Talking to the Other Side: When We Learn and When We Learn Less
We are living in an era of considerable polarization. A simple definition of polarization might be something like this: the tendency for attitudes to diverge to extremes. Students of American politics would point to indicators such as voting behavior in Congress to evidence that polarization has gotten worse over the last, say, twenty years. But even outside politics, polarization is generally viewed negatively. We are told that talking to the other side is important because that is when learning happens. Living comfortably in one’s social bubble does not expose one to new ideas, nor does it challenge currently held views. Thus the undoubtedly laudable recommendation that hopes to assuage societal polarization is that people should talk to each other more. They should listen to each other carefully, try to learn, and put themselves in the other people’s shoes. Although I generally agree with this recommendation, I think that when and how we should talk to people with similar or differing opinions very much depends on what it is that we hope to get out of such a conversation.
Let’s begin by the more intuitive option, i. e. situations where interacting with people with very different opinions benefits us (and hopefully them). To see when this might be the case, it is necessary to expand on the simple definition of polarization supplied above. It occurs to me that for an issue to be truly polarizing, it has to be characterized by at least three aspects. First, the relative distance between the differing views has to be considerable. Such distance is, once again, relative, but the people who hold differing views on a polarizing issue usually believe that their interlocutor’s position is not just a benign variation of their own opinion. For example, people who hold the pro-life position (favoring restricting access to abortion) do not think that pro-choice folks (defending the right to have an abortion) are not that far from them. Those that feel strongly about abortion are likely to see the pro-life and pro-choice positions as mutually exclusive.
Second, polarizing issues are usually perceived as zero-sum games. In other words, polarizing issues cannot be solved without one side winning the argument and the other losing. As an example, think of legalizing marijuana. People who think that marijuana is a harmful drug and that it would be immoral to make access to it easier are going to have a hard time reaching a compromise with those who see nothing wrong with medical or recreational use.
The last aspect of polarizing issues that I wish to highlight is that people on opposing sides of an issue are often unwilling to confront and talk to each other or even lack the opportunity to do so on a regular basis. This is partially because people’s positions on polarizing issues are often due to values and beliefs rather than evidence and because individuals who hold the same opinion on a polarizing issue often inhabit the same social spaces, whether virtual or real.
In light of these observations, how could talking to the other side help? In a number of ways. First, the two sides might learn that the distance between their views is indeed relative and that when things are talked about, it tends to shrink. Perhaps people do not agree about the proposed solutions but maybe they agree on a shared goal. For instance, opponents of marijuana legalization might disagree with those in favor of legalization but perhaps both sides are simply concerned about ensuring the welfare of the general society. Second, people might realize that an issue that was perceived as polarizing in fact is not a zero-sum game and that things could be, after all, worked out. Lastly, and I think this aspect is immensely beneficial on the personal level, encountering ideas opposed to our own sharpens our critical thinking and causes us to revisit our own conclusions.
Given the above discussed arguments, when should one want to talk to people who already believe what we believe? I have recently listened to a podcast where David Weinberger from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center listed a few reasons. An interesting observation was made by Weinberger: genuine learning usually happens when we talk to someone who more or less agrees with most of our views. This is because agreement about fundamental assumptions and views allows us to get deeper into the issues, explore nuances, and avoid unnecessary fights that produce little progress.
Discussions with people that differ little in terms of their views on a particular set of topics are the ones that make progress, at least if progress is defined as an incremental extension or modification of an existing idea. That is why graduate students seek as their advisors professors that generally share their views, hoping to extend a field of research bit by bit. We would not expect a team made up of Friedrich Hayek and John M. Keynes (two famous economists with quite different views) to produce great results. Instead, protracted arguments about some of the basic assumptions of economic life would ensue. Clearly, examples such as these can quickly be used to justify why intellectual diversity is not a desirable thing to have (which it almost always is). That is certainly not my point. My point is that no maxim, even that of regularly seeking opposing views, is absolute. I think asking oneself a few questions is crucial: What is our goal? Do we want to carefully advance or do we want to situate our own view within the larger context and understand others? Although as a society we should generally encourage the latter, as individuals, we may often prefer the former.
When we do engage people with completely differing views, perhaps we should interrogate the assumptions first. As long as disagreement over basic assumptions persists, discussions about the conclusions emanating from such assumptions is unlikely to be fruitful. For instance, instead of arguing about whether marijuana should be legalized immediately, we might be better off by asking whether the assumption that legalization will increase consumption is reasonable. Visiting assumption by assumption, we likely have a better chance of progressing.