Sunday, April 15, 2018

Talking Past and Talking With

It’s widely acknowledged that many Americans live in an echo chamber in which we’re fed only information that corroborates beliefs we already hold, as result of either social media algorithms designed to generate clicks or our own viewing, reading, and listening choices. In public debate, individuals on opposing sides of a given issue consistently talk past each other and straw man their opponents’ views with the goal not of problem-solving or of compromise, but of rallying those who already agree with them.

In this era, the value of seeking out unbiased media and reading sane opinions on both sides of important issues is obvious. (PolitiFact has an excellent bias-checking tool here, for those who want to assess their current media sources and/or seek out less biased ones.) But I would also argue that having one-on-one conversations with real people who disagree with you on specific issues is even more valuable.

I witnessed an example of this on a recent episode of Sam Harris’s podcast Waking Up. In this episode, Harris had a two-hour conversation—an argument, really—with Vox Editor-at-Large Ezra Klein regarding Harris’s May 2017 interview with Charles Murray. Murray is infamous for his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which examined the genetic basis of IQ and included data which suggested that IQ differences among racial groups were at least partly biological. Nearly twenty-five years later, Murray is still protested when he engages in public speaking—sometimes violently—as in March 2017, when protestors at Middlebury College attacked Murray and injured his debate opponent severely enough to require hospitalization. In keeping with his absolutist attitude toward free speech, Harris invited Murray on his podcast to discuss his research and allow listeners to judge it for themselves.

After Harris’s interview with Murray aired on Harris’s podcast, Vox published a response that called Murray’s research “junk science” and attacked Harris for “endorsing” his views. This launched a year-long back-and-forth between Harris and Vox in which Harris criticized the Vox response in later episodes of his podcast, Vox published more critiques of both Harris and Murray, and Harris continued to accuse Vox of “intellectual dishonesty.” The feud migrated to Twitter and also spawned a private email exchange between Harris and Ezra Klein, which Harris eventually publicized on his blog.

At last Harris and Klein agreed to do a podcast together to discuss the issues at hand and to broadcast their conversation unedited. Their discussion is long and at times frustrating, and they never reach anything that could be called a resolution. But significantly, both speakers remain civil throughout the conversation.

Despite disagreeing on nearly every point that is brought up (including what topics are even worth discussing), neither speaker raises his voice or engages in ad hominem attacks. Neither speaker purposely misrepresents the other’s arguments; rather, both repeatedly say things like, “If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that….” Although neither actually convinces the other of anything, and you get the impression that they still don’t particularly like each other, they’ve managed to transmute a public feud into a civil, open, and honest dialogue in which they’re genuinely seeking to understand each other—something which so many of our politicians, policymakers, and we ourselves are unable to accomplish.

The value of this practice can’t be overstated. Most people who have thought seriously about an issue have good reasons for their beliefs about it. Yet our tendency to vilify our ideological opponents—to accuse them of ignorance, selfishness, corruption, or bias without objectively examining their reasoning—enables and encourages ad hominem and straw man attacks that do nothing to address the serious problems that this country currently faces.

It’s easy to fall prey to recency bias and assume that the country is more divided—and discourse less civil—than it has ever been, but the U.S. actually has a long history of mudslinging and even violence in public debate. As PBS reports, dueling over political disputes was widely accepted until after the Civil War; Vice President Aaron Burr famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, and Andrew Jackson had been shot so many times that he supposedly claimed to rattle with bullets when he walked.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, it wasn’t uncommon for members of Congress to pull guns on each other during floor debates and to attack each other with canes, sometimes violently enough to require hospitalization. In 1858, during the debate over whether to admit Kansas to the Union as a free state or a slave state, a “brawl” broke out on the floor of the House of Representatives that involved at least 30 members. The snide comments and pejorative nicknames that are trademarks of today’s administration are quite tame by comparison.

And yet rational, open dialogue between opposing parties seems to be nearly nonexistent in today’s political discourse. Speaking calmly and civilly with a real person who disagrees with you—and who has sane, well-thought-out reasons for doing so—forces you to acknowledge the rationality—indeed, the humanity—of that individual and, by proxy, others who hold their views. It also forces you to present and defend the rationality of your own views, and in so doing, ensure that your views are rationally supported.

I have a very old friend whose background is substantially different from mine. She was raised in a conservative, religious environment and is still a believer who leans right of center. I was raised in a secular, almost hyper-liberal environment, and I still hold most of those views. It’s a wonderful stroke of fortune that we became friends as children, because otherwise our paths probably wouldn’t cross as adults.

My friend is highly intelligent, educated, and compassionate. She cares about people and wants to be a force for good in the world. And we disagree on nearly every political issue that matters today.

Although my friend and I live in different states and don’t see each other often, this friendship has been a valuable leveling force for my opinions. When I’m tempted to share a far-leftist article or meme on social media, I know my rational, conservative friend will see it, and might even fact-check it. If the facts turned out to be wrong, I’d be embarrassed and ashamed to have shared this view, whether my friend called me out on it or not (she probably wouldn’t). This motivates me to do my own fact-checking before sharing something simply because it upholds my previously-held beliefs. When my friend shares a post that I disagree with, I trust her conscientiousness and reason enough to know that it won’t be a Breitbart-style conspiracy theory, and that I might learn something useful by reading it.

I’m grateful to have this friend in my life; her views are a sanity check on my own. If you don’t have such a person in your life, try to find one. If you don’t already engage with media whose biases oppose yours, add a few such sources to your feed. If you haven’t fact-checked your own views lately, now’s a good time to start.

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