Two politicians on opposite sides of the political aisle were calmly discussing a social issue in public debate recently. One said of the other, “While my honorable opponent and I both agree we need to manage this serious situation, we simply disagree on the best way to do so.”
OK — so I made that up. That would be nice, though, wouldn’t it?
You would have to be living under a rock someplace if you are unaware of the social unrest in our country today — especially in regard to racial issues and specifically the move to defund police agencies.
It would be easy as a white person to pass off the killing of Freddy Gray (among other similar incidents) as an oopsy by some bad cops and to suppose justice has been served since those officers have been charged.
On the contrary, injustices like this have gone on for years. If I were African-American, I would be angry and afraid and I would be wondering when this kind of thing will stop?
But public policy must be driven by logic and data rather than our passions. Whether we are addressing racism, the virus, immigration, or some other passion-laden topic, our passions don’t always serve us well.
My grandfather said many times when I was young that it was improper to discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. Even though he didn’t always practice what he preached, I understand why he held this view. People often have strong opinions on these topics and broaching them might quickly lead to anger and, consequently, everyone having an unpleasant meal.
I suspect that most of you who are reading this would recognize that in the midst of passion — anger, love, sadness — we shouldn’t make life-altering decisions. We need to step away from the emotions that can cloud our judgment in order to consider the possibility that we might be wrong in our thoughts and beliefs.
This is why the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) has nothing in it specifically about the law, the Constitution, or anything about the justice system. The LSAT is a logic test. The law is based on logic, not passion. You may not like the law or understand procedure, but generally, what happens in a courtroom is based on logic rather than passionate opinions.
My college students are often frustrated with me when I repeatedly write “citation?” in the margin beside comments they make in term papers. It’s not enough simply to assert something. You must validate your position logically and with sound resources. Wikipedia, web sites, and news outlets are far from objective, credible sources.
What some students have trouble understanding is that I’m not questioning their position. I’m merely forcing them to think through their position logically and validate what they say. This has always been challenging for me as a professor, but Gen Xer’s and Millennials are especially prone to flawed thinking.
These two generations have grown up with social media making them think two things that just aren’t true. One is that since they think it, they feel the need to say it (I’ll save that topic for another day). The other false assumption is because believe it passionately, then they assume they must be right.
One of my heroes in academia is a researcher named Linda Waite. A feminist professor at the University of Chicago, she believed in the 1990s that marriage was an outdated institution and she set out in her research to confirm her beliefs.
But to her surprise, her data didn’t support her position. In fact, she found a host of advantages to being married and she published them in her 2002 work “A Case for Marriage.”
She is a hero to me, not because I agree with her position — that would be passion. She is a hero to me because she let the data drive her position rather than being driven by her passions.
If the data doesn’t support what you think is so, then either there is an error in the data, data collection, or interpretation — OR your position was wrong. Dr. Waite realized she was wrong and totally changed her position. That doesn’t happen very often.
Relying on logic doesn’t mean you are right, but it is a starting place for objectivity. Likewise, relying on logic doesn’t mean we must abandon our passions, either. We simply have to recognize that passion can cloud our thinking.
In the 1984 cult classic “The Karate Kid,” Mr. Miyagi, the mentor and sensei to his young student Daniel, delivers a line that I’ve never forgotten. “Daniel-san, never substitute passion for principle — even if it means you lose.” Good advice.
[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]