Breaking Out of the Bubble: Fixing American Politics

Civil American, Volume 1, Article 2 (November 11, 2016), https://goo.gl/sCV8ST.

| By Shane Courtland |

The turn-out for an event that Dr. Courtland organized at the University of Minnesota Duluth.For approximately 5 years, I was the director of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy (CEPP) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. As the director, I was charged with producing and executing various campus wide events.  My specialty, was the panel discussion.  This would bring multiple experts to the table to discuss a particular topic of local, regional or national interest.   What was distinctive about my version of the panel discussion was that I was obsessed with providing a balanced panel.  I always tried to ensure that, when we covered an issue, we had competent individuals arguing on each side. This might seem like an obvious strategy – but it wasn’t. Often when panels were held, prior to my tenure, all of the panelists would be arguing on the same side.  As an example, the previous CEPP director held a panel on “Sex Trafficking in Minnesota” – which, as you probably can tell, is a hard topic to find people on both sides of. Such univocal panels often seemed more like rallies than discussions.

Photo of a large, colorful soap bubble. Creative Commons license, Pixbay.

I wish I could say that my obsession with providing balanced panels was based upon a noble motivation. To be honest, however, it was strictly Machiavellian. When I took over the CEPP (in 2011) it was dying. Nobody was coming to its events and its meager funding was about to be cut. I had to do something to change its downward trajectory.

A panel that Dr. Courtland organized.So I decided to provide a good that was relatively absent in my local market. I would create panel discussions that would be marketed like prize fights. In order to have a successful prize fight, you need accomplished fighters on both sides. Moreover, the fight needs to be fair and to be a contest that truly shows their skills.  If my fights were unfair (biased toward a perspective), I would cease to get fighters for my next fight (my reputation as fair and balanced was key). Also, if the contest didn’t test their skills (e.g., they were just talking heads that failed to engage the other talking heads), no one would show up! People get those faux panels on TV all of the time.

The crowd in attendance at one of Dr. Courtland's organized panels.Long story short, this strategy was successful beyond expectations. Hundreds of people were showing up to our events and we were frequently featured on a plethora of news sources (TV, radio and print).

So, why am I telling you this? Simple. These panels had an unintended effect – they changed me. We covered a remarkable number of contentious issues: gay marriage, voter ID laws, economic inequality, nickel-copper mining, medical marijuana, legalizing wolf hunting, Minnesota blue laws, Kill or No-Kill shelters, physician assisted suicide, and so on.   In these events, I came loaded (like any other human) with a favored position. There was always a position that I wanted to, and predicted would, “win.”

But, here is what happened – after each event, I would always be impressed (yes, every time) by the proponents of the other side. They were not the “straw men” that many expected them to be. They had well-articulated defenses to many (if not all) of the arguments against their view.  I admit, I rarely changed my mind on these issues… but I always left the panel feeling less sure of my view.  These panels provided me with a heavy dose of epistemic humility. Moreover, students and other faculty expressed that they, too, had the same experience.

So, why is this relevant to our current political situation?  Have you ever noticed that those who seem to dislike or despise another group rarely spend time honestly engaging with that group? And, when people start to soften such antipathy, it is often in part because they started to spend quality time getting to know those with whom they formerly disagreed.

Bubble.In America, we love our bubbles. We want to be around like-minded people and love to be inundated with stories that affirm our deeply cherished views.  Facebook’s design encourages this.  Contemporary news media have been structured to foster this (MSNBC, FOX, etc.). Our comedy has preyed upon this. And, we exacerbate this in limiting whom we are friends with.

There is, however, a very high cost to such isolation. By carefully constructing a bubble (of Truman show proportions) we create a tribalism that only encourages the demonizing of those who disagree with us. If we then find out that some hold a view we do not share, we attribute their view either to some moral failing (they are evil) or to ignorance (they are uneducated).

Notice, that these bubbles, much like war propaganda, allow you to dehumanize those who disagree with you.  Insularity promotes extremism. We cease to compromise, because, after all, why would you compromise with the evil and the ignorant?

So, how do we fix it? Two things:

1) GET OUT OF YOUR BUBBLE. It is hard to demonize someone if you spend quality time with them. Engage them in fair discussion. Encourage intellectual diversity. Resist “unfriending” those who disagree with you.

The late John Rawls.2) FOSTER HUMILITY BY RECOGNIZING THE BURDENS OF JUDGMENT. In his famous work, Political Liberalism, John Rawls lists a number of reasons why we should expect reasonable disagreement regarding our moral and political views. He calls them “burdens of judgment,” including the following:

a. The evidence – empirical and scientific – bearing on the case is conflicting and complex, and thus hard to assess and evaluate.

b. Even where we agree fully about the kinds of considerations that are relevant, we may disagree about their weight, and so arrive at different judgments.

c. To some extent all our concepts, and not only moral and political concepts, are vague and subject to hard cases; and this indeterminacy means that we must rely on judgment and interpretation (and on judgments about interpretation) within some range (not sharply specifiable) where reasonable persons may differ.

d. To some extent (how great we cannot tell) the way we assess evidence and weigh moral and political values is shaped by our total experience, our whole course of life up to now; and our total experiences must always differ….Often there are different kinds of normative considerations of different force on both sides of an issue and it is difficult to make an overall assessment.

e. [A]ny system of social institutions is limited in the values it can admit so that some selection must be made from the full range of moral and political values that might be realized. This is because any system of institutions has, as it were, a limited social space. In being forced to select among cherished values, or when we hold to several and must restrict each in view of the requirements of the others, we face great difficulties in setting priorities and making adjustments. Many hard decisions may seem to have no clear answer (*Rawls, 56-7).

According to Rawls, the import of the burdens of judgment is that “many of our most important judgments are made under conditions where it is not to be expected that conscientious persons with full powers of reason, even after free discussion, will arrive at the same conclusion” (*Rawls, 58.) In short, if you think that your view is obvious and that any disagreement is beyond the pale of civil acceptability, then chances are that you have not respected the burdens of judgment.

Crowd at another of Dr. Courtland's events.My days as the director of the CEPP have changed me. Moreover, this change didn’t necessarily occur because I altered or abandoned my cherished views. What mattered was that my attitudes towards disagreement and towards those with whom I disagreed changed.  I began to realize that there are a plethora of reasonable views and an even greater number of well-meaning and smart people to talk to and to get to know. Sure, I still disagree with them. However, I view them now as partners in this American experiment, not as opponents to be conquered.  I don’t fear or dread exchanges with them. I welcome life outside the bubble.

Photo of Dr. Shane Courtland.Dr. Shane Courtland is Program Director of the Center for Free Enterprise at West Virginia University and is SOPHIA’s Communications Officer. He is representing only his own point of view in this essay. For more information about Dr. Courtland, visit his profile page in SOPHIA’s Directory.

*Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press, 1996.

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