Column: Real courage is challenging your own views
I think I’m safe in saying that the 2016 presidential campaign was pretty tough to endure, no matter which candidate you supported. Part of what made it so upsetting was the growing sense that our country is irrevocably divided – that we can no longer talk with each other, because we have come to believe in different versions of reality.
Social media has a lot to do with this. I say this with every awareness that lots of people love social media and find a sense of connection in it. (Heck, I’m one of those people. Or I used to be, anyway. More on that later.)
Of course, I realize that social media networks are ultimately just a set of tools and that the larger issue is how we, as individuals, choose to use those tools.
But one thing I realized during the long election season was that I was using social media in a very particular, and frankly unhealthy, way: as an echo chamber.
My Facebook page and Twitter feed became places I would go to express my political opinions and have them echoed back to me. There were plenty of links to follow, but these led to yet more pieces that echoed beliefs I already held. I wasn’t building social bridges so much as constructing an ideological and informational silo around myself.
And I know this because every now and again, people would express dissenting opinions and my immediate impulse wasn’t to engage them in a dialogue but to banish them from my little electronic kingdom.
It wasn’t until the election was over that I began to see the rut I had fallen into. So I began to think about the best way to break out of my bubble. For anyone troubled by these patterns, the first and most basic suggestion is to expose yourself to opinions that challenge your own. By this, I don’t mean that you should court trolls whose obvious intent is to bait you with invective or propaganda.
I mean that you should seek out those sources – articles, forums, books, real live people – who are capable of presenting reasoned, fact-based arguments for positions you don’t hold. It’s simply ridiculous (and insulting) to suppose that every person who disagrees with you is an idiot with no moral compass.
Is this process easy? No. It’s completely counterintuitive and intellectually inconvenient. That’s what makes it so valuable.
After all, there’s a kind of cowardice to blind loyalty, or what sociologists call “epistemic closure.” Real courage resides in the willingness to challenge your own views, to seek out and accommodate new information and perspectives. Otherwise, you don’t have a belief system. You have a dogma.
The second rule is to strive for understanding rather than victory. We have to stop regarding those who hold opposing views as enemies to be vanquished. Instead, we need to regard them as compatriots whose experiences have led them to a different set of conclusions.
What this requires, more than anything, is the willingness to quiet our own rhetoric, ask questions, and listen.
By “ask questions” I do not mean those leading questions intended to trap the other person. I don’t even mean questions about where someone acquired their statistics or quotes. I mean questions about how and why the person developed his or her beliefs.
The goal should be to understand where someone is coming from. You don’t have to agree with their views, but you should at least have some sense of how they got there.
This is part of what makes the “arguments” on social media so toxic. No one is asking about anyone else’s experiences. No one is listening.
As an adjunct to this, I’ve also been trying to seek common ground.
To take a rather prosaic example, the day after the election I went to a swimming pool with my son. We walked past a young father whose little girl had a big bag of potato chips and was happily devouring them. I overheard the dad say, “Don’t eat too many chips, sweetie. We’re going to have dinner soon.”
Having said exactly the same thing to my children perhaps a million times, I couldn’t help but to murmur to the dad, “Good luck with that!”
He laughed ruefully. It was a lovely moment of dad bonding.
A few minutes later, my son came over to me and pointed out that the other dad was wearing a hat that expressed political views with which I disagreed.
It was a horrifying moment, because I could see that my son expected me to disapprove of this man – and that I, as his parent, had played a big role in this reaction.
So what did I do? I told my son not to point and, after a time, I moved my towel next to this guy and struck up a conversation. We didn’t talk politics. We talked about kids and swim lessons and how hard it is get children to stop eating junk food between meals.
The expression on my son’s face was initially one of uncertainty. And I took that to be a good thing. Because getting out of your bubble will require you to court uncertainty.
This, too, can feel counterintuitive. After all, we live in a world that feels increasingly complex and perilous. One way that we’ve reacted to this climate of anxiety has been to construct a worldview that is impervious to doubt. And we’ve used the internet as a powerful tool to gird this worldview.
That is, in and of itself, deeply ironic. The original intent of the World Wide Web was to allow information to flow more freely and let people interact more easily, right? There would be lots of cross-pollination and collaboration. Everyone would hang out together in the same big bubble.
In practice, what the internet did was stream reams of chaotic data and cacophonous opinion right into our palms. This deluge, paradoxically, made us more insular.
I saw a powerful example of this in the college journalism class I teach. One of the first tasks I gave my students was to seek out someone of the opposite political persuasion and conduct an in-depth interview. Of 12 students, only three completed this assignment.
Some claimed that they couldn’t find anyone with opposing views, which was clearly nonsense. Others said they felt it would be a waste of time, because they already knew what the “other side” was going to say.
I had to take a few deep breaths before offering my response, which is that our democracy was founded on the premise that the essence of free speech resides in vigorous and reasoned debate.
But I fear that what my students were really saying was that they didn’t want to talk with someone whose views might throw their own into doubt.
That brings me to my final – and perhaps most annoying – suggestion, which is to cut down on social media use and get offline.
Why? Because sitting at a keyboard and typing words at someone simply isn’t the same as talking to that someone in the flesh. To interact with the world through a screen is to initiate a process of abstraction. You don’t have to reckon with the full measure of someone’s humanity, because they’re just a ghost in a machine.
Of course, there are measures we can take to make our social media networks more inclusive. We can seek contact with those outside our bubble and tinker with our settings. But the truth is that folks who run social media networks have one essential goal: to keep us online for as long as possible. Why? Because their job is to convert our attention into ad revenue.
For this reason, they use filters and algorithms to ensure that our various feeds and search engine results make us feel good. And the surest way to do that is to fill those feeds with posts and tweets and videos and news stories that affirm our worldview and flatter our sensibilities, rather than challenging them. It’s an elaborate, and mostly unrecognized, seduction.
And it’s one that I recently turned away from. Since the election, I’ve drastically cut back on my use of social media.
I used to check my various platforms once or twice a day. I now do so once a week – at most. I still read the news online, but I’ve taken the advice offered by former President Barack Obama in his farewell address: “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”
To be clear: I don’t walk around trying to find political opponents with whom to engage. But I also don’t reflexively retreat from them.
The result isn’t that I’ve changed my political views. But my attitude has shifted. It turns out that life outside the bubble is actually calmer and more reasoned. I spend more time with my kids, more time reading, and more time playing my new ukulele.
I feel less agitated and righteous, less scornful of those who disagree with me. And, maybe more important, less willing to judge them as a group.
That’s not perfect, but it’s progress.
• Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.
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