“If I thought the country should be less polarized, and Lord knows I do, I would have to start with being less polarized myself.” — Ken Stern, former CEO of NPR
Shortly after the presidential election, at the annual block party in his neighborhood, Ken Stern saw this sign: “I pledge allegiance to Hobart Street Gay or straight, woman or man, all are welcome on Hobart Street — except for Republicans.” This was his wake up call, his call to action.
Mine came the morning of November 9, 2016 — the day after the presidential election — knowing I needed to do something about the hyper-partisanship in our country. What could I do to bridge the divide? I had no idea.
So I began educating myself.
Up until that point, I’d stayed in what social psychology researcher Brene Brown calls the “ideological bunker” of my party. I’d never questioned the conclusions and positions of the Democrats, feeling like those with similar values to mine had thought about all the issues better than I could myself. I lived in an echo chamber with like-minded people who had no viewpoint diversity. My own Hobart Street.
It dawned on me I would have to find out what the “other side” really had to say and how they had come to their conclusions.
I felt like Alice in Wonderland.
I was very, very disoriented, under the whammy of cognitive dissonance — the psychological discomfort that arises from encountering two opposing beliefs — the friction of even just considering others’ points of view.
I learned to recognize when I was under the influence of confirmation bias, “the tendency to search for, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs.” Likewise with discomfirmation bias, invalidating any information which collided with my cherished beliefs. I saw I’d been operating under “contempt prior to investigation,” rejecting ideas without even learning about them. I became aware that I had blind spots.
I realized I’d been taking strong moral stands often on incomplete, inaccurate or outdated information. This is especially prevalent today with unreliable news streams, which happens on both sides of the divide.
I suspended my conviction of “I’m right, you’re wrong.” I felt wobbly in my uncertainty, with the shame of not knowing, realizing that I and “my tribe” might not be right about everything.
And then I began to appreciate my disorientation for what it was: the road to Beginner’s Mind, “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject.” I was starting to see a bigger picture.
There’s a parable about six blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. One took the trunk, one took the tail, and so forth. They defined the animal only by the small and partial element that they had grabbed hold of. We’re like the blind men, only getting one limited aspect of the whole picture. Viewpoint diversity gets the whole elephant.
After seeing the Hobart Street sign, Ken Stern concluded: “as much as my neighbors speak to the values of diversity and tolerance, they have no real interest in viewpoint diversity.” And, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, “viewpoint diversity is the only reliable way to get around confirmation bias.” And engaging with viewpoint diversity is how we begin resolving and reversing polarization.
As I was working on this article, a friend sent a link to a speech made recently by Barack Obama. He said: “Democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, maybe they’ll change ours.”
What I’ve found out is: changing minds is a two-way street. And if I’m not changing my mind regularly, it means that I’m not thinking.
Marla Estes and Rob Schlapfer will presenting a free talk: “How Do We Get Beyond Left & Right?” from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug.11 in the Medford library. For more info email firstname.lastname@example.org