The Importance of Reading Books and Articles That Challenge Your Views
On Getting Out of the Echo Chamber
There are many challenges that we face in today’s political and economic climate. Increasing polarization coupled with increasing division are making civil discussion and debate difficult if not impossible. This is creating an environment of social distance and heightened anxiety in society.
Ten years ago, I remember debating with individuals of varied political and social persuasions in a civil and friendly manner. I had friends and colleagues who were “liberal”, “conservative”, “socialist”, “libertarian”, “green party”, and everything and anything between those categories and beyond. We would sit in the bar, at dinner, in a café, on the phone, or online and engage in a discussion of topics from our varied perspectives. None of this civil discourse caused us to “unfriend” each other, and we were able to do so based on the concrete issues behind whatever topic we were discussing. We did not resort to name calling, and the terms “liberal”, “conservative”, and “socialist” were used to express our political views and leanings rather than being used as insults.
Today, I find myself leaning towards “muting” or “unfriending” friends who have a different perspective from me. The former temptation to engage in a debate to better understand their perspective and help them better understand where I am coming from is gone. Multiple times in the past week I have seen an online comment from a friend that I find offensive and I immediately mentally consider muting or unfriending the person. I realize that this is an extreme reaction, but I have learned that it is not an uncommon response. Many others that I talk to do the same thing.
Here is the problem as I see it: when you try to engage in civil discourse and debate often you end up attacked as a “commie liberal” or “tree hugger” on the one side or a “Trumpian” or “kooky conservative” on the other. Forget being a socialist — that is the equivalent of being called communist during the Cold War. Both sides attack the other as “unpatriotic” or worse. Both sides claim a monopoly on having the “right” or “moral” point of view. We have stopped listening to each other.
Additionally, when you try to engage in civil discourse or debate on a politically sensitive issue, people get anxious. The state of anxiety is high in civil society. We constantly read evil intent into the statements of those who disagree with us. Additionally, we have stopped being open to opposing views.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EXPOSURE TO ALTERNATIVE VIEWPOINTS
If you are a liberal/democrat/left-leaning and you tell someone that you watch Fox News or are reading right-leaning/conservative/republican news sources, they think you are crazy. I have found myself having to justify such actions as “trying to understand what is causing people to believe what they believe.” The same is true for being conservative and watching CNN or MSNBC or reading the New York Times or other left-leaning sources and materials. There is no such thing as attempting to be well-rounded.
We tend to stick to reading and watching materials that closely align with our own views. When we are exposed to an opposing viewpoint we roll our eyes and talk about the mental state of the person with the opposing viewpoint. They believe what they believe because they are crazy.
We see this in the operations of our government on multiple levels — local, state, and federal. The opposing parties attack each other on moral grounds and engage in black and white thinking — it’s my way or the highway. We don’t engage in civil debate of the root of the issues that are important to our society. We don’t debate what access to healthcare means for constituents, what the rising cost of healthcare is doing to our economy, what the cost of healthcare is doing to any child’s ability to get a sound education, for example. We don’t debate what the corporate influence on education means for society long term. We don’t discuss the bureaucratization and anti-intellectualism of education, the impact of polarization in society on how our students are being taught, or anything else that could have important implications for the future of society. Instead, we climb into our echo chambers and become more and more entrenched in our existing views.
UNIVERSITY ECHO CHAMBERS
I was a college professor until about a year ago. I grew increasingly frustrated with University advice to avoid difficult topics, avoid discussing politics or religion in the classroom, avoid, avoid, avoid. Teach only the “facts” (even though this fails to acknowledge that even the “facts” have been constructed based on different historical and political views across history — we teach the history of humankind from certain perspectives while erasing others, we teach that some groups have heroes and others are rebels and “others”). We don’t encourage students to challenge their frames and consider opposing viewpoints. We allow people to become more and more entrenched in their existing views, scared of challenging them as that will bring negative course reviews and threaten our ability to get tenure.
