WASHINGTON, July 27, 2016 — The next hundred days until the election will be a grim time on social media and the internet. There will be a lot of un-friending, a lot of emoting, a lot of histrionics about the rights we’re about to lose, the destruction of America and the bad character of the candidates.
Few people get up in the morning intending to belittle their friends or people they don’t know, but when it comes to politics, we often fail to be fair or tolerant in our disagreements. Reasonable conservatives and reasonable liberals should be able to discuss politics without impugning the motives, integrity and intelligence of the other side. But reasonableness is in short supply.
We often believe that our political positions are superior, both from a moral and an intellectual standpoint, to those of our political opposition, but we’re almost always wrong. We rarely get to our conclusions on the basis of cold logic and dispassionate data, and our moral judgments are often self-serving. They support our prior beliefs, not some objective and ideal Truth.
Most of the opinions we express are powerfully driven by emotion and beliefs that we’ve gathered without conscious intent. The facts we use to support them are carefully filtered by confirmation bias, a bias so powerful that we rarely see it, even when we look for it.
In the next hundred days, we’ll all be appalled at the stupidity of people who aren’t compelled by our logic; we’ll be disgusted by people who don’t share our values or reach the same moral conclusions we do. We’ll want to remove ourselves from their presence to be around like-minded, right-minded, decent people who say what we think without challenging what we believe.
That will be a mistake. That’s part of what’s wrong with America.
There will always be people around you who shout at you rather than opening lines of communication or who share the lunatic theories they found on some fringe internet site. They are as immune to logic as they are to hysterical shouting, which they often enjoy provoking, so it’s best to just walk away from them.
But there are others, people who can pull out facts and figures and marshal cogent arguments in a full, frontal assault on notions we hold dear. Those people are genuinely frightening, the ones from whom we want to hide. Don’t do it.
If you are unable to defend your opinions and beliefs from attack, you haven’t done your homework. The fault lies not with the person disagreeing with you, but with you. If you can’t handle the rough-and-tumble give-and-take with people who disagree with you, you have no business sharing your opinions. The remedy isn’t to retire to an online safe-space, but to arm yourself better to defend your ideas and challenge those you don’t agree with.
Liberals and conservatives can have productive, mutually enriching conversations if only they remember the differences among opinion, analysis and fact, and if only they will go into the discussion with enough empathy to listen to the other side with an open mind. They can benefit from challenging ideas if they think critically.
Critical thinking isn’t just about testing and challenging the ideas of others; it’s about testing your own. Critical thinking is an enterprise for humble people—people humble enough to understand that they might be wrong, humble enough to recognize that the other side might be right, and people unafraid and unashamed to admit error.
Error is not a failure of character or intellect; the refusal to admit the possibility of error is a failure of both.
After the hundred days, we’ll wake up in an America with a president-elect who is thoroughly despised by half the country and who is only tolerated by many of the rest. At that point, it will be imperative that conservatives and liberals talk to each other about the future of the country.
If we do not, the hatreds of the last decade will seem mild and quaint.
America is a good and great country, one worth preserving. It does us no good to write it off over an election and to walk away from it as if it were an irredeemable loss. If we walk away from America, where will we walk to? Fixing it will take some work, and it is work we will only undertake if we believe that America—Americans—is worth it.
By all means argue, cajole, try to persuade over the next hundred days, but remember, when it’s all over, most Americans will wake up to a country that they think needs fixing. Don’t burn the bridges that we’ll need if we’re to succeed.