A few months ago, when “What are you doing this summer?” was a ubiquitous question, I was faced with a peculiar situation. I planned to work at a prison-reform think tank, and whenever I would tell some of my more conservative friends, I would be met with a bit of skepticism.
In fact, back at home, when a neighbor heard what I was doing, he criticized Yale for turning me into a “liberal hippie.” While I’m not explicitly rejecting the label “hippie”— maybe being a philosophy major is enough to qualify me as one for most people — working in prison reform is certainly not the reason why that label should apply.
Based on the facts alone, prison reform ought to be an apolitical issue. The prison system as we currently have it is broken, and that’s a simple fact. It’s expensive, and in the current system, re-entry and rehabilitation don’t work — recidivism rates remain incredibly high and the problem disproportionately affects particular minorities such as African-Americans and Hispanics. The burden on taxpayers is huge, and cheaper, empirically substantiated alternatives remain underutilized.
These problems should align squarely with the conservative stance. From a fiscal perspective, we’d simply be saving money, and lots of it, full stop. From a social perspective, redemption is a central theme in all of the Abrahamic religions. This is actually a point I heard this summer from a conservative reformer from Texas, a state that is actually a leader in the prison reform field today. While it may surprise many to hear that Texas had problems in the past with the issue of criminal justice reform, the state is paving the way for nationwide reform.
And yet, perfectly intelligent people, both liberals and conservatives, often fail to see prison reform through an apolitical lens. Liberals claim the issue and conservatives often cede this ground without a fight. I’m not saying this is universally true. There are obviously exceptional individuals on both sides who are trying to make criminal justice reform a bipartisan issue. But for an institution as self-reflective as Yale, the number of people who thoughtlessly label criminal justice as a liberal issue is disappointingly large.
But why is this the case?
Unfortunately, self-reflective people like Yalies may be more likely than most people to make this kind of mistake. A few years ago, Dan Kahan, a professor at the law school, authored a study that showed how intelligence actually correlates to polarization on culturally colored issues.
In other words, the more intelligent a person was, the more they could construe the same facts to fit their own worldview. And this makes sense. The smarter a person is, the more they can look at the same facts, and pick and choose the parts that fit their view in a convincing, even self-convincing, way.
When you don’t have any pre-formed biases towards an issue, intelligence is helpful for guiding someone to the truth. But too many of our most important issues — from climate change to prison reform — have already been tainted by political association. In these cases, intelligence can be less than a tool for identifying the truth and more an instrument for reinforcing your existing biases.
As much as we would like to deny it, our own perception of the world is colored with personal views and subjective opinions. Intelligence, an attribute we often value in and of itself at Yale, can be dangerous when not employed honestly.
So what are we to do?
While I’m sure cognitive scientists and psychologists have proposed remedies, the best piece of advice I can offer is awareness. Take a moment to examine your views. It might be helpful to play devil’s advocate with your closely held assumptions. See if you can build a case against tax increases if you’re a card-carrying Democrat, or the case for gay marriage if you’re an evangelical conservative.
Yale is politically active, and that’s commendable, but we need to make sure that this spirit doesn’t take away from rational consideration. All too often I hear the phrases “Why would I vote for him, he’s a Republican,” or “Isn’t that the project those crazy liberals support?”
Categories help us navigate the world. It helps us make sense of things, and without them we’d be helpless. But we should be acutely aware of this and work to first define people and issues by their own merit, and then categorize them, rather than instantly ascribing a category to a person and letting that do all the explanatory and substantive work.
To move forward, we first need to take a step back. We’re a group of fairly smart people, but unfortunately that only makes it harder to distance ourselves from our deeply rooted views. Yet, all the same, that makes it even more important that we do.
Leo Kim is a junior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at