By Ty McLaren, DCI Fellow
As a cohort of Deliberative Citizenship Initiative fellows, we recently began reading Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement in an Age of Unreason by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, a pair of philosophers from Vanderbilt who focus on argumentation theory and democracy, respectively. Despite growing up in the age of hyper-individualism, the two authors suggest that we still derive much of what we believe from others. With each individual pursuing their own ideal truthful and good lives, it certainly comes as a surprise that we depend a great deal on others even though we so desperately do it alone. Look no further than teachers, relatives, celebrities, experts of your respective field or job, and your peers to see that this is true. Simply put, our individual reality and understanding of that reality is heavily dependent on others and their ability to provide us reliable, accurate, sincere, and honest information. It is our duty to do the same for others.
Within the context of our nation’s current political and social narrative, this fact of human existence is terrifying–largely due to its damage from hyper-polarization and contempt. Deriving one’s understanding and perspective of the world seems like a good thing, particularly when individuals are exposed to all that the world has to offer. But when individuals isolate themselves, retreating back to partisan echo-chambers, biased news cycles, and peers with whom they only agree with, one misses out on the majority of information that the human experience has to offer. What is worse is that once this polarization and isolation sets in, our sense of reality becomes extremely manipulated. Due to confirmation and self-serving biases, we become convinced that “all opponents of our beliefs are silly, stupid, ignorant, unreliable, and evil.” Meanwhile, while we maintain close contact with those we passionately agree with, our understanding of the truth shifts further to the extreme in what is known in psychology as group polarization. As Aikin and Talissse put it, such “group polarization is caused by group dynamics, not reasons.”
Despite our shared pursuit of truth and virtue, who we choose to associate with has consequences, and continuing to subject yourselves to isolation, running from those we disagree with, and demonizing those we disagree with severs our connection with others and with our common goals as humans, perhaps never to be healed again as the rift continues to separate like tectonic plates. It seems as if our belief systems and our “truths” are beginning to seem completely incompatible.
This is why our work at the DCI is so important. Our D Teams and Deliberative Forums provide opportunities for individuals to break the current cycle of polarization and willingly engage with others with varying opinions on key issues. Just as many Americans have made the active decision to tune out, our work at the DCI is to encourage our community members to make the active decision to tune back in. Thus far, I have been thoroughly impressed by the vast array of perspectives and viewpoints I have been exposed to by our participants and by the enthusiasm I have observed. Although we focus on a small portion of the national reality, our grassroots approach seems like the most practical way to begin countering hyper-polarization by simply encouraging the best humans have to offer — our shared thirst for knowledge and the pursuit of truth.