by James Wallace Harris, 8/8/22
Most of our ideas are borrowed since few people have original thoughts. The other day I was wondering why conservatives and liberals think so differently. I decided one reason is that they read different books. Of course, not everyone reads books. Ideas are also passed around from person to person, or by newspapers, magazines, journals, advertisements, political rallies, television shows, the internet, etc. We dwell in a sea of ideas.
Ideas do originate with original thinkers, and often they are first published in books. Journalism and other forms of mass media then propagate those ideas, which in turn are spread by word of mouth. So, for now, let’s think of the basic unit for storing and spreading ideas are books.
My theory is conservatives and liberals think differently because the foundation of their beliefs comes from different books. I’m not suggesting that all conservatives and liberals read the same set of books, but the ideas for their thoughts and speech originated in a subset of books.
I was thinking along these lines because I wondered if conservatives and liberals each had a core set of twenty books, what would happen if the conservatives read the liberal’s books, and the liberals read the conservative’s books? Would our polarized political opinions begin to homogenize?
Then I wondered about fundamentalist religious people who put their faith in one book. What would happen if all the fundamentalists around the world all read each other’s holy book?
Thinking about that brought up an obvious stumbling block. Most people’s beliefs are based on what they first learned as children. If you are raised Christian and conservative you’re most likely to stay Christian and conservative. That suggests ideas acquired in youth are stickier than ideas acquired later in life. For my test, we’d have to raise children with The Bible, The Quran, The Tanakh, The Talmud, The Vedas, The Upanishads, The Tipitaka, The Tao Te Ching, The Yasna, etc.
We know minds are open and plastic at birth. If you took a child from a Christian family and gave it to a Muslim family to raise, it will grow up Muslim. But for some reason, after a certain age, minds close and lose their plasticity.
On the other hand, fads arise and spread ideas/memes all the time. Adults will embrace new ideas. Fox News, the Internet, to Tik-Tok can spread new ideas like a California forest fire. This suggests that people can acquire new ideas that they put on top of the foundational ideas that were programmed in their youth.
And ideas don’t have to come from nonfiction books. If all you read are romance novels and watch romance TV shows and movies, your ideas about relationships will be different than if you only consumed mysteries.
I’m in a book club that was reading Developmental Politics by Steve McIntosh, a book about our polarized politics. McIntosh hoped his insights would help solve that problem but most of the readers in the book club doubted it. One of our members did believe in McIntosh’s ideas and thought they could work. I felt McIntosh’s ideas were insightful but figured for them to be persuasive, would require everyone to read many other books first. McIntosh’s book was complex enough to require reading dozens of other books to fully understand it.
That’s when I realized we speak in books. When we express ourselves, we pass on fragments of books, but we don’t pass on enough information to let other people fully understand the foundation of the original ideas. Generally, we pass on tiny fragments of the original idea that are barely impressions. And we seldom communicate ideas but express ourselves emotionally.
If you want to understand a person, you have to consume the same books they did, or at least the same secondary sources. If a friend is passionate about a belief you’ll never understand your friend until you understand the foundations of their beliefs.
Few people understand the sources of their beliefs. Few people can point to a set of books and say here’s where my ideas originated. The origin of a classical education came from the study of foundational books, but that idea broke down in modern times when we were overwhelmed with significant books.
Yet, even when there was only one book for most people, The Bible, Christianity spent centuries arguing over its meaning. If you study all the people who claim to be Christian today you’d find very little commonality. The Bible is too big and too diverse. If we took The U. S. Constitution instead, which is tiny in comparison, we still get endless disagreement.
Ideas are slippery and inexact. Even if we read the same books and speak about the same ideas we don’t interpret them in the same way. Humans aren’t computers. We filter ideas through our emotions. Books might sow ideas but they don’t plant them evenly, and they grow inconsistently.
It appears that humans latch onto vague concepts and use them for ammunition to get what they emotionally want. Even if we read the same books we’ll still be a long way from finding agreements.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. What we need is a better approach to understanding each other’s wants. It might start with reading the same books, but it would only be a start. We’d also need to start studying each other’s emotions, and emotions are even harder to communicate than ideas. That’s what McIntosh was getting into with Developmental Politics, building on developmental psychology.
9 thoughts on “What Books Do You Speak?”
I’m afraid that my experience has been that very few people I know who have conservative beliefs read books at all.
I’m afraid there are a lot of people who aren’t readers. And I do believe liberals write more books but there is a large industry of conservative authors and readers. They have their own classics of conservative philosophy. I’ve thought about doing a blog post about these books. Liberals need to read them.
Good Idea. I look forward to your suggestions.
The books you referring to are the kind of books that you need to discuss in a group… A group or classroom could expand on ideas that have historic or scientific backgrounds attached to them. Books read in isolation, another words, alone and with your own thoughts lead to limited change in your a point of view, most people will just look to reinforce established biases that they have accumulated over the years..so These groups need to have a diverse point of view and the same can be said for classroom discussions
I didn’t think about that, but I think you’re right. But how could these political book clubs get started? Nowadays when liberals and conservatives get together they only scream at each other. You’d think the internet would bring us together, but it’s tended to isolate people into their own unique special interest groups.
I’ve read plenty of conservative writers. I like Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. But, I’m more of a pragmatist. I want actions that work whether they’re liberal or conservative. We live in a time of Fake News, distortion, conspiracy theories, and abysmal education. You’re right: a lot of people don’t read books any more. Truth has taken a beating with all the manipulation of data on the Internet and Social Media. We should all be dismayed at the erosion of cooperation and civility in our Government and daily lives.
I wonder if more laws were made by referendums if more people would study the issues?
There’s a diminished attention span in this digital age; too may prefer to spend as much of their spare time as possible smiling at their cell phones.
“We know minds are open and plastic at birth. … But for some reason, after a certain age, minds close and lose their plasticity.”
I once read an ironic quote from a children’s health academic that, “You have to pass a test to drive a car or to become a … citizen, but there’s no exam required to become a parent. And yet child abuse can stem from a lack of awareness about child development.”
By not teaching child development science along with rearing to high school students, is it not as though societally we’re implying that anyone can comfortably enough go forth with unconditionally bearing children with whatever minute amount, if any at all, of such vital knowledge they happen to have acquired over time? It’s as though we’ll somehow, in blind anticipation, be innately inclined to fully understand and appropriately nurture our children’s naturally developing minds and needs.
Along with their physical wellbeing, children’s sound psychological health should be the most significant aspect of a parent’s (or caregiver’s) responsibility. Perhaps foremost to consider is that during their first three to six years of life (depending on which expert one asks) children have particularly malleable minds (like a dry sponge squeezed and released under water), thus they’re exceptionally vulnerable to whatever rearing environment in which they happened to have been placed by fate.
One wonders how much immense long-term suffering might have been prevented had the parent(s) of a future mass shooter or tyrant received, as high school students, some crucial child development science education by way of mandatory curriculum? After all, dysfunctional and/or abusive parents, for example, may not have had the chance to be anything else due to their lack of such education and their own dysfunctional/abusive rearing as children. Meanwhile, people will procreate, some prolifically even, regardless of their questionable ability to raise their children in a psychologically functional/healthy manner.