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Mutual Understanding and Political Disagreement

Two friends share a journey to understand differing political viewpoints.

Key points

  • Our current political moment highlights many radicalizing forces promoting a brand of thought that rejects compromise.
  • Sustained, positive intergroup contact is a deradicalization strategy that while unpopular, is empirically supported.
  • Tara Westover's book "Educated" illustrates how the deradicalization of ideas can potentially occur.
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This blog will host a discussion of political disagreement
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

For the last couple of years, I have been part of a small reading group with a friend and colleague, Peter Leavitt, on political disagreements. Peter and I get together with a few other people from across the political spectrum to read and discuss books and articles from the left and right. One of our goals has been to listen to arguments from a perspective we don’t always consider. A broader goal is to learn to better engage with people we disagree with so that we can work towards more civil political conversations. Peter and I are both social psychologists, and so bring a shared psychological perspective to the topic of civil discourse. We also have diverging perspectives due to our life histories.

Alex: I grew up as a “social justice” Catholic in the Washington, DC, area. I was informed by Christian teachings that emphasized caring and the parts of the Gospel where Jesus exhorts his followers to help those who don’t have enough, without caring what they get from it. It also meant most of the people around me were liberal, and the “baseline position” among people I knew was center-left. In the last decade, I’ve lived in very different places: Phoenix, AZ; Tucson, AZ; Norman, OK; and Baltimore, MD. This “burst the bubble” of homogenous political thought I grew up in and made me reconsider some of what I grew up believing.

Peter: I grew up in a devout Mormon family in rural Western Canada. My family took religion very seriously, politics a little less so, but I understood that we were a politically conservative family (by Canadian standards, at least). My religious and national identities defined me for quite some time but in my young adulthood, I had a series of experiences—including serving a Mormon mission, going to college, having a family member come out, having a faith crisis, and moving to the US, among other experiences—that caused me to do some serious rethinking and redefining of myself and my worldview. As a result, I find myself fascinated with trying to understand how and why people’s worldviews and identities change (or remain unchanged) in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.

Alex: In the next few weeks, Peter and I are planning to write up some of the ideas we’ve been discussing regarding political conversations in the U.S. We’ll do this against the backdrop of the latest book we’re reading: Tara Westover’s Educated. The book is Westover’s memoir of her life growing up in Idaho in a family that opposed public education and held fundamentalist religious beliefs. She grew up working in her family’s junkyard and with her mother, who is an herbalist. Eventually, she rejected many of her family’s core beliefs and completed an undergraduate and postgraduate degree, and now works at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

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We're going on a journey. And building bridges. It will be a bridge journey.
Source: Photo by Max Garaev from Pexels

This is my second time reading the book, and I’m particularly excited to do so with our group because I see it as a firsthand account of deradicalization. Many of the perspectives Westover grew up with are extreme (in comparison to U.S. culture broadly), and her family expresses a lot of anger and disparagement of outsiders who hold more moderate positions. Our current political moment is full of radicalizing forces: pundits who use social media and other open modes of communication (like podcasts and vlogs) to disparage traditional institutions, reject outside sources of expertise, and promote a brand of thought that rejects compromise—and non-adherents—as fundamentally bad. It sometimes feels like, once people have been sufficiently steeped in these ideas, it’s difficult for anyone who disagrees to even have a conversation with them—much less to convince them to reconsider some of their ideas. Westover’s story is extraordinary, but it may offer some insight into the way deradicalization feels and can potentially occur.

Peter: This is my second time reading the book, as well. When the book first came out, it came to my attention via the praise it received among post-faith-crisis Mormons like myself. I immediately signed up to facilitate a book group discussion about it at my college. I was captivated by the book and saw many parallels to my own upbringing and faith journey (although my experiences were much less dramatic than Westover’s) and I was eager to discuss it with my colleagues. When that book group met to discuss the reading, I was initially surprised by how few people brought up the Mormon themes because they were so obvious to me—Westover may begin the book with the disclaimer that it is not a book about Mormonism, but it was impossible for me to read it in any other way. That first book group helped remind me how easy it is to over-rely on a single perspective or framework for making sense of the lives of others. I hope that re-reading it with a new group will serve the same function once again, for me and for the others in the group.

 Photo by Jakson Martins from Pexels
Tara Westover writes that "Educated" is not about Mormonism, but Mormon themes are apparent to many who grew up in the faith.
Source: Photo by Jakson Martins from Pexels

One thing I’m very eager to discuss with Alex is the view of this story as a tale of deradicalization. Because of the parallels with my own story, it feels strange to think of Westover as being, at one point, “radicalized,” even though her story is clearly exceptional in the degree to which she and her family held extreme and unusual views. I often feel that what we consider “radical” in others is largely a result of unfamiliarity with or aversion to their views or lifestyles rather than any objective standards of radicalization or extremism. And I worry that calling people radicalized often creates an illusion of heightened dissimilarity and impedes our ability to effectively engage with others.

For me, Educated is, ultimately, a story about the dangers of ideological and cultural isolation (phenomena which I think contribute to a lot of our present-day conflict) and the value of creating opportunities for meaningful, positive, iterated intergroup contact. Sustained, positive intergroup contact is an empirically supported, but nowadays often unpopular, prejudice reduction and deradicalization strategy. But I also acknowledge that my personal connection to the themes of the book and my desire to view my own faith journey in a positive light means that there are likely things I’m not considering or seeing clearly. I’m eager to have my perspective broadened through more discussion about the book.

The next several weeks will involve a slightly different type of writing from what I’ve typically published, but hopefully, the journey will be interesting to you all. Thanks for joining us on it so far.

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