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The problem of political polarization lies largely in how we think

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) leads a vote on the Inflation Reduction Act in the House chamber at the Capitol in Washington on Aug. 12, 2022.

When it comes to heated issues, if you’re uncomfortable talking to people with whom you disagree, you’re not alone. That discomfort is partly the result of the awkwardness associated with difficult intellectual confrontation. It is reflected in a November 2021 survey showing roughly 6 of 10 Republicans and Democrats find talking to each other stressful. 

It’s also partly due to each side’s sense that their opponents are dismissive of their arguments and are judging them unfairly. This is consistent with the results of a subsequent poll that found “growing shares of both Republicans and Democrats say members of the other party are more immoral, dishonest [and] closed-minded than other Americans.” 

We often approach conversations on contentious topics with anxiety about being judged harshly, even while being quick to judge others with a similar scorn. Ultimately, engaging across differences on hot-button topics requires us to be open to the possibility that the person on the other side of the issue is just as reasonable as we are. When this willingness is present, those same harsh judgments are much more difficult to rationalize. 

One frequently proposed solution to this problem involves bringing people from across the political aisle together to talk and get to know one another. The premise of such an effort is straightforward: We can transcend some of our more combative tendencies by humanizing those with whom we disagree. It turns out, however, that this is a difficult solution to bring to scale. Plus, it’s hard to know whether any humanizing effect persists beyond just a friendlier feeling toward the person sitting on the other side of the table. 

Ultimately, we don’t need anyone to hand us a top-down solution. We need a revolution in how we think — one that addresses and neutralizes the instinct to be judgmental and dismissive in the first place. And that must come from within.

Other solutions include practicing curiosity and recognizing our fallibility — both worthy efforts. However, underneath our lack of curiosity and the failure to recognize our fallibility, we find a much deeper problem. These factors, along with our harsh judgments, are driven by a deep sense of certainty. Telling people to be less judgmental or to be more open-minded rarely convinces anyone of anything. Sometimes it’s more of a problem on one side of the political spectrum than the other, but history suggests that these judgments are always at work. Solving the underlying problem of certainty requires a transformation in how we think. Especially when it comes to contentious issues, we must be willing to name, question and have questioned our deepest and most closely-held beliefs, values and morals. This doesn’t necessarily mean letting them go; it means letting them be critiqued, examined and held up to the light.

Fortunately, this gets easier with practice. People who enjoy conversations on heated issues were probably encouraged, at some point, to examine and at least tolerate having their core assumptions challenged. They may have learned to thrive in a climate where ideological conflict is not seen as evidence that there are enemies who must be destroyed, but one where the world is full of interesting and complex questions that deserve scrutiny and consideration. 

Facilitating such a climate is why we launched the Mill Institute at UATX, an organization building a world-class university in Austin, Texas. Our goal is to advance the mindset, ground rules and intellectual skills necessary to engage across political and ideological differences. We named the institute after John Stuart Mill because his “On Liberty” (1859) offers a compelling plea for the value of intellectual humility and understanding opponents’ viewpoints.

Our “Say More” programs will bring the best intellectual conversations on contentious issues — the ones that tend to happen behind closed doors or over a drink at a bar — into the public sphere. We are also convening a Teacher Institute that brings together high school educators from across the U.S. to collaborate on developing classroom tools that promote open inquiry and viewpoint diversity. 

The Mill Institute will not solve America’s political divide, nor is that our mission. However, we hope to demonstrate that, by transforming how we think, even in a highly charged political environment, conversations among people who disagree are still possible — and, indeed, essential.

Ilana Redstone is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a Founding Faculty Fellow at UATX and the faculty director of the Mill Institute at UATX. Follow her on Twitter @irakresh.

Tags Cancel culture partisan politics political polarization

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