What Happened To Moderation, Civility, and Compromise?

The Aspen Institute thinks it's time to reclaim these democratic virtues.

Posted Jul 10, 2017

“In everyday life the exchange of opinion with others checks our partiality and widens our perspective; we are made to see things from the standpoint of others and the limits of our vision are brought home to us.”
––John Rawls

©Pamela Paresky
(L-R) Amy Walter, David Brooks, Michael Gerson, and Peter Wehner discuss the democratic virtues of moderation, civility, and compromise at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival
Source: ©Pamela Paresky

In our divided country, we no longer recognize the value of intellectual humility, moderation, civility, and compromise, and have become more certain of the rightness of our increasingly polarized perspectives. But syndicated columnist Michael Gerson, and Peter Wehner, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, are embarking on a project at the Aspen Institute with David Axelrod, the founder and director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, to reclaim these democratic virtues. As Gerson explained at the Aspen Ideas Festival, "civility is not about niceness, it's about treating people as human beings." Wehner added, "The antithesis of moderation is not conviction, it's intemperance." The problem, Wehner contends, is that it is easier to dehumanize people who hold positions we don't like than it is to fight on the battleground of ideas.

Human beings are social animals hardwired to form groups. But as soon as we identify as a member of a particular group, the world becomes divided into “us” and “them.” We find our moral identity by identifying as part of a group, but we avoid engaging with people who are members of groups we see as “others.” The less we engage with people, the more "other" they seem, and the easier it is to dehumanize them. 

As psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes, morality binds and blinds. It binds us together, making cooperation and decency possible within our group, but it blinds us to any truth available in opposing views by closing our hearts and minds to opponents, and compelling us to seek victory rather than truth. We're reflexively tribal.

In 2008, journalist Bill Bishop published The Big Sort, which tells the story of how the seeds of cultural division, economic separation, and political polarization were planted – all of which are bearing their poisonous fruit today. He found that we tend to move to places where we can always be around people who agree with us, we take jobs where people think like we do, and we befriend people whose thinking is similar to ours.

J. Henning Buchholz/freeimages
Source: J. Henning Buchholz/freeimages

As a result, as a country we are more ideologically divided than in the past, and we suffer from affective polarization. We hold increasingly negative views of ideological opponents. Many of us even believe that the other party is a threat to the nation’s well-being. In 2010, nearly half of Republicans and one-third of Democrats polled reported they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the opposing party.  

When we live, work, and play only with people who think like we do, not only does it increase social distance between us and those who think differently, it serves to make us even more certain of the rightness of our views, more extreme in our viewpoints, and less open-minded about diverse views.

Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam discovered that diversity “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.” 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, not only benefits society, it's good for us.

But it’s hard to be around people who are very different, and regardless of our political views, many of us are neither curious nor interested in what the other side thinks. We're even willing to silence speakers we don't like. We’re subject to what psychologists call "motivated ignorance." (One person perfectly encapsulated this when he wrote to me, “I am not remotely curious about people who have their heads up their a***s…”)

In a clever experiment, researchers tested participants on their knowledge of the other side’s arguments (which was low), and then paid people to read several political arguments. They offered extra money for participants to voluntarily read arguments against their preferred political position. Sixty-one percent of conservatives and sixty-four percent of liberals chose to forgo the extra cash and read only the arguments that supported their own views. In other words, many of us neither know nor want to know what the opposition has to say. Yet, "part of what has to happen in political discourse is that we just have to listen to each other better than we do," Wehner told the Aspen audience. 

photo by Riccardo Savi ©FIRE used with permission
(L-R) At a FIRE event in Aspen, Colorado, Pamela Paresky, Greg Lukianoff, Karith Foster, and Mike Peters discuss free speech, campus censorship, comedy, cartoons, and learning to listen to people with whom we disagree. (FIRE outperforms most charities according to Charity Navigator.)
Source: photo by Riccardo Savi ©FIRE used with permission

Wehner described what author C.S. Lewis said about First and Second Friends. A First Friend is a person who shares your interests and sees the world the way you do. A Second Friend is someone who shares your interests but approaches them from a different angle. "He has read all the right books," wrote Lewis, "but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it."

Greg Lukianoff, President and CEO of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), warns that silencing people only keeps you from knowing what they think. And he agrees with Wehner that having people in your life with whom you disagree "widens the aperture," giving you a broader perspective. Lukianoff told an Aspen audience that educated people should see it as ​a duty to seek out for debate and discussion​ smart people with whom they disagree. As Wehner observed, "that's the whole idea of the wisdom of the collective." ♦

If you are concerned about the state of public discourse in our country, find a "second friend" – someone who disagrees with you on a matter of fundamental importance to you – and ask them about their perspective.

...And then listen.