Wrangling Our Political Herds: Upholding Intellectual Standards, No Matter Who Gets Angry

By Robert Jensen

Published in Merion West · June, 2024

June 18, 2024
[This essay is adapted from It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, published by Olive Branch Press.]

Thinking is a collective endeavor, and we all can contribute to public dialogue and debate. But a bit of critical self-reflection can make our contributions more constructive.

In my five decades in and around journalism, academia, and politics, I have never met anyone who thinks alone. Throughout history there have been trailblazers, people who have pushed beyond existing thinking to generate new ideas. But people who believe they are truly independent thinkers—if they indulge the illusion of having risen above the collective thinking process—are failing to practice the critical self-reflection that is supposed to be a core attribute of independent thinkers.

We are a herd animal, and we often unthinkingly think as a herd. The fancy term for this is “identity-protective cognition,” the tendency to resolve disputed facts in a manner supportive of our group identities. We are motivated to adopt those beliefs to signal that we belong.

Here’s another fancy term: “cultural cognition of risk,” our tendency to form beliefs about dangers to society that are consistent with our value judgments about what constitutes an ideal society. We are motivated to assess the facts about potentially dangerous behaviors in ways that support policies we already endorse.

Both of these are forms of what is often called “motivated reasoning,” when our biases lead us to a particular conclusion or decision, often without any conscious awareness. But the herd isn’t always right, and we are often not very good at assessing risk. No group of people is infallible, just as no individual is infallible, and different herds can have mutually exclusive notions of how to understand a situation, which means at least one herd in such a debate is wrong, in part or totally.

Because we are fallible, it’s best that in our herds we encourage each other to stay sharp. In the smallest herds to which we belong—groups that usually are defined by shared values and tastes—we should reward people for speaking up to challenge the presumed wisdom of the herd. We should encourage lively internal debate. If we’re successful at cultivating that virtue in smaller circles, we can encourage it in more diverse groups, where disagreements are likely more contentious.

I am a herd animal, no different than anyone else. Because of early experiences of not fitting into “normal” social groups (that’s a long story about a weird kid), I developed a contrarian streak. But I am always aware that I don’t think alone. All that said, I don’t hesitate to present in public the conclusions I’ve reached about contemporary issues with confidence, even when—perhaps especially when—members of my herd disagree.

Here’s a quick summary of my evaluation of contemporary herds: I think the right-wing herd is misguided more often than it is correct, but I agree with some elements of a truly conservative worldview, especially the recognition that we humans and our systems aren’t perfectible. I think the left-wing herd is correct most of the time, but my preference for leftist analyses does not lead me to always accept the conventional wisdom of the left, which I believe is sometimes misguided.

In my new book, It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, I make my intentions clear: I critique right-wing ideology but I also point out what I believe to be failures of my left-leaning comrades, all the time trying to be as open as possible to critique from all sides, with the least amount of self-righteousness possible.

Like everyone, I think with others, and yet I’m responsible for defending my conclusions. Like everyone, I should work to get better at acquiring and analyzing information, as well as cultivating honest introspection. Acknowledging our intellectual interdependence in making our way through the world—even celebrating it, since I can’t imagine living a truly solitary intellectual life—doesn’t negate the equally obvious fact that I am an individual with a capacity to follow my own judgments in thinking, speaking, and acting.

I am not an island unto myself, and yet I recognize that there are times I may reject what others on the island believe to be true.

It makes no sense to declare myself to be the captain of my own intellectual ship and ignore the wisdom of the crew. But neither does it make sense to blow whichever way the social winds take me.

OK, enough with the mixed metaphors. Back to plain language.

Because I know that I sometimes will be wrong, I appreciate someone telling me, “Your argument is unsound and here’s why.” Because I know others sometimes will be wrong, I am skeptical when someone tells me, “You are wrong to make that argument and I won’t listen.” I have run into that latter response more often in the past decade of my intellectual and political life than in previous decades. In my experience, people on the right too often don’t take seriously the evidence for ongoing white racism; too many people on the left reject out of hand any critique of the ideology of the transgender movement; and almost everyone refuses to acknowledge the need for a dramatic reduction in human population and aggregate consumption.

It may sound naïve in a time of intense political polarization, but in It’s Debatable I make a case for more humility and a bit of hubris—we need to be willing to argue with passion for our political positions but at the same time remember our limitations.


Robert Jensen, an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics from Olive Branch Press. His previous book, co-written with Wes Jackson, was An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity. To subscribe to his mailing list, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html.