I left academia for a variety of reasons, but one of the strongest reasons was that doing research that challenged the existing frames in my field was frowned upon. We were told doing anything that challenged the status quo needed to wait until you got tenure and became a full professor. By then you are entrenched in the status quo yourself. We reinforce the echo chamber through the existing patriarchal and antiquated tenure system. At one time tenure was awarded to those who did groundbreaking work that threatened the status quo of thinking in their field. Today, you need to reinforce the status quo. Do safe, simple statistical studies that do not contribute much to the growth of knowledge. Do work that is safe, likely to get published (I’m not even going to talk about the challenges of publication bias) and publish a lot even if it doesn’t mean much.
This means that we are not encouraging new discovery. In fact, we are punishing it in many disciplines. Only do something new if it doesn’t challenge the viewpoints of those who will be voting on your tenure.
POLARIZATION AND CIVIL DISCOURSE
As a result of this fear of tackling the difficult issues and a lack of openness to debating the issues, we are increasing the polarization in our society. People become increasingly entrenched in their existing views and are not open to challenge. If you challenge an individual’s viewpoint you cannot be friends with them. It is seen as a personal attack.
This sickness has infected our governmental structures. Personal attacks have replaced civil debate. We attack on Twitter and Facebook and leaders and political figures try to present their viewpoints in short Tweets and sound bites. The problem is that difficult and complex issues cannot be summarized or debated in Tweets and sound bites. We need the ability to dig into the issues. We need to explore them and understand them at their core. When was the last time that you explored a difficult debate or argument by selecting two books (or more), one from each opposing perspective to research and understand the issue?
Most people have a shallow understanding of the issues that they are vehemently arguing about. They do not take the time to research all sides and make an informed decision. We have stopped caring about the history and meaning of issues. We have stopped caring about doing the right thing for society. Instead we exist in a me-oriented culture. What I think is right, and everyone else is wrong. This is incredibly harmful for society.
TIME TO ROLL UP OUR SLEEVES AND GET BACK TO WORK
We have spent far too long as a society entrenched in our views and not listening to the views of others. I experienced this as a professor, I experienced this working for state government. This has become our daily experience. We are not open to views and experiences that don’t fit our frame and experience anymore. Those in urban areas think they understand the lives of those who live in rural regions. Those who live in financial comfort and safety think they understand the challenges of those who are struggling. Whites think they understand the lives of Blacks and vice versa. The truth is we only understand the world through the lens of our intersections of experience.
The only path out of this is to do the difficult work of empathy. Try to put yourself in the shoes of another person. Expose yourself to the views of others. Read about their experiences without judgment. Read books that present opposing viewpoints. Try to understand where those who have different views are coming from. Try to develop empathy for those who come from a different background or perspective.
Then, be open to discussion. Ask others to explain their views. Give them a chance to explain and listen — truly listen. Don’t sit there preparing your counter-argument. Listen to them and hear what they are saying. Let it sink in. Consider their arguments. Try to understand why they believe what they believe.
When you do respond, do so from an informed place. Many times when we resort to name calling and hatred, it is because we are not fully informed on the basis for our own perspectives. Take time to understand why you believe what you believe. Research the issues. Understand the reasons behind a position. See if it still fits with what you believe, your morals, and your values.
RETURN TO CIVILITY AND DEBATE
We need to return to civility and debate. Shame on our leaders in modern society for abandoning civil discourse. They refuse to even engage in the discussion. They refuse to roll up their sleeves and do what is right for the people they govern. They refuse to take action while preferring to call each other names and paint each other as the bad person. What happened to the days where we debated and negotiated the issues. We used compromise to prevent extremes from ruling our society. We found a way to work together to develop solutions rather than constantly focusing on how wrong our opponents were.
The place to start is with you and with me. Read things from opposing viewpoints, even when it makes your uncomfortable. Be open to opposing arguments. Learn all sides of the debate and try to understand the major issues in a more nuanced manner. We are an intelligent species. Use that intelligence. Get off of Twitter and Facebook and read a book. Read the newspaper. Engage in a civil discussion with someone who disagrees with your frame. Become a learning being again. That is the path out of the societal crisis we are living. It is time to work together to understand society rather than fighting and arguing. It is time to stop focusing on “winning” and focus on doing what is right — working together for the good of humankind. It all starts with learning more and trying to understand.