Psychology Today | Pamela B. Paresky, PhD
Partisans on both sides of the aisle significantly overestimate the extent of extremism in the opposing party. The more partisan the thinker, the more distorted the other side appears. And when we see the opposition as extremists, we fear them. Our tribal thinking prepares us for battle.
What's the solution? More information? More political engagement? More education?
Surely more information leads to better judgment. But social scientists at the international initiative More in Common find that having more information from the news media is associated with a less accurate understanding of political opponents. Part of the problem appears to be the political biases within media sources themselves. Of all the various news media examined, only the traditional TV networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS, are associated with a better understanding of political views.
What about more political engagement and education? Here again, we're out of luck. Those who are most accurate in their understanding of each side's political views are the politically disengaged. They are three times more accurate than the most engaged and passionate partisans. Even education is handicapping — at least for those on the left. The accuracy of Republicans’ views of Democrats is not affected by higher education, but liberals with postgraduate degrees are the least accurate about their ideological opponents. They are also the most afflicted with “affective polarization,” hostile feelings toward people of the opposing political party.
This discrepancy may be a result of the lack of political diversity among professors and administrators on campus. As political scientist Sam Abrams found, the average left to right ratio of professors nationwide is 6 to 1 and the ratio of student-facing administrators is 12 to 1. Democrats who have few or no Republican friends see the other side as more extreme than do those with more politically diverse friends, and the more educated Democrats are, the less likely they are to have friends who don't share their political beliefs.
As a result, there aren’t many opportunities on campus for the left to gain a nuanced understanding of their ideological opponents. Nor is there much chance for students to watch professors model cross-partisan friendships or friendly disagreement. And many of those who hold unpopular political views are unwilling to reveal their thinking. Self-censoring and the associated misrepresentation of preferred views (what social scientists call “preference falsification”) both leads to and result from what is known as “pluralistic ignorance.” This is the incorrect assumption on the part of many members of a community that the majority subscribe to an orthodox view.
All of this suggests that the way to close the perception gap is to expose people to a more intellectually diverse group of people and set of views, and turn down the tribalism.
Newspaper op-ed pages can make a difference by hiring — and fiercely protecting — opinion columnists whose views don't square with those of the majority of their readers. Think tanks, which often follow a certain ideological bent, can hire scholars who are willing to amicably challenge the conclusions of their colleagues.
And nowhere is the need for intellectual diversity more urgent than in higher education — the very institutions that were once supposed to protect unpopular thinkers and expose students to uncomfortable ideas. But thanks to the emergence of what is now called “cancel culture,” students, faculty, and visiting speakers are targeted for opposing prevailing campus orthodoxy.
Consider some well-known examples of contrarians and gadflies from the past few years: Ronald Sullivan, the Harvard law professor, whose position as dean of an undergraduate residential college was terminated because students complained that his legal representation of Harvey Weinstein made them “feel unsafe”; Allison Stanger, the political scientist at Middlebury who was physically assaulted by students for her discussion with libertarian scholar Charles Murray; Bret Weinstein, the Evergreen State College biologist who was hounded from his position for opposing a “day of absence” when only people of color were welcome on campus; Lucia Martinez Valdivia, the self-identified mixed-race and queer professor at Reed College accused by students of being a “race traitor,” “anti-black,” and “ableist” because she spoke about questioning feelings of oppression; and Joshua Clover, the UC Davis professor whose manifestly uncivil anti-law-enforcement comments were met not with arguments for the value of civil and productive disagreement and against his preferred ad hominem tactics, but with a rally and petition to have him fired.
What these and similar cases have in common isn’t the political leanings of the ostracized faculty members (though many of them are, to one degree or another, politically liberal). It is the apparent inability of their accusers to accept that other points of view should be entertained and discussed on campus, much less accepted as valid perspectives.
That inability is a function of an ideological monoculture in which any view that runs contrary to the prevailing moral code is seen as making people “unsafe;” that the mere presence on campus of people who hold “problematic” views is “harmful;” that words are violence.
An understanding of the value of sharp yet productive civil disagreement with ideological opponents is largely absent. One recent study even found that 15% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats thought the country would be better off if large numbers of opposing partisans “just died.”
Liberal democracy is built on a philosophy of freedom of expression combined with a set of social norms that allow the articulation of unpopular opinions without fear of retribution. It relies on an ability to acknowledge the humanity of those whose views we don’t like and a commitment to defend their right to speak. Embodying these principles today is too rare and requires too much courage.
So what can you do?
Consume news from sources that don't merely confirm your views. Insist that your preferred news media platforms provide an intellectually diverse slate of writers — and that they fiercely protect them when the mob comes. Ask your university to commit to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's 5 ways university presidents can prove their commitment to free speech. Resist the temptation to join in outrage on social media. And make sure you have friends who don't share your views.
Whether on a college campus or in the wider world, find what C.S. Lewis called “second friends.” A second friend is someone you like and respect who disagrees with you. “He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one,” explained Lewis. “It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it.” Cherish these friends. And listen to them.
We have lost touch with a fundamental premise of a functioning democracy: Our ideological opponents are not our enemies. It is not even a matter of “tolerating” those who disagree. Dissent and disagreement are necessary in order to sharpen our thinking and come to better conclusions. And we need each other in order to do the essential work of creating a more perfect union. The good news is that we have more in common than we think.
But if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll continue hating each other too much to see it.