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You Can’t Say Something Nice. Now What?

The 2016 election season challenged the limits of civil discourse. How can we come together when we so passionately disagree?

If there was one thing that everybody could agree on about last year’s presidential campaign, it was this: we’d all be glad when it was over. Endless political talk had divided families and decimated Facebook friend lists. Surely, many assumed, we’d begin to heal on Nov. 9.

And yet months into a new administration, political passions remain high. Some on the right sneer at liberal “snowflakes,” while others on the left mock the president’s every move. In some cases, political disagreements have turned violent — even deadly.

Pundits may decry the state of political civility and constructive dialogue in the country today. But the truth is that pursuing these goals has never been easy. To get a broader perspective on the moment we’re in, we talked to three Weinberg College professors about the lessons they’ve drawn from their own disciplines about political debate, civil dialogue and developing empathy for those with whom you disagree. They share why — and how — to apply these ideas in our own lives.

1) The habits of mind that separate us can also bring us back together.
In an era when nearly every controversial news story gets slapped by someone with the “fake news” moniker — regardless of its accuracy — there was one article that particularly stood out to Gary Alan Fine, the James E. Johnson Professor of Sociology.

Shortly after the inauguration, he recalls, a journalist for Time magazine reported that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. For those already worried about a Trump presidency, it felt like an ominous start.

The problem with the story was that the bust hadn’t been removed — it just happened to be out of the line of sight of the reporter. “Why did he make that error?” muses Fine. “While it was unintentional, maybe it seemed to make sense. Trump didn’t seem like he was pro-civil rights, and therefore he would remove the bust. It seemed plausible,” he says.

The larger lesson is not that the story turned out to be inaccurate — even the best reporters make mistakes — but that it so quickly grabbed hold of much of the public’s imagination before it was corrected. While we all know that there are some stories that are too good to be true, Fine points out that the opposite is also true: sometimes “there are stories that are simply too good to be false.”

In other words: we want to believe what we want to believe. Sussing out the truth is hard, even for professionals. We can fall prey to stories that simply seem like they’re true. Adding to the challenge is the fact that there are mountains of information available to support nearly any case or political viewpoint we want to build. That makes it easy to spend all our time marinating in a media environment that confirms our point of view.

True engagement with other people and ideas requires us all to spend time examining the flaws that we bring to our own thinking. “There are things that make so much sense to us that it’s hard to look at them and say, ‘Where did I get that information?’” says Fine. “Too often, when things make sense according to our worldview, we lower our standards for our belief.”

In general, says Fine, there is much to appreciate about today’s vibrant and vigorous political debate. The history of the United States shows that we are not strangers to deep political disagreement. But in today’s divided climate, civil discourse demands not only that we hold high expectations of others, but also of ourselves. 

Fine hopes that we all examine our own biases a little more closely as we engage with those whose views we don’t share. “We should question easy claims,” he says. “Given the uncertainty of so much information, we must make sure that we are taking extra steps to verify the claims that we would most naturally support.”

2) Literature gives us the tools to see one another more clearly.
If you have the capacity to get caught up in a great book, you’re exactly what democracy needs right now.

While a dog-eared novel might not seem to have much sway in today’s climate, literature and politics are more relevant to each other than you might think, says Gary Saul Morson, the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities.

Take Anna Karenina. If you have ever found yourself swept up in that particular tale, it’s probably not because you’ve actually been a Russian socialite in a complicated love triangle — it’s because you’re able to relate to the thoughts and emotions of someone who is unlike you.

“Great literature allows us to see the world from different points of view,” says Morson. “It lets us identify with someone of a different gender, social class or culture. Great literature broadens our horizons.”

Even if your reading tastes tend more toward Twilight than Tolstoy, novels can teach us to accept the existence of ambiguity and the validity of opinions we don’t entirely share. Most of all, they can teach us empathy.

What concerns Morson most about the political environment he sees today is how little evidence he sees of that trait. Even on college campuses, he says, he worries about what he perceives to be an ever-narrowing list of acceptable-to-voice opinions. “I think what we’re seeing today is not just a failure of empathy, but a refusal of empathy.” But much like the country’s messy but extraordinary democratic experiment, universities are designed to thrive on diverse and sometimes controversial ideas that get discussed, debated and tested in labs and in real life.

And that’s why literature can play such an important role in this process. A willingness to consider ideas and perspectives that are different from our own can take root while reading a great book. Literature, Morson says, offers us a way to “escape our little island in time, culture and space.”

But these adventures in empathy must not end there. They must be a jumping-off point for the empathy and respect we can feel for anyone who expresses a view of the world that doesn’t coincide with our own.

“When you can see how an intelligent, decent person might have a specific view of the world given their experience, that is when you have the possibility of democracy and civil forums,” he says. “We must be able to see from others’ points of view.”

3) Identifying assertions we can agree on will encourage meaningful debate.
If you listened to the most extreme political partisans last year, you could be forgiven for thinking they lived on entirely different planes of reality.

Was Trump a dangerous demagogue — or was he the only person who could fix a politically broken country? Did Hillary Clinton belong in jail — or was she the most qualified person ever to run for president? Politics has long encouraged people to champion their “team” while demonizing their rivals. But last year there seemed to be less common ground than ever before.

That’s a problem, says Laurie Zoloth, a Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence. “You have to agree that you’re living in the same universe with the same reality parameters before you can have a serious dis­cussion about how to act in the face of these facts,” says Zoloth, a bioethicist and professor of religious studies. 

This divide, Zoloth argues, is partly due to the declining number of institutions viewed as credible across the political spectrum. Science, universities and journalism, for example, were all once widely trusted. Today, they face increasing politically driven skepticism.

There may be grounds for this mistrust. Advances such as polio vaccines and antibiotics generated enormous goodwill for science in the 1950s, Zoloth notes. But there have also been missteps in the years since then: the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011; birth defects caused by the drug thalidomide; technologies that have failed to live up to their hype. Perhaps it’s not surprising that some view science-based issues such as immunizations and climate change with a more skeptical (and political) eye. 

But even in a world that appears to have fewer undisputed foundations of truth, we can still look for the premise we can all agree on. For example, not everyone will concur on the cause of climate change, but most are willing to acknowledge its existence. That matters.

“If we can agree that the climate has changed, then we can have a real discussion — even if we disagree about what caused it and what we ought to do,” Zoloth says.

Digging for the assertion that people can agree on will help make our disagreements clearer and more productive. Civil dialogue, says Zoloth, is not necessarily about trying to build bridges or connections.

“We don’t need to be afraid of disagreement, even about critically important things,” she says. “The better goal is for all of us to develop clear, articulate arguments, and to find the best argument to shape our policies.”

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