We Say We Want Free Speech and Civil Dialogue

But how do we learn to listen to the opposition?

Posted Jan 11, 2017

For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.
President Barack Obama
January 10, 2017 

iStock ©Strelss
Source: iStock ©Strelss

In his final address to the nation, President Obama highlighted the need for engaging in dialogue and hearing differing points of view. Referencing the disturbing trend of college students protesting speakers whose views they dislike, the President called it "a recipe for dogmatism." The President pointed to the need for all of us to recognize the psychological confirmation bias that prevents us from seeing any possibility of validity in dissenting perspectives. "Increasingly," he said, "we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there." 

The President also acknowledged that in our diverse country, "none of this is easy." Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam would agree. He discovered something unpleasant about diversity. It “tend[s] to reduce social solidarity and social capital… Trust (even of one's own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.” In simple terms, it’s hard to be around people who are different from us and we generally don’t like it. However, according to Putnam, that’s just in the short term. In the long run, he and other social scientists conclude that overcoming our distrust and desire to be separate, although challenging, is not only good for us, it benefits society.

This may seem obvious when looking at ethnic or racial diversity, but what about diversity of thought? What about diversity of political opinion? What’s the point of interacting with people who hold all the “wrong” views? Why should we engage in dialogue with annoying people whose ideas we find obnoxious or offensive or politically abhorrent? Of course, liberal thinkers are open to hearing other perspectives because they are so tolerant. It’s just the Fox News-watching right-wingers who don’t want to be exposed to other points of view—isn’t it? 

Actually, no. A trio of social psychologists found that people on both sides of the political center are more closed-minded than open about the other side's views. And not only are both liberals and conservatives ignorant of the real perspectives held by those on the other side of the political spectrum (as evidenced by participants’ answers to a quiz), many people find themselves in a condition of "motivated ignorance:" They neither know—nor want to know—what the opposition has to say.

In a clever experiment, the researchers found that given the opportunity to earn more money by reading several arguments against their preferred political position, 61 percent of conservatives and 64 percent of liberals chose to earn less money in order to read only the arguments that supported their own position. Furthermore, participants said that hearing from the other side was not merely unpleasant, they feared that if they read the opposing arguments, it would make them angry. As a result, participants chose to stay in their own “bubble” and forego the extra cash.

But given the wealth of evidence that overcoming the challenge of diversity is worth it, how do we engage in conversations with people who don’t share our views without getting angry? We’ll never be convinced that they are right, and they’ll never be convinced that we are. What’s the point?

 photo by Arista Burwell-Chen (used with permission) Civic Saturday
Civic Saturday
Source: photo by Arista Burwell-Chen (used with permission) Civic Saturday

Eric Liu has an idea. Start a club. Literally. “Make a group. Invite people. Create rules and rituals. Establish goals. Meet regularly. In short: Start a club.” Liu, author of You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide to Making Change Happen, a regular columnist for CNN.com and a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com, is the founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. Through Citizen University, he decided to create a “Civic Saturday” program designed to foster fellowship and common purpose. “Civic Saturday is a periodic gathering we organize that’s a civic analogue to church," says Liu. "It includes song, readings of civic scripture (great and provocative American texts), a sermon, silent reflection. But mainly it’s about fellowship.” In this time of political polarization, “people feel a need to reckon with the meaning of our nation’s creed—and to do so face-to-face with others,” says Liu.

Drawing on the understanding that diverse groups promote innovation, Henry Elkus founded his own civic group called Helena, a private organization that brings together people with viewpoints and experiences that at times conflict or overlap in order to encourage innovative ideas in the service of addressing the world’s problems.

According to Columbia University Leadership and Ethics Professor Katherine W. Phillips, interacting with a diverse group of people leads to “better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think.” She insists, “this is not just wishful thinking: It is the conclusion I draw from decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers.” In fact, she and her colleagues found that when preparing for conversations about disagreements with people who are politically different, we work harder than when we do when preparing to discuss disagreements with those who are politically similar. In other words, bridging divides encourages people to work harder, and produces better results.

artwork created by Pamela Paresky
Source: artwork created by Pamela Paresky

In order to solve any problem, the one sine qua non is dialogue. Helena’s founder and CEO instinctively knows this. At the core of his membership group, he told me, is the belief in dialogue between diverse thinkers. Through Helena, which does not promote the interests of any government, corporation, or political party, nor does it espouse or endorse any political, economic, or religious belief, Elkus and partner Samuel Feinburg convene a diverse group of thinkers in dialogue, fellowship, and common purpose. Together, they have produced a number of philanthropic projects including the recent Helena Prize, which successfully united leading climate scientists and corporations behind an effort to address climate change.

According to Elkus, members “hold very strong, frequently diverging beliefs. But those beliefs are not intractable. Our purpose is to arrive at solutions to big issues collectively, even if it means our own arguments have been proven wrong.” The process of solving problems and implementing solutions, he says, “necessitates forming a community” of people who hold diverse viewpoints and need to work together.

Given Elkus’s personal background and interest in diversity, the primary divide that Helena aims to bridge is generational. Half of its members are under the age of 25–including its 21-year-old founder and CEO, who dropped out of Yale to create the organization, and his COO who dropped out of Yale a few months later to join him. “We have a simple goal,” he says, “to convene leaders and help them address meaningful problems.”

How do these world-class leaders connect and make things happen? In a word: dialogue. “Virtually and in person,” Elkus explains, “members gather in small groups to develop and nurture relationships and support ideas with the power to change the world for the better.”

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

©Helena (used with permission)
Some Helena members: Oscar Winning Producer Brian Grazer, United Nations Activist Alaa Murabit, Four-Star General Stanley McChrystal , Hollywood Actress Chloe Moretz, NPR CEO Jarl John, Scientist Divya Nag, Author Deepak Chopra, North Korean refugee and access Yeonmi Park, Entrepreneur Arjun Mehta, and GE Vice Chairman Beth Comstock
Source: ©Helena (used with permission)