In our last post, we visited Mark Twain's classic essay, Corn-Pone Opinions, and we asked why people tend to reflexively defend their existing beliefs when confronted by contrary views, rather than even-handedly weighing the merits of each position. For his part, Twain emphasized the human impulse for conformity.
The author of Huckleberry Finn and The War Prayer believed that the vast majority of people unthinkingly adopt the prevailing opinions in their social environment, and that their primary value is the approval of others. In short, many people are uncomfortable if their ideas stray too far from those of their fellows, and most crave social acceptance, so great energy is expended in pursuit of consensus. As Twain puts it:
"... a man's self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter... hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies... Self-approval is acquired mainly from the approval of other people. The result is conformity... "
Think of the last time you disagreed with someone on a significant philosophic or socio-economic question. Did your counterpart seek to understand your reasoning, or did they hastily construct palisades to stubbornly defend their existing position? Did you earnestly inquire about the root of their thinking, or did you set about stuffing the heretical genie back in its contrarian bottle?
Regrettably, many disagreements on a wide variety of important topics boil down to little more than rank tribalism — that is to say, defending the familiar doctrines embraced by one's group, however defined, rather than committing oneself to a candid search for truth. As G.K. Chesterton once put it in reference to nationalism:
"“My Country, right or wrong,” is like saying “My mother, drunk or sober.”
Mark Twain on Congressmen