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Why the presumption of good faith can make our lives civil again
Taking time for thoughtful consideration has fallen out of fashion, writes Emily Chamlee-Wright. How can we restore good faith and good judgement to our increasingly polarized conversations?
- The clamor of the crowd during a heated discussion can make it hard to tell who is right and who is wrong. Adam Smith wrote that the loudness of blame can stupefy our good judgment.
- Equally, when we're talking with just one other person, our previous assumptions and knee-jerk reactions can cloud our good judgment.
- If you want to find clarity in moments like that, Emily Chamlee-Wright recommends practicing the presumption of good faith. That means that we should presume, unless we have good evidence to the contrary, that the other person's intent is not to deceive or to offend us, but to learn our point of view.
I recently returned to Beloit College, where I taught for nearly 20 years before moving on to Washington College and the Institute for Humane Studies. Slated to speak on the topic of campus speech at an institution still wrestling with its own speech-related controversy, I was somewhat nervous.
I needn't have been.
Perhaps it was the bookish title of my talk -- "Conversational Ethics: What Would Adam Smith Have Us Do?" Perhaps I still had some street cred on campus. Or perhaps folks were simply worn out. But no one came loaded for bear.
Adam Smith suggests we imagine an 'impartial spectator' to help us find clarity and weigh our responses in difficult times.
Smith has a lot to teach us about the ethics of conversation, particularly when public discourse becomes acrimonious. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he observed that the "violence and injustice of faction" tests us in ways that the ordinary "bustle of business in the world" does not. He writes, "The violence and loudness with which blame is sometimes poured out upon us seems to stupify and benumb our natural sense of praise-worthiness and blame-worthiness." In other words, the clamor of the crowd can make it hard to tell right from wrong.
Smith counsels that to prepare ourselves for the prospect of unjust condemnation, we must gain practice at viewing our beliefs and conduct not from the vantage point of the crowd but from the perspective of a well-informed impartial judge. If this imagined "impartial spectator" approves of our stance, then we are justified in ignoring the clamor. With practice, we become wiser and more accustomed to summoning the "self-command" we need to stand tall in the face of injustice.
But a sophomore in the audience recognized that this advice only helps the speaker. It doesn't stop us from being part of the unjust crowd. He asked, "What can we do, in practical terms, to keep the conversation positive?"
It was one of those moments when a dozen possible answers come to mind, but the voice in your head says, "Pick one!" The words that came out of my mouth were, "We could all do a better job of assuming good faith." Then the voice said, "Why did you pick that one?"
As soon as I said it, I realized that the 19-year-old asking the question might not know what I meant by such an old-fashioned phrase. I realized too late that though I use the phrase frequently, I had not thought through a full explanation of its meaning. As I started to unpack it in the moment, I realized what a potent concept it is and how far we have drifted from it.
"A presumption of good faith demands a lot from us. It requires that we suspend judgment long enough to ask questions in a spirit of openness and curiosity."
Assuming good faith means that we expect that our conversation partner is interested in learning from us and is seeking to understand our point of view. It means that we should assume, unless we have good evidence to the contrary, that their intent is not to deceive or to offend. We can certainly point out when an error has been made or why offense has been taken, but it should be with the intent of making the conversation better, not closing it down.
A presumption of good faith demands a lot from us. It requires that we suspend judgment long enough to ask questions in a spirit of openness and curiosity. If the student in the audience and I disagree, I should focus first on figuring out why it is that he and I draw different conclusions even though we are looking at the same world. Perhaps there's something in his history, or mine, that led us to different places.
Good faith means that I should take my time to thoughtfully consider his perspective before I decide to praise it or condemn it. But time for thoughtful consideration seems to have fallen out of fashion. As we saw in the Covington Catholic story -- in which a viral video clip inspired many to signal their disgust for a group of teenage boys accused of racism and disrespect, only to learn later that the story was far more complicated -- we feel pressure to be the first to signal our moral commitments to the world. We fear that if we take our time we will be seen as being complicit with wrongdoing. So, we take shortcuts. We bypass the hard work of moral reasoning, and instead praise or condemn based on factional affiliation.
But through the cracks of the political divide we are also seeing positive examples emerge. University of Michigan students Kate Westa and Brett Zaslavsky, for example, lead WeListen, a bipartisan club dedicated to civil cross-ideological debate. At the national level, StoryCorps' One Small Step is facilitating one-on-one conversations in which people who disagree listen and respond to one another with respect. This is good faith in practice.
Arguably, there are exceptions to when we are expected to assume good faith. If we extend this and other conversational courtesies to incendiary speakers who gain prominence by violating those same courtesies, it is out of grace, not entitlement. We are obliged to respect their First Amendment rights but nothing more.
Incendiary speakers, however, are the exception. And we shouldn't base our ethical standards on the exception. Our default should be the presumption of good faith.
The practice of good faith is not an obvious remedy. It's a difficult discipline. It offers none of the psychic rewards that moral outrage delivers. But it's a practice that keeps the conversation going. And it's a practice that allows everyone in the conversation to teach and to learn.
The virus is unlike anything many people have ever experienced.
- The public Facebook group, Survivor Corps, is a place where long haulers and survivors congregate.
- Months after recovering from COVID-19, some are suffering from joint pain, hair loss, and cognitive issues.
- These cautionary tales are important in a county where many remain skeptical over the dangers of this virus.
