Much of contemporary politics seems to be defined along static and unquestioned ideological cleavages. And while I’m far from convinced that most voters in either party fully conform to their side’s orthodoxy, much of the partisan media apparatus goes out of its way to inflame polarization and encourage overly simplistic ideological showdowns. The real tragedy is that people continue to uncritically imbibe the obvious demagoguery of their preferred cable networks and radio shows without ever appreciating how utterly insipid this so-called analysis is. To be clear, journalism is still very much alive and well, and it continues to play a crucial role in informing debate and holding individuals accountable. The problem emerges when overpaid pundits attempt to interpret news items through an unreflective and hyper-partisan lens. Honestly, once you truly listen to the sophomoric “analysis” these talking heads provide, it becomes patently obvious that you could replicate the whole experience at no cost by simply talking politics with a barely informed friend. That’s pathetic.
Of course, I’m far from the first person to note that most of the punditry add essentially zero value to discussions of policy and politics. Many have noted how partisan echo chambers – both via the news you watch/read and the social media friends you keep – can lead to the proliferation of “fake news” and increased partisanship among voters. Their proposed solutions, however, are less than inspired. Indeed, the only recommendation I seem to consistently hear is to draw news from a diverse range of sources. This is not bad advice per se, but it is insufficient. Beyond being incredibly vague (How many news sources should I read/listen to? How do I ensure they are sufficiently diverse?), this advice also risks artificially inflating the value of fringe sites, potentially undermining efforts at cross-party understanding. For example, consider what would happen if a liberal voter started reading Breitbart regularly. Instead of obtaining a greater respect for the potential value of certain conservative perspectives, this voter would just become enraged at the extremist views of the website. Would this lead to the building of any bridges? Certainly not! It would simply provide the liberal voter “concrete evidence” that all Republicans hold crazy, offensive views. After all, they now have the articles to prove it!
But there is a deeper problem, and that is that simply reading another point of view is insufficient if you truly want to understand where your opponents are coming from intellectually. In many ways, this whole exercise reminds me of how I (unsuccessfully) studied for high school math classes. I would read the example problems in the book and understand how the author arrived at the answer. However, despite “knowing” how to solve the problem, I seemed to consistently forget the correct approach when actually taking the test. It’s one thing to follow someone’s argument, it’s another thing entirely to comprehend their position so well that you can apply their intellectual framework to a range of new scenarios and thought experiments.
If you are a Republican voter, you certainly don’t need to write a dissertation on the Democratic Party’s position on abortion in order to substantively engage with their arguments. However, you should have a nuanced enough understanding to predict their likely responses to your arguments. Otherwise, you risk trivializing potentially valid points with strawman arguments and ad hominem attacks. If we are truly going to respect one another, we have to learn to respect each others’ intellectual positions, even if we disagree with them on a substantive level. Too often I see members of both parties dismiss powerful arguments from their opponents with trite lines and self-assured, though completely vapid, retorts. This does not contribute anything to the democratic process and ends up breeding resentment, not thoughtful solutions.
One particularly useful exercise to better understand your intellectual opponent is to argue both sides of an issue as vigorously and thoughtfully as possible. This is a time-consuming endeavor, but I have found it to be extremely helpful in revealing second-order considerations I would otherwise have never contemplated. It also forces respect for those on the opposite side of the debate by requiring that you understand, and perhaps even empathize with, their starting points and value judgments. You may not change your mind, but you will have a better understanding of your opponents views, and, by extension, your own. After all, the more you understand the other side’s arguments, the more nuanced and rigorous your position must become to counter them.
The wide diversity of views on this planet ensure that we will never resolve all disagreements. As far as I can tell, this is probably a good thing. However, we will continue to underutilize the unique potential of argumentation if we keep recycling stale talking points and over-used one-liners instead of meaningfully engaging with those who disagree with us. These debating styles are simply not productive, and they show a lack of respect for the often complex and well-reasoned positions of those on the other side. Many people compare debates with free-market competition: Every idea is welcomed, but only the most persuasive and useful win out. This may be true in the very long term, but I think this analogy misses something important: two people debating are not the same as two companies competing. Firms can’t simply ignore their competitors’ success and their product’s failure. People, however, can and do misrepresent and dismiss powerful arguments from the other side. Until we learn to empathize with those arguing against us, we will not make any progress in finding effective compromises and answering the important but complicated questions of our time. It is not necessary to agree with everything posited by your political opponents, but it is important to realize that their views are likely not completely without merit.