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Gun Control, Climate Change, and Autism: What's that got to do with Buddhism?
Submitted by ellen s on Tue, 4/19/2011, 10:45am
This week, HBO's documentary "Gun Fight" looks at both sides of the gun control issue: Gun control reduces shootings. Gun control gives guns to criminals. It's quite a controversy, just like the argument that vaccines cause autism, as Jenny McCarthy states. But Anderson Cooper says no, they don't. Climate change is happening. Climate change isn't happening. It's global warming and humans have nothing/everything to do with it. Them's fightin' words indeed, today.
Does just looking at these sentences make your blood boil and your head explode? Welcome to the club. Discussions on climate change, gun control, and autism that seem perfectly amenable to fact-based argument are like matches and gunpowder in today's America. They blow up real good.
But why? Why can't we all just agree on what the facts are and decide from there? Is it because we're liberals and conservatives? Because we're poisoned by media or we're hopeless do-gooders? Maybe it's because we're human.
A fascinating piece on how our brains and emotions work to interpret data, The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, appears in Mother Jones this week. I know, a liberal mouthpiece, you think. It'll say liberals = smart, conservatives = dumb. Not at all.
In the article, author Chris Mooney looks at numerous studies on how we interpret data and facts. It turns out that our reaction to facts, headlines, or just plain data depends on our emotions toward that data. It depends on a lot of prior conditioning and experience. What looks like a fact to one person looks like utter BS to the next person, all because of the emotion and predisposition they bring to it. And that's something buddhist psychology has been looking at for a long time.
Mooney notes that studies reveal:
"We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself. . . .
"That's not to suggest that we aren't also motivated to perceive the world accurately—we are. Or that we never change our minds—we do. It's just that we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one's sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should."
The article is long and well worth a thorough read. But those sentences struck me because of how they resonate with buddhist ideas about human psychology. We seek pleasure and friends, we avoid pain and threat. Even in the very facts and data that come to us. And our sense of self, that urge to preserve our mistaken sense of self as solid, separate, and permanent, make us highly resistant. Too often we live in a world of ideas and concepts that we build based on how they make us feel; concepts that might or might not have much to do with reality.
Reading the article didn't make me despair about humans ever getting along, however. It didn't make me despair that we'll ever see clearly enough to solve current problems. It did make me realize that everyone who argues with me, and everyone I argue with, and me, myself, are all working through similar disabilities of perception and interpretation. We're all in this together. Our picture of the world is just that, a picture, and everyone has different glasses on.
And that's interdependence in action; the world is not just the world, there for all to see; it's the world that exists the way it does because that's how we see it; paradoxically, even when we're bitterly opposed, we have in common that we look at things in the same way, through a haze of emotion and concept. Even me. Even you.
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