doubt out of the way, but to act appropriately, producing what will prove to have been the right thing to produce and not the wrong thing, we need to keep our peripheral vision alive, staying aware of alternative perspectives that generate adaptive flexibility and doubt about our chosen path.
This is the stuff I can’t see Sarah Palin or the “Always Right” wing doing. I’d love to listen to Palin or Glen Beck try to give full compelling voice to the arguments they disagree with. Not only do I think they couldn’t do it, I don’t think they could see the virtue in trying. That’s a fundamental difference between people. Some of us see this maintaining of alternative perspectives as a virtue–hard to live by, especially on emotionally-charged issues, but worth trying to live by. And some of us see it as irrelevant or even a vice. For these people (buttheads, in my book) the virtue comes from complete multi-layered faith in their faith in their faith in their faith in their correctness, a proud even gleeful willingness to sacrifice you or anyone who gets in their way at the altar of their own self-certainty.
In my piece, I am Sarah Palin I made clear that this isn’t about the content of one’s views or decisions but the method of managing those decisions. I can be a butthead. I don’t know anyone who lacks the potential. It’s not left vs. right, it’s always a little open vs. always right.
Historians know that people can turn into buttheads in difficult times. In that, we seem right on schedule.