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COMMENTARY BY RAMON PRESSON: Objective opinions are based in emotion

Only the shallow really know themselves.” – Oscar Wilde

Over the past months I’ve noticed one of my Facebook friends become passionately opposed to gun control. A deeply religious man I’ve known for decades, a lover of music and motorcycles, I had no idea Michael was so fervent about the right to bear arms. Finally in a recent post he explained the source of his conviction – two frightening experiences where his life was threatened, one that involved a robber holding a knife at his throat. Michael concluded the post by saying, “So don’t talk to me about gun control.”

Michael’s closing is a statement about how powerful experiences are in shaping our beliefs and opinions. If I had been the defenseless one in the store with a knife at my throat, wondering if my life was about to be taken from me, I would very likely hold a different position about gun control than I currently do.

My experience with guns and victims is very different and I know my attitude is significantly shaped by that experience. I’m a counselor and pastor, one only too well acquainted with the ease and prevalence of suicide with a registered gun, primarily among males. And two decades later I’m still haunted by my session with a grieving and guilt-ridden man whose rifle accidentally discharged while cleaning it, killing his young wife in the next room, pregnant with their first child.

As plain as the research is on the dangers of cigarette smoking it is not statistics that have molded my animosity toward tobacco. I grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., the headquarters for RJ Reynolds. Several summers as a kid I worked in my grandmother’s tobacco field and helped hand-string the leaves on wooden poles before they were lofted in the barn ceiling for curing. Tobacco smoke was the economic vapor of my hometown.

My father inhaled a lifetime of that smoke till he was diagnosed with emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, from which he suffered terribly for years before his death in 2010. I don’t have anything nice to say about cigarettes; they killed my father and have taken their toll on my mother’s health. Plentiful data or none, I cannot be objective about smoking and don’t pretend to be.

Two books released in 2010 shine great light on the subject of decision making and opinion formation. Jonah Lehr in his NY Times best-seller “How We Decide” examined the neuroscience research and found overwhelming support among psychologists and neuroscientists that our decisions are largely emotion based – grounded in subtle, subjective, and often hidden thoughts and feelings formed by experiences. Duke University professor of psychology and behavioral economics Dr. Dan Ariely, in his acclaimed book, “Predictably Irrational,” comes to a similar conclusion.

We would really like to believe that we arrive at our decisions and choices about political parties and candidates, theology and doctrine, and social-political issues by means of reason and logic. The truth is that we come to the buffet of ideological choices with a pre-formed appetite from years of messages and experiences that bias our taste and preferences. Our choices, point out Lehr and Ariely, are largely emotion-based (whether it is our stance on illegal immigration or the next car we buy) and we then use reason and logic as a collector, assembling facts, authoritative quotes, data, stats and anecdotes that support our position. We thereafter truly believe our opinion was formed in complete objectivity, and we’re frustrated that opponents will not accept our truth of plain facts.

I actually don’t have a problem with knowing we do that. I just wish we were honest enough with ourselves and with others to acknowledge it. And it is the emotional core of our positions that make us so resistant to reason and compromise.

A classic jury room drama, “12 Angry Men,” was written in 1954 but is just as relevant today, as demonstrated last year in the superb production staged here at the old Franklin Courthouse by Studio Ten. In their jury deliberations following a murder trial, several jurors continue to angrily insist the accused is guilty, despite a growing mound of evidence that suggests otherwise. Statements like “I just think he’s guilty, that’s all,” abound in the room.

The two jurors most adamant about the defendant’s guilt turn out to have experiential prejudices that have shaped the lens through which they are viewing the case. Juror No. 10’s racial prejudice against the accused is ultimately exposed while Juror No. 12’s fury is found to be displaced anger at his estranged son. Not only did these two men believe the accused was guilty of murder, each man in his own way wanted/needed the teen to be guilty and to receive the mandatory death sentence. A guilty man and a guilty verdict would confirm the validity of their deep fears and hates.

An old proverb says that “A fool would rather fight you for an inch of your land than live at peace in his acre.” Here’s hoping the two sides of gun control, and other important issues, will find places of compromise instead of demanding control so that we may all live in more peace and in less fear.

Author and therapist, Ramon Presson, PhD is the founder of LifeChange Counseling and the Marriage Center of Franklin.

Posted on: 2/6/2013


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