Thanks to all three of you for your latest round of feedback.
So far we haven’t spent much time on what I view as the heart of my essay, and I’m wondering if I can lure you three into an introspective thought experiment that bears directly on it.
First, a recap: I argued that when we perceive people in zero-sum terms (e.g., as enemies), our mind naturally impedes clear comprehension of their motivations—especially the motivations behind behaviors we find particularly objectionable. Thus, we have trouble “putting ourselves in the shoes” of terrorists and so shedding light on the causes of terrorism, even though understanding those causes might be in our interest.
I haven’t yet won any of you over to this thesis, so, in a last-ditch effort, I’d like to see if a little introspection could make you more sympathetic to it. And, assuming this effort fails in that regard, maybe your reactions will help clarify exactly where most of the resistance lies.
OK, here’s the thought experiment:
Scenario 1: First, imagine yourself in the kind of zero-sum game that scholars sometimes find themselves in—a relationship with a scholar whose theories are fundamentally incompatible with your own. To the extent that his/her theories gain followers, your own stature within academia suffers. Imagine that the debate between you has gotten prominent and intense. And imagine that you both have your eyes on a single tenured position at a particularly prestigious university.
Scenario 2: Now imagine yourself in a highly non-zero-sum relationship—with, say, a junior scholar who shares your views and spends his/her time singing your praises and pointing to the flaws in the thinking of the rival described in Scenario 1.
Tell me if these seem like outlandish conjectures:
(1) In thinking about the rival, your mind fastens onto unflattering features more readily than flattering features, and in the case of your ally this pattern is reversed. Thus if you learn that, coincidentally, both your rival and your ally (a) last year donated $1,000 to help feed the poor and (b) once cheated on a final exam, you’re more likely to remember and repeat (a) in the case of your ally than in the case of your rival.
(2) In pondering the cheating incident, you’ll be more receptive to exonerating information (e.g. extenuating circumstances) in the case of the ally than in the case of the rival. In particular, you more readily relate your own experience to the ally’s experience—e.g., you compare the temptations that overwhelmed the ally to temptations that you yourself have succumbed to in the past.
I guess it doesn’t speak highly of me that my own introspection renders these conjectures plausible. And maybe the three of you are made of better stuff. Anyway, I’d appreciate it if you could look deep within your souls and tell me what you find.