New president, same old problem

Getting too comfortable, the benefits of discomfort, and 5 links worth your time

Since the inauguration, I’ve read several articles that suggest we can “finally get back to normal now.” 

There are a lot of reasons people may be relieved this week. We can all be relieved that the worst-case scenario didn’t play out at the inauguration. Many are relieved that there’s a change in leadership, while others may not be happy with the change in leadership but they’re still relieved that the entire election season is over.

I’m worried that all this relief is distracting us. Every one of us, whatever our political preferences, had important work to do before the election and it’s work we still need to do, now that the inauguration is over.

Raining on the parade

Donald Trump was a polarizing figure, but he was not the source of all polarization. 2015 seems like a long time ago, but I don’t remember it being a time of widespread agreement. Today, if you’re thinking “we can just move on from here,” I’m about to rain on your parade because “moving on” won’t address the underlying problem.

Our most recent episode of the Civil Squared podcast features Professor Ilana Redstone of the University of Illinois. She teaches a class called “Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes,” and her research focuses on the importance of viewpoint diversity.  We’ve made great progress in this country to encourage diversity, but there’s at least one kind of diversity we’re failing to promote: disagreement about ideas.

Professor Redstone warns us that, “when the set of views that are allowed to be discussed shrinks, when one side’s views become so enshrined that criticizing them becomes morally unacceptable,” we’ll have trouble living with each other and struggle to solve complex problems.

“Bad” people

When we can’t talk about things that make us uncomfortable or that we don’t like, there’s not a lot of hope for change. There was a time when a lot of smart people thought the earth was flat. We weren’t better off because that was the accepted point of view and people who believed it were really, really sure they were right.

If some views can’t be questioned or examined openly, those who hold them may start to feel comfortable judging others harshly. Many, many years ago, it was probably acceptable to say, “Hey, you know those round earthers? They are some bad people.”

When we look at groups of people who share a particular view as “bad” people, we isolate them. Where will they turn to discuss their ideas? People who agree with them. And, eventually, all we’ve got are people talking to each other, telling each other how right they are. Sound familiar?

You can’t do it alone

A peaceful and prosperous society requires a lot of work and a lot of help. It takes creative solutions to complex problems, not just lots of people reinforcing their own opinions. 

Discussing ideas we don’t like is uncomfortable, but the alternative is reinforcing our bubbles and missing out on hearing when we’re wrong. Really confident, wrong people may be comfortable, but they don’t change the world for the better. Our five links this week explore viewpoint diversity and why, regardless of who you voted for, we all need to encourage it.

5 links worth your time

  1. Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes, University of Illinois – Check out Professor Redstone’s video series based on her course. Explore “Building Community Through Viewpoint Diversity, “The Problem of Telling People to Stay in Their Lane,” and other topics. 
  2. We Champion Racial, Gender and Cultural Diversity–Why Not Viewpoint Diversity?  Scientific American – Professor Clay Routledge, a social psychologist, worries that colleges will become “increasingly self-segregated” by ideology and this may encourage students to “hide from ideas or censor speech they don’t like.” The consequences for a free society of such self-segregation would be serious. 
  3. Arguing About Politics Will Help Your Team Do Better Work (But Only If You Do It Right), Inc. – Citing research that shows “there is a hefty cost to having a team that’s made up entirely of people who vote like you,” Jessica Stillman encourages businesses to design teams that reflect viewpoint diversity. There can be big benefits for both employers and employees. 
  4. Splitting: The Psychology Behind Binary Thinking and How It Limits A Diversity of Opinions, Forbes – Our podcast guest this week, Ilana Redstone, interviews psychologist Andrew Hartz about the problem of unconsciously “framing ideas, individuals, or groups in all-or-nothing terms.” In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Hartz described the challenges this presents to productive disagreement.  
  5. How People Like You Fuel Extremism, The Atlantic – Conor Friedersdorf describes a social-science experiment that demonstrates the way social media can cause “group polarization.” The more “groupthink” we engage in, the “more vulnerable to fallacies” we will be. Preserving viewpoint diversity, on the other hand, can help us reach better decisions. 

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