signposts

If you are driving to a particular place, but following the wrong map, you won’t get there, except by chance. If your cognitive map does not match reality—the terrain of the world in which your actions inhere—outcomes won’t match intentions. Unintentional consequences, like inequality or global warming may appear. Stated otherwise, reality always wins the game of life, sooner or later.

This truth governs collective as well as individual life. This should be obvious, but is being ignored in political life today. Democracy and truth are inextricably woven together. The will of the majority is meaningless unless that will fits the reality of the times. The same holds for representative government. Those given the power to legislate, govern, or judge must use the correct map, the one that most closely matches reality. They are free to follow different routes to the chosen destination, but not to use a different map.

The founders of the idea of conservatism, most notable Edmund Burke, knew this. For him, tradition was a metaphor for a map drawn from the sedimented truths of history, the results of decisions and actions that produced what was deemed to be right. But even he knew that traditions cannot always keep up with changes in the world, and that new ideas, rules, and practices would be needed from time to time. He would not recognize what goes for conservatism today. In its name, the Republican Party and its members have made truth unrecognizable.

The Democratic Party is doing a better job at incorporating today’s reality into its work. President Biden’s legislative program recognizes the fragmentation of our society, long neglected infrastructure, and the reality of global warming among other features of today’s world. Their map appears to be closer to reality. But, perhaps, only closer. Drawing an accurate map is a pragmatic process, carefully examining observations through protracted conversations that attempt at grasping important truths buried deep in the social/natural systems in which we are embedded. The prolonged stalemate in the legislative process makes this process virtually impossible. The maps being used have been created to fit an imagined world, far from the real one out there, the only one that counts.

This situation has been analyzed by all sorts of specialists who offer explanations and solutions based on the maps of their own disciplines, but these are often as far from reality as those of political parties. The work of British psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, on how the bi-hemispherical brain works offers a more compelling explanation. He argues, based on a massive collection of clinical data from patients with one or the other hemisphere damaged, that the two hemisphere’s attend to the world in very different ways. Consequently, they provide, using the same metaphor, different maps of reality.

The right’s map presents a topographical view, showing as much detail as the senses can convey. The left’s map is very different, presenting a two-dimensional representation, like a road map. The right hemisphere is connected, via the senses, to the immediate world and can update its map to reflect current reality. The left constructs its map from fragments it has abstracted from experience.

In a well-functioning world, the two sides would cooperate: the right identifying the destination, the left plotting a route to get there, and passing it back to the right to execute. Not so today. McGilchrist claims that the left hemisphere has wrested control, and is following its own map, unaffected by the reality captured by the right. The left cannot tell how its plans and actions actually fit. They reflect only its internalized world and its inherent desire for control. It can retain its dominance because we have become blind to its power and, in essence, handed it the reins that drive us and our institutions. The whole story is much more nuanced, but this brief discussion captures the essence.

To reverse the cognitive balance we must, first, acknowledge the validity of this model and its connection to the world we have created. Then, we must seek the right kind of truths needed to understand and manage it. This requires pragmatic inquiry, a process that rests on the right hemisphere’s connections to the real world. The vast store of knowledge that has accumulated over historical time by the reductionist way the left works can underpin whatever plans and actions that follow, but only after we have located our destination on the map drawn by the right hemisphere. Science, the left hemisphere’s crown jewel, cannot be the end of our struggles, only the means to address the larger truths the right brain uncovers. We must rein in the left brain, and turn on the creative power available when the two work together, but with the right in the director’s chair.

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