Coronavirus - The Latest: The Covid-19 'long-haulers'<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="73d1813a9b48841241c01857476e48b4"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/kUyKpu-djdc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>I've been out of the hospital</strong> from COVID-19 for four weeks now and started having severe pain in my big toe, almost like I stepped on a piece of glass or have a severely ingrown toenail—I don't and there's no cut or intrusion. Now my toe is really swollen and red. It hurts to walk or put any pressure on it. Is this what's called COVID toe, and what's the protocol?</p><p><strong>I am on 18 days in bed</strong> with COVID. Luckily, I've been able to manage this horrible beast from home (so far). I actually thought I was feeling better yesterday, and then today I'm going in another direction. I'm having terrible pain when I breathe (right side), and I'm exhausted. I just finished Augmentin, and a week prior, a Z-Pak. I have an inhaler. Today, my doctor wants me to start a Medrol Dosepak (steroids). Has anyone else tried this and has it helped? I'm desperate to try anything right now as long as I can get better. Please give me your thoughts on the steroids; I'm seeing mixed reviews in here.</p><p> <strong>I've been sick with COVID symptoms</strong> for 22 weeks. I'm not getting better. My original symptoms haven't gone away, and I just develop new ones every few weeks. I read an article on three immune responses to this virus. 1) Overactive immune response 2) Normal immune response 3) little or no immune response.</p><p>I am having little or no immune response to this virus.</p><p>It's taking over my body slowly. My primary doctor can't help me. My family and husband don't believe my symptoms and I have nowhere to turn. </p><p>I am so frightened.</p><p><strong>How many of you are experiencing hair loss</strong>, especially hair loss after 5 months? I'm shedding like a dog. </p><p><strong>I had COVID in June</strong>. At least 15 straight days in bed. No smell, no taste except certain spices. I've been diagnosed with two eye conditions now. Fatigue won't go away. Simple things like unloading the dishwasher or taking a shower exhaust me; I need to sit down. Has anyone recovered from these symptoms? If so, how long did it take?</p><p><strong>Has anyone experienced increased joint pain</strong>, specifically in your hands, after COVID? I've had some joint pain in the past, but never this much. It's been four months since I had the virus and the pain seems to have increased since then. [<em>147 comments on this, nearly every one verifying joint pain, especially in hands, ankles, and elbows</em>.]</p>
Medics wait to transport a woman with possible Covid-19 symptoms to the hospital on August 07, 2020 in Austin, Texas.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images<p><strong>I had COVID symptoms for 2.5 weeks</strong> in March (could not get tested). I was a lot better for two months and then started the whole ordeal again 70 days ago (and am still sick). I have been to the ER twice and told that they think I have COVID. My clinic nurse said the same thing, as did my friend, who is an Urgent Care doctor.</p><p>I have had weeks where my fever went away and other symptoms decreased. But several times now, it comes back full force with a vengeance. The roller coaster is depressing. </p><p><strong>I was fortunate enough to be accepted </strong>into the Mt. Sinai post-COVID treatment program and was really happy to have some experts keep an eye on my long-term effects. Four months after COVID, my EKG came back normal, my antibodies high, and my bloodwork normal. My next tests were a lung function test and CT scan to see if there's long-term damage from the pneumonia. I just got a letter from my health insurance company, Oxford, rejecting the cost of the CT scan. I'm so disappointed. Is anyone else having their COVID treatments rejected by health insurance?</p><p><strong>I'm new here and it looks I'm one of the youngins</strong> in the group (19 btw). I got COVID about a month ago, and I got out of quarantine about a week-and-a-half ago, and I still have yet to see any of my friends. I wouldn't say I'm super popular but I do have a lot of friends, so I thought most of them would want to see me. I was super wrong. The stigma around COVID, especially with the younger demographic, was a joke before I got it in my friend group. Every single one of my friends didn't take it seriously and thought it would never appear in anyone they knew. When I got the virus it sent them all into shock and a couple of them hated me saying it was all my fault telling me that I shouldn't leave my house for a couple months and to not talk to them until next year. Now that I'm fully recovered I thought some friends would want to see me, but actually nobody does. </p><p><strong>Rapid heart rate when standing</strong> (160s-170s). Advice on how to deal with it? Twenty-three days from a positive test. Fever is pretty much gone but I'm trying to get back on my feet, literally. I'm kind of at a loss—whether this is temporary or I should ask my doctor for certain tests. My heart rate is elevated even when lying down (and is tolerable) but even more elevated when sitting. Seems like this isn't just "fatigue."</p><p><strong>My husband recovered from COVID</strong> last month but has been in a lot of pain. Weak and tired all the time. He gets tingly fingers and hands and feet and his ankles feel weak, like his bones are brittle. Has anyone else had this? He's rolled his ankles two or three times since and this has never happened before. His body just feels worn out and exhausted all the time, like he's a 70-year-old man, and he's only 34.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Researchers are using technology to make visual the complex concepts of racism, as well as its political and social consequences.
- Often thought of first as gaming tech, virtual reality has been increasingly used in research as a tool for mimicking real-life scenarios and experiences in a safe and controlled environment.
- Focusing on issues of oppression and the ripple affect it has throughout America's political, educational, and social systems, Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn of Columbia University School of Social Work and her team developed a VR experience that gives users the opportunity to "walk a mile" in the shoes of a black man as he faces racism at three stages in his life: as a child, during adolescence, and as an adult.
- Cogburn says that the goal is to show how these "interwoven oppressions" continue to shape the world beyond our individual experiences. "I think the most important and powerful human superpower is critical consciousness," she says. "And that is the ability to think, be aware and think critically about the world and people around you...it's not so much about the interpersonal 'Do I feel bad, do I like you?'—it's more 'Do I see the world as it is? Am I thinking critically about it and engaging it?'"
President Vladimir Putin announces approval of Russia's coronavirus vaccine but scientists warn it may be unsafe.
A new coronavirus vaccine on display at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/ Russian Direct Investment Fund via AP
Medical workers draw blood from volunteers participating in a trial of a coronavirus vaccine at the Budenko Main Military Hospital outside Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
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